Having the Goodwill of All the People
Praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:47 NRSV).
This is the final article in a series of reflections on the early church as portrayed in Acts 2:41-47. The previous articles in this series are available in the author’s archives.
Acts 2:41-47 paints a compelling and attractive portrait of the early Christian church. Founded on the apostles and their teachings, the church is a place of genuine fellowship, signs and wonders, spiritual unity, radical generosity, and vibrant corporate worship. There is little surprise, then, that Luke reports the numerical growth of this fledgling messianic movement. The people of Jerusalem are attracted to the community of Jesus’ followers because they see the manifestation of God’s kingdom in their midst. This results in the believers “having the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2:47).”
Goodwill in the Midst of Persecution
Luke’s remark regarding the goodwill of the first Christians seems strangely optimistic in light of the historical context. In both Jerusalem and the cities where Christianity eventually arrives, Christians experience persecution at the hands of both religious and civil authorities. Acts 4:1-3 says that the temple authorities are “much annoyed” by the preaching and teaching of the apostles. In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas are accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6-7). How, then, can the Bible report that the believers have the goodwill of all the people while simultaneously annoying and upsetting those in power?
First, it must be acknowledged that Christian proclamation of the gospel unsettles people, especially those in power. The temple authorities are annoyed because they do not regard Jesus as the true Messiah, yet many common people are coming to faith in Jesus as both Messiah and Lord. The civil authorities realize that the message of the resurrection and the lordship of Christ challenges existing social structures and threatens the Caesar’s claim to divine sonship. In both instances, it is the truths of the faith that bring scorn, ridicule, and physical persecution upon the Christians.
While the preaching of Peter and Paul is offensive, their daily conduct is exemplary. They do not face criticism for being immoral, unjust, or hypocritical. The first Christians are good citizens, inasmuch as they live peacefully and quietly with their neighbors. In this way they earn the goodwill of all people because of their love, kindness, generosity, unity, and compassion. If they endure persecution it is for the content of their faith, not the content of their character.
Living as Good Citizens
The New Testament consistently encourages Christians to be good citizens in this world. Paul, no stranger to injustice and political corruption, instructs Christians to submit to governing authorities because they are divinely mandated to create political order and justice. Even more, Christians need to show honor and respect to individuals who hold positions of authority. Paul offers no qualifications to this instruction. Honor is due to certain people simply because of their important position in society. Paul also tells Christians to pay their taxes (Rom 13:1-7), as does Jesus (Mt 22:21). For people in the first century, many of whom survived on subsistence farming, taxes were an extreme burden, yet Christians are told to contribute to the well-being of their governments.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells believers to live quietly, mind their own affairs, work with their hands, behave properly toward outsiders, and be dependent on no one (1 Thess 4:9-12). He advocates this way of living because it is the pattern he follows in his own life. Paul works a trade with his own hand so as to not be a financial burden on the Thessalonians, and he keeps his behavior excellent during his stay (1 Thess 2:1-12). Wherever Christians live and in whatever times, living with moral virtue and being a productive member of society is a worthy pattern to follow.
Paul is not the only New Testament writer who instructs Christians to live in a way that is considered upstanding by their neighbors. Peter acknowledges that outsiders will sometimes “malign you as evildoers (1 Pet 2:12).” Yet, he says that Christians should “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles (1 Pet 2:12).” Any outside criticism of Christians should be either inaccurate or, as suggested above, based on the theological content of Christian faith. Christians, by their actions, should not add any additional scorn or ridicule to the faith. By keeping their behavior excellent, even in light of persecution and slander, Peter says that outsiders “may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge (1 Pet 2:12).”
The first Christians lived in such a way as to gain the general respect of their neighbors. Over time, this good reputation drew new believers to the faith. Even though Christians enjoyed the goodwill of all the people, this did not eliminate the possibility of persecution, false accusations, and slander. The content of Christian proclamation always possesses the capacity to offend and challenge. Christians today should learn from the example of the first Christians and strive to live as honorably as possible. While Christians may in certain times and places be persecuted for the confession of their faith, Christians should not add further scorn to the church through hypocritical or immoral behavior. In general, non-Christians should have little reason to criticize Christians for the way they live. However, even if Christians are falsely slandered in spite of their godly living, it becomes a testimony to the genuineness of the faith and may eventually result in non-Christians giving glory to God.