Two weeks ago as we looked at the origin of the Church, we probably felt a twinge of envy as we re-read of 3000 souls being added to the Church—we wished we could experience some of that kind of visible result to the presentation of the Gospel in Shoreacres.
We left the meeting that night asking ourselves if we could, in any way, be hindering the Holy Spirit in his operation in our midst.
We previously had said that ‘The study of Acts’ would do two things to us: it would fill us with shame—we have been humbled and subdued in the Lord’s Presence and tonight we go on the other side of the coin: it will fill us with hope. We are thrilled to see that the road from Rome to Jerusalem that took 500 years to build eastward is traveled westward by the Gospel Messengers in the short span of some seventy years.
Tonight we look at the start of this transition—this moving out—from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth.
We Remember That:
The first period in the history of the early church can be characterized as that of establishment. At the outset there is no evidence that the believers broke sharply with Judaism. Pentecost was a Jewish feast before it became a Christian anniversary. The preaching of the apostles interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures and stressed Jesus’ Messianic office, even avowing that if the nation repented, the Messiah Jesus would return (3:19, 20). The addresses of Peter were gauged for a Jewish audience, and so was the great appeal of Stephen. When the apostles went to worship they went to the temple (3:1), and Stephen debated in the synagogues (6:9, 10) of the foreign residents in Jerusalem.
The sudden persecution, which burst like a storm at the death of Stephen, marked a sharp change in the affairs of the church. Up to this time the believers had been tolerated, or else the arrests, interrogations, and imprisonments had been spasmodic. The genuineness of the miracles which had been performed (4:15, 16) and the popular favor which they enjoyed (2:47) prevented the ruling priesthood from treating the church too drastically. Stephen’s arraignment of the nation for the rejection of Christ, however, so enraged them that they did not wait for legal action but stoned him on the spot. (7:54-60)
The violent death of Stephen and because of the sternly repressive measures taken by the Jewish leaders to crush the new movement, the majority of the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered abroad through Judea and Samaria. From this point to the last chapters of Acts little is said of the Jerusalem church. It was strongly Judaist in character and maintained some observance of the law, as the later controversies showed (15:1, 21:17-26). The scattering of its adherents, however, resulted in numerous missionary projects, which are recorded in chapters 8, 9, 10 and 11.
The Preaching In Samaria
Evidently the seven who had been appointed to care for the widows of the Jerusalem church had not been content to remain servers of tables. Stephen became an apologist; Philip became an evangelist. Driven from Jerusalem, Philip made his way to Samaria, where he opened a preaching campaign.
Samaria was inhabited by a population of mixed ancestry. When the northern kingdom of Israel fell before the Assyrians in 721 B.C. they deported to Assyria a large number of people, replacing them by settlers from other lands. In the resulting mixture of population both the Jewish blood and the Jewish worship were affected. The Samaritans were half Gentile by descent, and they retained some of the features of heathen worship, although they adhered to Jehovah also (II Kings 17:24-33). The tension between the two peoples was so strong that the Jews who traveled between Judea and Galilee usually avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan and by using the roads on its eastern bank.
Philip’s preaching among the Samaritans was, therefore, a surprising action for a Jew. It showed that he had a vision of the possibilities of his message for other peoples than his own. The response was amazing. The Samaritans forsook their superstitions and believed on Christ.
The mission of Philip was reinforced by the aid of Peter and John, who visited Samaria to see what had been accomplished and to make sure that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts recounts four occasions on which the Holy Spirit came to man in a spectacular manner: to the disciples at Pentecost (2:1-4), to the Samaritans (8:17), to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (10:44-46) and upon the disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (19:6). Each of these instances represents the introduction of the Holy Spirit to a different class of people. Collectively they mark the beginning of the Spirit’s work in the lives of individual believers at the opening of the church era. The gift of the Holy Spirit was the proof of conversion (Romans 8:9) and was the stamp of divine approval upon the apostles’ work.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
The eunuch was an official of the Ethiopian court who was probably a proselyte returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The interview of Philip with this man was illustrative of several principles in the growth of the church. As in the case of the Samaritans, racial backgrounds and prejudices were overcome, the ministry to an individual was proved to be as important in the eyes of God as a mass revival, and the method of preaching Jesus from the Old Testament was demonstrated. Acts does not relate the consequences of this interview and makes no allusion to the effect of the gospel in Ethiopia. It does indicate that the period of transition from Jerusalem as the center of Christianity to the Gentile world involved a large number of contacts and that the message went in many directions.
