The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.Acts 6:7(NASB)
Jesus instructed His disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, Jew and Gentile alike. He also informed them that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Once the Church was founded on the feast of Pentecost, their witness began in Jerusalem, but it did not expand beyond that region.
The early Church in Jerusalem was made up of two Jewish groups. There was the native 'Hebrew' Jews who had returned to Jerusalem during the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the language they spoke was Hebrew. There were also the 'Hellenistic' Jews, who had either remained in the land to which Israel had been exiled, or were Gentiles who had become Jewish proselytes, and the language they spoke was Greek. Both groups of Jews remained separate from one another before Christ's crucifixion, but having become believers, they united together as one Body, following His Resurrection.
Sadly, however, not only was there external opposition to the early Church from the religious leaders, but internal conflict also erupted between the two ethnic groups of Jews. The disagreement was in connection with the unfair distribution of food for the respective widows. The Hellenistic Jews thought that Hebrew widows were being more highly favoured, which caused ongoing bitterness and internal bickering.
The apostles quickly addressed this growing problem by appointing seven men of good reputation to oversee this issue. They were godly men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom, and they were put in charge of the fair distribution of food. One man they chose was Stephen, who was soon to became the first Christian martyr.
This problematic internal conflict between the Hebrew Jews and the Hellenistic Jews, was resolved by the wise and speedy intervention of the apostles. Once calm had been established, the apostles were enabled to devote themselves to prayer and ministering the Word, instead of being hindered by these unfortunate, internal squabbles.
As a result, we find: "The Word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests were also becoming obedient to the faith." An increasing number of Jews, including a large number of priests, were coming to faith through the power of the Spirit, as the truth of Scriptures was unfolded.
In many respects, the disciples were fulfilling Christ's command to preach the gospel and make disciples. They were imitating His practice of prayer, and dealt with internal conflict wisely, graciously, and speedily. This positive summary of the expansion of the early Church in Jerusalem appears to be exactly what God would have wanted. The gospel was spreading rapidly and the material needs of all converts, as well as their spiritual needs, were being furnished quickly and appropriately.
However, rather doing as Christ instructed by going into all the world and preaching the gospel to every creature, both Jew and Gentile alike, they remained in Jerusalem only preaching to Jews; Hebrew Jews, Hellenistic Jews, and Jewish proselytes.
Although God blessed their ministry abundantly, and even though many were being saved, there was much disobedience in those early days of the Church, for they did not follow Christ's clear instructions. Although the Word of God kept on spreading and their number greatly increased, we recognise that, at this point, God was starting to lay a foundation for the next phase of His mighty work through His servant, Stephen.
Stephen was a man full of grace and power, and he performed great wonders and signs among the people. But his successful ministry angered the Jewish leaders who arrested him and killed him for his faith in Christ. As stones were being hurled at him and smashing his body, we read that a young man called Saul was also being prepared by God to become Christ's chosen apostle to preach the good news of gospel to every creature, to Gentiles as well as to Jews.
While there are many lessons to learn from the gracious behaviour, wise decisions, and enormous evangelistic success of the early Church and Christ's chosen apostles, there are also many pitfalls to avoid. May we not only devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, but also to listening to God's instructions and obeying His Word.
Heavenly Father, how privileged I am to have the book of Acts which not only identifies many good practices to follow, but also many pitfalls to avoid. I pray that I may be prepared in season and out of season, make time to pray in accordance with Your will, and be careful to study the Word of God, so that I may mature in the faith and grow in the grace which You provide. But I also pray that I would be obedient to Your Word, listen to Your instruction, and obey Your commands, so that I may work the works of God and that You may be glorified in my life. This I ask in Jesus' name, AMEN.