I’ve been combing through the book of Acts lately trying to understand what made the early church such a dynamic movement. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, nor will it be the last. It’s a bit of an obsession with me. You’ll have to deal with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across something that I had missed in other translations. Acts 2 describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in the upper room and the message Peter preached in an attempt to explain it. When Peter finishes declaring the Gospel, many, many people come to Christ and the first church is born. This infant church begins practicing what I’ve taught as the four essentials of church for a long time (devotion to the Gospel, fellowship, eating together, and prayer).
What gripped me, though, was the next verse. It wasn’t the description of what the church did–it was the description of what the church had. Here’s what Luke records:
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
What struck me as I read it was the translation of the word “awe.” I’m used to that word being translated as “fear.” Whenever the word is translated as fear in relationship to God, we often understand it as “the fear of the Lord,” which Scripture over and over again defines as a healthy spiritual reality, despite what modern teachers tell us. Here in the English Standard Version, the translators chose the word “awe.” I like this translation because I think it clearly states what Luke is trying to describe. In those early days, everyone was in awe of what God was doing.
As I started to dig into this word, I found that it was translated from the Greek word “phobos” which is where we get the word phobia from. This word is used across the New Testament to describe two seemingly different realities. One is the fear of something that is dreadful, but the other is a fear of God that spurs Christians to grow in proper relationship to Christ. So while I don’t doubt that fear is a proper translation, as I’ve thought about “awe” as it’s translated in Acts 2, I’m wondering if awe might be a closer English word to what Luke was trying to describe.
Why else would the New Testament say the following:
- So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:31)
- Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… (2 Corinthians 5:11)
- Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
- …submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
- …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling… (Philippians 2:12)
- And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile… (1 Peter 1:17)
Now go back and look at each of these passages and in the place of fear, replace it with awe. It’s not that fear is the wrong word, so much as it doesn’t touch the depths of fascination and respect that our English understanding of fear communicates. Imagine the church multiplying because it walks in the awe of God, persuading others about the reality of Christ because our hearts are awestruck by who He is, purifying ourselves because we’re so caught up in awe of God. Imagine a body of believers who conduct their lives in awe throughout their time on Earth…that is so awestruck by what God is doing in other believers that they submit to the Christ they see in each other! Living in the awe of God has a powerful influence on the way we live our lives.
I still believe that the church needs to return to the practices of Acts 2:42, but I’m starting to wonder if the church doesn’t desperately need to recover the “awe of God.” What if instead of just repeating the practices of the early church, we did them out of the awe of God and what He is doing?
Now awe is a funny thing. We can’t produce it in ourselves. God produces awe of Himself in the human heart, but we can learn to walk in it. We can hunger after the kind of experiences the early church had. We can seek to encounter the same Christ that worked miracles among the early church. We can lay aside our lesser fascinations and begin to fix our hearts again on the one we are supposed to live in awe of–Jesus. As we do, awe will grow. We’ll encounter Him more. As we encounter Him, our awe will grow.
When we have this awe of God glowing white hot in our hearts, it’s terribly easy to declare the goodness of Jesus and stand against persecution. Others will see it and turn to the Lord as well, especially as God shows up in the midst of those circumstances. In some crazy sort of way, as we experience the awe of God in our hearts, it whets the appetites of those around us and quickly others become hungry to encounter Jesus.
Friends, I’m writing today to encourage you to get an awe of God. If you’ve lost it, if you’ve never had it, or if you just want more of it, go back to God and ask Him for it. He will give you more awe if you ask.
Who knows? It may even be the start of a church planting movement like we see in the book of Acts.
There is a story buried in the book of Acts that teaches us a profound reality about serving others in the body of Christ. It starts with Peter and John being asked to give money to a lame beggar. Peter’s response to the beggar is instructive:
I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!
Peter didn’t have money. That wasn’t a resource that the Lord had given him. What he had was the power of the Lord operating in his life. He had experienced healing in the ministry of Jesus. He had participated in healing the sick and casting out demons before. The power of the Holy Spirit was real in Peter’s life, so it was easy for Him to give it away.
