As of 2017, more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide lived outside their country of birth. In the United States, Canada, and abroad, this is big news—the stuff of political wrangling and late-night talk show monologues. The global movement of peoples is at an all-time high, with the West as a preferred destination. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for the church. In fact, it’s so convenient that many may initially fail to recognize it as real missions work. But before dismissing it, we should consider how Christians have engaged this issue in the past—both our mistakes and our successes—for while the number of people in this global movement is greater than ever before, the gospel has spread to and through diaspora communities from the beginning.
When we read Jesus’s Great Commission, most American Christians picture the modern missions movement. Our minds quickly jump from the first century to the 19th and 20th, to William Carey, Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, Amy Carmichael, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Eric Liddel, and many others who carried the gospel abroad. Generations of Western believers were reared on their stories; their biographies still shape our reading of biblical passages about reaching the nations.
But there’s an obvious kind of chronological shortsightedness to this vision of missions, since the church has sent out evangelists and gospel workers in every century, from the first to the 21st. There is also a misconception that has to do with coming and going. Taking the gospel to the ends of the earth has never been simply about God's people going from here to there; it’s also been about ministering to those who’ve come from there to here.
“Taking the gospel to the ends of the earth has never been simply about God's people going from here to there ; it’s also been about ministering to those who’ve come from there to here .”
From There to Here
Acts tells us about the apostles preaching to, baptizing, and discipling “devout men from every nation” who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:5). From the moment God’s Spirit was poured out on the church, Jesus’s disciples began to carry out the commission they’d received from him by ministering among the diaspora in their midst.
These “devout men” included both Jews and also proselytes who were drawn to the Jewish religion. And while some of these new converts lived within Jerusalem, Luke highlights the group’s cosmopolitan breadth. They came from all over the known world—the Near East, Asia Minor, the Levant, Mediterranean Crete, North Africa, Arabia, and Rome, as well as the Iranian Plateau, the Caspian Sea region, and Mesopotamia in the Parthian Empire (Acts 2:9–10). At Pentecost 3,000 of these pilgrims were baptized and added to the church.
Rather than returning to their homes after Pentecost, it seems these new believers remained in Jerusalem to be discipled. They lived in close community and gave themselves over to learning from the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Despite receiving tastes of future persecution, the Christians spoke God’s word boldly, provided for those in need, and “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:31–34).
As desirable, even idyllic, as the description of that church sounds, we know there were problems. Among them were tensions between the Hellenistic (i.e., Greek-speaking diaspora) Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews from Palestine. Some of the latter were failing to care well for the congregation’s Grecian widows while showing greater generosity to their own (Acts 6:1). The apostles addressed the budding trouble by instructing the congregation to choose seven men who were then set apart for this diaconal work. Several were from abroad, including Nicolaus, described as a “proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5). The apostles poured themselves into the whole community, including those sojourners in Jerusalem—everyone received instruction from the apostles (Acts 2:42).
To There Again
Stephen was among the seven who served in the church and, we learn, was a powerful evangelist. Perhaps a year after Pentecost, his arrest and martyrdom sparked a wave of persecution. Consequently, those living in Jerusalem, where they’d been baptized and discipled, “were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” and carried the gospel as they “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1–4).
Among those dispersed was Philip. To judge from his subsequent sphere of ministry—Samaria and maritime towns like Azotus (Ashdod) and Caesarea Maratima (Acts 8:4–8, 40; 21:8)—he may have been one of those sojourning in Jerusalem, perhaps a Grecian Jew or Samaritan. After the disciples were dispersed following Stephen’s death, Philip took the gospel to Samaria. Only subsequently did John and Peter travel north to support the fledgling congregation (Acts 8:14–15). Later led by the Spirit, Philip engaged in drive-by evangelism and roadside baptism: he delivered Christ to an Ethiopian eunuch who, tradition suggests, took the gospel into Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, the apostles began fulfilling Jesus’s admonition to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth by ministering to and through the diaspora outsiders in their midst.
And these outsiders became pivotal in spreading Christianity among the Gentiles. In Antioch, Jewish converts to Christianity who had sojourned in Jerusalem after Pentecost—“men of [the island of] Cyprus and Cyrene [in North Africa]”—preached Jesus as Lord among Greek-speaking non-Jews. The resulting church was shepherded by a group of “prophets and teachers” comprising principally non-natives: Barnabas (from Cyprus), Simeon called Niger (from Africa?), Lucius (Libyan Africa), Manaen (an old friend of Herod the Tetrarch), and Paul (from Damascus). Under their watch, the church at Antioch became a major hub of missionary activity throughout the Roman Mediterranean, perhaps even taking Christianity to Edessa, from where it entered the Persian Empire.
Take another example. Roman Jews were present in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Some were surely among those baptized that day, and likely returned to Rome after Stephen’s death, where Christianity began to grow among the Jewish community. In AD 52, Emperor Claudius expelled from Rome all Jews, including the tentmaking couple Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1–2). When Paul came to Corinth, he located and lodged with them. We don’t know that they were Christians when Paul found them, but they soon became his co-laborers. They traveled to Ephesus, where they hosted a church in their home for more than three years (1 Corinthians 16:19; Acts 20:31). Later, they were back in Rome, where they hosted another house church (Romans 16:3–5). And most of Europe received the gospel as a result of efforts organized from Rome.
Serving Among the Ethne
Ministering to sojourners and foreigners was no sideshow for the early church. Apostles and first-generation Christians obeyed the Great Commission by doing diaspora ministry. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say imagining the early church without an active diaspora ministry is to imagine a church that stayed in Jerusalem and preached only in synagogues. It’s to imagine a church where Paul lacked a home base for missionary labors and where Africa, Asia, and Europe never received the gospel. In a word, it’s unthinkable.
It remains unthinkable for the church today. Whether at home or abroad, God brings us into contact with the nations to be his witnesses. The global diaspora sojourning among us today is both a field ripe for harvest and a missionary force in the making.
A version of this article previously appeared at thegospelcoalition.org.