The disciples that followed Jesus during his ministry formed the nucleus of a community of faith that continued after his resurrection. In its early stages the church was comprised of Jewish people who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. According to the Gospels, some of them spread the message of Jesus in Jerusalem and the surrounding area (Luke 24; Acts 1). Others maintained connections with Galilee (Matthew 28; John 21). Through their work, communities of believers were established at various places in the region.
One of the characteristics of early Christianity was its sense that the Spirit of God was moving among them. The book of Acts tells of the Spirit descending on the disciples at Pentecost, empowering them to preach in other languages. The Spirit also plays a key role in leading the church in its outreach. Paul's letters speak about the Spirit moving people to believe the gospel message.
Leadership adapted to meet the needs of the community and to spread the gospel. According to Acts, Jesus' disciples led the Christian community in its earliest phase. When conflict arose over care of the needy, responsibilities for food distribution were delegated to others. Among these were Stephen and Philip, who also conducted a preaching ministry. Stephen's preaching generated opposition from some Jewish leaders and he was martyred, but Philip spread the gospel northward into Samaria and southward toward Gaza.
A key figure in the spread of early Christianity was Paul. Learned in Jewish law, Paul originally opposed the church, but after an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul became a Christian. The church in Antioch in Syria had extended the Christian message to non-Jews, and Paul eventually joined them. In order to extend this ministry, the church at Antioch commissioned Paul and others to take the gospel elsewhere. Paul and his associates established Christian communities in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Greece. Others, who are not named in the New Testament, established Christian communities in Rome and parts of Italy.
As increasing numbers of non-Jews received the gospel, church leaders faced the question of whether all Christian men needed to become circumcised. Circumcision was the traditional sign of the covenant under Jewish law. At a meeting in Jerusalem (about 50 C.E.) the leadership decided that faith in Christ was the defining mark and that circumcision was not required.
AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament, Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament