People like to say that, in Acts, the Gospel explodes across the known world. But it doesn’t really explode. It trips, tumbles, and trickles out of Jerusalem, sometimes one person at a time.
Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. –Acts 10:43
Still, it took believers awhile to catch on to what everyone meant.
The “everyone” (Jesus had called it “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 and “ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8) started after Stephen was stoned, when the persecution in Jerusalem became unbearable. All the believers except the apostles fled, and “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). As we know, Philip ended up in Samaria. The work of the Holy Spirit, through Philip’s presence, caused “great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).
a.d. 33-35 Stephen Stoned
Sorry if this feels like math. Jesus was probably born 6 or 5 b.c. (Your study Bible has a timeline/chronology.) Therefore, the best estimate we have on the Ascension and Pentecost is a.d. 30. Stephen’s stoning was at least a few years later, maybe as late as a.d. 35, five years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
Five years after Pentecost before anyone goes to Samaria even though it’s just next door to Judea.
a.d. 37 Ethiopian Believes
The Ethiopian was the first
Then God led Philip down the road toward Gaza, and one Ethiopian received Jesus, carrying the Gospel (we hope) back to his country. He is the first long-distance believer and based on all that happened with Philip in Samaria, including Peter & John’s visit, it was probably a couple of years after Stephen’s martyrdom.
So that’s a group of Samaritans and an Ethiopian who trust Jesus. Not much of everyone. It’s probably a.d. 37.
After Saul/Paul’s conversion, which is definitely after Stephen’s stoning, Luke employs another of those story bridges (like Acts 6:7) that indicate a passage of time with no big events.
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. –Acts 9:31
We know there were communities
of faith in Lydda and Joppa.
Peter began traveling around, visiting Christ-followers in different Judean, Galilean, and Samaritan towns. He healed a couple of believers in Lydda and Joppa (Acts 9:32-43), so we know there were communities of faith in those Samaritan towns. Philip was also traveling around, working his way from Azotus, in Judea, to Caesarea, on the coast. Peter will soon be headed in the same direction.
a.d. 38-40 Cornelius Summons Peter
By this time, it’s probably a.d. 38 or 40. Ten years since Jesus gave the Great Commission, and we finally see the first Gentile believer. His name is Cornelius. He is a Roman Centurion: influential in Caesarea and definitely not a Jew. His whole household believes, and God confirms the validity of their faith by causing the Holy Spirit to rest on them in a tangible way.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. –Acts 10:45-46
a.d. 38-40 Antioch Church Grows
Around the same time, but in a less dramatic fashion, Christ-followers from Cyprus and Cyrene were in Antioch, speaking to Greeks about Jesus while other people spoke to Jews in the city. It was a very successful venture.
The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. –Acts 11:21
Finally! It’s ten years after the Great Commission, and the Gospel is starting to pick up momentum. The news is spreading beyond cultural borders.
About three years later (a.d.43), Barnabus visited the church in Antioch. He liked it so much that he wanted to move there. He went and found Saul/Paul in Tarsus, bringing him back to Antioch where both of them could join the strong leadership group in the church.
So for a whole year Barnabus and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. –Acts 11:26
(More about First Church of Antioch in a couple of weeks. It deserves the name!)
a.d. 46 “First Missionary Journey” Begins
Only in a.d. 46 do Paul and Barnabus take off from Antioch on their first long-distance journey. That’s sixteen years after Jesus’ resurrection. These things take time.
The spread of the
gospel was slow work.
I bet you’ve never heard a sermon about the timeline of Acts, but I am encouraged by it. Even if the numbers are a bit different than the estimates I’ve given, it’s clear the spread of the Gospel was slow work. We so often skip over the time descriptors and think we need to get it all done today…or at the very latest, next week. Instead, let’s wait on the Holy Spirit. Let’s watch what he does and, as Experiencing God told us, join Him in His work.
What’s the timeline He’s using for your neighborhood, your circle of influence? Watch God unfold it at His pace. That’s not disobedience. It’s obedience-soaked waiting.
The Gospel trickled out of Jerusalem, tumbling into an Ethiopian and tripping over a Centurion along the way. We’re at our best when we go at God’s pace. Sometimes my #slowstart is #NotAboutMe, and my #impatience with the work is Not About Him. (click to tweet)
Have you always had the impression that Acts spanned just a couple of years? That the Gospel exploded out of Jerusalem and around the Mediterranean? How are you encouraged by slowing down to check the timeline? Let us know in the comments below.