The Way Flourished
The book of Acts contains about 30 years of valuable history of the early church, from its inception to the imprisonment of Paul in Rome (Acts 2, 28). The historian often describes Christianity as "the way" (tes odou, Acts 9: 2, 19: 9, 23; 24: 14, 22). "Way" is suggestive of that which is defined and tangible (see also John 14: 6). The burden of this material is to notice some of the recorded instances of the growth of the church and in particular, the circumstances in which this growth occurred. However, in our study we must remember growth and spiritual flourishing are not just measured numerically. We must be aware that division is part of Christianity (I Cor. 11: 19).
The way experienced an obscure beginning (Acts 2: 41 ff). However, the way began to advance as honest people heard the saving gospel proclaimed (Acts 2; 41, Rom. 1: 16, Lk. 8: 11).
" Many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand" (Acts 4: 4). There were initially about three thousand, in just a short time that number is 5, 000 (men). The circumstance of this growth involved an undeniable miracle and the combative preaching of the apostles (Acts 3; 4: 1-3).
"And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied " (Acts 6: 1). The circumstances of this growth involved an aggressive and relentless effort to preach the word (Acts 5: 42). The apostles did not relent in the face of persecution.
"And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6: 7). The prevailing condition surrounding the flourishing of the way involved a potentially explosive problem that had the appearance of "racism." (vss. 1-5). However, the problem was addressed and corrected. (See addendum.)
" The churches were multiplied" (Acts 9: 31). The early church did not have to experience persecution in order to grow (Acts 4), but there was growth also in the absence of oppression (Acts 9: 31). The churches at this particular time were at rest or free of persecution.
" And a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord" (Acts 11: 21). This instance of growth was about ten years after the church began. Persecution was the impetus for this growth (vs. 19 ff). This growth was also brought about by individual Christians teaching those with whom they came in contact (Acts 11: 19 cp. 8: 4).
"But the word of God grew and multiplied" (Acts 12: 24). The circumstance involved the miraculous death of blasphemous Herod (vs. 20 ff). Notice the historian describes this growth as the "word of God grew and multiplied." The seed or word is essential to the Kingdom (Lk. 8: 11, Matt. 13: 19).
"And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region" (Acts 13: 49). The situation of this increase of the word involved the Gentiles hearing of the word, those who were ordained or disposed to eternal life (vs. 48).
"And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16: 5). The instance surrounding this increase pertained to false doctrine being taught and brethren addressing the matter (Acts 15).
"So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed" (Acts 19: 20). This circumstance involved the acknowledgement of sin and true repentance (Acts 19: 20). True repentance will also produce fruit (vs. 19). Some have sought to conceal sin, but not the apostle Paul.
These are nine instances in the book of Acts of recorded growth. It has been well remarked that Acts is a running commentary on the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28: 18 ff). Paul wrote as early as AD 56 that all had heard the gospel (Rom. 10: 18, about four years before Acts terminates in chapter twenty-eight). Much of the rapidity of the spread of Christianity was simply due to individual Christians sharing the word with others.
In conclusion, let us revisit some of the circumstances of the flourishing of the way in Acts: Combative preaching; relentlessly presenting the word; addressing and correcting a serious problem; a period of respite from persecution; severe persecution; the dethronement of a despot; people who were disposed to eternal life hearing the word; false doctrine was challenged; and true repentance being manifest.
Beloved, it is sad and tragic that some believe the only circumstances conducive to growth are periods of ease. The fact is, the early church experience increase in all types of circumstances, those considered favorable as well as those viewed as unfavorable. Hence, growth, true growth is not circumstantial, as such. The constant in all these recorded cases is the presentation of the word and its reception into pure and honest hearts.Addendum: Some have estimated the number of Christians in Jerusalem at the time of Stephen's martyrdom is have been 20, 000 (Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, by Simon Kistemaker, pg. 148). This is especially significant in view of the estimated normal population of Jerusalem only being about 55, 000 (Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, by Jochim Jeremias, pg. 83)