Early church

Unsettled by Acts

Still lost in the book of Acts. It feels like I'm reading it for the first time.

Two glaring disconnects between what we call "mission/missional" and the early Christian movement.

1. Words. Acts is built around the theme of the progress of God's word. The book is dominated by speeches. Only one of which is given to believers.

So why are we so reluctant to proclaim the gospel?

2. Movement. There's an urgency about the spread of the gospel in Acts. Whenever the disciples settled down, God unsettled them and they keep moving.

So why do we place such an emphasis on settled "missional communities"?

Two great commentaries on Acts

Still working on the next book about the movement Jesus founded.

Here are the two commentaries on Acts I keep returning to.

"The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary)" (David G. Peterson)

"The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary" (Ben Witherington)

Anyone else have recommendations?

What to do when you don't know what to do


Ever considered how haphazard the mission of the early church was? Jesus’ commission to the disciples was clear, but he has left behind no specific instructions on how the task is to be completed. There were no precedents for what they were trying to achieve. As the story of Acts unfolds, the followers of Jesus are making it up as they go.

The gospel moved out in ever widening geographic circles from Jerusalem. As it did, it reached people further and further from the heart of Judaism—Samaritans, Gentile converts and God-fearers, finally Gentile pagans with no prior interest in the God of Israel.

Here are just some of the lessons these early missionaries learned as they went.

God took the initiative. The missionary expansion of the Christian movement was not a natural process. There was nothing inevitable about it. Without exception, every major advance, every new breakthrough, resulted from God’s intervention.

The apostles were fearless in proclaiming the gospel in Jerusalem despite threats, beatings, imprisonment and even death. Peter and John joined with Philip’s mission in Samaria to consolidate the gains and take the gospel to unreached villages. Peter was engaged in other missionary work beyond Jerusalem. He was the key figure in the final acceptance by the Jerusalem church of the Gentiles.

The Twelve were active participants in the spread of the gospel. What is surprising is their lack of central control of the mission. It was Philip and some unnamed believers who lead the way in crossing cultural and geographic boundaries. They were not sent out by the apostles or the church in Jerusalem. They didn’t plan these missions. The mission came to them when they were unexpectedly driven out of Jerusalem by persecution.

God took the initiative to open new fields. He intervened to change the attitudes of Peter and the church in Jerusalem so that they could embrace the Gentiles as full members of the people of God.

God worked through his people. Many of the Diaspora Jews converted at Pentecost returned home and took the gospel with them. The message about Jesus filled Jerusalem and thousands were added to the church.

It was unnamed believers fleeing persecution who took the gospel to Judea, Galilee, Samaria, Caesarea on the southern coastal towns, Cyprus, Phoenecia and Antioch. This was not an initiative of the apostles in Jerusalem. These believers had not been given authority for this mission. They didn’t need it. The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas up to Antioch, not to control what was happening, but to add momentum to it. Many more people were added to the Lord, so Barnabas went to Tarsus to seek out Saul/Paul’s help.

God worked through the apostles, church leaders and ordinary believers. We hear the stories of Peter and Paul, but we also of Philip, Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Tabitha, and Lydia. The Holy Spirit worked through a variety of people.

God prepared responsive people. Jesus had trained his disciples to enter a new town looking for a “person of peace,” someone who would welcome the messenger and the message into their community. Cornelius was such a person. In Acts often the gospel spread through relationship ties. Other examples include Simon the tanner, the merchant Lydia in Philippi, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth. God had prepared each one to act as a bridge into their community.

God moved them on. There is a restlessness about the early Christian movement. Many of the new believers at Pentecost returned to distant lands where they shared their faith and formed communities of disciples. God scattered the believers in Jerusalem and they took the gospel with them to the Samaritans, to the Jewish diaspora and eventually to the Gentiles.

Whenever the disciples settled down, God unsettled them. Despite the success of the Samaritan mission Philip, Peter and John did not stay to pastor the new believers. They kept moving, just as Jesus had done. After their initial instruction, they left new believers behind who formed new communities of disciples and took responsibility to reach their region in depth.

Peter stayed with Cornelius for only a few days before returning to Jerusalem. The person most likely to the new church gathered in Cornelius’ home was Cornelius.

