Frequently, part of the difficulty we have in understanding and applying the Bible to our lives is that we do not understand the characters involved. One such character is the Church. The word for “church” can simply refer to a generic human assembly, like the Elks Club or a political party’s convention. But part of the message of the Bible is that God has established an entirely different kind of assembly in this world called the Church, unlike any other human institution.
The Text: “And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him…” (Acts 9:23-43).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
After his dramatic conversion, Luke says that Saul was in Damascus for many days preaching Christ as the Son of God and confounding the Jews before escaping out a city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25, cf. 2 Cor. 11:32-33). Notice the juxtaposition: radical conversion and confounding the Jews (sounds powerful) versus a narrow escape in a basket (sounds weak). In Galatians 1:18, Paul says that it was three years before he went down to Jerusalem, where they were still afraid of him for his former persecutions, but Barnabas brought him to the apostles and vouched for his conversion (Acts 9:26-27). Saul began preaching with the other apostles boldly before another plot arose, causing the brothers to exit Saul stage left back to his home town of Tarsus (Acts 9:28-30). And despite what might look like another setback, Luke insists that this controversy and movement produced peace in the whole church, being built up, walking in the fear of the Lord, being comforted by the Holy Spirit, and it multiplied (Acts 9:29-31).
Meanwhile, Peter was travelling in some kind of circuit and came through Lydda where he healed a man named Aeneas from an eight year sickness that had kept him bedridden, causing many to turn to the Lord (Acts 9:32-35). While we are tempted to think this was a great power in Peter, he says, “Jesus Christ is healing you” (Acts 9:34). Then in Joppa, a prominent woman named Tabitha/Dorcas was raised from the dead when Peter knelt down and prayed (Acts 9:36-41). And many believed in the Lord and Peter ministered there for many days (Acts 9:42-43).
ORDINARY LIFE & EXTRAORDINARY POWER
Luke is a careful historian, but he is also summarizing and highlighting key events in order to make particular points. On the one hand, God really did work extraordinary miracles through the Apostles (1 Cor. 12:12). The Bible never assumes that just anyone can speak for God; in fact, anyone who claimed to but was lying was liable to a death penalty in the Old Testament (Dt. 18:20). So the Apostles were given unique authority to prove that they had the right to speak for God and write the New Testament – the signs confirm the Word (Mk. 16:20). At the same time, there was a lot of ordinary life most of the time, including somewhat humbling things like Saul being let down in a basket and fleeing various plots (Acts 9:25, 30). The apostles were not constantly working miracles, otherwise, why didn’t the apostles just call down fire or blindness on the enemies plotting against Saul? The reason is because humans are always tempted to focus on the wrong thing: miracles, signs, wonders, human brilliance. But the central glory, the central miracle is the transformation of ordinary human lives by the gospel. How was the whole church given peace when the same party that put Stephen to death was now plotting against Saul (Acts 9:29)? One big reason was that the one who had overseen that murder was now speaking boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 9:29). The goal is to point to Christ.
SIGNS OR PHILOSOPHY OR THE CROSS?
Elsewhere Paul says that the preaching of the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). He says that everywhere he went the Jews demanded signs, and the Greeks demanded philosophy, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The problem was not with signs and philosophy per se, the problem was with a resolute refusal to believe combined with those demands. Many who say that they will not believe unless they see a miracle or hear a convincing argument will still not believe even then. Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God. He taught the truth, and He died and rose from the dead. The apostles reasoned from evidence, and on occasion healed the sick and even sometimes raised the dead (Acts 9:22, 40). But the fundamental question is willingness to submit, willingness to believe. If you are not willing, no amount of signs or arguments will convince you. But the Christian Church is the gathering together of those who believe in Christ, who fear the Lord, and have the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
THE CHURCH LIKE NO OTHER
This is why the Church is no ordinary human institution. It is not based on human action or human wisdom. Christ said that He was establishing His Church on the Rock of Peter’s confession of faith, such that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it, giving keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, to bind and loose on earth as it is in Heaven (Mt. 16:18-19). This is not the Lions Club or a golf club. The Church is called the “Body of Christ,” such that what is done to Christ’s people is reckoned to Christ Himself (1 Cor. 12:12-27, Acts 9:4). The Church is called the “Bride of Christ,” for whom Christ died, to sanctify and cleanse and make completely holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27). The Church is a “holy priesthood,” the temple of the Holy Spirit, elect and precious (1 Pet. 1:5, Eph. 2:20-22). While God has also established families and nations, and we may establish other human institutions, no other assembly has such promises.
The Church grows through the preaching of the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, crucified for sinners, raised from the dead, ascended to the Father, Lord of the Church, and Lord of the Nations. Or else if He isn’t, we really do have better things to do on Sunday mornings. But this is the message that has transformed the world: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for our sins, He was buried, and on the third day, He rose from the dead. This historical fact, this message of the Cross is the wisdom and power of God by which the Church grows and the world turns to the Lord. We are in fellowship, but our fellowship is with the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.