The Church’s First Bible

By James Girdwood

For its first 25 years the church had no Scripture but the Old Testament. How did it shape the ideas of those first Christians about Jesus1 and the church?2 How did it drive them to the ends of the earth? (Colossians 1:6, 23). Would our ideas and success be more like theirs if we used the Old Testament like they did?3

On that remarkable Pentecost, Jews heard Galileans extol the wonders of God in languages from all over the world (Acts 2:1-11). Peter explained that this was what Joel prophesied (Acts 2:14-21 citing Joel 2:28-32).

Peter said the 16th Psalm depicted Jesus’ death and resurrection. He said Psalm 110 described Jesus’ return to reign in Heaven from which he sent the things they now heard and saw (Acts 2:24-32 citing Psalm 16:8-11, and Acts 2:33-36 citing Psalm 110:1).

SUMMARY: The apostles understood that the Old Testament tells about the beginning of the church, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his current reign in Heaven.

A little later Peter and John healed a man crippled from birth. When an excited crowd gathered, Peter told them the man was healed by the power of Jesus, and explained the meaning of Jesus’ recent crucifixion and resurrection. He added that Jesus was the prophet like Moses whom God promised to raise up (Acts 3:17-23 citing Deuteronomy 18:15-19).

Jesus’ suffering in his recent trial, abuse, and crucifixion was “how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets” (Acts 3:12-18). Peter added, “Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days” (Acts 3:24). Then he quoted God’s promise to Abraham, “Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Acts 3:25). He said God sent Jesus “first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26).

Peter was immediately arrested. When questioned by the authorities, he accused them of doing the very thing Psalm 118:22 predicted, i.e., Jesus “is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone” (Acts 4:11). No other name could save us. Such boldness from unschooled men reminded the rulers of Jesus’ boldness (Acts 4:12, 13).

SUMMARY: The Old Testament describes Jesus as “the prophet” Moses anticipated, and as the rejected capstone that became the chief stone. The prophets, indeed “all the prophets from Samuel on,” foretold the days of the beginning church. They said that Jesus would bless all people on earth.

Even the prayers of these excited Christians were steeped in Old Testament thinking. Released by the Jewish authorities, the apostles reported everything to their people. Together they prayed, using Psalm 2 as though it directly pointed to what Herod, Pilate, the Gentile rulers, and the people of Israel had done to Jesus (Acts 4:23-31).

SUMMARY: The rebellion of religious and political leaders against Jesus was anticipated by the Old Testament.

Just as the Christian ideas and behavior became known as “the Way,” so their message was called simply “the word.”4 When widows needed care in the church, the apostles chose to stay focused on “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Apparently they wanted people to know what was in the Old Testament. The believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).

SUMMARY: “The word” became a standard term designating the Christian message that was heavily supported with Old Testament passages and ideas.

Stephen retold the story of the people of Israel using many phrases found in Genesis and Exodus, and two longer quotes from the prophets (Acts 7:1-53). Jews opposed his Christian message as “blasphemy against Moses and against God,” i.e., “against this holy place and against the law.” They claimed that Stephen said “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14).

Philip found an Ethiopian official reading from Isaiah and used those verses to tell him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:30-35).

As a leading Jew, Paul knew the Old Testament well (Acts 26:4-24; Philippians 3:4-6). When he saw how it pointed to Jesus, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20, 27). “Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:22). His reasoning was so persuasive that in both Damascus and Jerusalem the Jews tried to kill him (Acts 9:23-29).

SUMMARY: Stephen, Philip, and Paul freely used the Old Testament to tell the Christian message.

Later when Paul was on trial he said,

It is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:6-8).

I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:22, 23).

At God’s direction Peter went “against our law” and entered Cornelius’s house (Acts 10:27, 28). This offended Christian Jews in Jerusalem until Peter explained how God led him to do it (Acts 11:1-18).

In the message in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul briefly retold the history of Israel. He explained that the people of Jerusalem did not recognize who Jesus was, so they “fulfilled the words of the prophets” by executing him (Acts 13:27). In so doing they “carried out all that was written about him” (Acts 13:29). The good news is that “what God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13:32, 33). Then Paul illustrated Jesus’ resurrection from Psalms and Isaiah (Acts 13:32-36 citing Psalm 2:7). He concluded his message with a warning from Habakkuk, “Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you” (Acts 13:40, 41 citing Habakkuk 1:5).

Before leaving the synagogue, Paul and Barnabas explained from Isaiah that God had sent them to carry out the purpose for which the Messiah had come (Acts 13:47 citing Isaiah 49:6).

SUMMARY: Peter and Paul did not hesitate to show how the Old Testament pointed toward and explained the Christian message.

The Jerusalem council heard Peter, Barnabas, and Paul tell how God was making Gentiles his people. James summarized by saying the prophets [plural] agreed, “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this” (Acts 15:15). Then he quoted Amos as one example of the prophets’ message (Acts 15:16-18 citing Amos 9:11, 12).

SUMMARY: Except for a few, those in the beginning church agreed that the Old Testament pointed forward to the gathering of Gentiles into the church by their faith in Jesus.

Is this how Jesus understood the Old Testament? He reminded the two from Emmaus that Moses and the prophets were full of teachings about him.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets [italics mine], he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [italics mine] concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

That same evening Jesus appeared to the apostles and told them how the Old Testament described his suffering and resurrection as well as the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness to all nations.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49).

Both Jesus and the apostles used the Old Testament extensively. They read in it about Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, his rejection by religious leaders, and his current reign in Heaven. They saw in it the beginning of the church and its expansion into all the nations. They appealed to it to solve problems and build up believers.

We have the whole New Testament today, and should use it. But the question still stands. How did this first Bible shape the ideas of the first Christians about Jesus and the church? If we knew and used the Old Testament like they did, how would it shape the church today?


1They proved from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 17:2, 3, 17; 18:4, 19, 28; etc.).

2 For 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus “spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). His words during this period at the end of each Gospel are primarily the Great Commission, so this must be about the kingdom work. The believers went everywhere preaching about Jesus and the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 17:7; 19:8; etc.).

3 The new Christians committed themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). They searched the Old Testament daily (Acts 17:11). The leaders gave themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-4).

4 Acts 6:4; 8:4; 14:25; 16:6. More frequently it was called “the word of God” (Acts 4:31; 6;2, 7; 8:14; etc.) or “the word of the Lord” (Acts 8:25; 13:44, 48, 49; 15:35, 36; etc.). Elsewhere the New Testament speaks of “the word” (Matthew 13:20-23; Mark 2:2; etc.), although the phrase “the word of God” is more frequent (Matthew 15:6; 1 Corinthians 14:36; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2; etc.).

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