New Testament: The Early Church

The Early Church (Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 &2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude, Revelation)

Reflections (Pentecost, Tongues of Fire, Wild Goose, Grace, Faith, Cornerstone, Anchor, Righteousness, Trinity, Most Excellent Way, Body of Christ, Year of Young People, Objects of God’s Love, Fruits of the Spirit, Gifts of the Spirit, Impossible)   

The books following the Gospels give an insight into the Early Church, starting with a historical account of how the apostles continued after the ascension of Jesus, especially how the faith was extended to gentiles after the pharisee Saul became a believer, re-named Paul. This is followed by a number of instructive letters to early churches and pastoral letters to individuals, many of them written by Paul. As with Chronicles in the Old Testament, where more than one letter has been written to a church or to/by an individual, I have just written one acrostic. The bible concludes with a prophetic revelation to John, including messages to seven of the early churches, apocalyptic visions of the end times, and assurances to persecuted Christians that God is in ultimate control.

Acts of the Apostles

After Jesus had ascended, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem,
Chose Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot who had taken his life.
Tongues of fire descended as they prayed on the day of Pentecost;
Speaking ecstatically, they realised the Holy Spirit had been poured out.

Onlookers thought they were drunk but Peter explained everything;
Fearing God, thousands believed, joined them, and the Church was born.

Then the apostles preached, sold their wealth and performed miracles;
Hauled before the temple authorities they were jailed and flogged;
Enraged, the temple leaders stoned Stephen – the first Christian martyr.

A Pharisee called Saul approved of this killing and set off to Damascus
Persecuting the church, but on his way was blinded by a vision of Jesus.
Once he regained his sight, he became an apostle, re-named as Paul.
Setting off from Antioch, Paul led three missionary journeys,
Teaching and planting churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece,
Living a dangerous life to proclaim that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Eventually he was arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to Rome;
Shipwrecked on Malta, he ministered before continuing to his trial.

Romans

Righteousness is reckoned to us (as it was to Abraham) by faith alone;
Observation of the law, by itself, is worthless because everyone falls short;
More than conquerors, both Jew and Gentile can defeat sin through God’s grace;
Abba Father we both cry, for the Holy Spirit makes us co-heirs with Christ;
No longer are we under condemnation and nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Sacrifice your lives as a Godly offering, and overcome evil with good.

1 & 2 Corinthians

Church divided – by doctrine, disputes and disreputable behaviour,
Only some salutary letters from Paul succeeded in setting them straight –
Right ways of settling disputes, showing restraint, conducting worship,
Inspired use of spiritual gifts to build up the church into a single body,
Never failing to love with kindness, forgiveness and perseverance,
Trusting in the resurrection and looking beyond the grave to imperishability,
Hardships borne for the treasure and hope stored in our bodily ‘jars of clay’,
In an unveiled face-to-face relationship with God, reconciled to Christ,
A new creation, repentant and forgiving, living by faith and not by sight,
Not grudging in generosity and eager to support the wider church with gifts,
Shunning false ‘super-apostles’ and sharing in the suffering of true apostles.

Galatians

Gullible people! – being led astray by preachers of a different gospel
After I (Paul) had confronted Peter over the very same hypocrisy:
Live by faith alone, and ignore preachers who tell you to adopt Jewish laws.
Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;
True heirs of Abraham become righteous by faith, not by lifeless laws.
In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female –
All are God’s children, and His Spirit makes us cry out Abba Father.
Now use your freedom, not for sin, but to yield fruit of the Spirit:
Self-control, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.

Ephesians

Experience God’s grace – you were dead in sin but are now alive in Christ.
Peace should abound in you, for there is one faith, one baptism, one Lord:
He himself is our peace, destroying the barrier between Jew and gentile.
Eradicate the deeds of darkness in your midst and be children of light,
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ
In your families and well as in the church.
Against the spiritual forces of evil, put on the full armour of God,
Namely the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness and helmet of
Salvation; shield yourself with faith and pray in the Spirit constantly.

