Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: A Spirit-Drenched and Driven Movement

Acts completes the story begun in the book of Acts by narrating the spread of the Gospel from Jesus’ ascension to heaven to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. The book of Acts contribution to understanding the missional nature of God’s people is self-evident. A missional reading of Acts listens to the story of the emergence of the Christ following movement in the 1st century Greco-Roman world as guide to 21st century mission.

The central insight of Acts is the empowering role of the Holy Spirit in the advancement of the Gospel. The book of Acts is Spirit-driven. So much so that it is more appropriate to think of the Book of Acts as “Acts of the Spirit” rather than “Acts of the Apostles.”

The book of Acts opens with the Risen Jesus prepping his disciples for their post-resurrection mission. This is a new era for the people of God. Jesus’ words are powerful: But you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). This text is full of meaning.

Fundamentally this text reconnects the mission of God’s people explicitly with the Genesis 1–11 world. If the Gospel story from Genesis 12–the life and ministry of Jesus focused primarily on the creation of a new humanity to reflect God’s character in the world, the post-resurrection era of the Church shifts to a “go to” ethos in which the people of God now engage actively and intentionally the world with the good news about God’s abundant and transforming love. Notice the language of Acts 1:8. It assumes that mission will continue in the area of the disciples current geographic reality: Jerusalem and the wider land of biblical Israel. These had been the area in which Jesus himself had served. But now there is a push beyond these regions to the rest of the world. The Gospel came to its initial fulfillment in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now it is to spread to the nations in anticipation of the New Creation. This reconnects the Biblical story line with God's universal mission to all Creation. God had originally intended for creation to be filled with image bearing women and men who reflected God's character. Under the power of the Spirit, God's New Humanity the Church re-engages this mission with the hope of reaching the nations with the Gospel.

The Spirit is the catalyst for this new movement of God’s work in the world. With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah, God sends the Spirit into the world to unleash his new humanity the church to serve as witnesses to the coming reality of the kingdom of God. The empowerment of the Spirit is the qualitative difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The Church is a people of the Spirit. The book of Acts demonstrates this in dramatic fashion.

Acts 2 famously recounts the Spirit’s dramatic arrival to unleash Christ’s followers on the Day of Pentecost. Devout Jews as well as Jewish converts from all over the known world had gathered in Jerusalem. In the morning on Pentecost, Jesus’ followers had likewise gathered together. Suddenly the Holy Spirit arrived on them in the form of tongues of fire. Each Christ follower present (perhaps as many as 120 cf. 1:15) was instantaneously empowered to speak one of the native languages of those present. This reality reversed the confusion of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) and demonstrated the translatability of the Gospel cross-culturally. This is a key element as Jesus’ followers could have spoken in Greek and addressed the crowd as a whole, but the mission of God is for the nations and thus addresses the nations contextually in each one’s native tongue. Peter addresses the crowd and announces that this miracle of speech is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28-32. God’s future age of the Spirit as inaugurated by Jesus has now come. The immediate result of Spirit’s coming was the addition of 3000 persons to the Christ following movement.

The book of Acts narrates the spread of the Gospel as marked by the baptism of the Spirit. In contrast to the Old Testament where only select individuals were filled with the Spirit, New Testament affirms that all of God’s people receive the Spirit. Acts records the apostles performing miracles and preaching in the power of the Spirit. As the Gospel reaches a new area in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the Spirit fills believers in each regions.

In subsequent chapters the Gospel advances through the work of the Spirit. In Acts 3 Peter heals a lame man and boldly proclaims the Gospel in Solomon’s portico. After Peter and John are arrested in Acts 4, the Spirit fills Peter (4:8) and enables him to share a powerful word before the council.

In Acts 7-8, the church comes under intense persecution. Ironically, the persecution serves to advance the Gospel by pushing it out of Jerusalem into surrounding regions. This is an important insight for a missional reading. Persecution does not mark the end of witness, but is often a conduit for increasing the effectiveness of Christian witness. This is true in the book of Acts. The persecution in Jerusalem causes Jesus’ followers to scatter and through their movements the Gospel arrives in new places. It arrives first in Samaria (7:4-25) under the work of Philip. When reports of the conversions of Samaritans arrive back at Jerusalem, the apostles send out Peter and John to investigate and resource the new community of faith. When they arrive, they pray for the Spirit to come upon the new believers in Samaria (7:15-17) and it does. The Spirit’s arrival marks the advance of the Gospel. This occurs also when the Gospel reaches Gentiles in Caesaria (10:44-48). The outpouring of the Spirit marks God’s acceptance of new believers into the kingdom regardless of whether they are Jew (Acts 2), Samaritan (Acts 7), or Gentile (Acts 10). This is a further fulfillment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). The gift of the Spirit is thus indiscriminate. It is for all God’s people: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.

The Spirit is the driving force in the Gospel’s advance from Jerusalem in Acts 1 to Rome in Acts 28. The early apostles and witnesses were sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. For example, in Acts 8:26-40, Philip is prompted by the Spirit (8:29) to engage an Ethopian eunuch in a conversation that leads to the man’s conversion. Saul (later Paul) is filled with the Spirit (9:17) after his Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus (9:1-9). Paul shifts from being a persecutor of the church to being the person whom God uses to carry the Gospel to Rome.

Acts 13–28 narrates the movement of the Gospel from the regions of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Syria into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, and eventually Rome itself. Acts 13:1-4 fully credits the Spirit with the advance of the Gospel. Paul is not merely an ambitious and visionary missional leader; his exploits are the product of the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit himself commissions and sends out Paul (Saul) and Barnabas to preach the Gospel in these new lands. Paul and Barnabas ultimately separate (Acts 15:36-41) but Paul continues to advance the Gospel. Under the guidance of the Spirit (16:6-10), Paul crosses out of Asia Minor into Macedonia and Greece. The Gospel continues to move forward until Acts ends in Acts 28 with Paul preaching about Jesus in Rome the capital of the empire. The story ends abruptly without informing readers of what happens next. The implication however is clear. Since there is no Acts 29, we are left to dream under the Spirit’s influence about how we are to participate now in the Gospel’s movement in our day.

The book of Acts serves an important role in developing a missional hermeneutic through its emphasis on the work of the Spirit. God advances the Gospel through the Spirit’s empowerment. Our hermeneutical reflection is vital but the good news is that the Spirit continues its work.

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