Imagine what it must have been like when Jesus ascended into heaven two thousand years ago.
Just a few weeks earlier, the apostles, fearing for their lives, had scattered at Gethsemane. Peter denied that he even knew Jesus, and many who had hailed Jesus as the coming king were now crying out, “Crucify him!”
When Jesus rose, the apostles were overjoyed at seeing him again, but they were still ill prepared for the task of preaching the gospel and building the church. They didn’t have any catechism or papal encyclicals to guide them. They had no church buildings, no retreat centers, and no canon law. They were pioneers on a brand new venture. All they had to draw on were their memories of Jesus and the promise of something new happening around Pentecost. If they had the ability to make computerized projections for the survival of this fledgling church, they would probably have been too overwhelmed to have even tried.
Yet the apostles’ memories of Jesus, multiplied by the grace of Pentecost, dramatically turned things around. Never again did Peter turn away. Never again did Thomas doubt. There were no more questions about the way. They knew that Jesus was the way. They knew where he was going. And they knew what was being entrusted to them.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why the church flourished in those times despite all the seemingly insurmountable odds. Let’s see how we can apply what worked for them so that we might be the light in our day, despite the odds we face.
Insurmountable Odds. When the church was born, the Romans had little interest in this new brand of Judaism, especially if it was going to stir up discord in Jerusalem. And worse, many of the leaders of Judaism itself had hated Jesus. Their opinion of him ranged from divisive to downright blasphemous. Now that Jesus was gone, these Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to destroy his disciples as well—and that meant persecution.
Divided over how to handle the apostles, the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John not to “speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). When the apostles refused, many of the elders “became infuriated and wanted to put them to death” (Acts 5:33).
But the apostles kept on preaching, the church kept on growing, and the opposition mounted. Stephen was stoned to death. Saul began going from house to house arresting believers and issuing murderous threats. One particularly fierce outbreak of violence caused many in the Jerusalem church to scatter throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). As difficult as it must have been to flee the City of David, this scattering actually helped the church to spread out into new territories. Times were hard, but the brothers and sisters remained determined to stay faithful to the Lord and to each other. They even rejoiced when they were persecuted (Acts 5:41)!
How could this possibly be the case? Where did the first believers get such courage and such conviction?
How Can This Be? The short answer is the Holy Spirit. From the day of Pentecost, people were being filled, even intoxicated, by the Spirit of God. This dramatic outpouring changed their lives as they experienced God in a whole new way. Through the Spirit, Peter preached boldly about Jesus to all who would listen (Acts 2:22-38; 3:12-16). Through the same Holy Spirit, the apostles began to perform miracles of healing and deliverance—even from a distance (Acts 3:7; 5:12-16).
All this began to happen not long after Jesus had ascended into heaven. So the apostles’ memories of their time with the risen Lord, combined with the outpouring of Pentecost, combined with all the miracles that followed, made the first believers passionate about their calling. They wanted to give everything they had to proclaiming the gospel. What’s more, they wanted to dedicate themselves to becoming a people set apart for the Lord, a people he could call his own.
Perhaps this prayer depicted by Luke in the Book of Acts best sums up the disposition of the believers: “Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them, . . . enable your servants to speak your word with all boldness, as you stretch forth your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are done through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:24-30). Given their own expectation, along with God’s deep desire to build up his church, it’s no wonder that as they prayed this way, “the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31).
How Did They Evangelize? So how did the apostles and the first Christians go about fulfilling their call to preach the gospel and build the church? When it came to talking about Jesus, they certainly had their hands full. They knew Jesus personally. They saw his miracles. And the threats against them didn’t scare them off. But it was a different story for the people they were reaching. This next generation had never seen Jesus. They had never heard him preach or seen him perform any miracles. To a large degree, all they had to go on were the words of the apostles.
That meant that the apostles had to be as clear as possible when they proclaimed their message. They not only had to tell the story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection; they had to explain what it all meant for their listeners. In other words, they had to explain Jesus and explain their call to repentance and conversion!
While this may sound easy at first, a look at the apostles’ preaching in the Book of Acts shows how many hurdles they faced. Let’s take a look at some of the ways they presented their message and how their message was received.
Exalted from Death to Life. As we said above, the first thing the apostles focused on were the facts about Jesus, especially the amazing fact that Jesus died and rose from the dead. Acts gives us at least four times that Peter alone talks about the resurrection as the center of the gospel. If this is a key to the “major speeches” of Peter in Acts, you can just imagine how often he spoke about it in his everyday conversations with the new converts!
At Pentecost, Peter announced, “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death” (Acts 2:23-24). Later, Peter tells his listeners: “The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15; 5:30; 10:39-40).
But they didn’t stop at the resurrection. For the Jews, God resides in the heavens, “above” our earthly homes. This means that if God raised Jesus from the dead, he also exalted him to heaven, thus showing that Jesus was not just another man. He was the Son of God, sent from heaven to save us and raised to heaven again, now glorified and exalted above all else.
So just as God’s only Son came from heaven, he has returned to heaven. An early hymn celebrates Jesus being “greatly exalted” and receiving “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). And the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “it was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).
We Are Lifted Up with Jesus. As they preached in this way, the apostles were clear that Jesus’ exaltation was more than just a fact of history. Implicit in this historical fact is a spiritual promise for all who believe and are baptized into Jesus’ resurrection: We can be raised up as well! In fact, it was this promise that motivated the first disciples to follow Jesus so faithfully. The promise of complete forgiveness, the promise of a new life of intimate union with God, as well as the promise of eternal life in heaven, excited them and captured their hearts. They wanted nothing more than to tell everyone about the possibility of experiencing the power of Jesus in their lives both now and forever—the same power that they themselves had begun to experience.
St. Paul probably summed up these promises best of all in his letters. He wrote that those who are buried with Christ by baptism will be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5). He also spoke about the dead being raised imperishable and how we will all be changed, becoming incorruptible. He spoke about how the sting of death has been removed through the victory of Jesus over death itself (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). And what’s more, he spoke about how these promises begin now, even before death (Romans 8:11).
Everything Is Possible. In a situation that seemed so bleak, the church was born—and it thrived. This most unlikely of outcomes tells us that if we learn the words and works of Jesus, if we place our hope and trust in him, and if we ask the Holy Spirit for grace—grace to live in Christ, grace to evangelize, and grace to be instruments of healing—untold blessings will flow. Everything is possible for those who believe in Jesus!