So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. —Acts 14.3
“Christianity did not spread by magic,” quips N.T. Wright in The New Testament and the People of God. “It is sometimes suggested that the world was, so to speak, ready for Christianity: Stoicism was too lofty and dry, popular paganism metaphysically incredible and morally bankrupt, mystery-religions dark and forbidding, Judaism law-bound and introverted, and Christianity burst on the scene as the great answer to the questions everyone was asking. There is a grain of truth in this picture, but it hardly does justice to historical reality.”
Wright offers a half-dozen reasons the stories we read in Acts should not have happened in the ancient world. “Christianity summoned proud pagans to face torture and death out of loyalty to a Jewish villager who had been executed by Rome. Christianity advocated a love which cut across racial boundaries. It sternly forbade sexual immorality, the exposure of children, and a great many other things which the pagan world took for granted. Choosing to become a Christian was not an easy or natural thing for the average pagan. A Jew who converted might well be regarded as a national traitor. Even slaves, who might be supposed to have less to lose than others, and hence to appreciate an elevation of status through conversion, might face a cost.”
Christianity was not birthed under optimal conditions, nor did it spread because the church fathers were renown strategists. We miss the point of Acts if we look to it merely as a step-by-step guidebook of how to grow a church. It is the story of the Holy Spirit’s movement in and through the people of God.
In the book of Acts we discover what happened when those hurt deepest were restored by Christ and emboldened by the Spirit. They experienced grace writ large and gladly forfeited selfish pursuit in response. They sacrificed comfort, privilege, and esteem to share the love of God which had enveloped them.
“Why then did early Christianity spread?” Wright asks, “Because early Christians believed that what they had found to be true was true for the whole world.” By the power of the Spirit they shared the good news of Christ in word and deed — not just in grand public moments, but in the daily rhythms of life — and the message did not return void.