by Daniel Holmquist
Once we have Acts 1:8 properly interpreted, it can stimulate local churches in “ends of the earth” missions.
Lancaster Evangelical Free Church’s story is one that shows God’s power in renewal, vision and perseverance. Five years ago we supported only a couple of missionaries at about one hundred dollars a month. God moved us from minimal involvement and financial investment to integral involvement and financial commitment. As a church, we sent out our first full-time foreign missionary couple, planted churches and developed leaders in a specific region of the world among a certain people group. God has given us a new heart—a heart for the world and for his expanding glory. We desire to be used by God to bless the world according to his promise in Genesis 12:3: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
What brought about this profound change? It came from our reconsideration of the standard interpretation and application of Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The prevalent understanding of this text among evangelical Christians involves concentric rings of mission endeavors. The idea is that we are to proclaim the gospel in our Jerusalem, in our Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. This seems to be the standard application of preachers, the typical motivational line of mission advocates and even the common understanding in our personal Bible study.
THE TRADITIONAL APPLICATION OF ACTS 1:8
Is the implementation of this concentric ring paradigm what Luke had in mind for his readers when he compiled the Acts of the Apostles? Probably not. Luke presents a much more compelling vision for missions than the typical evangelical interpretation grasps. In fact, the standard use of the text is not only inaccurate, but prevents us from fully living and loving the Great Commission, to “go and make disciples of all the peoples” (Matt. 28:19). We need to change our mission paradigm; we need to move further away from an individualistic application of this verse to a more corporate one.
Much is made about being an effective gospel witness in the believer’s own “Jerusalem” before attempting to reach one’s “Judea and Samaria,” and then again before attempting to reach “the ends of the earth.” Jerusalem is defined as one’s nearest geographical region and close natural relationships. The next ring includes those who share similarities, but with marked cultural or social differences, perhaps even a little farther away geographically. Additional effort is needed to build these relationships. The third ring is the true cross-cultural experience, or the “foreign mission” field. As churches, we often aim to develop ministries to each of the sectors in a similarly progressive manner, eventually completing our development with a balanced portfolio.
Mission strategies for churches are built on this concentric ring model of missions as though it was the intention of Acts 1:8. In reality, it is a construction we have imposed upon the biblical text. Our intentions are good, and this model seems to work for us. It is compellingly motivational and moves many to the mission field. It provides instant application to all who study and discuss it in their small groups. It also makes the passage easy to preach and immediately applicable. Although these purposes are understandably appealing, the model obscures the truest application regarding the mission of the Church. There are greater accomplishments to be attained. We search the Bible to extract the buried treasure of practical models, but often end up pragmatically using the Bible rather than learning and following its wisdom.
FOUR REGRETTABLE OUTCOMES
This popular teaching emphasis from Acts 1:8 tends to lead to at least four regrettable outcomes. We need to consider some of the unfortunate results of what has become our standard interpretation and application of this passage.
1. The standard viewpoint tends to create and sustain a bias to stay put, when Jesus said, “Go.” We end up focusing intensely upon local outreach efforts because we believe God has called us to minister where he has placed us. We become thoroughly absorbed (almost exclusively) in the needs around us. The “remotest part of the earth” gets the leftovers of our energies and resources. We re-define the Church’s mission in purely local terms for ourselves and our esteem.
2. We feel so overwhelmed by the first two mission categories that we pay little attention to the third. The gospel ministry is hard work. We work wholeheartedly and prayerfully to figure out how we might reach others with the truth and love of Christ. In our struggle with local outreach efforts, we may no longer feel competent enough to engage people cross-culturally and actually accomplish ministry. We never get to the ends of the earth because our faithful witness at home seems to be ever faltering. Simply put, we feel we cannot make a difference in other parts of the world.
3. We can quickly and easily lose perspective and vision. We no longer see what we are supposed to be seeing. This is because we are actually missing the very point of the text, and even the book itself. The point of Acts is to emphasize and give first-priority to frontier mission—to plant churches among the unreached people groups of the world.