The Conversion Of Paul
The ministry of Philip illustrated the outreach of the church to new localities and groups; the conversion of Saul of Tarsus was the provision of a new leader. Next to the work of Christ Himself, the conversion of Saul was probably the most important event in the history of Christianity, for it not only removed an active enemy of the Gospel, but also it transformed him into one of its chief propagators.
Saul of Tarsus appeared first in the pages of Acts as a young man holding the garments of those who stoned Stephen and “consenting unto his death” (8:1). Three separate accounts of his conversion are given in Acts; one by Luke in chapter 9 as an integral part of the general historical account, and two which are included in quoted speeches of Paul (22:1-21, 26:2-23). Each had a different emphasis. The first account is historical, as part of the movement of the church; the last two are personal, and were given as defenses of Paul’s life and doctrine before hostile or questioning audiences. Taken together with certain passages from his epistles, they afford the sum total of available data concerning the great crisis of his life.
Saul, or Paul as he is generally known, was born into a strict Hebrew family near the beginning of the first century. His native city was Tarsus, a busy metropolis in Cilicia, situated on the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. From Tarsus, a land road went north and west through the pass in the mountains known as the Cilician Gates, and the docks of the city were a center of shipping. The university of Tarsus was noted for its courses in philosophy and medicine, and the temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing, served as a hospital and clinic for the use of the medical students.
He was educated strictly in good Jewish fashion, learning the Hebrew language and the Scriptures, and also the trade of tent making (18:3).
At the age of twelve he was sent to Jerusalem to study with Gamaliel (22:3), and according to his own testimony he made good progress in his studies (Galatians 1:14). By conviction he was a Pharisee, and his zeal was measured by the intensity with which he persecuted the church (Acts 26:9-11). By the time that he came to manhood he was already a leader in Judaism. The language of Acts 26:10, “…I gave my vote against them” if it is taken literally, implies that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. If that be so, he must have been thirty or more years of age at the martyrdom of Stephen, since a man was not eligible for membership in that body until he had attained maturity.
The moral antecedents of his conversion are suggested by his account of his inner life as given in Romans 7. Plagued by the consciousness of sin which was aroused by the law, he found that the good that he wanted to do he could not produce, and the evil that he sought to avoid was always present with him (Romans 7:19). Whether Romans 7 applies to the converted or to the unconverted man has been long debated by theologians, but there can be little doubt that it refers to man under the law as Paul was. Certainly the law itself could produce the consciousness of sin even apart from the Gospel. Paul’s zeal for persecution, then, may have been the effort of a misguided conscience to do something for God which would compensate for the evil in his soul.
The death of Stephen was also a rankling thorn in his mind. According to Paul’s way of thinking, Stephen was a blasphemer and stood condemned by the law. Nevertheless, Stephen’s argument was essentially sound and could not be refuted. Furthermore, the vision of the risen Christ which Stephen professed to have and the job which illumined his face in spite of impending death gave his life a reality which the legalistic arguments of Saul could not shake. He alluded to this event in his speech from the castle of Antonia (Acts 22:19, 20) as an experience which he could not forget. His conversion may not have been caused by it, but it made part of the foundation for the transformation which took place on the road of Damascus.
The conversion itself was distinctly a supernatural revelation of the risen Christ to this implacable persecutor. Paul classes it as the last of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:8). No theory of disease or hallucination can account for it adequately. Luke notes that it took place at a definite locality near Damascus (Acts 9:3); that it was accompanied by a great light (9:3) which Paul says was brighter than the noonday sun (26:13); that an audible voice spoke to Paul which was heard by the men with him (9:7), although they did not understand what was said (22:9). Paul himself suffered physical effects (9:8), which could be observed by those who accompanied him. The objective character of the conversion is above doubt.
The subjective factor deserves some attention also. When the unknown voice spoke to him from the blazing light of the heavenly glory, Paul’s natural question was, “Who art thou?” (9:5). The answer, “I am Jesus” (9:5), would have been unbelievable to him had not his experience with Stephen prepared him for it. In one flash of revelation he saw that Stephen was right, that all the arguments of Judaism against Stephen and the disciples had been wrong, and that a new world of revelation had been opened to him. Parallel with the reversal of his theological thinking came a call to service in the Gentile world. He acceded and was filled with the Spirit for his new task (9:10-19).