Next time you feel clueless, be encouraged. God is at work, it's not our job to be smart, but to follow and obey.

Jesus didn't wait


I’ve been away the last few weeks working on my next book about the mission of Jesus and the early church. Above is the proof that it was all about long walks on the beach with Saffie.

Here's what I'm learning about what Jesus' ministry looked like . . .

Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He walked from place to place looking for people—on the road, in the market places and in the local synagogues; in private homes, and in public places; by the lake, and in the Temple; at a wedding, and at a funeral; at a banquet with sinners, and a meal with Pharisees.

Where the people were, Jesus went. The good shepherd looking for lost sheep.

Jesus connected with a bewildering array of people. Religious scholars, dishonest tax collectors, unclean lepers, military officers, rulers and beggars, a rich young noble, a demonized pagan, hard working fishermen, wealthy women, shamed prostitutes and adulterers.

He taught and he debated. He listened and he asked questions. He rebuked and he forgave. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons and cleared the Temple.

He taught thousands on the hillsides of Galilee and conversed with a solitary Samaritan woman by a well. He preached in rural village synagogues, and to multitudes of festival pilgrims in Jerusalem.

Jesus went from village to village seeking people out, and thousands came from afar seeking him out.

Movements move.

"Shocking innovation" introduced by Jesus

The active, expansive missionary work among Jews and Gentiles carried out by the early Christian movement was a shocking innovation in antiquity.

Eckhard Schnabel

The spread of the Christian movement was not a fluke. Jesus intentionally founded an international missionary movement.

In just forty years the Christian missionaries had planted churches in the Roman provinces of Syria-Cilicia, Cyprus, Galatia, Asia, Mysia, Macedonia, Achaia, Cappadocia and Pontus-Bithynia; in Italy and Rome; in Dalmatia; on Crete; possibly in Illycrium and Egypt. Churches were planted in the major cities of the Roman Empire—Jerusalem, Damascus, Caesarea, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, Alexandria, and Ephesus. Those churches served as bases for outreach into the surrounding regions.

There's credible evidence that the apostle Thomas made it to India. Proof for Christians in India dates to the third century.

The early Christians were following the example set by Jesus to reach all the people in a region, whether they lived in cities or small settlements, regardless of social status or religious background.

How can we explain this "shocking innovation"? Without the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, without the coming of the Holy Spirit upon his followers, it makes no sense at all.

There's a restlessness about movements. Any movement that settles down ceases to be one.

Were there "insider movements" in early church?

A recurring theme in missiology is the question of whether a follower of Jesus can remain within the faith community of their birth. These expressions of faith are referred to as "insider movements."

Can a Muslim follow Jesus within Islam? Can a Buddhist follow Jesus as the one who completes Buddhism?

Is there such as thing as "Messianic Muslims" who remain within the mosque, as Jewish believers once remained in the synagogue?

Here's quote from Schnabel that sheds some light on the discussion:

In terms of their message, organization and missionary outreach, the new Christian communities became independent very quickly. As far as we know there was no synagogue in any city between Jerusalem and Rome that became totally "messianic" or Christian, or that tolerated Christian "division."

Why was this so? Were the Christians just obstinate? Yes and no. Schnabel says there were good reasons for the break with Judaism and the refusal to accommodate Gentile paganism.

The Christian faith and practice were the result of the conviction, propagated with energy and courage and the willingness to suffer, that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, that he died on the cross for the sins of the world, that he was raised from the dead on their third day, that he was exalted at the right hand of God, and he would return to establish the kingdom of God in a final and visible way.

These convictions . . . constituted a provocation, both for Jews and Gentiles.

Eckhard Schnabel, "Early Christian Mission Jesus and the Twelve" (Eckhard J Schnabel), 550-51.

Acts and the kingdom

The kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. So why does the book of Acts appear to neglect it? The term “kingdom” occurs forty-two times in Luke’s Gospel, but just eight times in his book of Acts. How could such an important theme to Jesus appear to almost vanish for the early church? The answer to this question has important implications for the biblical basis of our mission.

Want to learn more? Read my notes from Chris Green's article: The King, His Kingdom and the Gospel.

Or pick up a copy of Chris Green's book and read the full text.

"God's Power to Save: One Gospel for a Complex World?" (Chris Green)