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EARLY STAGES IN THE GROWTH OF THE ECCLESIA.
WE now enter on the narrative of the time which followed the Ascension, limiting ourselves as far as possible to those parts of St Luke’s record which illustrate the characteristics of the new Ecclesia and the stages of its growth; but not neglecting either pieces of evidence relating to the Ecclesia under other names and descriptions, or the history of the use of the name ecclesia itself.
On the return from the Mount of Olives the eleven remaining Apostles go up into the upper chamber where they were staying (i. 13), and thus renew, as it were, their coherence as a definite body.
A somewhat larger body is next mentioned as “attending steadfastly with one accord upon ‘the prayer’,” certain women, and the Lord’s mother and brethren, being associated with the Apostles. 43This peculiar phrase taken in conjunction with “the prayers” (ii. 42) and “the prayer” (vi. 4) suggests that a definite custom of common prayer is intended, a bond of Christian fellowship.
Next in v. 15 we read of a larger assembly, probably the whole body of ‘brethren,’ as they are emphatically called, about 120 in number. “In the midst of the brethren,” St Luke says, St Peter rose up and declared the need of filling up the place left vacant by Judas.
The next chapter relates the appearance of the fiery tongues on the day of Pentecost, St Peter’s discourse, and the results of it. The hearers, or some of them, are pricked to the heart and ask Peter and the other Apostles, whom they recognise as brother Israelites (ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί), “What shall we do?” The answer is “Repent ye, and let each one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ unto remission of your sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: for to you is the promise and to your children and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call unto Him.” The other recorded words of his exhortation are significant, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” This phrase ‘crooked generation’ comes, you may remember, from what is said of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness in Deut. xxxii. 5. There is not a word against the ancient Ecclesia or people. The crooked generation of the unbelieving present, which perverts and misinterprets 44the ancient covenant, is the evil sphere to be abandoned.
These men accept his discourse and are baptised. That is the definite act which signifies at once their faith in Jesus as Messiah, and thereby their joining of themselves to the society of His disciples; and on the other hand the acceptance of them by the Ecclesia. “And there were added on that day about three thousand souls.”
Then comes the description of the characteristic acts and practices by which these new members lived the life of members of the new brotherhood. “They continued attending steadfastly upon (προσκαρτεροῦντες) the teaching of the Apostles and upon the communion, upon the breaking of the bread and upon the prayers.” In the centre we see the apostolic body, a bond of unity to the rest. Their public teaching, replacing the public teaching of the scribes, carries on the instruction of converts who have yet much to learn, and attendance upon it is at the same time a mark of fellowship. Next comes what is called ‘the communion’, conduct expressive of and resulting from the strong sense of fellowship with the other members of the brotherhood, probably public acts by which the rich bore some of the burdens of the poor. Thirdly we have ‘the breaking of the bread,’ what we call the Holy Communion, named here from the expressive act by which the unity of the many as partakers of the one Divine sustenance is signified. 45Lastly we have ‘the prayers’, apparently Christian prayers in common, which took the place of the prayers of the synagogues.
In the next group of verses we hear not merely of these new disciples, but of the whole body of which they had now become members. “All that believed together” says St Luke (this is his peculiar but pregnant description of membership), “all that believed together had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.” This general statement is qualified and explained later. Evidently there was no law of the society imposing such sale: but the principle of holding all in trust for the benefit of the rest of the community was its principle of possession. “And day by day”, the narrative proceeds, “attending steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they partook of their food in exultation (ἀγαλλιάσει) and singleness of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their company day by day them that were saved” (or Revised Version, “were being saved”: neither rendering satisfactory). Such is St Luke’s account of the inward spirit and outward demeanour of the new Ecclesia, not yet in any antagonism to the old Ecclesia but the most living portion of it, and manifestly laying claim by attendance in the temple to be a society of loyal sons of Israel.46
Thus far St Luke has been picturing to us the Christian Ecclesia of Jerusalem antecedent to all persecution, moved simply by its own inherent principles. A fresh impulse towards consolidation comes from the onslaught of the Jewish authorities, due to the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, an event which had at once caused an increase in the number of Christian believers so that they reached five thousand (iv. 4). Peter and John, threatened by the Council, return “to their own company” (τοὺς ἰδίους), almost certainly, I think, the apostolic company; and together they pour forth a prayer in which they recognise that now they too are having to encounter the same opposition which by God’s own providence had fallen upon His holy servant Jesus whom He anointed; and they ask to be enabled to speak His word with all boldness while He stretches forth His hand for healing, and for signs and wonders to come to pass through the name of His holy servant Jesus: thus attesting once more in the most solemn way the two original heads of the active functions assigned to them.
