At the very beginning of our faith, the Christian population numbered a few thousand, measuring only one percent of the world population. Today a single mega-church can boast a comparable number, and together,
Christians now number more than two billion people.
It all began with this little body of believers who knew a secret that needed to be shared. How did they do it? And what can we learn from them?
Join best-selling author and beloved pastor, J. Ellsworth Kalas, as he explores the book of Acts to uncover the ministry motivations of the first followers—ordinary people who accomplished the extraordinary and who can serve as a guide for today’s believers to carry on. Because the work is not done. The story continues…
This book contains a discussion guide.
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The Story Continues
The Acts of the Apostles for Today
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Some Extraordinary, Unremarkable People
Once upon a time, roughly twenty centuries ago, there were some very special people on our planet. There weren't many of them, and at first glance they didn't seem very special. In truth, even a second or third glance doesn't uncover anything overly impressive. We humans shop for people in roughly the same way as we shop for clothing, groceries, and gadgets. We want people who attract us, impress us, and who look as if somehow they might benefit us. Such persons attract us by their physical appearance, their bearing, self-assurance, and personality. They impress us by their intelligence and their achievements; and if we are more discerning, by their character. And they appeal to us if we feel they can do something for us. I'm not speaking of the crassness that uses people for their position or power or money, but in the sense that we feel they can fill some empty place in our lives.
What I'm preparing to say is this, that these very special people didn't have much natural appeal in the marketplace of people-shoppers. I wouldn't have been immediately drawn to them, and while I can't predict your judgment, I don't think you would have found them especially attractive either. They weren't as physically impressive as the Greek athletes, not as self-assured as the Roman civil servants, and not as intellectually stimulating as the Jews.
I'm speaking not out of any personal prejudice because I have no basis for even superficial judgment. I'm reflecting the report of a first-hand observer who was well qualified to judge, the apostle Paul. He knew these people well, and he loved them. He also knew the general culture of the times, so he was able to see them comparatively. He wrote,
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life — what is considered to be nothing — to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28)
Nevertheless, when this body of people was still in the first generation of its existence some of their enemies said they were "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6 NRSV). The people who said this were perhaps alarmists who were overestimating trouble. But if they were poor descriptors, they were remarkable prophets.
Look at it this way. At the time those words were spoken, the world Christian population numbered in a few thousands, scattered over a wide area. Today many mega-churches and a large number of metropolitan Roman Catholic parishes claim comparable numbers, and more. True, there's a huge difference between the population of the first- and twenty-first-century worlds. But put it statistically: at the time the Epistles were written, Christians would not have numbered 1 percent of the world population; today they constitute fully one-third — that is, today they number more than two billion people.
Or measure this way. Today, in a world that makes much of brand symbols, the most widely known symbol in the world is not the winsome cursive of Coca-Cola, but the cross — and this, even though in many places in our world the Christian symbol is outlawed. Remember, too, that the most widely circulated document in the world is not a political, economic, or military document but the book of this people, the Bible. And add to that the fact that literally hundreds of the world's languages are in written form today because the descendants of that little first-century movement have put spoken dialects into written form so they could make their document — or at least parts of it — available to as many people as possible. Preferably, the whole world! Indeed, this is one of their ultimate goals.
It all began with this little body of people. How did they do it? What was their secret?
It's important to realize how much the odds were against them. Christianity began as a Jewish sect; that's how the culture at large saw them, because at the first they were all Jews, by ethnic heritage or by religious conversion. And although the Jewish religious leadership itself rejected them, these first believers had their roots in Judaism, so that their first document, and their only document for at least a generation, was the Holy Scriptures of Judaism — what we now call the Old Testament. In the first-century world the Jews were respected for their intelligence and their business skills, but they were outsiders. They chose to be. The Roman Empire offered a good deal of religious freedom as long as its adherents accepted the idea that Caesar was one of the gods. Devout Jews believed there was only one God, so they were seen as religious fanatics and as proper objects of persecution. The first-century world identified Christians as Jews, but as a still more radical subset among the Jews. This wasn't an easy sell in the world of religion. This, however, was the public perception of Christians before further questions were asked. No wonder, then, that this movement called Christians, or "people of the Way," had so much going against it and so little going for it.
