The Progress of the Gospel in the Book of Acts

The book of Acts follows the progress of the gospel from the time of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, which occurred in a.d. 30, to the time that Paul reached Rome as a prisoner in about a.d. 60. The first twelve chapters follow the ministry of Peter; the remaining chapters follow the ministry of Paul.

Jesus himself provides us with an overview of the progress of the gospel in geographical terms in 1:8 when he says to the twelve: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This is how the book unfolds, by recounting the witness of the apostles:

In Jerusalem:
chaps. 1-7

In Judea and Samaria:
chaps. 8-9

To the ends of the earth:
chaps. 10-28

This geographical progression roughly corresponds to an ethnic progression of the gospel.

In Jerusalem:
chaps. 1-7
In Judea and Samaria:
chaps. 8-9
To the ends of the earth:
chaps. 10-28

We understand who the Jews are. They’re the descendants of Abraham, the covenant people.

The half-Jews are the Samaritans. They originated in the late 8th century b.c. when the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire. The majority of the people were exiled into other lands, and other conquered peoples were transported into the land of Israel. Those Israelites who had remained in the land intermarried with the newcomers and their descendants came to be called Samaritans. Eventually they formed their own religion, very similar to Judaism, complete with their own temple and priesthood and a suitably edited Torah (Samaritan Pentateuch) that made it look as though they were the true heirs of Abraham.

Non-Jews, of course, are Gentiles.[1]

So the movement in Acts is from Jew, to half-Jew, to non-Jew. But there are at least two discernible subdivisions in each category that are worth noting. Among the Jews, we can distinguish between Hebrews and Hellenists. The Hebrews were Jews who shunned Greco-Roman culture and attempted to consistently maintain their Hebrew heritage and identity. They thought of themselves as being the most authentic and faithful Jews. They formed the largest number of believers in the early chapters of Acts.

The Hellenists were Jews who in varying degrees adopted elements of Greek culture. We’re first introduced to them in chapter 6.

We can also identify two categories of half-Jews. We’ve already mentioned the Samaritans, who were descendants of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles many generations earlier. Their reception of the gospel is recorded for us in 8:4-25. But there is another group that we might think of as half-Jews, i.e., proselytes. These were Gentiles by birth, but Jews by religion. We find an example of such a man (the Ethiopian eunuch) receiving the gospel in 8:26-39.

Among the non-Jews, too, we can distinguish two groups. The first of these were called God-fearers. These were Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel, but had not yet fully embraced Judaism, which is to say, they had not yet become proselytes. We find an example of such a man in Cornelius, the Roman centurion (Acts 10:1-2; cf. 13:16, 26). And then there were Gentiles, who when they first heard and received the gospel, were idolaters, having no connection to Israel either by birth or religion. Nevertheless, by the grace of God they heard the word of truth and were brought to faith in Christ.

We may summarize what we have said in the following table:

§ Hebrews
Jews who were Hebrew in language and culture
§ Hellenists
Jews who were Greek in language and culture
§ Samaritans
Descendants of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles
§ Proselytes
Gentiles by birth, but Jews by religion
§ God-fearers
Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel but had not fully embraced Judaism
§ Idolaters
Gentiles who adhered to their native religions

The movement in Acts is from those whose origin is the most ethnically, religiously, and culturally pure (close to the center of historic Judaism) to those who are less so. This is not to say that there were no Hellenists who came to believe before chapter 6, or proselytes before chapter 8, or Hebrews after chapter 5. For example, we read that on the day of Pentecost there were devout men from every nation under heaven who came to believe. Proselytes are specifically mentioned (2:11); and although not specifically indicated by name, there must nevertheless have been a fair number of Hellenists, too.

There are exceptions along the way, of course, but the growth of the church—both in actual history and in terms of how Luke structures his narrative—is from native Jew to pagan Gentile.

In these providential events we find an outworking of God’s original promise to Abraham

And the Lord said to Abram… “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
- Genesis 12:1-3

John saw the fulfillment of this promise in a vision:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
- Revelation 7:9-10

[1] I am indebted to Steve Schlissel for the helpful insight that these three groups should not only be considered under the general headings of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles, but in terms more clearly marking their relationship to the Jews:  Jews, half-Jews, and non-Jews.


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