“At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed” (Acts 5:12-16).
Two statements in this text appear to stand irreconcilably at odds with each other: “none of the rest dared to associate with them” (v. 13); and “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (v. 14). How could multitudes be constantly added to the church if no one would associate with them?
Luke doesn’t explain himself, nor does any other New Testament writer address the question directly. So, I draw some inferences from the context. Remember Ananias and Sapphira? They had joined the church, but were they really born again? God’s summary judgment against them suggests that they likely weren’t. There were likely others in the church who were not genuine believers either.
After the incident with Ananias and Sapphira, “great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (v. 11). We can imagine the shock that must’ve rippled through the whole church to learn of God’s judgment against two people others must’ve thought were just like everyone else. If believing Christians, people who loved the Lord, were gripped with fear, the unbelievers who had joined themselves to the church must’ve been terrified.
Luke used two distinct terms to describe the biblical mathematics of association with and addition to the church. The word translated “associate” means to be glued, as two pieces of wood that are glued together to form a larger, single piece. The bond can be strong, but the two pieces, although glued together, remain distinct. Many people may join a church, who have never come to saving faith in Christ. One of the great problems with modern evangelism is the emphasis on making decisions instead of making disciples. Churches are filled with people, sometimes the majority, who are outwardly religious, but give no evidence of regeneration.
Exciting things were happening in the Jerusalem church. The people being saved told everyone about the wonderful difference Christ had made in their lives. Christians were sharing their possessions with other Christians, people were being healed. Miracles were taking place. People were curious or suspicious. Crowds started to show up. The momentum of the moment was taking hold of people. So, while many people were being saved, others were just being excited.
Suddenly, God dealt severely with two people who thought they could get away with lying to God. That changed the math. The risk of joining the church and drawing near to God in worship was far greater for those who’d only made a decision, but weren’t genuine disciples. People backed up. The threat was real. The fear was real. The merely curious stayed home.
There’s a lesson here for the church today. Instead of trying to lure people into church with every imaginable gimmick, what would happen if we preached the pure, unmitigated Word of God – the holiness of God, the heinousness of sin, the judgment to come and the grace to be saved. Churches would definitely be smaller. The merely religious don’t care for such preaching. It bores them and annoys them. It’s frankly offensive to them. Without the entertainment factor, there’d be no reason for them to go to church.
Still, Luke said, “multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.” The New Testament church did grow, as God ordained it to grow, through the spiritual regeneration of sinners. The New Testament church today grows as well, as God has always ordained it to grow – by grace through faith in Christ alone.
God be glorified.