Early Church Chronology

Approximate dates for certain key events in the Early Church

To estimate exact dates for the key events in the first 30 years of the church is very difficult.  A fixed date is the death of Herod Agrippa in AD 44, mentioned in Acts 12:23.  A less certain date is the prophecy of Agabus that refers to the reign of Claudius Caesar (Acts 11:27-28), who became Emperor in AD 41.  Two dates are generally proposed for the Cross, namely AD 30 and 33.  To determine dates for other events chronographers mostly analyze the text, trying to estimate the time between events.  Below is a table of estimated dates for significant events in the history of the early church, according to various internet sources:

  Christian history Christian Apologetics & Research Anno Mundi Christian History Institute Bible Hub Amazing Bible Timeline Bible CA Genera-tion Word
Jesus Born 10 TO 3 BC 4 BC 3 BC     4 BC 4-6 BC
Tiberius reigns             AD 14  
Jesus’ ministry   AD 29            
Pentecost (Acts 2) AD 30 OR 33 AD 33 AD 30   AD 30 AD 33 AD 30 AD 30
Stephen (Acts 7)     30 – 32 AD 35 AD 31     AD 34
Persecution (Acts 8)         AD 31      
Paul (Acts 9)   AD 35 AD 32 AD 35 AD 34     AD 35
Gentiles (Acts 10)         AD 37 AD 40 AD 40 39/40
Herod dies (Acts 12) AD  44       AD 44 AD 44 AD 45 AD 44
First journey (Acts 13)   AD 48       AD 45 AD 45  
Council (Acts 15)   AD 41 49/50   AD48 AD 50 AD 50 AD 48
Gallio (Acts 18) 51 or 52              
Jerusalem (Acts 18)   AD 52          
Jerusalem (Acts 21)       AD 59     AD 57
Paul executed 64-67     AD 65        
Jerusalem destroyed AD 70              

Other internet sources with respect to the year in which Stephen was stoned include:

Merrill C. Tenney, in his book “New Testament Times” (Inter-Varsity Press, 1967, chapter 7), gives 30 AD at the most probable year for the crucifixion and 32/33 as the most probable date for Stephen’s death and the conversion of Paul.

DATE FOR PAUL’S CONVERSION

Paul mentioned that he visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:16-18).  Then he continued, “fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also” (Gal. 2:1).  It is assumed that he is counting 14 years after his conversion, not 14 years after his previous visit, since his conversion was the key event in his life.  It is furthermore assumed that this second visit to Jerusalem does not refer to the Jerusalem Council of AD 49/50, because after the visit in Gal. 2:1 Peter was still vacillating over the question of circumcision of the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-14), while at the Jerusalem Council everybody—Including Peter—agreed that circumcision of the Gentiles was unnecessary (Acts 15:7-11).  The Jerusalem visit in Gal. 2:1 therefore occurred before the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council.  It could have been the earlier visit in AD 46, when he went with relief for those stricken by the famine. Subtracting 14 years from AD 46 we get AD 32 as the date for Paul’s conversion. This is a very early date, only two years after the first possible date for Pentecost, when church was founded.

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Early Church Phase III; First Gentiles

Phase III commenced when the First Gentiles were accepted into the church and closed 10 years later with the decision that they do not have to observe the Law of Moses.

OVERVIEW

The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases.  The third phase commenced with Acts 10.  This chapter can be divided into two events, both of which were shocks to the early church.

The first was the vision which Peter received in Joppa (10:5, 10).  Through this vision Peter, representing the church, discovered that Gentiles are not unclean (10:15, 28), that God does not show partiality to the Jews (10:34), and that people from all races and nations are welcome to Him, if they fear Him and do what is right (10:35).  This was a shock to the church because it previously thought of Gentiles as unclean and as not welcomed by God, even Gentiles that fear Him and does what is right.  The church previously thought only Jews are welcomes by God and that they (the church) are accepted by God because they are Jews.  The purpose of the vision was to convince Peter to “accompany them (the Gentiles) without misgivings” (10:20, 29), and to prepare him for the second event.

The second event—and shock to the early church—was when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles while they were listening to Paul (10:44-45); “all the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed” (10:45).  The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews received the Holy Spirit in the beginning.  This made such a huge impression on Peter that he mentioned it twice when he reported back to the Christians in Jerusalem (11:15, 17), and once again during the Jerusalem Church Council (Acts 15:8).  The purpose of this event was to show the church that believing Gentiles must be baptized into the church (10:45).  This was the first time that Gentiles were allowed to join the church.  Before this event the church had no idea that the gospel must of may be preached to Gentiles.

