What went wrong in Acts?

The book of Acts is a beautiful description of what happened after Jesus’ resurrection. It is truthful and accurate, but if you look, you will see without condemnation, how the yeast of the Pharisees crept into the New Testament Church.

Created: 2015/12/11. Updated: 2015/12/22.

Shakeup, Home


At the end of the book of Judges there is a statement that, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). One day I read this and I just cracked up. Terrible things were happening and it said that everyone was doing right . Of course I had not read the text correctly and the suffix “in their own eyes” was supposed to tell me that they were not following what God had decreed. OK, silly me, but I came to see something else. This text is inspired by the Holy Spirit; the Spirit of Truth. The actions described were wrong, but this was a truthful report of those actions and the attitude behind them. Further, the report was not condemning the people of the day.

In the following sections you will see little glimpses of things that happened in the Book of Acts. These events involved heroes of our faith like Peter and James and they paved the way for many New Testament practices. However, things were going wrong and often we miss the hints that the Holy Spirit left in the text. When you put it all together, see if there is not a valuable lesson for the present church.

Wait until you receive power

In Acts 1:3-4 we see that Jesus had been appearing to his disciples for some 40 days, after His resurrection. Then His last instruction before they saw Him ascend was to wait until they received power from the Holy Spirit. But what happened? Peter stood up and declared that they need to find a replacement for Judas. He had a couple of scriptures to back him up and that is what they did. Now they did something really, really important by identifying that the person had to have been with them from the beginning, and Peter’s prayer in Acts 1:24 was a good prayer. The decision to choose by lots was following a tradition where even the priests were chosen by lot to go before the LORD (Luke 1:8). Everything was good but, the instruction was to wait!

Now, this is a very minor point. No one today chooses their elders by lottery. Peter was showing leadership that Jesus had conferred on him when Jesus told him to feed His sheep (John 21:16-17). But Jesus appointed the initial twelve and knew that Judas would be lost. Jesus had just been with them for 40 odd days and had never felt the need to appoint a replacement nor did they ask Jesus.

So what do we take away from this? Well, it’s really hard to wait and do nothing and leaders are especially pressured in such times.

The choosing of the seven

In Acts 6 we see a problem arise where the widows of non-native, Greek speaking Jews, are being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostils response in Acts 6:2-3 was:

2 So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (NASB)

OK, the problem was serious. Widows, having no husband or son to care for them were dependant on assistance. God is particularly assertive about widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 26:12, Psalm 146:9, Isaiah 10:2, Job 24:3, Psalm 94:6, James 1:27). The decision to pick seven men full of wisdom and the spirit is good. Pastors really like delegation of authority. The twelve must have been run off their feet, going house to house to teach the many new converts and their devotion to this calling is admirable.

So it all looks good, except for that phrase “to serve tables”. How long ago had it been that Jesus washed their feet at the table (John 13:1-17)? Jesus said that this was to be an example for them to follow and that in so doing you would be blessed. Certainly, Stephen, one of the seven selected, was blessed by God in his brief but powerful ministry. And what about "feed my sheep" in John 21:17. I know we interpret “feed” as “teach the word”, but how could we forget the plain meaning as to “serve food”. Indeed, Jesus also fulfilled this meaning when he fed the five thousand in John 6.

Unfortunately, the twelve looked down on this distribution of food problem and just treated it as administrative and, if not beneath them, at least outside their calling. Perhaps that’s stating it a little too harshly but the Apostles had missed something. They had missed the discrimination against non-native Jews even amongst the believers. This discrimination is the first sign of the Jewish pride that will later divide and plague the Church. Surely the Apostils could have created the good old roster so that they were periodically involved in the food distribution. Their example in serving Greek speaking widows would have helped negate this pride. But alas, they were now specialists and they did not see the real problem.

Of course, Stephen, in ministering to the Greek speaking widows came into conflict with the Synagogue of the Freedmen, where non-native Jews seemed to band together. Now, I’m offering a bit of conjecture here, but these non-native Jews had something to prove. They had migrated to Jerusalem in their zeal for the law but were unable to refute Stephen, so they plotted against him, perhaps even wanting to prove themselves before the native Pharisees. Now, I can’t prove it, but can you see pride behind their persecution of Stephen? Certainly we might read pride into Stephen’s final accusation against the Jewish leaders in Acts 7:51.

