Pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Fellowship, Palmdale, CA
In a recent discussion I had, a friend of mine opined that Reformed Christians are afraid of living in Acts 2 and, in fact, ignore it. My zealous friend desires that more people get saved, among other good things. We went back and forth with many others chiming in along the way. I ended up arguing that, though maybe some Reformed Christians are afraid of Acts 2 and ignore it, this is not the case with all Reformed Christians. I warned of the danger of reading the book of Acts as if it were the church’s cook-book, full of recipes for ministry and guidelines for determining success. In the end, my friend ended up agreeing, though with some reservations.
I bring this instance up because I think it is quite typical of the thinking of many in our day. We read the book of Acts. We see God doing great things and many getting saved and added to the church. We conclude that we ought to be seeing the same things in our day. If we are not, something is wrong with us. If we are, it is because we are being faithful.
Why do folks think this way? The book of Acts is the only book of the New Testament that describes at length some of the things some of the apostles and early Christians did after Jesus ascended into heaven. It displays for us how the apostles and early Christians took the gospel to the world of the first century. It illustrates missionary activity, which has as its goal church-planting for the glory of God. It shows us what the early believers did with the Great Commission. These things being so, why wouldn’t we use it like a cook-book? Anyone who refuses to, so the thinking goes, is afraid of what might happen and maybe even afraid that continuationism is right after all. Are we afraid of the Holy Spirit? This is how many think in our day.
Not only do I think this is wrong-headed, it can’t be applied to the latter parts of the book of Acts and the first century church after the book of Acts without Paul and the predominantly Gentile early Christians being deemed as utter failures. Let’s explore this a bit using Acts 2, assuming it to be a paradigm for ministry and success. We will examine Acts 2 then compare the rest of the book of Acts to it and predominantly Gentile early Christianity.
In Acts 2 Luke records the events of Pentecost (the Old Covenant’s Feast of Weeks) in Jerusalem which occurred after the ascension of our Lord (Acts 2:1ff.). Many Jews from throughout the ancient world would have been present in Jerusalem for this festival and the feast of Unleavened Bread or Passover which would have occurred 50 days before. Some claim that the population of Jerusalem swelled from about 100,000 to almost 1,000,000 at this time of year. Whether or not that’s the case, we do know that three times per year Jews from all over the ancient world converged upon the temple at Jerusalem in accordance with the Old Testament festival calendar (cf. Exod. 23:17; Deut. 16:16 and surrounding context; Luke 2:41; Acts 2:5-11). Many who traveled from far and wide probably would have stayed in tents outside the city. But we must remind ourselves that there was much more happening than merely a Jewish festival. Peter understands this event as a fulfillment of what the prophet Joel spoke about (cf. Acts 2:16ff. citing Joel 2:28ff.). Not only was this a unique out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Joel 2 but it occurred at a strategic moment on the Jewish calendar. In other words, there were unique circumstances, historical and redemptive-historical, in which this event took place. Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-36) was blessed by the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:41, “…that day there were added about three thousand souls.”). Later we are informed that these believers in Jerusalem witnessed “many wonders and signs [performed] through the apostles” (Acts. 2:43), “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), “began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:45; cf. 4:32), and “day by day [were] continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house…” (Acts 2:46). Luke closes the description of what occurred with these words, “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). These were unique days, indeed. Three thousand souls were saved on one day and added to the church. In the days immediately following, scores of people were saved and added to the church day by day. They were in the temple together and in homes daily.
