Acts

The heart of mission in Acts

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For over a century Westerners have been reinventing the gospel and mission with disastrous results.

Jim Hamilton helps blow away the confusion with a careful study of the central theme of the book of Acts. This is what he concludes on the gospel in Acts:

God’s justice is seen in his righteous reversal of the unjust condemnation of Jesus, in his just calling to account of those who perpetrated that crime, and in the proclamation that forgiveness of sins is available through Jesus.

Forgiveness is available through Jesus because Jesus has satisfied God’s justice in his death on the cross. Thus, the justice of God is of a piece with the salvation of God. God demonstrates his mercy by making a way for sins to be forgiven through the death of Jesus. Upholding his justice through the death of Jesus, God can extend mercy to guilty people who deserve only justice.

This mercy is offered to those who crucified the Messiah, and the redemptive mercy of God is put on display through the healings and teachings that the witnesses to the resurrection do in Acts.

God’s justice and his mercy balance one another. The justice keeps the mercy from becoming insipid sentimentality, while the mercy keeps the justice from crushing all with just punishment.  Justice and mercy serve a higher aim … for both display God and evoke the glory that God rightly deserves.

Jim Hamilton

Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts as one story told in two halves. 

Acts shows that at the heart of mission is the spread of the gospel resulting in disciples and churches to the glory of God.

Unhindered

 White websmall

Acts is a book about Jesus' gospel going through barrier after barrier as it breaks out into the world and into the hearts of men and women. It's about the church overcoming roadblocks and impediments, persecutions and trials as it grows and boldly proclaims Christ.

James Emery White

If like me you’re feeling discouraged today, take a few minutes to read this piece by James Emery White on the word “unhindered” in the book of Acts. Let it remind you that despite your limitations God’s Word continues to spread, grow and multiply. And wherever the Word goes new disciples and new churches are the fruit.

A word has captivated me for over thirty years, ever since I first stumbled upon its significance while studying Greek in seminary. It's unhindered.

If something is "hindered," it's held back, kept back, restrained. Something has gotten in the way, prevented it, stopped it. If something is unhindered, it is set free. It advances. It goes forward.

Unhindered has loomed large in my thinking for so long because of its unique place in the New Testament, and particularly in the book of Acts. The word is used twenty-five times in the New Testament, seven times in the book of Acts alone. Acts is a book about Jesus' gospel going through barrier after barrier as it breaks out into the world and into the hearts of men and women. It's about the church overcoming roadblocks and impediments, persecutions and trials as it grows and boldly proclaims Christ.

And it's about individuals who will not allow anything to stop them from being used by God to take Christ to the world. Let's take a quick tour.

Acts 8

In the eighth chapter of Acts we find a young man who was head of the Queen of Ethiopia's treasury. He has been to Jerusalem and was reading a portion of the book of Isaiah in his chariot. We don't know anything of his background, only that something had urged him to explore the Old Testament and the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Holy Spirit urged Philip, one of the apostles, to approach the eunuch and ask if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" So Philip explained how the prophecies of the Old Testament told of a coming Messiah, and that Jesus was that Messiah. But that wasn't all:

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:31, 36-38 ESV)

In the Greek, "What prevents me from being baptized" literally reads "What hinders me?" And the answer is nothing. This was a Jew witnessing to an Ethiopian. Crossing racial, ethnic, political boundaries.

The gospel was going out to the world. Then comes Acts 10.

Acts 10

Peter was given a vision that he should no longer be bound by Jewish dietary rules, that under Christ, the law had been fulfilled, symbolic of the gospel going not only to the Jews but also the Gentiles. Just after that dream, the Holy Spirit prompted Peter to visit a man named Cornelius who had asked for some time with him. Cornelius was not a Jew. He was a Roman centurion. At that time, it was against Jewish law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even to visit one. But the urging of the Spirit was clear. Do not show favoritism. All are to be accepted. All are to be reached.

So Peter went.

The centurion asked about Jesus. Peter told him, and Cornelius and his household gave their lives to Christ. But that's not all:

Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:47-48)

The sentence "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized" literally reads "Can anyone hinder" or "Can anyone forbid" or "Can anyone stop" this from happening? And the answer was no.

Acts 11

Now, we turn to Acts 11. Some people didn't like what happened between Peter and Cornelius. Apparently they hadn't got word yet about Philip and the Ethiopian, but this news had reached them quickly. In a hastily called meeting the church leaders asked Peter, "Is it true? You went to the house of a Gentile? You ate with him? And you baptized him?" The idea of the gospel of Jesus exploding outside of Judaism into the Gentile world was mind-boggling.

