Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reading the Book of Acts Missionally: A Spirit-Empowered Advance of the Gospel

Acts completes the story begun in the Book of Luke 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 clear. 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 a 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 programmatic and visionary: “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 until the coming of Jesus focused 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 the nations with the Good News about God’s abundant and transforming love.
Notice the language of Acts 1:8. It is a vision for world mission. 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 areas in which Jesus himself had served. But now there is a push beyond these regions to the rest of the earth. The Gospel came to its initial fulfillment in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now post-resurrection, it is time for the good news 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. This fulfills the original mission of humanity (1:26–31). Under the power of the Spirit, 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 Holy Spirit into the world to empower his new humanity–the church–to serve as clues to the Kingdom of God. The sending and empowerment of the Spirit is the qualitative difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The Spirit guarantees the success of God’s mission. God’s people, the church, are people of the Spirit. The Book of Acts demonstrates this in dramatic fashion.
Acts 2 powerfully tells the story of the initial filling of Jesus followers with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Jews and god-fearers from all over the Roman world had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Jesus’ followers had likewise gathered together. Suddenly, on the morning of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of tongues of fire. All of Jesus’ followers who were present (perhaps as many as 120 cf. 1:15) were instantaneously gifted with the ability to speak one of the many native languages of those gathered in Jerusalem. They began to announce the good news about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. 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, the followers address the nations contextually in each person’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. Peter goes on to announce cogently the Gospel to all who gathered around him. The immediate result of the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection through the power of the Spirit was the addition of 3000 persons to the Christ following movement.
The Book of Acts marks the spread of the Gospel around the world by tracing the advancement of the baptism of the Spirit. Whenever the Gospel reaches a new people, the Spirit’s coming signifies the creation of a new Jesus community. Unlike in the Old Testament, in the New Testament all of God’s people receive the Spirit for empowerment and cleansing. 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 region.
In subsequent chapters, the Gospel advances through the work of the Spirit. This will be a recurring pattern. In fact, although the full name of Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles, a better title would be “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” We will now trace briefly how this narrative thread plays out in the rest of the book. In Acts 3, Peter and John encountered a crippled man on their way to the temple. Peter heals the man and boldly proclaims the Gospel in Solomon’s portico. This scene catches the attention of the authorities who then arrest Peter and John. In Acts 4, Peter and John appear before the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The Spirit fills Peter (4:8) and enables him to boldly proclaim the Gospel before the council.
In Acts 7–8, an intense time of persecution erupts against the earliest Christ following movement. However, human power cannot quench the Spirit. Instead of stopping the Gospel in its tracks, the persecution has the opposite effect of helping to advance the Gospel by pushing it out of Jerusalem into surrounding regions. This is an important insight for a missional reading. The arrival of persecution does not mark the end of Christian witness, but instead it often enhances Christian witness (e.g., Philippians 1:27–30). The persecution in Jerusalem forces Jesus’ followers to flee, but in the process, they are carrying the Gospel to new people and new places. The inhabitants of Samaria are the fist beneficiaries. Jews and Samaritans had a shared history but also much animosity with each other. This does not stop the Gospel. Acts 8:4–25 reports the missional work of Philip among the Samaritans. They receive the Gospel. Reports of the reception of the Gospel by the Samaritans make it back to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem. They appoint Peter and John to travel to Samaria in order to equip the new believers there. The believers in Samaria had received water baptism, but they did not yet have the baptism of the Spirit. Peter and John pray that God would send his Spirit upon the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit (8:15–17). The Spirit’s arrival marks the advance of the Gospel to a new place and new people.
Next the Spirit empowers the Church to bridge the cultural gap between Jew and Gentle. In Caesarea, the first Gentiles receive the Gospel (10:44–48). The book of Acts marks the acceptance of the Gospel by a new cultural group with a report of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the believers. In due course, the Spirit baptizes Jews (Acts 2), Samaritans (Acts 7), and Gentiles (Acts 10). This continues the fulfillment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). The gift of the Spirit is for everyone. The artificial boundaries of humanity dissolve: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.
God’s Spirit is the driving force in the expansion of God’s people from the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) to Paul’s house arrest in Rome (Acts 28). The early apostles and witnesses were open and sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings. For example, in Acts 8:26–40, the Spirit leads Philip (8:29) to engage an Ethiopian eunuch in a conversation that leads to the man’s conversion. The Holy Spirit fills Saul (9:17) after his Damascus road encounter with the Risen Jesus (9:1-9) and he becomes Paul. Paul’s encounter transforms him. He shifts from being a persecutor of the church to being the person whom God uses to carry the Gospel to the Gentile world. His journeys ultimately bring him to Rome.
Acts 13–28 describes the forward advance 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 narrates how the Spirit selected Paul and Barnabas to serve as ambassadors of the Gospel. We often think of Paul as a man with a driven personality. But Paul is not merely an ambitious and visionary missional leader; his exploits are the product of the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls Paul (Saul) and Barnabas to preach the Gospel in these new lands. Eventually, Paul and Barnabas separate to pursue different calls (Acts 15:36–41), but Paul continues to carry the Gospel to cities that have not yet heard the name of Jesus. Under the guidance of the Spirit (16:6–10), Paul leaves Asia Minor to evangelize Macedonia and Greece. Paul continues to proclaim the Gospel until Acts ends in Acts 28 with Paul preaching about Jesus in Rome, the capital of the empire. This is significant because it represents a partial fulfillment of Acts 1:8. The Gospel has now moved from Jerusalem, the spiritual center of God’s people from the time of David to Rome the center of the dominant empire of the first century.
Provocatively, Acts concludes in an open-ended fashion. Acts 28 reports that Paul arrived in Rome and lived under house arrest for two-years. During that time, he taught openly about the Kingdom of God and Jesus. Interestingly, the Book of Acts ends abruptly. The reader does not learn the outcome of Paul’s stay in Rome nor of any additional advance of the Gospel. Scholars do debate the ending of acts.[1] But is is clear that the reader is left to wonder what happens next. This invites the reader to create his or her own ending. In the absence of an Acts 29, we must imagine the next chapters in the advance of the Gospel and even to see our own day as part of the ongoing story of God’s people. The story of Acts 29 and beyond remains one to be written by Jesus’ followers today.
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.

[1] The issues turns on the meaning of “ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8 and the extent to which the Gospel reaching Rome represents the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent presentation. When we prayerfully wait upon the Lord's direction the work of building the kingdom continues.