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The Spread of the Church

So far in the book of Acts, we’ve watched the church explode onto the scene, beginning the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18.  Propelled by the advent of the Holy Spirit and His dynamite power, Peter preached a great sermon and the harvest began.  Later the gospel spread to other cities and even to gentiles, with the same explosive results.

Luke, the writer of Acts, focuses on Peter as the key person who participated in these events.  However, part-way through the book, he changed focus to another major figure in the early church:  The Apostle Paul.

Paul the Great Persecutor

We first meet Paul as Saul of Tarsus, an up and coming Pharisee in the Jewish religious scene, in Acts chapter seven.  There we read that when Stephen, the first martyr was stoned, the people picking up stones laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet. (Acts 7:58) 

This seems like an odd comment for Luke to make.  Why would this be something to make it into the biblical record?  Our natural assumption might be to think that Saul was the lackey managing the coat closet.  It’s more likely that he was the one authorizing the stoning.    By presenting their cloaks, the people participating were formally submitting to his authority.  They were signing up to carry out his will.

This interpretation aligns well with the opening of Acts eight.  Saul approved of Stephen’s execution.  His approval was the opening of great persecution against Christians in Jerusalem.  The danger was so real that Christians fled the city and settled all over the eastern Mediterranean region. 

Paul’s Conversion

Acts nine opens with Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He wanted to follow the believers beyond the traditional borders of Israel into the city of Damascus (in modern-day Syria).  He was given orders and authorization to take to the leaders of the synagogues there, allowing him to arrest any Christians Jews who still worshipped in their synagogues.

It was on this persecution road trip that Saul met Jesus.  Blinded by a bright light, he heard the voice of Jesus.  Unable to see, he continued to Damascus where he took no action, but rather waited for Jesus to make the next move.  Three days later, God instructed a Damascene Christian named Ananias to go to Saul because “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”

Saul believed and received the Holy Spirit.  This conversion set his life on a new path.  Not only did he forsake his commission to harass and persecute believers, but he also changed his name to Paul.

Saul, now Paul, set about engaging in the business of his Savior with the same intensity and determination as he had previously persecuted Jesus.  When he showed up in synagogues to worship and teach, he was met with resistance. 

“Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)

Needless to say, Paul was not able to immediately pivot from Great Antagonist to Great Advocate in one fell swoop.  Paul tried to meet with the apostles to tell his story, but they were afraid of him.  Not until a believer named Barnabas stepped forward to vouch for him was he able to share his conversion story.

The Apostles accepted Paul.  His conversion was evident to them, just like Cornelius and the church in Antioch.  The Jewish community, however, hated Paul and considered his conversion as a betrayal.  To save his life, he was sent out of the region to Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) until tensioned calmed down.

Paul spent years in preparation for the ministry that would eventually come.  It was important for him to have a time of seasoning and training to prepare him for what was to come.   In his letter to the Galatians, he states that he went away to Arabia for three years before he returned to Jerusalem. (Galatians 1:17-18)  In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks indirectly about “a man” who was caught up into the third heaven where he heard “things which cannot be told, which men may not utter.” (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4)  Many scholars believe he was speaking modestly about himself and time being instructed by Jesus.

Paul’s ministry ended being shaped by four great missionary journeys.    On three of the journeys, he traveled from city to city, preaching the gospel and setting up churches.  The final journey was to Rome, where he awaited a judicial review by Caesar.

The First Missionary Journey

Paul set out with a small team, including Barnabas and John Mark (the author of the gospel of Mark) to travel throughout the Roman Province of Asia Minor (located in modern-day Turkey). 

Paul’s missionary methodology was similar in every town.  He went to the local synagogue for the dispersed Jewish population.  There he exercised his right to speak and used the scriptures to present the truth about Jesus.  Eventually, he would be banned from the synagogue and would shift to the houses of those who believed in what he had taught.  When a house church had been established, he moved on to the next town.

During this journey, Paul aroused such antagonism, that a mob caught up with him and took him outside of the city and stoned him.  Paul’s life was miraculously preserved, and the mob disbanded.  He got up, tended to his injuries, and moved on to the next city.

Over the course of two years, Paul and his team traveled throughout the southern half of the province.    At some point, the pressure got to be too much for John Mark, and he left Paul and Barnabas to return home to Jerusalem.  This abandonment made Paul angry, and he would not forget the abandonment.

When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, where a well-established church met and gave a report of the results of their travels.  For the most part, they had great news of the churches that had been planted, and the disciples and leaders celebrated with them.

During this inter-trip gap, a major issue arose in the church regarding the gentile believers.  Some of the leaders wanted to require them to additionally convert to Jewish practices.  This meant circumcision, food purity, and other Jewish legalistic rules.  A council was convened in Jerusalem to consider the matter.

In Acts 15 we read of this council and the debate that they considered.  In the end, it was Peter who summarized the final decision.  Placing the burden of Jewish law on the gentiles, he said, was not realistic, when the Jews themselves could not effectively keep those same laws.  The final decision concluded that gentiles did not have to submit to the Jewish law, but were instructed to flee from the idolatry that the Greek and Roman culture embraced, and to live a pure, moral life.

The Second Missionary Journey

Paul didn’t like sitting around.  After the council in Jerusalem, he approached Barnabas to undertake a second Journey.  Barnabas was willing but wanted to bring John Mark and give him a chance to redeem himself and prove his worth.  Paul adamantly refused to take John Mark with, and so the two missionaries parted ways.  Barnabas traveled with John Mark, and Paul selected a man named Silas to be his new partner.

