Easter 2022 has come and gone, some 33 days ago, and it would be about that many years, or more, before we would begin learning about the incredible steps the Apostles took, after Jesus left them to be with the Father. Jesus told them to spread the good news, so how did they do exactly that?
What happened to the church immediately after Jesus ascended into heaven? During the first twenty years of the church, no New Testament book was written. It would be at least 20 years before Paul began writing and the Gospels only began to appear about forty years after Jesus’ ascension. The book of Acts narrates key moments during this early period, but one has to ponder if the Apostles ever wondered to themselves…what do we do now?
Near the end of Jesus’ ministry, many had abandoned him. Yet a number of women, unnamed disciples, and the twelve stuck with him. But on the night of his betrayal, even his disciples fled from him. And Peter himself denied the Lord three times. From an outsider’s perspective, the Jesus movement looked like a failure. Jesus died a criminal’s death and his followers fled.
Yet many if not all of his disciples returned. The risen Lord Jesus appeared to them in Acts 1:3. At this time, the apostle Paul seems to number the disciples to over “five hundred brothers” (1 Cor 15:6). This number seems to agree with John’s appraisal that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).
Instead, he appeared to and taught the disciples for forty days. Luke writes, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
Jesus died during the Passover, rose three days later, and then taught the disciples for forty days. So, on the forty-third day, he ascended into heaven. One-week later Pentecost came. During this week, one hundred and twenty disciples waited in Jerusalem at Jesus’ command (Acts 1:4). They “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14) and appointed a twelfth apostle, Matthias, to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus (Acts 1:26).
After his resurrection, Jesus had appeared to over five hundred people and taught one hundred and twenty disciples for well over a month and still nothing had happened. A ragtag group of Jewish Jesus followers stayed in Jerusalem praying, many having left their jobs. And they waited. This tiny group of believers who likely relied on the generosity of a few patrons in Jerusalem. Then the Holy Spirit came fifty days after Jesus died.
And Peter preached to a multitude who had gathered in Jerusalem. The church grew to about five thousand people (Acts 4:4) but not without opposition from the religious authorities (Acts 4). And far from being a pristine community, conflict crept in at the get-go.
The church’s conflict continued because Steven, one of the seven deacons, was shortly thereafter murdered by a mob (Acts 7:54–60). Persecution spread to the whole church. Luke explains:
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:1–3)
Saul and presumably others were “ravaging the church,” going door to door to find traitorous Jews who had given up Moses and embraced Jesus.
After the murder of Stephen and the church’s exile from Jerusalem, Saul (who we know as Paul) rode to Damascus to continue persecuting Christians. Instead, he found the risen Lord on the way (Acts 9:23–25).
Saul’s conversation sent shockwaves across the Jewish landscape of Israel. In Damascus, he who had persecuted became the persecuted; and Paul had to flee the city. He ended up going to Arabia (possibly to Mount Sinai) for three years before returning to Damascus (Gal 1:16). He then returned to Jerusalem (Gal 2:18).
Years earlier, Paul had stood by while watching the murder of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Now he returned to the city and preached Christ. So, like Stephen before him, the mob attempted to murder Paul (Acts 9:29). So, he fled to Caesarea and then to Tarsus (Acts 9:30). It would take another eleven years before Paul would start his missionary journeys (Gal 2:1).
Paul would eventually go on his first missionary Journey (~A.D. 44/45), planting churches around modern day Turkey and Greece. Yet conflict would again come, and false teachers entered the Galatian church claiming that one had to live like a Jew in order to be saved.
We see in the midst of this Jesus’ promise: ‘I will build my church,’ that the gospel spread to Europe (Acts 13–14) and Africa during this time (see Acts 8) despite the many challenges facing the Apostles and believers. The next twenty years were no less chaotic, culminating in the invasion of Israel by Rome and the sacking of Jerusalem.
Jesus told them the road would not be easy; John 16:33 (NIV) “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” But, through all this, the followers stayed committed to spreading the good news. They had spent three years with Jesus, experiencing the good and the bad. But they learned to know and believe, and He was indeed the son of God, the Messiah, Emanuel, and thus they stay committed do the mission of spreading the good news, to the world. They knew the road would be as challenging for them as it was for Jesus, but knowing He was God and that they would have life in Heaven with Jesus and the Father, made them not fear any possible repercussions.
John 14 tells us Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
So, it’s very possible as Jesus left them and ascended to be with the father, the Apostles were asking themselves, what do we do now? But Jesus made it clear to them, and to all of us: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
I will post brief Bio’s of the original 12 apostles, plus 2, in another message at this link: https://www.godandourcountry.com/post/what-happened-to-the-apostles