by Cody Lorance
The pace of mission is characterized as much by waiting as it is by going.
THE PACE OF MISSION — ACTS 1:1-11
After six years of active ministry both in the United States and abroad, I moved with my young family to suburban Chicago, Illinois to study missions at a local graduate school. Shortly after arriving, we sensed God calling us to serve him as church planters in our new community and so we braced ourselves for yet another wild adventure of doing mission with Jesus. What followed, however, was not the thrill ride I expected; rather, it was several months of almost imperceptible progress during which my opportunities for ministry were exceedingly rare. Having been reared in the typical results-oriented North American church, I soon grew frustrated. I feared I was wasting time or doing something wrong. Moreover, I began to feel uneasy about raising support for our church planting project because it seemed like we were not doing anything worthwhile. I simply could not make sense of this time of relative inactivity, this time of waiting, until God began to speak to me from the book of Acts about the role of the Holy Spirit in determining the pace of mission—a pace characterized as much by “waiting” as it is by “going.”
Luke opened Acts by recounting Jesus’ final moments with his followers before he ascended into Heaven. In those moments, Jesus, speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit (1:2), emphasized the pervasive role of the Spirit in mission. First Jesus commanded the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit (1:4). He explained, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8). In effect, Jesus taught the apostles that they could do nothing to advance the cause of Christ in the world apart from the Holy Spirit. Notice that without the Holy Spirit, the apostles would not have had the power to do mission, known the course to take as they spread the gospel or known when to begin the work.
Today, although much room for improvement remains, missionaries and mission organizations are beginning to come to terms with the fact that mission can only be done as they “receive power” from the Holy Spirit and as they follow his divinely determined path. However, most are still far from understanding that mission must also follow the Holy Spirit’s divinely determined pace. We view the Spirit’s filling at Pentecost as a veritable starting pistol for mission and our job as a non-stop race to evangelize the world as quickly as possible. Pressure is placed upon missionaries by sending boards, supporters and especially the missionaries themselves to produce results. Consequently, slow-moving but otherwise promising projects are sometimes abandoned, new strategies are often implemented without regard to the Spirit’s leading and little, if any, room is granted for rest and waiting for power and direction from the Holy Spirit. It should be no surprise that many missionaries, myself included, become discouraged during periods of slow or negligible progress and worn out from trying to keep up with the intense pace of modern missions.
Contrary to this tendency toward busyness and stressfulness within modern missionary practice is the almost rhythmically changing pace of mission as led by the Holy Spirit in Acts. Luke portrayed mission in the first century as moving at times by sudden leaps, as when three thousand people believed at Pentecost (2:41), or when the word of God rapidly spread to everyone living in the province of Asia (19:10). At other times, however, the pace slowed or even seemed to stop altogether, as when Paul spent two years in the Caesarean prison (24:27), or in the days before Pentecost when, in obedience to Christ’s command, the believers waited in prayer and fellowship for the Holy Spirit to initiate mission (1:4, 14). By following the Holy Spirit’s pace for mission, far from experiencing frustration or burnout, the missionaries Luke described in Acts were encouraged by periods of rest, imbued with great power for ministry and sent out in triumph, spreading the word of God from Jerusalem to Rome. Essentially, Luke presented the Holy Spirit as the sovereign determiner of the pace of mission, leading his people into surges of mission advance and into seasons of rest and waiting.
WHEN THE SPIRIT SAYS "GO!"
The role of the Holy Spirit as the sovereign determiner of the pace of mission is presented in Acts foremost in Luke’s accounts of mission expansion. Early in the book, Luke laid out his agenda for tracing the expansion of the Church, from its inception in Jerusalem to its spread into the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth (1:8). With each stage of this journey, Luke emphasized the activity of the Holy Spirit to initiate the expansion.
Stage one. The expansion began in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost when about 120 disciples were suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to speak about the wonders of God in many different languages (2:1-4). The curious spectacle attracted a large, multicultural crowd to which Peter was specifically empowered to preach (2:5-11, 14). In his sermon, Peter declared that God had fulfilled prophecy by pouring out his Spirit on his people and thus enabling them to prophesy, see visions and dream dreams (2:17). Moreover, Peter proclaimed that the promise of the Spirit was available to all who put their faith in Christ. After Peter finished speaking, three thousand people put their faith in Christ (2:39-41). Continuing in the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles then went to work. They boldly preached, taught and performed miracles in Jerusalem, built up the new believers and saw daily people come to faith in Jesus Christ (2:43-47).
