At his ascension, Jesus told the eleven disciples that they would receive the Spirit to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. But for some time after Jesus’s ascension, and even after Pentecost, they stayed in Jerusalem.
They were finally forced out, when the stoning of Stephen sparked a persecution of Jesus’s followers under the leadership of Saul of Tarsus. It was Holy Week all over again, a live-action Passion play, with Spirit-filled Stephen giving his life in imitation of Jesus. Only then did the Church begin its mission in earnest. Philip went to Samaria, and then was sent by an angel to meet an Ethiopian eunuch. In one quick sweep, the Gospel sped from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Philip anticipates the course of the book of Acts, which moves from Jerusalem to Rome.
In Jerusalem, Saul/Paul was on the delivering end of persecution. For most of his life, he would be on the receiving end. At Pisidian Antioch, Paul preached to a receptive audience: “Almost the whole city” gathered to hear him (Acts 13:44). Jealous of the attention, some Jews contradicted Paul and turned local nobles against him, who drove him out of Antioch.
It worked so well that Paul followed the same method in Iconium, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Ephesus: Preach Jesus, gain a following, provoke a riot, get stoned or imprisoned or dragged or chased out of the city, escape, repeat. It’s not a plan found in most textbooks of missiology, but it’s the most common one in Acts.
As Paul’s mission grew, some of his attackers pursued him from city to city. Lystra initially treated Paul and Barnabas as gods—Barnabas as king Jupiter and Paul as Mercury, the talkative messenger god. When Jews from Antioch organized opposition, the erstwhile gods became scapegoats, stoned and left for dead outside the gates. In Berea, the “noble” residents tested Paul’s message by diligent study of the Scriptures until Jews from Thessalonica agitated the city and Paul had to be hustled off to Athens.
Paul was sometimes charged with religious crimes—for violating the law or defiling the Jerusalem temple. In Ephesus, the opposition came from worshipers of Artemis, the patron goddess of the city, whom Paul allegedly blasphemed. More often, Paul’s enemies formulated a political argument against the Way. After Paul exorcized a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi, the girl’s owners brought Paul and Silas before the authorities. The owners were stung by the loss of income but, like Haman in the book of Esther, brought the public-spirited charge of Jewish anarchism: “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20–21). The accusation against Jason, Paul’s host in Thessalonica, was similar: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them. They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7).
Charged with treason, Paul was brought before Roman governors, who found him innocent and often protected him from mob rage. After an earthquake freed him from a Philippian jail, Paul forced the city magistrates to apologize and escort him out of the city. Jews in Corinth accused Paul of “persuading people to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13), but the Roman proconsul Gallio dismissed the case as an intra-Jewish squabble and allowed Sosthenes, the synagogue ruler, to be roughed up in his courtroom. In Ephesus, the governors calmed the rioting crowd, gave Paul a public platform to present his case, and allowed him to leave peacefully. Paul’s enemies wanted to shut him up, but Paul turned every trial into an evangelistic crusade.
Thus a variation on Paul’s missionary method: Preach Jesus, provoke a riot, get arrested, take the opportunity to testify to public authorities about Jesus the king, move on, repeat.
It doesn’t seem an efficient model for missions, but, given the character of the Gospel, it’s all but inevitable. Like Jesus, Paul preached the kingdom of God. If the Gospel is true, Jesus is the one true Lord of the cosmos, and everyone in authority is called to repent and submit to him. Paul couldn’t evangelize without talking politics, and if a gospel doesn’t provoke a political reaction, we have reason to doubt it’s the Gospel of Jesus and Paul.
Paul preached the Lordship of the crucified Messiah, and his life as an apostle, as much as his message, bore the imprint of the cross. Jesus set the pattern. He preached the kingdom, provoked opposition, was arrested and tried, testified to governors and kings, and submitted to murderous attack. So his Father exalted him and made him Lord. That’s how the kingdom of God comes.
And so to the end of the age: Led by the Spirit of Jesus, the Church performs her Passion play in Judea and Samaria, in Thessalonica and Philippi, in Somalia and China and New Guinea and Ecuador, until Holy Week is not only proclaimed but reenacted in every corner of the earth.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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