Friday, August 24, 2012

The Myth of the Acts 2 Church - Part II

In our last post, we learned that the synagogue worship of first century Judaism bears some superficial resemblance to our modern churches, but differed in form, customs, organization, and duties. This is the world in which they lived, and if you wish to understand the concept of an Acts 2 church, you need to read that post.

Today, we will read what happened in Acts 2, with some brief commentary. All quotes below are from the ESV.

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” (v.1)

The apostles, having replaced Judas with Matthias in Acts 1, were gathered together in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. According to Tacitus, the normal population of Jerusalem around this time was about 600,000 people--about the same as modern Jerusalem (or Oklahoma City, for an American equivalent). Ancient Jerusalem was quite small, however, giving it a population density something like modern New York City.

In addition, during the Feast days, tens of thousands of additional Jews would arrive, crowding into the already-packed city. The events happened in the "third hour" (v.15), which is about 9 am, and a regular prayer time. So likely something like the scene above would have been going on, as tens of thousands crowded toward the Temple for the 9 am prayer time.

“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one of was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And they were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ “ (v.2-12)

Here we see a miraculous event--the Holy Spirit comes down onto the apostles in a very amazing miracle: the Spirit is both visible (“divided tongues as of fire appeared”) and auditory (“a sound like a mighty rushing wind”). This is not some typical “feeling the Spirit”…this is an event so strange that it brought all of those nearby rushing over to see what was going on.

Based upon the context it seems most likely that the house they were in was somewhat near the Temple crowds, for immediately upon the Holy Spirit coming down on them, the apostles begin speaking in the native languages of the foreigners and the crowds overheard them in their native languages.

The miracle of each person hearing in their own voice was confusing and amazing to them. This crowd was made of Jews and proselytes from all over the Roman Empire, gathered and crowded together into Jerusalem. Indeed, it certainly seems from the passage that the vast majority of those who were near to the apostles were the pilgrims from foreign lands, as most of the places listed would not have spoken the languages of the apostles. These were not permanent residents, but men with homes somewhere else, to which they would soon return.

Not everyone saw a miracle at first, though: some tried to mock the situation and explain it away:

"But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.’ “ (v.13-15)

Peter seizes the opportunity to preach to the crowds, and opens with a great joke to start. When accused of drunkenness, he does not say, “We don’t get drunk”, but rather, “No, we aren’t drunk! It’s only 9 a.m.”, implying that the drinking might come later. It’s a great line and got their attention, as well as stopping the mocking.

Then Peter begins to teach:

“But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.’ “ (v.16-20)

First Peter establishes his own authority to teach. He says that what the pilgrims have witnessed is the pouring out of the Spirit that Joel prophesied, and now he shall prophesy to them about the day of the Lord. Having established this, Peter moves right into sharing the Gospel:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendents on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (v.21-36)

Peter’s presentation of the Gospel was simple: Jesus was the Christ, He was crucified, He rose from the dead. It is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and His identity as Christ—nothing more, nothing less.

We can learn a great deal about preaching from this sermon. His arguments were: (1) Jesus' miracles and teachings attest that He was from God; (2) He was the Messiah; (3) He was wrongly crucified by man; (4) He was raised from the dead, proving Him to be Christ; (5) we know the resurrection is true because many witnessed His return; and (6) you know that my teaching is true because you all saw the Holy Spirit come down as prophesied.

Peter was simple and to the point, and his focus was how Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies.

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ ” (v.37-40)

When they wished to respond, Peter called them to repent of their sins against Jesus, be baptized into faith with Him, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

At this point it is tempting for us to force our modern conceptions onto them, and assume that this is an altar call at the end of a tent revival, and everyone gets dressed in white sheets and goes down to the river for a good old-fashioned baptizing and dinner on the church-grounds.

In reality it was far less organized than modern churches would be comfortable with. There seems to be no roll call or covenant-signing; Peter did not quiz them about their political or economic or even theological beliefs. He didn’t talk about Calvinism and Arminianism, or ask about their theology. He said that if they were willing to repent of their sin-filled lives, and be baptized in Christ, then God promised to give them the Holy Spirit. That was it.

So remove your picture and replace it with the proper picture: at 9 am in a crowded corner of Jerusalem, Peter preaches to those who can hear his elevated voice (no microphone or megaphone here). This group of foreigners crowded together hears what he says and many believe Jesus really was the Messiah promised by God. Peter does not give them a list of “Christian” beliefs because they do not yet exist, nor does he give them a map to a church building, for they do not yet have one! Rather, he encourages baptism for the forgiveness of sins—what the Jews called a mikveh, or immersion into a natural body of water, and promises that they too can receive the Holy Spirit.

In other words, these early converts still see themselves as Jews--in fact, as the only true Jews. For they are the Jews who see the fulfilled promise of the Messiah, while the others missed Him and indeed crucified Him. Those who were baptized on this day did not stop going to Temple or synagogue; they remained in their Jewish lives, but with a newfound belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah prophesied by old.

“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (v.41-42)

Now the typical megachurch will lift this passage right out of its literary and historical context. They will imply that Peter went down the street and rented an empty auditorium and converted it to a church; that the 3,000 foreigners all started coming to church with the apostles each week (I guess just abandoning their wives, kids, and jobs back home); that the apostles were the "church staff" and Peter was the "Lead Pastor" or "Senior Pastor"; that they started “fellowshipping” together in people’s houses by having small groups together doing Bible study; etc.

This is not at all what happened, or even could have happened. There are in fact two possible ways to interpret this within the boundaries of culture and Scripture:

Strict Interpretation – v.41-42 refer to the foreigners being baptized and instructed, and they then returned to their homelands.

