A New Creation
What do we observe in how the Holy Spirit operated in the first believers?
Before Jesus returned to heaven He promised to send the Holy Spirit. The disciples were warned not to leave the area until then, an illustration in itself of the fact that we are powerless and lifeless without that Spirit. But notice that it was His apostles that He appeared to between His ascension and sending the Spirit.1 So it was to them He said "… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Yet no one believes that only they were to obey this commission, or that only they would have the Holy Spirit's power, because events soon to follow would make it obvious that all believers were to be included.
This establishes another important principle of interpretation: what seems so plain on the surface in one place may be illuminated further in another. This means that the so-called "plain reading" approach to Bible study is a poor substitute for considering every layer of context, from an individual word to the entire Bible to even the culture. And we must not confuse "plain reading" with a principle known as "Ockham's Razor".2 Simplicity is good, but accuracy is better, and all pertinent data must be considered. Since the evidence about to be presented concerning the day of Pentecost is unambiguous in proving that the Holy Spirit was not limited to the apostles in Jesus' inner circle, we know that the scope of Jesus' commission is more than what the "plain reading" of the first chapter of Acts tells us.
Yet the objection will arise, "Then why can't we read into Genesis from other scriptures such as 1 Timothy?" The answer is that context is not a matter of reading any and every passage of scripture into any other, but of looking for commonality and considering each context on its own as well. In the case of hierarchy in Genesis, we have already seen that there is no such thing between Adam and Eve before they left the garden, and when Paul refers to it he does so to use what is already there as a basis for his argument. But with this passage in Acts we have events later in that same book to define its scope for us, and no Christian, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that women or slaves or non-Jews do not have the Spirit when becoming believers, since the NT so clearly says otherwise in many passages. Above all, we must be consistent. We cannot only read one scripture into another when it suits us and forbid it when it does not. Careful attention must be paid to each passage separately before we can look for commonality. Generally, if a passage is disputed, that is likely evidence of it not being as clear as we'd like.
So if all believers have the Holy Spirit and the commission to spread the gospel, then they also all have the right and duty of the additional detail of that same commission in Mt. 28:16-20, which is to go everywhere and make disciples immersed in the names of the Persons of the Trinity, as well as teaching them. Of course Paul will later add detail about a level of spiritual maturity which must be attained before anyone teaches, but the point here is that all are not only permitted but ordered to do so. Even the simplest newborn believer can pass on the gospel message, since they had to comprehend what they put their faith in.
Acts 2 is where we read of the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and Peter declares it to be at least a partial fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. It is plainly stated, twice, that both men and women would prophesy, which means to speak with divine inspiration. So even though at that time one could have argued that this only applied to Jews, they could not deny that it applied to women as well as men, meaning women too could speak with divine authority to a mixed crowd. We should also observe that whenever God is doing something new, it is accompanied by miracles as a sign or announcement to verify its origin.
Now look at the description of this "new creation", the ekklesia, at the end of the chapter. First, they were devoted to the teachings of the apostles. While we no longer have them with us, we have their teachings in the form of the NT letters. Second, they were a community. They shared lives and meals, just like family. They did not organize into a corporate hierarchical structure or set up a seminary. They did not erect a temple or craft sacred objects. They did not weave robes or make candles or lay out a calendar. Instead of rituals they had lives to live, and from the quality of those lives, everyone around them knew Who they worshiped. They took care of each other without the need for a managed commune, to the point where there were no poor among them. The temple courts provided a convenient place to gather, but note that these were the outer courts, not inside the temple itself, and it only says that they met. It was not a special meeting place either, because we read that they met in each other's homes every day. That was what Jesus was talking about to the woman at the well. Would Paul later change all of that? We will see. But at the very least, this was the natural condition of the ekklesia at its beginning, and it happened without human planning or oversight. It is in such a situation that God, not people, is glorified; it is the ideal.
Then in chapter 4 we see an incredible thing: the religious leaders, knowing that Peter and John had performed a miraculous healing by the power of Jesus, cared more for their own popularity and prestige than repenting of murdering their own Messiah! We think we would never be like that, but what do we see in Christianity today? Scandals, cover-ups, personal jets, gaudy entertainment palaces, political lobbying, slander, and even death threats against anyone who exposes them. We know they understand the gospel, especially since many today argue that such charlatans are not to be opposed as long as they preach the truth. It is no different today than it was with those who crucified Jesus.
