The stoning of Stephen in Acts chapter 7 marked a significant turning point in God’s plan and purpose. Although we don’t see a major change take place immediately (i.e. from the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 to the beginning of Paul’s public ministry in Acts 13 is about 14 years), several events occur which signal a transition from the ministry of Peter and the twelve in Jerusalem and Judea to the ministry of Paul unto the end of the earth. We see changes in: (1) the area where the Word of God is proclaimed, (2) the apostle who is to be the chief spokesman for God, (3) the people to whom the Word is preached, (4) the center from which the ministry originates, and finally (5) the fact that the ministry of the twelve apostles diminishes in importance.
Acts 8 — A New Area
Before the Lord Jesus ascended back into heaven, He told His disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The first seven chapters of the book of Acts record the ministry of Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, but following the stoning of Stephen, we read that “a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1). This marked the beginning of the next phase of Acts 1:8.
Acts chapters 8 through 12 record the ministry of Philip, Peter, and John in Judea and Samaria. They ministered in such cities as Samaria, Azotus, Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea. While they continued to preach the gospel of the kingdom to Israel, the fact that they were no longer focusing on Jerusalem, where the Jewish leaders resided, is significant and certainly marks a transition.
Acts 9 — A New Apostle
At the stoning of Stephen we meet the man who is to be the key figure throughout the remainder of the book of Acts; the apostle Paul. When we first meet him, his name is not Paul, but Saul of Tarsus, and he is not a disciple of the Lord Jesus, but a persecutor of all those who call on His name. While the Jews stoned Stephen, Saul of Tarsus stood and watched, in full agreement with what they were doing, even guarding the coats of those involved (Acts 7:58-8:1).
When the persecution arose against the church, it was Saul who became the chief persecutor, “making havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3), and “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Saul was a Pharisee who had been trained in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 26:4-5). In persecuting the church of God he believed he was serving God (Acts 22:3), thinking that he “must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9-11).
Acts chapter 9 describes how Saul obtained letters from the high priest giving him authority in Damascus to bind any he found to be of “the Way” (i.e. followers of the Lord Jesus Christ) and to bring them back to Jerusalem. As Saul traveled the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, he was struck down with a blinding light from heaven and a voice spoke to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul responded, “Who are You Lord?”, and the Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul of Tarsus came to see and believe, that very day, that Jesus of Narareth was both the Christ and the Lord. God saved Saul and chose him for a special purpose; to bear the name of the Lord Jesus Christ “before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
From Acts chapters 13 through 28, the chief spokesman for God was no longer Peter or one of the twelve, but the apostle Paul, whose primary ministry was to be “a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (II Tim. 1:11).
The conversion and call of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus is one of the key events recorded in Scripture; an event which paves the way for an important change in God’s plan and purpose.
Acts 10 — A New People
As we move on into Acts chapter 10, we find Peter still the primary apostle in view, but we see a significant change take place in his ministry. A centurion named Cornelius (a Gentile) was told in a vision from God to send men to Joppa to find Simon Peter and bring him back to Cornelius’ house. As the men journeyed, Peter fell into a trance and saw a vision from God telling him to rise, kill, and eat certain animals which were declared “unclean” by the Mosaic law. Peter at first refused, but God declared to him that what He had cleansed must not be called “common” or “unclean.” As a result of all this, Peter was brought to the house of Cornelius, ministered the Word of God to his household, and was amazed when they, upon hearing the Word of God, began to speak in tongues and magnify God.
The salvation of this Gentile, along with his household, was definitely something new. Up to this point, the Gentiles were considered strangers and foreigners from God and from God’s people. The people of Israel were instructed in the Mosaic law to keep themselves separate from other nations (Deut. 7:1-6). When Jesus spoke of His own ministry He said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). The only way for a Gentile to be saved was to become a proselyte, that is, to embrace the Jew’s religion (i.e. circumcision, keeping the law, etc.).
Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, had obviously received the gift of the Holy Spirit, for he was able to speak in tongues (Acts 10:45). Peter realized that these Gentiles had been saved, just as the Jews had, so he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord (Acts 10:46). When Peter returned to Jerusalem, the believing Jews argued with him about going to the Gentiles, but as he related to them the vision he had received from God and the events that happened at Cornelius’ house, the Jews “became silent; and they glorified God, saying, Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18).
One thing worth noting about this event is that though it represented a significant change, it was something that had been prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 15:7-11, 13-18 with Amos 9:11-12). It was not a mystery. It was not a new revelation. It was simply another phase in God’s prophetic program.
Acts 11 — A New Center
When the persecution arose against the church at Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen, many who were scattered “traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch preaching the word to no one but the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). Some of them, when they came to Antioch, also began preaching the Lord Jesus to Greeks (Gentiles) as well. (Note: Some Greek manuscripts read “Hellenas,” which refers to Greeks or Gentiles, while others read “Hellenistas,” which refers to Greek-speaking Jews. While not being dogmatic on this subject, we believe the context of the passage indicates that Greeks or Gentiles are in view here). The result was that “a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). When news of this reached Jerusalem, Barnabas was sent to Antioch. When Barnabas saw how God’s grace was working in this city, he went to Tarsus to find Saul and brought him back to Antioch. The two of them stayed there and taught for a whole year and “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
While the city of Jerusalem was the center for the ministry of the twelve apostles, the city of Antioch (a place containing both Jewish and Gentile believers) became the center for the apostle Paul’s ministry. Paul was initially sent out from Antioch, and as he traveled preaching the Word of God, he always returned to Antioch.
Acts 12 — Ministry of the Twelve Diminishes
The opening event of chapter 12 is Herod’s killing of James, the brother of John. Apparently, he is the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. What is interesting and significant is the fact that James was not replaced. When Judas fell from his position of apostleship due to his transgression, Peter and the eleven were led by the Holy Spirit to replace him with Matthias (Acts 1:15-26). As the apostles prepared to continue proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to Israel, and as they still anticipated the establishment of Christ’s kingdom upon earth, it was important for their number to remain at twelve. Now that Israel’s leaders in Jerusalem had, once again, rejected the Lord Jesus, the anticipation of the kingdom was diminished, and thus James was not replaced.
Acts 12:2 is the last mention of the apostle John in the book of Acts. Though we see him still used of God in writing the gospel of John, the epistles, and the book of the Revelation, we do not see him again in the book of Acts.
Following the killing of James, Herod saw that the Jews were pleased with what he had done, again showing their clear rejection of the apostles’ message. Herod arrested Peter, intending to hold a public trial and execute him as well. When an angel of God miraculously freed Peter from prison, we see Peter depart from public view. This is in stark contrast to what he and the other apostles did when they were miraculously freed from prison back in Acts 5. There, they went and stood in the temple and taught the people of Israel. Why the difference? The stoning of Stephen demonstrated the rejection of the Lord Jesus and of His apostles by the Jewish leaders and the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea. When Peter is freed this time, the Holy Spirit does not direct him to continue his public ministry to Israel. In fact, we only find the apostle Peter mentioned one more time in the book of Acts, and that is in Acts 15, at the council at Jerusalem, where Peter testifies before the council in support of Paul’s ministry.
The final verse of Acts 12 takes our thoughts away from Peter and the twelve apostles and moves them to Barnabas and Saul (i.e. Paul) as they return from Jerusalem to Antioch and prepare to begin their ministry.