Acts of the Apostles: The accretion of evangelical traits
The Feast of the Apostles in the Coptic Orthodox Church falls on the fifth day of Abib, which this year is on Wednesday, July 12. This day marks when the great Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred. 5 years ago, after my first trip to Bolivia for mission work, I attended a missionary preparation class, and the pastor outlined 5 qualifications of every good missionary. Every year as I read the book of Acts during this fast, these qualifications are reemphasized through the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. I am reminded that these traits are something I need to work on every single day. Just as the accretion of sediments over thousands of years create limestone, so the accretion of these daily practices creates a good missionary, and ultimately a good Christian. Let’s briefly touch on each trait, and how the Apostles teach us these traits. The Acts of the Apostles provides us with 5 characteristics for the man of God.
(1) A man with a working knowledge of the bible
This isn’t just for the Christian who desires to spread the word of God; this is for every Christian. The bible is simply our life line, and when we spend time reading it, it becomes our topic of conversation with every single person. In Acts 8:25–40, we read an encounter between Phillip and an Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch is struggling with the abstruse writings of Isaiah, and Phillip simply inquires; “do you understand?”. The eunuch requests guidance and so, in verse 35, Phillip joins him on his chariot and begins evangelizing.
Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. — Acts 8:35
Phillip than proceeds to baptize the eunuch, and through God’s grace, one more soul was added to heaven. Where did Phillip get this model of evangelism? None other than our Lord, Jesus Christ of course! When the two disciples were confused on the road to Emmaus, Jesus interpreted to them the scripture. The scripture then, becomes our base communication into understanding God.
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. — Luke 24:27
Personally, I find that often times I don’t understand the bible. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, I feel a little lost without the guidance of church fathers and other commentaries. However, consider a time before caller ID. The first time someone calls you, you certainly had to ask them who it was. The second time, you may have had a vague recollection. After several calls, you can likely pick up and immediately know whose voice is speaking. Through your experiences with God, you will gradually begin to know His ways, the more frequently you communicate with Him. This highlights the importance of deep biblical studies every day of your life.
Don’t think that the life of the apostle was different. In Acts 9:20 it reads that Paul immediately started preaching that God was the Christ. But his strength certainly could not be built over night, could it? In Galatians 1:11–18 Paul explains that he actually went to Arabia to embark on a 3 year retreat before conferring with flesh and blood and meeting up with Peter. He didn’t become God’s tool instantly, but had a long retreat in order to understand scripture and live a life of communion with God. Thus, the first trait we take away from the apostles is their deep foundation in scripture. We need to persistently study the bible, daily.
(2) A man with a consistent prayer life
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. — Acts 2:42
The first church was constantly meeting up and praying. Before choosing Matthias to replace Judas as a disciple, the eleven prayed (see Acts 1:24,25). When Tabitha, one of the disciples in Joppa, passed away, Peter went in to her bedroom, knelt down, and prayed beside her before healing her (see Acts 9:40). It seems that before every decision, every miracle, every seemingly spontaneous act, the apostles prayed.
My favorite anecdote about the power of prayer is in Acts chapter 16. Paul and Silas, on their way to prayer, were met by a girl with a spirit of divination. Her owners used her for profit. She followed Paul and Silas for several days, and Paul, out of pure annoyance, decides to heal her. Consequently, she losses her worth in the eyes of her masters, and Paul makes some enemies. They drag Paul and Silas into the marketplace and, before they know it, they are in jail. They are beaten and put into an inner prison, where their feet are fastened with stocks.
Now personally, this is where I would start complaining. I mean they certainly did nothing to deserve being in jail, and if I had the power to heal spirits, I wouldn't hesitate to free my self from a yelling demon possessed woman either. Look at how Paul and Silas’ act:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. — Acts 16:25
They sung praises. Sometimes I find it hard to attend midnight praises at church. There are so many times when I’m tempted to sleep before spending my quiet time with God. Or to sleep in, through the divine liturgy. But here, Paul and Silas, being beaten and held in prison for nothing, pray and sing hymns. More so, by their positivity and reliance on God, they continue to preach to the other prisoners, who listen in wonderment. That is how to measure the quality of your spiritual life. When life gives you a nasty series of events, do you turn to God and praise Him?
(3) A man with genuine concern for people
Pay attention to any commercial break on television, and you’ll quickly realize that everyone wants you to think they have your best interest in minds. Scotia bank will have you believe that your richer than you think, while BMO tries to convince you that only they use real people, and TD pleads that they are the only bank you can trust. What people desire today is genuine concern, and no one exhibits this better than the apostles. The apostles don’t just preach Christ to people who are like minded, or will get it, but to everyone. They do what they do because they genuinely want people to be saved for eternity.
