Thirty Years That Changed the World: The Book Acts for Today


While there are many studies and commentaries on the book of Acts, few focus on the amazing achievement of the people found within its narrative. The first Christians chronicled in Acts turned the world upside down in the space of a generation. In this book Michael Green opens up the gripping story of Acts, highlighting the volcanic eruption of faith described there and comparing it to the often halfhearted Christianity of the modern Western world. Combining trusted scholarship with a popular, enjoyable writing ...
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While there are many studies and commentaries on the book of Acts, few focus on the amazing achievement of the people found within its narrative. The first Christians chronicled in Acts turned the world upside down in the space of a generation. In this book Michael Green opens up the gripping story of Acts, highlighting the volcanic eruption of faith described there and comparing it to the often halfhearted Christianity of the modern Western world. Combining trusted scholarship with a popular, enjoyable writing style, Thirty Years That Changed the World is an ideal book for church, group, or personal study. Green explores the life and faith of the Christians of Acts, answering such questions as What kind of people were they? How did they live? and How did they organize and practice as members of the new church? Besides unveiling the nature of life in the early church, Green discusses how we today can apply the first Christians' dynamic efforts at church planting, pastoral care, social concern, gospel proclamation, and prayer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802827661
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/8/2004
  • Pages: 287
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.32 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface 5
1 Thirty Years That Changed the World 7
2 Bridges and Ditches in First Century Society 11
3 Luke and His Friends 25
4 What of Their Approach? 42
5 What of Their Lifestyle? 57
6 What of Their Message? 73
7 What of Their Apologetics? 97
8 What of Their Methods? 116
9 What of Their Church Planting? 140
10 What of Their Pastoral Care? 165
11 What of Their Church Life? 190
12 What of Their Leadership? 207
13 What of Their Hardships? 226
14 What of the Holy Spirit? 247
15 What of Their Priorities? 268
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First Chapter


The Book of Acts for Today

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2002 Michael Green
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Three crucial decades in world history. That is all it took. In the years between AD 33 and 64 a new movement was born. In those thirty years it got sufficient growth and credibility to become the largest religion the world has ever seen and to change the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It has spread into every corner of the globe and has more than two billion putative adherents. It has had an indelible impact on civilization, on culture, on education, on medicine, on freedom and of course on the lives of countless people worldwide. And the seedbed for all this, the time when it took decisive root, was in these three decades. It all began with a dozen men and a handful of women: and then the Spirit came.

We have some hints as to how this took place from scattered allusions in the letters of the New Testament, several of them written during these same thirty lyrical years; but there is only one connected account of this astonishing, volcanic eruption of the Christian faith and that is contained in the Acts of the Apostles

There are many ways of studying a book, and I do not propose to engage at any depth with the controversies that have racked New Testament scholarship over Acts. Despite the fact that some scholars persist in regarding it as imaginative fiction, the weight of scholarship in the past fifty years has shown the reliability of Luke's account. Historical, archaeological and literary considerations have combined to justify great confidence in the truthfulness of the narrative. Be that as it may, the fact remains that it is the only account that we have, and therefore we are driven to its pages if we want to know anything much about those thirty critical years.

But just as I do not propose to take part in the controversies over the minutiae of historical and theological debate, neither do I propose to write a commentary on the book of Acts. There is no need to add to the hundreds already in existence. Instead, in this book I want to address a question that I think is commonly in the minds of Christian people when they read the Acts of the Apostles: what can we learn from these people who turned the world upside down in so short a space of time? Taking what they did at face value, how can it apply to our day? Who were these people who so changed the face of society? What did they preach? Why were they opposed? How did they live? What can we learn from the way they founded churches, from their pastoral care, from their social concern, their prayer, their priorities? What about their idea of discipleship, of leadership, and of church life? What about the Holy Spirit, who was so clearly a vibrant reality in their advance? What about the spiritual gifts that seemed so normal a part of the life of the early church?

I do not, of course, for one moment imagine that we can move from the pages of the Acts to contemporary church life as if there had not been 2000 years of Christian history in between. Even to attempt such a thing would be irresponsible; the undertaking itself would be impossible. I do not imagine that, for example, we can move directly from hints about church government in the Acts to the problems that exercise us in this area today, and solve them. That would be naïve. The circumstances are entirely different. What I do mean is that we cannot study themes like these in the Acts without great profit. We can learn much from the sacrifices, the lifestyle, the proclamation and the attitudes of our forebears in Christ. We can - and should - ask ourselves, 'If those people then acted in the way they did, what are the implications for disciples today, given all the differences brought about by culture, space and time?'

