Doesn’t your heart burn when you read about the early days of the Christian church? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. . . .” (Acts 2:42–47).
That young seedling of a church burst out of holy ground in the garden of God with joyful, beautiful vibrancy as the young Christians met, worshiped, prayed, witnessed, and cared for one another. Don’t you long for that experience? I do, every time I read it. I pray for it often, and I expect I will continue to pray for it during my earthly sojourn.
One Essential Factor
We often attempt to capture this kind of experience by trying various ways of “doing church” together. And I think this is a healthy, Spirit-inspired longing and pursuit (keeping in mind that no methodology has the power to produce what only the Holy Spirit can do). But there was a factor at play in the early church’s vital life that we tend to overlook.
It’s a factor we might not think to pray for, but one that helped provide the fertile environment in which the first-generation church flourished. That factor was a hostile culture and the desperate situations of many saints. When we pray for revival and robust churches, we may expect God to give us answers that look like Acts 2:42–47. But we become discouraged when we experience hostile rejection and desperation, not recognizing these as important parts of a spiritually fertile environment.
What We Often Overlook
When we take a careful look at Luke’s account of these seemingly idyllic early church days, a more complex picture emerges. We begin to see it in this description of generosity we love so much:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44–25)
What was happening that prompted this outbreak of possession-sharing? A significant number of Christians were experiencing significant material needs. Why? Because not everybody was having favor on them.
Luke reports that these Christians had “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47). But let’s remember that this “favor” was fickle, was by no means universal (the Jewish leaders, for example), and did not last long. There was a brief window of favor with a critical mass of Jerusalem’s hoi polloi — the same people who had also favored the miracle-working Jesus, until he said hard things, or was arrested, condemned, and executed. They likely favored the church in large measure due to the apostles’ awe-inspiring miracles (Acts 2:43). But we see this favor-window close as soon as we get to Acts 4 — when the persecution really begins.
Revival Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum
The remarkable generosity of Christians was drawn out because of necessity. It’s likely that most, if not all, of the new converts, were being kicked out of their synagogues — the hub of spiritual and social life in Jewish communities — for becoming followers of Jesus. This was already taking place during Jesus’s lifetime (John 9:22). Surely it was happening in the months after Jesus’s resurrection, when the religious leaders were doing their best to snuff out this new sect.
And that being the case, it’s also likely many new Christians were being disowned and disinherited by their families. It’s easy to have uninvested favor toward a group until your child or your sibling or your spouse joins, and the familial, social, religious, and economic costs become personal. Then painful disruptions begin. And these disruptions would have created immediate housing needs and resulted in many Christians suddenly finding themselves unemployed, since so many businesses were family-based.
In other words, the wonderful generosity did not happen in a vacuum. It was a response to sudden, painful, and desperate needs. Christians possessing this world’s goods saw their brothers and sisters in need and could not close their hearts against them because they were filled with God’s love (1 John 3:17). Their desperate need and acute suffering contributed to the remarkable fellowship the believers experienced.
Where Glad and Generous Hearts Grow
Think of the times you’ve experienced the most intense and wonderful fellowship with others. How many of those occurred in difficult, perhaps even dangerous, times in your or someone else’s life?
Yes, the Spirit was moving powerfully in the early church. But like the Spirit often does, he was moving in response to people’s faith, which was heightened because of the overwhelming needs and adversity they were facing. Again, when have you experienced the Spirit most powerfully in your life? I imagine it’s typically happened when desperation drove you to need and seek him.
We should not romanticize persecution or affliction. They are evils. However, throughout biblical and church history, we find a consistent pattern: “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46) tend to grow best when adversity, often in the forms of persecution and affliction, is part of the church’s life. Persecution and affliction provide the gracious and sanctifying opportunities for Christians to experience the love of Christ in very personal ways, as we extend it to and receive it from one another — the opportunities to demonstrate the gospel visibly to a watching world.
The gospel becomes more real to us the more we feel our need of it.
So let’s keep praying for revival, and keep longing to be like that radically loving, generously giving, passionately praying, boldly witnessing community of first-generation saints. But let’s remember the hostile, painful, desperate context in which the church was born. And as we pray, let’s “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon [us] to test [us], as though something strange were happening to [us]” (1 Peter 4:12). It is altogether likely we are experiencing God’s unexpected answers to our prayers.