Two impressions are quickly felt when we read these chapters with a view to the early church. First is the lack of organization or structure. Churches were established in every place but almost nothing is said about how they function. A closer look will show us some details but there is no clear structure to be seen. It is a forcible reminder that the church is an organism not an organization. It is designed to be much more fluid and spontaneous in action that we see in practice today. The secret seems to be the awareness that the Lord Jesus Christ is the head, not in some far off way, but that He is present locally through His Spirit to guide and direct.
Second is the strong emphasis on church planting. Evangelism is not seen in isolation. Churches were always established. This was done by personal evangelism and mass evangelism; by well known Apostles and unknown saints. Everyone, male and female, was involved in reaching out to his own community. Expansion of the church is a priority if we are to be a truly “New Testament” assembly.
These chapters reveal five sections. We will look at each one and attempt to draw out information regarding the local assembly. The five sections are:
1. Beginnings. 11:19-12:25
2. Paul’s first journey (Asia). 13:1-14:28
3. The council at Jerusalem. 15:1-35
4. Paul’s second journey (Europe). 15:36-18:22
5. Paul’s third journey (Asia and Europe). 18:23-21:16.
The first thing we hear of is persecution (11:19). It is not the only case of persecution (see 12:1; 13:45, 50; 14:2, 19; and more). It seems to be a consistent means of the Holy Spirit in furthering the Gospel. The early believers considered persecution to be an opportunity for effective preaching (14:3). What better way is there to show the fruit of the Spirit and to demonstrate to the world the victory that lies in having Christ as Lord. By definition the church is opposed to the world. The idea of a church that is at home in the world and at peace with it is foreign to the book of Acts. Our modern practice of competing with the world rather than opposing it has no part in a truly “New Testament” assembly. Here then is one means of Holy Spirit guidance not available today until once again we take our proper place.
Notice that the evangelists and church-planters were not Apostles or missionaries but men (verse 20). Some of them were originally from Cyprus, the area they went to. When the assembly at Jerusalem sent someone to investigate they chose Barnabas who was also from Cyprus (4:36). This seems to be another method of Holy Spirit leading. People from the area were chosen when possible without regard to position, education or party-line. In fact, when Barnabas needed help he didn’t send back to Jerusalem. He sought out Paul (verse 25) from the same general area. They stayed for about a year (verse 26) to teach and build-up. Here was an early indication that there was no party spirit. The church at Jerusalem was not the head of the church at Antioch. It wasn’t consulted when Barnabas needed help.
Another glimpse at church structure is seen in Verse 23. They were taught the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ was present and they must not let go of the head. They were not to follow another assembly or a man but Christ Himself via His Spirit. Compare this with Paul’s teaching in Colossians 2:4, 8, 16, 18, 19. See also Acts 20:29-30. It is always easier to organize than to follow our Lord. It may yield success as man measures it but spiritual success can only be had as we struggle to hold fast our head in living union. Verses 25-30 give us a prophecy of famine. Prophecy was one of the gifts of the Spirit, providing knowledge ahead of time. Notice the immediate response of the church in Antioch. They gave of their substance without regard to personal hurt in order to help their brethren in Jerusalem. The early church was a giving church not a begging church. God provided everyone’s need without solicitation. It is the groundwork of the financial policy of dependence on the Lord. Clearly the principles of the church are exactly opposed to those of the world. Let us never make the mistake of learning from the world how to succeed in the church. It is these differences that created the world’s opposition to the Lord’s work in the book of Acts.
Chapter 12 gives us another case of persecution. It was political in nature (12:1) but was intensified and continued for religious reasons (verse 3). If the church were content to conform to Judaism (organized religion) it would not have suffered so. We too must learn not to put any faith in political solutions to the world’s problems. The ultimate victory is with the church (verses 20-23).
Once again we see the church. They held a prayer meeting (verse 5) in a home. Many attended (verse 12) and fervent prayer was made. God answered and set Peter free (verses 7-10) even though there was not a lot of faith mixed with their requests (verses 14-15). Peter was not aware of any supernatural event taking place until he was outside and alone (verse 11). We have to use hindsight and our own intelligence sometimes to discern God’s hand in our lives. Prayer is a most powerful part of our spiritual battle.
The result of all this (the gift from Antioch; persecution; prayer; victory) was that the word of God grew and multiplied (verse 24). Once again the best came out of the worst and victory was the Lord’s. At this point we are taken back to Antioch for Paul’s first missionary journey.
