OUR CHRISTIAN ROOTS – Part I, Section 3
The Church in the Acts of the Apostles: Highlights of its organization
Following the Acts of the Apostles we come across the primitive organization of the Church. Of the many extraordinary events in the life of the Church depicted in the Acts of the Apostles we will comment on the following:
- Election of Matthias (Acts 1:15-17. 20-26)
- Pentecost (Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4)
- Election of Deacons (Acts 6:1-6)
- Conversion of St. Paul (Acts 9: 15-19)
- Mission to the Greeks in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26)
- Ordination of successors (Acts 14:21-23)
- Shepherds and shepherded (Acts 20:27-32; cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-5)
- Highlights from the life of the apostolic Church.
- Conversion of three thousand (Acts 2:37-42)
- Fervor of the first converts (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-33;16:4-5; 17:11-12; 19:18; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-20. 23-33)
- Intense life of prayer (Acts 13: 1-4)
- Sunday worship (Acts 20:7)
- The Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-16)
- The Church suffers persecution (Acts 8:1-8, 14:1-7)
- The Apostolic Council (Acts 15:1-14. 19-31)
- Authority of the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17; 13:1-4; 14:23; 20:17-32)
1) Election of Matthias
Reading: Acts 1:15-17. 20-26
“In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, ‘Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share (κλῆρον) in this ministry (διακονίας).... For it is written in the book of Psalms [109:8], ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; ‘His office (ἐπισκοπήν, bishopric) let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us one of these men must (δεῖ) become with us a witness (μάρτυρα) to His resurrection.’ And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry (διακονίας) and apostleship (ἀποστολῆς) from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.”
- Why did the Apostles believe that someone must take Judas’ place?
- What is the significance of the election?
2) Pentecost (Descent of the Holy Spirit)
Reading: Acts 2:1-4
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place (ὁμοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό). And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
- What is the significance of the underlined words?
3) Election of Deacons
Reading: Acts 6:1-6
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.”
- What is the significance of the act of laying hands on the Deacons?
4) Conversion of St. Paul
Reading: Acts 9: 15-19
“The Lord said to him [Ananias], ‘Go, for he [Saul, Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me (ἀπέσταλκέ με) that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened.”
- Why did the Lord send Ananias to Paul?
- What is the meaning of the action of laying on hands on him?
- Why was he baptized?
5) Mission to the Greeks in Antioch
Reading: Acts 11:19-26
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.”
- Who does “they” refer to, who sent Barnabas to Antioch?
- What business did “they” have in Antioch?
- What role did “they” play”?
6) Ordination of successors
Reading: Acts 14:21-23
“When they [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel (εὐαγγελισάμενοι, evangelized) to that city and had made many disciples (μαθητεύσαντες) they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples (μαθητῶν), exhorting them to continue in the faith (ἐμμένειν τῇ πίστει), and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. And when they had ordained (χειροτονήσαντες) presbyters (πρεσβυτέρους) for them in every church (κατ᾽ ἐκκλησίαν), with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.”
- What is the significance of the act of ordination of presbyters in every church?
- What is the function of the presbyters?
NOTE: We have translated the word χειροτονήσαντες with “ordained,” rather than “appointed” (RSV), since this is the technical term for ordination to this day—as it has always been.
7) Shepherds and shepherded
a) Address of St. Paul to the Presbyters of the church of Ephesus (toὺς πρεσβυτέρους τῆς ἐκκλησίας)
Reading: Acts 20:27-32
“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock (ποιμνίῳ), in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (ἐπισκόπους), to shepherd the church of God (ποιμαίνειν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ Θεοῦ) which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples (μαθητάς) after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
- What is the function of these bishops?
- Do the πρεσβύτεροι (presbyters) differ from the ἐπίσκοποι (bishops)?
NOTE: We have translated ἐπισκόπους as “bishops,” rather than “overseers” (RSV), since this is the exact meaning of the word in the entire life of the Church.
b) Let us also read the following excerpt from St. Peter’s writings:
“So I exhort the presbyters (πρεσβυτέρους) among you, as a fellow presbyteρ (ὁ συμπρεσβύτερος) and a witness (μάρτυς) of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker (κοινωνός) in the glory that is to be revealed. Shepherd (ποιμάνατε) the flock of God (τό...ποίμοίμνιον τοῦ Θεοῦ) that is in your charge, exercising duties as bishops (ἐπισκοποῦντες) not by constraint but willingly as God would have you, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over the lot but being examples (τῦποι) to your flock (ποιμνίου). And when the chief Shepherd (τοῦ Ἀρχιποιμένος) is manifested you will obtain the unfaiding crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the presbyters (πρεσβυτέροις).”
As Christ was appointed by God the Father, and as Christ appointed His disciples to carry out the work of redemption, so the Apostles appoint their own disciples, down to this day, and to the end of time.
