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The Growth of the Church in Acts: Descriptive and Eschatological

Stephen D. Doe

It is not possible to assess realistically the extent to which the evangelism conducted by the early Church was successful. For one thing, we have no means of comparing their “successes” with their “failures.” For another, God’s assessment of success may differ greatly from our own: and . . . evangelism is supremely God’s work in the lives of men, in which he enlists human co-operation. Nor is it possible to read off from a study of evangelism in antiquity the answers to our contemporary problems in communicating the gospel. (Michael Green)[1]

The book of Acts is replete with references to the growth of the early church, as we’ll see, but are there things that confessionally Reformed churches can learn in facing “our contemporary problems,” in faithfully addressing our times and our culture? In his seminal book on evangelism in the early church, Michael Green is too modest about the guidance he and others draw from study of the early church. I want us to see how the early church in the book of Acts instructs us in eschatological hope of growth, and by eschatological I mean thinking about the end to which God is bringing the church and all of creation.

It is common, when interpreting the Bible, to distinguish between passages in the Bible being descriptive and those that are prescriptive, that is, between passages that tell us things (albeit with God-inspired purpose) and passages that tell us what to do. Believing that all Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17), we have to say that all of Acts, including the descriptions of the growth of the church, are profitable to us. When we read about the growth of the church in Acts, it seems far removed from the experience many in the church today can even imagine. When was the last time that we thought of the Lord adding to our church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47)? Conversions may be happening on a larger scale in the Global South, but surely not here, not in our day, we think. If a study of the growth of the church in Acts seems to be slightly discouraging, we need to think differently. A better way to think about the emphasis on the growth of the church in Acts is to use the biblical theological category of eschatology. That is to say, Luke’s descriptions of the growth of the early church are basically eschatological in their descriptive purpose, but also prescriptively encouraging as we see how God is fulfilling his covenant promises to enlarge the number of people he is saving.

The Language of Acts

Luke emphasizes the growth of the apostolic church in a number of ways.

One way is giving actual numbers:

  • 1:15 – 120 names (ὀνομάτων, onomaton)
  • 2:41 – 3,000 souls (ψυχαὶ, psuchai)
  • 4:4 – 5,000 men (ἀνδρῶν, andron)[2]

A second way is Luke’s so-called “summary” statements:[3]

  • 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
  • 2:47b, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
  • 5:14, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”
  • 6:7, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
  • 9:31, “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.”
  • 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.”
  • 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
  • 19:20, “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

Yet a third way to see Luke’s emphasis is to note the words he uses. Many studies have noted that Luke has a varied, vivid, and evocative vocabulary in describing God’s work in the apostolic church.[4] There are two words in particular worth considering:[5]

1. Multitude, to multiply (πλῆθος, plēthos; πληθύνω, plēthýnō):

  • 4:32, “Now the full number of those who believed . . .”
  • 5:14, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women . . .”
  • 6:1, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number . . .”
  • 6:7, “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem . . .”
  • 9:31, “And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it [the church] multiplied.”
  • 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.”
  • 14:1, Paul and Barnabas “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.”
  • 17:4, “And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”

2. To increase (αὐξάνω, auxánō):[6]

  • 6:7, “And the word of God continued to increase . . .”
  • 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.”
  • 19:20, “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

There are several points to draw from these and other passages in Acts in understanding the focus Luke gives to the growth of the early church.

First, Luke uses covenantal language, particularly from the book of Genesis.[7] Both “increase” and “multiply” were familiar to readers of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint.[8] The LXX, as it is known, pairs these two words (αὐξάνω, auxánō and πληθύνω, plēthýnō) in many passages in Genesis 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4. God commands the birds of the heavens and the sea creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22), and God repeats that command following the flood in 8:17. God creates man and woman and commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28); he repeats the command to Noah and his sons in 9:1, 7. Abraham receives the promise that Ishmael will be blessed, and God will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly (Gen. 17:20). Isaac blesses his departing son, Jacob, with these promissory words in Genesis 28:3;  God reinforces that blessing in Genesis 35:11, saying, “A nation and a company of nations shall come from your own body”; and Jacob himself repeats this to Joseph’s sons in Genesis 48:4. Finally, God begins the fulfillment of his covenant promise in Egypt (Gen. 47:27), something which Moses carefully notes in Exodus 1:7, “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” to the dread of the Egyptians (Exod. 1:12).[9] When Luke wants to describe what God was doing in the early church he draws on Old Testament language of covenant promise and command, “increase and multiply.” The growth of the apostolic church was a continuation and partial fulfillment of God’s pattern of blessing his people, a foretaste of the coming great day of the Lord (Rev. 7:9).