Philippians

Prisoner behind bars, Paul writes to reassure the church at Philippi;
Happen what may, his privations would help to advance the gospel.
In everything, he rejoiced over the Philippians and prayed they might:
Live a life worthy of the gospel, stand firm fearlessly,
Imitate Christ’s humility and look to the interests of others,
Press on towards the goal of the prize awaiting in Heaven,
Purify their lives like stars in the sky among a crooked generation,
In every situation, by prayer and petition, present requests to God,
Ask for God’s peace which passes all understanding, and seek to be
Noble and admirable and true and right and pure in every thought,
Supporting others, just as they had aided Paul in his hour of need.

Colossians

Continually praying for you, we ask God to fill you with the Spirit’s wisdom;
Once you were alienated from God, but now are without blemish in his sight.
Lord Jesus, in whom you are reconciled, is the image of the invisible God;
Over all creation, he is the firstborn and in him all things were created,
Supreme over everything and in whom all heaven and earth hold together.
Since you have been raised with Christ, focus on things above;
Ignore legalists who judge you by what you eat or drink
And put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.
Newness of life entails compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience:
So praise God gratefully with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

1 & 2 Thessalonians

The Lord’s message rang true from the church in Thessalonica,
Hallmark of a gospel received not just with words but also with power.
Ever since first hearing the gospel, they had imitated the churches in Judea,
Sharing in their trials and persecutions.
Suggestions that their faith was under attack had reached the apostles
And Paul was relieved when Timothy sent report of their steadfast love.
Longing to see them again, Paul wrote, urging them to love one another,
Observe a quiet life, and pray, rejoice and give thanks continually.
Nevertheless, the church would have to be vigilant:
Idle and disruptive individuals were failing to pull their weight
And some were spreading false teaching about the day of the Lord,
Needing to be reminded that they had been among the firstfruits,
Saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

1 & 2 Timothy

Teach with diligence and trustworthiness, despite your youth;
Intercede for all in authority and ensure church leaders are beyond reproach;
Money – or at least the love of it – is the root of evil and leads many astray;
Oppose hypocrisy, false doctrine, idle gossip and quarrelsome teachers;
Terrible times will come, but fight the good fight and keep the faith;
Heed all Scripture, for it is God-breathed and in every way useful.
Young Timothy, help old Paul, for he is feeling weak and abandoned.

Titus

To Titus, the leader of the church in Crete –
Instruct the elders so that they may set a blameless example,
Teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who perpetuate myths,
Uphold reverent conduct in families and towards authorities.
Saved by grace, you must avoid foolish arguments about Jewish rules.

Philemon

Paul, now very old, imprisoned and chained, writes to Philemon:
Help has reached him in the form of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave.
Instead of being angry with Onesimus, Paul prays for leniency;
Loth to instruct Philemon to forgive Onesimus, Paul appeals to his faith,
Even offering to recompense any debt or default Onesimus owes.
Moreover, Paul hopes to be freed and asks Philemon to prepare a guest room.
Onesimus’ escapade gives us a poignant and personal insight into
Networks of support, prayer, worship and collaboration in the early church.

Hebrews

Heir of all things, radiance of God’s glory and exact representation of Him,
Excelling the angels – Jesus has latterly spoken God’s message to us.
Becoming fully human, He brought many sons and daughters to glory.
Receive rest and mercy from the great high priest of the new covenant;
Enter the most holy place through the curtain (that is, Jesus’ body);
Whilst there is much we do not yet see, we keep confidence through faith;
Set your eyes upon Jesus, show hospitality, offer a sacrifice of praise.

James

Joy is what you should feel if your faith is tested, for you learn to persevere;
Act justly, show no favouritism, and let your faith be revealed through deeds;
Muzzle your tongue, which can corrupt the whole body with gossip and boasting;
Earthly wisdom is selfish, so seek the wisdom that comes from heaven;
Sin, trouble and illness can be overcome by prayer, especially that of a righteous person.

