North American Christians seem to have one of two responses to the book of Acts. Some regard Acts as a book of church planting history, while others consider it a description of the possibilities of church life. I started in the first camp and eventually arrived at the second. The book of Acts is indeed a history of the earliest church. It chronicles the growth of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. It details the actions of the Apostles and the first believers. It is inspiring the way great history should be. In the final analysis, however, history remains an account of the past, and the past is safely isolated from the present.
As I came to regard the book of Acts as normative, my comfortable Christian life was shaken to the core. Did the Holy Spirit inspire the book of Acts as an example for us today? Is it possible He wants us to consider the life of the earliest believers as normative? If so, then I—we—have fallen short. Consider just this one passage:
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. —Acts 5:12-16
Since I have determined to read the book of Acts as normative it has ruined me forever. Consider just a few points capable of changing our view of the church:
• This passage occurs immediately after two people dropped dead in the church (Acts 5:1-11). Can you imagine the response if a husband and wife were carried away—dead—from an elders meeting in an American church today? Even more astounding: The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira did not cause a crisis in church leadership. Instead, the incident likely established the leadership even more!
• The earliest church had no facilities. They met on the Temple grounds out in the open. What a spectacle these followers of Jesus must have been. Everyone in town knew where they met and when. Christian community was demonstrated in public. The attraction of the church had nothing to do with facilities, bells or whistles but rather the authentic lives of the people.
• How many churches in our day are both “highly regarded” and also cause people to think twice before joining? (v13) The people in Jerusalem observed a group of believers so radical outsiders considered it a calculated risk to venture into their midst. In our day people join churches—and unjoin them—for a variety of reasons. The fear of God is not usually very high on anyone’s list.
• Notice the word “nevertheless” in verse 14: Even though no one dared join them, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Have you ever encountered an outreach program like that? The church in Jerusalem was so dynamic it was scary. It was also so dynamic outsiders couldn’t stay away! Imagine a church capable of inspiring fear and fascination.
• Peter, a leader in this church, had a reputation for healing. His reputation was so widespread the public observed his daily routine and dragged the sick into the streets just to be in his proximity. Peter’s “healing ministry” did not involve outreach, meetings or even prayer! Yet the entire community knew the Peter was a follower of Jesus.
• The healing ministry associated with the early church in Jerusalem gathered crowds from the countryside. It would be no easy task to carry a sick family member up the hillside to Jerusalem, but the reputation of the first Christians was so strong that people came from literally miles around to encounter the same healing anointing that Jesus himself carried. These people did not go home disappointed, “all of them were healed.” If Acts is indeed intended to be normative, it presents a breathtaking standard: All of them were healed.
• Amazingly, this church still had a lot to learn! The next 23 chapters of Acts depict a group of believers still willing to learn and grow as followers of Christ. This Jerusalem church was not ethnically diverse. Its vision did not extend to the Gentiles. The leadership had plenty more to learn, and they made mistakes along the way.
There is a difference between history and revelation. It’s the difference between examining the scriptures or letting the scriptures examine us.