This is part 3 of a 4-part series studying what "belief" really means in the Bible. This post looks at the New Testament historical account contained in the book of Acts.
You can find the previous parts of this series here:
"Believe" in the New Testament Historical Account
"Believers" or "Brethren?"
Numerous times in the book of Acts, the NIV (2011) translation uses the word "believers" in reference to Christians (see Acts 1:15; 2:44; 4:32; 8:15; 9:30, 41; 10:23, 45; 11:1-2; 15:1-7, 22-23, 32-36, 40; 16:1-2, 15; 17:6, 10, 14; 21:25).
In fact, a BibleGateway.com search of the NIV 2011 translation reveals 30 instances of the word "believer" in the book of Acts (including section subtitles).
By contrast, the 1984 NIV translation has 16 occurrences, the NASB has 4 references, and the NKJV and YLT translations only have 1 use of the word.
This is an example of how we must be careful with various Bible translations, and using multiple translations can significantly aid our study and understanding of the intended meaning of Scripture.
To illustrate, consider how the following translations render Acts 17:6:
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,
(Acts 17:6 NIV 2011)
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,
(Acts 17:6 NIV 1984)
When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also;
(Acts 17:6 NASB)
and not having found them, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the city rulers, calling aloud -- `These, having put the world in commotion, are also here present,
(Acts 17:6 YLT)
In the case of this verse, does the difference in translations result in a different understanding?
However, it could, depending on your understanding of the word "believer."
If you think that a believer is simply one who at least intellectually acknowledges Jesus and may or may not be an actual obedient disciple, you have one level of understanding.
If, however, you understand that the Holy Spirit says these were "brothers," then you know they are Christians indeed.
As we've seen—and continue to see—the two are not always synonymous.
Additional Uses of "Believe" in Acts
42 [The Christians] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
(Acts 2:42-47 NIV)
In the early church, there were simply believers and non-believers—Christians and non-Christians, although they weren't called by this name Christians yet.
1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. 4 But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.
(Acts 4:1-4 NIV)
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
(Acts 4:32 NIV)
The early Christians were unified and shared their possessions with the needy.
14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
(Acts 5:14 NIV)
The evangelist Philip went to Samaria and preached the gospel and healed people. Many believed and obeyed the gospel message, dying to their past life of sin through the waters of baptism.
5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city. 9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
(Acts 8:5-13 NIV)
Later, a beloved Christian in the city of Joppa named Tabitha (Dorcas was her Greek name) died. Peter raised her from the dead, resulting in many people believing in Jesus.
40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers [literally, the saints], especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
(Acts 9:40-43 NIV)
While Peter stayed at Simon's house, GOD was preparing to demonstrate His acceptance of Gentile believers, beginning with those from the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
Acts 10 tells how Cornelius saw a vision of an angel who instructed him to send for Peter in Joppa. Peter and a few others traveled from Joppa to Caesarea where Cornelius lived and Peter preached the gospel of Jesus to Cornelius and his family.
36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
(Acts 10:36-48 NIV)
This is a unique situation, as GOD demonstrated His approval and acceptance of these first Gentiles believers by giving them the miraculous ability provided by the Holy Spirit of speaking in other languages (tongues) before they were baptized.
Peter and his companions, seeing this, immediately baptized them into Jesus.
This is an important and curious action by Peter.
Why baptize with water these people whom GOD had clearly shown had His favor?
Because Jesus said that's when sins are forgiven—when the believer is immersed in water (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:16; John 3:5).
So, here again, belief resulted in action.
Later, as Peter defended his actions with Cornelius and his family, he explained that it was this sign of speaking in tongues that helped him conclude GOD's acceptance of these Gentiles:
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
(Acts 11:15-18 NIV)
Returning to the point made at the beginning of Acts 8, Luke wrote:
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
(Acts 11:19-21 NIV)
The Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul and sent them on a journey to preach the gospel. When they came to the island of Cyprus, they encountered a false prophet and sorceror named Bar-Jesus (also called Elymas).
6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
(Acts 13:6-12 NIV)
Paul, preaching the gospel at Antioch of Pisidia, said:
38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
41 “‘Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe,
even if someone told you.’”
(Acts 13:38-41 NIV)
This is another passage that, when taken alone, leads many into thinking that sins are forgiven at the point that an individual intellectually acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of GOD. (Note that Paul was quoting from the Old Testament here, long before Jesus commanded baptism.)
As we've seen previously from Scripture, however, this is not the case, as intellectual acknowledgment was followed by water baptism.
Paul and Barnabas had been asked to come back and speak again the next Saturday about Jesus there in Antioch of Pisidia.
44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.
46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
(Acts 13:44-48 NIV)
After being cast out of the region of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium.
1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles.
(Acts 14:1-4 NIV)
Once this trip had concluded, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch.
At some point during their time there, certain Jews came from Judea teaching that the Christians had to obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas argued strongly against this false teaching, and eventually the group decided some of them should go to Jerusalem and ask the apostles and elders there about the matter.
