The Book of Acts – EXTERNAL Challenges Which the Early Church Faced
The church of God had a wonderful beginning and experienced fantastic numerical growth in the early stages of its existence. Its members were evangelistic-minded and caring. Great things happened as the gospel was spread, new congregations were established, and spiritual growth occurred. Along the way, there were challenges that had to be faced and overcome.
Some of the challenges before the early saints involved matters that were out of their control. These were external affairs – those which came from outside the body of the Christ and “went against” the church or at least made the tasks of God’s faithful more difficult to accomplish.
When first-century Christians taught the message of salvation through Jesus the Christ, they encountered a wide variety of responses. In ancient Athens, some of the atheistic listeners who heard the gospel for the first time called it a “new doctrine” and counted it as “strange things” to their ears (Acts 17:20,21). Others in that same city mocked the preaching of the resurrection from the dead (17:32).
The response of others to Christianity was not so mild. Not content to reject the message themselves, some openly opposed the truth. In Antioch of Pisidia, when envious Jews heard Paul’s preaching, they contradicted, blasphemed, and “opposed the things spoken by Paul” (13:45). As if that were not enough, opposers “stirred up” others and “raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas” (13:5). Like a thorn in the disciples’ side, they followed them from place to place, stirred up people’s minds against the gospel and “poisoned their minds against the brethren” (14:2; cf. 17:5,13).
In some cases, outsiders intentionally spoke against the church. While some may have done so simply by repeating unfounded rumors, others did so out of prejudice and envy. The bottom line was, the Lord’s people received a lot of unfair, bad publicity. In Ephesus, hardened folks “spoke evil of the Way” (19:9), while Jewish leaders in Rome confirmed that the church was counted as a sect, saying that it was “spoken against everywhere” (28:22).
There were those who counted members of the church as troublemakers. When the gospel was preached, families were divided in their response to it. False religions were challenged and exposed. Hypocrisy was laid bare. The preaching of the gospel made people uncomfortable, upset, and yes, in some cases, angry enough to kill. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were accused of troubling the city and teaching unlawful customs (16:20,21). The charges were false, but that did not prevent some people from believing them. Strong messengers of truth were described as people “who have turned the world upside down” (17:6). Others accused the saints of destroying their way of making a living (19:26,27). Paul was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple in Jerusalem (21:28-30). Over and over, the Christians were misrepresented, misunderstood, and portrayed as problem causers.
There was a level of persecution for the early followers of Jesus which we have not yet named: that would be bodily persecution. It started with the Jewish Sanhedrin taking two apostles, John and Peter, into custody (4:1-3). Then, twelve apostles were imprisoned, threatened, and beaten (5:17-42). Next came the death of Stephen, stoned by Jews who could not stand his message (7:51-60). The apostle James, brother of John, was murdered later by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1,2).
In addition, in some instances government officials of the Roman Empire made decisions with the intent of trying to please the Jewish people who were against the church. Those decisions, of course, hindered the church’s efforts. The Herod who killed James put Peter in prison – to please the Jews (12:3). Governor Felix left Paul, an innocent man, in chains for two years for the same reason – “wanting to do the Jews a favor” (24:27).
From the time that Paul was taken into custody in Jerusalem until he arrived in Rome, he endured bad weather and a shipwreck, was bitten by a viper, and spent years in chains. On every side, the early saints faced circumstances and challenges which were out of their control. This thing of being a faithful servant of Jesus was not a game for little boys and girls! It was serious stuff.
Troubles came. Persecution raged. Disciples were scattered. Such scattering was good, though, because more people heard the word as a result (8:4,5). The early saints were taught to pray for civil rulers, submit to civil law, love their enemies, pray for those who mistreated them, and in the midst of all that could disrupt their lives and their service to King Jesus, God implored them to persevere.
When outside challenges come our way, what can we do? Be steadfast unto the end – that is what we can do! No complaining and no feeling sorry for ourselves. Live by faith, preach the gospel, defend the truth, cast our cares on God (1 Peter 5:7), and leave everything else in His hands.
— Roger D. Campbell