We continue our reading through the New Testament, finishing up the gospel of John and moving into the Book of Acts. Here are some thoughts about our last week of reading. First let’s take a look at the church from the resurrection to the conversion of Paul. The Book of Acts provides the only historical record of the activities of the earliest Christians from the time of Jesus’ resurrection until Paul’s conversion. The first 8 chapters of Acts precedes the first mention of Paul and these chapters provide a selective report, primarily detailing the activity of the apostles in Jerusalem following Jesus resurrection. The earliest believers began to establish a communal life. They were frequently in conflict with the Jewish authorities and followers of Jesus soon were expelled from the temple. Seeds of dissension between the Hellenistic and Jewish Christians began to sprout even during the early years. Acts doesn’t tell us much about the early missionary work outside of Jerusalem but the church saw extraordinary growth. The brothers of Jesus, who are mentioned among the earliest believers, are known to have been active in spreading the gospel throughout the region known as Palestine. Acts hints that there were communities of Christians established in Antioch, Damascus, North Africa, and Samaria. The Good News even reached Rome prior to the advent of Paul’s missionary enterprise. It is quite possible that some of the pilgrims who had been present in Jerusalem during the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus became believers. When the masses returned home they took the gospel with them. Persecution also played a role in the spread of the gospel message and the growth of the early church. This is yet another example of God working all things together for good. As the believers migrated in order to avoid persecution, they established new Christian communities in the towns and cities where they settled.
We have met several interesting and influential people along the way. Two of them occupied the position of high priest. This was originally a position of succession. The first high priest was Aaron, Moses brother. His successor was his son Eleazar, followed by his oldest son and so on. But in the 100’s B.C. the Romans saw an opportunity to wield influence in the priesthood so they abolished the right of succession in the priesthood and made the position available for purchase. It was one more way for Rome to control Israel and gain income at the same time. From the reign of Herod onward, several high caste priestly families in Israel competed for the high priesthood. Since priests were regularly deposed by the political authorities numerous individuals served in the capacity of high priest during the first half of the first century AD. To make matters even more complicated it appears that even if an individual didn’t actually serve as high priest he might still adopt the title if he belonged to one of the high priestly families. Annas (6-15AD) and five of his sons after him all served as high priest and his son in law, Joseph Caiaphas (18-36AD) were of the house of Hanan. The gospels indicate that while Caiaphas was the high priest during the time of Jesus, Annas still wielded considerable power. Annas’ son Ananus, was the high priest who engineered the execution of James, Jesus’ brother, in 62 AD. Josephus, who wrote Jewish history in the first century AD wrote that those who were strict observance of the law, the Pharisees, were so disturbed by this action they complained to king Agrippa and the procurator Albinus. As a direct result, Ananus was deposed as high priest after only three months.
We encountered John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. He was one of the original 12 disciples and he is identified as the author of the gospel that bears his name as well as 1,2,3 John and the Book of Revelation. John and his brother were among those closest to Jesus. His mother Salome may have been a sister to Mary, Jesus’ mother. His name typically appears after Peter’s and James’ which suggests that he may have been the younger brother. They were fishermen like their father and they fished with Peter and Andrew, another pair of brothers who were called to be disciples. All four of them left everything to follow Jesus. Jesus named James and John the sons of thunder which might imply they were loud or short tempered. At one point they irritated the rest of the disciples by asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in heaven. These were positions of special privilege. John is assumed to be the “disciple Jesus loved” and “another disciple”. He may have also been the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist, who together with Andrew became an early follower of Jesus. John’s name appears three times in the Book of Acts and each time he was working with Peter. Paul referred to him as one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem. The most widespread tradition about John’s later life is that he moved to Ephesus, where he eventually became the bishop of Asia Minor. He lived to an old age, imprisoned on the island of Patmos. His gospel provides a profound portrait of Jesus, and his letters provide a moving depiction of the Christian life.
