Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Are Reformed Christians Afraid of Acts?

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on January 21, 2012 at 8:18 am

Richard Barcellos

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).[1] 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[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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).”[5] But most homes, by far, were quite small and could host 10-20 people.[6] 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.[7] Churches could also own property, but this did not occur until the third century, as far as we know.[8]

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.

[1] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 521.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 81. Jeffers says that the larger homes of the wealthy accommodated about 50 persons. Cf. Ibid., 81.

[7] Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 78.

[8] Jeffers, Greco-Roman World, 78-79. Cf. also Peter T. O’Brien, “Church” in Dictionary of Paul, 125.

  1. Thanks for this post. There is one aspect of Acts 2 that is missed in our day and that is the result of vs. 37 – they were cut to the heart.- Many will have the other signs following, but won’t have this. In a revival that took place in Ireland in 1859, Adam Magill wrote,”The awful sadness in every countenance bespoke the deep earnestness within; even the most ungodly were overawed, and wore a solemn sadness on their faces. Had a pestilence swept over the neighborhood, leaving one dead in every house, greater awe would not have been produced. At the close of the services, several efforts were made to dismiss the congregation, but without avail; and it was not until four o’clock in the morning that the people could be persuaded to go home. Multitudes were again, on that night, steeped in awful sorrow, and stung with the most poignant remorse for sin. Such unutterable horror overwhelmed one young man, that the blood streamed from mouth and nose. Another man, who all his life was a profligate, had such a vivid view of the horrors of hell, and the pains of hell took such hold of him, that he cried like a demoniac, that a hundred devils were dragging him to the bottomless pit. (Authentic Records of Revival Now in Progress in the U.K. – William Reid. – It is interesting that this work of the Holy Spirit is never a manifestation that is desired or coveted.

  2. one of the major defects in the modern reformed church,is a lack of dependance on the supernatural power of God in regeneration. salvation is reduced to a formula and anyone with some sort of desire for grace is designated an awakened sinner[a term unheard of today]the free offer is misunderstood because there is speculation as to whether such an offer exist.when people are searching for the same manifestation as described in acts, many look at the charismatic movement and their false signs and think this is the work of the spirit.a heart searching ministry is what is needed and pastors who are able to council those under deep convictions of which they are familiar in some degree themselves.the modern reformed church is but a shadow of the true church with a sound orthodoxy but a ministry in some cases devoid of the spirit and power.also some churches look more like a rock concert with their guitars ,drums etc. where does the scripture allow or call for these things in last comment,a close study of modern versions of scripture might be a study for some to consider when looking into the problems of the reformed church.

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  4. Rich,
    I’m late commenting as I haven’t been receiving RBF blogs for some reason. I need to correct that. I wondered when I read your blog if you have read Ian Murray’s book “Pentecost Today”. I am assuming you would probably agree with most of his perspectives but I thought I would just mention a few things that I think give additional light on how I believe we should view Pentecost. First let me say that I am a cessasionist as you know. Therefore my comments presuppose that the gifts of tongues and prophesy that were operative at Pentecost do not carry over. But there is another question…are we to allow for subsequent outpourings of the Spirit in which unusual unction and power in gospel proclamation is given resulting in large numbers of conversions and a marked increase of spiritual vigor among God’s people?
    Historically, again leaving aside Charismatic views, there have been three perspectives on this question. Kuyper argued that the church received the Spirit at Pentecost once and for all and that there is no basis for expecting further givings or outpourings of the Spirit. We are simply to live and minister in the reality and confidence that the Spirit has been given and is with us. Finney, on the other hand, basically held to a position of revival or bust. In other words we should be having revival continually and constantly and if we are not this means that there is sin or something is wrong with us. If we would do the right things and apply the proper means “revival” would be the norm, indeed it should be the norm. This is basically the view you are repudiating in your blog or at least similar to it.
    The third view is the view that I think it’s safe to say most of our reformed forefathers held to. Namely, there is a distinction to be made between the ordinary and the extraordinary. This view agrees with Kuyper that the Spirit was given to the New Covenant community at Pentecost and that since Pentecost the Spirit abides with the church. In that sense Pentecost is unrepeatable as that event in redemptive history whereby the church was formed, as it were. And it also disagrees with Finney’s revival or bust perspective. This third view argues that, though the Spirit was given at Pentecost, the church does not always enjoy the same measure of his operations, as was enjoyed at Pentecost and the measure in which we do is in the sovereign hand of God. Pentecost was extraordinary and not the ordinary. Therefore we must not depise the normal or feel that we must be sinning if we are not enjoying “revival” all the time. However, according to this third view, Pentecost is not to be viewed as the only time the church has ever experienced extraordinary pourings out of the Spirit or that the church is ever to expect such. There are reasons to hope for, pray for and expect that there will be times in the history of the church in which the Spirit who has already been given and already abides with the Church, is given or poured out in extraordinary measures.
    Peter quoted Joel in this way, “I will pour out of my Spirit” (apo). The Spirit is an infinite being, there is always conceivably more of Him that can be given.Furthermore in Acts 4:31 the same Jerusalem church that received the Spirit at Pentecost experienced a fresh infilling of the Spirit enabling them to speak the Word of God with boldness in the face of persecution. Paul prays for the church at Ephesus in Eph. 3 that they might be further strengthened with might in the inner man by the Spirit etc…..There is prayer for more of the Spirit’s working in them. He prays that they ”may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breath, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” Does this sound like every Christian and that the church has received all of these things, and all of the Holy Spirit’s influences, that we may ever expect or pray to have? In Pp. 1:19, speaking of his imprisonment in Rome, Paul writes, “For I know that this shall turn out for my salvation, through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” The genitive here may be viewed as a genitive of possession or of origin. The Spirit which Jesus has or dispenses from his sovereign throne in glory. if the operations of the Spirit are uniform and the same in degree at all times, and we are only to realize what we already have, what point is there in doing what Paul was referring to there?
    What point is there in praying for ongoing supplies of the Spirit of Christ?What point is there in doing what Jesus clearly commands us to do when he told us to ask and to seek and to knock…“If you then, being evil know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him”?(Lk.11:13)

  5. Let me conclude…
    1. I think this third view is very clearly supported by the history of the church, particularly the extraordinary spiritual awakenings that have occured at various times. (the reformation, Kirk of Shots, Evangelical and Great Awakening, early part of second great awakening, 1859 etc.. (not including those marked by Arminian and Finneyish theology and methods)
    2. In support of what you were arguing in your blog it recognizes the uniqueness of Pentecost in redemptive history and it avoids the problem of depreciating the normal and the ordinary which characterizes the vast majority of church history leading to spiritual discouragement and depression.
    3. But on the other side, it avoids the danger of squelching prayer and expectation and belief in special times of revival and awakening.

    Again I didn’t put in these comments with the assumption that you disagree with this. I just thought it might give a fuller picture. Of course, it’s possible Bro that you don’t agree. If so perhaps we could have a profitable discussion about it.

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