Paul’s First Journey
This journey begins with the Holy Spirit (verses 2, 4). It is a contrast with 11:19. There the whole church was sent by persecution. Here two men were sent from the comfort of worship and service (13:1). We can observe here that everyone knew of God’s guidance, not just Paul and Barnabas. The picture given is of men active in a service of love. They were not waiting around anxiously to find out God’s will. They were doing it right where they were. It was then God’s sovereign choice to interrupt and separate two of them. Let us see the importance of God’s call (see Romans 10:15; Jeremiah 23:32). It’s not enough to follow the flesh and go because you feel inclined to do so. Notice also that the Spirit chose men who were older, mature and established. This is quite a contrast to today’s emphasis on youth in missions.
The assembly commended these men to God’s care and direction (verses 2-3; 14:26). The assembly did not assign work to these men nor were they commended to full-time work in Antioch. The assembly in Antioch was responsible to reach the people of their own area.
This first journey was to Asia. The first event mentioned was a confrontation with evil (verse 6). The Devil is the god of this world. It’s not surprising to see a sorcerer acting as counselor to the deputy of the county. Paul’s words were direct and strong and they led to faith (verse 12). Preaching was never separate from the living practice of faith. It was no theoretical teaching that was being propagated.
The next main event took place in Antioch of Pisidia. This is not the Antioch in Syria that commended Paul and Barnabas. They began their work in the synagogue (13:14). Paul preached a sermon that was not at all entertaining. It was forceful and direct (verses 40-41). The main point was the resurrection and the offer of forgiveness and justification. Such preaching is another hallmark of the New Testament evangelism evident in every Gospel message that Paul preached. The effect is seen in conversions (verses 48-49).
The result was religious persecution (verses 45, 50). Paul and Barnabas were expelled. Once again the Holy Spirit used persecution to tell these men to move on. It only caused the spread of the Gospel. The beginning in Antioch was small and weak but it was God’s work. Paul and Barnabas were not afraid that this young assembly would fall. They were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (verse 52).
Iconium is next mentioned. The synagogue was the forum for the Gospel (14:1). The response was great so persecution broke out almost immediately. Verse 3 tells us that because of this (therefore) Paul and Barnabas stayed there a long time. For us it would seem a discouragement. To them it was an open door they were looking for. There were not many places in which they stayed a long time.
Finally they were driven out (verse 5) and went to Lystra, then Derbe (verse 6). In Lystra they healed a cripple. This resulted in a different kind of opposition. Paul and Barnabas were worshipped as Gods themselves (verses 11-13, 18). This too is common in the Christian church today. Many worship their favorite preachers and follow their favorite line of doctrine. A “New Testament” assembly will see Jesus in all believers and in all Bible truths.
Religious persecution followed them to Lystra. Paul was stoned and left for dead (verse 19) but God spared his life (verse 20). The next day he went on to Derbe (verse 20). There they preached and taught many (verse 21) then returned the way they came. Persecution was taught to be expected (verse 22). They also ordained elders in every church (verse 23). This ordaining of elders is specifically said to be according to the choice of the Holy Spirit (20:28). It is also clear that the Holy Spirit guided in this selection by the use of recognizable guidelines (1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9). Notice too that these elders could not have been Christians for a long time. There is a spiritual reality that we must regain to be truly “New Testament.”
The return trip took Paul back to Lystra, the place of his stoning. The Spirit’s leading is not simply a matter of logic. There is no fear of man or death for the believer. There is a real commitment to doing the Father’s will.
When they reached Attalia, it is said they had “fulfilled the work” God had given them to do (verse 26). They set out for home. When they arrived they gave a missionary report (verse 27) and stayed “a long time with the disciples.”
The Council At Jerusalem
Chapter 15 gives a glimpse into the internal struggles of the church. A problem arose in Antioch originating with men from Jerusalem (verse 1). The assembly in Antioch tried to correct the problem but the men from Judea refused to repent. A trip to Jerusalem was made (verse 2). This was no submission to Jerusalem as the seat of ruling authority. It was spiritual handling of a spiritual problem. We learn the following:
1. Autonomy is not independence. Each assembly is self-governing with direct responsibility to Christ the head. Each assembly is also a part of the whole body of Christ. The testimony of one affects the testimony of others. When problems arise they must be faced for the sake of the world-wide testimony of Jesus Christ.
2. Spiritual discipline is important in inter-assembly affairs as well as personal matters. It is sin to gossip and harbor resentment. We must go to the offenders even in their own settings. Only then can unity and truth prevail.
Notice that several men from Antioch went to Jerusalem (verse 2). They were sent at the expense of the assembly at Antioch (verse 3). They went with joy and purpose not with scheming and bitterness. They were received by the church as well as the Apostles and elders (verse 4) in Jerusalem. A meeting was called (verse 6) and much disputing occurred (verse 7). There was freedom to discuss and to differ strongly provided the intention of all was to arrive at God’s truth and will.
