The Great Controversy and the Early Church
The greatest barrier Jesus faced with His followers was their preconceived opinions. The disciples took little notice of what Jesus said if it did not fit in with their own ideas of who He should be. Right up to the time of His ascension, the disciples still quizzed Jesus about freeing Israel from the Romans.
It was only after 10 days of prayer and close fellowship in the presence of God that dominant preconceptions were finally beginning to be replaced with the truth, and the disciples were ready to hear what God told them. This paved the way for the incredible events at that first Pentecost after the death of Jesus.
Of course, the church still faced many challenges, especially from local religious leaders, some of whom were just as determined to stop the church as they were to stop Jesus.
Thus, in this week’s lesson, we will see the great controversy played out in different ways. We will see it manifested openly, as those in power are inspired by Satan to repress the truth. But we will also see it played out in a subtler but more crucial area: the human heart.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, February 27.
After His resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days meeting with the disciples to confirm the resurrection and to help them better understand the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3, 1 Cor. 15:4–7). However, even as they assembled, just before Jesus departed into the heavens, the thing uppermost in their minds was whether or not this was the time for Jesus to finally conquer the Romans (Acts 1:6).
Their own ideas of what should happen were so strong that they simply did not listen to what Jesus had been saying to them. Even after three and a half years of close instruction (the equivalent of a university degree) from the best Teacher the world has ever known, the disciples still had many wrong notions to unlearn.
Jesus focused on the real issue rather than wasting time trying to correct their every misunderstanding. The empowerment of the Holy Spirit was far more important than political discussion.
After watching Jesus ascending into the clouds and disappearing, the disciples noticed two men standing by them. The two men told them that Jesus would return. Just as He was accepted into heaven as a conquering King, so He will come again as the King and Conqueror they dreamed of when they asked Him about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. But that day will surpass even their greatest dreams—for He will come as King of all creation, not just king of a piece of land in the Middle East.
The eleven disciples returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, their heads swimming with memories and their hearts glowing with the truths revealed by Jesus (at least the ones they understood). But they needed something more. Jesus told them to wait for a few days until the Holy Spirit baptized them (Acts 1:4, 5), for though the enemy had been defeated, he wasn’t done yet, and they would need power from on high in order to do what Jesus had called them to do.
For ten days the followers of Jesus prayed, evaluated their experiences with Jesus in the light of Scripture, showed humility and acceptance to each other, and finally allowed the Holy Spirit to impress the truth upon them. Just as the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at the beginning of the Creation process, so, too, the Spirit of God hovered over each of the disciples, appearing as divided tongues of fire on each of them (Acts 2:2, 3). It was a new beginning, a new creation.
Sometime after the Flood, the inhabitants of the earth decided to build a tower that reached heaven (Gen. 11:1–9). To prevent them from this arrogant and foolish endeavor (as well as the new evils they had been devising, Gen. 11:5, 6), God confused their common language and scattered them “over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:7–9, NKJV).
At Pentecost, God did the opposite. Here He could see a group of people, not building a new tower of Babel, but who were ready to proclaim the good news that evil would one day be forever banished.
People “from every nation under heaven” were in Jerusalem that day (Acts 2:5, NKJV; compare the scattering at the tower of Babel), and they gathered together in amazement as they each heard their own language being spoken by the disciples (Acts 2:6–11).
Peter uses this as an opportunity to address them. He speaks of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit preparing a people to meet God (Acts 2:17–21). He points out the Messiah’s true mission and rebukes them for crucifying Him (Acts 2:23). They are “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, NKJV), and 3,000 are baptized and join the disciples (Acts 2:41).
“The priests and rulers saw that Christ was extolled above them. As the Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection, heard the apostles declaring that Christ had risen from the dead, they were enraged, realizing that if the apostles were allowed to preach a risen Saviour, and to work miracles in His name, the doctrine that there would be no resurrection would be rejected by all, and the sect of the Sadducees would soon become extinct.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 78.
What got these leaders especially upset was the healing that the Lord did through Peter (see Acts 3:1–10). But, when confronted by these leaders, the disciples didn’t waver. The priests were not expecting this from “uneducated and untrained men” (Acts 4:13, NKJV). Sending the disciples out of the room, they conferred among themselves, thinking that if they commanded these men not to teach in the name of Jesus, they would meekly comply (Acts 4:18). How wrong they were.