That is why I believe that to examine Acts for today is a valuable exercise: first-century Christianity has much to teach twenty-first century Christians. The Christian faith has been around so long that it is easy to forget what it was like when it was new. It is like a great ocean liner with its hull encrusted with barnacles. Studying the Acts in this way is like giving it the careening it needs. I think it is significant that it is the younger churches with no pretensions to western 'sophistication' who look at the Acts, learn from it, and go out in the power of the same Lord expecting him to do equally mighty things through them. That is happening in Latin America, much of Asia, and a great deal of Africa. The Christians in these regions seem to have a facility we have lost for reading the story, learning from it, and applying it. I would dare to hope my re-examination of the leading themes in Acts will offer some helpful suggestions for the development of our own church life and outreach in the West.

Many major denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran and the Anglican churches, set the last decade of the twentieth century as a time of determined endeavour to recapture the evangelistic outlook of the early church and to reach out with something like their zeal to the millions of our compatriots who know little or nothing about Jesus. It was by no means the success that had been hoped for. When churches have been set in a maintenance mode for so long, it is hard for them to do an about turn and concentrate on mission. But at least the decade succeeded in bringing the subject of evangelism towards the top of the agenda of most churches. They got to talk about it, if not to do it! Many of our churches now realize the weight of tradition that has been holding them down, and are willing at last to start making changes. There are lots of people in these churches who long for a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to blow away dead leaves, strip them back to New Testament essentials, and to show them afresh the top priorities that Christians need to maintain. There is a hunger for renewal in the air. Where better to look than to the book of Acts that records the first white-hot eruption of Christians into society, and tells us so much about them that we cannot but be enriched if we will only listen?

A journal is published in the US called Acts 29. As its name suggests, it believes that much of what happened in those early days can happen today, given faith and courage and a fresh vision of Christ. My prayer for this present book is that it may encourage us to believe that Acts 29 is possible: that the fresh wind of God's Holy Spirit that launched the infant church is still available, still active, still ready to work in and through us if only we are willing.

I am rather reluctant to add to the number of treatises on the Acts, but I do want to awaken us to what these very ordinary men and women achieved within a single generation. It could encourage us to make a similar attempt in our own day. That, after all, is why the Acts was written. Luke wrote his Gospel to show what Jesus began to do and to teach when he was on earth. He wrote his Acts to show what Jesus continued to do and to teach after his resurrection, through the agency of the Holy Spirit in a handful of dedicated people whose message became irresistible. God is still engaged in this dynamic enterprise. He has not given up on us. That is why the study of the Acts remains so important. If those first Christians could accomplish so much in so short a space of time with such skimpy resources, what might the worldwide church today accomplish if only it was prepared for the vision, the faith and the dedication they exhibited?

Chapter Two

Bridges and Ditches in First Century Society

If we are going to understand something of the magnitude of the first Christians' achievement we must realize the forces working for and against them in the culture in which they found themselves. Both were substantial.


There were three major bridges that the early Christians found it critical to cross in their attempt to win the known world for Jesus Christ.

1. The first was the Roman Peace. This was a tremendous historical development, and reached deep into the consciousness of the people. The historian Polybius tells us that in the fifty years before 145 BC the Romans succeeded in subjugating nearly the whole world to their sole government, an achievement unparalleled in history. Rome became mistress of the world in those years, but Rome was not mistress of herself. During the next century she was torn apart by successive civil wars: Marius and Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, Antony and Brutus succeeded one another in the attempt to gain overall power. Consequently the Roman world was war-torn and weary, thoroughly disenchanted with a hundred years of warring overlords seeking to feather their own nest.

At Actium in 31 BC, one of the decisive battles in human history, young Octavius Caesar emerged from the ruck, adopted the prestigious and numinous title 'Augustus', and modestly proclaimed himself on his coins to be 'the saviour of the world'. The man in the street was so relieved at the end of this hundred years of carnage that he did see Augustus in this light. Virgil's Fourth Eclogue talks of the Golden Age returning, and that is how people felt. The Augustan Settlement was one of the great constitutional settlements of all time. It was a wonderful time to be alive. The sense of gratitude in ordinary common folk comes through in one man's tombstone inscription, which speaks of the forty-one years of happy life he has had and adds, 'now that the world has been brought to peace again, the republic has been restored and quiet and happy times have come back' (ILS, 8393).

