This article was written to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the New Testament’ hangout.
- In what ways does God’s mission progress in the book of Acts?
- What challenges are faced along the way?
Acts is the earliest account we have of the activities of the early Church. It is mainly a description of the missionary activities of the apostles (and particularly Paul from chapter 13 onwards). Looking through the story of Acts will help us understand God’s mission in the early Church.
The first 8 verses of Acts are key to understanding the book, and to understanding God’s mission in the Church. Firstly, Luke claims that in his first book (the Gospel of Luke) he gave an account of what Jesus began to do (Acts 1:1). The implication is that Acts is about what Jesus continues to do, this time through his church, even though he is not bodily present. God’s mission is taking place in Jesus through his Church. Secondly, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait for the power of the Spirit to fill them and enable them to be his witnesses (i.e. telling the story of Jesus) in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Those different locations actually provide a structure for the book, with God’s mission taking place in Jerusalem (chapters 2-7), Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-12), and to the ends of the earth (chapter 13 onwards).
LOOK IT UP
- Skim through the book of Acts and note the geographical progression of the gospel.
Many Christians (especially charismatics) love the story of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. It’s the moment when the first disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s an exciting story, but I wonder whether we appreciate just how significant an event it is. Pentecost is about much, much more than having powerful times of worship at church. Here are a few things which Pentecost is within the context of God’s mission:
- Pentecost is about the undoing of Babel. Whereas God, in Genesis 11, had said, “let us go down and there confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7), we now read this, “and they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” (Acts 2:7-8)The scattering of the nations in judgement, which occurred at Babel, is undone as the Spirit enables the disciples to proclaim the gospel in different languages.
- Pentecost (the equivalent of the Old Testament feast of weeks) is the festival of the new harvest, not of grain but of people. In Leviticus 23:16, Israel are told, “you shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to Yahweh” (Leviticus 23:16). The festival was about celebrating the new harvest. On the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter proclaims the gospel and the result was a harvest of people. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41)
- Pentecost is the dedication of the new temple, the glory of which Haggai said would be greater than the former (see Haggai 2:9). Both the Tabernacle and the first Temple were filled with the glory of God. At Pentecost, the Spirit comes like a rushing wind and fills the new Temple, the one made out of God’s people. N. T. Wright, speaking of Paul and the Temple, writes the following:
“You are the temple of the living God, [Paul] says: not to the Philippians he loved so much, not to the Thessalonians in the midst of their suffering and danger, but precisely to the recalcitrant, muddled, problem-ridden Corinthians. This is not, in other words, a sober judgment based on the noticeable holiness, or gospel-inspired love or joy, of this or that [Church]. It is simply, for Paul, a fact: the living God who had said he would put his name in the great House in Jerusalem, has put his name upon and within these little, surprised communities, dotted around the world of the north-eastern Mediterranean. Unless we are shocked by this, we have not seen the point.” (N. T. Wright – Paul and the Faithfulness of God).
- Pentecost is the beginning of a brand new age in history, the age of the Spirit. This may sound cliché but it is completely true. Although in Numbers 11:29, Moses had longed that God would put his Spirit on all of his people, this seemed like wishful thinking. Nearly 1000 years later, though, God promised, through Joel, that one day he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (see Joel 2:28). Peter proclaims to the crowds at Pentecost: this is exactly what is happening right now! The last days have arrived.
Pentecost is hugely significant! Although the Spirit is given to the Church for many other things (such as Spiritual gifts – see 1 Corinthians 12-14), in Acts, the Spirit is poured out to empower the Church for mission, a mission which would take place first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth!
THINK IT THROUGH
- Have you seen any of the above themes in Acts 2?
- What difference do they make to your understanding of Pentecost?
- What difference do they make to your understanding of mission?
In Jerusalem (Acts 2-7)
After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, about 3000 Jews repented from their sins and were baptised into Jesus. For the next few chapters of Acts (up until chapter 8), God’s mission was carried out, it seems, solely in Jerusalem. This changes dramatically from Acts 8 onwards, but there are a few striking features of the earliest Church that Luke wants us to see in these early chapters.
Acts 2:42-47 gives a good summary picture of what the earliest Church in Jerusalem was like, and the ideas expressed in these verses are reflected throughout Acts 2-7. The early Church was devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. The apostles performed many signs and wonders to confirm what they preached (for example, a man who was lame from birth was instantly healed in Acts 3). The earliest believers were also a generous group, selling possessions and houses so that there would be no needy people among them. They were also a praying church. When Peter and John are told not to proclaim Jesus in Acts 4, their response is to hold a prayer meeting to pray for boldness (Acts 4:23-31). And boldness is exactly what they had. The disciples who had fled when Jesus was arrested were now boldly proclaiming the gospel, even in the face of opposition. As a result of this, the church grew day by day and many more Jews began to accept Jesus as their Messiah, including many of the priests (Acts 6:7).
Mission on course!
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Acts 2:42-47
- This is a picture of a Spirit-filled church. What things mark them out?
- Which of these things provide challenges for our own churches?
In Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12)
God often uses unconventional methods to spur his people into doing his will. The Church in Jerusalem was growing steadily and enjoying God’s grace. However, Jesus had told his disciples that when the Spirit came upon them, they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. So far, only the first of those areas had been reached, so God provided a reason to extend his mission further afield: persecution.
In Acts 6:8-15, Stephen, a deacon in the Jerusalem church, was accused of blaspheming Moses (i.e. the Jewish Law) and God, as well a speaking against the Temple. Stephen was taken to the High Priest to defend himself but his defence made his hearers even angrier (read it in Acts 7 and you’ll see why). When Stephen finally stated, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” (Acts 7:56) this was too much for his accusers. Claiming that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God was tantamount to blasphemy in their view. So they stoned Stephen to death. As a result, an intense persecution started against the Church in Jerusalem. This forced most of its members to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. God had used Stephen’s martyrdom and the ensuing persecution to kick-start his mission into the areas surrounding Jerusalem.
Mission on course!
- Why does Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 anger his hearers? Can you think of situations in your church or your life where God has used opposition or difficulties to achieve a greater fruitfulness?
The Conversion of Saul/Paul
Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is one of the best-known stories in Acts. After Stephen’s martyrdom, a young man called Saul, a Pharisee, became a staunch opponent of the followers of Jesus. In Acts 9 he was on his way to Damascus in order to arrest any Christians that he might find there. However, en route he is met by the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1), who expresses his complete sympathy and personal identification with his church, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:5) After his encounter, Saul was left blind and led to Damascus, where he was met by a disciple called Ananias. Ananias had been told that Saul is one of God’s means to spread the gospel to the non-Jewish world (Acts 9:15). Paul is then filled with the Spirit and baptised.
The significance of Paul’s conversion is huge, both within the story of Acts and within Christian history. Paul saw himself as being very specifically commissioned to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13; Galatians 2:7-8). To put it quite mildly, Paul was a mission-machine. The spread of early Christianity within the early Roman Empire can be traced largely to his preaching and missionary journeys. Within the narrative of God’s mission in Acts, though, there is still an obstacle to be overcome before we read of the nations turning en masse to Jesus – the question of whether Gentiles can be part of God’s people.
- What does Paul’s encounter with Jesus tell us about Jesus’ relationship with his church?
- What significance does Luke attach to Paul’s conversion?
Are Gentiles Allowed in God’s People?
Can non-Jews become followers of Jesus? To 21st century believers, the answer might seem blindingly obvious: ‘of course they can! How on earth can the early Christians have even doubted this – they must have been such a closed-minded, insular bunch!’ It’s easy to read stories such as Acts 10 and to roll our eyes in frustration at the closed-mindedness of the disciples. ‘Good grief! Why did Peter need a blanket from heaven to come down to let him know that Gentiles could be Christians?’
Actually, the disciples were not that closed minded! They were Jewish, and as far as they were concerned, the Jews were God’s people. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and whilst he had told them to proclaim the gospel in all nations, he had not told them the exact mechanics of how to go about presenting the gospel to non-Jews. Peter needed some prompting, so God, as recounted in Acts 10, gave Peter a vision of many unclean animals and told him to eat them. When Peter refused, God warned Peter not to call ‘unclean’ what God had made ‘clean.’ After this, some men who had been sent by a Roman centurion arrived where Peter was staying. Peter, prompted by God, accompanied them to talk with Cornelius and his friends. As Peter was explaining the message of Jesus to them, the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentile hearers, at which point Peter exclaimed: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) Just to highlight how much of a paradigm shift this would have been for the earliest Christians, Luke tells us that Peter had to explain his actions to the Jerusalem church (see Acts 11:1-18).
This episode paved the way for God’s mission to be opened up to the nations, starting with Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26) and then extending further (see below). God’s mission had been fruitful in Judea, and Samaria. Now the possibility of going to the ends of the earth had opened up. All that was needed was people who could perform that task.
- Can you think of passages in the Old Testament and the gospels that would hint at or teach the incoming of the Gentiles?
To the Ends of the Earth
By Acts 13, the Gospel had been spreading rapidly in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and had even reached Antioch in Syria (a Gentile area). It seems like a strong church had been built in Antioch, and we are introduced to its leaders in Acts 13:1. Things were about to change, though. During a time of worship and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke to them. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:1) That work, we find out, was to take the gospel to the Greek world. The task of being witnesses to the ends of the earth, which Jesus has told his disciples about in Acts 1, was about to commence!
Mission on course!
Saul (Paul) and Barnabas set out on the first recorded overseas missionary journey in Christian history. They travelled by sea from Antioch in Syria to Cyprus, from Cyprus to southern Turkey, and back to Antioch in Syria. Every town they arrived in, they would tend to find a synagogue to proclaim the gospel to the Jewish inhabitants (a large number of whom would usually reject it), and then they would proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. Then they would move on to another town. (Although the narrative of Acts is fast paced, we mustn’t assume that Paul and Barnabas simply arrived, preached the gospel, and then left a few days later). Finally, they returned back through the churches in southern Turkey, appointed elders, and then returned to Antioch to report to the church there.