After that incident we see once again that the community of believers was exactly that: a community. They did not crumble in the face of opposition; they did not obey their religious leaders and keep silent. Their giving was spontaneous and sincere, uncoerced and generous. But they were as human as the rest of us, and it didn't take long for some to try to keep the outward appearance of spirituality while hiding their sin.
In chapter 5 we meet Ananias and Sapphira. They plotted together to put on a show of generosity while hiding their greed. But of course God is not blind and deaf, and they were confronted, but each separately. Notice that after Peter confronted Ananias, who literally dropped dead, he confronted Sapphira without telling her what had happened to her husband. Nothing was said to her about sharing her husband's guilt or being let off the hook because she was required to do as he said. Instead, she is shown to be held responsible for her own sin. So even in this tragic incident we see proof that a wife is not "covered" by her husband nor held to less responsibility.
Now of course this sort of immediate judgment is not the norm. But being a time of transition and establishment of a new dispensation, we would expect both miracles and little leeway regarding sin. So we must be careful in applying what we read in Acts to the ekklesia today. But other things of course have never changed; those with power and position still guard their places jealously, and continue to do so even in the face of overwhelming proof that they are fighting against God Himself.
In time things started to settle down, and the believing community kept growing. But in the process we see in chapter 6 that the unmanaged giving was succumbing to ethnic prejudice, and the need arose to appoint managers. Remember what Jesus said about the greatest being like someone who waits tables? That same Greek word, diaconon, is used here of those managers, and also in a little play on words Peter uses when he says, "We have tables to serve already, those of spreading the gospel; we need people to serve literal tables so we can continue in our own work." But note two important things here: this was a specific response to a specific need at a specific time, not the establishment of an office. And not once is this incident ever referenced again in the NT. Paul never connects his instructions about "deacons" with this group. We should also note that the criteria for these managers was basically the same as Paul would specify later, criteria mainly concerned with behavior and spirit. But again, this is never depicted as a permanent office.
In chapter 8 we meet Philip, famous for his encounter with the Ethiopian, after which he was miraculously transported to a distant town. We'll hear more about him— rather his daughters— later. But in Chapter 9 we read of probably the most famous conversion in history: the murderous Pharisee Saul encounters the risen Jesus and becomes Paul, the most prolific writer in the NT. Yet here again we should issue caution in application. Many so-called "pastors" claim a similar "Damascus road experience" as proof of a divine calling. But like Moses and the burning bush, or Philip's miraculous transportation, this dramatic encounter is not the norm, and is never cited as a necessary proof of divine sanction.
Chapter 10 is where Peter begins to lose his mindset of separation as a Jew. The Roman centurion Cornelius summons him to present whatever message God has for him. When the Spirit came upon the non-Jews at the home of Cornelius, no one could deny equal status to them any more. As this event is after the earlier incident of the Greek believers being slighted in the distribution of food, we have another bit of support for the idea that this prejudice had been the cause of that problem. Now it is gone, and we never hear of such an inequity among the believers again.
Yet, amazingly, when the Jewish believers in Jerusalem got wind of this, they were indignant! Chapter 11 shows Peter having to go there to testify of God's hand in this, and the Jewish believers backed down. But the point is that in spite of their having accepted the grace of God through Jesus, it still took extraordinary events and eyewitness testimony to get it through their heads that this good news was for everyone. Yet today, we still see a mindset of separateness, a wish to divide. More about that later.
But there is an interesting use of vocabulary in chapter 12, in the account of the servant who came to the door when Peter, who had been arrested, was miraculously freed and came to a house where believers were meeting. Verse 13 says the servant came to answer the door. The word translated here as "answer" is hupakouo, which is almost always translated as "obey" or "submit" in other passages. Its more accurate meaning then is to listen, to pay attention, to heed. Again, more about that later.
In chapter 13 the focus shifts primarily to Saul, now called Paul. The jealous Jews stirred up opposition to him, but notice in verse 50 that the people they stirred up included "God-fearing women of high standing." To today's male supremacists, that phrase is an oxymoron! They teach that for a woman to be considered God-fearing she cannot have anything close to high standing. Notice also that these women are mentioned before "the leading men of the city".
