In those days, whosoever was not a Jew was designated a Gentile. Jews regarded Gentiles as outcasts and sinners. No form of communication whatsoever was allowed between the two set of people. However, any Gentile who wished to embrace the Jewish religion was first circumcised.
On the other hand, Jesus’ order to his disciples before his ascension was that they should take the gospel to every nook and cranny of the world, Jewish territories as well as Gentile territories.
Among the apostles, Peter and Paul played a significant role in taking the gospel to the Gentile nations. Paul took the gospel to Cyprus, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium and Lystra. In all the places visited, Paul established churches and appointed elders for their administration. Peter visited Lydda and Joppa but churches were already existing in these places. Peter was there to strengthen the faith of the believers existing there.
Saul’s Conversion -Acts 9 :1-30
The man called Saul took active role in the killing of Stephen. He was equally in the forefront of the crusade to wipe out christianity from Jewish territory. At a time, he obtained permission from the high priest to travel to Damascus to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem for trial, the disciples who had escaped from persecution following the killing of Stephen.
It was on his way to Damascus for this Satanic mission that Jesus met him and struck him blind following a great light from heaven that flashed suddenly about him. Saul fell down flat and heard a voice asking him why he was persecuting him. He inquired who was speaking and the voice told him it was Jesus whom he was persecuting. Then Saul asked what he was to do and the voice directed him to Damascus, where he would be briefed on what to do.
Saul remained in Damascus for three days, blind until God directed a christian named Ananias to pray for Saul so he might regain his sight. God assured Ananias that Saul will not harm him as he was now a changed man; and that Saul will suffer persecutions in preaching the gospel. That was how Saul received his sight. Therefore, he was baptized and he began to preach the gospel. So many people were surprised to see an anti-christianity crusader becoming a disciple. He became so popular in his preaching that the Jews plotted to kill him. Fellow disciples let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket and he escaped from Damascus.
Upon his return to Jerusalem, the christians there were hesitant to receive him when he identified with them for fear of the havoc he had earlier wrecked on christians. The testimony of another christian named Barnabas convinced the christians that Saul had repented. Hence, they accepted him into their fold. He began to wax stronger by the day in the work of evangelism in Jerusalem. As a result of this, the Jews plotted to kill him and he was again ‘smuggled’ to Caesaria from where he went to Tarsus, his home town.
Significance of Saul’s Conversion
- Saul’s conversion bore witness to the reality of the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to change the lives of people.
- It brought to the church a period of peace which enhanced its growth.
- Even the worst sinner can be picked by God to serve him.
- Saul’s conversion led to the spread of christianity far and wide, as he turned out to be the greatest evangelist in Christendom.
- The Holy Spirit power is greater than any man.
- God moves in a mysterious manner in performing wonders. He can transform anybody any time. We should not give negative responses to his calls.
- Saul’s conversion dealt a big blow to Judaism, the Jewish religion as his former colleagues became discouraged once Saul was converted.
The Commissioning and Mission of Paul (Paul’s Missionary Journey) Acts 13; 14:1-20
After surviving another assassination in Jerusalem, Saul moved to Caesaria and then to Tarsus where he continued his work of evangelism. Other converts returned to Antioch with the gospel message. Christians multiplied greatly in Antioch and once the news got to Jerusalem, Barnabas went to Antioch to exhort the christians there not to backslide in their faith. From there, he went to Tarsus where he met Saul and brought him back to Antioch to help to strengthen the church.
Seeing the commitment of the brethren in Antioch, non-christians called them ‘christians’ meaning ‘Little Christ’. This was because they behaved like Christ. Thus, it was in Antioch that believers were first called christians. On a particular fasting and prayer session in Antioch, the Holy Spirit directed the church to set apart Saul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentile territories. The church obeyed and ordained the two men and they left for Seleucia and Cyprus and from there they touched other Gentile towns.
