God is the kind of storyteller who takes a persecutor of his people and makes him the primary leader of his global mission.
The spread of Christianity from One Nation or All Nations happened, at first, as a trickle. Then at Antioch we find Gentiles from several nations, ethnicities and races worshiping together (Acts 13:1-2). But soon the floodgates were about to break. Thanks in large part to this guy.
Paul, the Apostle, a.k.a. Saul of Tarsus. It’s worth noting upfront that his name did not change from Saul to Paul, as with Peter. It was common for Jewish people to have two names at that time, one Hebrew (Saul), and the other Greek (Paul). The predominance of him being called Paul happened as he moved from Jewish circles near Jerusalem into the Gentile world that spoke Greek (Acts 13:9).
Paul has an interesting story arc to say the least.
Paul was the fuse on the dynamite that was to make Christianity a world-wide religion. He began, as many know, as a persecutor of “the Way”, the name for the Christian sect of Judaism. But he was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. From that point on, he was numbered among the apostles (“sent ones”) because Jesus directly commissioned by him to go to preach to the Gentiles. (Acts 9:15)
After some local preaching around Jerusalem, Barnabas called for Paul to come to the international church at Antioch. And now the church in Antioch, under the guidance and prompting of the Holy Spirit, was about to light the fuse by sending Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3). It may come as a surprise that this Gentile explosion came from Antioch and not Jerusalem. In fact, it could be argued that, in that moment, Antioch became the new center of the church.
It’s also worth noting that the ease of the Mission to the Gentiles was in large part due to this guy.
Alexander The Great. His empire was one of the largest of the ancient world and his role is significant here as a unifier of culture. He was the reason for Hellenism (i.e., Greek culture and language – Hellas being the ancient word for Greece.) As he conquered lands, Greek became the primary common language. He is the reason the New Testament is written in Greek. This, along with synagogues throughout his empire and a Greek translation of the Old Testament (Acts 15:21), made it possible for the apostles and disciples to speak to others about Jesus.
Alexander’s empire served, to a large extent, as the basis for what became the Roman Empire. Three other benefits from Rome also helped the spread of Gentile mission. First, the Roman roads. They were widespread, well-maintained and, most importantly, safe. This meant early believers could travel easily from place to place with great reliability. Second, the Gentile mission happened during the Pax Romana (the “Peace of Rome”), a time of great prosperity and stability during the Roman Empire. Rome was religiously tolerant during this time, which meant Christians were not yet being systematically persecuted for their faith. And third, thanks to the developed laws of the Romans, Paul was able to have a robust set of rights as a Roman citizen so that he was protected when mobs of opposition would rise up against him (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-26).
Paul has an interesting story arc to say the least. When Steven shared his faith in Jesus he was numbered among Stephen’s murderers, which led to the dispersion of many Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. This caused the spread of their faith through the region – the beginning of the Gentile mission. Then, after his conversion, Paul became the primary leader of the Gentile mission after being sent out by the church at Antioch – a church that existed precisely because of his persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. One could argue that Paul did as much for the spread of the church as a non-Christian as he did as a Christian. Finally, he was persecuted by the original Jewish suppression movement to which he formerly belonged for spreading his faith in Christ. God knows how to tell a story.
And, really, the rest is history. Through the efforts of Paul, Barnabas, Philip and, again, countless unnamed, faithful believers the message of Jesus exploded through the known world – i.e., the Roman Empire – so that in a relatively short time after the Day of Pentecost the church became almost exclusively a Gentile organization. It wasn’t long, however, before the Roman Empire sought to suppress this movement and began a state-wide persecution of Christians. We will look at this in the next episode.