Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: Models for Engaging the World Incarnationally

The book of Acts also models an incarnational mission as part of its global and cross-cultural vision. The model has three key elements that invite our reflection. (1) The mission of God is a cross cultural one and Jesus has bridged the divisions that exist between insiders and outsiders. (2) Gentiles did not have to become Jewish with respect to the Torah in order to follow Jesus. (3) The Holy Spirit deploys various methods of advancing the Gospel depending on the context of its audience including use of Scripture, miracles, and the utilization of Gentile cultural and religious symbols (i.e., extra-biblical ones).

First, Acts demonstrates decisively that the Gospel is transcultural and that it can be translated into different cultures. The gift of tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2) demonstrated the good news could be delivered in languages outside of the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek of 1st century Palestine. Moreover, the reality of the Spirit falling on Samaritans and Gentiles served as a tangible demonstration of the Gospel’s inclusiveness. Acts 10 narrates the remarkable story of Cornelius and Peter. Both men receive visions that prepare them for an encounter that will change both of their lives. Cornelius who is a god-fearing Roman Centurion receives a vision in which God tells him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision in which he learns that God has pronounced the formerly unclean clean. When Cornelius sends for Peter, Peter realizes that the vision was God’s way of preparing him for a mission to the Gentiles. He goes to Cornelius and presents him with the Gospel which Cornelius and his friends and relatives receive. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit fills the Gentiles and thus marks their entrance into the people of God (10:44-48).

Second, as Gentiles became Christ-followers, the Jewish Christian leadership faced the issue of how the Torah’s laws affected these new believers. The question in its most basic form was this: Did a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to live as a follower of Jesus? In particular, there was a dispute over the question of circumcision. Did male converts to the Christ following movement need to be circumcised. Acts 15 recounts a remarkable conference involving Paul, Barnabas and the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas shared the fruits of the Gentile mission including all of the signs and wonders that God was doing to advance the Gospel. James, speaking on behalf of the Jerusalem leaders, discerned that God was indeed doing a great work among the nations in fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. Gentiles did not need to embrace fully the Mosaic law. In particular, they did not need to be circumcised. James wrote a pastoral letter that boiled down the Mosaic laws to avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality. This episode affirms that Gentile converts to the Christ following movement did not have to become practicing Jewish Christians. The key lesson here is that the Gospel can be contextualized into new cultures. Acts 15 also affirms that there are transcultural principles of moral conduct that establish a core ethos for Christ followers.

Last, Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization or some mixture of these options.

The book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and god-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethopian eunuch in 8:26-40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.

The book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.

Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16-34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus not as Israel’s Messiah but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32-34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The good news of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100% conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

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