In St Luke’s narrative this incident is followed by an emphatic statement that the multitude (πλῆθος) of them that believed had but one heart and soul, and a renewal in more precise terms of the former statement about their having all things common. “And with great power,” he proceeds (iv. 33), “did the 47Apostles of the Lord Jesus deliver their testimony of His Resurrection, and great joy was upon them all”. The absence of want among them (οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐνδεής τις ἦν) is given as a reason for this joy, the needs of the poor being provided for by the sale of lands or houses. In the former passage of similar import (ii. 44 f.), we read only of a distribution of the purchase money by the members of the community at large, or possibly by the vendors themselves. Here on the other hand we read that the purchase money was brought and laid at the Apostles’ feet for distribution, and further that Joseph, whom the Apostles called Barnabas for his power of exhortation, sold a field and laid the price at the Apostles’ feet. This is the first indication of the exercise of powers of administration by the Apostles, and, so far as appears, it was not the result of an authority claimed by them but of a voluntary entrusting of the responsibility to the Apostles by the rest. It was probably now felt that the functions and powers Divinely conferred upon them for preaching and healing as witnesses of the Resurrection, marked them out likewise as the fit persons to deal with the responsibilities of administration in carrying out the mutual bearing of burdens. The manner in which Barnabas’s name is introduced is remarkable, as also the express mention of his laying the value of his field at the Apostles’ feet. It does not seem unlikely that this important step on the part of the Ecclesia was taken at Barnabas’s 48suggestion; just as with no less boldness and forethought he brought St Paul into close relations with the Twelve at Jerusalem (ix. 27), and encouraged the newly founded Ecclesia at Antioch at a sufficiently critical time (xi. 22-24).
The event which comes next, the falsehood and death of Ananias and Sapphira, is for our purpose instructive in more ways than one. First, St Peter’s words “While it (the land) remained, did it not remain thine own? and after it was sold was it not in thine own power (or right, ἐξουσίᾳ)?” exhibit the real nature of the community of goods at this time practised in the Christian community. There was no merging of all private possessions in a common stock, but a voluntary and variable contribution on a large scale. That is to say, the Ecclesia was a society in which neither the community was lost in the individuals, nor the individuals in the community. The community was set high above all, while the service and help to be rendered to the community remained a matter of individual conscience and free bounty. Next, the reality of the bond uniting together the members of the Christian community was vindicated in the most impressive way by the Divine judgment which fell on Ananias and Sapphira by the shock at the discovery of their deceit. Falsehood or faithlessness towards the Holy Spirit, as St Peter calls it, was involved in their faithlessness to the community, affecting as they did to take part to the full in the lofty life of mutual 49help, while their hypocritical reservation made brotherly fellowship an unreality. In consequence of this occurrence “great fear,” we are told, “fell on the whole Ecclesia, and all that heard these things.” Up to this time, as Bengel points out, St Luke has used only such descriptive phrases as “they that believed”, “the brethren” etc. Now for the first time he speaks of the Ecclesia. Whether it was so called at the time, it is not easy to tell. No approach to separation from the great Jewish Ecclesia had as yet taken place. On the other hand our Lord’s saying to St Peter must have been always present to the minds of the Apostles, and can hardly have been without influence on their early teaching. If St Luke used the word here by anticipation, it was doubtless with a wish to emphasise the fact that the death of Ananias and Sapphira marked an epoch in the early growth of the society, a time when its distinctness, and the cohesion of its members, had come to be distinctly recognised without as well as within.
A short period of prosperity follows (v. 12 ff.). By the hands of the Apostles many miracles are wrought among the people. They were all with one accord in the great arcade called Solomon’s Porch, reaching along the whole east side of the vast Temple precinct. “Of the rest,” says St Luke, meaning apparently those who elsewhere are distinguished from “the people”, the priests, rulers, elders, scribes, “no one dared to 50cleave to them (i.e. however much he may have secretly become in conviction a Christian), but the people magnified them, and yet more were added to them, believing the Lord, multitudes of men and women”. Even the neighbouring towns, we read, contributed their sick and possessed, who came to be healed. This fresh success leads to a fresh imprisonment of the Apostles; but by Gamaliel’s advice they are dismissed with a scourging and warning. But they continue day by day in the Temple and in private houses to proclaim the good tidings.
The appointment of the Seven.