Second, growth is associated with the Word of God. Particularly striking is the language that the Word of God grew (6:7; 12:24; 19:20). As Dennis Johnson puts it, “Luke uses the metaphor of organic growth to express both the expansion of the Word’s sphere of influence and the vitality of the message itself.”[10] The Word of God was not some mysterious, disembodied divine manifestation but rather the ongoing, embodied announcement of the gospel of Jesus Christ by believers, which God used in the conversion and maturing of others. In other words, the church grows as God’s people faithfully declared the Word of God. Peter preached the crucified and resurrected Christ, and the church grows (2:40–41, see 4:4). In Acts 6:7 the appointment of the seven meant that the apostles devoted themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (6:4), which led to growth (6:7).[11] In 12:24 the increasing power of the verbal witness of the church followed upon the demonstration of the deliverance of Peter from prison and the judgment of God on Herod. In a similar way the word of the Lord continued to increase in Ephesus after God brought conviction of idolatry (19:19–20). Paul and Barnabas preached the Word of God in Iconium and Derby, and the church grew (14:1, 21). Many of the Corinthians listened to Paul and became believers (18:8).[12] The Word of God was central to the growth of the church from the beginning as believers were devoted to it (2:42). A fledging church, without worldly power, had the greatest possible power, the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:16–17). The Word of the kingdom, to put it another way, has enormous growth potential (see, e.g., Matt. 13:23, 31–33).

Third, the growth of the church cut across all boundaries in fulfillment of Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20), beginning with Jerusalem (Acts 1:8, see Luke 24:47). The church grew in Jerusalem (4:32; 5:14; 6:1, 7); in all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (8:5; 9:31, 35, 42); in Antioch (11:19–26); in Iconium (14:1); and in Thessalonica (17:4); even to the future church in Ethiopia (8:26–39), as Christ’s promise began to be seen in fulfillment. And in light of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ Jesus there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” Luke notes that women as well as men believed (4:32; 8:12; 17:4, 12), and that Romans like Cornelius (10–11), and Greeks as well as Jews (14:1), believed. The church began to represent all the nations as a new, redeemed humanity was being brought together by the power of God. The eschatological character of this is clear when we think of it as prefiguring the eschatological glory of Revelation 7:9.[13] That great day of glory is the culmination of God’s promise to Abraham that he would bless the nations through Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ, the true heir of God’s promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:16; see Gen. 12:2; 17:4–6; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).

Fourth, it is the church that grows. In the gospels Christ often spoke about the kingdom of God or of heaven. He came preaching the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15), and in his parables Jesus spoke of the growth of the kingdom (e.g. Matt. 13:19, 23, 31–33, etc.). In the book of Acts the kingdom (βασιλεία, basileia) is mentioned eight times. Before his ascension Christ spoke of the kingdom (1:3). Then Philip preached the good news of the kingdom and of Jesus to the Samaritans (8:12), and Paul and Barnabas warned that it is through many tribulations we entered the kingdom of God (14:22). In the synagogue in Ephesus Paul reasoned about the kingdom of God (19:8; see 20:25). And the book of Acts closes with Paul, in Rome, proclaiming the kingdom of God and Jesus from the Old Testament (28:23, 31). But proclamation of the kingdom of God was to the end that people might be added to the church as the most visible manifestation of the rule of God in the world. When people were added, they were added to the Lord (5:1; 11:24) but that meant they were added to the church (2:41, 47) where the Lord reigns over his people.[14] As Tim Keller writes, “The church is an agent of the kingdom because it spreads the word of the kingdom. . . . The church is spreading the kingdom, but it is not the kingdom.”[15]

How Does Luke’s “Theology of Growth” Help Us Today?

It is enough to read of God’s work in growing the church in the book of Acts and be filled with praise for his sovereign display of power. And Luke does put God’s sovereign, electing work before us repeatedly.

  • 2:47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
  • 11:18, “And they glorified God, saying ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’”
  • 14:27, “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
  • 13:48, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
  • 16:14, “The Lord opened her [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
  • 18:9–10, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ ”

The Apostle Paul testified to the sovereign hand of God in his own labors to grow the church when he says in 1 Corinthians 3:5–7 that “only God  . . . gives the growth.”[16] The opponents of the gospel in Thessalonica said that Paul and Silas were men “who have turned the world upside down” (17:6), but in reality it was the word of the sovereign God who did it all, to echo Martin Luther.[17] God’s Word cannot be ineffective but must accomplish that for which he gave it (Isa. 55:10–11[18]). The early church had utter confidence in the power of the gospel it proclaimed (Rom. 1:16-17; e.g. Eph. 1:13; 1 Thess. 1:4-10). Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17), so the apostolic church was constantly testifying to the mighty deeds of God (Acts 2:11). The growth of the church in Acts, as the Word was declared, should strengthen our resolve to faithfully and without fear, be churches where the Word of God is boldly announced in the pulpits and in the course of our individual lives and witness. Surely in a time like our own, where to be boldly biblical is to invite criticism and even attack, the apostolic church reminds us that true growth cannot take place apart from a firm confidence in God’s sovereign grace working through his Word and Spirit.