Worse, the subject of Christian preaching was a Galilean teacher who had been publicly executed as an enemy of the state. To affiliate with such a person was to court trouble. The believers joyfully declared that this Jesus had been raised from the dead on the third day of his entombment; this was impressive if you accepted it, but obviously not everyone (probably not many) was likely to do so.
I should also remind us that when the movement's starting lineup came running on the field, there was no reason for a burst of hopeful applause. They were short one person to begin with because one had defected before they even got started. At least four of the eleven remaining were fishermen; this was an honorable occupation, but not much of a training program for future religious leaders. Another was a tax collector, which was a despised role in the Roman culture because it offered so many opportunities for financial scandal. Still another had been part of a failed, small-time revolutionary group. Of the rest we know nothing, which is probably significant: that is, that there was nothing memorable about them.
So how is it that with such a start this group survived — particularly since it was an object of intermittent and often brutal persecution — and exists still today?
The answer is in the Book of Acts. This candid, unvarnished account tells us how it all began and how its founders led the way — sometimes fumbling and stumbling — into greatness. I believe that their story can show us how we might, two millennia later, carry on in the same remarkable fashion.
The author lets us know at the outset that he is writing a continued story. Acts was written by the person who wrote the third Gospel, Luke. Luke was a Greek, and thus to our knowledge the only Gentile writer of a New Testament book. He was a physician and a learned man. He traveled with Paul, apparently for extended periods. It's altogether possible that sometime in his life, Luke was a slave. When the Roman army conquered an area it customarily brought back some of the most talented people — teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants — to serve in the households of government officials and other well-to-do persons. Luke may have been such.
See how Luke begins the Book of Acts. He addresses the book to Theophilus, just as he did with the Gospel that preceded it. Now he reminds his readers that in his "first scroll" he had written "everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven" (1:1-2). With this scroll, the Acts, he intends to continue the story.
The Gospel of Luke could well have been called "The Acts of Jesus" since that's the story it tells. This continuing story, the Book of Acts, is titled "The Acts of the Apostles." Luke perceives it to be, in the truest sense, a continuation of the Acts of Jesus. We will never do justice to the Book of Acts until we understand that those first believers understood that they were carrying on the work Jesus had begun, and that they felt he was as significantly present with them after he had ascended into heaven as when he was standing in arm's reach. Put it this way: in the Gospels, Jesus Christ is a person who did things; in the Book of Acts, he is a person who does things. In the first book Luke wrote, the one we call his Gospel, he reports on Jesus in bodily form, the person of flesh and blood who walked among the people teaching and doing good; in his sequel, the Book of Acts, Jesus is present in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the body Jesus now inhabits is the Church that bears his name.
Jesus had promised his disciples that this would be so. On the night before his crucifixion Jesus told his disciples, "I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12). After Jesus went to the Father, the Holy Spirit came into the world to inhabit every believer. As a physical person Jesus could be present in only one place, now he could be present wherever the church, via his followers, was present.
As we read Acts, we realize that this is how the early church saw itself. No wonder the book is called "Acts" because there's action in this book. Acts offers very little teaching, at least in direct fashion, but it gives us a great deal of action. When Clarence Jordan did his "Cotton Patch Version" of parts of the New Testament a generation ago, he titled Acts, appropriately, "The Happenings." It is a book of crowds and excitement, of mobs and miracles, of confrontations, arrests, persecutions, and healings, and along the way, some dangerous sea voyages. There's hardly a quiet moment in the record. Something was always happening, and the followers of Jesus felt that these happenings were occurring not only in their physical world, but also in the world of spiritual activity.
During World War II, J. B. Phillips, an Anglican rector who was serving a church in Greater London, sought to sustain his congregation during the months of horrendous, nightly bombings by teaching them the New Testament. In order to make the Bible as accessible as possible, Phillips began to make his own translation into modern English — a translation that eventually not only swept the British Isles but became widely popular in America. As Dr. Phillips translated Acts from the Greek into contemporary English he wrote, "No one can read this book [that is, Acts] without being convinced that there is Someone here at work besides mere human beings. ... Consequently it is a matter of sober historical fact that never before has any small body of ordinary people so moved the world."
Notice that word ordinary because that word is key to all that happened in the first century and ever since. By almost any human standard the first leaders of this movement were not great men, not shapers of destiny. They were altogether average. I sometimes plead with my seminary students not to settle for mediocrity in their work; that is, not to be content to be average. Yet the people who laid the foundation of the church were, of themselves, quite average. Nevertheless, they did shape destiny. Thus, Dr. Phillips' phrase: "there is Someone here at work besides mere human beings."