The question becomes: Is this normative? Is what Luke describes intended to be taken as a paradigm for ministry and a canon for success? Did Luke tell us what he did in Acts 2 in order to provide an apostolic mandate for all subsequent ministries? As noted above, if this is so, the apostle Paul and other early Christians would appear to be utter failures. I say this because, from what we know for certain (i.e., from the Bible itself), Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles never achieved the level of “success” that Acts 2 depicts. Granted, Paul preached, sinners believed and were baptized, and churches were formed. But we have no account of three thousand souls being saved in one day, or people being added to the Gentile churches day by day, or believers meeting in their homes day by day (though, of course, these things could have happened). In fact, there is good reason to believe that Paul’s ministry, though it enjoyed slow but sure success, produced churches that were small in comparison to Jerusalem, Ephesus being one possible exception. When Paul writes his epistles, he mentions churches meeting in homes (cf. Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). It is a well-known fact that many of the early congregations were what we call house-churches. It is posited by some that some of these homes could have fit up to 200 people in the courtyard, but only very wealthy people had such homes. I. Howard Marshall, commenting on conditions at Corinth, asserts, “It has been convincingly shown that the groups would have met in the homes of the rich (since they alone could accommodate them).” But most homes, by far, were quite small and could host 10-20 people. Associations of various sorts could rent buildings in ancient Rome. There is archaeological evidence that early Christians met in both homes and rented buildings. However, the earliest evidence of this dates to 240. Churches could also own property, but this did not occur until the third century, as far as we know.
Now back to the questions posed above. Is Acts 2 normative? Is what Luke describes intended to be taken as a paradigm for ministry and a canon for success? Did Luke tell us what he did in Acts 2 in order to provide a mandate for all subsequent ministries? I think not. If we used Acts 2 as a paradigm for ministry and canon for success, then Paul and the early Gentile Christians were failures. In fact, most pastors and churches for 2,000 years would be considered utter failures using Acts 2 as a litmus test. King Jesus has built the inter-advental new covenant temple mostly through pastors of “small” churches.
As noted above, the book of Acts is not written in a command mode, but in the mode of narration. It tells us what happened. It does not tell us to do what happened. In fact, Paul himself did not “do” Acts 2. He did some of the things that occurred in Acts 2 but not all. Some of the things Paul did were unique because he was an apostle, but not all things. It is similar with Acts 2. There are some things that occurred there that we can and ought to do. We ought to preach. We ought to baptize. We ought to meet for worship and fellowship. We ought to receive new believers into our churches. We ought to meet the pressing needs of fellow believers. But to expect 3,000 to be saved in one day or to expect to add to the church day by day those who are being saved or to meet daily at the temple or in homes or to sell our property and possessions based on Acts 2 is wrong-headed. It betrays a faulty understanding of the unique features of Acts 2 and a faulty hermeneutic.
For any who might want to justify large congregations with small group Bible studies from this text (something I am not opposed to in principle), I think it important to be reminded that the new covenant church was in its infant stage of development at this point in redemptive history. The daily temple meetings in Acts 2 do not correspond to the first day meetings we see later in Paul’s predominantly Gentile churches and the daily home meetings in Acts 2 do not correspond to Paul’s “house-churches.”
The book of Acts records for us what Christ did through the apostles and early Christians upon his ascension into heaven. Pentecost is unique, a one-time event in redemptive history, and so are the immediate effects it produced in Jerusalem. For nineteen centuries, the Christian church understood this. It was not until the early twentieth century that Pentecostals started to read Acts prescriptively. Now it appears that others are falling into the same hermeneutical trap. Acts 2 is neither a paradigm for ministry nor a canon for success. It is the record of the power of Christ working in and through his apostles and fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. We should marvel in it and adore Christ for it, but expecting to reproduce its effects will lead us down a path of error and discouragement.
 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 521.
 This took place, most likely, due to the fact that most of the new converts, many of whom were far from home, would have been shunned by their Jewish families. When you consider that the Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate an Old Covenant festival and the fact that some of them ended upon converting to Christianity, it is not hard to conclude that those who did not convert were ashamed of their family members who did.
 I say possible because of the account in Acts 19-20 and other considerations. It appears that many were saved in Acts 19. Acts 20 contains Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders. Timothy ministered in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3) and there is good reason to believe that the apostle John was in Ephesus late in his life. Considering all this evidence, it could be that the church at Ephesus was relatively large and influential.
 See the discussion in James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 80-83.
 I. Howard Marshall, “Lord’s Supper” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 571. Marshall asserts but with no supporting evidence.
 Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 81. Jeffers says that the larger homes of the wealthy accommodated about 50 persons. Cf. Ibid., 81.
 Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 78.
 Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 78-79. Cf. also Peter T. O’Brien, “Church” in Dictionary of Paul, 125.