As we saw in our previous discussion, Jesus limited His earthly ministry almost entirely to the Jews, or, as He expressed it, to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleaded with Him to heal her daughter and the disciples were inclined to send her away, Jesus told the disciples that He was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. A moment later He explained to the woman that the children must first be fed. Matthew 15:24, Mark 7:28. When He nevertheless did heal her daughter it was in anticipation and prophecy of the ingathering of the gentiles after His death and resurrection. Therefore Jesus also limited the activities of the twelve and of others whom He sent out to those same lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet after Christ had died and was risen, in fact, on the very evening of the day of the resurrection Jesus appeared to His disciples and said: “Peace be unto you, as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you,” John 20:21. Doing so He breathed on them the Holy Spirit, by Whom they were called and qualified to preach the gospel. But their field was much larger than that of Jesus. For when He appeared to them in Galilee He made that remarkable statement in anticipation of His exaltation in heaven: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” And thereupon He gave them the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Matthew 28:16-20.
From this commission to His apostles it becomes evident that not the apostles will gather the church, but Christ Himself will gather His sheep through them. He had given them the sign of the net full of fishes, and had called them to be fishers of men. If that sign meant anything at all, it meant that they would not be able to bring a single sinner into the kingdom. If it depended upon them their net would be as empty as when they toiled all night and caught nothing. But by the power of Jesus working through them and their spoken word, as well as by the operation of His Spirit in their hearts, He would gather His own unto Himself. This is a principle that we may not overlook. Christ gathers His church! Therefore He also assured the apostles when He gave them their commission to preach the gospel to all nations, that He would be with them and use them for His purpose, “even unto the end of the ages.” This last statement assures all those who are called of Christ and sent out by Him that He will work through them, even until His church is gathered and He returns with the clouds of heaven. Is not He the One Who sends forth the white horse of Revelation 6?
This makes the first chapter of the Book of Acts so extremely interesting. Luke begins this book by telling Theophilus that in his gospel account (The Gospel according to Luke) he had told “of all that Jesus beganboth to do and teach, until the day that he was taken up into heaven.” Now in the Book of Acts Luke continues his account, telling of all that Jesus continues to do even after He ascended to heaven. Acts 1:1, 2. And so we see the one hundred and twenty disciples gathered together in the upper room, with one accord praying and pouring out their supplications for the fulfillment of Christ’s promise, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A small group, but nevertheless the church of Christ, still in the lingering moments of the old dispensation, awaiting the dawning of the new day. And they did not wait in vain. For ten days after Christ ascended to heaven He poured out His Spirit upon them. The day of Pentecost had fully come. Christ returned to His church in the Spirit, filling their hearts with the cleansing, enlightening power of His Spirit. And as evidence of that power, Peter began to preach with an insight into the prophecies and their fulfillment such as he had never had before. And upon his preaching three thousand were added to the church. Here were Jews, but also proselytes from every part of the inhabited world. And this was only the beginning. For we read, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Acts 2:47. Their numbers grew in a very short time into many thousands. Like a mushroom the church suddenly burst forth into full bloom as a new day had dawned.
But the church was not to remain concentrated in Jerusalem. Severe persecution broke out. Acts 8:1-5. In connection with this persecution the name of Saul appears for the first time as one zealous to wipe out the Name of Jesus and to destroy all those who confessed Him as their Lord. As a result many believers left Jerusalem to scatter in many directions. No, these people were no cowards. They had rejoiced with the apostles, when the apostles had been imprisoned and whipped for their confession, counting it a privilege to suffer for Christ’s sake. Acts 4:23-30. But now their very lives were being endangered and their witness was about to be silenced. Therefore they felt compelled to seek refuge elsewhere. Obviously God was directing this persecution also. Like a mother eagle He was stirring up the nest, so that the young eaglets might be thrown into the open sky to learn the use of their wings. These refugees were scattered into the region of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1. And as they went they preached the word everywhere. Acts 8:4. They were not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor did they hide their convictions for fear of more persecution. They were so completely filled with the power of the Spirit and the riches of grace that they enthusiastically and spontaneously bubbled over, telling what great things God had done in these last days through His Son Jesus Christ. They spoke of the cross, the resurrection, and of their exalted Lord in heaven, in Whom alone is salvation.