There is a second thing we can draw from a study of Acts. The modern church growth movement has pointed out the importance of prayer in the early church.[19] To this we should agree. Reading through Acts, we find some twenty-five times when prayer or praying are noted by Luke.[20] The church prays (1:14, 24; 2:42; 12:5, 12; 13:3), the apostles pray (6:4, 6), Peter and John pray (8:15), Saul/Paul prays (9:11; 20:3; 22:17; 28:8), Cornelius prays (10:4, 30–31), Paul and Barnabas pray (14:23), Paul and Silas pray (16:13, 25). Perhaps the most vital description of prayer and, humanly speaking, its consequences, is found in 4:31,

And when they had prayed [δεηθέντων, deēthentōv], the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

Believers prayed for courage and boldness and the Lord answered their prayers. Luke immediately tells us about the fruitful life of the church (4:32–37). Today many people lament the so-called “death of the prayer meeting.” It seems increasingly difficult to get people to come to anything beyond a service (or services) on Sunday. Yet if we connect the growth of the apostolic church with the focused prayer of God’s people, we should be earnest in not only teaching the importance of prayer, but creatively seeking ways to get people to pray, and to pray with others if all possible. The lack of prayer for God to work as only he can is a danger sign that we should heed.[21]

These two emphases, on the Word of God and prayer with dependence on a God who is sovereign, come together in passages like:

  • 2 Thessalonians 3:1, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed (τρέχῃ, trechē – to run or progress freely or advance rapidly) ahead and be honored.”
  • 2 Timothy 2:8–9, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound (δέδεται, dedetai)!”

This confidence of the apostle Paul came because of his awareness of God’s power and purposes. He had seen it in his own life and ministry. We remember, however, that the Scriptures certainly make clear that because God sovereignly works, the application of principles, even sound biblical principles, will not necessarily give us the outcome we desire. This has been one of the weaknesses of the church growth movement. God is not captive to our desires, even when they are good desires. Since God is sovereign, he had his own purposes in Noah’s faithful preaching which yielded a harvest of only his own family (2 Peter 2:5), or in God’s telling Ezekiel to preach though he would not be listened to (Ezek. 3:7–9; 33:32; see Isa. 6:9–10; Mark 4:11–12, etc.). Though it was faithful, the church in Philadelphia had but little power, yet Christ had set before it an open door (Rev. 3:8) with the promise to keep it in the hour of trial (Rev. 3:10). This is an important lesson from the study of the growth of the church in the book of Acts: trust in God to work as he pleases. The disciples testified to the gospel of God’s saving grace with joyful and expectant hope because Jesus Christ had come, died for sinners, and been raised. They understood that the “last days” had come (Acts 2:17). The ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit gave them confidence and boldness that sometimes we seem to lack. This eschatological hope filled their writing:[22]

  • 1 Corinthians 15:45, “the last (ἔσχατος, eschatos) Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit.”
  • Hebrews 1:1–2, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last (ἔσχατος, eschatos) days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
  • 1 Peter 1:3–8, “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last (ἔσχατος, eschatos) time.”
  • 1 Peter 1:20, “He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last (ἔσχατος, eschatos) times for your sake.”

This is a great encouragement we can draw from looking at Acts: Christ has come, he has redeemed a people for God and is building his church (Matt. 16:18; see Eph. 2:21), and we are part of this great work. Christ’s kingdom will fill the earth (Dan. 2:44–45), and the church, as the visible manifestation of the rule of God, also is growing because of what Christ by his Word and Spirit is doing. While we may not see the numbers of conversions we desire in our particular part of God’s vineyard, still we can and must rejoice that the eschatological picture of growth which Luke sets before us is happening. We can preach and pray faithfully with expectation that the day of complete fulfillment is coming. The book of Acts is full of the promise that this is happening. As God says:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord shall arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isa. 60:1–3)

Endnotes

[1] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 274.

