I find the Apostles’ apparent reticence to leave Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus perplexing. I don’t know if they were disobeying God, just misunderstanding Him, or carrying out their role just as He intended. In this post I want to lay out one perspective that makes me wonder if they weren’t disobeying God. It also seems that racial issues have a lot to do with it.
- Read Acts 1:1-9 here and Acts 11:19-30 here.
- You can listen to the related sermon here.
- This post draws heavily on chapter two of the book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church.
In Luke 24:45-49 the resurrected Jesus tells the apostles “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem…. stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then Luke begins the book of Acts by again noting the instructions “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…. you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But the apostles seem to stay in Jerusalem long after the Holy Spirit arrives. What’s going on?
The Holy Spirit arrives with power in Acts chapter 2. Peter preaches a great sermon and the first mega-church is born. (2:41)
The story (and the apostles) then stays in Jerusalem until Acts 8:1.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (tNIV, emphasis added)
The Gospel has begun to spread. The movement is on. It started in Jerusalem and now it seeps into Judea and Samaria. But the Apostles stay put! Eventually, in 8:14 after the Samaritans begin accepting the Gospel the apostles Peter and John travel to Samaria where they stay and preach before returning to Jerusalem.
Chapters 9-11 revolve around God convincing the apostle Peter that it was okay to baptise Gentiles. God convinces him by gifting Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit: A sign Peter could not reject. Then Peter has to return to Jerusalem and convince the church there that God allowed Gentiles into his kingdom. The Jerusalem church still wanted to exclude Gentiles.
While the Jerusalem church and the apostles were struggling to come to terms with God’s admission of Gentiles into his kingdom, other Christians were busy spreading the Gospel to everyone. In 8:1 we learn that persecution scattered many of the Christians from Jerusalem, but 8:4 notes “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” One of the places they went was to Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire at the time. Acts 11:20 tells us that “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.“
When the church in Jerusalem learned of the Gentile Christians in Antioch they sent Barnabas (not an Apostle) to investigate. Barnabas was excited about God’s work in Antioch, but instead of returning to Jerusalem he traveled further north to find Saul and brought him as partner in teaching the Gospel in Antioch.
Then over in Acts 13:1-3 the church in Antioch blesses Saul and Barnabas and sends them on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.
At this point one might think that the racial and religious tensions between Jews and Gentiles would be resolved. One might also expect that after the Apostles in Jerusalem had accepted Peter’s experience with Cornelius and heard the reports of Barnabas and Saul that certainly the Jerusalem church had worked through this issue. But in Acts 15:1 we find Christians traveling from Jerusalem to Antioch and demanding that Gentile Christians submit to circumcision. Basically, they were teaching that Gentiles needed to become Jews before they could become Christians! Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with this teaching.
So everyone travels to Jerusalem for the Apostles to make a ruling. (Yes, they’re still there.) In 15:6-7 the elders and apostles meet to consider the question, then the text says, “After much discussion…“. This still wasn’t a straightforward issue for the church. Finally, the Apostles Peter and James give speeches stating that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or to observe the Mosaic Law. Acts has 28 chapters and it takes until chapter 15 for Gentiles to be accepted in the Jerusalem church.
It appears that despite the instructions of Luke 24 and Acts 1 the Twelve struggled to accept first that God wanted Gentiles to receive the Gospel of Jesus and enter his kingdom. Second, they appear slow to recognise that Jesus’ command to go into all the world applied to them.
The Good News
I don’t intend to write all this just to criticise the Apostles. What’s fascinating about all this is realising who really helped kick start the church in carrying out the Great Commission. It wasn’t the Apostles or even missionaries sanctioned by the Jerusalem mother ship.
Some Jewish Christians from remote parts of the Roman Empire initiated the Gentile mission and the struggle against legalism and prejudice. Acts 11:20 doesn’t tell us their names, but notes that they came to Antioch from Cyrene (northern Africa) and Cyprus. Later the Cypriot Barnabas joined the work and he recruited Saul, a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Turkey. This diverse group of Godly men opened the doors of God’s kingdom to “all nations”.
This encourages me that I don’t need to be the lead minister at a big city mega-church for my ministry to have profound influence within the church and the world. I hope it likewise encourages you that God can use anyone to take giant strides for Him. The rag tag group of Christians in Antioch understood the mission of God in ways that the Jerusalem church never seems to wholeheartedly embrace. They just loved their neighbours enough that they couldn’t keep their life changing good news to themselves. Through this church, God changed the world.
God used persecution of the church to send Christians into the world preaching as they went (8:1). But the Apostles remained in Jerusalem. I wonder if God didn’t finally use the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD as the ultimate endorsement of the Gentile mission and to force the Apostles to leave Jerusalem and spread His Good News with the world.
I’d love for you to share your thoughts with me.
- Did the Twelve have good reasons to remain in Jerusalem?
- Is the Jew-Gentile conflict in the early church comparable with racial prejudices in our society and churches?
- KEY VERSE: I didn’t reference Gal. 2:9 in the discussion above. Does it change your perspective on this discussion?