“From Jerusalem to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth” – Have we Misunderstood Acts 1:8?


A missionary comes to your church to speak, and you absentmindedly turn to Matt 28:18 or Acts 1:8. Sure enough, this time he will speak about the Great Commission from Acts:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

His sermon touches upon familiar points:

Jerusalem was their home town, and they were supposed to evangelize there first. Judea was their home area. Now, Samaria was like but not identical with Judea, but next in line since it was a nearby mission field. And of course “the end of the earth” means any foreign country. [1]

In conclusion, the preacher adds:

  • We are all called to be missionaries (I take objection to that, by the way, see below).
  • What is your Jerusalem and Judea?
  • What is your Samaria?
  • What is the uttermost part of your earth? Does God want you to preach his gospel in a foreign land?
  • You shouldn’t go to the ends of the earth until your Jerusalem is evangelized.

May I propose that we have this all turned around.

First, let’s look at Luke 24. Since Luke and Acts are two volumes by the same author, the last chapter of Luke and the first of Acts overlap. In Luke 24:45-49 Jesus talks about the mission, in different terms and with more detail:

(45) Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (46) and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, (47) and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (48) You are witnesses of these things. (49) And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.

Notice the parallels between Luke 24 and Acts 1: Jesus proves himself to be alive; the mission must be preceded by the gift of the Spirit; then the gospel will go forth, specifically from Jerusalem, to all nations. The important new datum from Luke is that this program comes from “the Scriptures” – in other words, the Bible predicted not only the death and resurrection of Jesus; it also foretold that the Spirit would come (as in Joel 2:28-32); and that the gospel would go forth from the city of Jerusalem.

Where did the prophets predict the last part? Most commentators have pointed to Isa 2:3 –

For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

The great church father Irenaeus wrote, in Against Heresies 3.20 (ANF 1: 451) –

And again, specifying the place of His advent, he says: “The Lord hath spoken from Zion, and He has uttered His voice from Jerusalem.”

Matthew Henry, in his comments on Ezekiel 47, spoke of Jerusalem and said:

There it was that the Spirit was poured out upon the apostles, and endued them with the gift of tongues, that they might carry these waters to all nations. In the temple first they were to stand and preach the words of this life, Acts 5:20. They must preach the gospel to all nations, but must begin at Jerusalem, Lu. 24:47.

We might add Isa 66:18-19 –

…the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors [in context, the survivors are from Jerusalem] to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.

The Bible shows that “beginning in Jerusalem” was a once-and-for-all first act in the gospel’s advance: from Zion to whatever nation may be named, God made the gospel go forth by centrifugal force. As Jesus had said in Mark 13:10, before the end of the age “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations”; he and the disciples were on the Mount of Olives at the time, facing the Holy City. This also sheds light on Paul’s statement that “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19).

Another observation: until the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem was never the “home town” of the apostles. With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, the apostles all came from Galilee in the north. Like all Jews they went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feasts, probably leaving their wives and small children behind. When Jesus was raised, they were staying in a borrowed quarters. Jesus told them to return to Galilee, so that they would see him there (Mark 16:7; Matt 28:10; John 21:1).

So the apostles temporarily returned to their home towns in the north.

They then went back to Jerusalem, moving back to Zion in order to position themselves to go out from Zion in fulfillment of the prophets. 40 days after Easter week, they saw Jesus ascend to heaven. They continued in the city and there receive the Spirit and first preach the gospel. In Acts 2-9 the Twelve are living and working in Jerusalem, their new adoptive town.

Many of the converts on the Day of Pentecost were Diaspora Jews, who later returned from Jerusalem to other nations in their world, taking the gospel to them, from Zion. Due to the persecution, believers moved to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

From Jerusalem, Phillip went to evangelize Samaria, followed by John and Peter (Acts 8). Peter evangelized the Mediterranean coastline, and made the first gentile convert (Acts 10-11). According to tradition, the apostles then went out to many nations – I just read an old story that may or may not be historically true, about how Andrew was martyred in Patras in southern Greece. [2]

Samaria was, as we all have been taught, extremely antagonistic to Jews, and the feeling was mutual. But its significance in Acts 1:8 is not simply it was a neighbor to Judea: Samaria had a special part in God’s plan. Although the Israelites in the northern kingdom had intermarried with pagans, still, they were half-Israelites, and worshipers of Yahweh. So like the evangelism of Jerusalem and Judea, this evangelism of Samaria too was unique – it was designed to bring together believers from all the twelve tribes of Israel in Christ. [3] It is for this same reason that Paul, when he arrived in a new city, made a point to speak first in the synagogue, to give the local Israelites a chance to receive the gospel from Zion – he spoke “to the Jew first” (Rom 1:16). Interestingly enough, the earliest physical remains of a synagogue in the city of Thessalonica, was a Samaritan one! The synagogue postdates Paul, so I do not know if it was there when he went. There were Samaritan synagogues in other places as well. Anyway, it was not just Judeans who were dispersed by Rome.

