The personal doctor of Paul the apostle wrote two lengthy letters to a friend named Theophilus. The first, the Gospel of Luke, was an account of Jesus’ life and ministry and the second, Acts, was an account of the miraculous spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Many editions of the Bible title the second letter “The Acts of the Apostles”. True, the letter begins with the 12 apostles spending 40 days with the resurrected Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. At the end of that time Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as John the Baptist began his ministry baptizing people who repented, Jesus told his disciples that they would begin their ministry when they received the promised Holy Spirit. In Luke’s research he found the words of Jesus that he wrote in the beginning of Acts, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). With such a bold beginning this letter must be about these disciples carrying out that command. I have come to believe Luke never intended to tell the story of their obedience. Instead, very subtly he unveiled the story of their reluctance to obey the command. I certainly do not want to condemn them but I would like to set the record straight. There but for the grace of God go I! In last week’s message we touched on the early days of the movement. We saw that about 120 disciples were gathered into an upper room for prayer when the Holy Spirit came on them. Then they settled in to begin the work they were called to do. After the Spirit came on them they began to build a godly community attending the temple together worshiping and praising God. (Acts 2:42-47).
After some time had passed, Peter and John were interrupted in their daily trip to the temple at the hour of prayer. There they saw a beggar and they healed him. That good deed resulted in a night in jail and a kangaroo court the next day! The church had grown to about five thousand men. Now they were able to witness to the rulers of the Jews. There were so many of them that the priests could not condemn them. The people would not allow these good people to be punished. Not yet!
Now they were settled in fulfilling the instructions Jesus had given them. Having received the power of the Spirit they became his witnesses to Jerusalem with some probable overflow into Judea.
How will they be persuaded go beyond Judaism? They seemed to have no intention of going beyond home base with the gospel. The Jewish priests and political leaders were determined to bring an end to this new sect in their midst. They kept stepping up the pressure on the church. They launched a purge beginning their attacks with a young Spirit filled man named Stephen. At his trial he was able to give a presentation of the gospel that led to his execution by stoning. (Acts 7) A young man named Saul, a student of Gamaliel one of the leading Rabbis of the day, stood by and held their coats while they killed this godly man. Saul went on to become a leader of the persecution of the church. Saul went to foreign cities to arrest and even kill Christians! We will get back to him later.
Now, let’s look at the beginning of the spread of the gospel. With the death of Stephen the persecution against the church began. The Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Well, finally the Apostles can now get on with the business they had been trusted with. Taking the good news about Jesus to the ends of the earth. Oops, what happened? While the Christians were being scattered the apostles went into hiding in Jerusalem.
Jesus had left clear instructions. The Apostles were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. Since they did not voluntary go on that journey of expansion the persecution led by Saul of Tarsus should drive them out of their hiding places in Jerusalem. It just did not happen.
I am sure there are many stories that could be told about this dispersal but we are confined to the story of Philip, one of the original seven deacons. (Acts 6:1-6) Since there was no need for their original ministry of feeding the widows, Philip went down to the city of Samaria. He would be fairly safe there since the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. It may well be that Philip found prepared hearts for the gospel. Remember, Jesus went to a city of Samaria and spent two days there. When he left, the people of that place believed on him. Samaria is not a large area and it is very possible some of those Samaritan believers who had been taught by Jesus found themselves in the right place to welcome Philip!
At any rate, the Samaritans listened to the preaching of Philip and the word spread. I am leaving out details you need to check out by reading Acts for yourself. The church in Jerusalem became aware of Philip’s work and sent Peter and John to check it out! These two Apostles helped to establish the church in Samaria and immediately returned to Jerusalem preaching as they went. Finally they broke out of the cultural trap of Jews first—Jews only! The Missionary Mandate was being strengthened as two of the Apostles were now on the ground in Samaria. As soon as they testified and spoke the word to these people they began preaching in Samaritan villages. Of course those villages were on the way back to Jerusalem.
Philip, on the other hand, met an angel of the Lord who gave him instructions. In the middle of his busy ministry Philip was told to leave Samaria, travel across Judea and go down the road to Gaza. He went in obedience. He was not told why he was there-- just to be there. As he was traveling down the road he saw a chariot. Now a chariot would indicate a person of some wealth. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” (Acts 8:29). Philip had to run the catch up with the chariot. You see, he might have missed his text had he not hurried. The person in the chariot was the treasurer of Ethiopia. He was a rich Gentile! He was reading from the scroll of Isaiah. He had been to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way home without a clear understanding of why he was there. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading he replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). The man in the chariot invited Philip to join him. He asked Philip to explain the Scripture to him. Given the opportunity Philip told him the good news about Jesus. Soon they came upon a body of water and this Ethiopian asked to be baptized. They went down in the water together and Philip baptized him. The Missionary Mandate was being fulfilled but not by the original Apostles! We believe that this Ethiopian eunuch went back to the palace and began to share the good news about Jesus. The consequence of his faith was an establishment of Christianity that spread across Ethiopia and is now one of the oldest known group of churches. Another nation had been added to the kingdom of God. When they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip north along the coast to a town named Azotus.