One of the most compelling scenarios of this is in Acts 26. For some time, Paul has had his sights set toward Jerusalem, and then toward Rome (see Acts 19:21). When he finally reached Jerusalem, he meets with James and the elders of the church, who urge Paul to demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism, so that other Jews would not think he was forsaking Moses. In other words, they asked Paul to prove that he was still, as a Christian, “zealous for the law” (see Acts 21:24).
Paul took their advice and went to the temple, along with the four men whom the elders had recommended, to purify himself and to make sacrifices, paying their expenses, and shaving his head. At the end of seven days, some Asian Jews spotted Paul in the temple and jumped to the conclusion that Paul had come to defile the temple. A riot broke out with the intention to put Paul to death. So, Paul is arrested, for causing public chaos, and long of the short, is sent to Cesarea under the protection of Felix. Felix, hearing Paul preach, and contemplating on his own righteousness, really wanted to help Paul, but was afraid of the Jews. So, he remained dormant for 2 years until Festus succeeded him.
Festus, also a little confused about the reason Paul is bound, is eventually visited by King Agrippa and Bernice. Agrippa wishes to hear Paul make a defense, and when Paul is given the chance to defend himself, after 2 years of waiting, he begins to preach, and to explain how it is he encountered God. He eagerly addresses the king, with assurance that the King has knowledge of Jesus. Do you beleive in the prophets he inquires, I know you beleive. The next two lines are incredibly powerful:
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” And Paul said, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains.”— Acts 26:28–29
Look at Paul’s eagerness. Paul wants King Agrippa, and the whole assembly, to be converted to Christianity. He wants nothing more. He doesn’t desire freedom, or power, or even just better food in his jail cell after being locked up for 2 years. He just wants everyone to hear him and follow Christ.
Contemplate on the number of people on your street, at your workplace, at your school or simply on the subway. There are a vast number of people you can save, but are you concerned for them? Do you care about their salvation? The apostles did, and that’s why they never hesitated at an opportunity.
(4) A man being filled with the Holy Spirit
Up to this point, we have discussed qualities that individuals need to work on. However, mission very rarely relies on human capabilities, and it would be a misguided list without understanding that we, like the apostles, need the Holy Spirit. The church celebrates the Feast of the Apostles after Pentecost, when the apostles initially received the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire. They spoke in every language because of the Holy Spirit. The shadow of Peter was healing the sick because of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 5:15). The handkerchiefs and aprons of Paul were causing diseases to leave and evil spirits to come out because of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 19:12).
Imagine taking the speech Peter pronounces in Acts 2, and reading it in Dundas Square. You can work on your oratory all you want, but do you think it would have an effect? Do you think anyone would listen to you? It isn’t the words he spoke that matter, or even how great of a public speaker he was, but that he was working with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moved 3000 people to convert to Christianity that day, and it was the Holy Spirit that strengthened the first church:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” — Acts 2:37
More so, the good disciple must know that this strength is not from within. Reliance on the Holy Spirit is so essential. It implants humility to the faithful servant. This humility was present whenever the apostles were praised for a miracle they performed:
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? — Acts 3:12
(5) A man with assurance of Salvation
Finally, all these qualities need to lead to salvation before a person is ready to preach. Christian’s cannot practice policeman missionary! A policeman standing in the middle of an intersection, directs traffic. But the policeman himself does not move. Same with a Christian preacher: we cannot preach, and ourselves not be moving toward Christ everyday. St. Paul warns of this very problem, and brings his body into subjection for this very reason, because he knows that if he isn’t careful about his own spiritual life, he could be disqualified:
But I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. — 1 Corinthians 9:27
In Hebrews, we describe faith as a substance of things hoped for. The disciples all exhibit this joy and peace, because their faith is undeniable. In Acts 12, Herod is trying to gain the favour of the people so he takes James to prison and kills him. Afterwards he looks around him and sees that people are all for this; they are going nuts for the persecution. So he makes an even bolder move and seizes Peter.
Now most of us, under a lot of stress and anxiety we lose sleep. Heck I even lost sleep before the first day of university simply because of the anxiety of meeting new people. We get stressed about exams and finances… anything! But Peter, with the premonition that he was probably going to die the next day, slept. He slept! He had so much joy and surety in the resurrection that the peace given by Jesus engulfed the fear of death. This is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times out of fear and doubt. And not only did he sleep, he was in such a deep sleep that the angel who came to rescue him had to strike him to get up. That’s some incredible peace. And it came to him because he was sure of his salvation.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. — Acts 12:6–7
Yes the fast of the apostles is finished, but let us not forget the lessons the apostles teach us. Spend each day praying and studying your bible. Meditate on the people around you, and the severity of their judgement if you neglect to preach to them. Lean on God, first and foremost. And make sure that, just like in a plane, you secure your own life mask before helping others.