The Bible records a vibrant church in the early chapters of the book of Acts. Miracles followed the apostles, thousands were converted in a day, and the Holy Spirit was poured out for the salvation of souls. The lame could walk again, the sick were made well, and the prison doors were opened by angels sent to rescue the believers. What an exciting time it was to be a Christian!
Despite (or because of?) the divine power that attended the followers of Jesus, the believers were a marginalized, persecuted and maligned sect in the Roman society of the day. The Romans despised both the Jews and later the Christians (who they often still saw as just a sect of Judaism) because their monotheism prevented them from joining in the worship of the Roman deities (including the emperor). The Jews hated the Christians because in their national rejection of Jesus they had turned their backs on the truth and now confused truth with error, light with darkness, and right with wrong. Christian believers were caught in the middle between a civil government that was both very powerful and very opposed to monotheism and the religion of their forefathers that would do anything to destroy the influence of the band of Jesus-followers. Given the forces aligned against it, the church should have been overwhelmed and whimpered into nonexistence in short order.
But it wasn’t. In fact, in a few short centuries the culture of genuine Spirit-empowered Christianity became so powerful, so pervasive and so irresistible that it was paganism that ceased to exist as the national religion of Rome. With the conversion of Constantine, the religion of Jesus now had a sympathizing friend on the throne, which for the first time gave the church power.
Or did it?
With the government on its side, the church steadily and insidiously became corrupted. No longer was there a heavy cross to carry for confessing Christ; now it was the popular thing to do. No longer did believers need to speak truth to power; for the powers were professed believers as well.
Did the church gain power and influence? Yes, in a way it did. But it also lost power and influence as well. With the comfort of support from the state, the church didn’t need the miraculous protection and provision from God. With the power of coercion now at its disposal, the church didn’t need the Holy Spirit to convert hearts and grow its community of faith. It gained worldly power — but also lost the Spirit’s power. By the time the Roman empire crumbled in the late fifth century, Christianity would have been almost unrecognizable to the apostles.
So what was the secret of the early church’s power? How could they be so filled with the Spirit and experience such dramatic growth despite being a despised and persecuted group? In Acts 5 I find at least 10 reasons why the apostolic church was so full of Holy Spirit power:
1. The church has power when its members are living lives without pretense or deception. Note the sad story of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5:1-10, and the immediate context which follows of the power of God manifest remarkably in the church.
2. The church has power when its members are united. “And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch.” (Acts 5:12)
3. The church has power when its members go where God sends them. The apostles were miraculously released from temple jail, yet instructed to go right back into the temple to preach, for which they had been arrested in the first place. (Acts 5:20) Following God’s call is not always politically correct, or personally convenient.
4. The church has power when its members are more concerned about the approval of God than the approval of man. (This mindset is sometimes referred to as the “fear of God.”) “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: 'We ought to obey God rather than men.'” (Acts 5:29)
5. The church has power when its members speak the truth even at personal risk. “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.” (Acts 5:30) Let’s face it: The truth of God’s Word is often out of style, and politically incorrect. But the apostles told it like it was.
6. The church has power when its members uplift Jesus. “Him God has exalted to his right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31)
7. The church has power when its members can testify of their personal experience. “And we are his witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32)
8. The church has power when its mission is God’s mission. Gamaliel’s advice to the council, “If it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God,” is still true today. (Acts 5:39)
9. The church has power when its members rejoice in trials and even persecutions. “... And when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (Acts 5:40, 41)
10. The church has power when its members are Christians not just one day a week, but all week long. “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:42)
I believe God is calling the church to return to its roots, to depending on the Holy Spirit’s power. Which power are we looking for today?
Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. Contact him at email@example.com. His column appears on the third Friday of the month.