However, this is not a completely accurate statement.  Because the believers included circumcised Gentiles, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is not exactly the same as between circumcised and uncircumcised people.  The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people and to share equally in the duties and benefits of the Law of Moses (Ex. 12:48-49; Deut. 23:8; Isa. 14:1; 56:6-8).  Such Gentiles are called proselytes (Mat. 23:15; Acts 13:43).  They were circumcised, and observed the Law of Moses.  As far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and uncircumcised men”.  That is why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and to the circumcised, instead of Jews (for instance Eph. 2:11; Gal. 2:7; Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1).  Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles).  Similarly “Gentiles” must be read to exclude Gentiles that converted to Judaism.

The real surprise in Acts 10 (to the early church) was not that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit because Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before (6:5).  The real surprise and real lesson in Acts 10, to the Jewish mind of the early church, was that uncircumcised” Gentiles, who do not observe the Law of Moses, received the Holy Spirit.  Before these events the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only.  The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well, and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.

The events of Acts 10 provide further evidence that, up to the time that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in Acts 10, all Christians observed the Law of Moses:

Peter said, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14).

The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which implies that they observed the Law of Moses.  They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45).  Gentiles therefore are mentioned as the opposite of “circumcised”.  This means that uncircumcised people (Gentiles)—namely people that do not observe the Law of Moses—have never before received the Holy Spirit.

This was the first time that “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18) and that Gentiles were baptized (10:47), which means that only Jews previously accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and were baptized.

The church, until the time of the events in Acts 10, not only consisted of Jews only; they also strictly observed all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ.  But since all other church members observed the Law of Moses, the question afterwards arose whether the Gentiles that have accepted Jesus must not still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses.  Since his vision informed Peter that Gentiles must be accepted as clean, and since the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles, just like on the Jews at Pentecost, Acts 10 seems to indicate that these Gentile Christians do not have to convert to Judaism through circumcision.  The third phase concluded when the church made a formal decision that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  This is recorded in Acts 15.

Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10) more or less 7 to 10 year after Pentecost.  There were a further about ten years between the events in Acts 10 and Acts 15.  In other words, only about 20 years after Pentecost did the church formally agree that Gentiles may join the church without circumcision and without the need to observe the Law of Moses.

ACTS 10 SUMMARIZED

A Gentile at Caesarea named Cornelius (10:1), a devout man who feared God and prayed to God continually (10:2, 22), saw a vision of an angel who said to him to send for Peter (10:3-6, 30-32), for “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved” (11:14). Cornelius sent two servants and a devout soldier to Peter (10:7-8).

As they were nearing the place where Peter was, Peter also had a vision (10:9-10; 11:5).  He saw the sky opened up, and a great sheet coming down, filled with all kinds animals and crawling creatures and birds (10:11-12).  He heard a voice saying, “Peter, kill and eat!” (10:13; 11:7).  But Peter answered, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14; 11:8).  Then the voice said to him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (10:15; 11:9).  This happened three times (10:16; 11:10).

Peter was greatly perplexed about the vision.  While he was still thinking about it, the men from Cornelius appeared at the gate (10:17), asking for Peter (10:18). The Spirit said to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Go down and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (10:19-20; 11:12).  Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; why have you come?” (10:21-22)  They said, “Cornelius was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (10:22).  Peter invited them in and gave them lodging (10:23).

The next day Peter and some of the brethren went with Cornelius’ men to Caesarea (10:23).  Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends (10:24-27).  Peter said to them:

You know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for.” (10:28-29).

After Cornelius explained the vision he had seen (10:30-33), Peter continued:

I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (10:34-35).

Peter then explained to them what Jesus Christ did in the land of the Jews, that He was crucified, but resurrected and appeared to chosen witnesses, and that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (10:36-43).  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening, just as He fell on the Jews at the beginning, and they spoke with tongues and exalted God (10:44-46; 11:15).  This amazed the circumcised believers who came with Peter (10:45).  Then Peter said “Surely no one can refuse to baptize a person who has received the Holy Spirit, can he?” (10:47)  Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:48).

The apostles and the Christians in Judea heard what happened (11:1). So when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3).  Peter then explained to them what happened 11:4-16) and concluded:

If God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17)

The Christians in Jerusalem then concluded:

Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).

GENTILES UNCLEAN

Most of Acts 10 describes that happened, interspersed with conclusions expressed by Peter and others (10:28-29, 34-35, 47; 11:17-18).  These conclusions are important.  We should not develop our own interpretations of these incidents.

Peter’s first conclusion in Acts 10 is his interpretation of the vision.  He said when he arrived at Caesarea:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28). “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (10:29).

