For action-packed drama, read Acts. The early church titled this New Testament book Acts of the Apostles because Luke highlights the ministries of Peter and Paul. But a great many believers other than apostles populate this history of the early church. Their experiences and actions demonstrate the exciting action and experiences God might have in mind for us “regular” Christians, too.
As we grow in reliance on the Spirit, we’ll experience the prayer, joy and boldness described in Acts.
Non-apostolic believers in Acts include a variety of people. The church as a whole is frequently mentioned (as in 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common” and 12:5, “the church was earnestly praying”). Many non-apostolic believers are named, including women and people of low social standing, such as Jesus’ mother Mary (1:14), the paralytic Aeneas (9:33-35), and the servant Rhoda (12:13-15). Others are key figures, such as James, leader of the Jerusalem church; Ananias, who was used to give Paul his sight and his commission; Stephen, the first martyr; Barnabas, partner in Paul’s first missionary journey; and Mark, the Gospel writer. Groups of believers played important roles: six men from Joppa who accompanied Peter to Cornelius’s home (10:23b) and later supported Peter at a crucial council in Jerusalem (11:12); and Saul’s early followers who helped him escape death in Damascus (9:25).
What can this disparate group of characters teach us?
1. The Holy Spirit creates and leads the church–God’s people.
In his first sentence, Luke ties this book to his Gospel: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began [emphasis added] to do and to teach . . .” Acts therefore shows what Jesus continued to do and to teach, after his ascension, through the Holy Spirit. Many people carry the word, but Luke is clear it is all done by the Spirit. Again and again, people are “filled with the Spirit” and “led by the Spirit,” including such non-apostles as Stephen (6:5, 10; 7:55), Philip (8:29), Barnabas (11:24), Agabus (11:28), and the Psidian Antioch disciples (13:52). The Spirit’s role is emphasized in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, including Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:28-32. The passage emphasizes that the Spirit comes to “all people . . . sons and daughters . . . young men . . . old men . . . my servants, both men and women” (v. 17-18). The result of receiving the Spirit is that God’s people will “prophesy,” a result emphasized by its repetition in verse 17 and 18
We’re part of the exciting action of the Spirit continuing to do his work in people.
Today, we do understand the importance of the Holy Spirit. But as we grow in reliance on the Spirit, the more we will experience the prayer, joy and boldness described in Acts. Believers in Acts “all joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14), “devoted themselves . . . to prayer” (2:42), and, when Peter was imprisoned, were “earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5). The disciples in Psidian Antioch were “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (13:52) and the believers in 4:31 “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
2. God wants all people to be saved.
Non-apostles were an integral part of the Spirit’s work in carrying Jesus and his teaching to the known world. They were also involved in the challenge of the inclusion of the Gentiles. The story of Cornelius, a key non-apostle, is given in detail with much repetition in chapters 10 and 11. Unnamed men from Cyprus and Cyrene “went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks [Gentiles] also, telling then the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11:20-21). Barnabas was a key to Paul’s extensive ministry because he “brought [Paul] to the apostles” (9:27) and spoke for his authenticity. Later, Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch (11:25-26), to the church from which his missionary travels originated. Barnabas partnered Paul on the first journey, sharing in the proclamations (13:5; 14:1, 21, 25), miracles (14:3), and persecution (13:50).
The church in Acts is highly corporate.
Luke doesn’t hide the fact that God’s desire for all to be saved caused controversy and made many uncomfortable in the early church. Although Gentile inclusion is no longer an issue, we too need reminders that God desires all to be saved. We don’t need to travel across the world to meet people of different cultures; they are in our own communities. We may be uncomfortable and conflicted about how to respond. We often must step outside our comfort zones, as did the believers in Acts, to reach the people around us. When we do, we’re part of the exciting action and drama of the Holy Spirit continuing to do his work in people.
3. Non-apostles played both key roles and support roles.
The primary task of the apostles was to proclaim and to teach Jesus Christ. Non-apostles also proclaimed the word and did other things in Acts usually identified with the apostles. Philip did “miraculous signs,” casting out evil spirits and healing many paralytics and cripples (8:7). Barnabas also did “miraculous signs and wonders” (14:3). Philip baptized (8:12, 38). With Paul, Barnabas appointed elders (14:23) and reported back to the Antioch church “all that God had done through them” (14:27). Ananias of Damascus was given a major role in the conversion of Saul.
Believers accompanied the apostles in their travels. Six “brothers from Joppa” accompanied Peter to Cornelius’ home (10:23,45) and later to Jerusalem (11:12). “Some other believers” from Antioch were “appointed” (15:2), with Paul and Barnabas, to attend the Jerusalem Council. John Mark was a helper on the first part of Barnabas and Saul’s missionary journey (13:5). Paul’s letters show that the pattern of having helpers and companions on the journey continued.
May the Holy Spirit give our churches the grace to discern, support and affirm all the people he calls.
Believers provided hospitality and assistance. Peter stayed with Simon the Tanner in Joppa (9:43). Immediately after his conversion, Saul “spent several days with the disciples in Damascus” (9:19) who, when Jews in Damascus conspired to kill him, took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall” (9:25).
Many if not most church members today see their role as providers of prayer and money for the highly gifted individuals who do the public ministry. The believers in Acts certainly did provide prayers and financial resources, but supported by personal involvement. Peter and Paul welcomed such involvement. There are no Lone Rangers in Acts.
4. Apostles and non-apostles were together.
The church in Acts is highly corporate. From the initial 120, who “all joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14), and the group immediately after Pentecost who “were together and had everything in common” (2:44), Luke goes on to describe believers as people who met together (5:12) and prayed together (12:5, 12). They were generous, sharing with each other locally (2:44-45; 4:32-36) and with believers in other areas (11:27-30). In all, they “were one in heart and mind” (4:32).
The apostles seem to have deliberately included large groups of believers in decision-making. It was such a group who nominated two men to take Judas’s place among the apostles (1:23), and another such a group who selected seven men to solve the food distribution problem (6:3-5).
This unity of the body in the Holy Spirit reinforces the main thrust of Acts. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, who unites all God’s people, involving them in his purpose, the rescue of all people from the bondage of sin through faith in Jesus Christ. As we grow in our understanding of, reliance upon and discernment of the Holy Spirit, the church grows in its ability to be used by the Spirit towards its goal.
This goal is carried out not only by gifted pastors and overseas missionaries, but by all believers in all aspects of local congregational ministry and daily life. May the Spirit grant each of us the grace to hear and follow his guiding. May he give our churches the grace to discern, support and affirm all the people he calls.
A six-session Bible study by Nancy Kuhlman, “The Acts of the Non-Apostles,” is available for free download.
The above article is a condensation of a paper, “The Acts of the Non-Apostles,” written for a class in Biblical theology at Concordia University, Irvine, California, in 2006.