In this survey overview of the Book of Acts, I’ve been specifically focusing on just HOW did this small group of frightened individuals, go from hiding in fear, uncertain and confused group of individuals in the upper room, only to managed to spearhead this incredible and world changing movement called the Church that within thirty-years would literally turn turn the world upside down? A movement that amazingly, still exists today two-thousand years later. My approach to this study will be to divide the book of Acts into four chronological or historical periods that are covered in the book of Acts and beyond.
Just by way of review, these four historical periods are:
In our last lesson, I overviewed the first of these four periods, which was the period of the Establishment of the Church. This period covers Acts 1:1 to Acts 6:7. In this lesson, I would like to examine the second period, or the Period of Extension, which covers the events recorded between Acts 6:8 to Acts 9:31. In this section of Acts, the Church expands or extends out from Jerusalem, and into Judea and Samaria: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). In this section, Luke focuses his spotlight on the story of three key individuals:
2. Phillip and
Interestingly, as we learned in the previous section or the Period of Establishment, that this fledgling church, is divided into two groups which lead to the very first recorded Church controversy: The first group is the Hellenists, or Christians who were born Jewish but who have a Greek cultural background. The other group is the Hebrews, or the Christians who, like the apostles, were born into Jewish cultural backgrounds. The Hellenists feel discriminated against, so in response, the community of disciples elects seven leaders to account for the needs of the Hellenists. They responded to the problem that arose by selecting seven “devout men” (the first Deacons), to oversee the administration of the ministry.
Foremost among these Among these seven Christian Hellenist leaders is Stephen. Not long after, A controversy ensues between Stephen and some Jews, who accuse him of heresy before the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s accusers testify that “this man never stops saying things against the holy place and the law” (7:13). In front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen delivers a long and powerful sermon detailing the history of Jewish leadership in the Bible, and challenging the crowd to change their minds about Christ. Stephen then concludes with a damning accusation: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands. You stiff-necked people you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (7:48–51). Instead of repenting however, the crowd assaulted him, dragged him outside of the city and Stephen is then stoned to death, with the approval of a young man named Saul of Damascus, a vigorous persecutor of the Christians. The result being that Stephen becomes the first recorded martyr of the Church who gave his life for the Savior.
Saul Persecutes the church (Acts 8:1-4)
On the very day of Stephen’s death and burial, “A great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (8:1). This is Luke’s first use of the word “persecution,” and for the first time, rank-and-file believers are affected. Stephen’s death is not an isolated act of violence. A storm of persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem and increases in its fury. The prime agent in this campaign of persecution is Paul. Luke says, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (8:3). This is a vicious pogrom of intimidation against the Jerusalem church, and Luke tells us Paul “began to destroy the church” (8:3).
Church scatters (8:1, 4)
For the present, those of the Jerusalem church who are successfully hunted down are persecuted, beaten and imprisoned, and possibly killed. Others see what is coming and flee throughout the province of Judea and Samaria (8:1). In spite of this however, this flight of church members fleeing Jerusalem, actually causes the gospel to spread more widely. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). Later in Acts, we learn that people are traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, “spreading the word only among Jews” (11:19). The law of unintended results, begins to operate against Saul and the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem as Christians begin to flee Jerusalem in order to escape the threats against them.
Philip preaches the gospel (8:5)
The next person that Luke focuses on in this section is Phillip. Now Phillip was a layman, who wasn’t a prophet or a professional preacher. Nevertheless, he was called by God to go to Samaria and preach the gospel. Luke records that the Samaritans responded to Phillip’s preaching, and he also tells us that there was “great joy” in Samaria as a result of Phillip’s preaching. Phillip was then guided by the Spirit to witness to a government official from Ethiopia who also became a believer, and apparently took the good news about Christ back to Ethiopia.
In short, the first seven chapters of Acts deal with mission work among Jews in Jerusalem. Luke is now finished with this part of the story, and he begins to describe gospel outreach activities further afield. He mentions that the scattered members of the Jerusalem church flee to other parts of the province of Judea, preaching the gospel as they go (8:1, 4). However, Luke gives no further details about the evangelization of Judea, nor does he mention anything about the churches in other cities of this province. (He is also silent about the work and church in Galilee.)
Rather, Luke turns his attention to Samaria, where scattered members of the Jerusalem church also evangelize. They apparently know that Jesus’ earlier ban on the disciples entering any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) has been lifted. Samaria was once the capital of the northern ten-tribe House of Israel, which separated from Judah after Solomon died. In the eighth century B.C., the northern kingdom was invaded by Assyrians. Samaria was destroyed and many of the people were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:17:5-6). The area of Samaria was resettled by peoples from other parts of the empire. The story of this resettlement is told in 2 Kings 17, beginning with verse 24. And in the intervening 700 years, many other peoples moved in and out of the area.
