THE EXPANDING CHURCH
From the Preaching Of Stephen, 35 A.D; To The Council At Jerusalem, ca 48 A.D
We now enter upon an epoch in the history of the Christian Church, which, although brief only fifteen years, from 35 to 50 A.D. – is of paramount importance. At that time was settled the great question, whether Christianity should remain an obscure Jewish sect, or should become a church wide open to all the world. When this brief period began, the gospel was limited to the city of Jerusalem and the villages around it, and every member was an Israelite either by birth or adoption. When it ended, the church was deeply planted in Syria and Asia Minor, and was reaching out toward Europe. Also, its membership was no longer exclusively Jewish, but was predominantly Gentile. The language spoken in its assemblies in Palestine was Hebrew or Aramaic, but in a far wider area Greek was the tongue of its people. Let us notice the successive stages in this expanding movement.
A complaint was heard in the church a Jerusalem, that in the distribution of the funds for the poor, the families of the Grecian Jews or Hellenists were neglected. The apostles called the church together, and proposed that a board of seven men be chosen for this service. This plan was adopted, and of the seven men appointed, the first named was Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Although chosen for a secular work, Stephen soon attracted notice as a preacher. From the accusation against him when he was arrested by the Jewish rulers, and from the tenor of his address at that trial, it is evident that Stephen proclaimed Jesus as a Savior not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles of every nation. Stephen was the first in the church to have the vision of a world-wide gospel; and it was that which cause him to become the first Christian martyr.
Among those who heard Stephen, and were aroused to anger by his utterances, thoroughly repugnant to the Jewish mind, named Saul. He had been educated in Jerusalem under the great Gamaliel and was an accredited rabbi or teacher of the Jewish law. Saul took part in the slaying of Stephen and, immediately after his death, became the leader in a persecution of the disciples of Christ, seizing, binding, and scourging both men and women. The Jerusalem Church was broken up for the time, and its members scattered abroad. But wherever they went to Samaria to Damascus, or even as far as Antioch in Syria, they became preachers of the gospel, and established churches. Thus did the fiery hate of Saul prove an aid to the expansion of the church.
In the list of the seven men associated with Stephen in the stewardship of the gifts for the poor, we find the name of Philip, one of the apostles. After the death of Stephen, Philip found refuge among the Gentiles but held in contempt by the Jews. That Philip should begin preaching to Samaritans showed his freedom from the narrow Jewish spirit. In Samaria Philip established a church, which was duly recognized by the apostles Peter and John; the first church outside the pale of Judaism yet not quite a church of Gentile members. Philip after this preached and founded churches in the coast cities of Gaza Joppa and Caesarea. These were Gentile cities but all having a large Jewish population. Here the gospel would of necessity come into contact with the
In his journeys for the supervision of the church, Peter came to Joppa, on the seacoast. Here he raised to life Tabitha or Dorcas, and stayed for a time with another Simon, who was a tanner. His abiding with a tanner would show that Peter was already emancipated from the strict rules of Jewish custom; for men of that trade were ceremonially “unclean.” Here a vision came to the apostle, of a great sheet let down from above, containing all kinds of animals; and a voice spoke to Peter , “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” Immediately afterward messengers arrived from Caesarea, thirty miles to the north, asking for Peter to come and instruct Cornelius, a devout Roman officer. Under direction of the Spirit Peter went to Caesarea, preached the gospel to Cornelius and his friends, and received them into the church by baptism: the Spirit of God testifying divine approval by an outpouring, similar to that on the Day of Pentecost. Thus a divine sanction was given to preaching the gospel to Gentiles and their acceptance in the church.
About this time, possibly just before Peter’s visit to Caesarea, Saul, the persecutor, was arrested on his way to Damascus by a vision of the ascended Jesus, and he who had been the most dreaded antagonist of the gospel now became its most powerful advocate. His opposition had been especially bitter against a doctrine which leveled the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, but, when converted, Saul at once adopted Stephen’s views, and was a greater than Stephen in carrying onward the movement for a church open to all men, whether Jews or Gentiles. In all the history of Christianity no single conversion to Christ carried with it such momentous results to the whole world, as that of Saul the persecutor, afterward Paul the apostle.
