READ : Acts 1:6-8
Christianity is a missionary faith. Christians want to evangelize the whole world, going everywhere and telling everyone about Jesus Christ. One reason is that this is exactly what Jesus told us to do.
Even after Jesus rose from the dead his disciples were slow to understand the full significance of that cataclysmic event. They realized once for all that he truly was Israel’s Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of God’s people. More than that, he was Lord and God, come to earth in human form.
But the disciples’ vision of Christ’s lordship was still narrow and nationalistic. They continued to think of the kingdom of God in terms of the political triumph of the Jewish people over their Roman masters. “Lord,” they asked the risen Christ, “are you going to give the kingdom back to Israel now?” They still didn’t get it. They thought Jesus was a nationalistic Messiah, that his triumph over evil, over the power of death itself, was only good news for their own people. But Jesus’ victory spelled good news for all peoples everywhere. His death and resurrection provide the possibility of salvation to everyone, no matter what their nationality or race. Christ is the Savior of the world, the hope of all the earth, the Lord of the nations.
So after his resurrection and before his ascension to heaven, Jesus set his disciples straight on this matter of the kingdom of God. These are the truths about God’s kingdom that Jesus taught his followers:
- The kingdom is universal in scope. It does not belong only to one tribe or nation. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s power, God’s salvation are offered to all peoples everywhere.
- The kingdom is spiritual in nature. It isn’t restricted to a territory or place. The kingdom of God isn’t like the kingdom of England or Spain. You can’t locate it on a map. The kingdom of God refers to God’s active, acknowledged reign over human beings and communities. God’s rule is present wherever Jesus rules as Lord in a person’s or a community’s life. This rule comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who uses the word of God to convince people about the truth as it is in Christ.
- The kingdom is gradual in its growth. Jesus’ resurrection was only the beginning. From that first handful of believers in Jerusalem, the kingdom would slowly spread throughout the whole world. Wherever the church of Jesus Christ is multiplying, the kingdom is on the move. Wherever Christians are truly living out their faith by loving God and serving other people the kingdom is coming.
- The kingdom is God’s to complete. He alone can bring it in. He alone will end the world and bring history to its conclusion at the time he has set by his own authority.
Now consider the specific instructions the Lord gave to the disciples just before he returned to heaven. They’re really a set of marching orders:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem. You will be my witnesses in all Judea and Samaria. And you will be my witnesses from one end of the earth to the other.
Notice that Jesus begins with a promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” When Winston Churchill addressed the American people early in World War Two he growled, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” The job our Lord has given us is huge – to reach the whole world with the gospel and make disciples of every nation, every people group on earth. Fortunately, he doesn’t expect us to do it on our own, by ourselves (not that we ever could!). Jesus promised us a resource more than adequate to finish the job he has given us. He promised nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a promise made to every one of his followers.
This promise is specifically linked to our responsibility to witness. The Holy Spirit’s power, though marvelous and real, is often misunderstood, even by many sincere believers. One of Ben Franklin’s proverbs talks about how to be “healthy, wealthy and wise.” I’m afraid that’s what many Christians think the Holy Spirit is intended to do for them. That’s wrong. The Holy Spirit is not given to make us healthy, wealthy and wise for ourselves. The Holy Spirit’s power is real. His presence is in every believer, for his power is what brings about faith in Christ. But during special times of revival the Holy Spirit also comes with a definite, visible impact upon the church, a special outpouring of power that is visible, obvious. And the Holy Spirit can, when he chooses, enable believers to perform miraculous signs and wonders, such as we see in the book of Acts. That is also true today. But the Spirit doesn’t pour out that kind of power just for our sake. It’s not primarily to bless us, or heal us, or make us happy. The Holy Spirit’s power is power for witness, power to draw attention to the gospel and convict people of its truth, power to communicate the word of God .
That brings us to Jesus’ central command: “You shall be my witnesses.” “My” is more than a possessive in that sentence. The disciples are not just witnesses who belong to Jesus. They are also witnesses who testify to and about Jesus. Many modern Christians seem to think that witnessing means primarily focusing upon ourselves, that what we’re obligated to tell is our own story. If I don’t have an especially exciting story, if, for example, I’m not an ex-drug addict or gang leader who was miraculously and instantaneously converted, then I can’t be much of a witness. But while there is certainly room for personal confirmation of the truth based on our own experience, witnessing in the New Testament sense is focused on Jesus, not us. To be a witness means to be able to faithfully relate the gospel facts and their meaning (see, for example, Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:22-38). It means to tell Jesus’ story, not mine.
