According to the New Testament, how did first century Christians respond to the Great Commission? What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Was this something only church leaders had to follow?
During the ministry of Jesus, believers shared the news of Jesus with others. When Andrew believed in Jesus, he immediately went and found his brother Peter and asked him to come meet Jesus (John 1:40-41). Jesus found Philip who went right away and told Nathaniel about Jesus the Messiah (John 1:43-45). After Jesus healed a man who had many demons, Jesus told him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s what he did. “He went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled” (Mark 5:18-20). The two travelers on the Emmaus Road who met Jesus and ate with him quickly returned to Jerusalem and found the eleven gathered together. They told them “what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:33-35).
Women shared the good news of Jesus, too. The Samaritan woman who realized that Jesus was the Messiah went into her village and spoke to all the people about him. “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:28-29, 39). Mary Magdalene, the first person to see and talk with the resurrected Jesus, “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18).
The book of Acts is the story of the followers of Jesus going into all the world to “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus told them to begin in Jerusalem, then go to Judea, Samaria, and then to “the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This book reveals how they taught about Jesus with boldness, courage and perseverance against all kinds of religious and political opposition. They faithfully taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. In all things, they rejoiced and praised the Lord. They shared the good news of forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life with everyone they could. They reached out to contacts within their families, through their work, in the market places, in their travels, in the synagogues and in public gathering places. They taught individuals, large and small groups, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, commoners and government officials.
They worked through church problems and misunderstandings with love and kindness. They defended the gospel and were loyal to Jesus. They confronted and denied false teachings promoted by some of their fellow believers. They were willing to die, and some did, rather than deny their faith in Jesus. They formed churches throughout the Mediterranean world by preaching reconciliation with God and with one another through the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Son of God. They worshiped God in all circumstances. They utilized their legal rights to worship and serve God by calling on the governmental authorities for protection against injustices. When they preached and taught, some hearers ridiculed and laughed, others procrastinated, and some believed. Through it all, they prayed and depended on God.
In Acts, their story begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, a compelling, historical drama of thirty years that changed the world. Today, nearly two thousand years later, the story continues as men and women share the good news of Jesus with whomever they can.
Here’s some details that will flesh out the summary above.
Peter in his first gospel sermon said that “all flesh,” including “sons and daughters, young men and old men, and male and female servants,” would give testimony to Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17-18). All the believers, including the three thousand that were baptized that day, “praised God” and shared the gospel with others. Because of their love for the Lord and this evangelistic outreach, the church grew and kept growing (2:46-47; 4:4; 5:14). The numbers grew so much that the enemies of the gospel said that the believers “had filled Jerusalem with their teaching” (5:28).
The early believers committed their lives to sharing the good news of Jesus. The opposing religious authorities warned them not to teach or preach any more in the name of Jesus. But the apostles boldly responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20). The disciples met together and prayed, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (4:29). Then the Lord made his presence known: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31). The disciples faced persecution, beatings, imprisonment, being stoned, and even death because of their faith in Jesus (5:17-18, 33, 40; 7:58-60).
This did not stop the apostles from teaching the gospel and making disciples. They rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (5:41-42).
When the number of the disciples was growing, complaints arose because some of the poorer widows among them were neglected in a distribution of food. The apostles knew that this gnawing problem had to be solved if the church was to have peace. Instead of doing it themselves, they appointed seven spiritual men to head up the ministry. The apostles knew that they needed to give themselves to “prayer and the preaching of the word” (6:4). In prayer, the apostles found strength from God to continue his work. Preaching the word was necessary for people to be saved because faith “only came by hearing the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). As a result of meeting needs and preaching the word, “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Saul of Tarsus was a major persecutor of the church. He consented to the death of the preacher Stephen (7:58; 22:20). He “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (8:3; 1 Timothy 1:13). When a great persecution broke out against the church, the believers were scattered throughout the regions of Judea, Samaria, Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Antioch of Syria. Wherever they went they taught the gospel and made disciples (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19).
When Philip preached the name of Jesus and the kingdom of God to the Samaritans, “they were baptized, both men and women” (8:12). Philip was led by an angel to leave Samaria and go to the road to Gaza. Here he met a man from Ethiopia who had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was now returning home. This man was a eunuch and treasurer for Queen Candace. He was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit told Philip to join the chariot. Philip did so and initiated a conversation about the Scripture the man was reading.
Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:35-39)
When the persecution subsided, the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria “had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (9:31). Evangelism among the non-Jews began in earnest after the Lord intervened to convince Peter that he should make disciples among the Gentiles (chapters 10-11).
King Herod Antipas executed James, the son of Zebedee. He imprisoned Peter to kill him but God opened the gates of the prison and released him (12:1-11). Peter sought out the disciples and found them praying for him in Mary’s house (12:13-17). Because of King Herod’s pride, God struck him dead “but the word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24). In Lydda, Peter healed Aeneas who had been lame for eight years. As a result, “All the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord” (9:35). Peter was called to Joppa to raise a widow named Dorcas from the dead. When he did so, “It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (9:42).