And then there is Thomas, also known as the twin. He was one of the original 12 disciples and is best remembered for his doubt about Jesus resurrection. Nothing is known as to how Jesus first met and called Thomas to be His disciple. The only personal accounts of Thomas are found in the gospel of John. He voiced his willingness to follow Jesus, even if it meant death. He openly told Jesus he didn’t understand what He was saying. And, he was one of the seven disciples who returned to fishing after the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to them. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples after His death, Thomas was not there. When Thomas heard the report from the others, he didn’t believe it, insisting that he would have to see the evidence of the crucifixion with his own eyes and feel it with his own hands. One week later all the disciples were together and Jesus appeared. He addressed specifically Thomas, telling him to examine the marks of the nails and the spear in his body, challenging him to believe and not be skeptical. Thomas’s response represents one of the strongest statements of Jesus’ deity in the New Testament. It is also the culmination of the gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Later tradition speaks of Thomas working as a missionary in the East: Parthia, Persia, and India.
Barnabas, like Stephen, is presented in Acts as a model Christian leader. He was a native of Cyprus, active in the Jerusalem church, and he demonstrated unselfish generosity in meeting the needs of the poorer members of that community. His given name was Joseph but his nickname was Barnabas, son of encouragement. This is a great indication of his character. He was a suitable person to give a fair and open minded assessment of the new work in Antioch. Barnabas perceived God’s blessing there and encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. His sterling character was clear in his transparent goodness, abundant faith, and Spirit filled life and work. The leaders of the Antioch church chose him as their representative on the first missionary journey, confirming their recognition of his worth. His wisdom is clear in his trip to Tarsus to find Saul. Barnabas had been impressed by the boldness of Saul’s preaching as a new Christian in Damascus and had taken him to the apostles, providing a vital introduction for a man who was under suspicion for his previous unrelenting attacks against believers. Through Barnabas’s intervention, Saul obtained needed contact with the apostles, received their acceptance, and preached fearlessly in Jerusalem until he was forced out of the city. Barnabas’s trip was successful, and for a full year the two worked together in the Antioch church, drawing large crowds. He was an impressive figure and a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. He was John Mark’s cousin and mentor and played a major role in giving John Mark a second chance to make good as a Christian leader. Barnabas knew peer pressure and he gave into it on one occasion although he knew better. Paul’s reminder to the Romans is helpful here: “Don’t t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Barnabas wasn’t perfect, but he was a son of encouragement to many and a generous, unselfish man who fostered growth in others and in the church.
Lastly, there is Stephen. He like Barnabas was an exemplary early Christian who, as a result of the boldness of his witness was arrested and killed by Jewish authorities. He is known as the first Christian martyr. Stephen was a Greek speaking Jewish Christian and one of seven men who were chosen to help administer the distribution of food to needy Christians in Jerusalem. He was the most prominent of the seven and is singled out as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Manifesting the grace and power of God in an unusual measure, Stephen did miraculous things. He proved to be a bold and effective evangelist and defender of the faith. His witness was so powerful, he was soon arrested by the authorities and brought before the high council for interrogation. When witnesses accused Stephen of speaking against the sacred temple and the law of Moses he defended himself before the Jewish high council. He spoke of Israel’s long history of resisting God and His servants; first Moses and now the prophet Moses had predicted. The Jewish authorities, infuriated by Stephen’s bold accusations, dragged him outside Jerusalem and stoned him to death. As he died Stephen prayed that they might be forgiven. His bold witness gave rise to the first wave of persecution of the early Christians. But, it also resulted in the Good News spreading even wider as the believers fled Jerusalem and proclaimed the message everywhere they went. Stephen’s death provided the first example of the maxim “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the church.” His martyrdom makes the beginning of the spread of the Good News beyond the borders of Judaism, which ultimately made Christianity, more than any other faith, a worldwide religion. Stephen’s strong expression of faith, even as he was dying, could have been a factor in the later conversion of Saul, who observed his stoning. Stephen’s life reminds us of the determined opposition that a faithful Christian witness can provide. A bold testimony for Christ may be costly but there is no insuperable barrier to the growth of the church. In other words, all things are possible in Jesus Christ.
These are just a few people and thoughts from the last week of reading. It is exciting to watch as the gospel message is spreading across the world, one city and town at a time. There was such a sense of urgency for people to know the Lord. I wonder what would our world look like today if we felt the same urgency?
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W