In addition to his promise of the Spirit’s power and his command to be witnesses, Jesus offers his disciples a more detailed plan about how this is to be done. They will witness, or preach the gospel, he says, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Now this statement can be understood on several levels. In one sense, it’s a simple historical description. This is just how the gospel spread throughout the world, beginning from Jerusalem. You can also understand this pattern as the table of contents of the book of Acts. Chapters 1-7 tell how the preaching of the disciples established the church in Jerusalem and how it grew dramatically there during the first years. Then Acts 8 and 9 show the gospel advancing into the neighboring areas of Judea and Samaria. Chapter 10 is a transition telling how Peter first brought the good news of Christ to a gentile household. Then attention shifts to a new leader, the apostle Paul, whose missionary career throughout the great Roman Empire is described in the rest of Luke’s book. So it’s from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Roman world.
But it is also possible to see in Jesus’ statement about Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth a piece of strategy for us to follow, a three-part plan for witness to the world. The strategy begins with local outreach; Jerusalem stands for our home city, wherever that is. Naturally our first evangelistic efforts, our primary mission and service, is going to be invested there among family, neighbors and friends and our own cities and communities. Then Judea represents our country or region, the people with whom we share a common language and culture. Next, Samaria stands for neighboring groups from other ethnic, racial or religious communities, such as the Samaritans were for the Jews in the first century. So we also have to invest ourselves in reaching out with the gospel beyond “our own kind of people” to those who differ from us in significant ways.
But remember, finally, “the ends of the earth.” It’s easy to become so absorbed in our immediate work that we overlook those who are far away. What’s new and distinctive about our Lord’s strategy in this commission is his insistence on actively taking the gospel out to the nations of the world. The Old Testament too cares about all the nations. It foresees the day when the nations of the world will come to the Lord, but the emphasis falls just there – on their coming The prophet Isaiah’s vision is of the nations streaming into Jerusalem to worship the Lord (see Isaiah 2:2-4; 56:6-8; 60:2-3), but Jesus turns that exactly around. He sends his disciples from Jerusalem out to the ends of the earth! We have to take our message to the nations, not wait for the nations to come to us. It’s especially important for us to go all the way to the ends of the earth in order to share the gospel today with the many as yet unreached peoples of the world, those who still haven’t heard of God’s love in Christ. If we want to follow the strategy of Jesus, we cannot overlook a place or write off a people just because they’re hard to get to! That’s why our major effort at Words of Hope is to proclaim the gospel in places and languages that have the least access to Christian witness. Many others are broadcasting in “Jerusalem”; we want to reach the ends of the earth. Do you realize that there are living today at the end of the twentieth century more than a billion people who are not Christians for the most basic of all possible reasons: they’ve never heard of Jesus Christ?
If we really are going to take the gospel of Christ everywhere, we’ll have to be willing to pay the price that costs. I don’t mean just in dollars; that’s the least of the cost, and the easiest to pay. I mean the cost in prayer, and hard work, and sacrifice. Previous generations of Christians knew about paying that kind of price. The “ends of the earth” are filled with missionaries’ graves, and the graves of their children. Samuel Zwemer, the great Reformed Church missionary to the Muslim world, took his young family to the Middle East in the 1890’s. There were few of the customary safeguards then that we take for granted today and assume we must have before we travel or live in another place. Within a few years there, Zwemer lost his two young daughters to illness. What did he think then of his decision to go to that hard land with the gospel? A clue is given in the words he had inscribed on their graves. It was a phrase from the book of Revelation, referring to the Lord Jesus: “He is worthy to receive riches.” This too shows how the Holy Spirit gives us power to witness.
Do you believe that Jesus Christ is worthy to receive whatever we could possibly sacrifice for his sake – even if it is our dearest possession? Do you think we ought to offer ourselves, give up our comfort, if need be, our happiness, our very lives, for the sake of bringing the gospel of salvation to the nations?
The obvious question I have to ask myself is, “What am I doing?” What about you?