From Persecutor to Apostle Extraordinaire
Luke said that Saul was consenting to Stephen's death. And, he adds, there was a great persecution against the church at Jerusalem, and all the Christians, except the apostles, scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen, “and made great lamentation over him.” As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into individual houses and arresting men and women and committing them to prison (see Luke 8:1–3).
The persecution in Jerusalem, by scattering the less-active apostles and converts, affected the rapid growth of the church in outlying areas. For example, Philip preached in Samaria and found the people ready to receive his message.
What did Jesus teach were the worst and the best prayers?
The worst was “Thank you, God, that I am not like this sinner”; the best, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
God directed Philip to go into the Gaza desert beyond Jerusalem, where he found a high-ranking Ethiopian sitting in a chariot reading the Prophet Isaiah. So Philip approached him and preached the Word by way of the prophesies in Isaiah and forthwith baptized him into the faith. Sub-Saharan Ethiopia is by all historical evidence one of the first distant countries to receive the Gospel, its evangelization probably inaugurated by this early convert.
Saul asked the high priest of the Temple to give him a letter of introduction to synagogues in Damascus, Iturea (as it was called in the Roman Empire, Syria in modern times), so that he could have Jewish converts to Christ there arrested and returned to Jerusalem (a long journey) for trial.
But on the way to Damascus, a bright light blinded Saul, and he heard a heavenly voice that identified its speaker as Jesus, “whom you persecute.” Saul's companions heard the voice but saw no source for it, and when Saul's eyes were reopened, he found himself sightless and had to have his companions guide him on to Damascus, leading him by the hand.
A disciple of the Lord in Damascus, Ananias, one of those no doubt Saul wished to persecute, had a vision from the Lord telling him to seek out Saul on the “Street called Straight” and heal his blindness. But Ananias told the Lord he had already heard of the letters Saul had received from the high priest to persecute Damascus' Christians. “Go on your way,” the Lord replied, “for he has been chosen by me to carry my name to the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel, for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake” (see Acts 9:15–16).
Paul Proves His Conversion
Like Ananias, the Christians in Damascus were reluctant to receive Saul, their persecutor. But when he began preaching in the synagogues and making converts, the Christians were soon convinced of his true conversion, and the people who opposed the converts became Paul's enemies and tried to arrest him.
He escaped by being lowered out the city wall in a basket by night, and returned to Jerusalem to join the apostles. But he was again rebuffed because they feared him, until his old acquaintance from student days under Gamaliel, Barnabas, was convinced and took Paul to vouch for him before the apostles.
After Paul began openly preaching the Word of Jesus in Jerusalem, he became targeted for death, and when he was secretly shipped back to his hometown of Tarsus, Luke says there was a time of peace for the churches in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. In the meantime Peter's ministry continued to flourish, and he healed a paralytic, and raised Tabitha, also called Dorcas, from the dead at Joppa.
An Angel Visits a Gentile
Cornelius, a god-fearing gentile and devout centurion (a Roman military officer with command of a hundred men), was visited in Caesarea by an angel, who told him to call Peter from Joppa and invite him to visit Cornelius at his home. At the same time, Peter had a vision in which the Lord told him to eat animals considered unclean under Jewish dietary law, which God was showing him being lowered from the sky on a sheet.
Although it looks like a contradiction in terms, the phrase “Jewish Christian” is not an oxymoron. Jewish Christians were people who believed in Jesus, but continued to follow the Laws of Moses and to observe the Jewish rituals and holy days. This term is used to describe the followers of Jesus in the early days of the Christian movement, before Christians began to be expelled from Jewish temples (some time in the A.D. 80s).
Cornelius' invitation was waiting for Peter when he came out of his vision-trance, and after a four-day journey, he arrived in Caesarea where he met a “large company” waiting for him in Cornelius' house. And he said, “You know it is an unlawful for a Jewish man to keep company or come to one of another nationality, but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore, I came to you without hesitation, as soon as I was sent for. I ask therefore for what intent you have sent for me?”
And after Cornelius explained his visitation from the angel, Peter preached Christ to the people at the house, many of whom received the Holy Spirit as Peter spoke, the gentiles even demonstrating the gift of tongues to the astonishment of those “of the circumcision.”After he finished, Peter baptized those who believed in Christ, again to the astonishment of the Jewish Christians.
A Turning Point
This was a great turning point for the church, as for the first time the disciples started preaching to gentiles who had not first become Jewish through proselytism and circumcision. But it did not become “official” church practice until a council, called among the apostles in Jerusalem, debated and decided that circumcision was not necessary to become a Christian. They put their finding in a letter to Barnabas and Paul at the church in Antioch, about 300 miles from Jerusalem. When Judas, Barnabas, and Silas, the disciples appointed to take the letter to Antioch, got to their destination and presented the letter to the large congregation gathered there, the congregation rejoiced (Acts 15:28–31).
Why does the church emphasize sexual purity?
One source of this policy is the apostles' letter to Barnabas and Paul and the church in Antioch, which said, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: That you abstain from meats offered to idols, from blood and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these you shall do well. Fare ye well.”
First Church Council Teaching
This decision that a person did not have to be circumcised to become a Christian created a permanent separation of Christians with the Old Testament ceremonial and moral laws. Christians are not required to keep Jewish ceremonial laws (including circumcision, abstaining from “unclean meats” like pork and shellfish, mixing meat and dairy foods, and many other rules given under Moses), while they are still held to the moral laws of Moses.