Peter spoke saying that fellowship is only dependent upon conversion. If the Spirit was in them they were brothers (verse 8). All this was of grace alone, not of works of the law, ritual or moral (verse 11). When James spoke he confirmed that it was grace through faith that is effectual to salvation. He did however remind them of the need for social grace in dealing with others. Moses (the Old Testament law) was preached in every city. People respected the holy laws. Meaningless offense is pointless. Idols fornication, blood and strangulation must be avoided. It is a clear reminder that our message is spiritual, not social. We must not waste time trying to change culture. We must challenge the spirits of men. The change must come from within.
A delegation from Jerusalem was sent back to Antioch to confirm the decision (verse 22) by letter (verse 23). They wanted no association with the legalists (verse 24). Their decision was made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (verse 28). Notice that it “seemed good” (verse 28) to encourage the social patterns of respect. It was no command for the eternal church. The result was consolation (verse 31) not command or harshness.
Paul’s Second Journey
Paul’s second journey begins at 15:36. It began with an intelligent decision to re-visit and encourage the brethren established on the first journey (verse 36). There was a difference of opinion between the two missionaries. They couldn’t resolve it so they went in different directions (verse 39). Once again we see the Holy Spirit make something good out of bad. If they had traveled together, no good results would be gained. There needs to be unity in God’s work for it to be effective. In the end the outreach was doubled.
Paul went overland to Derbe and Lystra where he met Timothy (16:1). The Holy Spirit prompted Paul to take Timothy with him. It was the report of respected brethren that provided the leading. They had good success together (verse 5).
Again the Holy Spirit led in their lives (verse 6) forbidding them to preach in Asia and not permitting them to go to Bithynia (verse 7). Galatians 4:13-14 tells us that the Holy Spirit led by means of illness and weakness. There was then positive leading to go to Macedonia (verses 9-10) via the “Macedonian call.” Notice that it says “assuredly gathering” (verse 10). This call was not purely mystical. But we must not err in the other direction. The Spirit’s leading is never purely mechanical either. Notice the “immediately” of verse 10 and compare with John 7:17.
Arriving at Philippi they stayed for “certain days” (verse 12). They went to the place of prayer, as there was no synagogue. Lydia was saved (verses 14-15) and immediately opened her house for the Lord’s work. Conversion produces real change in our material lives. Then came spiritual opposition (verses 16-24). This was Gentile opposition (see also 19:23). Notice how closely it is tied to economics. It is one of Satan’s most consistent means of opposing the Gospel. A rich church is a week (dead?) church.
Now comes the story of the Philippian jailor. For our purposes we should look closely at the attitudes and actions of Paul and Silas. Their joy in suffering; restraint in the face of miraculous release; evident care for the jailor all help us to see New Testament realities so we can compare our own actions and attitudes.
In Thessalonica Paul stayed only three weeks (17:2). They preached in the synagogue (verse 1) and again faced religious persecution (verses 5-9). Then they went on to Berea and preached in the synagogue there. Once again religious persecution caught up with them (verse 13).
Next stop was Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy (verse 16). Here we see a new method of the Holy Spirit in leading. The pagan idolatry stirred up Paul’s spirit (verse 16). We often admire pagan idolatry as “art” or “culture.” The Holy Spirit was grieved by it. This led to the famous Mars Hill experience of Paul (17:22).
In Corinth, a city given order to lust and vice, Paul preached in the synagogue again (18:4). He stayed for about a year and a half (verse 11) teaching and then for a good while (verse 18) before leaving. There was nothing to encourage Paul in Corinth so God spoke in a night vision (verses 9-10) and revealed His will for Paul. This led to more religious persecution (18:12-17).
In Ephesus Paul preached in the synagogue (verse 19) and later arrived back at Antioch (verse 22) where he spent “some time” (verse 23) before leaving for his third missionary journey.
Paul’s Third Journey
The third missionary journey covered both Asia and Europe. It too was to strengthen the disciples. The story of Apollo is in verses 24-28. He knew of the Lord Jesus but it was according to John the Baptist’s teaching only. A godly couple, Priscilla and Aquilla were used of God to perfect his faith. Here we see a husband/wife team involved in spiritual instruction. It gives insight into the active role of women. Apollo’s relationship to the Lord was according to John’s teaching. This fine Christian couple taught Apollo “the way of God more perfectly” (verse 26). Priscilla no less than Aquilla taught him. Notice this was not a meeting of the assembly. Nor was it a portion of the assembly that was dissatisfied with God’s ways. It was a one-on-one situation that arose naturally and was guided by love for Christ and love for Apollo too. It was also not a permanent arrangement. May our women be equally zealous for our Lord’s glory. When women are active in such ways they have no cause to complain at submission, silence and head covering within the assembly.