Back to our fictional preacher from the beginning of our post. While I disagree with his exegesis, still, he makes some valid points:

Application 1. Yes, we must share the gospel wherever we are, in our home town. This is not in order to fulfill the “Jerusalem” mandate of Acts, but still it is a Christian truth: when someone applies to be a missionary, they first must demonstrate that they are practicing the gospel where they live right now. Why go overseas to try to do a thing that you cannot do in your home culture?

Application 2. The first gentile conversion takes place in Caesarea (Acts 10-11), Roman capital of Judea and thus a pagan beachhead in the promised land. So the first mission to gentiles was not in a faraway place, but one in which gentile conquerors had moved in. A similar way to reach “all nations” today is to work with the international students who come to the US to study. The United States is the top destination for foreign students; over a million people came in 2015. [4] This is a phenomenal opportunity to witness to “all nations,” especially during a time in their lives where they are apart from the pressures of their home culture. Another excellent opportunity is to evangelize those who emigrate to your  area from other countries, whether you think they should have been allowed into your country or not.

Application 3. Not everyone is called to be a missionary, but still everyone of us must be willing to step away from our home culture in order to take the gospel to the world. This is the true definition of a “missionary,” one who is sent from one place to another. All missions agencies are reporting that the number of American missionaries is in steep decline; the baby boomers are retiring, and fewer young people want to make that sort of commitment. Missionary giving is also falling rapidly, as churches have fewer members, the members are aging, and the churches emphasize short-term mission trips. [5]

I suppose that there are two errors a church might make. One is to be weak on missions but strong on local evangelism; the other is to be generous with missions “over there” but ignore its own locale. My experience has been that people who are strong in one sphere are also strong in the other. Unfortunately, some who claim to be “concentrating on Jerusalem” mean, not local evangelism, but investing in building improvements so that the local lost will be more easily brought into the church building.

Not everyone in our hometown will come to Christ, but we should arrange that they at least hear the gospel. Still, we can and must take the gospel to other cultures and lands even before we have our own city entirely in order.


[1] For examples of this viewpoint, see the article by B. Steve Hughey, “Witnesses…Where? The Four Arenas of Mission Involvement” (https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/34919114/witnesses-where-the-four-arenas-of-mission-involvement). Also Jim, Barbarossa, “Have We Forgotten Jerusalem?” (http://www.step-by-step.org/acts1-8.htm)

[2] Why aren’t they told to evangelize Galilee? One explanation is that Galilee had already been fully evangelized during the earthly ministry of Jesus, in a way that Judea had not been (see Luke 10:1). Another is that the word “Judea” had a variety of meanings. It could mean the southern half of the land, or it could mean all areas in the Holy Land that were inhabited by Jews (it is so used in Luke 23:5), making it include Galilee in Acts 1:8.

[3]  Today there are still Samaritans living in their ancestral land. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12069728

[4] See http://dailycaller.com/2015/09/04/number-of-international-students-in-the-us-up-nearly-10-percent-in-2015/, also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_student

[5] See http://www.thetravelingteam.org/articles/your-jerusalem-judea-and-samariahttps://urbana.org/blogs/least-these/twilight-north-american-missionary-structures-part-ii

“From Jerusalem to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth – Have we Misunderstood Acts 1:8?” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

12 thoughts on ““From Jerusalem to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth” – Have we Misunderstood Acts 1:8?

  1. Yes, the disciples we’re told to physically go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria.. but did they literally speak their message to the ends of the earth?

    The answer is yes. And the clue as to how they would LITERALLY speak their apostolic message to the ends of the earth is tied directly to the incident that led Jesus to pronounce (John 13:31) “Now is the Son of man glorified.”

    The Greeks seeking out Jesus precipitated Jesus finally stating that his time has come, when he stated (since the miracle in Cana) that his time has not come.

    Few people address the question as to how certain Galilean fishermen would never write their testimony in Aramaic (their primary language), nor in Hebrew (their religious language, but not conversational language), but write all of the Gospel and letters in the language of foreigers and pagans, Greek.

    Peter became somewhat familiar with Greek, but never mastered it, evidenced by his marginal handle of the Greek language in 2 Peter.

    So far, does this make any sense?

