Peter Kendrick, professor of theology and culture
New Orleans Seminary, North Georgia Hub
If you had just been arrested, jailed, and threatened within an inch of your life and warned to stop preaching the Gospel, what would you do?
The early disciples had just that problem. The healing of the lame man (Acts 3) by Peter and John and the preaching of Peter brought down the wrath of the Jewish leaders (Acts 4:1-21). Immediately upon their release, the two disciples share what happened to them and the threats that were made against them with other believers (4:23).
These were no simple threats – war had been declared against the Christians. They knew that obedience to Christ in the midst of those who hate Christ would be costly. The disciples faced a dilemma.
Today’s church is under a similar threat. The world’s culture has declared war against Christ and His church. What should be our response? What can we learn from the early church?
United prayer with focus
The early Church was united in one singular focus: the expansion of the Kingdom of God. The early believers had witnessed the death of Jesus at the very hands of the people who now threatened them. They did not pray for their comfort or change in their circumstance. They did not pray for the destruction of their enemies or protection from their enemies. Instead, they prayed for boldness – the power to live in their circumstance, the power to face their enemy and the power to finish their task: sharing the message of Christ (4:29). Phillips Brooks wrote, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”
Notice three results of their prayer. First, the place was literally shaken and assured them that God had heard their prayer. Second, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. This was not another Pentecost. This was the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to those who prayed for boldness to witness (see 4:8).
Third, once empowered, the believers kept on speaking the word of God with courage and boldness (4:31. See also Acts 9:28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8). They would not and could not be stopped in witnessing to Jesus.
Warren Wiersbe wrote, “The name of Jesus Christ has not lost its power, but many of God’s people have lost their power because they have stopped praying to the sovereign God… The early church prayed, and God answered in mighty power.” Are you and your church praying for boldness?
Unity expressed when shared
The early church was united not only in their faith in Christ but in their community life as well. Under attack, “all the believers were one in heart and mind” (4:32) in their attitude toward material possessions and their unified purpose to make certain there was “no needy person among them” (4:34).
This Christian communalism was no Marxist or economic communism. It was voluntary (5:4) and not to make everyone equal, but, rather, to meet the needs of a fellow believer (see also 2:44-45). Most importantly, it was motivated by love, love one for another. They remembered the words of Jesus: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).
John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 Jn. 3:17, ESV) Doubtless, this early church was probably filled with believers of different social status, economic class, racial backgrounds, and generations. Yet, they were not selfish with the blessings God had given them. Instead, all the believers considered themselves as members of one body in Christ and looked out for the needs of others. How do you express your love?
Sacrifice for each other
The early church was united in their faith in Christ, in their community life, and their sacrificial expression of love. There were at least two dimensions to this.
First, “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them … and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (4:34-35). Second, we have the specific example of Joseph, a Cyprian Levite, whom the Apostles nicknamed Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) because he was a constant source of encouragement to the church.
…what we need in our life is the support of a true friend, a band of brothers…
Here in our text, Barnabas encourages the church by selling his own field and giving all of the money to be distributed to those in need (4:36-37). At other times, he encouraged Paul in his ministry (Acts 9:26-27; 11:19-30; 13:1-5). Later on, he gives John Mark the encouragement he needed after his failure and disappointment to Paul (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41; Col 4:10).
At most times in life, especially the times that are hard, what we need in our life is the support of a true friend, a band of brothers – someone who sacrificially gives of themselves in love to encourage us.
Encouragement can be a witness. You may recall the horrific news from March 12, 2015 when ISIS marched 21 men onto a beach in Libya. Twenty of these men were Christians. One, a Chadian citizen, was not. He watched the Coptic Christians die for Christ. When the terrorist murderer demanded that he reject Jesus Christ as his God, he looked at his friends and replied, “Their God is my God.”
He was then beheaded with his Christian brothers.
Here is my prayer: Lord, we face a growing enemy who hates us because we love You. Lord, let each of us be as one and give us boldness like that of the early church and these 20 men and others across the world who encourage and stand with one another as they face death because of Your name.