The first Pentecost
Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples to wait for him. So they did, meeting quietly in a room in Jerusalem. Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost (one of the Jewish festivals), something very dramatic happened. You can read about that here, as recorded in the book of Acts. The disciples were filled with a new confidence and power, and in some amazing way everyone could hear them speaking in their own languages. They talked about Jesus having died and risen again; they said that Jesus was the Lord, and that they needed to believe in him.
So in another sense, that Pentecost was the real start of the church. The word ‘church‘ comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means, simply, an assembly – literally ‘called out’. It was used as an ordinary secular word by the Greeks, although Jesus gave it a special spiritual sense during his working life, when he said that Peter – one of his disciples – was the rock on which he would build his church.
These days, the English word ‘church’ is only really used in relation to Christians. More confusingly, it’s sometimes used to mean a building where people meet, sometimes it’s used to mean a local gathering of believers, and sometimes it’s used to mean all Christians throughout the world. However we use it, the concept of believers in Jesus being different from others started some time after that special Pentecost when the disciples were filled with special power and authority from God (the Holy Spirit).
What was the early church like?
We have some clues about the early church in the book of Acts. For instance, at the end of the second chapter, we’re told that the Christian believers shared their possessions, and had meals together. They didn’t just meet for an hour or two once a week – they shared their lives, as extended families. Nobody went hungry; they all looked out for each other. And daily, more and more people joined them.
But it wasn’t all so cosy and ideal. The authorities who didn’t like Jesus didn’t want his followers to become powerful and challenge them. Some of the religious leaders of the time were very unhappy, too, about the thought of a new religion infiltrating their country. The fourth chapter of Acts tells us how Peter and John were taken before a court and told not to speak about Jesus any more. When they refused to obey, they were sent to prison, although they didn’t stay there for long.
As the number of believers grew, people had to be appointed to deal with the administration of food and money (the equivalent people are usually known as deacons or church council members these days). All too quickly, or so it seemed, real trouble started – what we call persecution. One of the new deacons was a young man called Stephen who was a gifted speaker as well as being an administrator. He spoke out in public for Jesus, saying what he believed, and was stoned to death. He’s known as the first Christian martyr. It might seem as if Stephen was deliberately stirring up trouble if you read about what he said in the seventh chapter of Acts, but he had to stand by what he believed.
Moreover, some of the new believers left Jerusalem when the persecution started, which meant that they started talking about Jesus to people much further afield, some of whom would never have heard of him before. God also used some direct strategy: for instance, an important official from Ethiopia was travelling through the region and met Philip, one of the early disciples. Philip told him about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the official went back to his country to tell others.
There was also a proud, well-educated Jewish Roman citizen called Saul, who was one of the people that approved of Stephen’s murder. God gave him a dramatic vision, which turned him right around. You can read about that in Acts chapter 9. From that point he became known as Paul, and spent most of his life travelling around the Middle East and parts of Europe telling people about Jesus. Paul was a missionary – literally meaning one who is sent out.
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