Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, writes that the risen Jesus told the apostles “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jesus thus commissioned his disciples to take the good news of all that he had done throughout the world. This mission was undertaken by the early church and its nature is recorded in Acts.
The restoration of Israel
Luke begins the Acts narrative in Jerusalem, the city at the heart of Israel, where Jesus ended his earthly ministry and where the disciples begin their mission, and ends his account in Rome, which was viewed as ‘the end of the earth’ in Jewish texts, (e.g. Ps. Sol. 8:15). Crispin Fletcher-Louis calls Acts ‘missionary historiography’ and says “it tells the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and expectations in the life of the earliest (Jewish) disciples of Jesus and then proceeds to describe the completion of the basic Jewish metanarrative with the mission of the disciples to the wider Jewish and then Gentile world.”
The apostles first task is to replace Judas Iscariot and in so doing restore the number of apostles to twelve. Eckhard Schnabel writes “that the restoration of Israel expected for the last days is now beginning.” In appointing twelve apostles, Jesus was redefining the true-Israel, with the apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The following Jewish texts reveal expectations that a restored Israel would lead to mission to the rest of the world.
13 11 A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth;
many nations will come to you from far away,
the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name,
bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.
Generation after generation will give joyful praise in you;
the name of the chosen city will endure forever.
16 For Jerusalem will be built as his house for all ages.
How happy I will be if a remnant of my descendants should survive
to see your glory and acknowledge the King of heaven.
The gates of Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald,
and all your walls with precious stones.
The towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold,
and their battlements with pure gold.
The streets of Jerusalem will be paved
with ruby and with stones of Ophir.
Tobit 13:9-17, NRSV
14 5 “But God will again have mercy on them, and God will bring them back into the land of Israel; and they will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfilment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendour; and in it the temple of God will be rebuilt, just as the prophets of Israel have said concerning it. 6 Then the nations in the whole world will all be converted and worship God in truth. They will all abandon their idols, which deceitfully have led them into their error; 7 and in righteousness they will praise the eternal God. All the Israelites who are saved in those days and are truly mindful of God will be gathered together; they will go to Jerusalem and live in safety forever in the land of Abraham, and it will be given over to them. Those who sincerely love God will rejoice, but those who commit sin and injustice will vanish from all the earth.
Tobit 14:5-7, NRSV
17 21 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king,
the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel
in the time known to you, O God.
26 He will gather a holy people
whom he will lead in righteousness;
and he will judge the tribes of the people
that have been made holy by the Lord their God.
30 And he will purge Jerusalem
(and make it) holy as it was even from the beginning.
31 (for) nations to come from the ends of the earth to see his glory,
to bring as gifts for her children who have been driven out,
and to see the glory of the Lord
with which God has glorified her.
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-31
There are similar references in the Sibylline Oracles, Book 3 (Sib. Or. 3:702-709, 710-720, 772-777). Jesus, the Davidic messiah, was restoring Israel and it was therefore necessary for the apostles to replace Judas. They selected Matthias, who had been with the disciples in the “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when [Jesus] was taken up” and was “a witness to his resurrection.” Schnabel explains “the early church claims to represent the eschatological gathering of all Israel by reconstituting the circle of the Twelve as the beginning of the restoration of Israel.” He goes on to describe the twelve as “the eschatological, true Israel” which “witnesses before the entire people of Israel gathered together in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and indirectly before all nations.” Israel is being restored and therefore the mission to the Gentile world is to begin.
The Feast of Pentecost was fifty days after Passover and was also known as the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest. Schnabel explains that Pentecost was “the celebration at the conclusion of the wheat harvest,” and was connected with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. At Pentecost, the disciples received the Holy Spirit, as Jesus had promised (Acts 2:1-13). The “sound like a mighty rushing wind” and the “tongues of fire” show a connection with the events at the giving of the law at Sinai. The law was given as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, and now the Spirit is given as the followers of Jesus, the eschatological, true-Israel, are about to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Schnabel calls the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost “the kairos at which Jesus’ disciples … began their missionary activity.” Jews from “every nation” are gathered in Jerusalem and hear the disciples speaking in their native languages. Peter addresses the crowd, quoting the prophet Joel, and telling them about Jesus. The Holy Spirit had given power and authority to Peter for preaching, and three thousand were added to their number. Many signs and wonders followed. The lame were healed, the sick were brought to the apostles and Luke records that “they were all healed.” As a result many more became believers, and were filled with the Spirit.
The disciples are scattered
In Acts 8, following the stoning of Stephen, Luke records that “a great persecution [arose] against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” As they were scattered, the disciples continued to preach the good news about the kingdom of God and Jesus.
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:14-17, ESV
Peter and John went to Samaria to bring the Holy Spirit to the new believers and the church continued to grow. The Spirit prompted a disciple called Philip to head south, where he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official, who was returning from Jerusalem. Philip, guided by the Spirit, was able to interpret the passage from Isaiah that the eunuch was reading. Philip led the eunuch to Christ and baptized him. Christopher Wright explains that it is uncertain whether the Ethiopian was a convert to Judaism or a god-fearing Gentile.
Wright says that “Luke undoubtedly saw in this event a fulfilment of the promise of God to eunuchs and foreigners in Isaiah 56.” Wright also notes the significance that “with this man’s conversion, the gospel reaches south into Africa, the land of Ham. It was already reaching the lands of Shem. And soon, under Paul, it would go north and west to the lands of Japheth.”