After his conversion to faith in Jesus, Saul of Tarsus, who became known as Paul the apostle, made three missionary journeys and a perilous trip to Rome. He preached the gospel, made disciples and formed churches everywhere he went. In his first preaching at Damascus, he was threatened with death and had to escape over the city wall by being let down in a basket (9:23-25). He came to Jerusalem and preached Jesus, and the enemies of the gospel sought to kill him (9:29). After some time at home in Tarsus, he worked with Barnabas in Antioch of Syria. “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
The Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to go and make disciples among the Gentiles. In Antioch of Pisidia on the first missionary tour, many believed and “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (13:38-39). The unbelieving leaders among the Jews” stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (13:50). They made disciples in Iconium, Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, and Debra in the province of Galatia. At Lystra, the Jewish leaders incited a mob that stoned Paul and left him for dead (14:19). In spite of this, when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch of Syria, they “gathered the church together” and “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27).
Some Jewish believers called “the circumcision party” demanded that the Gentile believers keep Jewish laws regarding kosher food, the Sabbath, and circumcision. Paul strongly denounced those views and called them a “perverted gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9). When the apostles, elders and the whole church met in Jerusalem, they renounced these Jewish legalists and declared that everyone was saved equally by faith in Christ, not by works of the law (Acts 15:1-21).
On Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Silas revisited the churches of the first journey and were called by the Lord to go to Macedonia in Greece. In Philippi, Paul and Silas went to the river side and taught and baptized Lydia and her household. An unbelieving crowd in Philippi falsely accused Paul and Silas and severely beat them and imprisoned them. This unjust punishment did not cause them to lose hope and their commitment for Jesus. While in prison, they sang hymns and prayed to God. God sent an earthquake that gave Paul and Silas an opportunity to teach the jailer and his family and baptize them at midnight (16:19-34). The next morning, after Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen, the city officials apologized for their mistreatment and asked them to leave town. Paul and Silas traveled to Thessalonica and Berea where they made disciples and established churches. They once again met opposition to the preaching of Christ. Paul moved on to Athens, a city filled with idols, pagan culture, and philosophers. He preached about the one, true living God who commands everyone everywhere to repent. He spoke about the resurrection of Jesus and judgment to come (17:22-34). Some of the Athenians mocked him, some procrastinated, and some believed. Paul moved on to Corinth where many believed and were baptized (18:8). Paul stayed here a year and a half preaching Jesus, making disciples, and strengthening the newly-formed church.
Apollos, an Alexandrian and eloquent in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus and preached Christ. His understanding was faulty so two disciples, a husband and wife team named Aquila and Priscilla, “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26).
On his third missionary journey, at Ephesus Paul met opposition but he moved his location and for three years continued preaching, teaching, baptizing, and strengthening the disciples. “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (19:20). After a great riot that arose in opposition to the gospel, Paul left town and revisited Macedonia and Greece. He traveled to Troas where he met with the disciples and “broke bread” with them on the first day of the week (20:7). He sailed in the direction of Jerusalem but stopped at Miletus where he called for the elders of the Ephesian church to meet with him. What he said to them shows his faith, courage, perseverance, commitment to Jesus, and his willingness to die for Christ:
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:18-24)
In Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders opposed Paul and accused him of teaching against “the people, the law and this place” and of bringing Greeks into the temple (21:28). Paul defended himself but as soon as he mentioned that he was sent to preach to the Gentiles, the Jews erupted in a riot. Later, Paul spoke to the Jewish council and afterward forty men plotted to kill him. Paul had earlier told the Roman leader that he was a Roman citizen who had rights for protection. The leader sent 476 soldiers to protect Paul and take him to Caesarea. Here he defended himself and his gospel before the governors Festus and Felix and King Agrippa. He made an appeal to appear before Caesar in Rome. After two years in prison in Caesarea, Paul was shipped to Rome. In route, he and all aboard suffered a harrowing shipwreck and landed in Malta. He was placed on another ship and made it to Rome. For two years under house arrest, he boldly continued preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles (chapters 22-28).
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul described how much he suffered for Christ:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
Later in this letter, in contrast to some Jewish believers who opposed his ministry, he wrote:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul describes the passion of his life:
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians,] both to the wise and to the foolish. So, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (Romans 1:14-17).
Paul was willing to adapt himself to any group of people in every possible, righteous way in order to reach more for Jesus. He wrote,
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Paul wrote to the Philippians that knowing and serving Christ was his whole life: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:20-21). He adds in the third chapter,
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Philippians 3:8-11)
A few years later in his last letter when he was once again imprisoned in Rome and facing death, he described how he kept the faith until the end and looked forward to the reward with Christ:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
This strong faith and courage to teach the gospel and make disciples was shared by most of those who followed Christ. In his letters, Paul mentions one hundred names of those that he knew who were serving Christ. For example, in Romans chapter 16, he sends greetings to and from 27 different believers, nine of whom are women. He writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (16:1-2). He commends Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila because they risked their lives for him (16:4). This couple traveled the empire from Rome to Corinth, to Ephesus, then back to Rome. They apparently had a church in their house at each place (Acts 18:3, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:5). Among others, Paul names Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis who all worked hard in the Lord (16:8, 12). In Colossians, Paul mentions Nympha in Laodicea who had a church meeting in her house (Colossians 4:15). In Colossae, Philemon and his wife Apphia had a church meeting in their house (Philemon 2).