The Greatness of Early Christianity – Part Two

How great is your church? How great is the church in America? Your answer probably depends on: 1) Your understanding of the meaning of greatness and 2) The accuracy of the information you are using to make your evaluation.

In last week’s devotion we saw a brief summary of the early Christians and their impact on the society in which they lived. We also took a quick look at the “scoreboard” of the church in today’s world. Clearly, we all want to pray for a greater reality of spiritual health and ministry impact, in and through the church today.

Definition and Evidence

As a reminder, the dictionary definitions tell us that to be “great” implies someone or something that is superior in quality, remarkable in effectiveness, beyond the ordinary, powerful, or strong. We saw last week that the early church was truly great in the effectiveness of their witness of the gospel. “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” (Acts 4:33a). Not only did they exhibit great power but, as we will see, they experienced great grace and embraced a great fear of God.

Exhibitions of Great Grace

The account of Acts tells us, “and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33b). The NIV reads, “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” I like to define grace as “God doing for us, in us, and through us what only HE can do, through the person and power of Jesus Christ.”

Imagine the sense of God’s amazing grace the early disciples must have felt. John described their intimate experience of Jesus:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:1-2).

This Jesus, the perfect friend, the ultimate teacher, the merciful God, had died a horrific death on the cross. He then rose from the dead, saved them, called them, filled them with His very life, changed everything about their lives, gave them a purpose for living, and was now using these flawed and ordinary men to change the world. What grace!

The early church had so little compared to our tangible resources of today. Yet, because of their grasp of Christ’s grace they had everything they needed and so much more. Paul captured the heart of these early Christians when he declared, “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10) and when he taught the profound lesson that Christ’s grace was entirely sufficient for our lives because His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Today, all of this grace is still ours in Jesus. The Bible reminds us that we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), we grow by grace (2 Peter 3:18), we serve in God’s power through grace (1 Peter 4:10-11), we are strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13:9), we are purified by grace (Titus 2:11), and we stand firm by grace (1 Peter 5:12). We are invited to come continually to His throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). To experience this great grace we must embrace weakness and turn from self-reliance and must humble ourselves continually before God because “He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Experiences of Great Fear

Another important description of the greatness of the early church is found in Acts chapter five, where it says twice that “great fear” came upon the early church (Acts 5:5 & 11). These occasions were prompted by the sudden deaths of Ananias and also his wife Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit and lost their lives as a result. Of course, we do not seek to teach the practices of Acts but rather to practice the teachings. We no longer expect people to die when they fudge on their giving. We do want to learn the lesson about the importance of the fear of the Lord as a mark of greatness.

The Bible refers to the idea of fear in connection to God over 300 times. To fear God means to know Him, revere Him, obey Him, and trust Him. As one writer described it, “The fear of the Lord is a state of mind in which one’s own attitudes, will, feelings, deeds, and goals are exchanged for God’s.” [1]

As far back as the earliest recorded book of the Bible this truth rang out: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). This is reiterated again and again in the Scriptures. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10 and reiterated in 1:7, 29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 14:2, 6, 26, 27; 15:33; and 16:16).

When we think of a “God-fearing” person we picture someone who lives with God at the center of their lives, exhibiting a consistent and humble response to His truth in diligent pursuit of His character in all aspects of life. The early church was great because they were gripped by a deep and profound fear of God.

Greatness in Today’s World

So today, the true greatness of a church is not measured by the magnitude of the buildings, the size of the budget, or the charisma of the leaders. Greatness is not indicated by technological savvy or promotional reach. A great church witnesses in great power and boldness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A great church experiences profound and amazing grace from a posture of weakness and humility. A great church lives in great fear of an awesome God, respecting His truth and character in all things.

Personally, we must pursue this same greatness, yielding to the witness-bearing power of the Holy Spirit and confidently proclaiming the preeminence and sufficiency of a risen Savior. We must embrace our own weaknesses and struggles, relying on the profound grace of Jesus in every dimension of life. We must pursue God’s glory in all things, exchanging our own thoughts and ways for His, in reverence and awe.

“Lord, make us truly great by your definition and may your great life in us radiate to a needy world as we serve your purposes in these dark and difficult times.”

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.


[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Nelson Bibles, 2006), 865