Have you ever tossed a rock into a still pond? It’s somehow calming to watch the ripples radiating outward from the center. Maybe you reached for a bigger rock and tried that one too: bigger splash, bigger ripples. (I could also ask the guys if they’ve ever spit over the side of a bridge to watch their spittle drop into the watery void below, but that’s not the image I’m going for here.)
We might think of the book of Acts in similar terms. Pentecost is like a boulder from heaven dropped into the social and religious water of Jerusalem, violently disturbing the surface calm. Ripples immediately begin to spread outward, and Luke chronicles the spread. Centuries later, the ripples continue. We’re part of the disturbance.
Mercy, that’s one big boulder.
Immediately after the difficult story of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke gives us another summary of the success of the early church:
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. The people held them in high esteem. More than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women. (Acts 5:12-14, NRSV)
Sounds familiar, right? The power of God continues to be demonstrated through miracles performed by the apostles; the believers continue to gather; their number continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
I confess, however, to doctoring the passage a bit. True, the believers continued to meet in Solomon’s Portico. But then Luke adds, “None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”
The statement is rather ambiguous. Does he mean that others dared not to become Christians, or that they didn’t dare join them publicly in the portico? And why didn’t they dare? Is it because of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira? Or what happened to Peter and John?
There’s no way to be certain. But I don’t think we have to choose. News of the death of Ananias and Sapphira got around quickly. It was surely a holy wake-up call to those who were tempted to be too casual in their belief. The arrest of Peter and John was another wake-up call, and the prayer of Acts 4:29 suggests that no one thought this would be a one-off aberration.
It makes sense, then, to read Luke as giving us a realistic peek into the double-mindedness of the Jewish crowds. Obviously, God was doing something in their midst, and for a time, believers were seen in the light of that reflected glow. But did people dare join a movement in which folks dropped dead of dishonesty? Did people dare risk the wrath of the temple authorities?
There are risks to believing, as Luke will continue to show.
And yet, Luke continues,
Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured. (Acts 5:14-16)
Even with the risks, more and more came to believe, beyond the thousands who had already said yes to Jesus. The healing ministry exploded to the point where people hoped that even Peter’s shadow might have curative powers. Crowds came from outlying areas, bringing the sick and possessed. And indeed, they were all cured.
Did people believe first, then decide to take advantage of the healing ministry? Perhaps. But I’m guessing that many were desperate for healing in the first place. For that reason, they braved the risks — then gave themselves to the God who miraculously showed mercy.
From Jerusalem to Judea… The boulder had dropped, and there was no stopping the ripples.
Though, as we’ll see, some would try.