This has a number of implications:

Firstly, Peter thought of himself primarily as a Jew; a loyal member of Judaism, and only secondarily as a Christian.  He thought of Christianity as a subset of Judaism, namely as the Jews that believes in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Secondly, the Jews in general, including the Christians—since all Christians at this point in time were Jews—considered Gentiles to be “unholy and unclean”, which made it unlawful for Christians to associate with Gentiles or to visit them.  For that reason, as stated in verse 29, Peter would not have been willing to go with Cornelius’ met to Cornelius’ house if he did not receive the vision.

This is confirmed by what happened when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, when his fellow church members: “took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2, 3).  In other words, the church strongly disapproved of eating with “uncircumcised men”.

We also see in Galatians, written much later, that some Christian Jews still then considered eating with Gentiles to be a grievous sin (Gal. 2:12). This was the attitude in the Jewish culture of which the church was part.  The Jews despised Gentiles.

We see an illustration of this in Acts 21, where Paul addresses the non-Christian Jews.  They listened quite attentively, but the moment he mentioned God saying to him “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21), the Jews were in uproar (22:22).

Another striking example of the Jews’ hatred of Gentiles is found in Luke 4.  In verse 22 “all were speaking well of Him (Jesus)”, but when He mentioned two examples from the Old Testament where Gentiles were chosen above Israelites (4:25-27), “all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28) and “drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill  … in order to throw Him down the cliff” (4:29).

NOT A MESSAGE ABOUT FOOD

Many people think that the purpose of the vision of the sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed creatures” was to allow Christians to eat “unclean” animals, but Peter’s vision must be interpreted as Peter himself interpreted it, namely that “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28).  The purpose of the vision was not to say something about food, but to convince Peter to accompany the uncircumcised men, which Cornelius sent, “without misgivings” (10:20).  To interpret the vision as saying anything about what Christians may eat, is taking it out of its context.  One should not separate Peter’s vision from the entire incident,

JEWS CHOSEN

Peter’s next conclusion, made at the beginning of his speech in Cornelius’ house, was:

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (10:34-35).

This means that he (and the church in general) previously understood that God does show partiality, namely to Jews, and that other people are NOT welcome to God; even people who fears Him and does what is right.  Israel though of itself as the Chosen People.

OBSERVE THE LAW OF MOSES

It has been shown above, in the discussion of the Judea & Samaria phase, that all Christians in that phase observed the Law of Moses. This would then be true up to the point in time when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time in Acts 10.  This is confirmed by the events of Acts 10 and 11:

Peter’s response, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14), indicates that the church, up to that point in history, did not eat anything unholy and unclean.  This implies that the church, at the time, still observed the Jewish laws.

The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which, in this context, means that they observed the Law of Moses.  They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45).  Gentiles therefore are the opposite of “circumcised” people.  Gentiles are “uncircumcised” (11:3).  Since Peter’s “circumcised” companions were amazed that “uncircumcised men” (11:3) received the Holy Spirit, we can conclude that this never happened before, which means that all Christians previously observed the Law of Moses.

Peter, after he saw that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, said: “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he? “ (10:47)  This therefore was the first time that Gentiles were baptized.  Peter—and therefore the church in general—previously thought that, because the Jews were God’s chosen people, only Jews may be baptized.

The conclusion of the Christians in Jerusalem, after Peter reported back to them, was, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).  This confirms that this was the first time that Gentiles accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah).

The church, up to that point in history, not only consisted only of Jews; they also observed strictly all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ.

CIRCUMCISION

The distinction between Jew and Gentile requires further explanation.

Acts 10:45-11:3 describes the believers as “circumcised” and Gentiles as uncircumcised men”.  This is the first time that the Book of Acts refers to people in such a way”.  It says, “those who were circumcised took issue with him (Peter), saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3).  Why does Acts now suddenly refer to circumcised and uncircumcised men, instead of Jews and Gentiles?

Furthermore, Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before, for instance “Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (6:5). Why then were the “circumcised believers” “amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles” (10:45)?

The answer is that, as far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and uncircumcised men”.  The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people:

Deut. 23:8 speaks of “one who enters into the assembly of Jacob“.

Isa. 14:1 mentions converts as “strangers” who shall “cleave to the house of Jacob“.

Joshua led the people of God across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thanks to a Gentile woman, named Rahab, the city of Jericho is taken. Rahab not only protects the Hebrew spies from her own people, but also confessed the Lord with her mouth, saying, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you … the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9, 11). Rahab joined the people of Israel, and she was included in the genealogy of the Messiah Himself (Matthew 1:5).

Naomi was an Israelite whose husband and sons died in the foreign land of Moab. Both her sons had married Moabite women.  While one of their wives stayed in Moab, the other – Ruth – followed Naomi back to the land of Judah, where she married the kinsman redeemer Boaz (whose mother was Rahab).  A whole book in the Bible is devoted to her, and she also became an ancestor of Christ (Matthew 1:5).