Immediately after Stephen’s death, a persecution set in amongst the believers in Jerusalem. Saul featured in this persecution and being a non-native Jew himself, was probably associated with this Synagogue of the Freedmen. I have heard some commentators suggest that God allowed this persecution because they were all remaining resident in Jerusalem in contravention to Acts 1:8, where Jesus declared they were to be witnesses in “Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth”. So these commentators see a failure to spread out as God’s motivation behind the persecution.

Personally, I don’t like that. Try now and see how religious pride in the Pharisee capital of the world, Jerusalem, is seeping into the believers. God had to get them out of Jerusalem before this pride would altogether prevent them sharing with Gentiles. That is exactly what we read happens next in Acts 8:4 and Acts 11:19-21 which summarise the events after the persecution. Philip preached to Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch — people who were distained by native Jews.

Gentile inclusion

Probably the most important event in New Testament history is when Peter goes to the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. This event was witnessed by other Jewish believers travelling with Peter, and the account was repeated twice in detail at critical meetings where Peter and Paul were opposed by Pharisees (Acts 10, Acts 11:1-18, and Acts 15:6-10). I want to draw your attention to Acts 10:28 where Peter acknowledges that by Jewish law, he would not have even entered Cornelius’ house had it not been for a dramatic vision God had just given him. Wow, that would have dampened things down a bit.

The point is that even Peter needed this dramatic revelation before he would step over this Jewish superiority issue. In Acts 11:19-20, those spread out by the persecution, only preached to Jews. It was only by accident that some non-native Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene started preaching to Greeks in Antioch. Do you see how close it came to the Jews keeping the gospel all to themselves? Of course God had been dealing with Saul’s (Paul’s) pride in Acts 9, but even Paul’s ministry had to wait for the Antioch outbreak to start.

OK round 1 was won and the gospel was preached to Gentiles. But the counter attack began. In round 2 the legalistic Jews attempt to turn Gentiles into Jews. At the start of Acts 15 men from Judea and Pharisees within the elders at Jerusalem tried to force Gentiles to become Jews in order to be saved. Again, it was close run but the miraculous signs done amongst the Gentiles by Paul and Barnabas, and Peter’s reminder of the Cornelius episode, won the day. James kicked into the argument with Old Testament quotes of how the Gentiles would be called.

I was surprised that no one quoted Jesus’ command to go out into all the earth in Acts 1:8, and to all nations in Matthew 28:18-20. It seems relevant that Jesus only ever complimented the faith of 2 people: a centurion (Matthew 8:1-13) and a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28. Neither were Jews. A third example is when he healed ten lepers but only one returned to give thanks and he was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). Why were these, and other things said and done by Jesus, not considered? ...Probably because it was not written down.

Up to Acts 15:19, round 2 was proceeding well for the Gentile believers, but then in verse 20, James appended a couple of legal requirements from the law. Now, avoiding idols, and fornication is probably good but an unnecessary stipulation for true believers. We find that Paul declares that idols are nothing and food offered to idols is acceptable when a prayer of thanks is given to God (1 Corinthians 8). In fact, the only reason for abstaining is because of another man’s lack of faith. (Would James, or a Jew in general, have been such a man?) Similarly respect for the marital bed and one man and one wife was preached, not as a legal demand but as a consequence of God’s command to love and His created order (1 Corinthians 6:9-28). In the end Paul still says to flee idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10, and particularly verse 14. But read carefully, it’s not food offered to idols that is the issue but idolatry itself, that is, the setting up anything other than complete dedication to Jesus.

I don’t want to preach this point any more. James was appending a few ‘do not’ things from the law but Paul saw the heart of the issue was a complete dependence on Jesus which sets you free of sin. Perhaps it does not appear to be very significant to you yet but wait and see where this ends up.

Round 3 was lost

In rounds 1 and 2 the Jewish pride tried to keep the Gospel amongst the Jews or at least to convert the Gentiles to Jews. It failed, Praise God! But then some years went by as the book of Acts details all Paul’s journeys. Finally, in round 3 this religious pride succeeded in separating the Jewish and Gentile believers. You can read about it in Galatians 2:11-21. Peter withdraws from fellowship with Gentiles after men come, not just from Judea, but specifically from James. Peter seems to have lost the revelation of what happened when Cornelius was saved.