Stage two. Mission’s later expansion from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria was also brought about by the Holy Spirit, beginning with the Spirit’s involvement in the resolution of the Hellenist and Hebraist intra-church conflict (6:1-7). Here the Holy Spirit empowered seven men to perform compassion ministry among the Hellenist Christians (6:3). One of the seven was Stephen, to whom the Spirit also gave power to perform miracles and confound the members of the Synagogue of Freedmen who opposed the church (6:5, 8-10). Angered by Stephen’s power and wisdom, this group managed to bring Stephen before the Sanhedrin Council on charges of blasphemy against God and the temple (6:11-12). After Stephen enraged the Council with his speech, the Holy Spirit showed Stephen a vision which prompted him to call out, “I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (7:54-56). Upon hearing these words, members of the Council seized Stephen, dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death (7:58-8:1). In response to the “great persecution” which followed, thousands of Christians fled Jerusalem, taking the gospel with them and planting churches in Judean cities such as Lydda and Joppa, in many towns and villages of Samaria and even as far away as Damascus and Antioch in Syria (8:4, 11:19). Apart from the activity of the Holy Spirit, this persecution and subsequent scattering would have never come about, for Stephen would have never been seen as a threat to the Jewish leaders and would have never been able to see the vision that led to his martyrdom. As surprising as the means may be—the instigation of a great persecution—the second stage of mission expansion in Acts must be seen as having been initiated by the Holy Spirit
Stage three. The final mission expansion Luke records in Acts involves the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. Luke strongly emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit, perhaps due to the controversial nature of Jew-Gentile relations. Luke first recounted an episode in which the Spirit directed Philip to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch (8:29). Later the Holy Spirit commanded Peter to take the gospel to Cornelius and a group of Gentiles in Caesarea (10:19). Peter witnessed the Spirit falling on Cornelius and his friends, which compelled him to baptize them. He later convinced the Jerusalem church to embrace them (10:44-47, 11:18, 15:28). It is also by the filling of the Spirit that Barnabas was able to accept the Gentile believers at Antioch (11:22-24), and it is the Holy Spirit who initiated Paul’s first missionary journey into Gentile lands (13:2). Finally, further expansions into the regions of Macedonia, Asia and eventually Rome were all accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s direction and works of power (16:6-10, 19:6, 19:21). Obviously, Luke wanted his readers to understand that mission moved to the Gentiles only at the initiative of the Holy Spirit.
Missionaries in Acts moved with the gospel of Jesus Christ when the Holy Spirit said, “Go!” While this movement certainly addressed the needs of the world and resulted in thousands of new believers, it was determined neither by needs nor results, but only by the Spirit’s will as he set the pace for mission.
WHEN THE SPIRIT SAYS "WAIT!"
For missionaries in Acts there were both periods of mission advance and periods of seeming inactivity. This is perhaps easiest to observe in Luke’s extensive description of the ministry of Paul.
Paul became a follower of Jesus when in Damascus on a mission to arrest Christians. He was baptized there and filled with the Holy Spirit (9:17-19). He then spent a period of several days with the disciples in Damascus. He followed this by “some time” spent preaching and debating in the local synagogues (9:19-23). Persecution forced Paul to then flee to Jerusalem, where he again spent time preaching and debating with people who in turn tried to kill him (9:29). Fearing for Paul’s safety, the leaders of the Jerusalem church sent him back to his hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia (9:30). Luke does not say how long Paul was in Tarsus, but Paul’s letter to the Galatians suggests it may have been as long as fourteen years (Gal. 2:1). After all that time, Barnabas recruited Paul to help him strengthen the church in Antioch (11:25-26). It was from there that Paul embarked on each of his first three missionary journeys, the first two of which also ended in Antioch where Paul and his companions spent time resting (13:2, 14:27-28, 15:40, 18:22-23). The third journey ended with Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem (21:33). He then spent at least the next two years imprisoned in Caesarea, followed by some difficult months at sea during which Paul evangelized the people of Malta, and finally two more years under house arrest in Rome (24:27, 27:1-44, 28:7-10, 28:30). Paul’s periods of active ministry were interspersed with more than a dozen years in Tarsus, periods of rest in Antioch and extensive prison sentences. For Paul, waiting was as important as going in following the pace of the Holy Spirit.
Can it really be said, however, that it was the Holy Spirit who led believers into these times of relative inactivity? A brief glance at three examples in Acts will suffice to demonstrate that the Spirit does lead his people in this way.
First, we must look at the first chapter of Acts. Although it was Jesus who instructed the apostles “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father,” he did so “through the Holy Spirit” (1:2, 4). The very first period of waiting after the ascension of Christ was initiated by the command of the Holy Spirit.
The second significant period of rest came in the wake of the “great persecution” which arose after the martyrdom of Stephen. The Holy Spirit instigated this persecution in order to move the Church into regions outside of Jerusalem. However, the Spirit also graciously brought the persecution to an end. Through the infilling of Paul, the Holy Spirit turned the Church’s most zealous opponent into one of its most ardent advocates. This threat removed, the Church entered into a time of peace, during which the Holy Spirit provided much needed comfort for the believers in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (9:31).
A final example comes from the ministry of Paul. When Paul was at Ephesus engaged in ministry during his third missionary journey, the Holy Spirit impressed on him that he should “pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem” and, after that, to Rome (19:21). Some months later, having completed his work in Macedonia and Achaia, he told the Ephesian elders, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (20:22-23, emphasis mine). Paul was convinced of two things: (1) that the Spirit was leading him to Jerusalem and (2) that the Spirit was promising future suffering. As Paul made his way to Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit confirmed this message in Tyre and again in Caesarea, where the Spirit empowered the prophet Agabus to predict definitively that Paul would be arrested (21:4, 11). When Paul was imprisoned not long after arriving in Jerusalem it came as no surprise, for it happened exactly as the Holy Spirit had revealed. Nor did it cause despair or frustration on Paul’s part, for he knew that the Holy Spirit had led him to Jerusalem and was in complete control of the situation. Paul spent the next two years in prison with many friends attending to him in Caesarea—a Holy Spirit-initiated season of rest and waiting (24:23).
