Great Themes from Acts: The Roman World

By Tom Roberts

The physical world which early Christians traversed in planting the gospel throughout the first century was vastly different than our world today. Religion, transportation, language, culture, and government were as different from our generation’s as night from day. Any consideration of the gospel age and the growth of truth in the Roman Empire is incomplete without reflection upon these differences and their impact on the early church. Luke, as an inspired historian, touches on many of these things while not pretending to be an unabridged, exhaustive recorder of those times.

The providence of God, however nebulous to us, was no doubt in evidence as the era of the gospel was predestined to be “in the days of those kings” (Dan. 2:44) and in the “fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4). Surely, it was no accident that a common language (Koine Greek) was spoken throughout the world, that Roman roads and a system of transportation existed empire-wide, that Jews had been dispersed throughout the world (taking with them the knowledge of Jehovah), and that Roman citizens (such as Paul and his companions) could travel freely across borders. The spread of the gospel was insured through personal conviction and the prevailing conditions, not, as our generation would like to believe, through mass media, institutional churches and Madison Avenue techniques of promotionalism. An analysis of New Testament times should help us to understand that current conditions, however different they are from the past, should not hinder us when we have the same personal conviction as early Christians. When we understand the ancient times in which the gospel flourished, we should be encouraged in our attempts to spread the message throughout our world. We find a number of interesting chronicles by Luke that are worthy of consideration.


America has not had a lot of experience with idolatry, to date. However, because of the influx of refugees from

Asia, we are seeing an increase of Oriental religions and a burgeoning idolatry. Most major cities now have temples with Buddhists, etc., that are promoting false gods. While we are experiencing something new in the United States, the Roman world was familiar with thousands of gods. As Paul saw firsthand in Athens (Acts 17), temples abounded to every conceivable deity and, lest one be overlooked, an altar with the inscription “to an unknown god,” existed. From the fraternal gods of the Romans and Greeks to the adopted gods of assimilated tribes, Rome had a panoply of altars. Even emperor worship flourished under the reign of some Caesars. These religious concepts affected every aspect of daily life and commerce. Idolatry condoned every form of immorality and early converts had to put away various forms of sexual impurity that were endorsed and encouraged by pagans. The gathering in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that received God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church without Judaistic conformity, warned these converts to “abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood” (v. 20). Early Christians would have been familiar with temples that promoted prostitution in their worship. Likewise, idolaters who were deprived of their commercial profit in the manufacture of silver Diana statues rioted against Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19) when truth clashed with this error. It is feared that Americans are just beginning to learn of the evils of idolatry and will see more of it in coming years. We need to be prepared to face this device of the Devil.

The early church was entirely Jewish (Acts 2) and continued so until Acts 10, with the conversion of the first Gen-tile, Cornelius. The church of today is disproportionately Gentile, with few Jews. Most Christians have not had any contact with modern Jews and would have to think twice about how to convince a Jew that Jesus is the Christ. Paul, however, made it his practice to visit the synagogues in every city to reason from “the law and the prophets” that Jesus was Christ (13:16-52). Only when the Jews blasphemed by their rejection did Paul turn to the Gentiles. A large portion of the New Testament epistles addresses the relation-ship between Jew, Gentile, the law of Moses and faith (Galatians, Hebrews, et al).


When the prophet said, “How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things” (Rom. 10:15; Isa. 52:7), he probably did not have in mind the journeys of Paul. However, Paul’s feet made many steps in taking the gospel to the Roman world. Early Christians made do without modern automobiles, trains or planes. When the disciples were “scattered abroad” (Acts 8:4), they probably walked. Horses were used on occasion (Acts 23:23-24), sailing vessels spanned large bodies of water (13:4), but transportation was slow, dangerous and tortuous (27:14-44; 2 Cor. 11:25). The Roman Empire stretched west to east from Spain to India. Paul wrote that during the life-time of the apostles, the gospel “was preached in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23). This was possible, in large part, due to the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, that subdued the world. The famous Roman road system that spanned the empire, the safety of travel insured by garrisons of soldiers throughout the world, and connecting sailing vessels made it possible to reach every province. In this regard, Christians of the twentieth century and beyond should realize our advantage of rapid and safe travel to take the gospel to the whole world. Our globe is shrinking every day due to communication devices and swift transportation. Let us deter-mine to learn from Luke’s record and take advantage of these blessings to spread the news of truth. Our failure to convert the lost of our generation is not due to a lack of transportation facilities. Rather, we have taken the “go” out of the Great Commission and our lack of conviction makes us impotent when compared to our first century brethren. Perhaps we can learn what is meant by “how beautiful are the feet” when we put our feet into our neighbors’ houses with the gospel message.