These believers soon spread beyond Samaria into Phoenicia, on to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean, and as far north as Antioch in Syria. Acts 11:19. The very first ones to reach these new areas limited their preaching entirely to the Jews. Acts 11:19. That the gospel should also reach out to the gentiles was something that they did not as yet understand. The speaking in various tongues on the day of Pentecost had evidently meant nothing to them. But then we must also consider that even the apostles failed to grasp the significance of this sign until some time later. These Jews clung so tenaciously to the faith of their fathers and to the traditions that went along with it for so many centuries, that it was difficult for them to accept such a radical change that had come so suddenly upon them. But there were others also who came to Antioch with the gospel of Christ. These were proselytes from Cyprus and Cyrene, who were more ready to accept the change of the new day, and they preached the Lord Jesus to gentiles as well as to Jews. Acts 11:20. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” (verse 21). The Lord sealed the preaching of His word by applying it to the hearts of gentiles as well as of Jews, so that they also were brought to the faith. The Word proved to be a power unto salvation to the Jew first, but afterward also to the gentile. Romans 1:16. When the tidings of these things came to Jerusalem, the church sent Barnabas to Antioch to labor there. And Barnabas, in turn, went after Saul of Tarsus, who had seen the heavenly vision on the way to Damascus, to labor with him in Antioch.
But besides this personal witness of these believers, the Lord also used certain definite individuals to gather His church. Philip, the deacon mentioned in Acts 6:5, was sent out by the church at Jerusalem as an evangelist, or an assistant to the apostles. He was sent to Samaria where the Lord empowered him not only to preach the gospel, but also to perform many mighty miracles. As a result, many Samaritans believed and were baptized. Acts 8:5-12. This was nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus, when He worked in Sychar, first drawing the Samaritan woman and then many others to believe in Him as the promised Christ.John 4.
Soon after, the angel of the Lord sent Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch who was returning from Jerusalem to his own country. This officer from the court of Queen Candace in Ethiopia was a proselyte, who had worshipped at Jerusalem, but somehow had remained ignorant of the great things that had happened there so recently. His understanding was still clouded by the old dispensational shadows, so that even when he read the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the promised Christ, the well known 53rd chapter, he still did not know to whom the prophet referred. He had had no one to teach him. But now the Holy Spirit sent Philip on a special mission to this representative from Africa to preach the gospel of the resurrection to him. The eunuch believed, was baptized, and went his way rejoicing as a firstfruits from heathendom.
There is one more incident that must be considered, and that is the conversion of Cornelius, the centurion from Ceasarea. Acts 10. This incident is so well known that we need merely refer to it. Peter had gone into Samaria, where he found believers both in Lydda and in Joppa. Upon the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas many others in that region believed and turned to the Lord. Acts 9:35, 42. It was while Peter was staying in Joppa, at the house of Simon the tanner, that he received the vision of the unclean animals with the instructions to take and eat. When Peter objected to eating anything that was unclean according to the ceremonial laws of the old dispensation, he was told three times over, “What God hath cleansed that call not thou common or unclean.” This was enough to convince Peter that he was to accompany the messengers of Cornelius who at this very moment appeared at the door. He was called to enter the house of a gentile and to preach the risen Lord to all who were present there. What a new experience that must have been for Peter. And while he spoke the Holy Spirit fell upon his audience, so that Peter did not hesitate to carry out the mandate of Jesus by baptizing also these Gentiles.
We read that no small criticism was brought against Peter for these actions by the church in Jerusalem. This strong Jewish segment was not ready to approve of all that Peter had done without further investigation. But when Peter explained to them how he had been led step by step by the Lord Jesus Himself, first by a vision and then by the gift of the Holy Spirit, they knew this to be the work of the Lord and “they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Acts 11:18.
In conclusion we note:
That Christ Himself was gathering His church, first from the Jews and Jewish proselytes and then from the gentiles. Both the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius were proselytes, and God began with them. In the meantime the power of the gospel also reached out to the Samaritans, who were neighbors, but had always been despised by the Jews. And from Samaria the church extends to Antioch, where Greeks, or gentiles are brought into the fold and where God establishes a new center for missionary endeavors. Acts 13.
The mission calling of the church was according to divinely established principles. There was first the personal witness of the believers, but this was soon augmented by the official ministry of the Word, The church at Jerusalem sent out Philip and Peter to preach the gospel in those places where God gave an open door. Barnabas was also sent by the church at Jerusalem to Antioch. This is entirely in harmony with what Paul teaches us in Romans 10:13-15.
Finally, the calling church was shifting from Jerusalem to Antioch. The Lord already was drawing His people out of Jerusalem in preparation for the day when the former Holy City would be destroyed. The line of the covenant was no more limited within the confines of Israel as a nation, the types and shadows had passed away, the Lord was gathering His people from all the nations of the earth unto the great day of His coming.