There is a spiritual principle here that many people fail to recognize: We can only give to others what we have received from the Lord. Yet I often see people try to give away the things of the Lord that they have no experience in. Some do this in their teaching, trying to teach Kingdom realities that they have participated in themselves. Others counsel or advise outside of the realm the Lord has called them to. This can inevitably get us into trouble.
This issue is one of dependency. We can only give to others out of the overflow of what Jesus gives us. This means that we are completely dependent on receiving all of our love, authority, and giftedness from Jesus before we can give it away to anyone else. The New Testament is filled with phrases that echo this dependency: “…so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord,” (Acts 20:24); “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul was living a life of passing on the things that he had received from God.
Friends, the Lord has called us to access the resources of Heaven for others. So by writing this, I’m not telling us never to step out into new things. I’m simply saying we have to operate in a radical dependence on Jesus and be constantly receiving from Him. It’s out of this overflow that the ministry of Jesus happens. Jesus is generous and wants to give us so much more than we have if we but ask. So receive and out of this receiving, pass onto others that which Jesus has given you!
“Jesus lives on in an apostolic mission that advances by church multiplication.” – Wolfgang Simson
If you’re familiar with the New Testament, you know Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke as a historical account of Jesus before, during, and immediately after the cross. What some don’t realize is the book of Acts is Luke’s historical account of the resurrected Jesus’ activity as He leads and guides the church into the very activities that characterized His ministry on Earth (cf. John 14:12-14, Acts 1:1-3). The heart of the matter is this: Jesus’ post resurrection ministry was lived out through the church in the book of Acts in the form of a multiplying church movement.
Let’s look at some quick facts. The Church Jesus left was insubstantial compared to the crowds who had followed Him before His death. Paul speaks of Christ appearing to 500 people after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Since this is the highest number of post-resurrection numbers spoken of and Paul refers to these men as brothers, my assumption is they were the lump some of Jesus’ followers. Yet, by the early third century, this relatively obscure band of five hundred had become somewhere between 5 and 10% of the Roman Empire and up to 30% of some major cities.
The book of Acts records the harvest in language that should both stun us and move us to action. When Peter preaches at Pentecost in Acts Chapter 2, a massive harvest of 3,000 new believers come to the Lord. Luke describes it this way: and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41). This continued on for a season in the life of the early church (Acts 2:47, 5:14) and the results were significant growth that all of us would love to have.
However, eventually the church began to feel the burden of it’s growth. The result was a decision to multiply leadership beyond the apostles to the men we refer to as deacons in Acts 6. When this multiplication of ministry happened, a small but significant shift occurs in Luke’s story. Instead of the church having new members added to them, the church begins to multiply (Acts 6:7). The church didn’t just multiply one time. It multiplied several times (Acts 9:31, 12:24)
This is more than just semantics. The shift in language represents the fact that instead of just a few people doing much of the work, many people were embracing the mission of God. See, addition works like this: 2+2+2+2+2+2=12. Multiplication works like this: 2x2x2x2x2x2=64. The more multiplication you have happening the bigger the results. This is why Paul would tell Timothy to take what he had taught him and teach it to faithful men who would teach it to other faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2). It was a God-sized idea to expand the Kingdom.
And you couldn’t stop this multiplying church. Its multiplication made it hard to know where it started or ended. Before you knew it, this little group of Jesus followers became a multitude that had no visible leader. You could kill one of the leaders, but another would rise in its place. It’s why human’s hate viruses: they multiply out of control. This is what allowed the first century church to reach an unprecedented amount of people in such a short period of time.
Beloved we find ourselves in a season of history where we must recapture the spirit of evangelism and multiplication that gripped the early church. This isn’t a call to return to only first century practices, but to capture those elements that made them vital and caused the Gospel to spread like a virus throughout earth. Jesus is worthy of His name going forth and redeeming many in this hour. May we, like them, be consumed for His name’s sake and see the church multiply in the Earth.