We now come to an incident which concerns us both as itself a step in the organisation of the Ecclesia, and as a prelude to an event which had decisive effects on the position of the Ecclesia as a whole, the martyrdom of Stephen. This incident is the appointment of the Seven, answering to a great extent to those who were later called deacons. As the disciples multiplied, complaints were made by the Greek-speaking Jews settled in Jerusalem that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration (διακονία) for the relief of the poor, in comparison with the widows belonging to the Hebrew part of the community. The Twelve call to them the multitude (τὸ πλῆθος) of the disciples and say “It is not right (or desirable ἀρεστόν) that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις): but look ye out, brethren, 51men from among yourselves of good report, seven in number, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will set over this office (or need, χρείας means either): but we will attend diligently upon the prayer and upon the ministration (διακονίᾳ) of the word.” The suggestion found favour with all the multitude. They chose out seven, including a proselyte from Antioch, and set them before the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. It is impossible not to connect this act with the laying of the contributions at the Apostles’ feet. As being thus constituted stewards of the bounty of the community they were in a manner responsible for the distribution of the charitable fund. But the task had outgrown their powers, unless it was to be allowed to encroach on their higher Divinely appointed functions. They proposed therefore to entrust this special part of the work to other men, having the prerequisites of devoutness and wisdom, to be chosen by the Ecclesia at large. How much this new office included is not easy to say. All the seven names being Greek, it seems probable that they were Hellenists, as otherwise it would be a strange coincidence that there should be no Hebrew names; and if so, it would also seem likely that they were charged only with the care of relief to Hellenists. We do not hear however of any analogous office for the Hebrew Christians, nor whether any general superintendence of the funds was still retained by the Apostles. Nor again do we 52afterwards hear anything more of these Seven in relation to their special work. The definite recognition of special claims of Christian Hellenists was the essential point. Stephen’s miracles and preaching were no part of his office as one of the Seven, though they may have led to his selection; and Philip in like manner is known only as doing the work of an evangelist.
But the appointment was not only a notable recognition of the Hellenistic element in the Ecclesia at Jerusalem, a prelude of greater events to come, but also a sign that the Ecclesia was to be an Ecclesia indeed, not a mere horde of men ruled absolutely by the Apostles, but a true body politic, in which different functions were assigned to different members, and a share of responsibility rested upon the members at large, each and all; while every work for the Ecclesia, high and low, was of the nature of a ‘ministration’, a true rendering of a servant’s service.
Once more we hear that “the word of God grew, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied exceedingly, and a great multitude of the priests obeyed the faith.” A little while ago it would seem that they were among those mentioned in v. 13 as not daring to cleave or join themselves to the Ecclesia. But now their faith had grown stronger and deeper; and one after another they obeyed its call, and took the risks of joining the Christian congregation.53
The Ecclesia spreading throughout the Holy Land.
We may pass over the discourse and martyrdom of Stephen. But the verse which follows the recital of his death (viii. 1) deserves our special attention for its language, and the facts which account for its language. “There came in that day a great persecution upon the Ecclesia which was in Jerusalem (τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τὴν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις): all were scattered abroad about the regions of Judæa and Samaria save the Apostles”. In the single place where the word Ecclesia has before occurred in the Acts (v. 11), there has been no question of more than the one Ecclesia of all Christ’s disciples. Here we have that same identical body, differing only by the reception of more numerous members, so described as to give a hint that soon there were to be in a true sense of the word (though not the only true sense) more Ecclesiae than one. The materials for new Ecclesiae were about to be formed in consequence of this temporary scattering of the original Ecclesia; and moreover this first wide carrying of the Gospel through Judæa and Samaria was not the work of the Apostles: they are specially excepted by St Luke. Parenthetically in viii. 3 we read how Saul ravaged the Ecclesia, entering in house by house: and here the Ecclesia just spoken of, that of Jerusalem, seems to be meant, his prosecution of the persecution elsewhere even to Damascus being probably later. Of the work of one of the scattered 54Christians, Philip the evangelist, we hear specially, its sphere being the representative city of Samaria. Tidings of his successful preaching and his baptizing of men and women having reached the Apostles at Jerusalem (“hearing that Samaria hath received the word of God” viii. 14), they depute Peter and John to go down. They found apparently no reason to doubt the reality and sincerity of the conversions. But the recognition of Samaritans as true members of the Christian community, hitherto exclusively Jewish, was so important a step outwards from the first, and now by long custom established, state of things that they evidently shrank from giving full and unreserved welcome to the new converts, unless they could obtain a conspicuous Divine sanction, what is called in this book receiving the (or a) Holy Spirit. What is meant is shown clearly by comparison with x. 44-48 and xix. 6, 7, viz. the outward marvellous signs of the Spirit, such as manifested themselves on the Day of Pentecost, speaking with tongues, with or without prophesying. “These which received the Holy Spirit even as we did” (x. 47) is the phrase in which St Peter describes the Divine sanction which justified recognition for Christian discipleship and membership. In this case the baptism of the Samaritan converts had been followed by no such tokens from heaven, and so they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and then laid their hands on them (the human symbolic act answering to the Heavenly act 55prayed for) and they received the Holy Spirit (ἐλάμβανον not ἔλαβον), that is, shewed a succession of signs of the Spirit. After the interlude of Simon Magus the Apostles return to Jerusalem, and on the way they themselves preach the Gospel to many Samaritan villages.
