Acts of the Apostles
A Key Source in Understanding the Growth of the Church?
In the introductory lecture, I noted that what
we are going to be looking at in this course is the transition from
pagan Rome to Christian Rome, one of the most surprising and important
events in the annals of history. We're looking at how and why
this change took place, a change that ultimately affects just about
every area of Roman life and, in subsequent eras, changes radically the
history of the world.
One key to understanding this tradition, of course, is the Gospels
themselves, and, already, we've seen some of the reasons this new faith
was able to succeed. We've looked at Matthew with its powerful
message to the Jews and the way way the gospel message amplifies the
universalist themes already present in Judaism but that had been rather
neglected. We've looked at Luke with its great appeal to the
gentile community and its message of assurance to those who might think
they have no role to play in God's kingdom. And we've looked at
John and the way that Gospel supplements and complements the synoptics.
One might be tempted to think, "Well, that's it. Jesus had a
great message, he gave it to his disciples, his disciples preached it
to the Jews first and then to the gentiles. The gospel message
was exactly what the Roman world needed, and so the church grew."
Well, it's not quite that simple. Jesus had been a great teacher
and preacher, a great leader of men. But at his death in 30 AD,
few would have thought his religious movement likely to survive, much
less grow strong enough to surplant paganism as the official religion
of the Roman state.
Now that's a strong statement, but consider the situation. The
religious leaders were almost all united against Jesus. The
secular authorities (e.g., Herod and Pilate) too were for the most part
hostile and certainly saw no particular reason to protect this new
Jewish sect. The apostles for the most part had run away
discouraged. Even Peter, who said he'd die with Jesus, had denied
that he even knew his teacher.
Yes, the apostles had Jesus message: but would they likely do much with
it? Probably not one might think. So we're back to the
question: how is Christianity going to survive?
Now some will suggest that the resurrection of Jesus by itself is
sufficient explanation. Now no doubt the fact they believed Jesus
risen from the dead had an effect on the apostles and their
attitudes. But notice how slow the apostles themselves are to
accept the resurrection. On the road to Emmeus (Luke 24), the
disciples dismiss the women's story of Jesus's resurrection as "idle
talk," and Jesus rebukes them for their slowness to believe. And
then there is Thomas, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the
nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my
hand into his side, I will not believe."
And I think most people would have been like Thomas. Suppose, for
instance, that you had seen an NSU professor executed, maybe Jon
Schaff, Dave Grettler, or Ken Blanchard. And the other students
told you that professor was alive again. I suspect, if it were Schaff,
one of you might say something like, "unless I saw him draw one of his
free-hand maps of the United States, I won't believe." Or with
Blanchard, "Unless I see him put one of his silly diagrams on the
board, I won't believe" or Grettler, "Unless I saw him come in with his
axe or heard him call a can of Armour Potted Meat Product really cool,
I will not believe."
So, if the apostles are slow to believe themselves, how are they going
to conveince anyone else? And we are back to the problem: how to
we explain the survival and then the rapid growth of
Christianity? And it would seem that, in order to understand
this, the really critical time is the first years after the time of
Jesus himself. What's going on in those years is, more or less,
the the growth of either a newborn or unborn baby: essential to
understand if we want to know what leads to the fully-grown
Fortunately for us, we have some very good sources for this period, the
period around AD 30-64. We've got lots of letter from Paul, and
some from Peter, James, and John. And we have the book we talk
about today: the book of Acts.
Acts is a key source in understanding the survival and rapid growth of
the church--though it is a source that must be used with some
caution. We'll be discussing in class the elements key to the
survival and growth of a religious movement, and then looking at what
Acts does and does not do in helping us see how the early church
provided these things.