The tragedy was actually worse than just a separation because it meant that the Jewish believers were holding on to the law which undermined their dependence on Jesus and the Cross and would eventually undermine their faith. In fact, this is exactly what Paul subsequently warns the Galatian church about in Galatians 3.

The choice of James

Why was James picked as head of the Church in Jerusalem? Though Perter seemed to be singled out by Jesus as the leader, Peter could not be the leader of the church in Jerusalem because he was too busy travelling and ministering the word. There is a principle whereby, if king dies and leaves no descendant, but he has a brother, (a half-brother), then make the brother king. I think this influenced the choice of James. What happened to the requirement in Acts 1:21 that leaders have been with Jesus from the start? The brothers of Jesus did not initially believe in him (John 7:5). However, James was in the upper room and received the baptism of fire. James was sensitive to the Holy Spirit for many years. But James was not there when Jesus said, “beware the yeast of the Pharisees” in Matthew 16:6. The influence of Pharisees finally had its way...

The yeast (leaven) takes full effect

In Acts 21:17-22, Paul is making his last visit to Jerusalem and he knows it. We get a glimpse of Paul and James sharing. Paul is describing all the miracles he has witnessed amongst the Gentiles. Then in verse 21 James drops the bomb-shell. James, perhaps feeling the need to show the fruit of his ministry, describes the many converts in Jerusalem and how they are all zealous for the law. Now catch this — not zealous for Jesus or the grace of God, but for the law. I wonder how Paul felt. In Galatians 3:10-14, Paul talks about Jesus setting us free from the curse of the Law.

James wants to assure everyone in Jerusalem that Paul is still living as a Jew by having him perform some purification ritual. But Paul’s writings describes how he became as a Gentile to win Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). I wonder if Paul had figured out why this was his last trip to Jerusalem.  Paul had one final chance to speak to his people in Acts 22 and he seemed to be winning them over until he mentioned being sent to the Gentiles in verse 21. That was the end.

God preserved Paul and had him speak before kings and the emperor. But in Acts 28:28-29, when he spoke to the Jews in Rome, the same thing happened when he described being sent to the Gentiles.

Was it a language problem?

Most of the disciples, later to be apostles, were chosen from humble Jewish backgrounds. So they probably were not fluent in Greek and Latin. That may have been a barrier to the initial spreading of the word amongst Gentiles. Saul, later to become Paul was brought up in Tarsus, well outside Israel and was likely fluent in several languages. I noted earlier that it was non-native Jews who were first to share the gospel with Greeks at Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). That is effectively where Saul’s ministry also started.

The native Jews really had a problem in sharing with Gentiles. It was even against their law (Acts 10:28). Fellowshipping with Gentiles must have been a huge barrier to native Jews. But to non-native Jews, brought up in foreign cities, it was not such a barrier.

So, to start off with there was a barrier and the believers, apostles, in Jerusalem were happy to recognise Paul as called to the Gentiles while they were called to the Jews. For the moment, let’s accept that it was OK that they had different demographics in their calling or ministries, but that did not excuse the Jews from having fellowship with Gentiles as the opportunity arose. Unfortunately, that is what happened in Galatians 2 when Peter and Barnabas withdrew from fellowship and remained separate and aloof. This was stating that, as Jews, they had something special. Re-read Galatians 2. It means that the law had crept in a replaced faith in Christ.

The barrier was always going to be there

1 Corinthians 14:21, declares that God would use foreigners to speak to Israel. This is quoting from Isaiah 28:11 and the context there is that the Israelites were making up rules and not listening to God. Isaiah continues right on to predict Jesus as a corner stone in verse 16. God knew that the Jews would harden their heart. This has always been understood to apply to the Jews who rejected Jesus. What I am pointing out is that even the believing Jews, followers of The Way, clung to the law and did not understand the freedom that Paul preached (Galatians 2:4, Galatians 5:1-6).

Jesus spoke of the demise of Jerusalem in Luke 21:24, so Jerusalem as a whole was to fail. The book of revelation addresses the church in seven cities in the province of Asia (modern day Turkey). Paul’s letters address churches in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). Other books (letters) in the New Testament were sent from members of the Church in Jerusalem. These all contained corrections and warnings, but no warnings were sent to the Church in Jerusalem! Jerusalem was the home or mother church. Even Paul travelled there specifically to ratify his revelation (Galatians 2:1-2) which he received direct from Jesus (Galatians 1:1, 1:12, 2 Corinthians 12:1-7). In Galatians 2:7-10, the pillars of the Church, those who had been with Jesus, namely James, Peter and John, acknowledged Paul’s revelation. Now get this — these pillars missed the warning. It was the same warning that Peter received during the Cornelius episode, namely that God was not differentiating between Jew and Gentile (Acts 10:34-35, Acts 11:18, Romans 3:22, Ephesians 3:6).