A Gentile that put his or her faith in YHWH, is called a “proselyte”:

Jesus said to the Jews, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte” (Mat. 23:15).  (See also Acts 13:43)

The duties and benefits which the Old Testament bestowed on Jews apply equally to proselytes.  They were also circumcised and they also observed the Law of Moses:

Ex. 12:48 provides for the proselyte’s partaking of the paschal lamb.

The same law shall be to him that is born in the land, and to the proselyte that sojourneth with you” (Ex. 12:49).

Foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD … and who hold fast to my covenant-these I will … give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-8).

Jews would not “associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28) or eat with them (11:3) because they were thought to be “unclean”.  But once a Gentile has been circumcised and “observe the Law of Moses” (15:5) and the Jewish customs, they were no longer viewed as unclean.

The real distinction was therefore not between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between circumcised and uncircumcised.  That is also why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and circumcised, instead of Jews:

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision” (Eph. 2:11)

But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter” (Gal. 2:7 KJV; See also Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1).

Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles).

It therefore did not surprise the Jews when a Gentile proselyte received the Holy Spirit.  The surprise, in Acts 10, was that uncircumcised Gentiles, that do not observe the Law of Moses, have received the Holy Spirit.  Before these events the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only.  The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well, and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.

UNITY

In Acts 2 the apostles received the Holy Spirit without the intervention of other people, but in Acts 10-11 the apostle Peter went to the Gentiles for them to receive the Holy Spirit.  Similar to the Samaritans, who received the Holy Spirit only after the apostles went to Samaria and laid hands on them, the authority of the apostles and therefore the unity of the church was preserved.

NEXT: Separation Phase

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Early Church; Christians flee to Judea and Samaria

When Israel persecuted the Spirit-filled believers, it forfeited its final opportunity to repent, and Stephen pronounced God’s judgment on them.  Christians flee to Judea and Samaria.

SUMMARY

The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases.  The second phase commenced with the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, which scattered the believers throughout Judea and Samaria (7:58-8:1) and ended when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10).

According to internet sources, the events of Acts 10 occurred about 7 to 10 years after the Cross.  The duration of this second phase could therefore have been about 4 to 8 years.  Both Bible Hub and Generation Word estimate the duration to about 6 years.

During the Jerusalem phase the church grew exponentially, but there was constant resistance from the Jewish authorities.  Twice the apostles were jailed and once they were flogged.  Eventually the Jewish Council became intent on killing the apostles (5:33), but God protected them.

Stephen, “full of grace and power, … performing great wonders and signs among the people”, particularly attracted the attention of the Jews.  They brought him before the Council (6:12), where Stephen delivered his well-known speech.  He did not call Israel to repentance, like Peter previously did, but pronounced of God’s judgment on Israel.

After slaying Stephen, the religious leaders launched the first great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.  This scattered the disciples through the “regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:2), but where-ever they went they preached the word.

God allowed the Jews to persecute the church in Jerusalem to allow the message to be spread throughout Judea and Samaria, but He did not allow the Jews to persecute the church in Judea and Samaria.  When Paul tried to expand the persecution outside Jerusalem (9:2), the Lord struck him blind on the Damascus Road.  This allowed the church a period of rest, free from persecution, and multiplied in Judea, Galilee and Samaria. (Acts 9:31).

In Acts 8 Philip preach in Samaria.  The Samaritans listened to him attentively and saw the miracles which God performed through him.  Unclean spirits came out of people, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.  Philip also shared the good news with an important Ethiopian official, and in many other towns (8:40).  Peter traveled “through all those regions” (9:32), healing the sick (9:33) and bringing a dead woman to life (9:40).

In conclusion:

God did not reject Israel for killing His Son, but sent the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to the Jewish capital, apparently as a final opportunity for Israel to repent corporately.  Who knows what the outcome would have been, had Israel repented.  But when the Jews again rejected God by rejecting the manifestation of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s verdict through Stephen.  There-after the message went to Judea, but now to Israelites as individuals, and also to Samaria, Jacob’s despised half-breed child.

In this second phase the church still observed the Law of Moses.  The good news was shared with “Jews alone” (11:19).  The Samaritans accepted the five books of Moses, and did therefore observe the Law of Moses.  The Ethiopian official “was reading the prophet Isaiah” when Philip met him (8:28), and therefore probably was a Jew or a Jewish proselyte.