Finally, it is important to note the nature of these times of waiting. Unfortunately, it is not possible to know the details of each one, but in the descriptions that Luke provided, there are repeated themes of prayer, learning from the word of God and fellowship (1:14, 2:42, 13:2). Taken together, Luke indicated that the purpose of these times was primarily for the missionary to develop a more intimate relationship with God and to build up the Church in faith and unity. Thus, the times of waiting actually strengthened believers for the times of mission advance.
We have seen that in Acts the Holy Spirit often commanded Christians to go into the world and preach the gospel to the nations. At other times he led them into relatively inactive periods of waiting. For the missionaries in Luke’s account, faithfully following the Spirit’s pace of mission required that they pay heed to both. As they did, they found themselves not only engaged in a powerful and triumphant missionary movement, but also in meaningful and encouraging times of rest.
MAKING SENSE OF WAITING
As I have matured in my faith, my mission paradigm has been influenced by two major views of mission history. The first views history as an hourglass. Proponents of this view emphasize the appointed time of Christ’s return as signaling the end of all opportunity for salvation. Motivated then by a sense of urgency—for time is quickly running out—the missionary’s task is to evangelize as many people as possible before it is too late.
Although this seemed to make sense, my adherence to this philosophy eventually gave way to the influence of a second view that instead saw mission history as a task to be completed. In this view, the culmination of history is seen more as awaiting the completion of the Great Commission. The goal of mission, according to this second “task model,” is to finish the work as quickly as possible so that we can usher in the eternal Kingdom of God. Belief in both of these views led me to have a theory of mission that consisted entirely of advance and gave no respectable place for waiting. Naturally, when I found myself waiting after arriving in suburban Chicago, I felt I was wasting time and doing little of value for mission. Waiting simply did not fit into my mission paradigm.
In Acts, however, Luke presented a very different paradigm that focused on the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in determining the pace of mission. Missionaries did not respond to times of waiting by wringing their hands in frustration; instead, they lifted their hands in prayer, devoted themselves to learning from God’s word and strengthened each other through fellowship. Waiting seemed to make perfect sense for several reasons. First, knowing God was believed to be at least as important as serving him. Second, they were convinced that the times of waiting would lead to knowing the Spirit’s path for mission and to being empowered by the Spirit for mission. But perhaps most helpful to making sense of times of waiting for these missionaries was their belief that they were living in ordained days.
The idea of ordained days is a recurring theme in Acts. Luke first introduced it through the Apostle Peter, who gave several speeches that reflected this belief. First, Peter led the disciples in the days before Pentecost to appoint an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (1:16-25). In this speech, Peter was convinced that scripture was being fulfilled in their days. A few days later, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, Peter announced that the event was the long-awaited fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy and clearly believed that they were living “in the last days” (2:17). In another speech, Peter declared, “And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days” (3:24). Paul likewise believed he was living in ordained days.
In his sermon at Pisidian Antioch, he repeatedly spoke on how scripture had been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He would close his message by applying to his days the words of God in the prophecy of Habakkuk, “Behold, you scoffers, and wonder, and perish; for I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you” (13:41, emphasis mine). Even Paul’s messages in Lystra and Athens to Gentiles unfamiliar with prophecy were shaped by this belief (14:16, 17:26, 30). James also reflected this conviction when he explained at the Jerusalem Council that God had “made these things” which the Church was experiencing “known from of old” (15:17-18).
For the missionaries in Acts, mission history was not a race against time nor was mission a task dependent upon them for its completion. Instead, mission history and movement was the unfolding of God’s sovereign plan of redemption in their days. Its success was guaranteed in scripture and its completion dependent upon God alone as the Holy Spirit set the pace.
Therefore, times of waiting made sense. After all, God was working out his purposes and accomplishing his plan in every event, whether it be the launching of mission into Macedonia or the imprisonment of Paul in Caesarea. These missionaries knew they were living in ordained days.
After about six years of “going,” I found myself in a Holy Spirit-initiated time of “waiting” that did not make sense in my mission paradigm. Now, however, I am beginning to grasp the fact that I, like the first-century believers, am living in ordained days and that the same God I see at work in Acts is unfolding his redemptive plan in my context. The result of this revelation has been the experience of purpose, encouragement and empowerment in times of waiting. Other missionaries who find themselves in similar situations must also discover the Holy Spirit as the sovereign determiner of the pace of mission and follow him into times of going and times of waiting. As we all do this, we will find the Holy Spirit always leading us, whether in periods of rest or mission advance, toward the triumphal conclusion of God’s mission of redemption.
Cody Lorance and his wife Katherine, along with their two children, serve in the Chicago suburbs among South Asians and other peoples as church-planting missionaries with the North American Mission Board (SBC).
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