So, although the text we read suggests that Paul was consciously seeking confirmation, he was also testifying and witnessing to the Jerusalem church, about God’s impartiality. The leaders in Jerusalem never challenged Paul on this (Galatians 2:6), but the penny did not drop. They still clung to Jewish traditions. Recalling their heritage is not of itself bad (Romans 3:1-2). The problem is self-righteousness and that is what Romans 3 is addressing.

What can I say? It’s sad. Israel was stubborn. Even the church in Jerusalem succumbed to legalism, but before this, God ensured that the Gospel got out and God has not forgotten His promise to the fathers. Paul describes these things in Romans 9:25-33 and Romans 10. Then in Romans 11, Paul has some comfort to offer. Best to read his words rather than mine.

Perhaps this will be of some help... Greeks approached Philip, seeking to speak with Jesus in John 12:20-24. I have heard it said that Philip is a Greek name, so perhaps something in Philip’s background or parentage made him more approachable. Certainly Philip was out there evangelising non-Jewish nationalities in Acts 8. When Philip brought the request before Jesus, Jesus’ reply was confusing because he spoke of his pending death and resurrection: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. For a long time that response seemed so unrelated to the question he was being asked about the Greeks. Finally I worked it out — Jesus had only been sent to the children of Israel, his people (Matthew 15:24). Only after they rejected him could the message go to the Gentiles. So Jesus saw his resurrection as enabling the fruit to come forth and that fruit is what Jesus wanted for the Gentiles.

How did they ever succeed?

Peter especially, but all the disciples of Jesus had abandoned and denied Jesus in his trial and crucifixion. They all forgot his words that he would rise again. The brothers of Jesus had not recognised him from the start. The disciples refused to believe the initial accounts when Mary saw Jesus outside the tomb, or the two men on the road to Emmaus. They were gutted by his death and unable to believe his resurrection. They were ashamed that all their loud protestations about never forsaking him, were proven hollow.

I believe that this served to humble them. They knew they were unworthy and so they knew it was all by God’s grace won for us on the Cross by Jesus. This allowed God to reveal His power and glory through them. They did not start with some perfect revelation or teaching. Rather they started with abject humility. Paul was similarly humbled during his conversion. Paul was able to remain humble and hold to the message of grace. He was not living in the epicentre of the Law, that is Jerusalem, but even Paul conceded that God actively humbled him via a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).

What do we learn from it today?

Church history sees many places where the Church of the day falls back to a ritualistic behaviour and even corruption and control. Then God raises up individuals through whom revival breaks out in different parts of the world. These are often opposed or at least ignored by the nominal church of the day. There is nothing new under the sun. We just seem incapable of learning from the examples laid out in the Bible. I presume this is because pride blinds us. Perhaps it could be described as a self-righteousness, or a desire for power and control.

I heard a much respected preacher say that if God is going to do something new, then the people he is going to work through probably won’t be happy with the way things are. I (December 2015) expect a final massive revival, later to be recognised as an end-times harvest, before Jesus returns. I long to see a Church that manifests His Love, Power and Glory — a Church that will hold true during the trials to come and will not be divided.


Acts does not end in a glorious victory for the Jews or the Jerusalem Church. Many things started with good objectives but the law was very gradually re-introduced. Paul, who was most zealous for the law to start with, ended up with the greatest revelation of its negative influence and the need for grace. Paul unswervingly sounded the warning.

God knew beforehand that, on the whole, the Jews would remain stubborn. As far as the church in Jerusalem is concerned, we cannot blame the apostles. They died rather than deny Jesus. Watch out for pride that can come wrapped in all sorts of good works and declarations – I mean your own pride, not that of other people. Walk humbly before God and wait on Him, with the Cross always before you.

...These are fine words. I struggle to fulfil them. Only the Holy Spirit can enable you to live them. In some sense it is easy to be critical and point out the faults. Then I find myself completely unable to fix the problem by saying, “Just do such and such” and I believe this to be the way that God wants it. We must always come to Him.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB®

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