STONING OF STEPHEN AND FIRST GREAT PERSECUTION

After Pentecost the church existed as a part of Judaism, grew exponentially in Jerusalem and found “favor with all the people” in Jerusalem (2:47, 5:13).  However, there also was constant resistance from the Jewish religious authorities, motivated by jealousy (5:17).  Twice the apostles were jailed (4:1-4; 5:18) and once they were flogged (5:40).  But eventually the Jewish Council became intent on killing the apostles (5:33).  God protected the apostles through Gamaliel (5:33-40), but then conflict erupted among the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem.  “Stephen (himself Greek-speaking), full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). He argued with the Jews in the Greek-speaking synagogues.  “They were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10).  So they had recourse to the usual devices of lying witnesses and violence (6:11-14).  They brought him before the Council (6:12), where “all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel” (6:15).

There Stephen delivered his well-known speech.  His speech was of a different category.  In contrast to Peter some time earlier (cf. Acts 4:8-12), Stephen made no effort to defend himself or to refute the charges against him.

Unlike Peter’s previous speeches, Stephen’s speech did not call Israel to repentance.

Like Daniel’s prayer recorded in Daniel chapter 9, Stephen’s speech is based on God’s covenant with Israel.  But while Daniel confessed the sins of his people and prayed for the mercies of the covenant, Stephen’s speech was a pronouncement of God’s judgment in terms of the covenant.  He cites God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people in the past—showing that He kept His side of the covenant.  Stephen also listed the failures of the Jewish people—showing that the Jewish people did not keep their side of the covenant.  He made it very plain that the Jewish rulers of his day were but repeating the resistance of their forefathers to the work of the Lord.  Joseph had been refused by his brethren, Moses was at first rejected. Now they had murdered the Just One whom is to become their Judge.  After his long recital of Israel’s history, he switched from using the pronoun “our” to “your”, and announced the verdict:

You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51- 53).

After this verdict, Stephen “gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55).  The Bible consistently says that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God (Luke 22:69; Hebr. 8:1-2; 10:12; cf. Col 3:1; Rom 8:34; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Mar 16:19; 1 Peter 3:22).  But Stephen saw Him standing.  It is therefore proposed that Jesus stood in judgment, and that through Stephen’s lips the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s judgment against the Jewish nation.

God did not reject Israel for killing His Son, but by sending the apostles with the power of the Holy Spirit to the Jewish capital, He gave Israel a final opportunity to repent corporately.  Who knows what the outcome would have been, had Israel repented.  But when the Jews again rejected God by rejecting the manifestation of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s verdict through Stephen.  There-after the message went to Judea, but now to Israelites as individuals, and also to Samaria, Jacob’s despised half-breed child.

In his last moment Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).  These words were much more than a prayer.  They were the genuine expression of God’s will in relation to those people:

If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).

COVENANT

It must be noted that the covenant which God had with Israel was not synonymous of salvation.  Rather, the purpose of the covenant was to take God’s salvation to the entire world (cf. Genesis 12:1-3).  For this purpose God elected Israel and conferred to them a series of privileges, such as the multiplication of their seed, the gift of the land, and His own presence in blessing and protection.  He gave this to enable them to be the channel for His blessing to all other nations.  Thus the covenant must be understood in terms of mission.  So to state that the Jews are no longer the people of the covenant does not mean that they will not be saved, as sometimes has been suggested, but only that God has chosen another method to execute His missionary plan.

God’s covenant with Israel was established on a corporate basis—i.e., it involved the entire nation as an entity.  It is not a covenant with specific individuals.  The end of the covenant with Israel, therefore, does not imply the end of God’s interest in the Jews as individuals.  Because of this, the gospel was still preached to them even after Stephen’s death (cf. Acts 28:17-28).  But the privilege of being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) was no longer theirs.  The people of the covenant now were no longer defined by bloodline, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; cf. Romans 11:25-32).

FIRST GREAT PERSECUTION

Not content with slaying Stephen, the religious leaders launched the first great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.

Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (8:3).

This persecution scattered the disciples through the “regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:2), but where-ever they went they preached the word.

God allowed the Jews to persecute the church in Jerusalem to allow the message to spread throughout Judea and Samaria, but He did not allow the Jews to persecute the church outside Jerusalem.  When Paul tried to expand the persecution outside Jerusalem (9:2), the Lord struck him blind on the Damascus Road, and he only regained his sight when he met Ananias (Acts 9:1-18).  This allowed the church a period of rest:

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (9:31).

In Acts 8 Philip preach in Samaria.  The Samaritans listened to him attentively and saw the miracles which God performed through him.  Unclean spirits came out of people, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.

Philip also shared the good news with an important Ethiopian official, and in many other towns (8:40).  Peter traveled “through all those regions” (9:32), healing the sick (9:33) and bringing a dead woman to life (9:40).

SEVEN DEACONS

Seven were chosen after complaints from Greek-speaking Jews that they were being neglected, “to serve tables” (6:2).  The names of these deacons indicated that they were all Greek-speaking Jews (6:5).  One of them was a proselyte (6:5), which infers that he was a Gentile that was converted to Judaism.

