The Sharp Contrast Between the First Century Churches and Modern Christianity
Biblical Study Series for 06/10/22 on the Social Gospel Blog with Rev. Paul J. Bern
The First Believers Unity in Prayer and Purpose
Why the Early Churches Were Decidedly Apolitical
(Acts chapter 4, verses 23-37)
Last week as we continued our in-depth studies of the writings of the apostle Luke, we left off at Acts chapter 4 and verse 22. Peter, John, and Luke, plus a fair amount of their compatriots, had just been let out of jail after being ordered by the court not to speak or preach in the name of Jesus. In response, as they left the courtroom, Peter and John said to the authorities present there, “'Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.'” Today as we pick up at verse 23, Peter and John, accompanied by Luke, have just returned together from the proceedings to an enthusiastic welcome, so let's go to the Word to see what happens next.
Part One of This Week’s Study Verses
“On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices in prayer to God. 'Sovereign Lord', they said, 'you made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant David: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.' Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and to perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.' After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly.” (Acts 4, verses 23-31)
The Enormous Power of Fervent Prayer
What's the first thing the early Christian converts did when Peter and John returned? They didn't throw a party, they didn't have a banquet in the form of a giant potluck dinner, and they didn't go out to Red Lobster either. They prayed with great intensity, and they did so as an example to everyone as to what authentic prayer really looks like. Their prayer was passionate, it was very thankful, and it was filled with gratitude!
Opening a New Channel
One more important thing about this prayer – it was prayed directly to God just as he is, which is on his throne as the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe. Although it was formal in that the prayer quoted the first 2 verses of Psalm 2, it was personally directed at God, but not with face-to-face familiarity since that is not possible for any human. Instead, just as Jesus intercedes at the Father's right hand in heaven, the Holy Spirit also intercedes for us here on earth. Their prayer was aimed directly at the Holy Spirit. The extremely powerful and constant presence of that same Holy Spirit among the true believers was the reason for the occurrence of Pentecost – so that a communications channel between humanity and God could be opened and maintained.
The Idea of the Existence of Conspiracy Theories Is Scriptural
“Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” This particular verse is where the phrase 'conspiracy theory' originates, and the conspiracy against Christ was real just as the conspiracy surrounding the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and that of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in our own historical time. It's a tragic fact that, until the return of Christ, there will always be people who crave money and power to such an extreme as to kill someone to get what they want (or what they don't want someone else to have). They are all like spoiled little brats who will take the life of anyone who stands in their way – the ultimate temper tantrum. Like other unbelievers, they risk eternity in hell if they don't repent of their violent lifestyles and callous attitudes.
What True Spiritual Power Actually Looks Like
“....Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and to perform miraculous signs and wonders....” Peter, John and company didn't have a 'board meeting' to decide on a counterattack against those who had jailed them unjustly, even though there would be sufficient justification for doing this in the eyes of many. They prayed about it and gave it all up to God instead – they put the Lord in charge and submitted themselves to God's will rather than their own. As I wrote above, if everybody did this we could all avoid a lot of costly and sometimes-stupid mistakes. “
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly.” If the Holy Spirit can shake an entire building, just think of what that kind of Spiritual power can do for you. Moreover, consider what that kind of power could do to anyone or anything that opposes it. And now let's move on to part 2 of this week's lesson, starting at verse 32.
Part Two of This Week’s Study Verses
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called 'Barnabas' (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostle's feet.” (Acts 4, verses 32-37)
The Things That Really Count
These five verses describe exactly what happened when Christianity as it was originally taught was put into practice for the first time. Ownership did not disappear entirely, since some of the land that was owned by the members was used to grow food. Others owned houses so the people could have a place to meet, or for anyone in need of emergency shelter (yes, they took in homeless people with few, if any, questions asked). Everyone's basic needs were met 24/7 (“No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”). Food, clothing, shelter, medical and social needs, a sense of family and unity of purpose were the primary things that mattered. They still are.
The Memories of Jesus Were Still Fresh In Everyone’s Mind
There was no Internet, phone, television or radio, and no one cared because they already had everything they wanted. I doubt the early believers would have been interested in any of our modern technology anyway. Let's not forget that all this was occurring about 2-3 months after Christ had been crucified and resurrected, and so the memory of Jesus was still very fresh for all who had known him. But by this point they were equally knowledgeable about the extreme significance of what Christ had done.
What Capitalism Really Is
“There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” When's the last time you ever heard a sermon on Acts 4 and verses 34-35 preached here in fabulously wealthy North America? Never! It is much the same with the rest of the Capitalist world. Capitalism is a code word for organized, systematic greed. Capitalism is also a grievous sin (see Nehemiah 5: 1-13, Exodus 5: 22-27).
True Christianity Resembles What We Now Call Socialism
The ugly truth for the proponents of capitalism is that the first Christians, the 1st century Church that endured an enormous amount of persecution, were practicing Socialism via a laterally-managed organization of peers. There was – and is – no hierarchy present in authentic Christianity except for that of Christ as the head of his Church. As you saw during my previously published studies on the writings of the apostle Paul, neither he nor any of the other apostles took a salary for their work. They did it all for free, a lesson that modern preachers and TV evangelists have yet to learn.
First Century Christianity Contrasted to the Modern Churches Regardless of Denomination
Moreover, the distribution of church resources was unconditional and free of charge. The First Century Church was rather socialistic by modern standards, except that it was apolitical. This tells us without a doubt that the early Christians, the first generation believers who had either known Jesus personally or knew others who had, were practicing their faith as it was originally meant to be practiced. It's also an instrument of measurement as to how far off base the modern church actually is.
The ugly truth is that modern Christian churches, particularly here in the western hemisphere, contrast sharply to the early churches in how they operated. They are, in point of fact, polar opposites of one another. Unlike today, the early churches were apolitical. They certainly never called themselves “conservative” or “liberal”. Those two words are labels arbitrarily slapped onto the population by people whose job it is to divide us. Christ didn't come to divide us, he came to unite us collectively with himself. Let's unite with Jesus instead of our economic system, which is dying of old age anyway. Jesus, on the other hand, lives forever! Anything else, if carried to its logical conclusion, ends up being idolatry. Ask yourselves this question as I close: What am I doing to make sure my heavenly faith is being kept separate from earthly politics? And next week we'll move onto part one of chapter 5 of the Book of Acts.
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