Stephen is stoned to death, with the approval of a young man named Saul of Damascus, a vigorous persecutor of the Christians. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, a person who is killed as a result of defending the church. Saul is a Jewish leader who has been trying to wipe out the new community of Christians because he believes that they are trying to dismantle Jewish law. While traveling to persecute Christians, Saul is blinded by a light and hears the voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul then sets out to become the most relentless, brilliant, and bold missionary of Christianity that the church has ever known. He travels to the coast, performs miracles, preaches the Gospel, and converts Gentiles.
In a brief interlude, Acts recounts the miracles and speeches of Peter. Traveling to the coast, Peter cures a paralytic at Lydda and revives a woman at Joppa. In Caesarea, he says that he has received a message from God telling him that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). He deduces that he may associate with Gentiles, as “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34). He therefore dines with the family of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and they become the first Gentiles baptized by Peter. The church continues to shift its emphasis toward welcoming the Gentiles. Some of those who fled persecutions in Jerusalem arrive at the Syrian city of Antioch, where they begin to preach to the Greeks. Saul and Barnabas are among these people. Judea, meanwhile, is under the rule of King Herod Agrippa, who ruled from 41 to 44 a.d. Herod Agrippa introduces institutional persecution against the Christians and arrests Peter, who is miraculously freed from jail by an angel.
Barnabas and Saul, who is renamed Paul, depart on a missionary journey. In Cyprus, Paul blinds a magician, Elymas, who tries to prevent Paul from teaching. At Antioch in Pisidia, a central region in modern-day Turkey, Paul preaches to a Jewish congregation, telling his listeners about forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. Many listeners become converts, but many also contradict Paul, and the missionaries are expelled from the territory. At Iconium, too, they have some success until nonbelievers, including both Jews and Gentiles, drive them from town. At Lycaonia, Paul cures a cripple, and the local Gentiles take them for the pagan gods Zeus and Hermes before Paul is able to convince them otherwise. As usual, however, the missionaries are chased from town, and Paul is nearly stoned to death. The two make their way back to Antioch in Syria, preaching the whole way. A controversy arises as a result of their missionary activities among the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem for a debate of church leaders.
At the debate, traditional Jewish Christians argue that, to become a Christian, one must first convert to Judaism and become circumcised. Paul and Barnabas are strong supporters of expanding the church among Gentiles. Peter and James, leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, decide in favor of Paul’s perspective, arguing that they should preserve the community of believers and “not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). Only a minimal adherence to the law is required of Christian Gentiles. Paul separates from Barnabas and, together with another disciple, Silas, sets out in Macedonia. Local Gentiles are angry at their exorcism of a spirit from a soothsayer slave, which deprives her of the ability to tell the future. They imprison Paul and Silas. An earthquake shakes the prison cell, and the missionaries are quickly released.
In Greece, Paul meets with mixed success, converting some but meeting opposition from many Jews and some Gentiles. In Athens, Paul speaks at the public forum, the Areopagus, contextualizing Christianity within Greek beliefs. From Athens, Paul travels to Corinth, where he turns away from the Jews in despair and preaches almost entirely to the Gentiles with great success. He also attracts his faithful disciples Aquila and Priscilla. The Jews take Paul before the governor of the region to accuse him, but the governor refuses to adjudicate a matter of religious faith. Paul, after a brief return to Antioch, continues to work his way through Greece, establishing the church in Ephesus and working great miracles. He leaves Ephesus after a mass riot instigated by the silversmiths, who are concerned that Paul’s preaching against pagan idolatry will ruin their trade.
Paul travels onward and stops to revive a dead man in Troas. Paul sends for the Christian elders of Ephesus, and in an emotional speech he reminds them of his faithful service to them and warns them of the persecution that might begin. The Holy Spirit urges him to travel to Jerusalem, where he himself expects to be persecuted and possibly killed. In Jerusalem, Paul meets with James and the church leaders, who are concerned that Paul appears to have been urging Christians not to follow Jewish law. They plan for Paul to make a public show of worship at the temple, to indicate that he continues to adhere to Jewish law. In the temple, however, Jews seize him, accusing him of profaning the temple and preaching against the law. Paul tells the crowd his personal history. He relates the stories of his past persecution of Christians, his miraculous vision of Christ, and his conversion to Christianity and mission to preach to the Gentiles.