Unity - God's Aim from the Beginning
Acts 8 and 11
After the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, a great persecution arose in Jerusalem. With the exception of the apostles, believers were scattered, some to Judaea and Samaria, and others to Antioch which was situated in Syria several hundred miles north of Jerusalem. This is reported in Acts 8:1-25 and 11:19-26.
These believers, who probably had been able to take very little with them in their flight, did not lament their sad lot or try to acquire new property and belongings in their new places. They did something entirely different. Those who had been scattered "went every where preaching the word" (Acts 8:4) and those who travelled as far as Phenice, Cyprus and Antioch preached the word and announced "the glad tidings of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:19-20, J.N.D. Trans.), first to the Jews only but later to the Greeks as well. How much these displaced believers must have been filled with the joy of salvation and love to their Lord and to the lost ones, that their outward circumstances could not prevent them from passing on the glad tidings which had so radically transformed their own lives. The Lord appears to have used this very situation in order to have His command to the disciples put into practice: "ye shall be witnesses unto Me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
It is remarkable that the Lord did not use the apostles or other well-known brothers for this ministry in the first stage of the growth of the assembly beyond Jerusalem. He used completely unknown brothers (and sisters) whose names are not mentioned. The only exception is Philip, one of the seven men who had been chosen by the assembly in Jerusalem to "serve tables."
No special development
The apostles soon learned how great a work the Lord had done by using the believers who had fled from Jerusalem. But Samaria was an area that had always been despised by the Jews (cf. John 4:9), and Antioch was situated in heathen Syria. The Jews did not entertain any fellowship with the inhabitants of either area. What should happen now that men and women in those areas had received the Lord Jesus? If the "Jewish Christians" in Jerusalem continued to maintain the old separation from believers in Samaria, and refused to assume fellowship with the "heathen Christians" in Antioch, then the assembly of God would have been split almost from the outset of its history on earth. This would have been entirely opposed to God's intention and, in fact, such an outcome was avoided.
It is true that the doctrine of the unity of the Body of Christ, the assembly, was only announced decades later, namely by the apostle Paul. The first believers therefore did not know this great and important truth. But as they had continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42) they drew the right conclusion from the words of their Saviour. The Lord Jesus had told the disciples, "upon this rock I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18), thus making clear that all believers would compose, not many, but one church. He had intimated this fact even more distinctly when He told his Jewish disciples that besides them there would be "other sheep" which He would have to bring in order for there to be "one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16, J.N.D. Trans.).
As long as the church existed in Jerusalem only, it was not difficult to maintain the outward and inward unity of the flock. But now, as believers who lived far from each other began to be added to the assembly, a different situation had arisen. Although the assemblies in Samaria and Antioch had been brought into existence by believers who had originated from the assembly in Jerusalem, yet other brothers from Jerusalem were sent to both places (Acts 8:14; 11:22). The two apostles Peter and John were sent to Samaria and Barnabas was sent to Antioch.1
The Unity of the Spirit kept
The reasons for making these visits are not stated explicitly in the Holy Scriptures. But we can discern the following four reasons in Acts:
1. By means of these visits the believers in Jerusalem expressed their joy about the work of the Lord and their practical fellowship with these new meetings. Barnabas "rejoiced" (Acts 11:23, J.N.D. Trans.) when he saw the grace of God in Antioch.
2. The brethren in Jerusalem also realised the necessity for this work to be supported and continued by men who were willing to do so and who had been made fit for this service by the Lord. Peter and John are reported to have testified and preached the word of the Lord in Samaria, and in Antioch all believers were exhorted by Barnabas "that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord" (Acts 8:25 and 11:23). The ministry of planting was followed by the ministry of watering, just as practiced by Paul and Apollos later on in Corinth (l Cor. 3:6-9).
3. A further point was that there was a clear recognition of the recently formed meetings. The apostles' visit to Samaria bore a particular character: it made clear that it was not the Lord's intention that any meetings should be independent of Jerusalem and the apostles. The Lord had not yet given the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans but, exceptionally, withheld Him - in a similar way to the case of the Ephesians (Acts 19:1-6) - until the visit by the apostles Peter and John took place. The fact that the believers in Samaria did not receive the Holy Spirit independently from their brethren in Jerusalem, but received Him by the laying on of hands by the apostles, expressed the unity of the testimony of God from the outset.
4. The visit by Peter and John to Samaria also brought to light a negative issue. Among those who had reacted to Philip's preaching there was a sorcerer called Simon. Although he believed and was baptized he was not truly converted. This man who, by his sorcery had brought others under the spell of Satan, appears to have been impressed by the great wonders and miracles of God he had seen, but without a work by the Holy Spirit taking place in his heart. And Philip did not notice this! He possessed the gift of the evangelist, but obviously not the gift of discerning of spirits (Acts 21:8 and l Cor. 12:10). It was not until Peter came that it became manifest that Simon had "neither part nor lot in this matter" because his heart had not really been in the light of God.
Lessons for our Days
In our days when, in many places and in different countries, men and women are led to believe on the Lord Jesus by the grace of God, we can learn a lot from these details of the growth of the early church. It is true that we live under completely different circumstances. The wonderful picture of the outward unity of the assembly has disappeared once and for all so far as its time on earth is concerned. The members of the body of Christ are often divided and are found, sometimes mixed with unbelievers, in many churches, denominations, and groups. We must recognize with shame and sorrow that the cause of this fragmentation is to be found exclusively in human self-will. Disobedience to the Word of God and party spirit have brought about these circumstances.
But the Word of God remains true and its validity unaffected. We cannot reproduce the original conditions of Christianity. We can, in simplicity and without any human "ifs," stick to the example of the early Christians which we have just considered. This is the way that born-again Christians who have been baptized into one body by the Holy Spirit but are often separated from one another in practice, can realize biblical unity, even today, so shortly before the Lord's coming. Then we will not look up to leaders or gifts, but to the Lord Jesus, who is our Head.
- But are we, as the disciples who fled from Jerusalem once were, so filled with love to our Lord and to the lost ones that by our testimony we present the Saviour to our fellow-creatures?
- Are there brothers who are able and willing to go out, as the apostles did, to visit new circles of converts, to care for them and to lead them on in doctrine and practice?
- Will there also be the willingness, as there was in Samaria and in Antioch, to accept spiritual instruction from mature and instructed pastors and teachers? Does every child of God still know what it means to submit ourselves "to one another in the fear of Christ?" (Eph. 5:21, J.N.D. Trans.).
- Are we still willing and able - as the Christians of Jerusalem were at that time - to be glad (J.N.D. Trans. "to rejoice") about the grace of God when there are believers who want simply and solely to follow God's Word and to gather unto the Name of the Lord Jesus?
1We do not read about similar visits in relation to the journeys of the Apostle Paul for the following reason: as a teacher of the Gentiles and minister of the church (1 Tim. 2:7 and Col. 1:24-25) he was called as nobody else was to continue this ministry and, apart from that, he always travelled in the company of known and approved brothers.