- Are the presbyters just the elderly among the flock, the “elders” or “seniors”, or is this an ecclesiastical office?
8) Highlights from the life of the apostolic Church
a) Conversion of three thousand
Reading: Acts 2:37-42
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to Him.’ And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread [celebration of the Eucharist] and the prayers.
b) Fervor of the first converts
Reading: Acts 2:43-47
And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of 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 (σωζομένους).”
Reading: Acts 4:32-33
“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
Reading: Acts 16:4-5
“As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered (παρεδίδωσαν, “passed on the tradition”) to them for observance (φυλάσσειν) the decisions (τὰ δόγματα) which had been reached (τὰ κεκριμένα) by the apostles and presbyters (πρεσβυτέρων) who were at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
- The faith is alive, and is passed on by living carriers. Tradition (παράδοσις) is not a dirty word; it is the bloodstream, the life of the Church.
- Δόγματα (decisions) is not another taboo word. It is the content of our faith.
Reading: Acts 17:11-12
“... they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
Reading: Acts 19:18
“Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing (ἐξομολογούμενοι) and making known their deeds (ἀναγγέλλοντες τὰς πράξεις αὐτῶν)” [which does not mean “divulging their practices”! (RSV).]
Reading: 1 Cor. 11:17-20. 23-33
“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together (συνέρχεσθε) it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church (συνερχομένων ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ), I hear that there are divisions (σχίσματα) among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions (αἱπέσεις) among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together (συνερχομένων), it is not the Lord’s Supper (Κυριακὸν δεῖπνον) that you eat.”
c) Intense life of prayer
Reading: Acts 13: 1-4
“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers... While they were serving liturgy (λειτουργούντων) to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work (ἔργον) to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands (ἐπιθέντες τὰς χείρας) on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia...”
- “Serving liturgy” (“liturgizing”) is the exact rendering of the Greek λειτουργούντων. Same meaning in Heb. 10:11.
- One cannot help noticing the extensive fasting done at all times.
- Notice once more the laying on of hands, as a form of blessing on part of the church. Even when commanded by the Holy Spirit one has to submit to the authority of the Church.
d) Sunday worship...
Reading: Acts 20:7
“On the first day of the week when we were gathered together (συνηγμένων) to break bread ...”
- “The first day of the week” is “The Lord’s day,” Sunday, “Κυριακὴ ἡμέρα” of which we read in Rev.1:10.
- Synaxis (σύναξις) came to be the tecnical term for the eucharistic gathering.
- “To break bread” (see 8.a above).
e) The Sons of Sceva
Reading: Acts 19:11-16
“And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”
f) The Church suffers persecution
Reading: Acts 8:1-8
“And on that day a great persecution arose against the Church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the Church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about spreading the word of the gospel (εὐαγγελιζόμενοι τὸν λόγον). Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed (ἐκήρυσσεν) to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.”
Reading: Acts 14:1-7 (Read also vv. 19ff)
“Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue, and so spoke that a great company believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to molest them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia and to the surrounding country; and there they preached the gospel.”
9) The Apostolic Council
Reading: Acts 15:1-14. 19-31
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed (ἔταξαν) to go to Jerusalem to the apostles and the presbyters about this question. So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the presbyters, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.’
The apostles and the presbyters were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’
And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name... Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.’
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the presbyters, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter: ‘The brethren, both the apostles and the presbyters, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions (οὐ διαστειλλάμεθα), it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord (ὁμοθυμαδόν), to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.”
- Why was the issue brought before the apostles?
- Is unanimity necessary?
- What authority do the apostles and the presbyters have?
10) Authority of the Apostles
Reading: Acts 8:14-17
“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
- How was baptism done? Is it important?
- What does “in the name of the Lord Jesus” mean?
Reading: Acts 13:1-4
“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia...”
- To whom did the Holy Spirit speak?
- Why didn’t the Holy Spirit speak directly to Barnabas and Saul (as purportedly does with modern (tel)evangelists?
Reading: Acts 14:23
“And when they had ordained (χειροτονήσαντες) presbyters for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.”
Reading: Acts 20:17-32
“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the presbyters of the church. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish (τελειῶσαι) my course and the ministry (διακονίαν) which I received (ἔλαβον) from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (ἐπισκόπους), to shepherd (ποιμαίνειν) the Church of the Lord and God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you, brethren, to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build (ἐποικοδομῆσαι) you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.’”
- The Holy Spirit placed the presbyters/bishops as shepherds of the Church. What does that mean?
- Who are the fierce wolves?
With this last reading we have fittingly concluded our New Testament readings concerning the Church, its life, practices and beliefs. It has raised more questions than it has provided answers. This is precisely where the Fathers of the Church come in: to elucidate, to clarify, to interpret for us the word of God.
Through their holy intercessions may God have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Oct. 1, 1995