In Acts 2:42-47 we are given a glimpse into the life of the first century church, and this section begins with the simple phrase “they devoted themselves to.” In the following verses we discover devotion to God’s Word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer, as well as an emphasis on benevolence, involvement, and worship. But there is one more detail about the first century church mentioned by Luke in this passage that should not be overlooked. The eighth and final detail we discover about the first century church is that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). In this simple statement, Luke acknowledged that the first century church was multiplying rather than stagnating, and such a statement is an indicator that the first century church was devoted to evangelism.
Evangelism is a nice church word, but what does it mean? Evangelism is a transliteration of the Greek term euangelion, which means “good news” (1). By transliterating this term and adding the suffix -ism, we create an English term that refers to the the action or practice of sharing the good news. And sharing the good news is the responsibility of everyone who accepts the good news. Before He returned to heaven, Jesus left the following instructions for those who would comprise the initial church: “Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Because they received this command from the Lord, the first century church viewed sharing the gospel as a non-negotiable aspect of their faith. To them, evangelism was mandatory.
But even though the first century church viewed evangelism as an obligation, they never viewed it as a burden. Scripture repeatedly reveals a willingness on the part of the early Christians to share the gospel. Peter and John willingly shared the good news with the Jewish council when they stood before them as arrested criminals (Acts 4:5-12). Some time later, Stephen willingly shared the good news with a defiant mob which eventually executed him (Acts 7:1-53). Following Stephen’s death an intense persecution against the church in the city of Jerusalem ignited, which caused many Christians to relocate to other towns in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Those dispersed by the persecution, such as Philip, willingly shared the gospel with their new hometowns (Acts 8:4-8). After Paul was converted, he willingly shared the gospel internationally despite facing imprisonment (Acts 16:16-24), attempted executions (Acts 14:5-6, 19), and intense opposition (Acts 17:5-9, 13; 18:12-17; 19:23-34).
In the face of such difficulties, it would have been easy for the church to isolate itself from the world and cease concerning itself with evangelism. The church could have avoided being abused, mistreated, persecuted, and even killed. They could have focused on fellowship, edification, and worship. They could have emphasized keeping themselves “spotless and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14). But from the very beginning they knew that the mission was to advance the kingdom not hide the kingdom. So, they devoted themselves to evangelism. But what does such a devotion to evangelism entail?
First, we learn that being devoted to evangelism requires a specific prioritization.
Consider for a moment, what was the church’s first activity after its establishment? In Acts 2:1-4 we read how the church was inaugurated with descent of the Holy Spirit onto a small band of believers who were gathered together on the Day of Pentecost. Immediately after its institution, the first Christians ventured into the public arena and engaged in their first activity. It was not a service project, though the church would be well known for serving its community (Acts 2:34; 4:32-35). It was not a fellowship activity, though the church would be well known for its intimate relationships (Acts 2:42; 4:32). It was not a worship service, though the church would be well known for praising God (Acts 2:47; 16:25). Instead, it was an evangelistic program centered around the presentation of the gospel by Peter to a multitude comprised of Jews from around the world who had travelled to the city of Jerusalem for the annual observance of the Feast of Weeks (Acts 2:5-36). This evangelistic message culminated with the crowd asking “what shall we do,” and Peter responding with instructions on how to receive salvation through repentance and baptism (Acts 2:37-38). And the end result of this evangelistic effort was the conversion of 3000 souls. Thus, from day one of its existence the church prioritized evangelism.
Second, we learn that being devoted to evangelism requires a specific perspective.
Notice how Luke referred to those who were baptized as a result of Peter’s evangelistic sermon. In Acts 2:41 Luke did not refer to them as people or individuals. Nor did he refer to them as converts or church members. He did not even refer to them as believers, disciples, or Christians. Instead, Luke referred to them as “souls.” That description is a reminder of how important the evangelistic mission is. When we think of our evangelistic targets as souls we stop viewing evangelism as a commercial enterprise, meaning a means of increasing the size of our congregation, and start viewing it as a rescue operation, meaning a means of preventing someone from being eternally lost. Viewing our targets as souls brings to mind what Jesus said about souls, such as “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) and “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). So, that simple choice of a term for evangelistic targets indicates that the first century church was devoted to evangelism because they realized that salvation was at stake.
The lesson to be learned from the first century church is that evangelism is my responsibility just as much as it is your responsibility. I am afraid that all too often we believe that we have fulfilled Christ’s command to “Go into all the world” because we fund “professionals,” such as missionaries, who possess the responsibility to evangelize the world. While supporting missionaries is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor, we must concede that Christ expects each disciple to participate in evangelism, not just the ones who are paid to do so. We must realize that the soul who needs to hear the gospel may be the soul at our place of employment or the soul in our neighborhood or the soul in our own home. May the words of James be constantly on our minds, "whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
(1) Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 692.