The ministry of Paul began immediately in Damascus. Galatians says that he visited Arabia at this time (Galatians 1:17). Probably he did so between his initial testimony in the synagogues (Acts 9:22) and his final departure from Damascus (9:23-25). Quite possibly the shock to his thinking was so great that he had to retire for a while to readjust his beliefs to the new light that had come in Christ. His sudden reversal of position was as disconcerting to him as it was to his associates.
Paul’s new faith in Jesus as the Messiah brought him into a clash with his former Jewish colleagues in Damascus (9:23), and for his own safety he was obliged to flee the city. In Jerusalem he was regarded with cold suspicion by the disciples who, logically enough, looked upon him as a wolf who was adopting the sheep’s garb in order to raid the flock. Under the sponsorship of Barnabas, however, he was accepted into the apostolic circle (9:27). He maintained a bold program of preaching, especially among the Hellenistic Jews, quite similar to the work that Stephen had done. So great was his success and so violent was the reaction against him that the church sent him away to Tarsus (9:30) where the opposition that he aroused would endanger them less.
Paul, according to all testimony (9:15; 22:21; 26:17; Romans 15:16; Galatians 1:16, 2:7-8; Ephesians 3:1-7), was God’s choice as the apostle to the Gentiles. His conversion was part of the transition from the Jewish-centered church of Jerusalem to the Gentile church of the Roman world.
The Preaching Of Peter
The conversion of Paul brought into the church a new personality who was destined to become the outstanding apostle to the Gentiles, but the Spirit of God was working also with the personalities within the church, chief among whom was Peter. Beginning with the period of transition, he began to enlarge his ministry by preaching in the coastal plain of Sharon, where his activities were concentrated in the cities of Lydda and Joppa (Acts 9:32-43).
The important case in this period was the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who was in command of a military detachment at Caesarea. Evidently he had already been interested in Judaism, for he is called “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” (10:2).
The divine direction of Peter to the house of Cornelius is important in the history of Acts for a number of reasons. First, it indicated that God’s provision of salvation was not to be confined to one race or people. Cornelius, the Roman Gentile, had as much right to hear the message of Christ as any Jew in the synagogues of Palestine.
Second, the conversion of Cornelius was the opening wedge for bringing Gentiles into the church. Peter’s initial reaction to the divine command was a refusal to participate in anything that was unclean (10:14, 11:7-12). At God’s behest he went to a Gentile home, preached, and subsequently remained for a few days (10:48). The conversion of these Gentiles was so convincing that Peter proposed their baptism and accepted them into fellowship (10:44-48).
The reception of these Gentiles precipitated a question within the church that remained a point of controversy for some time thereafter. Should a Jewish Christian eat with the uncircumcised Gentiles who did not observe the Law? If the Gentiles became believers, how much of the law should they observe? Was legal observance the final criterion of righteousness or of a right relation with God? Not all of these questions were raised immediately by the conversion of Cornelius, but the whole principle of law versus grace was brought forward in the thinking of the church by the accession of the Gentiles, and the subsequent missionary movement made it even more acute.
The immediate answer of Peter illustrates the point that the history of Acts seeks to teach. The transition from law to grace was not an evolutionary drift, nor was it the policy of expediency, nor a whim of a few leaders. It was prompted by the Holy Spirit (10:19), explained by Spirit-led preaching (10:43), and confirmed when the Spirit came upon the Gentile believers (10:44, 11:15-18). “To the Gentiles also (had) God granted repentance unto life.”
The sermon of Peter in the house of Cornelius is an excellent example of evangelistic preaching in the apostolic age. It is really a brief historical summary of the life of Christ, which places its emphasis upon His death, His resurrection, and His coming to judgment. In general substance it is virtually an outline of the gospel narrative. The novel element in it is universality: “To him bear all the prophets witness, that through his name every one that believeth on him shall receive remission of sins” (10:43). Up to this time Peter had been preaching to the “men of Israel” (2:22), the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:13, 25), the “rulers and elders” (4:8). Here he adapted the message to an audience that did not possess the heritage of the covenant and of the law, and he said that it was directed “to everyone that believeth.”
Therefore, we see the period of transition was thus marked by a change from Jerusalem to the wider sphere of Palestine, including Samaria and extending to Syria and Damascus. The preaching message began to expand as the purpose of God in reaching the Gentiles became increasingly evident, and the center of its thought shifted from the restoration of the kingdom to forgiveness of sins. The church began to face the problem of the interpretation of the law as it should—or should not—be applied to the Gentiles. A new leadership was provided for the missionary expansion that came as a result of the persecution and that was accelerated by the response to the preaching of this period. A new stage of growth was opening before the church, for which the period of transition had been a preparation.