How did the first Christians see their relationship with the society around them? Here in Acts 24, we see three things in Paul’s words and actions which give a partial answer to that question
Firstly, they saw themselves as witnesses (Ac 1:8). That’s visible in Paul’s conduct before this human court, as he gives the evidence which shows he is no rabble-rouser but, rather, one who honours the God of Israel (Ac 1:16). He came to Jerusalem in order to bring gifts, make offerings and all in a way which upholds the Law (v17-18). So those who put charges against him are just slanderers, some of whom haven’t even turned up in court to make their claims (v19-21)! So Paul is a passionate witness in this courtroom, defending his actions clearly. But he also knows that another court is sitting at the same time. The Lord is looking down from above to judge Israel for her sins and Paul’s testimony is part of that legal case too (cf Ac 3:13-15). But what the Lord does with Israel is only a foretaste of the case he has against the whole world for its sin (Jo 16:8-11). Hence Paul, and all Christians, are ultimately witnesses in that greatest of all trials.
This sense of being witnesses shaped the churches of the first century (Ac 10:39-42) and it still should. For example, when a church meets on Sunday, what are we doing? We gather to offer worship: to honour the Lord upon the earth. This is a world in which God is regularly ignored, replaced or denied. Christians live to proclaim the opposite: God is to be loved, listened to and obeyed! Our worship is a precious time in which we do that in a very focussed way, when God is the centre of our attention and the truth about him is made plain, for we are witnesses.
But then secondly, the first Christians saw themselves as displaying the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has ascended above from where he rules over heaven and earth (Mt 28:18). Each church is a colony of his kingdom on the earth, living out the life the king commands. And what does that life look like? Love (Jo 13:34-35). The first churches were taught to think hard about their inner life and those which failed to love were sternly warned (eg Re 2:4; 1Co 11:22). Visible love was to be the order of the day, as we see here with Paul. He came to Jerusalem with money for the needy believers there (v17; Ga 2:10; 1Co 16:1-3; Ro 15:27) and he is passionate about the project for its displays the unity Christ has built between Jews and Gentiles (Ep 2:11-22). Early churches were taught to pursue love among themselves to display the beauty of the Lord’s kingdom.
This focus on a church’s inner life is vital and is clearly found on the pages of the New Testament. For example: early on, the first church in Jerusalem organised relief for needy believers (Ac 6:1). On the other hand, churches could be quite careful in how they related to the wider community since charitable giving can easily distract from more important spiritual work (Jo 6:26,27). Yet, having said that, individual Christians did, like the Lord Jesus, show great love to people of all kinds. After all, the Lord told the story of the good Samaritan (Lu 10:30-37), insisted on love for enemies (Lu 6:27) and taught that worldly treasures are to be held lightly (Lu 12:34,34). So though churches did not organise community welfare projects where they lived, nonetheless the Christians still made an impact on all around them as the love of the kingdom of heaven spilled out of their lives (Ga 6:9-10). And that has been repeated through history, with Christians often involved in all kinds of charitable activities. Such involvement isn’t a technique to get a hearing but simply the life of the kingdom being put on display – a kingdom with no equal on the earth.
Then thirdly, the first Christians saw themselves as challenging sin. The gospel is simple: due to our sins we human beings cannot ultimately solve our own problems; we need God’s forgiveness through a Saviour who has come to rescue us. Hence, when Paul speaks with Felix the governor, he must preach that message. Felix leaves Paul’s case undecided (v22) so that he remains imprisoned, cared for by his friends (v23; Mt 25:36), but also regularly listens, along with his wife, to the apostle. Paul, however, does not try to win them round with niceness but speaks plainly about God’s judgment (v24), leaving the governor afraid (v25). Even when a bribe could get his release (v26), Paul continues with the same approach despite its outward failure (v27). Why? Because he knows that Christians are here to challenge sin. For our good news is about a Saviour from sin and that is always the heart of our dealings with the world around us.