Jesus told the apostles that they would be his witnesses to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), but he never told them how this would be done—only that they would be witnesses to all. Yet, years after his crucifixion and resurrection the apostles are still in Jerusalem. Why? Oh, tradition has it that they were each assigned regions of the world and went out to evangelize the world, but the Scriptures imply, at least for a large part of the first fifteen or so years of church history, the apostles remained at Jerusalem. Didn’t they take the Lord’s word seriously?
Most folks today overlook the importance of the Jerusalem church in evangelizing the world. For example, when Paul arrived in Corinth cir. 52 CE, he met Aquila and Priscilla who were Messianic believers who had arrived there, being temporarily banished from Rome over disputes among the Jews! How did Messianic believers get to Rome before the Gospel was preached there? The answer is, pilgrims from Rome made visits to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, heard the apostles preach Jesus, and those who believed returned to their synagogues in Rome, carrying the Good News with them. Disputes inevitably arose over Jesus and all Jews—Messianic and unbelievers—were banished from Rome during the reign of Claudius Caesar (Acts 18:1-2). This is how Paul met his two friends, and this is how the apostles initially spread the Gospel to all nations! The importance of the Jerusalem church cannot be overestimated when trying to understand how the Gospel was spread so quickly throughout the ancient world in the first century CE.
So, how then did the Gospel get to the gentiles, since gentiles did not come to Jerusalem to worship God? Well, the Scriptures tell us that the persecution that erupted after the stoning of Stephen in the fall of 34 CE scattered some of the believers to communities throughout the province of Syria (Acts 8), and especially along or near the coast of the Mediterranean (cp. Acts 8:40; 9:32, 38-43). The Gospel spread rapidly, but not as quickly as one might be led to believe with only a cursory reading of Acts. For example, in Acts 8:4 we are told that those who were scattered preached the word everywhere they went. The word preaching is euaggelizo in the Greek (G2097). It means to evangelize or proclaim the Good News. However, in Acts 11:19 the Scripture claims these same brethren were preaching or discussing or debating the word. The word here is laleo in the Greek (G2980). It has to do with random talk or articulating words in contrast with silence or mere sounds or animal cries. The implication we get from this is that, not only was the Gospel preached by the Messianic believers, but they taught, debated and discussed the Gospel with their Jewish brethren. Therefore long stays in different towns were necessary.
It is interesting that when God wanted the Gospel preached to Cornelius in Acts 10, as a special point of it going to the gentiles, he chose Peter who at that time was having an extended visit at Joppa, a coastal city just south of Caesarea. If Philip had already been in Caesarea at this time (cir. 39-40 CE), why wouldn’t God have chosen Philip? After all, Philip was a veteran evangelist, whom God had already used to preach the word to the Samaritans, which surprised the apostles at Jerusalem, when they learned the Samaritans had repented and obeyed the Gospel. Then Philip preached to the Ethiopian eunuch, but why wasn’t Philip called by God to preach to Cornelius and his household and neighbors; after all, he was already residing in Caesarea (Acts 8:40; 21:8)?
It has been said that theology is generally forged in ministry and not the other way around. It is important that the gentiles would be recognized as equals in the sight of Jewish believers. I don’t think this could have been readily recognized had Philip evangelized Cornelius. Even Paul couldn’t do the job Peter was able to do by preaching Christ to Cornelius, his family and friends. Peter was Jewish through and through. He pretty much followed the Oral Law and was blameless as far as Judaism was concerned. He was born and bred in the land of the Jews. If gentiles were to be accepted as equals with Jews in the Kingdom of God, Peter was the man for the job at hand. He was regarded as the leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem and was characterized with James and John as a “pillar of the church” (Galatians 2:9). When the issue came to a head in Acts 15 it was Peter’s theology, forged here on the rooftop of the tanner’s home and in the ministry field of Caesarea that set the tone of James’ decision concerning the gentiles and circumcision.
What Peter did here was very controversial with the folks in Jerusalem, and hardly a message that would have been received with joy by the leaders of Judaism there. Remember, the Messianic believers were still considered a sect of Judaism at this time. If Peter received a gentile as a full member of the nation of God and as one of the priests of God and as a peculiar possession of God (cp. 1Peter 2:9), this was practical heresy among the Jews—even the conservative believers received it with great difficulty (Acts 11:1-3, 18). Nevertheless, it could hardly be preached from Jerusalem without dangerous repercussions and damage to the evangelization effort. When the apostles did try, James, the brother of John, was executed and the other apostles were expelled from Jerusalem, just as their Hellenist brethren were following Stephen’s death (Acts 12:17; cp. Revelation 1:9).
So, the question remains: how did the Gospel eventually get to be preached specifically to the gentiles? Enter Paul—the apostle to the gentiles! He had been preaching in Syria-Cilicia around his hometown, Tarsus, since the summer of 39 CE, after he was expelled from Jerusalem (Acts 9:29-30). He preached for approximately one year before the Hellenist Messianic believers from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:19) began to speak (laleo, G2980) and preach (euaggelizo, G2097) Jesus specifically to the gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:20). When some of them believed, word of it was quickly sent to the apostles at Jerusalem, just as was formerly done when the Samaritans repented and believed (Acts 8:14).
Upon hearing of the news that the gentiles repented and believed Jesus, the apostles sent Barnabas, who, after encouraging the new believers in Antioch, went to Tarsus to get Paul. This was Paul’s moment. Up to now, he was more or less viewed as a renegade believer. No one knew what to do with him. Messianic believers followed his example, probably after hearing of his success in Syria-Cilicia, and preached specifically to the gentiles in Antioch (cir. 40 CE). Now something had to be done. Peter had a special revelation in Acts 10. It was known and believed that Paul was called especially for preaching to gentiles, but how this should be done, and how Paul fit into the overall scheme of preaching Jesus to the world was not understood. However, when the gentiles at Antioch repented and believed after hearing the Gospel from the persecuted Hellenist believers, things began to come together. Suddenly, Paul had a place, and Jerusalem needed him to take the focus of the Gospel going to the gentiles away from the Jerusalem church. In this way the Gospel could, indeed, go to the gentiles, and Jerusalem could be preserved as the most important city in the effort to reach the world for Christ.