As I had the privilege of leading the missionary trainees of To Every Tribe through the book of Acts I was once again reminded why it has played such a vital role in the lives of missionaries both now and throughout history.
In Acts, Luke recounts the powerful movement of God in which we see a band of 120 disciples gathered to pray in an upper room in Jerusalem mobilized to “turn the world upside down” with the saving power of the gospel. This is all set off by Jesus’ final words to the apostles just before ascending to heaven, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth,” (Acts 1:8). It is these words then that drive this narrative which covers about thirty years of history.
As we read this exhilarating story of Kingdom advance we cannot help but notice several important themes that develop.
Jesus’ words of Acts 1:8 come to fruition
The church and gospel message expand geographically from Jerusalem, throughout the Roman empire, and even to the heart of Rome itself. However, this advance of Christ’s Kingdom is not simply geographical, it is numerical as well. In fact, there are approximately 20 verses that indicate massive church growth (2:41; 2:47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1; 6:7…). Moreover, we also see how the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 come to pass in the gospel crossing cultures into a variety of people groups such as Jews (Acts 1-7), Samaritans (8:4-8), Ethiopians (8:26-39); Roman Gentiles (10:34-48), and Greeks (14:1) to name a few.
Witness driven gospel expansion is fueled by prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit
Directly after the ascension the early church was, “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer,” (1;14). From here we see that prayer permeates everything the early church does. They pray in their church gatherings (2:47). The pray for boldness (4:24). They pray that others would receive the Holy Spirit (8:15-17). They pray for missionaries they send out (13:3). They pray in prison (16:25). They pray for those in prison (12:5). They pray for newly appointed elders (14:23). They even pray for guys they appoint to serve tables (6:6)! Clearly, the spread of the gospel through the early church cannot be separated from their devotion to pray to the Lord of the harvest.
Furthermore, the witness and advance of the early church was empowered by the Holy Spirit (1:8; 2:4). In fact, it was the Holy Spirit that enabled their boldness (4:8). It was the Spirit that provided visible confirmation that a new people groups were entering the Kingdom of God (10:44-48). It was the Holy Spirit that enabled success in evangelism and teaching (11:22-24). And it was the Holy Spirit that set apart and sent missionaries from the local church (13:1-3).
Rapid gospel expansion happens in the face of opposition
The apostles and the early church were mocked (2:12), threatened (4:21); arrested (8:1-3); beaten (14:19) and even martyred (7:54-60). However, no amount of opposition could stop the gospel from moving forward and often times the Lord even used the opposition to thrust the gospel to new places (8:4; see also Paul’s missionary journeys).
It has also been said by many that Acts serves as a missionary handbook of sorts. This is very true, however, we must remember that Acts is a description of what took place and not a prescription for exactly how missionaries today must do all things. That being said we see that a missionary’s ministry is made up of primarily six functions.
6 Primary Functions of a New Testament Missionary
- Evangelize (Gospel proclamation and baptizing new disciples)
- Congregationalize (Bring disciples together to form local churches)
- Set the church in order (Lay a foundation of sound doctrine that leads to pursuit of individual and communal godliness)
- Appoint Elders
- Move on but remain available by pen, presence and/or proxy*
- Recruit/train/mentor new missionaries
In all we can see that Acts is not only a motivating and encouraging account for missionaries to read over and over again but it is also very helpful in distinguishing what missionaries are to focus their ministry on. Finally, the story of Acts leaves us with three important conclusions. First, the job is not yet done and therefore more missionaries are needed to complete the task. Second, just as in Acts, the local church is the vehicle through which the Lord has ordained to send those missionaries. Third, the success of the advance of the gospel to the ends of the earth is guaranteed.
*I am indebted to Jim Elliff (www.ccwtoday.org) for the phrasing of #1-5.