Language and Culture

It has already been noted that a common tongue made communication somewhat easier in New Testament times. Additionally, the gift of tongues and miraculous interpretation (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 13:10; et al) aided early Christians in reaching ethnic peoples. Luke recorded that the gospel reached “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (1:8). Paul anticipated reaching Spain (Rom. 15:24), having preached extensively in Asia Minor and Europe. Peter mentioned Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13, possibly symbolic). The gospel was preached to the people in towns and villages (14:21), large cities (Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Athens, Corinth, Rome), and in jail cells (16:23-34), “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20), to slaves, freemen, Roman citizens, and rulers (the Sanhedrin, Festus, Felix, Agrippa, Nero). People from all walks of life and cultures were taught. Some were pious (Lydia, faithful Jewish men and women in synagogues), others superstitious (Acts 17), flagrant sinners (the Corinthians: Acts 18; 1 Cor. 6:9ff), indifferent (Gallio, Acts 18:15), or rebellious (Stephen, Acts 7). The end result was a melding of Jew and Greek, male and female, bond andfree into one new man, the Christian (Acts 11:26). These from every type of culture and race, with every kind of tongue, were assimilated into the family of God and given a common heritage (20:32; 1 Cor. 1:10). We show a lack of faith in the gospel message when we do not permeate our society with the gospel message. Lacking a common tongue or miraculous gifts, we yet have translation and mass media facilities that overcome this handicap. Let us determine to use these media to reach every level of language and culture of our age and continue “to build up” (Acts 20:32; Eph. 4:11-16) the cause of Christ.


Luke also recorded that the form of government in apostolic days was different from today. Beyond little doubt, it was much worse than anything we have known in America. Yet the gospel was able to flourish in spite of official government persecution.

Jewish officials (the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and rulers) rejected Jesus as King from the very first and crucified him through the hands of the Roman officials (Acts 2:23). After the church was established, the ruling hierarchy of the Jews attempted to suppress the gospel and, while unable to execute capital punishment independent of Roman permission, inflicted much punishment on the saints. The apostles were imprisoned (4:1-3), threatened (5:17), and beaten (5:40). Stephen was stoned to death (7:60) and the church scattered through Saul’s persecution (8:3ff). James was killed by Herod (12:1ff) and Peter escaped only by divine help. At first indifferent to what they considered a sect of the Jews, the Romans were quite willing to pacify the Jews by joining in the persecution of Christians (25:9). Paul (who before had persecuted the church as Saul) was arrested and kept in a Roman prison at Caeserea for years. He had trials before the Sanhedrin (23:1ff), Felix (24:1-23), Festus (25:1-8), and Herod (26:1-29). Finally, knowing of plots to kill him, Paul had to appeal to Caesar (25:12; 26:32). Inspired history does not record this trial, but Paul speaks of his “first trial” (2 Tim. 4:16), probably before Nero. He expected a second one that would result in his death (2 Tim. 4:6) and secular history records a great onslaught by Rome as official government persecution tried to eradicate the church of Christ.

Rome is Gone — The Kingdom Remains

The message of Luke, viewed as a historian, is the same as those great prophets from ancient Israel. Isaiah (ch. 2), Joel (ch. 2) and Daniel (ch. 2) all taught that the God of heaven would establish a kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit, in Jerusalem, in the days of Rome (fulfilled in Acts 2). The prophets testified that this kingdom would be eternal. Luke recorded the efforts of many to destroy the kingdom but showed how futile these efforts were. Rome no longer exists; the Lord’s church is spread throughout the world. God’s divine power has enabled truth to rise above different religions, cultures, languages and governments. Let us take heart in our own time and realize that God is with us as we struggle to preach the same saving message today as that preached nearly 2000 years ago. What we learn from history can help us face the future with renewed confidence and zeal.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 4, p. 10-11
February 18, 1993