The antagonism between Samaritans and Jews is centuries old, and in some ways it dates back to the Assyrian resettlement. It was intensified when the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the fifth century B.C. [Ezra 4:1-16; Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1-8; 6:1-14; 13:4-8.] This caused an unhealed and bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans that grew more intense through the passage of time. The Samaritans built a temple on their own sacred hill, Gerizim. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:310, 322-24, 246.] The Jews under the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.) destroyed this temple when they conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. and added this territory to their realm. But in 63 B.C. the Romans conquered the Jewish kingdom. The Samaritans were liberated from Judean domination, but the unfriendly relations between the two peoples continued.
An angel directs Philip to Gaza (8:26)
The next primary character that Luke focuses on is Philip. Philip had a heart for evangelism, and, when the “great persecution” arose in Acts 8:1, Philip left Jerusalem to become an evangelist in Samaria (Acts 8:5–12). After the church in Samaria was started, Philip was used by the Holy Spirit to bring the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the court of Candace, the Ethiopian queen. Philip found the eunuch sitting in his chariot, reading Isaiah and trying to make sense of the prophet’s words. Philip offered to explain, and the eunuch invited him to come up and sit with him. In the end, the eunuch was saved and baptized (Acts 8:26–39). Immediately following the baptism, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away to Azotus, where he continued to preach the gospel in the towns from there to Caesarea (Acts 8:40).
As Philip travels the road to “Desert of Gaza,” he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. This man is what we might call, the Secretary of the Treasury or the Chancellor Exchequer for Kandake, the Ethiopian queen (8:27). As a minister of finance, he is an important official in the queen’s “cabinet.” The Ethiopians are Nubians, living in Southern Egypt and the Sudan, between modern Aswan and Khartoum. (The modern nation of Ethiopia is further south.) Kandake is a dynastic title, such as Pharaoh, not a personal name. All Ethiopian queens have that name. According to ancient writers, the Nubian king is said to be too holy to become involved with profane matters of state, [Strabo, Geography 17.1.54; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.186.] so the mother of the king rules on behalf of her son.
Luke says of Kandake’s eunuch, that he went “to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27). Therefore, though he is probably a Gentile, he is most likely a proselyte or “God-fearer.” This is indicated by the fact that the eunuch makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and is now studying the book of Isaiah. (It would be difficult for a non-Jew to get a copy of the Isaiah scroll, but a minister of finance would no doubt have more ability than the average Gentile.)
Now while Philip’s role in Samaria may have been brief, he is about to play another important part in spreading of the gospel. An angelic messenger appears to Philip and instructs him: “Go south to the road — the desert road — that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (8:26). Commentators point out that when Luke wants to stress the presence and activity of God, he often uses an expression like “the angel of the Lord” (as he does in 8:26) rather than “the Spirit of the Lord.” [Some examples are in Luke 1:11, 13, 26, 28; 2:9, 13; 22:43; Acts 5:19; 7:30, 35, 38; 8:26; 10:3, 7, 22; 11:13; 12:7, 11, 23; 27:23.] Used here, the expression is a vivid way of describing Philip’s divine guidance.
This is another opportunity for Luke to stress also, that the evangelistic work of the church is initiated by God, who sends his divine messenger to Philip. Whatever mission work Philip is about to do is not based on a program the church has thought out. After all, in this case, what would be the point of traveling to a “desert road” that leads to Gaza, and preach the gospel there?
But that’s precisely what Philip is told to do, Go down the road that leads to the edge of the desert. (The road from Jerusalem to Gaza is 50 miles long, and leads to the main coastal trade route going to Egypt.) Commentators point out that the word “desert” in Luke’s account can refer either to Gaza or to the road. Most likely the former is in view here. Apparently, the old town of Gaza is referred to as “Desert Gaza,” in distinction to a newer town named Gaza. This is the southernmost of the five main Philistine cites in southwestern Judea. It is also the last settlement before a traveler encounters the barren desert stretching to Egypt.
The Ethiopian official (8:27-28)
Twenty years later, Philip is mentioned again, still in Caesarea (Acts 21:8–9). Paul and Luke and others were traveling to Jerusalem, and they stopped at Philip’s home in Caesarea. They stayed with Philip for several days. Philip had four unmarried daughters at that time, all of whom had the gift of prophecy. That is the last time the Bible mentions the evangelist Philip.