[2] Is there an echo here of Luke’s language in his gospel in describing the feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:14, andres pentakischilioi versus andron chiliades pente)?

[3] See Dennis E. Johnson’s helpful and concise summary in The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 9–10.

[4] Some of the works which gather the lexical data are Harvie M. Conn, ed., Theological Perspectives on Church Growth (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1976); Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981); Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970); John Mark Hicks, “Numerical Growth in the Theology of Acts” Journal of the American Society for Church Growth 8 (Spring 1997), 17–34. A different version was given as a lecture before The Evangelical Theological Society 47th Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, November 1995 entitled “Numerical Growth in the Theology of Acts: The Role of Pragmatism, Reason and Rhetoric” (available online at http://johnmarkhicks.com/70-2/); Craig S. Keener, “The Plausibility of Luke’s Growth Figures in Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 7 (2010): 140–63; Timothy Keller, “Reformed Church Growth. Part One: The Principles of Church Growth” Presbyterian Network, Vol. 1, No. 4 (December 1988): 3–14; Thom Rainer, “Church Growth and Evangelism in the Book of Acts.” Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990): 57–68; Allison A. Trites, “Church Growth in the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca Sacra 145:578 (April 88): 162–174.

[5] Others include “many” (ἱκανός, hikanos), Acts 11:24, 14:21; “increase” (περισσεύω, peisseuō), 16:5; “many” (πολύς, polus), 4:4, 6:7, 9:42, 11:21, 14:1, 17:4, 12, 18:8, 10; “added” (προστίθημι, prostithēmi), 2:41, 47, 5:14, 11:24; “number” (ἀριθμός, arithmos), 4:4, 6:7, 11:21, 16:5; “received” (δέχομαι, dechomai), 8:14; “turned” (ἐπιστρέφω, epistrephō), 9:35, 11:21; “followed” (ἀκολουθέω, akoloutheō), 13:43; “were made disciples (μαθητεύω, matheteuō), 14:21; “joined” (προσκληρόω, prosklēroō), 17:4.

[6] See Acts 13:49 “And the word of the Lord was spreading (διεφέρετο diaphereto) throughout the whole region.”

[7] See especially Harvie Conn, “God’s Plan for Church Growth: An Overview,” in Theological Perspectives on Church Growth (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976), 1–20; and John Mark Hicks’s “Numerical Growth in the Theology of Acts,” Journal of the American Society for Church Growth 8 (Spring 1997): 17–34.

[8] “Increase” or “be fruitful” is the translation of the Hebrew פָּרָה parah. “Multiply” is the translation of the Hebrew רָבָה rabah.

[9] See Leviticus 26:9 for God’s promise repeated during the wilderness wanderings. In Jeremiah 3:16 and 23:3 the two words appear together in a Messianic context.

[10] Johnson, Message of Acts, 15n16. See Calvin on Acts 6:7 and 19:20, John Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Henry Beveridge, ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), vol. 1, 239; vol. 2, 221–22.

[11] We should not think that only the apostles spoke the Word, as Acts 8:4 reminds us.

[12] See also 8:14; 13:16–44; 19:10; 28:31a.

[13] “After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes.”

[14] This is very directly seen in the work of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent to rule by filling believers (2:4; 4:8; 6:5; 7:55; 10:44; 11:15, 24; 13:9, 52; 19:6), and guiding in everything from discipline (5:1–9), to sending out Paul and Barnabas (13:2–4), to dealing with crisis (15:28), to missionary strategy (8:29, 39; 16:6-7), to choosing leaders (20:28).

[15] Timothy Keller, “Reformed Church Growth. Part One: The Principles of Church Growth,” Presbyterian Network 1, no. 4 (December 1988): 4.

[16] The verb he uses in vv.6 & 7 is αὐξάνω, auxánō.

[17] “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Sermon preached in Wittenberg, March 10, 1522, Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 292–94.

[18] Note God’s use of growth imagery here.

[19] Notably Gary L. McIntosh, Biblical Church Growth: How You Can Work with God to Build a Faithful Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003); and Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993).

[20] The verb προσεύχομαι proseúchomai occurs sixteen times and the noun προσευχῇ proseuchē occurs nine times. The verb δέομαι deomai is sometimes translated “pray” and sometimes “beseech” and occurs seven times but only twice in reference to praying to God (4:31, 10:2).

[21] The Westminster Standards give us much help in framing our prayers (WCF 21.4, WLC 178–196), see especially Q. 191 on the petition “Thy kingdom come.”

[22] The last days also brought warning, see 2 Timothy 3:1; James 5:3; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18.

Stephen Doe is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic. Ordained Servant Online, May 2018.

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