At Ephesus, Paul met “certain disciples” (19:1). Like Apollo they were only familiar with John’s baptism. By God’s grace these 12 men (verse 7) were saved and added. Paul then preached in the synagogue for about 3 months (verse 8). When trouble arose he moved to the school of Tyrannus (verse 9) where he taught for 2 years (verse 10). Altogether Paul stayed in Ephesus about 3 years (20:31). The Gospel was then threatened by some spiritists. They attempted to use the name of Jesus in their spiritism (19:13) but it backfired (verses 15-16). Many turned from witchcraft unto Christ (verses 18-20). Once again good was brought out of a bad situation. Verse 22 says Paul “stayed…for a reason” but there arose more economic persecution (verses 23-41).
When Paul came to Troas, a meeting of the assembly was held (verse 7). It was the Lord’s day so the believers met to break bread. Paul preached and the next day left. Notice that the early church met to break bread on the first day of the week (Sunday). It is not wrong to do some more frequently or less frequently, but the New Testament practice was every first day of the week. Notice too that Paul’s visit was unusual and short so he took full advantage by preaching until midnight. Time was not worshipped in the early church. No doubt some came and went. We often do the same in our personal lives today when a relative comes from afar. Sad to say that much of what we do as an assembly is far more formal and routine.
Notice too that there was both preaching and talking. It was not all monologue. There was dialogue also. It seems that the stale ritual of formal religion did not exist in the church then as it does now. Let us strive to regain “New Testament principles.”
On his way home Paul did not want to return to Ephesus. He was in a hurry so he sent for the elders at Ephesus to meet him (verse 17) and challenged them as to their responsibilities. This story should be read by all elders and workers too. Notice the leading of the Holy Spirit (verse 23) concerning Paul’s future. This causes many questions because Paul acted against this revelation (21:4, 11-14). Clearly the forewarning of danger was to prepare him, not to discourage him. The same thing happened at Corinth before (18:9-10). This is an important aspect of Holy Spirit leading. Paul had a clear idea of God’s will. He would do it at any cost. Without the will of God we are tossed by circumstances and rationalizations. Can this be the reason why we have drifted so far today? Is this the dynamic we are lacking?
Notice also the Holy Spirit’s leading concerning elders in 20:28. Paul warns that there will always be believers who want to rule (verse 30). What we need is God’s rule as we hold fast the head (Christ) (20:32; 11:23). Only with a multiplicity of Holy Spirit ordained elders can this be our experience.
New Testament financial principles are re-emphasized here (20:33-35). Paul reminds us that spiritual men give, not ask. They would not take anything from non-believers (3 John 7) nor were they constantly making needs known. Rather it was a matter of working so as to help others. The words alone are enough to convict us today.
Paul took ship and returned to Jerusalem (21:15) stopping at Philip’s house on the way (verse 8). Philip had four daughters that prophesied (verse 9). Again we find clear evidence of women active in God’s word. There is no reason to assign this activity to any meetings of the assembly. Nor is there any idea of a back door ministry. Clearly this is in the same spirit as Aquilla and Priscilla earlier. May we all be active in the Gospel according to the will of God and for His glory.
It seems important when looking at the functioning of the assembly that we see the Bible doctrine of the priesthood of all believers in action. In fact this is what the functioning of the church consists of. Here then are a few verses organized under headings to bring this truth to our minds.
1) All believers are priests – 11:20
2) We offer spiritual sacrifices
a) our bodies – 14:3,19; 20:24
b) our praise – 13:1; 16:25
c) our possessions – 11:25-30; 15:3; 16:15; 20:33-35
3) We intercede
a) in prayer – 12:5
b) in action – 13:6; 15:36
4) We bless others – 16:31; 19:4-6
Summary of Principles
1) The church is a dynamic, living organism without hard structure.
2) The church is lead by its head (Christ) through the Spirit.
a) He leads by persecution.
b) He leads by men – multiple elders – called men.
c) He leads by the revealed will of God for us.
d) He leads by stirring up our spirits (not emotions).
e) He leads those who are following.
f) He leads in opposition to the world’s leader (values).
3) Every local assembly is autonomous but not independent.
4) The church met on the first day of the week to break bread.
5) The church didn’t meet by tradition. There was variety and spontaneity in all that was done.
6) The church is a giving body not a soliciting body.
7) Prayer is a major function of the church.
8) Evangelism is a major function of the church.
a) All believers (male & female) must evangelize.
b) Our hometown is our area of first responsibility.
c) Evangelism occurred everywhere but a church meeting.
d) Evangelism is never a set formula. It is a living reality that is seen as well as heard.
9) Maintaining unity is a major function of the church.
10) The church functions as a priesthood.