Instead, the disciples went back and joined the others, and together they praised God (Acts 4:24). They prayed for more boldness and that God would stretch out His hand for more healing (Acts 4:29, 30). They did not need to wait long. Because of the disciples’ growing popularity, people brought their sick out onto the streets to allow Peter’s passing shadow to fall on them (Acts 5:15). Multitudes came from nearby towns, and their sick were all healed (Acts 5:16).
All through here we can see the great controversy unfolding: unscrupulous leaders seeking to suppress truth; faithful people reading the Scriptures and praying for divine power, sickness healed, and souls won. Though things, at least on the surface, don’t always work out as well as they did here, we must never forget how, ultimately, the great controversy will play out, and the final victory that is ours because what Jesus has accomplished for all humanity is certain.
The disciples weren’t the only ones to be confronted by the religious establishment during the earliest days of the church. Stephen, who was filled with “faith and power, [and] did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8, NKJV), was brought before them. His witness was so compelling, in fact, that his opponents manufactured false and incriminating stories against him, for which he was dragged before the council (Acts 6:9–14).
The apostles had so far gotten away with challenging the leaders, but when Stephen tried to do the same, he was killed by an angry mob. Stephen’s death marked the beginning of a concerted effort by Satan to wipe out the new movement. Up until this point, the followers of Jesus had been harassed and threatened, but Stephen was the first one to be killed.
But what did they expect? If Satan could inspire some leaders to execute Jesus, His followers certainly should not have expected any less for themselves.
Of course, all through the great controversy the Lord would, time and time again, bring victory out of what often seemed like defeat. It was no different here.
“After the death of Stephen, Saul was elected a member of the Sanhedrin council in consideration of the part he had acted on that occasion. For a time he was a mighty instrument in the hands of Satan to carry out his rebellion against the Son of God. But soon this relentless persecutor was to be employed in building up the church that he was now tearing down. A Mightier than Satan had chosen Saul to take the place of the martyred Stephen, to preach and suffer for His name, and to spread far and wide the tidings of salvation through His blood.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 102.
The disciples not only struggled with preconceived ideas that kept them from understanding what Jesus taught them, but they also shared national prejudices. One example of this is the story of the Samaritan woman from whom Jesus asked a drink of water. The disciples were surprised that He even spoke to the woman (John 4:27, NKJV).
National prejudices also came to the fore in the account of Cornelius, a Roman centurion based in Caesarea. Cornelius was “a devout man and one who feared God” (Acts 10:2, NKJV) and highly respected by the local people (Acts 10:22). An angel instructed him to send for Peter in Joppa (Acts 10:22, see also Acts 10:3–8).
Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter goes up to the rooftop to pray (Acts 10:9). With shelter from the sun and the cool sea breezes, he relaxes and begins to feel hungry, and while waiting for his hosts to prepare lunch he sees a strange vision. Heaven opens and something like a huge sheet tied at the four corners is let down. Inside the cloth is an assortment of creatures that he regards as either polluted or “unclean” and from which he is told to kill and eat (Acts 10:11–14).
In this vision God teaches Peter an important lesson. Some people today think that this is the time when God changes the human diet to allow people to eat whatever they like. That is not what Peter receives from the vision. First he wonders what it means; it is not at first obvious (Acts 10:17). When Cornelius’s men arrive and explain their mission, Peter feels compelled to return with them (Acts 10:22, 23). When Peter meets Cornelius, he is able to tell Cornelius the meaning of the vision. Christ is the Savior of all the world. Gentiles, too, are precious souls for whom Christ died (Acts 10:34–48).
Peter was learning a lesson that we all, still, need to learn. In Christ all barriers have been torn down and the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between all people, no longer exists, “but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:35).
Further Thought: Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about Jesus returning to the earth, but not as predicted in the Bible. Instead, in this made-up story, Jesus returned at the height of the Inquisition, when religious leaders used their power for evil. The Grand Inquisitor had Jesus, who came as a humble peasant, arrested and thrown in a dungeon. That night he visited Jesus in jail and castigated Him for giving humans freedom. “Instead of taking men’s freedom from them,” he declares, “Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.” Despite his audacity and cynicism, the cleric has a point. Look at what humans have done with their freedom. Pain, evil, sin, suffering, death— all have arisen from freedom, or from the abuse of it. But God created us as loving beings, and the only way we could love is if we were created free. So much of how the great controversy plays out in this world is impacted by what people have done and still do with the sacred but very costly gift (the Cross reveals the cost) of freedom. As we saw this week, some, when confronted with the gospel, repented and gave their hearts to Jesus; others, when confronted with it, murdered the messenger. Freedom is a precious gift, but we need to be so careful about what we do with it.