I met Elisabeth Elliot during my sophomore year at Wheaton College. She had a glow about her, and she walked with grace and sophistication. The warmth in her eyes made you want to lean into her words. Those eyes were welcoming even with years of heartache, sacrifice, and service. She...
Jesus said this to his followers before his ascension:
But 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.” (Acts 1:8)
This promise provides the structure for the book of Acts, as the Word of God spread through Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the ends of the known world of that time (Acts 13-28). We continue to experience the fulfillment of Jesus’ words as we prayerfully support gospel proclamation where we are and around the world.
The promise of Acts 1 was fulfilled in Acts 2 as the apostles were filled with the Spirit and proclaimed the gospel in over a dozen languages unknown to them, with the result of thousands of Jews from all over the Mediterranean becoming believers in Jesus:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)
These 3,000, gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, not only helped spread the word in the holy city but then went back to their homes, preparing their Jewish friends and family members to respond to the Good News of the death and resurrection of their long awaited Messiah.
The Gospel Advances through Multiplication
As the apostles led the gathered believers in Jerusalem in worship, fellowship and instruction, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47). Opposition and persecution, far from stopping the gospel’s advance, actually served to propel the preachers forward with even greater boldness so that “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of men came to about five thousand” (4:4). Prayer was what connected the church with the power of God so that “when they had prayed…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31).
Luke summarized the progress of the gospel in Acts 6:7:
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.
The stoning of Stephen marked the beginning of intense persecution which scattered the believers “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:1,4). Including “defiled” Samaritan-compromisers in the early church was no small issue for purity-minded Jews, so the Lord confirmed his acceptance of them with special signs and affirmation from the Apostles themselves (8:14). The Good News had already spread beyond Jerusalem to Judea and now even into Samaria!
Acts 9:31 provides another of Luke’s summary statements:
So the church throughout all Judea and 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.
Notice that by this point, the gospel had reached the northern part of Israel, and the church was not just growing, it was multiplying.
The Gospel Advances through the Word
As we reflect on the advance of the gospel in Acts, it is important to point out that the main character in the book of Acts is not Peter or Paul but “the word of God.” And when Luke refers to “the word,” he very clearly means the gospel.
Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. (Acts 8:25, emphasis mine)
As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all). (Acts 10:36, emphasis mine)
Luke is careful to document not only the inclusion of Samaritans in the early church but even Gentiles, in the story of Cornelius and those with him.
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. (Acts 10:44)
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. (Acts 11:1)
This is an early preview of how the gospel-preachers would be a “light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47, citing Isaiah 49:6).
Jesus was clear that the mission was “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). But the gospel retained a priority for the Jews (Romans 1:16), all the way to the end of Acts. We see this as the word of God advanced beyond Israel:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution…traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19)
The prayer meeting in Acts 13 marks the turning point of Acts, as the central sending base for mission shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch. By Acts 19 the center would be Ephesus, in modern day Turkey.
The clear message of Luke through Paul’s missionary journeys is that while the Apostle circled back to build up the church, the word of God only advanced. Notice that “almost the whole city” of Pisidian Antioch in Galatia gathered, not to hear Paul but “to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44), with the result that “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49).
The Gospel Advances through Prayer
The connection between prayer and Holy Spirit-empowered proclamation of God’s Word runs from Luke’s Gospel all the way through Acts. Before Jesus started his ministry, he prayed. Before he chose his twelve disciples, he prayed. Before he went to the cross, he gathered his followers together and prayed.
The preparation for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was weeks of prayer (Acts 1). And what propelled the gospel from Jerusalem to Antioch and on into Galatia was a season of prayer, worship and fasting:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2-3, emphasis mine)
[tweet_box design=”default”]Prayer connects us with Spirit, helps us share the gospel, and prepares sinners to respond. [/tweet_box]
Prayer connects us with the power of the Holy Spirit and enables us to proclaim the gospel with boldness, while at the same time preparing sinners to respond in faith. Look at what the prayer meeting in Acts 13:2-3 produced later in that same chapter:
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. (Acts 13:48-49, emphasis mine)
The first missionary journey took the gospel to Cyprus and Galatia. The second missionary journey bypassed Asia (Acts 16:6, western Turkey) and brought the Word to Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece), with the Bereans as a shining example of a receptive audience: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Paul taught for eighteen months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), and then finally, the Lord opened the door to Asia. Paul preached in the strategic port city of Ephesus for two years, “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Here is the final summary statement in Acts:
So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:20)
Nothing can stop the advance of the gospel:
This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)
Jesus will build his church “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Nothing can stop the Word of God. But we can speed its progress by praying – crying out to the Holy Spirit to empower us to preach the Word with boldness and to prepare the hearts of sinners to respond in faith. The book of Acts concludes with Paul’s shipwreck and transfer to a Roman prison. But persecution, hardship, and confinement could not silence his preaching or stop the message from moving on to the ends of the earth:
He lived there [in Rome] two whole years…proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:28-31)