    1. Hi Douglas, yes, I think I see where you are going with this theologically.

      A couple of observations:

      First of all, while not many people numerically address the nature of the languages spoken in Palestine, in fact there are scholars who have dedicated themselves to this task. That is, it is by no means unexplored territory. People have analyzed inscriptions, literature, Dead Sea Scrolls and other sources. Greek was firmly ensconced in Palestine and Galilee. In fact, I would say it was near impossible that the apostles did not know enough Greek to communicate.

      Second, there is a fallacy that some – including myself – sometimes commit, that of saying that “People haven’t studied X” when what they really mean is that “I haven’t studied X” and should add that “but maybe someone does.” So “Few people address the question as to how certain Galilean fishermen would…” is actually not on the mark, since a small but dedicated group of people investigate this.

      Third, it is almost certain that on Pentecost, Peter preached in Greek and perhaps quoted the Septuagint. His Joel quote is similar to the LXX, but not identical – but in any case, he was probably quote from memory. Besides, the apostles often paraphrased their Bible verses to underscore some point.

      Fourth, you call Greek a foreign pagan tongue, but Aramaic a local (implicit, “holy”?) one. In fact, if we want to be technical, Aramaic is just as pagan as Greek: the worshipers of Baal used it, for example. But I would hesitate to call a language clean or unclean. After all, what we now call Hebrew was before 1200 BC nothing more than a local dialect of the common Semitic language, very similar to Phoenician and Moabite. Again, Greek was hardly a “foreign” language, you could hear it all around the Sea of Galilee, in Jerusalem, and (in writing at least) in the hyper-conservative Qumran community.

      Fifth, it is extremely difficult to say what level Peter attained. 2 Peter is worse (better “different” or “less literary”) than 1 Peter, but the Pentecost speech is “better than” 2 Peter. And who is to say which is “typically Petrine”. But anyway, let’s say that his epistles were written at least three decades after the Pentecost sermon. That’s a long time to sharpen up one’s Greek. For example, 22 years ago I spoke not a word of Spanish, but now I work, teach, mentor, write in Spanish every day. People grow 😊

      Blessings! And while I hope you feel welcome here, I will say at the outset, if I am not simply imagining things, that I would rather not debate preterist eschatology. Thanks, Gary

  2. First and foremost I think you must go where the Spirit leads you. As a white South Africa, I wish there would be more missionaries coming here. There is a GREAT need as many black cultures still pray and believe and do as their ancestors “tells” them to do. A prophet is not recognized in his own home. (Pardon my English). I myself has a strong inclination to Turkey or Hungary to do missionary work. I pray that the Lord would lead me in this matter. Thank you for your posts. I always love to read stuff from my brothers and sisters in Christ. God bless you all. Peace from the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Desire!

      I do agree that the Lord might lead us to some specific place. However, the Bible doesn’t indicate that that is a guarantee, and the many missionaries I have met have felt “led” to one place or another and then finally land in a place they never imagined. Blessings, Gary

  3. Brother Gary, I really enjoyed your post “From Jerusalem to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth – Have we Misunderstood Acts 1:8?”
    The only minor issue I have with it was the,,, “Still, we can and must take the gospel to other cultures and lands BEFORE we have our own house entirely in order” commentary at the very end. Reason being is that I have seen many “Evangelists” out preaching the Word, but their own households are in spiritual shambles. I do understand you said “entirely in order” but I just want to make clear that people understand that “they first must demonstrate that they are practicing the gospel where they live” and not neglecting the family. Thank you again for your post Brother Gary.

    1. Hi brother! In fact, I am going to change the wording, since I meant “house” in that sentence, not as one’s family, but one’s home region.

      Thanks for sharing, Gary

  4. Gary, I enjoyed reading your article on Floor Blood Moons, post 12/1/13 on C:MC. I was wondering if you had additional research that you could share since this issue has risen in one of our BFC churches. I have been looking for additional and better resources to put into people hands to read so that can have tangible information.

    1. Raymond, hi, good to hear from you!

      The material I had was easily gotten by googling the internet. If you combine “blood moon” with “Christians United for Israel” and eclipse you should find the recent material.

  5. This is good, Gary. Your posts often provide new insights and expand my thinking. Sure do enjoy them.

  6. “We must share the gospel wherever we are, beginning with our home town. This is not in order to fulfill the “Jerusalem” mandate of Acts, but it is a Christian truth. That is why, when someone applies to be a missionary, they first must demonstrate that they are practicing the gospel where they live right now; why go overseas to do a thing that you cannot do in your home culture?” ¡Amén!

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