Witnesses to the Most Distant Part of the Earth
1. What was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of mankind?
IT WAS undoubtedly one of the most dramatic moments in the history of mankind. Never had a parting been more moving. The Son of God was about to take leave of his followers on earth, never to be visibly present with them again in the flesh. There was time for just one more question, one more answer. On what topic? That last conversation would affect Christ’s followers right up until the end of the present system of things!
2. What was the last question put to Jesus before he left the earth for all time, and why does his answer interest us greatly?
2 The final question Jesus’ disciples put to him was: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” What their precise motives were in asking that question is a matter of conjecture. Whatever their expectations were, one thing is clear: they wanted to know when God’s purposes concerning the Kingdom would be fulfilled. Who can blame them? They were neither the first nor the last to show impatience for final deliverance. So Jesus’ comments, yes, his very last words before leaving the earth for all time, are of the utmost interest to us today.
CHRIST’S PARTING COMMISSION
3, 4. (a) How did Jesus reply? (b) What twofold lesson did Jesus give his disciples?
3 Jesus replied: “It does not belong to you to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction; but you will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.” The account adds: “And after he had said these things, while they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud caught him up from their vision.”—Acts 1:6-9.
4 The import of Jesus’ parting words was twofold. He first tactfully, yet firmly, told his disciples that the timing of the outworking of Jehovah’s purposes was not their concern. He thus confirmed what he had already stated in his prophecy on the conclusion of the system of things. (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32-37) Then he went on to show them what would henceforth be their concern. They were to be Christian witnesses first in Jerusalem, where they had been told to remain for the time being (Acts 1:4), then in all Judea and Samaria and, ultimately, “to the most distant part of the earth.” To that end they would receive “power” by means of the holy spirit.
5. When did “power” come upon Jesus’ disciples, and what did it move them to do?
5 That “power” arrived upon them a week and a half later, at Pentecost. The apostles and other disciples had obediently stayed in Jerusalem, and on that festival day “they were all together at the same place.” Suddenly, “they all became filled with holy spirit and started to speak with different tongues, just as the spirit was granting them to make utterance.” They spoke, not some unintelligible babble, but “about the magnificent things of God.”—Acts 2:1, 4, 11.
6. How did these anointed Christians begin fulfilling their commission, but with what opposition?
6 These newly anointed Christians immediately set about carrying out the commission that they had received from the resurrected Christ. They first preached “in Jerusalem”; not without opposition, however. The religious and civil leaders of the Jews plotted against them, saying:
“What shall we do with these men? Because, for a fact, a noteworthy sign has occurred through them [the healing of a lame man], one manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. Nevertheless, in order that it may not be spread abroad further among the people, let us tell them with threats not to speak anymore upon the basis of this name [Jesus] to any man at all.”—Acts 4:16, 17.
7. (a) How did Christ’s disciples react thereto? (b) How did a religious opposer provide proof that the early Christians were faithfully carrying out their commission?
7 Christ had said: “You will be witnesses of me.” The Jewish Sanhedrin threatened the early Christians “not to speak anymore upon the basis of this name.” Whom did they obey? They respectfully told their persecutors: “We cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-20) They kept right on witnessing. Although the apostles were jailed, after their miraculous release during the night “they entered into the temple at daybreak and began to teach.” (Acts 5:17-21) What zeal! Again they were arrested.
“They brought them and stood them in the Sanhedrin hall. And the high priest questioned them and said: ‘We positively ordered you not to keep teaching upon the basis of this name, and yet, look! you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.’” (Acts 5:27, 28)
Unwittingly, this religious dignitary testified to the fact that these early Christians were faithfully carrying out the first part of their Christ-given commission. They were being zealous witnesses of him “in Jerusalem.”
8. How had these Christians ‘filled Jerusalem with their teaching,’ and what results did they obtain?
8 After being flogged and ordered “to stop speaking upon the basis of Jesus’ name,” these Christians “went their way from before the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of his name.” Far from being discouraged, “every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.” (Acts 5:40-42) Notice that they “continued” witnessing “from house to house.” (New World Translation; New International Version) That is how they, although relatively few in number, had managed to ‘fill Jerusalem with their teaching.’ This method brought splendid results. “Consequently the word of God went on growing, and the number of the disciples kept multiplying in Jerusalem very much.”—Acts 6:7.