Note, too, that these people were working with ordinary, everyday language. They delivered the story of Christ and the church in Greek, which was the prevalent language at that time. At one level of usage, Greek was the language of philosophers, historians, playwrights, and poets, memorable for its beauty. But those who wrote the New Testament couched it in what scholars call the koine: the common Greek of the marketplace. However, the message they conveyed was so elevated that it is no exaggeration to say that portions of it are still today the most quoted phrases on our planet.
What was the secret of these generally unremarkable men and women so that still today, nearly twenty centuries later, we feel the tidal pull of their lives? J. B. Phillips adds to my question when he comments on the title of Acts. We call this book "The Acts of the Apostles," but Phillips notes that this is something of a mistranslation. No articles are present in the Greek. Thus, if translated literally, the title would be "Acts of Apostles" — or to put the matter more clearly, "Some Acts of Some Apostles." We should remind ourselves that after the opening chapter only three of the original disciples are mentioned: Peter, James, and John. And of those three, only Peter has any measurable role in Acts. The "apostles" whose "acts" are recorded in this book are thus an almost entirely new group. Acts is not the story of an exclusive group of miracle men, but a selection of events from what was happening to many followers of Jesus: some "extraordinary, unremarkable people," to use the language of our chapter title.
But here is what we must say for the apostles, for we will never understand their story if we forget it: they knew who they were, and they knew from whence they got their strength. Soon after the Day of Pentecost, while the nature of their new life was still largely unknown territory, Peter and John came upon a man "crippled since birth" (Acts 3:2) who sought alms daily at a gate of the temple. When he asked a gift from the disciples, "Peter and John stared at him" (3:4). Ponder that simple phrase. Did they, in that moment of staring, recall what Jesus would do at such a time if he were there? And did they ponder if indeed they were now to do what their Lord had done? It seems, indeed, that they saw even more. Most of Jesus' healings came when people asked his help; Peter and John now dared to go a step further and volunteered their help unsought.
The man was miraculously healed. Something had happened. Jesus was still walking the streets of Jerusalem, but now in the person of his followers. The following day, when temple authorities brought Peter and John to a public hearing the august council "was caught by surprise by the confidence with which Peter and John spoke." Obviously, these men "were uneducated and inexperienced. They also recognized that they had been followers of Jesus" (4:13). The authorities came to a logical conclusion: "we need to warn them not to speak to anyone in this name" (4:17) — that is, in the name of Jesus.
Logical as their decision was, it was also quite naive. The one thing no one could do was to stop Jesus' followers from speaking in his name. The apostles had already made themselves clear: "Salvation can be found in no one else," they told the council. "Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved" (4:12).
The authorities were nonplussed. They had eliminated Jesus, but now they had a multiplied problem. Two fishermen were fearless before them, and the sympathy of the crowds was obviously with the fishermen. The council leaders did what they could: "They threatened them further, then released them" (4:21). As for the apostles and their band of enthusiastic supporters, they were so possessed by their calling that they saw no reason to fear. Instead, they prayed: "Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence" (4:29). As the gathering dismissed, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God's word with confidence" (4:31).
If we had been there, you and I, but not knowing what we know today, I suspect we would have been bemused. We would have agreed that it was exciting to see these unlikely people so completely taken by their convictions. But we would probably have concluded that the odds were entirely against them. They were such a collection of ordinary people (sometimes less than ordinary). They seemed like pleasant bumpkins compared to the scholars on the Hebrew council. The Roman government would put up with them as long as they didn't become unduly insistent, but if they left no room for Caesar as God, the government would dispose of them quickly. It would be only a matter of time until these Galileans were among the forgotten revolutionaries of the first century.
Excerpted from The Story Continues by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Some Extraordinary, Unremarkable People 1
2 Then There Was Pentecost 13
3 People of the Great Heart 25
4 And of Course There Were Hypocrites 37
5 Did the Apostles Make a Mistake? 49
6 Then There Was Paul 61
7 The Slow Process of Tumbling Walls 73
8 The Man Who Saved the New Testament 85
9 The Anonymous Apostles 97
10 The Irreducible Message 109
11 The Shaping of Doctrine 121
12 The Maps of Paul and Several Others 133
Study Guide 147