Richard Wilson
The merciful acts of the apostles

Recently I read the Acts of the Apostles again. I have often read through Acts with a desire for a simpler church life and structure. But I know that is to read both too much – and too little – into the story of the early church. The book has so many more different themes to help us today.

There is a real sense of adventure and movement as the early church takes hold of Jesus’ commission to preach the good news and make disciples (Matthew 28:18–20), and as the disciples become witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The book is one of obedience and expectancy, especially experienced through Paul’s three missionary journeys.

Running through Acts a central feature in the spread of this gospel to Jew and then Gentile, is preaching, teaching, speaking, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus. It begins with Peter standing up at Pentecost (in chapter 2) and then proceeds all the way through to Paul’s final days in Rome where it says in the very last verse of Acts (28:31) that, “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”. The verbal proclamation of the gospel is followed by ‘making disciples’ – seeing baptisms and teaching new disciples to obey all Christ had commanded. It happened, person by person, group by group, town by town.

Other themes unfolding
Although we see the preaching and teaching as a central theme, many more stories, lessons, instructions and principles hang off and alongside this. The 28 chapters of Acts span many years and most of the aspects mentioned are brief.

At times the book has been described as the acts of the Holy Spirit – and this is a very great part of it, as without the Holy Spirit nothing would have happened. But the book of Acts also speaks often of grace, of prayer and of prophetic direction. It records many healings, wonders and miracles; it introduces identifiable ministry roles and spiritual gifts; it hints at church government, and it also emphasises less popular themes when the gospel message is rejected, resulting in verbal and violent opposition, overt persecution and even martyrdom.

New lifestyles
And then there is this particular aspect from the earliest days. We find in the centre, works of generosity and significant pointers that bring signs of a different kingdom and the revelation of a new way of living. It is not ‘church’ as we might often define it – or confine it. It is not just the church meeting – whether in the temple courts or by a riverside, in a house or in a meeting hall; rather it is church beginning to live as community, and community from which not only gospel preaching flowed, but also active grace and mercy happened.

We read in Acts 2:42, about the devotion of believers, first to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and to prayer. But immediately after this we have all the believers being together and having everything in common, selling property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. God added to the church as a result. This happened in such a way that two chapters later we read that no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own; they shared everything they had. It says that God’s grace was so powerfully at work in this new community that there were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. This was gospel salvation being out-worked practically. I have heard it suggested that Acts brings a fulfilment of the Year of Jubilee of Leviticus 25. Certainly, we can see Jewish believers filled with the Holy Spirit living out the open-handed generosity we see in Deuteronomy 15; a fulfilment only possible under the New Covenant. Jubilee plus!

Thereafter in Acts we find other pointers. These different events never make mercy ministries or works the central focus, but practical actions always attend, support or show the gospel. In Acts 6, when the Grecian Jews complain that their widows are being overlooked in the “daily distribution of food”, deacons are appointed to serve. In Acts 9, when Peter arrives in Joppa he meets Dorcas who is identified by Luke not as a simple needleworker but because her talent is used, “always doing good and helping the poor”. When we are introduced to the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea in Acts 10 he is not yet a believer and yet his gifts to the poor had already “come up as a memorial offering before God.”

In Acts 11, Agabus predicts a coming famine. What is the purpose here? We might be reminded of Joseph being sent by God’s hand to Egypt in advance of famine, generations before. The response of the disciples was to provide help for the brothers living in Judea, each according to his ability.

It is worth recalling these things, not as sound bites or seeing them as incidental moments, but appreciating them as part of the warp and weft of the gospel message. After all, James in his letter confirms that faith without works is dead: it has always been this way!

Beyond the pages of the New Testament the church continued to impact society. In a blog post last year Kenneth Berding refers to the widely quoted sociologist and historian Rodney Stark who has argued that “one of the principal reasons Christianity grew while Roman paganism waned in the 1st-4th centuries was because of the mercy Christians displayed toward people who physically suffered, and in particular, how Christians showed mercy during two plagues that ravaged the Roman Empire.”

Jewish Christians had received the power they needed to live as the generous community the Old Covenant had commanded, while the Gentiles now being reached – coming from other backgrounds and other philosophies – were learning new ways of living, characterised by mercy, compassion and justice. In the context of the Great Commission - to obey everything Christ commanded - together they were discipled into this new way of living, and ensured the continuation of God’s redemption story, preaching the good news and discipling others to live it out, just as we must today.