ON INTO SAMARIA AND JUDEA
9. Under what circumstances did the witnessing work move on to Judea and Samaria?
9 But the early Christians could not stop there. They were to be Christ’s witnesses also “in all Judea and Samaria.” Actually, it was their very zeal in carrying out the first part of their commission that led them into fulfilling the second part of their Christian work. Opposition to their witnessing in Jerusalem reached a climax with the religious murder of Stephen, and this set in motion a wave of persecution against the congregation of Christian witnesses in Jerusalem. The purpose of this violent opposition was to silence these witnesses of Christ. Instead, it gave a new boost to the witnessing work and extended it just where Christ wanted it to go. “All except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” And what did those dispersed Christians do in those areas? They “went through the land declaring the good news of the word.”—Acts chap. 7; Ac 8:1, 4.
10. What did the apostles do when they heard that “Samaria had accepted the word of God,” and what ‘key’ did Peter use?
10 Soon news got back to “the apostles in Jerusalem” that “Samaria had accepted the word of God.” Rising to the situation, the apostles sent two of their number, Peter and John, to consolidate the good work done by these scattered Christians, including Philip the evangelizer. Using the prerogative that Christ had granted him, Peter opened up the way for the Samaritans to become spirit-begotten, anointed Christians, called to share with Christ in “the kingdom of the heavens.” (Matt. 16:18, 19; Acts 8:14-17) The account in Acts continues: “When they had given the witness thoroughly and had spoken the word of Jehovah, . . . they went declaring the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.” (Acts 8:25) So much for Samaria!
11. What evidence is there that “all Judea” received a fine witness?
11 As for Judea, doubtless many Judeans were present in Jerusalem at Pentecost and received the fine witness given by the newly anointed Christians, notably by Peter. (Acts 2:9, 14-36) We also know that before the wave of persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem, “the multitude from the cities around Jerusalem kept coming together, bearing sick people and those troubled with unclean spirits, and they would one and all be cured.” (Acts 5:16) All these inhabitants of Judea received the witness concerning Jesus. Referring to the period following the conversion of Paul, Luke wrote: “The congregation throughout the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria entered into a period of peace, being built up.” (Acts 9:31) About 15 years later Paul was able to write to Christians in Thessalonica: “For you became imitators, brothers, of the congregations of God that are in Judea.” (1 Thess. 2:14) Undeniably, the early Christians zealously carried out their Christ-given commission to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria.”
“AWAY TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH”
12. How were seeds for future expansion sown on the day of Pentecost?
12 However, Jesus’ parting commission went still farther. It stated: “You will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and all over Judaea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, The New English Bible) There is evidence that Christ’s name was witnessed to among the Jews of the Diasporaa at an early date, even before 36 C.E.—the year Peter again used his Christ-given prerogative, this time to open up the Kingdom to the uncircumcised Gentiles. (Matt. 16:18, 19; Acts chap. 10) For one thing, the 3,000 Jews and proselytes who became baptized Christians on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E. were not inhabitants only of Jerusalem and Judea. Many of them had come from such far-flung places as Parthia, Media, Elam and Mesopotamia (modern Iran and Iraq), Asia Minor (modern Turkey), North Africa and Italy. (Acts 2:8-11) Upon returning to their homelands on the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, these newly converted Christians undoubtedly witnessed to Christ’s name, at least to other Jews and proselytes in their respective countries. Thus seeds for future expansion were sown right there at Pentecost.
13. What indicates that the Christian witness was given beyond Judea and Samaria at an early date?
13 Furthermore, we read in Acts 11:19: “Those who had been scattered by the tribulation that arose over Stephen [sometime after Pentecost, but before the conversion of Paul in 34 or 35 C.E.] went through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and [Syrian] Antioch, but speaking the word to no one except to Jews only.” This provides definite proof that even before the preaching reached out to the non-Jews, Christ was being witnessed to far beyond Judea and Samaria.
14. Where did systematic witnessing among the uncircumcised apparently begin? Explain.
14 Once Peter had used another of the “keys of the kingdom of the heavens” to unlock Kingdom opportunities to the uncircumcised, in 36 C.E., the way was open to carry the Christian witness to all peoples, yes! “away to the ends of the earth.” (NE) Apparently, systematic witnessing among the uncircumcised Gentiles first got under way in Syrian Antioch, at that time the third largest city in the world, after Rome and Alexandria. It happened this way: Sometime after 36 C.E., but before 44 C.E., “there were some men [Christians] of Cyprus and Cyrene [in North Africa] that came to Antioch and began talking to the Greek-speaking people, declaring the good news of the Lord Jesus. Furthermore, the hand of Jehovah was with them, and a great number that became believers turned to the Lord.”—Acts 11:20, 21.
