In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
(Acts 1:15-26 ESV)
From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry until the present day, discipleship has been a numbers game. I know. We’ve all been trained to sit in half-empty church halls and console ourselves by saying, “It isn’t about the numbers.” And if you mean that a bigger congregation isn’t necessarily a better one, you’d be right. If all the church does is add souls to the rolls, as Paul says, “we are, of all people, most to be pitied.”
Bodies make a larger congregation. Disciples make a larger church. Knowing the difference is probably the most important thing a church can learn besides knowing that Jesus is Lord.
Spend any time at all reading the Gospels and you will see how Jesus went about building a church that could survive the death of its leader, the betrayal of all by the church treasurer (who went on to commit suicide), and the scandal of a public recanting of everything the church believed by one of its elders, all in the space of twenty-four hours. You would think that any church that suffered that many blows in quick succession would find its membership cut to a fraction, or that the church would cease to exist altogether. But that’s not what happened.
In Luke 10 we read that Jesus sent out 72 disciples (by twos) to do ministry. How were they trained? Well… this is just a guess… If you build a group of Three Leaders who each train three leaders (that’s twelve), and each of those leaders infects just six people with the message, you’ve got 72 you can send out while still keeping your original twelve at home.
The Ascension took place 40 days after the Resurrection, or 43 days after Passover on what we call Maundy Thursday. The events of Acts chapter 2 happened on Pentecost. That is 50 days after Passover. Do the math. The Apostles chose Matthias sometime during the week between the Ascension and Pentecost.
But there is a more important piece of math you need to do. Acts 1:15 says there were now 120 disciples. The church didn’t implode when all that tragedy happened; it GREW. Sure, you can brush it off and say it was Jesus and his Apostles and that it wasn’t First Congregational down on the corner. But that is to suggest that these men were more or better or less sinful than you and I, and that’s just not true. They proved over and over again in the Gospels that they were just ordinary guys.
There are three simple reasons why the church held together during those days and GREW. The first is that Jesus didn’t leave them. His post-Resurrection appearances infused life into the group. They wanted to be with Jesus and they stayed together to do it. And remember this is before Pentecost, so you can’t say they were operating in Holy Spirit hyper-drive either.
The second reason is that they stayed together. Call it critical mass, but there’s something about being in worship with a group of sixty or seventy. That’s not a small church – that’s just the right number for great times of deep worship. The sound of sixty or seventy voices really raised in praise to God (no instruments, no power point, no sound system needed) – is absolutely mighty.
The third reason the church held together is because each one had someone in the group they were deeply connected with. It only takes one really deep friendship; one that has been tested by space and time; one that is built in adversity and hope; one that loves Jesus in the other more than it loves the other. That’s all it takes. If you are part of a church where you have someone like that at your side, you’ll make it. And I don’t mean your spouse. I can tell you from experience it is just as easy for a married couple to feel totally alone in church as it is for a single person. If you’re married, the two of you need two others to make you feel really anchored in the Body.
This church survived because it had all three of those things going on, and that’s because Jesus built disciples, and not just numbers.