This peace was substantial, and it had various side-effects that greatly helped the spread of the Christian cause. Peace led to stability. Augustus brilliantly retained personal control of the frontier provinces, and thus of the army to garrison them, while allowing the senate to nominate governors for the lush, wealthy provinces in the centre of the empire - where no troops were needed. In this way he retained the loyalty of the armed forces and remained their commander in chief. This in itself was an enormous step towards maintaining equilibrium. And so, upon the great rivers, the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates, which marked the boundaries of the Empire, the Roman armies were deployed under the direct control of the emperor himself.

Stability led to another invaluable side-product of the Roman peace: good communications. Romans were excellent at road building: in Europe many of their roads still survive. They placed a high official in charge of the road programme, because they knew how vital these were for trade and for an efficient communications network throughout the Empire. This network fanned out from the Golden Milestone in Rome. It must have been exhilarating, in some ways, to live in those days. The New Testament records travel that would have been impossible before the Augustan age. Indeed, there was nothing comparable after the decline of Rome in the fourth century until almost our own day. In the providence of God the gospel came into the world at the time when there was unique ease of communication. You needed no passport: customs dues were not high and piracy had been put down. Travel was fast and safe. A tombstone has survived from a merchant in the backwoods of Asia who records having visited Rome on business no fewer than seventy-two times in his working life (GIG, 3920). That would have been impossible without the Roman peace, and the Roman communications system. It is sometimes asked why the early Christians did not evangelize much outside the Empire. The short answer is that there were no roads!

2. If Roman peace was one major factor in the advance of the early church, Greek culture was another. There are three areas in particular that are important here: language, thought and religion.

It may surprise us to recall that, although Latin was the official tongue of the Empire, most people spoke Greek. They had it as a second or third language, to be sure, just as many people have English today, which comes near to being the lingua franca for the modern world, as Greek was in the ancient. But it was an invaluable way for the disparate nationalities of the empire to communicate. Greece had been captured by Roman armies in the second century BC, but soon took her captors captive through Greek language and culture. Greek professors were brought to Rome to educate the young, and Greek became very fashionable. It is interesting to note that St Paul addressed high-ranking Roman officials in Greek, not Latin, and to notice the centurion's surprise that Paul, an Oriental Jew, should speak Greek, the cultured language of the world, not Latin (Acts 21:37 ff). The Roman poets of the first century complained that their women folk used Greek even in the bedroom! (Martial Epigrams 10:68).

This is of course why the New Testament was written in Greek: it enabled universal communication. And this was an enormous benefit: there are few other periods in world history when any one language would have been understood so widely. It had the added advantage of being devoid of any imperialistic overtones: it was the language of a subject people, and therefore caused little resentment - as Latin surely did.

Language leads naturally into thought forms. Greek is a flexible and cultured language, in a way Latin is not. And the Greeks used their language to make philosophical and literary distinctions that are not possible in the more rugged and earthy language of the Romans. This, too, was invaluable for the Christian cause as they began to wrestle with intricate problems like the relation of Jesus to God on the one hand and man on the other. They needed a flexible language, and in Greek they had a sophisticated tool. What is more, this flexible and beautiful tongue opened up the whole treasure chest of Greek literature. The poetry of Homer and the prose of Plato had reached all levels in society to some degree, and proved a preparation for the gospel. For Homer told of gods and men in fascinating terms, but the gods were just men and women writ large: they apparently engaged in the same jealousies and adulteries and murders as people on earth. How could they be worthy of mankind's worship?

And so it is not surprising to find a growing dissatisfaction in Greek thought with the worship of many gods with human characteristics, and a move towards belief in a single source of being from which the whole world derives. You find it in the later work of Plato and of Aristotle, and it made sense to a great many thoughtful people of the day. Moreover the Greeks were preoccupied, during the whole of their creative period, with the relation between the One and the many, and somehow they saw the One as the source of the many, holding everything together.


Excerpted from THIRTY YEARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by MICHAEL GREEN Copyright © 2002 by Michael Green. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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