Can Christianity be as powerful as it was when it first began almost 2,000 years ago?
During the first centuries of the Church, people were being baptized by the thousands every day. The followers of Jesus were healing hearts and bodies. Miracles were happening all over the place. The church stood strong in the face of persecution and only preached more boldly under threats from authorities. Can we see that again?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
The foundation to this answer lies in a key passage in the Book of Acts.
In Acts Chapter 4, we are presented with the story of Peter and John being arrested by the religious leaders for healing a lame man in the name of Jesus. After spending the night in prison, the apostles are taken before the Sanhedrin- the same Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to death. When questioned, Peter boldly proclaimed that the power of the risen Jesus had healed the man and called out the leaders for their rejection of their true Messiah. Though furious, but unable to the miracle performed, the Sanhedrin had no choice but to release the apostles. However, they threatened them with severe punishment if they did not stop their preaching. Peter and John fearlessly replied that they must obey God not man. After being released, Peter and John returned to their fellow apostles and told them what had happened.
The key to this story is in what happened next. After hearing of the threats, the apostles began to pray. Their prayer was not like one we would expect today.
“Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that will all boldness they may speak Your word” (Acts 4:29, NKJV).
Did you catch that? The apostles did not pray for an easier time, nor for the persecution to go away. They prayed for boldness- that they might preach the Word of God even more! This is key to being an effective Christian. Persecution is inevitable for someone who choses to follow Jesus. That is why He cautioned His followers to count the cost. However, Jesus also promised that His Spirit would give His followers the words to speak and promised to never leave them. As a Christian in the United States, the worst persecution I have ever faced is being cursed out for holding a sign declaring that Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The same could not be said for the early church. They faced imprisonment, torture, and death. Yet they stood strong because they knew their hearts were in the right place.
Just one chapter later, we see that the apostles are arrested again. This time, they are beaten severely and threatened again. However,
“they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5: 41, NKJV).
Once again, the actions of the apostles defy all expectations. They were not mad because Jesus had let them suffer physical pain. Rather, they saw their punishment as an honor. Later, the Apostle Peter addresses this when he writes:
“If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4: 14,16; NKJV).
The early church saw persecution as a testament to one’s faith in Christ. It was proof that they were truly living for Jesus and had the Holy Spirit living in them. What a different approach than that of today!
It is necessary for every follower of Jesus to realize that this is a war we are in. We are not here to live a life of self-satisfaction where we do all the right things and say what we are supposed to. Rather, we are called to live lives of self-denial, to take up our crosses, and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
The early followers of Jesus knew what this meant. They were with Him as He walked, ate, and slept. They saw the love and compassion as He healed the sick and raised the dead. They saw His power as He calmed the seas and raised the dead. They saw His selflessness as He gave Himself over to be tortured and killed. And they saw His victory as He rose from the dead and changed the world forever.
The church understood that in order to walk like Jesus, they would have to make the hard choices and face the consequences. But they knew that every insult, every stone, every blow was worth it. They kept their minds and hearts focused on Jesus, knowing He would never leave or forsake them. They chose to live for Jesus, knowing He had secured them a place in Heaven with Him forever.
May we have the courage to do the same.