1 & 2 Peter

Precious blood of Jesus, spotless lamb, has redeemed you as imperishable;
Empty yourselves of malice, love one another, glorify God among the world;
Trust in the Cornerstone, be a holy nation, royal priesthood, living sacrifice;
Everywhere, the devil prowls, so be on your guard against false teachers;
Realise that there will be a final judgement, but for now God is being patient.

1, 2 & 3 John

Jesus purifies us from sin, so we can walk in the light, without darkness.
Obey the command to walk in truth and love, for God makes us his children;
However, if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father;
No-one who hates a brother or sister, or denies Christ, is walking in the light.

Jude

Jesus-deniers have already infiltrated your love feasts,
Ungodly people who boast and flatter, shepherds who feed only themselves –
Darkness and destruction await them. So persevere dear friends:
Eternal life is yours if you build up your faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.

Revelation

Revealed to John in exile, a message from Jesus for seven churches –
Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea –
Victory awaits their faithful, but suffering awaits their backsliders.
Enraptured in the Spirit, John looked through an open door into Heaven:
Living creatures sang, and elders bowed down, to one who sat on a throne
As he held a seven-sealed scroll which only the lamb was worthy to open.
Terrors erupted as the seals were broken – four horsemen unleashed turmoil
In heaven and earth until the beast and those bearing his mark were defeated.
Once the last judgement was over an angel led John to see the heavenly city,
New Jerusalem, home for those whose names are in the Lamb’s book of life.

REFLECTIONS

The account of the early church begins with the disciples gathering in secret and selecting a successor to Judas Iscariot. They pray continually until, at the feast of Pentecost, they receive the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – as promised by Jesus. So significant is this event that it is considered to be the ‘birthday’ of the church, whilst The Acts of the Apostles is sometimes dubbed the ‘Acts of the Holy Spirit’. The following two acrostics are based on Acts, Chapter 2.

Pentecost

Praying, they chose Matthias to join the eleven;
Expecting, they awaited the Advocate from Heaven.
Nine in the morning, winds roared, fires blazed,
The disciples babbled like men who were crazed;
Eyewitnesses gathered together and stood amazed,
Citizens of many lands, each heard their own tongue spoken,
Over three thousand that day felt their proud hearts broken –
Spirit of truth, conviction and fire
Testified that Jesus truly was the Messiah.

Tongues of Fire

Twelve apostles gathered at an early hour
On Pentecost, to pray for heavenly power,
Nine in the morning they began to babble –
Galileans, sounding like a drunken rabble.
Utterly amazed, groups of bystanders heard
Ecstatic tongues. Many thought them absurd –
Some, though, understood every word.

Omens from Heaven, as Joel prophesied,
Fiery tongues settled on those inside.

Fellow Jews”, Peter proclaimed, “be in no doubt,
In these days God’s Spirit is being poured out”.
Repentant, three thousand were baptised that day;
Ever growing, a new-born church was underway.

Wild Goose

In the Celtic church the wild goose – An Geadh-Glas – was a synonym for the Holy Spirit. Not only did the wild goose move in ways which (at that time) were a mystery, it also ‘disturbed and disrupted’. Be careful what you pray for – especially if you pray to be led by the Holy Spirit! (John 3:8; Romans 8:14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; Psalm 139:7)

Whither does the Holy Spirit blow?
It listeth wherever God pleases.
Loosen your moorings and let yourself go,
Dare trim your sail to Heaven’s breezes.

Give up control, risk setting a course
Over unknown seas, tracking wild geese –
Or else stay safe in port and gaze in remorse.
Spirit-led lives know both tempest and peace
Ever venturing, ever returning to source.

The letters of Paul, James, John and Peter, together with the anonymous writer of Hebrews, unpack key elements of Christian doctrine. The following acrostics cover some of the most important ones.

Grace

Our salvation flows from God’s grace alone (John 1:14-17; Romans 3:24; Romans 5:15; Ephesians 1:6-7).