Paul the Apostle
An Outline of the Life of the Apostle Paul
And finally, the third person whom Luke emphasizes in this section of extension is of course Paul, who would eventually become Christianity’s greatest evangelist and Theologian. Paul, probably even more than Peter, is the prominent leader and the central figure of the early Christian Church. The central figure in the Book of Acts, Paul writes more New Testament books than any other apostle. While on the road to Damascus, Paul who was a persecutor of Christians, and who had been present at the stoning of Stephen, was confronted by the resurrected Christ. He was blinded, led into the city of Damascus, and there he regained his sight and he was then commissioned amazingly, to take the gospel not to the Jews, but to the gentiles.
If there were ever a man whose background made him uniquely qualified to preach to both the Jews and the Gentiles, it was Paul. A central figure in the early church and the writing of the New Testament, Paul’s life is of great interest to all believers. While the Bible does not provide a complete biography of the apostle Paul, his epistles and the book of Acts reveal a lot of information about this important figure in church history.
The Apostle formerly known as Saul (of Tarsus)
Acts 22:3 reveals that Paul was born “Saul” in Tarsus, which is in SE Asia Minor. While we know that Paul was a citizen of this city, Acts 22:28 Paul tells us that he was also a Roman citizen by birth. That Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and yet held Roman citizenship is certainly noteworthy, and is an important factor in his ability to speak with confidence to both Jews and Greeks. (This citizenship even got him out of a tough situation after being arrested by the Roman authorities, as described in Acts 22:22-29.
Paul, a strict Pharisee, was once a great persecutor of the church. In his own words:
“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” Acts 22:3-5.
The conversion of Paul (Acts 9)
Despite his beginnings, God desired to use this man to spread the Gospel throughout the region. On his way to Demsascus to arrest Christian believers, Christ appeared to Paul, spoke to him, and Paul was blinded. After being lead to meet a believer named Ananias, Paul regained his vision and was converted to belief in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 22:1-21). Paul became a preacher of the Gospel and made several missionary journeys as a central figure in bringing the Christian faith to the Gentiles.
Luke begins his description of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 by continuing the story of his persecution of the church. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” says Luke of Paul’s campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem (9:1).
Paul even travels to other towns, Damascus in particular, in order to round up Christians. As he later tells King Agrippa, “I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (26:11). To Paul, stamping out the Christians is a necessary part of doing God’s will. They are teaching a blasphemous heresy that threatens the people of God (the Jews) and the sanctity of the law and temple. It is surely God’s will that such people should be silenced.
Paul can justify his actions against the church by looking to the heroes of Israel’s history. Phinehas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were defying the law of God (Numbers 25:6-15). Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, used violence to root out the enemies of God and apostates among the people (1 Maccabees 2:1-28, 42-48).
Thus it is, that Paul sets out toward Damascus with the zeal of an avenging prophet. He has letters from the high priest with authority to extradite any Christians he finds in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul will capture them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:2). Most likely those being hunted down are the Hellenistic Christians who fled Jerusalem, not those who lived permanently in Damascus. So far as we know, the high priest has no direct authority over the latter, since they are not in his immediate jurisdiction.
What Made Paul Special?
Interestingly, the selection of Paul to be the Apostle to the gentiles was not just some random choice on God’s part. Instead, by selecting Paul, God had chosen someone who was extremely and uniquely qualified to be God’s gentile spokesman in this heavily pagan Greek and Roman world. First of all, in addition to being a legal Roman Citizen which allowed Paul to have unencumbered travel access throughout the Roman world, Paul was also a “Jew from the tribe of Benjamin.” But in addition, Paul was also an elite level Jewish scholar, who was not only fluent in the Old Testament scriptures, but was also fluent in Greek language, culture and philosophy. In fact, Paul was so fluent in Greek literature, that he was able to recite Greek poems and philosophies when he was debating with the Greeks during his evangelistic journeys.
Furthermore, in addition the being relentless and completely committed, Paul had the unique ability and philosophy to meet and relate to people where they were or on their own level. In other words, he was able to be “all things to all people.” We he was around the Jews, he would keep their dietary laws, and when he was around the Greeks, he could recite their poems and their philosophies. And his deep understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures, allowed him to be able to argue with the Judaizers and demonstrate to them using the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, that Christianity was not a perversion of Judaism, but was to the contrary, the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Paul was able to explain to the Jews that the New Testament was actually a completion to God’s salvation story. Paul uniquely understood that it was part two of God’s two-part story of His redemption historical narrative. In other words, Paul was able to persuade many that Christ did not come to destroy the Law, but instead, He came to complete or fulfill the law. Because of Paul’s intimate understanding of the Old Testament, he was able to argue the case that, Christ was the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophets, and that He was Israel’s true Messiah.
