Give or take seven years, the life and ministry of Jesus concluded around thirty-four to thirty-five A.D. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus stated that he would build his church. Besides his twelve disciples, he had 102 dedicated followers. On one occasion he preached to 500 people after his resurrection. Before the infilling of the Holy Spirit into the church, the disciples selected a replacement for Judas that betrayed Christ. They believed that God led them to include Matthias as a member of the disciples for their inner circle. I repeat that all of these people had a personal eyewitness account to the resurrection of Christ.
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the church was still reluctant to follow his instructions in which they were to go as witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth. These people knew what Jesus said and did nothing about it except to minister locally in Jerusalem.
It became necessary for the followers of Christ to have an impetus to obey him. Unfortunately, it took a saintly deacon in the church to be murdered for the cause of Christ. As Stephen was being stoned, he gave witness to himself and the heavenly destiny where God would take him. (It makes me wonder how many of us would stand so strong for Christ to the point of death, not knowing that there was a significant purpose in our loss of life.) The killing of Stephen was stronger than their hesitancy so they ventured out into the world as Jesus said they should. Acts 8: 14 says, “therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.”
After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days teaching the disciples the full revelation of the Old Testament prophecies. He showed them how that he was God’s answer to be the Messiah. He did not come as the Pharisees taught the Messiah would come to lead a rebellion against Rome and establish Israel as the premier nation of the world. That notion had to be surrendered by the disciples in favor of Christ being the spiritual Messiah for all people to have a way in which they could have their sins forgiven, plus a direct route to the Heavenly Father through prayer.
Now to the question of why and how fast Christianity grew. The people who knew Jesus, listened to his sermons and saw him in his resurrected body, were thoroughly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. As the apostle Paul said later, “I know that I know that I know.” This was a driving force that could not be denied. It was an unction to witness to as many people as possible that the Son of God came among them to save them. It was a consuming force that could not be ignored. It absorbed all of their thinking and purpose. The resurrection of Christ was not idle chatter. It was not gossip. It was not fantasy or tales spread abroad. It was the truth that could not be contained. It had to be shared. They accepted the instructions on commission from Christ to tell everyone everywhere!
They chose death instead of denying Christ. They were filleted alive. They were boiled in oil. They were crucified. Under no circumstances even with this horror facing them would they recant against Jesus and his resurrection. They chose to be faithful witnesses even if it did mean death.
James the elder brother of John became the second martyr. The man who was an accuser against James was so impressed by his courage that he fell down at his feet asking for forgiveness and professed himself to be a Christian. Together they were beheaded at the same time. Timon and Parmenas were killed about the same time in 44 A.D. Philip was the first man to be called a disciple. He labored in Upper Asia and was martyred by being scourged, thrown into prison, and later crucified; 54 A.D. Matthew who was once a tax collector then turned disciple and writer of the first book of the gospel that bears his name went to East Africa to preach the gospel where he was killed by a two-handed spear with an ax head in 60 AD.
The next man who died for Jesus is called James the Less and was likely a brother of Jesus. He became the pastor of the church in Jerusalem and was author of the book that bears his name. When he was ninety-four years old, he was beaten and stoned by the Jews after which his brains were dashed out a by club. Matthias mentioned as the one who replaced Judas was installed in Jerusalem and then beheaded. Andrew was the brother of Peter. He preached the gospel to various Asiatic nations but was crucified on the cross with the two ends fixed transversely to the ground. This is where we get the term St. Andrew’s cross.
Mark, a Jew, was converted to Christianity by Peter. He also wrote one of the Gospels. In Alexandria he was dragged to pieces by the people in a ceremony to their idol Serapis. Peter found his way to Rome. Nero sought a reason to kill him. At first, he escaped the city, but saw a vision of Christ who said to him, “I am, again to be crucified.” Peter took this as the way he would suffer. He was crucified upside down by his own request because he said he was not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Jude the brother of James sometimes called Thaddeus was crucified in 70 A.D. Bartholomew preach in several countries and translated the gospel of Matthew into the language of India where he propagated the gospel in that country. He was cruelly beaten and then crucified by the idolaters. Thomas, sometimes called Didymus because he was a twin, preached in India where he excited the pagan priests who martyred him by being thrust through with a spear.
(I was so blessed to have met personally a man from India several years ago who told me he was a Christian and came from an area in India where Christianity is prominent because of the preaching of Thomas. How wonderful and miraculous it is that after two thousand years I personally was able to meet someone who benefited from the ministry of a disciple of Jesus!)
Luke was a doctor who became an evangelist with Paul and minister to him for his physical needs. He was also the author of one of the Gospels. He traveled with Paul and eventually met his end by being hanged on an olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece. Simon surnamed Zelotes travel to Mauritania, Africa, and even what we now know as Britain. There he was crucified in 74 A.D. Barnabas was a co-evangelist with the Apostle Paul and was killed in 73 A.D. John also nicknamed, “the beloved disciple,” and was brother to James the Great. He was the church founder of most of the churches that later became known as Turkey and were cited by Jesus in the book of Revelation that John put into writing. They attempted to put him in a cauldron of boiling oil, but by a miracle his escape without injury. He was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he had his vision of Jesus to write that book. Eventually Nerva the Roman Emperor recalled him from Patmos. He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.
Paul was not a disciple, yet later became known as an apostle. The word disciple means student. The word apostle means “sent out ones.” He was a horrendous persecutor of Christians and the cause of many people to be executed or imprisoned. In one of his writings, he tells of an experience that he called “thorn in my side.” He said that he asked God to remove it, but God said he would not so that it would help him avoid being exalted above measure. As a result, he learned what it was to suffer in many ways. Today there are people who say that this thorn is a physical affliction like poor eyesight. My opinion is that the thorn is guilt. He must have had so much anguish for the terrible things he did which could not be undone. Paul wrote much of the New Testament instructing people and churches how God would expect them to live. He was martyred in Rome by being beheaded.
So, you see, there is good reason to believe why Christianity spread so far and wide so quickly. The truth of the resurrection stirred the hearts of heathen that they accepted Jesus as their Savior. Understand that these few men traveled over what was the known world at that time. They fulfilled the instructions of Christ in just thirty-five years. Bear in mind that we have the same commission from Jesus to go to our neighbors, nearby areas, places beyond where we might go normally, and to distant lands. Oh, that we had the same excitement about the resurrection of Jesus! In the book of Acts, their enemies complained that these men of God, “turned the world upside down.” What is your priority? Your job, money, house, church, and even family, must all fall under the domain and commission from Jesus to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
I could cite so many more stories of people after the disciples who gave their lives for Jesus. For more information I suggest you read Fox’s Book of Martyrs. For many years people had the fire burning in the furnace of their souls to see that as many people as possible would hear the gospel and be saved. Is there a fire burning in your furnace?