Then in chapter 15 we see the ominous rise of the Judaizers, those who believed Christians had to first become Jews and observe all the Jewish customs. These would prove to be the biggest thorn in Paul's side throughout his years of service. In refuting their claims at the meeting known as The Jerusalem Council, Peter tells them that they must not "put on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear", because all are saved the same way: by grace. Yet ever since the apostles died we have seen one yoke or another put upon every believer's neck, the yoke of the controllers, the burden of legalism. But in the council's decision, notice that though they were convinced by Peter's argument, they asked for a slight concession to Jewish custom: to abstain from sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. This is hardly a demand for obedience to the Laws of Moses, but merely a request to consider the culture. So where and when a particular cultural consideration is not an issue, neither is the need for believers to defer to it. This is an important principle to remember.
Though they did not specify this particular concession, we see in chapter 16 that Paul defered to the Jews by having young Timothy, whose mother (not father!) was a Jew, circumcised. Again, this is no example of Paul advocating that Christians observe Jewish law, but only a matter of concession. Paul will elaborate on that issue in the 14th chapter of his letter to the Romans.
It is on this journey to spread the gospel that we see in chapter 13 Paul's encounter with a woman named Lydia. He spoke to a group of women who were gathered at a place of prayer, and one of them was this merchant Lydia— yes, a business woman. She readily accepted the gospel and invited them to stay in her home. Not a peep about asking permission of a man.
But notice that in the subsequent encounter with the jailer Paul does not give a complicated theological speech, but simply says "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved." There is no emotional pleading, no demand to confess sins and vow to renounce them, no sermon about the fires of hell, no disclaimer about whether he might not be "elect". Just believe in Jesus. Of course, as Paul will explain later in his letters, such belief assumes that the person knows who Jesus is, and has some concept of why they need to accept Him. But nothing is said about joining an institution or club or performing rituals, just believe. If Paul could present the gospel so simply, why can't anyone else seem to do so?
Then notice that following Paul's release from prison, he and Silas return to the home of Lydia, where other believers were meeting. Again, no mention of a leading man or husband. And in chapter 17 we read of more prominent women coming to salvation. But we also read about the "more noble" Bereans, who did not shrink back from daring to hold teachers responsible for their words. They searched the scriptures to check up on Paul, a practice sadly lacking among most believers today, who have bought the out-of-context lie "Touch not God's anointed!" All believers, as Peter and John will tell us later, are "anointed". And at the end of the chapter we see yet another incident of a woman, Damaris, coming to the faith. If non-Jews and women were second-class to Paul, he sure had a strange habit of naming and commending them.
Now to chapter 18 where we first meet the famous couple Priscilla and Aquila, tent makers as was Paul, who were living in Corinth after being chased out of Rome. But before leaving for Ephesus, Paul does something frequently cited as yet another example of continuing to observe Jewish law: he has his hair cut off because of having taken a vow. Yet once again, there is no hint in the context of setting a precedent for all believers, for all time. We must look to Paul's later writings for doctrine and precedents. This particular event is simply mentioned in passing and is not a prominent feature in the narrative. And remember that Paul wrote many of those letters during these travels, such that if something like this were meant as a law, he would certainly have mentioned them in his letters.
It is here in Ephesis that we meet up with Apollos, whom Priscilla and Aquila invited to their home so they could fill him in on the missing part of his evangelistic message. Again, we see the woman mentioned first and teaching a man in her home. And this man she and her husband taught went out and did something else some think we must not do: vigorous public debate. What a guy!
Then in chapter 19 we see that the word ekklesia is used for the assembly of worshippers of Diana (vs. 32). Curious, isn't it, that no Bibles translate it as "church" here? They typically use assembly, meeting, or even crowd, and this is the case in the half-dozen or so other instances where it's obviously referring to non-believers. One must ask where the word "church" comes from, and why it would continue to be used in spite of its being an inaccurate translation.
Now in chapter 20 we pick up a phrase Paul uses that sheds a usually overlooked light on his statement in Phil. 3:14 about running the race and winning the prize. Verse 24 identifies exactly what Paul means by that: not salvation, but "the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace." Although that isn't directly related to the study of what the Bible says about controllers, it does highlight the importance of paying attention to the phrases and habits of NT writers, another important aspect of context.