Is Acts 1:8 really intended as a paradigm for personal evangelism circles, or even for individual churches to develop a mission portfolio? The idea of ministering effectively in our realms of influence is a good and desirable goal; however, in doing so we must not lose a sense of biblical priority.
4. We miss the corporate calling. As North American evangelicals, we tend to speak too much about the individual and personal, and not enough about the Church as a whole, or even the local church as a community.
SHIFTING TO A TRULY BIBLICAL MODEL
What changes can we make to move from this misapplication of Acts 1:8 to a church mission effort that will fulfill the challenge to the glory of Christ? There are four clear steps we can take.
1. Rather than perpetuating a bias to stay put, our churches should work to create and sustain a bias to “go.” Most people will live for Christ at home and will further the mission by sending out and supporting their brothers and sisters who go. Assuming that we should go, rather than assuming we should stay, would radically change our churches. We would find that many are being called and sent out from our churches. This revolutionary mindset would create excitement within our churches. We would find ourselves thinking, talking, organizing and strategizing quite differently. We would find new energy and renewed perspective for local ministry. The sacrifices demanded would also greatly increase, but God’s supply of our needs from his inexhaustible resources of grace would remain.
Many at Lancaster Evangelical Free Church are seriously considering if they might be called to go. We recently sent out one such couple (an elder and his wife), who set a pattern for others to follow. People are now talking about positioning themselves to be able to go. Many are pouring themselves into ministry and purposefully choosing to live by faith and not by sight.
2. Rather than being overwhelmed by the first two circles of mission, the last part of Acts 1:8 should energize our mission endeavors. This is what has happened in our congregation. Focusing on the unreached peoples of the world has provided the courageous faith and motivation needed for local and nearby missions. In the last five years we have sent about two-thirds of our adults on six short-term evangelistic church planting campaigns. At the same time, these efforts have led to increased and more successful gospel ministry at home.
We have purposefully designed each campaign so that all members of our church “go” in some sense; everyone is involved prayerfully and practically at some level. We do not just want to see those who go changed; we want every member of our church family to be changed. Every group meeting in the church becomes a prayer group for the duration of the mission trip. Children’s classes make witnessing bracelets. Others care for the needs of the families of those who are going. People are encouraged to sign up for a 24-hour prayer chain and a day of fasting. When the team returns, we schedule a night for story-telling. Team members give a report of praise to God for what he did in their own lives and in the lives of others. And we all rejoice together in what God has accomplished for his name.
We want our global vision to promote a “world Christian” climate in our church and result in similar church planting outreach initiatives in our own community. We have seen and learned much about the power of the Holy Spirit in prayer and proclamation. God has built within us a new confidence so that he can (and desires to) use the ordinary believer to do extraordinary things. Collectively, we have experienced 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” We anticipate an even greater local impact to come.
3. Rather than losing perspective and vision, our churches should rediscover Luke’s original emphasis. The emphasis of the verse is not on the “Jerusalem,” but on the “remotest part of the earth.”
The book of Acts was written by Luke as the second part of his Gospel account to show the advance of Christ’s kingdom by the Holy Spirit through the apostles and the Church. Jerusalem is impacted first by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and second by the subsequent preaching and witness in the city by the Apostle Peter and the Church. The “Samaritan mission” in Acts 8 was the gospel’s first great advance after Pentecost.
The Gentile mission begins here. Luke then shows further movement through the conversions of the Ethiopian proselyte and Cornelius, the God-fearing Gentile. The full-on ministry to the Gentiles begins in chapter 11 with the ministry of the Antioch church. The Pauline mission flows out of this and continues the progression. We, as the Church, are to continue the mission until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Gaining such a perspective is not that complicated. At Lancaster Evangelical Free Church, we began by studying the Pauline missionary journeys in the book of Acts, while at the same time integrating the epistles in order to see the true missionary context of the bulk of the New Testament. We should continually ask the question, “What then should we be doing?”