The effect of the persecution was that the gospel message was taken out from the centre in Jerusalem. Wright suggests “that Luke indicates the steady progression of the gospel, from Jerusalem Jews to Samaritans to a proselyte Gentile (the Ethiopian), then to a god-fearer Gentile (Cornelius) and finally to the real Gentile world of Greeks and other nationalities (Antioch).”
Proclaiming Israel’s God
Following the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, Paul, as he was now known, took the gospel message further afield, away from Judea and Samaria, to other regions of the Roman Empire. The good news preached by the apostles and disciples was that the God of Israel was king and there was no other god. This was in direct contrast and challenge to the message that Caesar was king and god. N. T. Wright adds that the gospel “is this Jewish message now crystallized as the news about Jesus, the Messiah, whom Paul announced as kyrios, Lord. And this subversive message could be proclaimed boldly and without hindrance.”
The message was not entirely without hindrance. In Thessalonica the Jews raised a mob against the believers with the charge that they were “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Paul travelled to Athens, where he preached about the “God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth.” Ultimately, Paul would take the gospel to Rome. N. T. Wright comments “for Luke, Christianity has taken on the traditional role of Judaism: it is the divine answer to paganism.”
The destruction of idols and false gods
In proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the one true God, it naturally follows that all other gods are false and their images are idols. In Acts 16, Luke describes how Paul delivered a slave girl from a spirit of divination. Paul spoke against idols and false gods in Athens, and in Ephesus he caused a riot when he spoke against the craftsmen who made shrines for Artemis. The temple of Artemis (also known as Diana) at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the centre of a fertility-cult of the mother-goddess of Asia Minor.
In Lystra, Barnabus was called Zeus and Paul was called Hermes by the locals who said “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Paul and Barnabus protested, claiming they were just men and called the locals to turn from such “vain things.” Their preaching turned people away from idolatry. Fletcher-Louis comments that Rome’s power is undone, not by the sword, but by the word.
Creating a new Jewish and Gentile community
Paul travelled extensively through the eastern regions of the empire. Luke records in the narrative what Philip Towner calls “unique developments in mission practice and theology”. Towner writes that “for the first time we read of extended periods of mission work, which lead to the establishment of churches in two significant cities, Corinth and Ephesus.” Acts 18 records that when Paul arrived in Corinth, he first preached in the synagogue, but he tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. He stayed in Corinth for eighteen months, and many “Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”
Paul began to face opposition and soon afterwards moved on and continued to travel around the region. When he returned to Ephesus he brought the Holy Spirit to the believers who had only received John’s baptism. He again began to teach in the synagogue for three months, but after facing opposition he preached to Jews and Greeks for a further two years. Jews and Gentiles became followers of Jesus and joined the community of believers in each city. Fletcher-Louis states the key issue between Jew and Gentile was table-fellowship. Would Gentile believers need to convert to Judaism in order that they may live together in community, or do the Mosaic laws no longer apply? In Acts 10, Peter had a vision that he should eat with Cornelius, a centurion and a God-fearing Gentile. Peter preached the gospel to his household and “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.”
As more Gentiles became believers in Jesus debate raged about whether or not they should be circumcised. A council of apostles and elders met in Jerusalem, and heard from Peter, Paul and Barnabus about the signs and wonders God had performed among the Gentile believers. The council decided to require the Gentiles to follow four regulations relating to food and sexual immorality. Joseph Fitzmyer writes that the reason for these rules was not to retain the Law in practice or symbolically, but so that “it enables Jewish Christians to have contact with Gentile Christians.”
The challenge for missionary and evangelistic activity in the Western Church
The missionary commission given by Jesus in Acts 1:8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” is still applicable today. Any evangelistic or missionary activity should begin with a call from Jesus to be a witness to his life, death and resurrection. This is the general call for all who believe in his name.
The follower of Jesus needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit for power, so that God can work signs and wonders through him or her, and for proclamation, to declare what Jesus has done and to announce the kingdom of God. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the follower of Jesus the specific call for where to evangelise and to whom.
The proclamation is the uniqueness of God and the good news that Jesus made atonement for the sins of the world. This uniqueness will inevitably lead to the destruction of false gods and idols. Persecution is to be expected, but not to be feared. The gospel message is a challenge to the world, but God can work through every circumstance. Persecution in the early church meant that the gospel was taken further afield and reached more people.
Paul demonstrated that mission based in a city for an extended period, built relationships and birthed a community of believers. Mission can see results from incarnational living among the people you serve and to whom you minister. This will require an understanding of the culture that is being reached, so as not to be divisive to the community of new believers.
In Acts, Luke records how the gospel message spread throughout the known world, and ultimately to the seat of power in Rome. The early Christian mission recorded in Acts has much to challenge the way missionary or evangelistic activity is carried out by the Western Church. The call remains for the follower of Jesus to be his witnesses to the end of the earth, going in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Acts of the Apostles, (Anchor Yale Bible 31; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).
Schnabel, Eckhard J., Early Christian Mission, (Leicester: Apollos, 2004).
Towner, P. H., ‘Mission Practice and Theology under Construction (Acts 18-20),’ in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, (eds. I. H. Marshall and D. Peterson; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 417-435.
Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H., New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, (1996).
Wright, Christopher J. H., The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, (Christian Origins and the Question of God; London: SPCK, 1992).
 P. H. Towner, ‘Mission Practice and Theology under Construction (Acts 18-20),’ in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, (eds. I. H. Marshall and D. Peterson; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 418.