That short description may make it sound like things were pretty easy and straightforward. However, the missionary journeys in Acts are full of accounts of opposition and persecution. In this relatively short account of the journey, Luke tells us of demonic opposition (13:6-10), opposition from Jews in the synagogue and being driven out of a town (13:44-51), an attempt to stone Paul (14:4-5), an attempt by pagans to worship Paul and Barnabas (14:8-18), and a success at stoning Paul, who nonetheless escaped death (14:19-20). Proclaiming the gospel came with a great cost. ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’ (Acts 14:22)
Paul went on two more missionary journeys in Acts (16:1–18:23; 19-20), which took him as far as Greece. The accounts of these last two journeys often have fuller accounts of Paul’s preaching and activities, and are particularly helpful for learning about how to contextualise the message of the gospel.
What About the Law?
So, non-Jews are allowed to be part of God’s people. The apostles had figured that out in Acts 10-11, but now that the gospel had gone to many more Gentiles, another question came up, prompted by a group of Jewish Christians who came from Jerusalem to Antioch, and who were claiming, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) This was essentially a way of saying: Gentiles are welcome into God’s family, but they have to become Jewish through circumcision and coming under the Law. After some fairly heated debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and a few others went to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders.
This was a huge issue; and one which we probably do not appreciate the significance of, as 21st-century, mainly non-Jewish, Christians. This is something about which Paul writes a lot, particularly in Galatians and Romans. Whilst Paul did not have a problem with Jewish Christians still observing the law (though not being “under it” anymore) and circumcising their children (see Acts 21:17-26), he saw Gentiles accepting circumcision and coming under the law as tantamount to falling from grace (see Galatians 5:1-4). The discussion to which Paul and Barnabas were heading could be tense: would the apostles all see eye to eye on this issue?
As it is, they did see eye to eye and came to an agreement. After Peter had recounted his experience with Cornelius, and after Paul and Barnabas had told of their first missionary journey and of the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus, James concluded by quoting a passage from Amos 9, which speaks of the incoming of the Gentiles. James concluded that Gentiles should not be forced to come under the Law and be circumcised. The Gospel would be law-free and circumcision-free. Nonetheless, James explained that he thought that the Gentiles in the early Church should be told to abstain from ‘things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.’ (Acts 15:20) This all seemed like a good idea to the apostles and Paul and Barnabas were sent back to Antioch with a letter from the apostles.
Read the account of Acts 15:1-21.
- Does this mean that we cannot eat rare steak or any animal that has been strangled? Why/why not?
Paul Off to Rome
After his third missionary journey (Acts 19-20), Paul returned to Jerusalem. Despite the fact that a prophet, called Agabus, had predicted that he would be arrested in Jerusalem (see Acts 21:10-14), Paul was still intent on going to Jerusalem, arrest or not! After meeting with James, Paul encountered some problems in the Jerusalem Temple when a group of Jews from Asia (modern day Turkey) saw him and tried to kill him. When the Romans saw this rioting, they arrested Paul and put him in prison, so that he could give a proper defence.
Whilst in prison, Jesus told Paul that he was to go to Rome and speak of him. Paul was then transferred from Jerusalem to Caesarea, and in Caesarea, he appealed to Caesar (something which Roman citizens were allowed to do), which essentially meant that he would be taken to Rome to make his appeal in Caesar’s courts. Paul had orchestrated his own trip to Rome in order to obey Jesus’ command!
Paul’s journey to Rome (27:1–28:10) was not the smoothest of trips and involved being shipwrecked en route. Nonetheless, Paul arrived in the capital and was allowed to stay in his own accommodation (under house arrest), as long as a soldier was with him (Acts 28:16). Thanks to this relative freedom, Paul followed his usual plan of preaching the Gospel to the Jews first, before turning to proclaim it to the Gentiles when the Jews rejected it. By the end of Acts, the Gospel had reached the centre of the known world! In a sense, Jesus’ commission in Acts 1 had been fulfilled.
God’s mission was on course!
THINK IT THROUGH
Read through Paul’s trials in Acts 21-26.
- How did Paul orchestrate his move from Jerusalem to Rome?
But in another sense, Jesus’ commission had not been fulfilled. Although Rome was the centre of the Roman world, it was not the ends of the earth. Paul knew this and Luke knew this. In Romans, Paul makes it clear that his desire is to proclaim the Gospel in places where Jesus’ name had not even been heard of (Romans 15:14-24). Spain was where Paul really wanted to end up (though his arrest would have prevented that). Luke shows quite clearly as well that the mission to the ends of the earth was not yet over. “He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31) – not exactly a nice conclusion that ties up all the threads.
The open-endedness of Acts means that although the narrative that Luke wrote is finished, the mission of God is still ongoing. We happen to be followers of Jesus because missionaries saw that God’s mission was not over and brought the Gospel to our nation(s). Jesus’ work through his church is still continuing and will continue until all “those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:21).
- Which themes or incidents from the book of Acts do you find most challenging for your own Christian life and mission?
- Acts is open-ended and the mission continues. In what ways are you moving the mission forwards?
- How did the apostles and others in Acts overcome the challenges that arose for the mission? How are our churches doing today at overcoming the challenges that face us?