In the Jerusalem phase the apostles did the teaching, but they remained in Jerusalem (8:1) during the Judea & Samaria phase.  Although the seven deacons were chosen “to serve tables”, it was “the wisdom and the Spirit with which” one of them (Stephen) was speaking (6:10) that ignited the persecution against the church, and after the dispersion of the church into Judea and Samaria another one of the seven (Philip) is particularly mentioned is preaching the gospel:

Acts 8:6 The crowds (in Samaria) with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 So there was much rejoicing in that city.

Jesus never worked in Gentiles communities, but He did once preached the gospel of peace to the Samaritans (John 4:6-26).  For these reasons, even though the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9), Philip had the liberty of taking the gospel to them.  The power of God was with Philip, and wonderful blessing followed.  When Jesus visited the Samaritans, many asked “this is not the Christ, is it?” (John 4:29)  When Philip came to them, ” proclaiming Christ” (Acts 8:5), they were convinced that this is indeed the Christ.  There was great joy in that city (8:8).

CHURCH UNITY

The remarkable thing about Philip’s work in Samaria was that, although so many believed the Gospel and were baptized, none received the gift of the Holy Ghost (8:15-16).  God so ordered this, we believe, for a special reason.  There had always been religious rivalry between Jerusalem and Samaria, as John 4 witnesses.  Both groups accepted the five books of Moses as the basis for their faith, both groups counted Abraham as their father (John 4:12) and both practiced circumcision, but the Samaritans used a different temple (John 4:20) and a different priesthood.  Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know … salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).  If Samaria received the Holy Spirit independent from the church in Jerusalem, this might have strengthened that rivalry and might have resulted in a Samaritan church independent of, if not in rivalry to, a Jerusalem church.  But God ordained things so that they only received the Spirit when Peter and John had come down and laid hands on them (Acts 8:14-17), thus establishing the authority of the Apostles and the church in Jerusalem. The atonement (oneness) of the church was preserved.

THREE PHASES

In Acts 1:8 Jesus said to the apostles that they would be His witnesses

  • both in Jerusalem, and
  • in all Judea and Samaria, and
  • even to the remotest part of the earth

These are the three main phases of the early church.  In the first phase the church was limited to Jerusalem, but the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, after the stoning of Stephen, scattered the believers throughout Judea and Samaria (7:58-8:1).  This commenced the second phase, which ended when the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10).

OBSERVED THE LAW OF MOSES

In the first phase the church was limited to Jerusalem.  In this second phase the church was scattered through Judea and Samaria.  However, the church still observed the Law of Moses:

As argued in the discussion of phase one, the Jews that were scattered from Jerusalem were thoroughly Jewish.

They went about in Judea and Samaria, preaching the Word, but “to Jews alone” (11:19).

The “Hellenistic Jews” (6:1) spoke Greek, while the “native Hebrews” (6:1) were Jews that spoke Aramaic; but all were Jews.  Greek was the common language in New Testament times, as evidenced by the fact that the New Testament was written in that language.

The Samaritans also counted Jacob as their spiritual father (John 4:5, 12) and expected the Messiah (Christ) (John 4:25, 29) as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).  They worshiped the God of the Bible, but not in Jerusalem; their temple was on Mount Gerizim. They accepted the five books of Moses, and did therefore observe the Law of Moses.  They did not accept the rest of the Old Testament and had their own priests, as opposed to the line of priests in Jerusalem.  Because the Israelite inhabitants of Samaria had intermarried with the foreigners, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” and were generally despised by the Jews (John 4:9; 8:48).  See the atheist encyclopedia Livius and Gotquestions for more information.

Philip’s steps were also guided to intercept an important Ethiopian official who had taken a toilsome journey to Jerusalem.  It is not explicitly stated whether the Ethiopian in Acts 8 was a Jew or not, but since “he had come to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27) and “was reading the prophet Isaiah” when Philip met him (8:28), he probably was one of the Jews or Jewish proselytes that were citizens of other countries (2:5-12).  He probably came to Jerusalem to worship on one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals, such a Pentecost.  He therefore also observed the Law of Moses.

But the best proof that the church still lived according to the Law of Moses will come from the later phases of the church that are discussed below.  In Acts 10 Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time, to the amazement of the Jews (10:45). In Acts 15 the church council decided, about 20 years after Pentecost, that Gentiles do not have to submit to the Law of Moses, but this decision only applied to Gentile Christians (15:19).  The Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law of Moses; at least until about 30 years after Pentecost (21:20). There should therefore be no doubt about the fact that the church, during this second phased, still consisting only of Jews and Samaritans, and lived according to the Law of Moses.