In the persecution which began with the slaying of Stephen, the church at Jerusalem at was scattered widely. Some of its members escaped to Damascus, others fled three hundred miles to Antioch, the capital of Syria, of which great province Palestine was a part. At Antioch these fugitives went into the Jewish synagogue, and there gave their testimony for Jesus as the Messiah. In every synagogue a place was set apart for Gentile worshipers. Many of these heard the gospel at Antioch and embraced the faith of Christ; so that in that city a church grew up wherein Jews and Gentiles worshiped together as equals in privilege. When news of this condition reached Jerusalem, the mother church was alarmed and sent a representative to examine this relation with the Gentiles. Fortunately, the choice of a delegate fell upon Barnabas, the broad-minded, open-hearted, and generous. He went to Antioch, and instead of condemning the church for its liberality rejoiced in it, endorsed the movement, and stayed at Antioch to participate in it. Barnabas had shown his confidence in Saul before. Now he went to Saul’s home in Tarsus, about a hundred miles from Antioch, mostly by water, brought Saul with him to Antioch, and made him an associate in the work of the gospel. The church at Antioch arose to such prominence that here for the first time the followers of Christ became known as “Christians” – a name applied not by Jews, but Greeks and found only three times in the New Testament. The disciples at Antioch sent to the poorer saints in Judea in a time of famine; and its leaders and teachers were eminent men in the early church.
Thus far the Gentile members of the church were only those who had themselves sought admission. But now, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and by the appointment of the elders, the two greatest leaders in the church at Antioch went forth on an evangelist mission to other lands, seeking both Jews and Gentiles with the gospel. As we read the story of this missionary journey we notice certain features in the effort, which became typical of all the later enterprises of the apostle Paul. It was undertaken by two workers in unison, at first “Barnabas and Saul,” but soon changed to “Paul and Barnabas.” or “Paul and his company,” showing of name: it was customary for a Jew to have two names, one Israelite, the other used when among Gentiles. The two missionaries took with them as helper a younger man, John Mark, although he forsook them in the middle of their journey. They chose as their principal fields of labor the cities, visiting Salamis and Paphos in the island of Cyprus. Antioch and Iconium in Pisdia, Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia. Wherever it was possible, they began their work by preaching in the synagogue, for therein every Jew had a right to speak, and especially an accredited rabbit, as Paul, coming from the famous school of Gamaliel, would be welcome, Moreover, through the synagogue they would reach not only the devout Jews, but with them the serious, God-fearing Gentiles. At Derbe, the last city visited, they were quite near Antioch, from which they had set forth. But instead of passing through the Cicilian Gates and returning home, they turned westward, retraced their steps, revisited the churches which they had founded on their outward journey, and appointed over them elders according to the plan of the synagogue. We shall find these methods of work followed in all the after- journeys of the apostle Paul.
In every society or organized group of people two types are always represented: the conservative, looking to the past, and the progressive, looking toward the future. The ultra Jewish element in the church held that there could be no salvation outside of Israel; hence, that all the Gentile disciples must receive circumcision and observe Jewish regulations. The progressive teachers led by Paul and Barnabas declared that the gospel was for Jews and Gentiles upon the same terms of faith in Christ without regard to the Jewish law. Between these two parties a great controversy arose, threatening a division in the church. Finally a council was held in Jerusalem to consider the question of Gentile membership, and frame a ruling for the church. It is noteworthy that in this council not only the apostles, but the elders, and “the whole church” were represented. Paul and Barnabas, with Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, took part in the debate; and the conclusion was reached that the law was binding upon Jews only, and not upon Gentile believers in Christ. With this decision the period of transition from a Jewish Christian Church to a church for people of every race and land, was completed, and the gospel could now forward on its ever-widening way.
- Acts, Chapter fifteen part two, Go up to Jerusalem. (whatshotn.wordpress.com)
- Introduction To Christianity & The Jewish People [UBS #16] (reverenddrred.wordpress.com)
- The Ascension of the Lord – Part 1 (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- Port of Call – Lesson 1 (crkidz.wordpress.com)
- Behar-Bechukotai: Christians by Choice (mymorningmeditations.com)
- Acts11:- How the Gentile became Apostles too and they put Judahs to shame the staunch enemies of Jesus by sending food. (disclose.tv)
- House-2-House (evangelize4life.org)
- Acts15:- How the spiritually sick Messianic Jews dominated the spiritually healthy Gentiles. (disclose.tv)
- “Paul’s missionary journeys” (altruistico.wordpress.com)
- Community and Magisterium (ubicrux.com)