Meanwhile, Saul is carrying on his persecution of the church and he has warrants for the arrest of any believers in Damascus. Let’s let Doctor Luke tells us what happened next.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)
While Saul was being confronted by a bright light and a voice from heaven one of the believers in Damascus was soon to be confronted by the Lord. His name was Ananias and he knew exactly what Saul was there for. Again, let’s turn to Luke’s account “The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:10-16). The Apostles who had received the Missionary Mandate were still back in Jerusalem rather than going to all the world. Instead, Saul of Tarsus was being led by the hand into the city of Damascus since he had been blinded by the light that shined down from heaven. The men who were with him did not understand what happened to him. Three days passed and a local Christian came to the door.
This man, Ananias, knew Saul had come to arrest him. Now he was ordered to go to the house where Saul was waiting. He was encouraged by the words of Jesus saying Saul was Jesus’ chosen instrument. The Apostles may not have obeyed the Missionary Mandate but God had a candidate for the job. Saul was not promised an easy life as a missionary. Jesus spoke of the future for Saul. “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16)
Immediately Saul began to meet with the disciples in Damascus. The very people he had gone there to arrest and kill were now his spiritual family. From the very beginning, Saul was a very powerful preacher of the gospel. After a few days he discovered that the Jews there were planning to kill him. Saul told part of the story in Galatians 1:15-17. “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to (in) me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”
When he did get to Jerusalem he was not welcomed by the Apostles. They were all afraid of him. So Barnabas took the responsibility of introducing him to the disciples. Barnabas was a leader in the church in Jerusalem. His given name was Joseph but everyone called him Barnabas. Because Barnabas means son of encouragement. He was an encourager we need more of them today. After some time the church in Jerusalem learned Saul was once again in danger from the Jews so they sent him off to his home town of Tarsus. For the next 14 years he spent his time witnessing to the Lord Jesus Christ in a Gentile environment.
With Saul out of the way and no longer persecuting Christians there was relative peace. Still, the apostles remained in Jerusalem. Luke, the writer of Acts, turns his eyes on some significant events in the life of Peter. Peter arrived at a town called Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas who had been bedridden for eight years. Peter prayed for him and he was healed. Going on to Joppa, Peter was approached by friends of a woman named Dorcas that translates to Gazelle! Dorcas had died and her friends had prepared her body for burial. They heard that Peter was nearby so they sent for him and told him all about Dorcas’ good works. Peter put the people out the house and knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, arise.” She was raised to life and restored to her friends. These miraculous events led many people to come to faith in Christ. (Acts 9:36-42).
Meanwhile life changing circumstances were happening that Peter knew nothing of. But he was soon to be deeply involved. There was a Roman centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea. An angel from God appeared to him and told him his generosity was pleasing to God. Then he was told to send some men to Joppa to find Simon Peter and bring him to Caesarea.
God is always at work fulfilling the Missionary Mandate. More than 15 years had passed since Jesus had presented the Mandate to his apostles. Now, finally, Peter was going to bring another group of people into the kingdom. Peter was a very strict Jew. He was not the most likely candidate to bring Romans into the kingdom.
As the messengers were approaching the city of Joppa, Peter went up on the roof of the house he was staying in to pray. He became hungry and asked for some food. While it was being prepared he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and a great sheet being let down. On that sheet were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds. Suddenly a voice was heard, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”! Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” This happened 3 times as if to drive the point home. When God gives a command the answer can never be “By no means” followed by “Lord”! (Acts 10:1-23). The answer must be either “no” or “Lord”. If one can say “no” you cannot say “Lord” in the same breath. Either Jesus is Lord and we must say yes or we can say no and Jesus is not Lord.
With the vision fresh in his memory there was the sound of someone knocking at the door. Some visitors were there asking for Peter! The vision Peter had seen pressed home the point that the Missionary Mandate was being fulfilled. Another family, indeed another nation was being brought into the kingdom.
So Peter went down to meet these men from Caesarea. They told him that Cornelius was a very generous man and an angel had told him to send for Peter.
The next day Peter went with them to the centurion’s house. Cornelius had gathered his family and friends to hear what Peter had to say. Peter told him, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:24-28),
With that introduction Peter, preached the first recorded sermon intended for a Gentile congregation. Peter promptly began to tell these Italians that God had sent Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, to earth. This Jesus had ministered through teaching and healing. He was put to death by hanging him on the cross. He was raised again on the third day to his chosen witnesses. Everyone who believes in him sees forgiveness of sin through his name.
While Peter was preaching, and before he gave the invitation, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles. Peter asked an interesting question.
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received
the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:34-47). The obvious answer was “no”. Peter then had them baptized and stayed with them for several days. Later, Peter would go back to Jerusalem to report his experience. Surely, the Apostles would now begin to fulfill the Missionary Mandate.
Actually, it was those who had been scattered during the persecution who continued the Mandate into the Gentile world. Next week, we will pick up with the church in Antioch and see how God continued his outreach to the world.
Let’s finish up today with another walk down the Roman road.
All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory — Romans 3:23
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord — Romans 6:23.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. – Romans 10:9.
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:20.
Sin always has evil consequences. Just as Adam and Eve were promised a wonderful world of knowledge by disobeying God. Satan promises good things for us. The Bible says there is pleasure in sin for a season.
But seasons always come to an end.
Have you trusted Jesus for your salvation? Today could be your day.
All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.