(64) More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number – Acts 5:14

The early church grew rapidly in Jerusalem in its early days. The Sadducees, a group among the religious authorities who didn’t believe in any form of resurrection “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and, after they healed a crippled beggar, Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin to give an account of their teaching and their actions. The authorities could not decide what to do with them so warned them not to talk about Jesus any more, but Peter and John said that they could not obey them rather than God.

The apostles performed many miracles and met in the temple courtyard. Luke makes an interesting couple of statements about the early church that seem contradictory: “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” (Acts 5:13-14). The church was not a club that people casually joined. To become part of it was to be fully committed to a group of people with common power and purpose. They shared their material possessions and boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

The Sadducees, jealous of the apostles’ popularity, arrested them all and imprisoned them but an angel led them out of jail overnight so that when the Sanhedrin assembled and sent for them they found the jail empty. Someone then told the Sanhedrin that the apostles were back teaching in the temple courts. Fearing a riot if they used force they sent officers to ask the apostles to come and appear before them. Under questioning Peter accused the high priest of killing Jesus. This infuriated the Sanhedrin to the point that it was ready to put them to death but they were rescued by a moderate Pharisee called Gamaliel who advised the council to let the apostles go free. He made an astute observation that, “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). They were released with a flogging and continued to preach the good news.

The apostles not only faced hostility from the authorities but also had practical problems to deal with. As people became followers of Jesus they became aware of their social responsibilities and brought money to the apostles to provide support for widows who had no form of income. But as the number of disciples increased there were complaints that the distribution of food was unfair. The apostles realised that there was a danger that they would get drawn into practical matters and neglect preaching. In response they appointed seven men to serve the practical needs of the disciples.

One of the seven, Stephen, was “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When this led him into opposition he preached so powerfully that his enemies accused him of blasphemy and brought him to the Sanhedrin. Luke records a long speech that Stephen made to the assembled group, where he recounts the history of God’s people from the time of Abraham to Solomon. Then he accuses the religious leaders of murdering the promised Messiah which infuriates them. After he claims to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God they take him out of the city and stone him to death.

Up until this point the focus of the church is confined to Jerusalem. But in response to this dreadful event Luke records that, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The second phase of the expansion of the church was initiated by the death of the first Christian martyr.

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