[Edited October 1, 2013]

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 adult. 

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.