After Jesus’s death and resurrection, the first company of believers included Mary, Jesus’ Mother, and other kinsman, along with the apostles. Since the whole company was Jewish they remained loyal for a time to the Jewish law and continued to worship in the synagogue and temple. Despite this they began facing some persecution over their preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and other teachings that conflicted with the teaching of the non-christian Jews. Their numbers grew rapidly and more and more of the converts were recruited from among the Hellenist Jews. These were Jews that came from all parts of the Roman Empire to settle in Jerusalem. They spoke Greek and, the ones that converted to Christianity, used a common Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

At first the apostles welcomed to the church the Hellenists who believed in Jesus. However, subsequently friction developed between the Palestinian and Hellenist members. Some of the Hellenist members complained that their widows were being overlooked in the church welfare program (Acts 6:1). Seven Hellenist disciples, including Stephen and Philip, were assigned to oversee the distributions. Before long, however, Stephen began preaching in Jerusalem’s Hellenist synagogues and this touched off the riot that led to his death at the hands of non-christian Hellenist Jews described in Acts 7:54-60.

Though the Hebrew apostles and Christians were not molested at this time, the Hellenist Christians were forced to flee Jerusalem due to continued persecution and found refuge in Samaria and Syria were they founded Christian communities. Other Hellenist Christians founded churches at Damascus, Antioch, Tarsus, Cyprus and Egypt. The Christian elders in Jerusalem eventually sent delegates to establish ties with the new Christian centers.

In the meantime, the Hellenists begin to win Gentiles to the faith (Acts 11:19), establishing the first multicultural church in Antioch, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. Antioch, the administrative capital of the Roman province of Syria, grew in Christian influence until it succeeded Jerusalem as the center of missionary outreach through the missionary work of Paul who carried the gospel to the Gentiles. The disciples of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch.

This story is an example of how God used the persecution of Christians, meant to destroy/impede the work of the Gospel, to actually increase its spread. God used persecution to aid the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, His sovereign plan.