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  The Acts of the Apostles
 

 

Introduction, The Church in Transition

How many hundreds of millions of Christians are there in the world by now? What is your guess? I looked it up. Christianity of all stripes is the largest religion in the world and Christians number one and one half billion people.

How did this happen? How could twelve men, bearing witness of one man, create a religion that has, in fact, changed the world? Everywhere Christianity of any stripe has gone, it has made menís lives better. Oh, I know about the abuses, the corruption and the harm done in the name of Jesus Christ. But the evil done by Christians was done contrary to the teachings of Jesus. And the good brought to the world by those teachings overwhelms any evil that evil men have done in His name.

But how did it come to pass? How did you go from 120 disciples into a billion and a half disciples in just under 2000 years? Everyone knows about Jesus and His teachings. The Bible has been translated into nearly every language and dialect in the world. But knowing what Jesus said and taught does not explain how 120 disciples turned into a billion and a half disciples in just under 2,000 years.

To properly explain this phenomenon, we have to go back a lot further in time to a man named Abraham. Abraham was Godís man. He is called in the Bible the Friend of God. It is plain that God thought a lot of Abraham. He stopped by for a meal and a talk. He revealed things He was going to do. He made promises. Believe it or not, one of those promises had to do with Jesus Christ.

"By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice" (Genesis 22:16-19).

Mind you, there were no Jews at this time and no Judaism. This was the Faith of AbrahamĖĖthe religion of a man and his family. But there is a small piece of dynamite in this passage that gets overlooked in most translations: The word for nations, is the word "Goy", The Hebrew word for "Gentile." What Abraham is now told, by God Himself, is that "in your seed shall all the Gentiles be blessed." That means all the nations of the earth, and not just Abrahamís descendants. It was Godís intent that the blessing that came upon Abraham from knowing God should be and transmitted to the entirety of the world, including the Gentiles.

It is also clear in this statement, that God was not satisfied merely to be the God of one little corner of the world. He did not mean to bless merely Abraham, but the nationsĖĖall of them. It was in the seed of Abraham that the nations, all of them, were to be blessed.

Now the apostle Paul had read all this and when he encountered a difficulty with the Galatians, he took a little time to explain it. Here is Paulís explanation of what God told Abraham. What is important about this is that wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ has gone, it has made the lives of men better. Perhaps they have understood only a part of the message. Perhaps in their culture it made sense to them only in some applications. But the gospel has been a blessing to men. According to Paul, it was God's intent that this gospel be blessing to the nations-to the Gentiles. 

There are 18 million people in the world who follow Judaism and 1,500 million who follow Christ. I do not mean to imply that because there are more Christians that makes them any better. It is not that the numbers mean anything other than the fact that lives have been touched by the teachings of the Bible. The early Christians did not have a "New Testament." The only Holy Scriptures they knew were what we call the "Old Testament." And as the Christians went forth into the world, they carried a knowledge of the Scriptures with them. They carried the scriptures to such an extent that there are now a billion and a half of them.

If Judaism had gone to the world, if they had somehow been evangelists from the start, who knows what good they could have done, because the underlying ethical system of Judaism and Christianity is the same. Itís the faith of Abraham. 

A strong case can be made that it was Godís original intent to make the nation of Israel a beacon of faith in the world. That ancient Israel take their God to the nations. But they never did. They acted as though God belonged to them and not to the GentilesĖthe rest of the world.

There is nothing in the law of God to lead an Israelite to think he could not eat with a Gentile, but by the time of Jesus, Judaism had developed its own set of rules which, to all intents and purposes, ruled out the Gentiles.

Donít get me wrong. I see Judaism as the response of the Jewish people to the revelation of God. They have carried the scriptures and their faith down through the generations in the face of terrible persecution. I have nothing but respect for the Jewish people and their religion. For in their mind their religion does not call for them to evangelize the world.

But it appears to me that they have made it their religion, and have kept the faith of God to themselves. They have never evangelized. They have never taken their magnificent law to the world.

But then, there was Jesus. And everything changed.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus continually challenged the Judaism of the dayĖĖthe religious establishment. So consequently Jesus was challenging Judaism at every turn. Never mind that He was a Jew himself. He kept contrasting the rules and regulations of Judaism with Godís written law "from the beginning." He was aiming back beyond Judaism to the faith of the Fathers, to the faith of Abraham.

Now thereís an interesting little Scripture in the Old Testament about Abraham that may help you understand this. God is speaking to Abraham and He makes this statement:  "And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. ( Genesis 26:4-5)

Now this is a curious thing, although it might not immediately strike you as so. The fact is that as you read your way through the book of Genesis you encounter law at every turn. Men understand that there is a law, they know there are things that are sin and things that are not. They basically have an idea of how to relate to God. And here we find out that there is not merely a  law, but that there is a system of law that makes differentiation between commandments and statutes and laws.

Why is that nowhere in the book of Genesis is that law outlined? Moses tells us there is a system of law. Why doesn't he tell us what it is? The answer is simple. He does. The law is recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is easy to forget that Genesis was written by Moses long after the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. What this reveals to us is that the law Abraham obeyed was essentially the same law God handed down from Sinai-which, when you think about it, is exactly what we would expect.

This is why Jesus was at such pains to emphasize that His rejection of the traditions of Judaism did not involve a rejection of the law. It is that very law that is the basis of the ethical system He wanted His disciples to take to the world. It is that ethical system by which the world has been so blessed.

Now returning to our original question. How did Christianity make this move into the world?

It came about in response to clear instructions given by Jesus to His disciples: It is in that passage called the Great Commission, "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matthew 28:19-20.

Now if you are a Christian, you probably already know this scripture quite well. But you may not realize what a bombshell it was to the men who first heard it. For the translation obscures what Jesus actually said. What He really said was this: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all the Gentiles, baptizing the Gentiles in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching the Gentiles to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."

What is really strange about this is that the disciples did not get it at first. The book of Acts is the story about how they finally got the message and of the subsequent break out of the gospel to the Gentile world.

The book of Acts is written by a familiar friend-he is Luke, the beloved physician, the same fellow who wrote the gospel according to Luke. He wrote the book of Acts and addressed it to a fellow named Theophilus. We know little about this man, but we can sit with him and read the Acts of the Apostles to this day, thanks to Luke.  TOP

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