NEXT: First Gentiles in the Church

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Early Church; Sect of Judaism

The Church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but for a number of years it existed as a sect of Judaism.  The message, directed by the mighty Power, focused on Jerusalem only.

SUMMARY

The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases.

The first phase commenced with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 and ended when the church was scattered from Jerusalem through persecution (8:1).  Estimates of the duration of this phase vary from one year to four years.

During this phase God’s Holy Spirit worked mightily, performing many great miracles (2:43; 5:12-16; 6:8; 4:22; 5:18-19), giving courage to the apostles and power to their sermons. In a few years the church grew from the initial group of 120 to many thousands (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7).  However, the church was confined to Jerusalem, consisted of Jews and Jewish proselytes only and functioned as part of Judaism.  Indications of the Jewish nature of this first phase are:

In Jerusalem – The church received the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (1:4).  The Jewish Council (5:21, 27) later declared “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28).  This first phase of the early church closed with the comment: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7).

Pentecost – God selected Pentecost to pour out His Holy Spirit.  On that annual festival devout Jews from all nations, who spoke the language of the nation where they were born, were gathered in Jerusalem (2:10, 5). God also gave His followers the ability to speak the languages of these foreigners, indicating God’s purpose to reach Jews from all over the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.  On that day 3000 Jews were added to the church (2:41).

Call to repentance – Peter, the primary spokesperson during this phase, did not hesitate to blame the Jews for the death of “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11; 5:30), but he also called the Jews to repentance, teaching:

That God exalted Jesus to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior to grant repentance to Israel (5:31);

That, for Israel first, God raised up His Servant Jesus and sent Him to bless Israel by turning them from their wicked ways (3:26, 20) and;

That the promise of the Holy Spirit is for them (Acts 2:38-39; 3:19).

It is therefore clear that God did not reject Israel for killing Jesus.  God continued to give preference to Israel after Christ’s death.

Jewish Sermons – The sermons were entirely Jewish, indicating that it was intended for Israel alone.  Peter addressed his audience as “Men of Israel“ (2:22, 36) and quoted liberally from the prophets (2:17-21, 25-28; 3:18, 21-25).  Stephen’s defense before the High Priest and the council was also thoroughly Jewish, summarizing Israel’s history (Acts 7).

In the Temple – The church worshiped every day in the temple (2:46; 3:1, 8 and 3:11), where only Jews were allowed.  God gave them explicit instruction to preach in the temple (5:20, 25 and 42).  God gave a most significant miracle at the temple (3:1-10), attracting the attention of all the Jews worshiping in the temple, and giving Peter the opportunity to witness powerfully (3:19; 4:4).

In conclusion, during these first few years God limited the efforts of His Holy Spirit to Jews. The church grew extremely fast, but consisted of Jews only, continuing to live practically as Jews. Christianity at this time was a subset of (part of) Judaism, and the dramatic actions of the young church were still confined to Jerusalem.

DISCUSSION

For a period of forty days after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His chosen apostles (Acts 1:2), proving to them than He is alive (1:3).  At the end of the forty days He was taken up into heaven (1:2-3).

Just before He was taken up, He gave orders to His apostles (1:2) not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait in Jerusalem to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:4-5).  Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, the remaining 120 followers of Christ (1:15) were all together in one place.  Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind that filled the whole house. There appeared what looked like tongues of fire that came to rest on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages (2:1-4).

On that day and during the subsequent years God’s Holy Spirit worked mightily.  Many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (2:43; 5:12; 6:8).  A man that was more than 40 years old (4:22), and who was lame from birth (3:2), was healed at the temple (3:1-10).  The apostles were securely locked up in prison (5:18, 23), but an angel released them (5:19).  The people of Jerusalem “even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them” (5:15).  “People from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were … bringing people who were sick … and they were all being healed” (5:16).

The Holy Spirit gave courage to the apostles and power to their sermons.  The church grew from the initial group of 120 to many thousands in a few years.  On the day of Pentecost alone the followers of Jesus increased from 120 to more than 3000 (2:41).  “The Lord was adding to their number day by day” (2:47).  After the healing of the lame man at the temple there were more than 10000 believers (4:4).  Thereafter “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (5:14; 6:1, 7).  This is amazing, considering that the Leader of the group was killed, but instead of His followers hiding away, the number of followers increased exponentially on the basis of the teaching of these “uneducated and untrained men” (4:13).  This shows the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, the church was limited to Jerusalem, consisted of Jews only and functioned as part of Judaism.  Indications of the Jewish nature of this first phase are:

IN JERUSALEM

Jesus explicitly told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit (1:4).  The Jewish Council (5:21, 27) later declared “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28).  This first phase of the early church closed with the comment: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7).