After Saul and Barnabas had been set apart and sent away by the Holy Spirit, they sailed from there to Seleucia and from there, they sailed to Cyprus. On getting to Salamis they preached the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. There, they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the Isle to Paphos, they met a magician who was a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus or Elymas the sorcerer. Elymas wanted to prevent Sergius Paulus, an officer of the Roman government from listening to Saul and Barnabas. Saul (now Paul) cursed Elymas and he became blind immediately. He then went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. When the Pro-consul saw what happened, he believed for he was astonished at the preaching he heard.
Antioch in Pisidia
From Cyprus, Paul and Barnabas sailed to Antioch in Pisidia and preached in Jewish synagogues on the invitation of the Jews, converting so many people. Paul and his group were urged to stay and preach the following sabbath. However, during the service some Jews who were opposed to the gospel fomented trouble, as a result, Paul and Barnabas were chased out of the city.
Iconium – Lystra
From Cyprus, Paul and his team moved to Iconium where he preached again to both Jews and Greeks, converting many. However, others opposed them greatly. Out of fear of being killed, they moved to Lystra where Paul healed a cripple. This miracle so amazed the people that they nicknamed Paul and Barnabas Hermes and Zeus respectively, after their gods, for they perceived that their gods have come to them in the likeness of men.
They brought oxen and garlands to make sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, thinking they were gods. But Paul restrained them: “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men of like nature with you, and bring you good news; that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations, he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven, rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness”. (Acts 14:15-17).
Thus, the people were forbidden from performing the sacrifices. Here in Lystra, Jews who came from Antioch and Iconium, chasing after Paul and Barnabas, succeeded in stirring up big trouble against Paul. Paul was stoned and dragged out, thinking he was dead. But the disciples surrounded him and prayed him back to life and sent him to Debre. This brief account of Paul’s mission to Gentiles is just the initial mission, as he did a lot later, in spreading the gospel to the Gentiles.
Significance of Paul’s Missionary Journey
- He took the Gospel to so many Gentile towns.
- His numerous sufferings symbolize the sufferings Jesus’ voice had imposed on him on the day he was converted.
- So many were converted including the pro-consul- Sergius Paulus and Elymas.
- It culminated in the writing of the thirteen epistles in the New Testament by Paul.
- The church became universal as the gospel spread a great extent to both Jewish and Gentile towns e.g ., the people of Lystra who were idol worshippers believed.
- The persecutor became a winner of souls.
The Mission of Peter and the Council of Jerusalem
Acts 9:32-43; 10:1-48; 11:1-18; 15:1-35
It was not only Paul and Barnabas who took the gospel to Gentile towns. Apart from Peter’s activities in Jerusalem he too branched out into the world of the Gentiles. This followed the peace and the tranquility which prevailed in the church after Saul’s conversion. His missionary work took him to Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea etc.
First, Peter went to a town called Lydda where he healed Aeneas of paralysis. He was still here when news came from Joppa that one devout christian woman there, by name Tabitha (Dorcas) was dead. Peter had been asked by brethren there to come at once.
Getting to Joppa (it was not far from Lydda), Peter restored the woman to life in the name of Jesus. Peter spent some days in this town in the house of a man called Simon.
It was from here that Peter received an invitation from one centurion (a Roman military officer) in Joppa named Cornelius asking him to come and preach the word to him. However, as Cornelius prepared to receive Peter, God also was preparing Peter for the trip.
Cornelius was a centurion who was also known as Italian Cohort. He was a devoted man who feared God with all his household. He used to give alms liberally to people and prayed to God constantly. Cornelius saw the angel of the Lord in a vision who said the following:
“Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is also called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside”. (Acts 10:4-6)
Cornelius obeyed and sent his servants to Joppa immediately. However, as Cornelius was preparing to receive Peter, God was also preparing Peter for the trip. The following day as Peter was praying, he fell into a trance. He saw several unclean animals considered as taboo by Jews and a voice was telling him to “kill and eat”. But Peter said. ‘No Lord for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean”. The voice said: “What God has cleansed you must not call common”. This was repeated three times.
As Peter was still deliberating on the meaning of this vision, the messengers of Cornelius came. Peter was ministered to by the Holy Spirit that three men were looking for him. They delivered the message of Cornilius and Peter followed them.
Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and he believed with his household. and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were subsequently baptized by Peter. This experience proved to Peter that indeed God is a God of all nations.
However, the conversion of Cornelius triggered off a misunderstanding between Peter and the Jewish christians who accused him of flouting the Jewish law by visiting a Gentile and eating with him. Peter narrated to them the trance incidence that took him to Caesarea and how the Holy Spirit has fallen on the Gentiles, just to convince them that God does not discriminate. This silenced everybody and they began to rejoice praising God for granting repentance to Gentiles.
Surprisingly, this seeming acceptance of the Gentiles by the Jewish christians was short-lived. Soon, the question as to whether Gentile converts should be circumcised or not before being admitted into the church arose. That is to say – is it necessary to circumcise non-Jews who receive Christ, thereby observing the Law of Moses, before accepting them into the church?
The above issue of circumcision became a vexed one among believers. To this end, Paul and Barnabas undertook to lead a delegation to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the elders of the church. This culminated in what was called “First Council of Jerusalem”.
On the floor of this council, Peter narrated his experience with Cornelius and how the Gentiles had also received the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the Jews.
The Council therefore decided that if God did not make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles in matters of sending the Holy Spirit, why should man? Instead, the Council resolved to write. to the Gentiles advising them to abstain from pollutions of idols, eating of strangled animals, as well as the blood of animals.
The Council followed this up by drafting a letter and appointing a delegation to accompany Paul and Barnabas in touring the Gentile towns for the purpose of briefing them about the resolutions of the Council of Christian Elders. The resolution pleased the Gentile christians and fortified their faith. For Paul and Barnabas and others, they felt freer than before to preach on issues of circumcision and Law of Moses as they concern the Gospel of Christ. Most importantly, the resolution led to the growth of the church.
More Facts on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 14:24-28; 15:1-35)
The Jerusalem council was formed as a result of the heresy which took place in Antioch church. For certain Judaizers from Judea landed Antioch and started teaching that the Gentile brethren must undergo circumcision as a Jewish rite. Paul and Barnabas had a debate with the people but all to no avail. As a matter of fact, Paul and Barnabas with two other church delegates – Judas and Silas were therefore sent to Jerusalem in order to ascertain the right thing to be done.
Proceedings At The Jerusalem Council
The council was made up of the apostles, elders and the general church members with James, the Lord’s brother as the chairman. First and foremost, Apostle Peter spoke recounting his Caesarea experience in the house of Cornelius. Next were Paul and Barnabas highlighting the miraculous works of God through them among the Gentiles. All these were to prove how God had already begun working with the Gentiles.
After Paul and Barnabas, the chairman of the council, Apostle James gave his judgement calling on the group to write a letter to the Antioch Gentile Christians and encourage them to keep up with the faith. But that they should abstain from four things:
- eating strangled animals.
- eating what was sacrificed to idols.
This was accepted hence a letter was drafted to the Antioch Gentile christians and sent through Paul and Barnabas accompanied by the two Antioch church delegates named Judas and Silas.
Significance of Peter’s Missionary Journey and the Council of Jerusalem
- Observing the Law of Moses is not a condition for receiving divine benefits, rather our love for God and our neighbour as well as believing in Christ.
- The early church amicably settled a social dispute capable of tearing it apart. This is a lesson to today’s churches.
- Cornelius received salvation and decided to invite all his neighbours to benefit from Jesus’ salvation. Christians today should shun selfishness.
- Peter’s vision of clean and unclean animals, where he was asked to “kill and eat” symbolized that there should not be divisions or discrimination among christians. Among today’s christians, that barrier of ethnicity should be pulled down.
- Tabitha (Dorcas) was generous to the poor and needy and God rewarded her miraculously by bringing her back to life. Christians should show charity.
- Saul, an ardent persecutor of christians met Jesus on his way to Damascus and was forced to repent.
- Thereafter, he took up the work of spreading the gospel.
- He undertook a missionary journey which took him even to Gentile territories, during which time, many repented.
- The same goes for Peter- He also took the message to other Gentile zones.
- He played a significant role in resolving the issue of circumcision of Gentile christians at the Council of Jerusalem.