SIGNS OF STRENGTH
23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.
— Acts 4:23-37, ESV
A criminal record is not necessarily conducive to continued employment. Most companies have policies to terminate workers who find themselves arrested and convicted of crime. People with rap sheets find it difficult to obtain new jobs as well. This was not true, however, for two of the most prominent early Christians.
Peter and John had been jailed for preaching about Jesus. This was persecution’s first punch against the fledgling church. But instead of curtailing their careers as apostolic preachers, their status was elevated and their church was strengthened.
Persecution strengthens the church. So does prayer, unity, and charity. These signs of strength are evident in the aftermath of the church’s first persecution, and should be ongoing strengths in all of Christ’s churches.
Acts records the activities of the Holy Spirit in and thorough the early Christians. It is a picture of the church at work. Principal in the work of the church is prayer.
The young, strong church prayed at the drop of a hat. They prayed before (choosing a replacement for Judas), during (at Pentecost), and after (Peter’s and John’s post-imprisonment) any situation. They were already obeying the coming commandment of the last Apostle, “Pray without ceasing” (ref. 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
They prayed because they loved their Heavenly Father and enjoyed speaking and somehow listening in divine and devoted communication. They prayed in order to display their bedrock belief that God is sovereign, His word is sure, and has a perfect plan by which He has “predestined” all things. They prayed knowing their prayers, their free and willing decisions to obey or disobey the Sadducees, and their actions in spreading the gospel really matter.
Such prayer is a sign of strength in any Christian and any Christian church. It obviously gave the early church boldness and blessed them with gospel success. It also made them more like the Lord Jesus Christ, who prayed a lot. Jesus’ latter prayers majored on Christian unity and charity, and the answers unfold as this story continues.
Christ’s prayer for Christian unity seemed to be answered at the outset of the early church. We find them crammed into “one accord” before (ref. Acts 1:14, 2:1, 2:46), during (ref. Acts 4:24), and after (ref. Acts 5:12, 8:6, 15:25) this particular episode. But as the first persecution strengthened the first church, they grew in their unity to share “one heart and soul.”
None of these expressions of unity require uniformity. The early church was already a quite diverse group of men and women, rich and poor, educated and unlettered, speaking different languages. Real, strong Christians unity is not a unity of person, but a unity of purpose.
They assembled for worship regularly, in groups small (vs. 23, “their friends”) and large (vs. 32, “the full number”). They were constantly thinking, praying, and working towards making disciples (vs. 29) in accordance with Jesus’ last words. It is clear they enjoyed true fellowship, sharing their time, experiences, and possessions with each other. All the members were ministers, and they all shared the concern that the gospel be brought to the whole world.
A praying and balanced and unified church bent on worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and missions is a strong church indeed. It does not matter about the age or size of the church. The first church realized it, and so must the church of today.
It was one of Jesus’ last words, and upon it the Lord put a new, fresh emphasis. To the last Apostle, whom Acts will introduce a few chapters hence, it was the greatest word. The word is agapé, love, Christian love, sacrificial love, which the KJV often translates “charity.”
Today, charity speaks of giving away money or possessions to those in need. This is exactly what the early church did. It was an answer to Jesus’ prayer that we “love one another” (ref. John 13:34, 15:12, 15:17).
The first church’s charity was by no means an establishment or endorsement of communism. They gave their possessions lovingly and freely, it was not forced. Communism and its second cousin Socialism have been proven time and again not to work. You cannot force charity or mandate equity. Eventually, you run out of other people’s money to spend.
The first church’s charity was loving and free, but it was also born out of necessity. Remember what brought us to this episode? It was the church’s first persecution. It spread fast, not only with threats from authorities, but also with the loss of family ties and employment opportunities. Many of the early Christians lost their homes and their jobs for professing faith in Jesus Christ. This act of love and sharing address the momentary need, but should be repeated any time any of God’s children in His church finds themselves in need.
The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest recipient of grace of any entity on the planet. We have been lavished upon with God’s love. A strong church shines with charity, beginning at home, and when it is able to the world. Some can give all (like “Barnabbas”), but all can give some.
I grew up in South Georgia where playing football is a requirement and a religion. Every Friday night some team would come in and persecute us by trying to stop our forward progress to the end zone. We’d huddle up, like a prayer meeting, and get our instructions from the coach and quarterback. Then, with diverse assignments and a unified goal, we’d run the play. In the aftermath, we’d help each other up off the ground, huddle up, and do it again.
Let’s huddle up, church, and pray together and often. Let’s take our instructions from God and His word, from doctrinally sound preaching and teaching, and carry out our Lord’s purposes as a unified church. And always, let’s pick up the fallen, help the needy among us, willingly and joyfully and charitably. These are signs of a strong church.