We have advanced far enough in our study of Acts to see Luke’s pattern in these chapters. His plan is simple. Luke alternates between a picture of the church by itself—a portrait of the believers alone in their fellowship, in which he talks about their life, witness, and joy—and a portrait of the church as it exists in its relationship to the world. This second portrait increasingly deals with persecution.
Here are five stages in which this pattern has unfolded:
1. In the first chapter, we have seen the church alone. The believers are gathered together after the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to heaven. They are conducting their own business, and they elect an apostle to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus.
2. In the second chapter, after the Holy Spirit has come at Pentecost, we see the church with the world. On this occasion Peter preached the first great Christian sermon, a sermon based on the Old Testament. Many people believed and were added to the church.
3. At the end of chapter 2, beginning with verse 42, Luke goes back to his portrait of the church by itself. Here occurs that classic description of the Christians “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” It is a wonderful picture not only of that church, but of what every church should be.
4. In the third chapter and running on into the fourth chapter as far as verse 22, we see the church in relationship to the world again. There is a change, however. Before this, the church has been with the world in a witnessing situation only. This time Luke brings in the matter of opposition or persecution. We saw when we studied that section that the leaders ended by commanding the apostles not to preach any longer in Jesus’ name.
5. Finally, beginning with 4:23, Luke shows the church alone again. He describes how Peter and John went back to the people and reported to them, and he lets us see a bit into one of their early worship services. At the end of the chapter, there are verses that are almost a repetition of those that come at the end of chapter 2.
The fifth chapter starts by continuing the portrait of the church begun in the previous chapter. But now we see that the church did not always experience those glorious times described earlier. Now there are divisions in the church, hypocrisy and judgment. The judgment is important, because it is only out of this judgment and against that background that we have that renewed picture of blessing that occurs at the start of the section we are to study now.
This alternating pattern is significant, because it alerts us to two important realities for the church. Sometimes you have a church that goes so much over to the side of its own fellowship and the joy and wonder of its gathering together that it loses sight of the fact that it is called to be a witness in the world. The world tends to be forgotten. On the other hand, the church sometimes goes the other way. The Christians are in the world all the time, doing good works, but without the necessary base that comes from the unity, worship, and prayers of the Christian community.
Luke is teaching that both are necessary.
If we have service without inner strength, soon the service becomes superficial and essentially no different from the kind of social work the world does. On the other hand, if we focus on our fellowship and forget the task, the church becomes self-centered. The two have to go together.
Acts 5 contains three main sections: 1) the story of Ananias and Sapphira, which we have studied; 2) a look at the church in the process of reestablishing itself after the fiasco; and 3) a long section in which the apostles are once again arrested, testify to the Sanhedrin, and are physical assaulted.
The Christians had gone through a very difficult experience as a result of God’s judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira. They had been shaken by that judgment. The text says, “Great fear seized the whole church” (v. 11). The believers may have wondered if they had lost the blessing of God permanently, or at least for a time. Harmony was broken. Trust was destroyed. Would they ever find those great moments of blessing again? Luke reports that they did. In fact, it would seem that at this period God did even more wonders among them than He had done previously.
There had been miracles earlier, the miracle of the healing of the lame man that led to Peter’s sermon in the temple area, for instance. But there do not seem to have been many miracles. Now Luke tells us that “the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.”
We are told something else that is important: “More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (v. 14). So not only were miracles being done. The Gospel was being preached in such force that people were actually responding to it in large numbers.
The third thing we are told, a new and extremely important item, is that the Gospel was beginning to spread beyond Jerusalem. Verse 16 records that “crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” This is the first time there has been any mention of any area beyond Jerusalem. Jesus had said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This was happening.