We need not examine the story of Philip and the eunuch, or even the conversion of St Paul, his recovery from blindness, preaching at Damascus, escape from attempted murder, admission to the confidence of the Apostles by the instrumentality of Barnabas, and on a fresh attempt to kill him, his departure for his native Tarsus. In passing it is worth notice that the man who lays hands on St Paul and baptizes him is no Apostle or even evangelist, but a simple disciple of Damascus, Ananias (ix. 17, 18). The last verse of the story (ix. 31) is this: “So the Ecclesia throughout all Judæa and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being built; and walking by the fear of the Lord and by the invocation (παράκλησις) of the Holy Spirit (probably the invoking His guidance as Paraclete to the Ecclesia), was multiplied.” Here again the Ecclesia has assumed a wider range. It is no longer the Ecclesia of Jerusalem nor is it the several Ecclesiae of Jerusalem and Samaria and other places. That is language which we shall find in St Paul, but not in the Acts, except as regards regions external to the Holy Land. The Ecclesia was still confined to Jewish or semi-Jewish populations and to ancient 56Jewish soil; but it was no longer the Ecclesia of a single city, and yet it was one: probably as corresponding, by these three modern representative districts of Judæa, Galilee and Samaria, to the ancient Ecclesia which had its home in the whole land of Israel.
These limits however were soon to be crossed, The first step takes place on a journey of St Peter through the whole land (διερχόμενον διὰ πάντων, ix. 32), which shews that he regarded the whole as now come within the sphere of his proper work, as it had to all intents and purposes been within the sphere of his work in the prelusive ministrations accompanying the Lord’s own Ministry. On his way down to the coast he is said to have come to “the saints” or “holy ones” that dwelt at Lydda. The phrase is a remarkable one. It has occurred once already a few verses back (ix. 13) in Ananias’s answer to the word of the Lord spoken to him in a dream, “I have heard concerning this man (Saul) how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem.” Members of the holy Ecclesia of Israel were themselves holy by the mere fact of membership, and this prerogative phrase is here boldly transferred to the Christians by the bold Damascene disciple. Its use is the correlative of the use of the term Ecclesia, the one relating to individuals as members of the community, the other to the community as a whole. It occurs once more 57in the same little group of events (ix. 41), and once on St Paul’s own lips in the bitterness of his self-accusation for his acts of persecution, in his defence before King Agrippa (xxvi. 10), probably in intentional repetition of Ananias’s language respecting those same acts of his. It was a phrase that was likely to burn itself into his memory in that connexion. All know how commonly it occurs in the Epistles and Apocalypse, but its proper original force is not always remembered.
Then comes the story of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion in the great chiefly heathen seaport of Cæsarea, and his reception and baptism by St Peter, on the double warrant of the vision at Joppa and the outburst of the mysterious tongues while Peter was yet speaking. This was the act of Peter on his own sole responsibility, and at first it caused disquiet among some at least of the original members of the Ecclesia. We read (xi. 1) “Now the apostles and the brethren that were in Judæa (or rather perhaps, all about Judæa, κατὰ τὴν Ἰουδαίαν) heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” And when Peter went up to Jerusalem they of the “circumcision” (i.e. probably those spoken of in x. 45, who had accompanied St Peter, for as yet there is no sign of uncircumcised believers) disputed with Peter for eating with men uncircumcised. This was apparently a complaint preferred in the presence of the 58Apostles and brethren, but we hear nothing of any formal assertion of authority either by St Peter himself, or by the Apostles generally, or by the Apostles and brethren together. St Peter simply seeks to carry the whole body with him by patient explanation of the circumstances and considerations belonging to the case. And he has his reward: the objectors hold their peace (ἡσύχασαν, a word which points to the objectors) and glorify God for having given the Gentiles also repentance unto life. It was a great step that was thus taken; but it did not lie outside the local limits of the ancient Ecclesia. Cornelius was a sojourner in the land of Israel, and moreover one of them that feared or reverenced God, as it was called, a proselyte of the less strict sort.59
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