PENTECOST

The church received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, when devout Jews and proselytes from all nations were gathered in Jerusalem (2:10, 5).  These Jews and proselytes included, amongst others, Parthians, Medes, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Arabs (2:9-10).  They spoke the language of the nation where they were born.  They also heard the sound from heaven and came together to see what it is.  The Holy Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak the various languages of these people.  These foreigners were amazed to hear the 120, whom they knew were Galileans (2:7), speaking in their own foreign languages of the mighty deeds of God (2:11-12).

The fact that God chose Jerusalem and the day of Pentecost to pour out His Holy Spirit, and that He gave His followers the ability to speak the languages of these foreigners, indicate God’s intention to reach Jews all over the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.  On that day 3000 Jews were added to the church (2:41).

JEWS CALLED TO REPENTANCE

Peter, the primary spokesperson during this phase, did not hesitate to blame the Jews for the death of “the Holy and Righteous One”::

On Pentecost Peter said to the Jews: “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man … you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (2:22-23) AND “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).

In his speech in the temple, after the healing of the lame man, Peter said to the Jews gathered in the temple: “His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate … you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life” (3:13-15)

The next day, after they were jailed for teaching in the temple, Peter said to the “rulers and elders and scribes … gathered together in Jerusalem” (4:5, 8): “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone” (4:10-11)

The Jewish Council (5:27) later complained, “you … intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (5:28), but Peter reiterated “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross” (5:30).

But God did not reject Israel for killing Jesus.  Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” was an expression of God’s heart. Israel still had the opportunity to repent (3:17-19).  Therefore Peter and the apostles preached repentance to the Jews:

Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise (of the Holy Spirit) is for you and your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:38-39)

After the lame man was healed, Peter said to the Jews in the temple, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away” (3:19).

Not only did Peter preach repentance to the Jews; he preached repentance for Jews first.  He assured his Jewish listeners:

That “for you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (3:26);

That Jesus is ”the Christ (Savior) appointed for you” (3:20) and;

That “God exalted (Jesus) to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel” (5:31);

Paul often used the phrase “Jew first” (E.g. Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10).  God, after the death of Christ, not only sent the gospel to the Jews first, but they will always have the first right to salvation.  “From the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom. 11:28).

JEWISH SERMONS

Peter’s sermons were entirely Jewish.  In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost he addressed his audience as “Men of Israel“ (2:22) and “the house of Israel” (2:36), and quoted both Joel (2:17-21) and David (2:25-28).  These references would have meant nothing to any Gentile standing around. The 3000 people who were saved that day would all have been Jewish.  His second sermon, in the temple, after the lame man was healed, was also entirely Jewish.  Several times he referred to the prophets (3:18, 21, 24-25), explicitly mentioning Samuel (3:24), Moses (3:22) and Abraham (3:25).

Stephen’s defense before the High Priest and the council was also thoroughly Jewish, summarizing Israel’s history (Acts 7).

IN THE TEMPLE

After Pentecost the 3000 believers were “day by day continuing with one mind in the temple” (2:46), where Gentiles were not allowed (Acts 2:46). The nearest the Gentiles could get was the Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the Temple.  “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer” (3:1).  “They were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico”, which was a specific part of the temple (compare 3:8 and 3:11).

God gave Peter to heal a lame man “at the gate of the temple” (3:2, 7).  This man “they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple” (3:2).  All the people knew him (3:10).  Since God had removed his deformity, the man was probably now, for the first time in his whole life, allowed to enter the temple.  He “entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8).  With the man still “clinging to Peter and John” (3:11), and with all the people gathering around them, full of amazement (3:11), the miracle gave Peter the opportunity of testify in the temple, where only Jews were allowed.  God chose this location, which confirms that God’s efforts were still focused on the Jewish nation.  Peter urged them to “repent, so that your sins may be wiped away” (3:19).  Many believed, and the church grew to 5000 men (4:4).

After the apostles were jailed (5:18), an angel released them and told them to go and speak to the people in the temple (5:20), which they did (5:25).  The authorities arrested them again (5:26), “flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus” (5:40), but they just kept on preaching in the templeJesus as the Christ” (5:42).  Their worship still centered around the temple.  In their view they were the true Jews.

CONCLUSION

For a number years after Jesus’s death and resurrection God limited the efforts of His Holy Spirit to Jews.  During this first phase of massive growth the church consisted only of Jews, continuing to live like Jews.  Christianity at this time was a part of Judaism, and the dramatic actions of the young church were still confined to Jerusalem.  The later three phases provide additional evidence for this conclusion.

Key Phrases: Early Church, Holy Spirit, Acts 2, Pentecost, Jesus the Nazarene, Jewish origin of the church, Proselytes, Jews first, Jew first, First Church

NEXT: Judea and Samaria Phase

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