The strictest interpretation is that the foreigners were in town for the Jewish feast of weeks, which is a one-day feast. They dropped off their first-fruits and the temple as required, heard Peter's preaching, converted to Christianity and were baptized (busy day!). They were taught by the apostles the only Christian beliefs at the time: Jesus was Messiah, He preached a lifestyle of extreme love and generosity and holiness, and He commanded baptism and Communion (“breaking of bread”). At the time this was the whole of the apostolic Christian doctrine. There was no New Testament; the apostles would not have visions showing that Mosaic Law was out of effect for a few years; Paul would not understand and preach radical grace for another decade.

No, the teaching given by the apostles at this time was not yet Christian theology, for such had not yet had time to develop (as is clear when you read the beginning of Acts--they were still recovering from the shocking resurrection of Jesus). Instead, what they taught was likely very similar to what we read in the three synoptic Gospels: not so much theology, but rather stories about Jesus' life and death and resurrection. These stories were eventually written down by Matthew (an apostle) and Mark (a disciple of Peter's), and then later investigated and re-told by Luke (a co-worker of Paul and hired by a wealthy Greek to write the first history of Christianity).

This teaching likely involved a whole night or maybe even a couple of days of additional time studying the Jewish Scriptures. The people then left and returned to their homes. Most worshipped in their normal Jewish synagogues each week, but the Christians met together in “fellowship” during the week to learn the apostle’s teaching and prayers and celebrate Communion. Of the original 3,000 there were probably only a few hundred Christians still living together.

Loose Interpretation – v. 41 refers to all of the saved; v. 42 tells about the new church set up by those who remained in Jerusalem

Or, if you want to stretch the text a bit more, you could conclude that the foreigners went back home and verse 42 refers to those who continued to live in Jerusalem, forming a new synagogue. Obviously this new synagogue of Christian Jews could not have held 3,000 people, or even a few hundred: not only were most of their converts foreigners who left Jerusalem, but also recall that at this time they were still observing Sabbath and Mosaic law (Paul and Peter’s visions have not yet occurred). Thus they are walking no more than 2/3 of a mile to synagogue each week.

The “Acts 2” synagogue model, if it existed at all, would have probably been five or fewer synagogues spread throughout Jerusalem. Each would have had a presbytery/elder board, with a bishop/ruler of the synagogue. Each would have had one staff member to take care of scrolls and do the teaching to kids. These then met together in whichever house was appointed, and apostles did the teaching during sermon time. They each had perhaps 50-75 people attending, and they celebrated Jesus as Messiah together while partaking in normal Jewish services.

To be honest, I think that the Acts 2 Church was far more likely to be that of the “strict” interpretation than the loose. We cannot expect that the Holy Spirit came upon them and, within a day, fully-formed radical shifts to an American-like culture sprouted forth, filled with life groups and worship songs and confessional Christian creeds.

In either case, we see that the Acts 2 Church was decidedly Jewish synagogue-like in nature, as we shall see when we continue.

“And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (v.43-47)

So after this miraculous salvation, we see what the ordinary lives were like. Those in Jerusalem continued to go to the Temple every day for their twice-a-day Jewish prayers. They broke bread together in their homes, praising God with gladness for what he had done for his people. The only real difference in their lives seems to be that they now went about their lives “together” with other believers in Christ: their normal activities of worship continued along the same lines—-daily devotional prayers at the Temple and blessing their meals—-but now they did so with other Christians.

The other substantive change was the generosity that the new converts showed. Probably inspired by the apostolic teachings about Jesus, when the new Christians saw those in need their faith compelled them to give generously, even if it meant selling off their own possessions. This giving attitude was noticed by other Jews in Jerusalem, who would go and ask them why they were so generous. Thus every day people became attracted to the Christian teaching that Jesus was Lord because of the radical sacrifices made by the the believers for those in need.


The Acts 2 Church was not a megachurch filled with Christian converts who got together each Sunday, listened to contemporary music, tithed to the church, hired a large full-time staff, stopped living Jewish lifestyles, went out evangelizing door-to-door, and met in life groups to eat together and have fun once a week in someone’s house.

To make such claims is to superimpose our beliefs about the world and our experiences onto them. We also know things that they do not yet know: we know what Peter will be told in a later vision about the Mosaic Law; we know what Paul will teach after his vision; and we know what the Council of Jerusalem will decree some two decades in the future from Acts 2.

Such was not the case for those in our passage, so we must resist the temptation to retroactively apply these concepts to them, or we distort Scriptural inerrancy.

What we may be certain happened is this: the new converts continued mostly in their normal Jewish lives, but now with the Holy Spirit in their hearts and the knowledge of Jesus as Christ in their heads. They still said the Shema each day. Those who lived in Jerusalem went to Temple twice a day for their Jewish prayers. They followed the Mosaic Law and its commandments. They honored the Sabbath and attended their normal synagogue. (In fact, as we see later in Acts, it is when invited to give sermons in the local Jewish synagogue that some half of all conversions to Christianity happened in the first century.) And those who were foreigners returned to their homes and their normal synagogues, worshipping alongside those who still looked for a future Messiah to arrive.

There were three noteworthy differences in their otherwise wholly-Jewish lives: (1) they spent time with the apostles to learn the stories about Jesus and how the Old Testament prophesied His coming; (2) they were radically generous to the poor, no longer relying on the priests or synagogue leaders to care for them but instead selling their very possessions to raise money in personal acts of charity; and (3) they began to celebrate Communion with other believers, likely in each other's homes.

This was what the Acts 2 church truly looked like.

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