Grafted in the vine, we become Yahweh’s kin
Ransomed by unmerited love, God’s spirit comes in
Absolved from guilt, we are cleansed within
Clemency, not judgement, breaks the grip of sin
Enveloped in God’s mercy, a new life can begin.

Faith

Through faith in Jesus, righteousness can be credited to everyone who believes (for instance, Hebrews 11:1; Romans 4:3-5).

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen
Abraham believed God’s promise, hardly knowing what it could mean
In so doing, God reckoned him righteous, in a way no law could contravene
Through faith, that righteousness is ours, for God’s promise is evergreen
Hoping in Jesus, we are perfected and through his blood are washed clean.

Cornerstone

The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Ephesians 2:19-21; Romans 9:33).

Come all of you who set your trust
On treasure corrupted by moth and rust,
Reckoning your value by what you possess,
Needing ever more stuff as your key to success.
Examine yourself, ask what you are worth;
Riches don’t lie in the mines of the earth.
Sands may shift, but one defence holds tight –
The lamb of God, the world’s one true light
Our rock of ages, our secure foundation
Name above all names from the dawn of creation
Emmanuel, the firm hope of every nation. 

Anchor

“We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll” (from Priscilla Jane Owens’ hymn Will your anchor hold in the storms of life) (Hebrews 6:19).

Adrift, aimless, without compass or chart,
No balm for the soul, no hope in the heart.
Christ alone guarantees us safe haven,
His Father, alone, has on his hands graven
Our names – a steadfast, firm, secure,
Redemptive love bringing us safe ashore.

Righteousness

A difficult topic, but I believe that having righteousness reckoned to us is one of the most pivotal ideas in scripture (Job 32:1; Isaiah 33:15-17; Matthew 5:20; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 10:4; Philippians 3:9; Matthew 5:6; Romans 4:3; Hosea 10:12).

Reckon you’re good enough? Think again!
Inside each of us dwells the mark of Cain.
God reckons righteousness to us, cancels our sin,
Helps us to conquer our struggles within.
Trying to earn salvation, being worldly wise
Ends with us being righteous in our own eyes.
Offer our bodies, then, as a living sacrifice,
Unclean vessels washed pure at great price.
Speak ill of no-one, let your faith shine,
No longer wild olives but grafts in God’s vine:
Every worldly gain we now count as loss,
Status and pride, we consider them dross,
Surrendering all at the foot of the cross.

Trinity

It took me a long time to realise why the doctrine of the Trinity was such a big deal. Many gentiles were attracted to Judaism because its belief in one God provided a welcome contrast to their own multiple and often capricious gods. However, Christianity’s claim to monotheism could seem incompatible with its belief in ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Here’s my attempt to understand the Triune God.

The Lord God, Jehovah Jireh, Almighty One
Revealed himself fully through Jesus, the son,
Image of the invisible God, firstborn of creation,
Name above all names; and for our confirmation
Indwells as the Holy Spirit, our truth, our inspiration.
Three personae bearing witness to one another
Yet indivisible, our Father, Comforter, Brother.

Most Excellent Way

“And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). A reflection on 1 Corinthians 13.

Maturity of faith demands love that is tough
Once I thought as a child, but now that’s not enough,
Songs of praise and speaking in tongues
Turn sour if I keep records of wrongs,

Each boast and reproach is best left unsaid.
X is a cross where love suffered and bled:
Covenant love longs to reconcile
Ever willing to go the extra mile.
Love never fails, it trusts, perseveres,
Lights up the darkness, wipes away tears,
Enables the broken to revive and cope.
Now, three gifts remain – faith, hope,
Then, conquering everything, love.

Wrongs are forgotten when we rise above
Anger and envy, and let grace hold sway.
Yes – there is a most excellent way. 


Body of Christ

We are the body of Christ – if one part suffers, we all suffer. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Psalm 139:13-14)

Bones, flesh, lifeblood, sinews combine,
Organs, hormones obey God’s design,
Dispute no more about which part is best.
Young, give freely of ideals and zest

Old, your experience and wisdom share
Feast upon testimonies seasoned with prayer.