The second journey was intended to be a return to the churches that Paul had planted on his first trip.   They did travel through the region of Galatia and visited many of the churches where Paul had spent time before.  Along the way, Timothy, a gentile convert, joined the team.

After visiting the Galatian churches, Paul traveled to the Aegean Sea and the city of Troas.  One night Paul had a dream that a man from Macedonia was beckoning him to visit them.  Choosing to follow the guidance of the dream, Paul abandoned his earlier plan to travel north and east and turned west toward Macedonia.

Philippi was his first city and he converted Lydia, the first European believer.  While he was in Philippi, he cast a demon out of a slave girl who told fortunes for money.  This so upset her masters that they had Paul whipped and thrown in prison.  That night an earthquake shook the city and the doors of the prison fell open.  Paul and Silas convinced all of the prisoners to stay, and when the jailer discovered the prison opened, but no one missing, he too believed.

The next day Paul met with the city leaders.  He revealed that his rights as a Roman citizen had been violated, and wondered what Caesar would say if he heard of the way Paul had been treated.  Ashamed for being overwhelmed by emotion and not checking on due process, the city leaders let him go and sent him on his way.

Paul traveled through the cities of Macedonia and Greece.  It is here that we learn of the Bereans, who were nobler than any others because when Paul preached to them, they did not reject him out of hand, but searched the scriptures to see if what he said was true.  We also read of Paul’s visit to Athens, where he debated with the Greek philosophers regarding the identity of an “unknown god.”

During this time, Paul planted churches and met with believers in every city he visited.  Many of his letters, which we will consider in the Epistles, were written to the churches that he planted and nurtured through these missionary journeys.

Paul’s journey ended back in Antioch of Syria where he had begun about two years after it had begun.  Paul rested and started preparing for his next trip.

Paul’s Third Missionary Journey

Once again, Paul headed out to visit and encourage the churches that he had already planted and plant new churches.  He traveled through the region of Galatia again, ending up in the major metropolis of Ephesus on the western coast of Asia Minor.

Paul remained in Ephesus for three years.  He planted a church and spent significant time developing the leaders to oversee such a large church.  In later years, Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, who had become the leader there.

Ephesus boasted a great temple to the Roman god Diana.  Such was the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, that the number of pilgrims who came to Ephesus to worship Diana declined.  The silversmiths, who made small figurines of Diana noticed a decline in their income, and under the instigation of a smith named Demetrius rioted in the streets, protesting Paul’s influence.

Paul was forced to leave the city after this and returned to Greece and Macedonia where he visited the churches that he had planted in the second journey.  Most likely he spent an extended time in Corinth, another large city with a thriving church that needed strong leadership.

Paul at the Mercy of the Jewish Leaders

The third missionary journey was cut short when Paul learned that some of the Jews were planning to assassinate him.  Such was his reputation for preaching Christ and leading Jews out of the synagogue into the Christian churches, the Jewish leaders needed a solution for him.

Paul returned to Jerusalem to plead his case and explain what he was doing (and undoubtedly to preach Jesus to the leaders).    He knew that he would not prevail and that the Jewish leaders would arrest him and put him in prison.  And this is exactly what happened.

Just like Jesus, Paul was remanded to the Roman governor as the Jewish leaders tried to get someone to condemn him to death.   The Roman governor could find enough evidence to pronounce a guilty verdict.  However, worried that the Jewish leaders would incite a riot, they also did not release him but kept him imprisoned in the city of Caesarea.  Several years later, a second governor failed to condemn him. But fearing the political power of the Jewish leaders, he was ready to remand Paul back to them.

Paul knew that he would not survive back in Jerusalem.  The leaders would find a way for him to have an “accident” that would claim his life.  So he played the only card he had remaining:  he appealed his case to Caesar.  As a Roman citizen, this was his right, and it required him to be sent to Rome.

Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey to Rome

The Roman Governor assigned a military guard to Paul and sent him by way of sea to Rome.  The journey was long and arduous.  Along the way, they were forced to travel in the winter and shipwrecked.  All along, Paul was convinced that he would make it to Rome and served as an encouragement to the others who began to despair.

For several years, Paul was imprisoned in Rome, waiting for his day before Caesar.  However, it seems that the Jewish leaders failed to appear to present their case.  During this time he wrote letters to the churches that comprise many of the epistles in our Bible.

Ultimately Paul was released from his captivity in Rome.  But Acts ends with Paul preaching to all who would hear him in the Roman capital.  His story is one of the ever-expanding reach of the Church that Jesus promised to build.  Paul encountered great opposition in his missionary work.  However, the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit was sufficient grace to see him through every trial.

In the book of Acts, we learn the stories of many of the churches to which Paul later wrote letters.  These letters, or epistles, make up an entire section of our Bible.  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The Acts of the Apostles show us the enormous impact that the life and death of Jesus had on people.  Galilean fishermen became effective orators and preachers.  Jewish persecutors became missionary apostles.   The dynamite power of God through the Holy Spirit continued to break down barriers and produce the work of salvation in the lives of those who heard.

The early church laid down a template for what “church” was supposed to be.  The community of the believers cared for one another and provided for each other when the times became difficult.  We often look back at the “first-century church” through lenses that elevate their worship and community to an ideal that we desire to emulate.

The Apostle Paul laid the framework for thousands of missionaries to come.  His willingness to go where people needed to hear about Jesus has inspired men and women since to leave the comfort of home and set off in danger and trials to deliver the eternity-changing gospel of Jesus.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

Romans 10:15