The Lord Added to Their Number

What might our city look like today if more and more Christians were thoroughly energized, comforted and supremely confident in the gospel of Jesus Christ? How much difference might the church make if increasing numbers of us really believed the gospel we proclaim and lived it out in front of a watching world? What if my own personal life of faith became “bulletproof?”

Thoughts such as these kept bumping around in my head last week as I slogged my way through Michael Green‘s truly excellent work, Evangelism in the Early Church. I deliberately use the term “slogged” not to denote any manner of shortcoming on the author’s work, but instead to give some sense of how frequently dumbfounded I was by the historical reality that 11 guys – all of them virtual nobodies from a hick rural backwater province of the Roman empire – turned the entire known world upside-down within such a comparatively short amount of time. I literally had to keep slowing down in my reading, backing up and re-reading, spilling prodigious amounts of highlighter ink along the way, just to let it sink into my heart how powerful God’s people are when they give themselves over to the leading of His Spirit and “push all of their chips into the center of the table,” so to speak.

As I worked my way through Green’s chapters, another frequently-recurring question was, “What does this book have to say that would be most applicable to evangelism and outreach in the 21st century – removed as it is by roughly 1,800 years?” As far as I can tell, the key difference between the evangelism of the early church and our day could, I suppose, be summed up in the difference that one sees in a single category: zeal.

Where the church of the first two centuries was seemingly energized by its historical nearness to Christ’s earthly ministry (and what turned out to be an inaccurate assumption of the imminence of His return), the last five centuries have been marked rather by the rise and fall of several competing ideologies and worldviews that – whatever their source and/or agenda – have collectively served to minimize (or cast out entirely) much of the early excitement regarding Christ’s Kingdom and His promise to return. In short, the early church believers appear to have been completely devoid of any sort of “Gosh, you know, we’re far too modern and sophisticated to buy into this!” attitude.

At first glance, this book may appear “too scholarly” to some; granted that it doesn’t have a lot of pictures, and it’s not chopped up into bite-size daily readings. Still, anyone wondering how the Christian faith exploded in such a short amount of time – and literally cut human history in two – would do well to invest some time in this very-accessible volume. Green’s writing style is anything but dull.

What I found especially interesting in this review of the first 200 or so years of church history was the “exemplary willingness” of its members to fearlessly cross over any and all social, geographic, political and/or economic barriers to proclaim its message. Granted that this, too, occurs in the present era, it still seemed as though the early church was more thoroughly marked by a “proclamation at all costs” spirit that the intervening centuries have perhaps served to dull and deflate…at least somewhat.

As just one example, I found that the eager willingness of the church to make use of the Pax Romana and the well-maintained system of roads to spread the gospel served as something of a counterpoint to our own culture in that Roman rule and roads still meant tremendous personal sacrifice on the part of those early Christians; time, talent and treasure were clearly in play as the early church made use of those roads. Again, at the risk of overgeneralizing, today’s less-fervent Christian might well be content to make use of the entire world being at his or feet (via the Internet) by posting a blog entry from time to time and leaving it at that; one can only imagine how the early church might have made use of this powerful communications network had anything remotely like it been available.

Green seems to have a great deal of enthusiasm for his subject matter, which I found immensely helpful in my reading of the text. Knowing that Green obviously found much of value in his studies of the ancient world helped to frame his presentation such that the implied message came through on nearly every page: “Here, then, are Christian believers who got it right.” While he did not shy away from exposing the errors and unfortunate consequences of some early missionaries – the establishment of the papacy in Rome is laid at the feet of Paul, for example – it is clear that a driving force in Green’s writing is his desire to see this early zeal reignited in the church of today; he say as much with the very last sentence of his Epilogue.

Perhaps one of the more immediately-applicable sections for me, personally, was the chapter entitled “Evangelistic Methods.” In saying that Paul was the orator par excellence, Green also balanced that appraisal by adding that, “Not, of course, that Paul or anyone else in the early Christian mission thought that argument alone could bring anyone into the kingdom of God. But they knew that it could break down barriers which obstructed men’s vision of the moral and existential choice which faced them, of whether to respond to Christ or not.” This section was quite helpful as a reminder that Paul, Peter, and just about every other member of the early church was very much aware that their work was completely dependent upon the Spirit of God leading them and using them in the building of Christ’s Body, the church. They appear to have been completely convinced that apart from Jesus they could do nothing (John 15:5), something that the present-day church perhaps needs to be reminded of every now and then. As active as Paul was, he always retained the knowledge that Christ’s power was at work, not his own (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I also very much appreciated the emphasis that Green placed in his later chapters on the undeniable strength and power of personal, one-to-one evangelism along with the willingness of the early church to use their homes and belongings in the cause of Christ. Denied the opportunity to proclaim Christ in large arenas seating thousands, the early church nevertheless flourished as a direct result of believers sacrificing their time, energy and even their own homes to the proclamation of the Word. In addition to solving the “absence of public venue” problem, it is no stretch to imagine that the willingness of early church members to freely give of their resources made a deep impact on the hearts and minds of those that had gathered to hear the gospel teaching; one can easily picture a curious attendee wondering to himself or herself, “Why would these people allow me in their home to hear about this Jesus?”

“Coincidentally,” The Crossing has been preaching a short series on the text found in Acts 2:42-47; you can find audio files of these sermons on The Crossing’s iTunes Sermon Archive. Listening to any or all of the sermons preached these past few weeks will give any reader of Green’s work a tremendous supplement to the work of the early church.

To be 100% transparent, I read this book because it was assigned by one of my profs at Covenant. Left to my own devices, I’m not sure I would have poured out the hours needed to complete it. But as I look around in the Crossing auditorium on Sunday mornings, the timing of this assignment could not have been more providential. God is so very clearly at work these days in our own rural backwater! My “graduating class” for The Crossing’s Discovery Class in Nov. of 2001 was, I think, something like 20 to 25 people. A drop in the bucket compared to what’s going on now! Maybe you’re like me, and you find the explosive growth of The Crossing to be somewhat daunting and perhaps even a bit scary. As the membership of our church has been looking at astonishing bar graphs and the like, I’ve been simultaneously working my way through Green’s book and prayerfully asking God, “Lord, what are you doing here? And how can I best serve Your purposes here in the 21st century?”

You too?

Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)
“The Fellowship of the Believers”
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

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