Consider you are wonderfully and fearfully made
Healed in the heart now sin’s price has been paid
Rise above doctrine, banish division
Inspire each member to strive for one vision
Suffer together, together rejoice
Tongues of prophecy tell out as one voice. 

Year of Young People

This was written for the Church of Scotland’s Year of Young People (2018). Although the original context has been lost, I decided to keep the acrostic because it follows on well from the previous one. Ending with ‘everyone’ was intentional, because the issue isn’t simply one of trying to recruit and retain the ‘under-25s’ (which was the official definition of ‘young’) – it’s about young and old and everyone in-between sharing their faith, experiences and talents. Churches that aren’t intergenerational tend to become dwindling time-capsules. (1 Timothy 4:12; Acts 6:1-4; Acts 2:17).

Yes! to the hopes and fears,
Energy, vision, fresh ideas,
Actions, dreams, decisions,
Radical views and visions

Of the under-25s –
Faith-inspired, vibrant lives.

Yes! to the music and songs
Of a thousand youthful tongues
Uniting us as we seek and search
New paths to revival in our church –
Generation “Z” has some really cool

Prayers and prophecies for renewal!
Everybody, play your part,
Old and young and young-at-heart:
Pick up the baton, pass it on
Let’s seize the moment before it’s gone
Every child, every teen, everyone.

Objects of God’s Love

However, being an intergenerational ‘body of Christ’ means that we have to get on with all manner of people, like it or not. God’s love is unconditional. Is ours? God shows no partiality and is no respecter of persons (Leviticus 19:15; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). (Again, this acrostic does not rhyme, but has proved popular).

’Orrible ’ooligans
Bad boys wiv bovver boots
Junkies, users, boozers
’Ells Angel ’eadcases
Chancers, shirkers
Trailer trash
Sex workers

’Ooray ’Enrys
Feral youth

Gamblers, wide boys
Outcasts, outsiders
Dossers, down-and-outs
Smackheads, layabouts

Losers, loners, winos
Oddballs, weirdos
Vagrants, hoboes
Everyone, in fact

The Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) are often confused with the Gifts of the Spirit (mainly set out in 1 Corinthians 12), so here are two acrostic aide memoires about which is which.

Fruits of the Spirit

Followers of Jesus
Respond with love, spread joy.
United
In the Spirit
They foster peace,
Show patience, and don’t annoy.

Others’ burdens bearing
Freely, gladly sharing

They act with kindness
Hold fast to all goodness
Exemplify faithfulness.

Saints act with gentlenessand
Practise self-control; they endure
Insults and injuries with
Rejoicing. To be sure,
If you abide in the Spirit,
Then you are free from the law.

Gifts of the Spirit

God’s Holy Spirit intercedes,
Imparting talents to us in different measure
For the common good and particular needs.
To some, wisdom is a special treasure;
Still others are given knowledge to convey.

Others, in times of trouble, are a strong tower –
Faith, deep and sure, they display.

Then, there are those whose power
Heals the broken body, the heart that’s riven.
Even more, some have the ability to perform

Signs and miracles; whilst some are given
Prophetic powers to counsel and warn.
Ineffable words are spoken by some, through
Rapturous tongues from angels above.
Interpreting those tongues is for others to do –
Though greater than any talent, is the gift of love.

Impossible

Throughout the Bible there is one enduring theme, which provides a fitting place to conclude these reflections. The things which are impossible with people are possible with God (Genesis 18:14; Luke 1:37; Luke 18:24-43; Mark 9:23; Matthew 19:26; Jeremiah 32:17; Philippians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13).  If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

In this world, some things cannot possibly be.
Moses couldn’t possibly have parted the Red Sea,
Peter could never have preached with authority
Or walked upon the Lake of Galilee,
Slaves to sin could not possibly be set free,
Sarah couldn’t have experienced maternity,
Israel couldn’t be redeemed from captivity,
Bartimaeus couldn’t possibly ever see,
Love couldn’t have changed the course of history.
Everything, with Jesus, is a possibility