15. (a) What did the Jerusalem congregation do about this new situation, and why was their choice a judicious one? (b) What had Paul been doing for the past several years? (c) Why is the case of the early congregation of Antioch of particular interest?
15 The zealous preaching activities of these Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene among non-Jews were blessed by Jehovah. “The congregation that was in Jerusalem” sent a special representative up north to Syria to handle this new situation. They chose Barnabas, himself a Greek-speaking Jew from Cyprus. After having encouraged these new disciples of Christ, Barnabas went to Tarsus to fetch Paul, who himself had just spent several years “declaring the good news about the faith” in Syria and Cilicia, now southeastern Turkey. (Compare Acts 9:26-30 with Galatians 1:18-23.) “It thus came about that for a whole year [probably about 45 C.E.] they [Barnabas and Paul] gathered together with them in the congregation [now made up of both Jews and Gentiles] and taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.”—Acts 11:22-26.
16, 17. (a) How was the witnessing work expanded out from Syrian Antioch? (b) What prophecy did Paul and Barnabas quote to justify their activities, and to whom did this prophecy originally apply? (c) How does this shed light on Acts 1:8?
16 For 10 years or so Syrian Antioch became a center from which intense missionary activities were carried out, under the direction of the holy spirit. (Acts 13:1-4; 14:26; 15:35, 36; 18:22, 23) Paul, together with various fellow missionaries, undertook three extensive witnessing tours that spread Christianity throughout Asia Minor and Greece. They preached Christ to both Jews and Gentiles. On one occasion, Paul and Barnabas justified this course of action to a group of irate Jews, saying:
“It was necessary for the word of God to be spoken first to you. Since you are thrusting it away from you and do not judge yourselves worthy of everlasting life, look! we turn to the nations. In fact, Jehovah has laid commandment upon us in these words, ‘I have appointed you as a light of nations, for you to be a salvation to the extremity of the earth.’”
Luke adds: “When those of the nations heard this, they began to rejoice and to glorify the word of Jehovah, and all those who were rightly disposed for everlasting life became believers.”—Acts 13:46-48.
17 By quoting Messianic Servant prophecies (Isa. 42:6; 49:6) and applying them to their own activity, Paul and Barnabas showed that they and their fellow Christians were actually “substituting for Christ,” whom Jehovah had commissioned to bring “light” and “salvation” to “the extremity of the earth.” Christ, in turn, had commissioned his followers to be his witnesses “to the most distant part of the earth.”—2 Cor. 5:20; Acts 1:8; compare Isaiah 49:5-9 with Luke 2:25-32.
A LONG-TERM COMMISSION
18. What do we know about the early Christians’ efforts to be witnesses “to the most distant part of the earth”?
18 As we have seen, the book of Acts shows the zeal with which the apostles and early Christians sought to carry out their Christ-given witnessing commission in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and as far as they were able to go toward “the ends of the earth.” We know, for example, that the apostle Peter was a faithful witness of Christ as far east as Babylon, and that Paul witnessed as far west as Italy and perhaps even as far as Spain.—1 Pet. 5:13; Acts chap. 28; Rom. 15:23-28.
19. What shows, however, that Christ’s parting commission to Christians would extend to the present day, and what question arises?
19 But it is quite evident that Christ’s parting commission to be witnesses “to the most distant part of the earth” was more far-reaching than that. According to Jesus’ own prophecy, it went beyond the apostolic period, reaching right down until the “conclusion of the system of things.” (Matt. 24:3, 14) However, it has been very strengthening and faith-inspiring to review the fine example set by the early Christians. Now the question arises: Who, today, are carrying on the good work begun by the apostles, and by what means have they been witnesses for Christ and his heavenly Father, literally “to the most distant part of the earth”? We shall see in the following article.
a The “dispersion” of the Jews after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations.
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“Look! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching”
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“They went declaring the good news to . . . the Samaritans”
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“You will be witnesses of me . . . to the most distant part of the earth.”—Acts 1:8.