Acts 1:8 is not about everyone’s three realms of witness (Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, remote); it is about these actual historical transitions, which are now over. The apostles and the early Church completed the first two and started on the third. What remains is the really exciting part—the relentless drive to the mission’s end! Acts 1:8 is meant to rivet our attention on the “remotest part of the earth” section. Our mission ever since the beginnings of New Testament Christianity is to go to the ends of the earth and hasten the coming of that day by those Jesus purchased with his blood, “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
4. Rather than following our inclination to apply the biblical text to ourselves individually, we should first consider its meaning for the global Church. We should replace the question “What does this mean for me?” with the question “What does this mean for us?” We should turn the focus from the individual to the Church globally and locally. What if we saw our churches as local teams instead of as a collection of individuals trying to accomplish the Great Commission? Lancaster Evangelical Free Church has come to regard Acts 1:8 as being not so much about a personal mission, as about the group’s mission.
Our church came to realize that the traditional understanding of the text was far too personally focused. The words of Acts 1:8 were originally spoken to the apostles by the Lord Jesus; later, Luke used the words to re-commission the Church in Jesus’ name for its task. The Church possesses the same gift of the Holy Spirit that the apostles had. And the blessed Holy Spirit will bring about success and give courage to the Church for its daunting but holy task.
How this is carried out in each local church is the work of the Spirit through both the leadership and the congregation. We each have unique callings, giftings and graces. Our God will motivate and strategically involve each of us in his global plan. Most will not be going physically, but we must all go in spirit. We are to become “world Christians.” We must keep the global vision, promote it and become practically involved in its completion. Matthew 24:14 reads, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” We should ask the Lord what all this might mean for our respective churches. We can send out our best and most mature leaders, just as the church of Jerusalem gave Silas, Lystra gave Timothy, Derbe gave Gaius, Philippi gave Epaphroditus, Thessalonica gave Aristarcus and Secundus, Berea gave Sopater, Corinth gave Sosthenes and Ephesus gave Epaphras. In our church, our prayerful hope is that by God’s grace we will send out such full-time quality workers every two years. We have committed ourselves to pray large and move forward tirelessly, always remaining teachable to God’s direction and re-direction at all times.
Each individual believer should consider his or her own role and wrestle with God’s calling on us for the nations. We can be used mightily by God. Pray about it; involve the church in group prayer, for in this way we tend to be bolder, and we inspire one another to ask for greater things.
In conjunction with our first short-term evangelistic mission trip, Lancaster Evangelical Free Church began what we called World Christian Prayer meetings. Three opportunities were provided each week for people to get together and pray over the concerns and aspirations of team members going overseas. During the two months of prayer prior to the trip and during the ten-day mission, a great number of people joined together to pray. We learned to pray for spiritual and eternal requests of substance and glory. When the team returned and shared the triumphs of God’s grace, our hearts were thrilled. Currently, we get together as a congregation every second Sunday of the month and pray for the advance of the gospel around the world. It is a time of great joy and outpouring of passionate appeal. God is using this to continually stir hearts and raise up more laborers for his harvest.
Individually, we cannot complete the Great Commission, nor do many of us do very well in that which we do accomplish by ourselves. This group approach actually inspires and accomplishes much more in the personal realm in our churches as we all work together to increase our own spiritual health, maturity and usefulness in the mission of planting churches that reproduce. We have expanded our vision and looked at the bigger picture outside of ourselves. We are currently focused on a specific area in the world and are starting to ask how we can even better utilize all of our people and ministry resources.
We live in perhaps the most thrilling time in the history of redemption, when the gospel is actually reaching the very ends of the earth, and God is calling out for himself a people to worship him forever. Convinced that we live to serve the Lord God and his gospel, may we be willing to take great risks for his glory among all peoples, and let us yearn to see their full enjoyment of him. Let us go to the very ends of the earth!
Daniel Holmquist has served as senior pastor of Lancaster Evangelical Free Church in Lancaster, California since 1999. He previously served as Christian education minister of Western Springs Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois for eight years.
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