Written by Dr. Jeremy Barrier
In the Spring of 2013, I had the opportunity to travel along with several other coworkers to Bangalore, India, where, from April 3–5, we participated in an international seminar that dealt with the topic ‘Building up the Church (Body of Christ) into a Potent Force.’ Over the course of these three days, I had the opportunity to speak several times, and this topic (addressed here) was the first topic that I was given to speak on.
Most often, readers of the New Testament are very impressed with how quickly the early church grew from a small, insignificant group in the hills of Palestine to a thriving and growing group with deep and extensive human and financial resources extending to many places throughout the Mediterranean world. In this short article, and the next few articles that come afterward, I would like to address some of the challenges that the early church encountered, and then overcame to be able to grow and grow abundantly. To summarize the contents of these challenges to growth, I will assert that the early church: 1) lacked vision, 2) struggled with local/religious customs, and 3) struggled with administration. In this article, I will deal only with this first particular problem, their lack of vision that restricted their growth in the early years.
They Lacked Vision
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
In the beginning of the book entitled The Acts of the Apostles, the author records an encounter between Jesus, the Son of God, and his closest disciples, just prior to his ascension back into heaven. The nature of this conversation is recorded in the quotation above. What is fascinating to me at this point, was how poorly the disciples were capable of comprehending Jesus’ plan for them! God was prepared to take his message to all of the nations, yet the disciples, similar to many people today, were so engaged in the details of their particular community, that they simply failed to see a broader vision of God’s plan for the world and their role in this plan.
This reminds me of my daughter, who is presently nine years old; imagine if I try to help her envision where she will be in a decade from now, and what she will be doing. In 10 years my daughter will develop from a small child into a young woman, leaving home, working, traveling, and so many other things that are quite frankly ‘unbelievable’ for her to even imagine! What a challenge it must have been for the disciples to envision taking the message of Jesus “to the ends of the earth,” considering that none of them had ever traveled farther than the borders of Palestine.
This lack of vision by the earliest Christians was not only a lack of understanding the geographical limits of the kingdom of God, but also a shortsightedness in the ethnic, social and cultural limits to the kingdom of God. Allow me to give a few examples. First, one might continue in Acts and look at the ‘visionary problem’ that arose in regard to ethnic distinctions. In essence, the church began primarily as a Jewish group of believers, who put their trust and faith in Jesus, and began expanding throughout Palestine. For the most part, none of these earliest believers were non-Jewish. What did it mean to be non-Jewish? All of their customs, their language, their eating habits, business partnerships, and many other things were very different. Jews celebrated different festivals, worshiped a different God, believed that some foods were not edible, had washing and cleansing customs, ran their own educational institutes, did not participate in many of the civic functions of the city, and many other similar cultural details. In essence, the Jews lived very different ethnic and cultural lives. So how well did the first Jewish Christians embrace non-Jewish Christians? Many of them lacked the vision to accept these non-Jewish Christians, and this lead to several problems in the early church. The best example of the earliest Christians gaining cultural vision is found in Acts 10, when Peter is compelled by God to go and welcome a non-Jewish believer into the realm of God. This is the account of when God sends him to teach and baptize Cornelius, a Roman centurion. At first, Peter is quite frankly unwilling, and only after a miraculous unleashing of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household, Peter becomes willing to baptized these believers.
To make matters even more interesting, Peter realizes that he will have to explain this conversion of Cornelius to everyone else in Jerusalem (his Jewish audience), who will not be so willing to accept others into their ethnic circle! Fortunately, this story ends well. This is just one of the many accounts that can be found from Scripture, where the earliest Christians had trouble in allowing the different peoples with various ethnic and cultural customs to enter into their community of faith.
[In the next article, I will continue with the second challenge the early Christians dealt with…they struggled with local/religious customs…]