4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
(Acts 15:4-11 NIV)
The apostles and elders at Jerusalem determined to send a letter by the hands of Paul and Barnabas to the Christians in Antioch in order to clear up the matter.
After some days in Antioch, Paul took Silas to revisit the churches Paul had established on his previous trip with Barnabas. Eventually, they came to Lystra.
1 Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek. 4 And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.
(Acts 16:1-5 NKJV)
After being led by the Holy Spirit to the region of Macedonia, the travelers came to Philippi, where they met a woman named Lydia.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
(Acts 16:11-15 NIV)
This text is most helpful to our study.
First, we see this woman, Lydia, was "a worshiper of God." The very next thing we learn is that, once Paul preached the gospel to her, she was baptized.
Why was she baptized here, being already a worshiper?
Because Jesus said baptism was required in order to have your sins forgiven (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38).
Then, Lydia extended an offer to host Paul and his companions, if they considered her to be a believer.
This word translated "believer" in the NIV 2011 is the Greek word πιστός, ή, όν, which means "trustworthy, faithful, believing." In fact, the NKJV translates the word as "faithful" in Acts 16:15.
So, once again, we learn that one who believes is one who follows in obedience.
After these things, Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi.
That night, as they sang praises to GOD, there was a great earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison and unlocked and opened all the prison doors. The jailer was about to kill himself, assuming the prisoners had escaped. However, Paul called out to him not to harm himself because they were all still there.
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
(Acts 16:29-34 NIV)
Once again, we see the same behavior here as with Lydia.
The jailer was told to believe in Jesus, which he did, and then he and his family were baptized into Jesus to wash their sins away.
Note that their baptism was immediate and not scheduled for later. This is because until they were immersed, they remained in their sins, just as Paul was after he recognized Jesus as Lord (see Acts 22:6-8, 16).
Paul and company left Philippi and went to Thessalonica where some obeyed the gospel, but once again, the disbelieving Jews stirred up trouble against Paul and his fellow workers, so they left for Berea.
Regarding the Jews of Berea, Luke wrote:
11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
(Acts 17:11-12 NIV)
When the wicked Jews stirred up trouble for the missionaries, Paul left, but Silas and Timothy stayed behind to work with the Christians in Berea.
Paul went to Athens and called for Silas and Timothy to join him, so they did. Paul preached Jesus to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens. Some believed the gospel.
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
(Acts 17:32-34 NIV)
When Paul left Athens, he traveled to Corinth. During his time there, Crispus, ruler of the synagogue, obeyed the gospel.
8 Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.
(Acts 18:8 NKJV)
When this second missionary journey was completed, Paul returned to Antioch. After some time there, he returned on a third trip, to Galatia and Phyrgia to strengthen the Christians there. At this time a Jew named Apollos came to Ephesus teaching of Jesus.
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
(Acts 18:24-28 NIV)
Afterward, Paul came to Ephesus and found some disciples who hadn't been baptized.
1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
(Acts 19:1-7 NIV)
8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
(Acts 19:8-10 NIV)
While in Ephesus, GOD worked mightily through Paul.
On one occasion, some Jews tried to cast out an evil spirit in the name of Jesus. The spirit confessed his knowledge of Jesus and Paul but asked who they were, then proceeded to give them a beating, so they fled naked and bleeding.
17 When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done.
(Acts 19:17-18 NIV)
After Paul finally made it to Jerusalem carrying the offerings for the needy saints in Judea, he met with the Christians there. The elders and James were concerned about the Jewish Christians who had heard rumors about Paul, so they devised a plan to allay their fears.
17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
(Acts 21:17-25 NIV)
Paul took these four men mentioned in Acts 21:23-24 to the temple to fulfill their vow.
When he was there, however, some unbelieving Jews recognized Paul and started a riot as they tried to kill him.
The Roman soldiers stepped in and rescued Paul. They took him to their barracks, where he spoke to the crowd in the Hebrew language. Paul recounted how he had persecuted the church until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. He told of his salvation.
At the end of his message, Paul said:
17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
(Acts 22:17-21 NIV)
At this, the Jews were enraged because Paul said he had been sent to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The Romans put Paul in prison where he interacted regularly with the governor Felix, and also spoke with his successor Festus and King Agrippa. Paul defended himself against the Jews' accusations before Felix, during which he said:
13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
(Acts 24:13-16 NIV)
During his conversation with King Agrippa, Paul concluded his message by asking:
27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
(Acts 26:27 NIV)
Unfortunately, Agrippa refused to submit to the will of GOD, at least at this time.
Ultimately, Paul appealed to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen. He sailed, under Roman centurion guard, to Rome where he lived under house arrest for two years.
While there, Paul met at least twice with the Jewish leaders who were in Rome in an attempt to persuade them regarding his innocence and the gospel.
Regarding their second meeting, Luke wrote:
23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.
(Acts 28:23-24 NIV)
The New Testament historical account concludes with Paul's time in this house in Rome.
The book of Acts contains most valuable insights into the biblical concept of belief, showing us that it is much more than a simple intellectual acknowledgement of truth.