Now, it is important that we consider the fact, that at the time, because of the combination of Paul’s brilliant analytical mind and the combination of his Jewish lineage and his Roman citizenship, there was arguably no one better and more uniquely qualified to make those arguments to both Jewish audiences and Greek audiences than Paul. And of course, it is important to point out, that God’s selection of Paul, also demonstrates just another example of the amazing providence of God in orchestrating the affairs of history in order to facilitate His ultimate plan of redemption.
Now because of the critically nature of God’s providence surrounding Paul’s life, it is important to briefly expand up my earlier observation about the providence of Paul’s selection by God. By all appearances, Paul is the least likely person to become Christianity’s premiere evangelist. As noted, he is a Jew, born “Saul,” in Tarsus (Acts 21:39, 22:3), a city in Asia Minor in the province of Cilicia, close to Syria. He is raised and educated in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, a highly respected rabbi and Jewish scholar who mentors him on the “strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). In his epistle to the Philippians Paul expands on his Jewish bona fides, declaring, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4–6).
In other words, no one is more avidly devoted to Jewish Law. Paul is of pure Jewish lineage and of the honored tribe of Benjamin, from which came Israel’s first king, Saul (1 Samuel 9:1–2). As a Pharisee, he obeys the Law’s precepts to the letter and zealously torments Christians for ostensibly corrupting his religion. Yet upon his conversion, he happily abandons all these boasting rights and discards his credentials, counting them as rubbish “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philip. 3:8).
Also qualifying Paul for his mission to the Gentiles are his fluency in Greek and his familiarity with Hellenistic culture, which help him relate to Gentiles, along with his Roman citizenship from birth (Acts 22:28). The Christian apologist “needs to know his or her audience, speak its language, and share its common flow of life.” Given his background, who could better understand the futility of seeking salvation through works? Paul has few peers in “the accomplishments of the flesh” few who achieved so much by their own deeds. He once had great pride in these “achievements” but ultimately comes to regard them as valueless, realizing that by himself he is utterly unworthy as “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV). Paul understands that all glory belongs to Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philip. 3:9).
Furthermore, Roman citizenship is profoundly important, as citizens are part of the social elite. While such status was originally limited to freeborn natives of the city of Rome, citizenship expanded as the empire grew. It’s not entirely clear who in Paul’s lineage first gained citizenship, but it’s possible one of his immediate ancestors acquired it in exchange for his services to Rome. Indeed, Paul’s citizenship facilitates his evangelistic work in hostile climates in the empire, as the authorities recoiled in fear when Paul invokes it: “So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him” (Acts 22:29).
Providentially, Paul possesses the ideal attributes to become Christianity’s greatest evangelist personality traits that he exhibits, ironically, in his dark record of persecuting the Church. That God molds Paul into such a masterful messenger accentuates the gloriousness of the unmerited grace he is commissioned to preach. He is not only the Gospel’s fiercest advocate, but his writings are the most thorough biblical formulations of Christian theology.
As doctrinally prolific and influential as Paul is, he’s an equally energetic and consequential evangelist. Astonishingly, and principally because of his own efforts, Christianity becomes a Gentile religion within a generation of his death even though its Founder and His disciples were Jews who began the new religion in Judea. Though born Jewish, Paul spreads the Good News throughout the Roman Empire from Syria to Italy in the three short decades following his conversion. He is so confident in the churches he establishes that he plans missionary tours much farther west without fear they will dissolve when he leaves.
Finally, it is here, where we have to take a brief pause in our chronological of the book of Acts, to point out the fact that it is during this period of the expansion of the church, that many scholars believe that the book of James was written and where the Book of James fits into the Chronology of the of Acts and the New Testament in general. It is during this period that extends between around AD 35 and AD 48, that most scholars believe that James was the first epistle, probably written about AD 48.
Interestingly, right after the Martyrdom of Stephen, the believers in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution. And when you begin to read the book of James, you will see that James writes to Jewish believers who were scattered. So, it appears that James was apparently writing to some of those Jewish converts that had been forced out of Jerusalem and out of Judea after the death of Stephen because of the increasing threat of persecution (See: James 1:1-3).
Finally, as we return our attention back to the Apostle Paul, in his writings, Paul imparts to the believers in the first century, as well as to all believers throughout history, clear instructions on how to live life in the Spirit and to become free from sin’s reign as we grow more Christ-like. Through Paul, we learn the true meaning of Christian liberty. Free in Christ from the bondage of sin and the strict requirements of the Law, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, not as a matter of following rules and regulations, but voluntarily, out of our love for Christ. Furthermore, with the exception of Christ, there is no greater teacher than Paul, and we owe it to ourselves to read his words of instruction, which have been divinely preserved for our edification in Christ.