In pursuit of a writing project I have recently started, the other day I decided to read the Book of Acts in one afternoon. And then, since I just happened to have it sitting around, the next day I read Marigold Hunt’s The First Christians: The Acts of the Apostles for Children, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything important while journeying within the pages of Scripture. I’d never read the whole Acts of the Apostles before, and am I ever glad that I have now!
Well, how ‘bout those early Christians? What an amazing group of people.
I was immediately impressed by how they were so well organized, and how the missionary activity of the early Church didn’t just spring up out of the ground in dozens of different places randomly—it seemed like the missionary activity radiated out from a central point. St. Peter was portrayed over and over again in the first half of the Book as constantly on the move, preaching and making decisions, visibly leading the group of Christ’s followers. He gave a lot of speeches that St. Luke recorded for us here in Acts. (With the overwhelming Protestant narrative/interpretation in American religious culture today, an interpretation that works the Scriptures out in a way portraying the early Church like a collection of affiliated but decentralized local churches, it is no wonder that even a cradle Catholic like myself would still have been surprised to sense a centrality of mission activity in the Book of Acts.) Fascinated by this dimension, I want to study more on the organization and chain of authority of the early Church now.
The Apostles and other missionaries continually emphasized Our Lord’s Kingship and glorification by God, with His Resurrection as proof of this. So little considered and preached on now, this topic was essential to the apostles and to the first missionaries in their quest to convince the Jews that Christ was the King of Israel, their promised Redeemer, the One Who had come just as God had said He would. Proving His Identity as the Messiah from Scripture absolutely consumed them. Ironically, Saul of Tarsus—a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees—whose entire life had been devoted to strict observance of the Jewish Law and really basing his identity on it, was the one chosen by Christ to take the news of the fulfillment of God’s Covenant out into the despised gentile nations of the Greco-Roman world. And all of that, after he had been extraordinarily active (even legendary, amongst both the Jews and the Christians) in tracking down Christians all over the place for prosecution, punishment, and execution.
Sadly, the Jewish communities in various places really had it in for the early Christians. Just as they had accused and reviled Our Lord, they reviled and accused the Christians of blaspheming against God and dishonoring Mosaic Law. The rioting and violence they frequently stirred up against the Christians led outsiders to wonder what was going on. Time after time the Apostles were hauled before Roman authorities, officials who were bemused by the hatred that they stirred up simply by speaking on seemingly sectarian religious topics. St. Paul was stoned and left for dead once while he was visiting and preaching in a city, although God preserved him from death and harm at this time, and he then continued on his missionary journeys. St. Paul suffered so much more than I ever guessed before reading Acts. Our Lord had told Ananias—the one who was about to cure St. Paul of his blindness—that at that time He had not yet revealed to St. Paul what he would have to suffer for His name’s sake. Looking back through history, we can see that it was incredible what Our Lord asked him to bear and to suffer, but St. Paul said “Yes” to Him, over and over and over again. What a great, great saint!
Definitely read the Acts of the Apostles yourself. It is very easy to follow and extremely interesting. If you have children, read them Marigold Hunt’s explanatory retelling, which provides helpful background information in her charming narrative style. We don’t really think a lot about what happened in the few years immediately after Our Lord ascended into heaven, but we should, because a lot happened. The miracle of the existence and persistence of the Catholic Church continues today, and it is good to be reminded every now and then of how and where it all started. St. Luke describes these early days of the Church brilliantly. Although you may not read the Acts of the Apostles in just one afternoon like I did, it’s so good that I do think you’ll read it very quickly, once you get started!