But in that same passage we do see another statement about the ekklesia. Verse 17 tells us that Paul did not send for a "head pastor" to see him off, but "the elders of the ekklesia". This was one community of believers having several elders. Never in scripture do we see any one person as an authority over the group; not even the letters to the seven churches in Revelation are addressed to leaders. And in verse 28 we see an even more important principle: elders or overseers are not owners over the "flock", because it was bought by Jesus with His own blood. And then Paul gives a prediction that has come true in horrifying intensity: "… after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number some will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them."
This is the rebuttal to those who argue that if a "church father" lived near the time of the apostles, then they must be more orthodox and trustworthy in their doctrine. But as we have read here, no such guarantee is granted. There were wolves on Paul's heels while he lived, so we can rest assured that they increased in number and boldness after all the apostles died. Eternal vigilance is required of elders; it has always been required, and all the more as we see the end approaching. Then in verses 33-35 we see yet another principle: Paul was not after anyone's money and refused to use his right to be supported. This is just another way in which those with privilege show by example that they should lay it down just as Jesus did.
Chapter 21 is where we meet up again with Philip. Verse 8 tells us he was one of the seven, that is, one of those chosen to manage the distribution of food to the Greek widows in Jerusalem, which we read about back in chapter 6. Verse 9 makes a very simple statement: he had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Excuses and special pleading are typically offered in order to explain away these female prophets, but scripture does not do so. Since, as Paul will explain later, prophecy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and since those gifts are for the building up of the ekklesia, then there is noplace outside of that ekklesia for these women to prophesy. Never is any spiritual gift given to only half the Body, and never is any meeting of believers called "unofficial". Efforts to exclude women from some spiritual gifts can be very desperate.
Then we read of another instance of Paul's concession to the Jews in verses 20-26. As he will tell us in 1 Cor. 9:22, he would do whatever he could to win people over and be at peace with everyone, as much as it depended on him. But in spite of all his bending over backwards to appease the Jews, they still did not listen. In Acts 22:22 they showed their utter disregard for anything else he did or said when he revealed God's commission for him to go to the Gentiles. Are people today any different? They will accept each other but only as long as a certain set of rules are followed. No matter how well a Christian's convictions are defended from scripture or the quality of life they have exhibited, they will be thrown overboard at the first expression of having a contrary opinion from that of the group. Nothing has changed.
Through the book of Acts we have seen that many strongly-held convictions are not based upon the examples we can see in scripture, but on hearsay, faulty reasoning, prejudice, and the weight of tradition. People are indeed responsible for thinking and discerning, but woe to those who deceive them and lead them astray! It was never the average person who opposed the gospel, but the powerful and prominent. Yet Christianity has a long history of catering to people of persuasive speech and strong influence. We, like ancient Israel, demand earthly kings and then gladly offer ourselves to them as slaves. But neither we nor they have that right, because we belong to Another, and He will repay those who take His sheep for their own. So we need to practice patience, discernment, and careful analysis if we want to keep the wheat and throw away the chaff.
One quick word about the argument that without an earthly king or priest there would be chaos: Nonsense. We have the Spirit, and we have the Word. If these cannot be trusted to direct the community of believers, then no amount of external control will help. In fact, it will only establish an institution with a life of its own, a life not derived from the Vine. Like a family, there are "parents" and "children", but in a healthy family the children eventually grow up and may become parents themselves. There are "teachers" and "students", but if the students never graduate there is something terribly wrong with the school. And a healthy Body has only one Head, one Source, and all the parts report to the Head, not each other. Paul will elaborate on that later. We need no king or priest over us.
- 1 Acts 1:1-8
- 2 Ockham's Razor is a principle proposed by William of Ockham in the fourteenth century: "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily", meaning theories should not be overly complex. It can be illustrated using the concept of computer software; one can make many upgrades or "patches" until it is better to simply write a new program. In hermeneutics (Bible interpretation), this would mean that any system which requires many exceptions or complex explanations is probably inaccurate. The problem comes in knowing where to draw the line; it is not an exact science.