As disciples they knew that Jesus was God in human form come to earth to show the way, but they didn't quite get the scope of His mission. For them, He was the Messiah for the Jews. But that the Messiah was for the world was beyond their comprehension. Yes, Jesus crossed some pretty radical boundaries – there was, after all, that scene with the Samaritan woman at the well, and Zacchaeus was a bit sketchy – but did Jesus mean to unleash all this? Did He really come for everyone? Everywhere? So they took Peter to task, and Peter replied:

"As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." (Acts 11:15-18)

There is our theme: unhindered.

Acts 20

But there is one passage that captures this dynamic, at least for me, more than any other. It brought unhindered to my attention so many years ago. In Acts 20 we pick up the end of Paul's life. He had become a controversial figure on a number of fronts, but the bottom line is that where Paul went, Christianity went, and where Christianity went, the world was being turned upside down. Religiously, culturally, economically. Quite literally, riots broke out.

Paul had been beaten with rods, stoned, robbed, imprisoned, flogged and lashed. Now the Holy Spirit strongly urged him to go to Jerusalem, which was not a place Paul should go. It was the hotbed of opposition to everything he was about, which is why he had avoided it for years. And he knew what awaited him there. He was under no illusions about what was ahead:

"And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." (Acts 20:22-24)

We know that Paul went to Jerusalem, was arrested by the Jewish leaders under false pretenses, and during that arrest they tried to kill him. Some Roman officers broke it up and then bound Paul in chains and arrested him for inciting a riot. As they began to flog him for good measure, Paul told them that he was a Roman citizen, which was true. That meant he had to be released and stand trial. But the city was so embroiled that they had to put him in protective custody. There the Holy Spirit urged him to take his case all the way to Rome so he could proclaim Christ there too.

Through his obedience he not only brought the message of Christ to Rome, but while in Rome he wrote some of the most pivotal portions of the New Testament, including Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and, later, 2 Timothy.

Acts 28

But the book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome. However, that's not the final word. And I mean that literally. The final verses of Acts say:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)

In Greek, the adverb is placed at the very end. Though it's a bit awkward when put directly into English, it reads that Paul was "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness unhinderedly." And that's the last word of the last chapter in the book of Acts.

Unhindered.

From the Jews to the Gentiles; from Jerusalem to Rome.

And from Rome to today.

James Emery White

From James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons.

Persecution and Power

12385 I listened again to Steve Parlato’s account of their ministry in SE Asia and the price that new believers paid for following Jesus and telling others about him. It's a bitter/sweet story.

People went to prison, people disappeared, some were killed.

Today I spoke to someone working in the same part of the world. He immediately teaches new believers about sharing the gospel, getting baptised and persecution. I’ve never taught a new believer about persecution.

Brian Tabb has written a great overview of the relationship between persecution and the spread of the gospel in Acts.

He has identified five lessons, all still relevant today:

  1. Jesus’ suffering and vindication are the surprising means by which God accomplishes his promised plan of salvation.
  2. Believers’ suffering serves a strategic missional purpose in light of God’s inaugurated-not-yet-consummated kingdom.
  3. Suffering validates the legitimacy of the church and especially its leaders, who suffer like Jesus in fulfillment of his predictions.
  4. Suffering fundamentally expresses the world’s brokenness from sin and Satanic oppression.
  5. Believers should respond to suffering through concerted prayer, bold witness, and joyful, confident hope.

Brian’s article is a good resource for anyone who needs to help new believers deal with the cost of following Jesus.

Related: Factors in the growth of Christianity in China

 

Jesus will finish what he started

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Much of our discussion on mission in the west assumes Jesus delegated the task to his followers, and then left them to fulfil it.

Pick up any popular book on church growth, church planting or missional church, and the assumption is that we are the ones who have to work this thing out. The assumption is that there is always something we can do to "fix" things. Guess who's at the centre of the universe?

Luke has a very different view. If it was up to the disciples to take the gospel to the world, the movement Jesus founded would have run out of gas. Left to their own devices, Peter and Andrew would have gone back to their fishing business, and the others would have done likewise.

Instead it's the risen Jesus who picks up the pieces, he brings his disciples back together, he teaches them about the kingdom, and commands them to take the gospel to the ends of earth. He sends the Spirit to help them get there.

The book of Acts is first of all about what Jesus does. Even though he has ascended to the right hand of the Father, he is still active on earth.

Experiencing the reality of the risen Lord and surrendering to his leadership is the key to fulfilling our calling.

UPDATE: I've pulled the pdf article I wrote for this post. Michelle said it needed some more work and I agreed. It will be back soon.

UPDATE: It still needs some work but here's the latest version: Jesus still leads the way.pdf