Throughout the Bible we see defining moments that God uses to set into action a person or event or perhaps completely change the dynamics of a situation. This can be seen in Moses’ encounter with the burning bush (Ex. 3), Jesus’ baptism (Mt. 3), and the conversion of Paul (Ac. 9). In each case, God used a moment in time to show His power and set the person involved on his path of destiny. In Acts, we find numerous examples of defining moments which revolve around a new a revolutionary movement-mission to the Gentiles. Looking at the previous scriptural narrative contrasted with the Acts movement, one cannot help but see the enormous change that occurred within a relatively small amount of time. As we will see, the concepts of mission and its practice in the Old Testament and ministry of Jesus seem underdeveloped and forward looking to the events of Acts. Moreover, we will look at the motivating factors that caused such a dramatic change and see the new attitude reflected in the speeches of Paul and Peter.
Views of mission in the O.T. and Gospels
In the Old Testament, we see the development of two major concepts of mission, Centripetal, Israel is the center of the world with the nations flowing to them; and Centrifugal, the Word of the Lord will be carried out to all nations. Examples of centripetal mission include Naaman,# the Queen of Sheba,# and Ruth ; not to mention the Temple located in Jerusalem, which represented the presence of God for the world.# On the other hand, one has a little difficulty finding good examples of centrifugal mission in the O.T. There are no clear examples of this being practiced by the Israelites on a consistent or significant plain. There are, however, isolated examples of centrifugal mission in the O.T. Jonah may be one of the clearest examples of this, but he can also be viewed as greatly resisting the notion of going to the nations.# Still, in Jonah we see God’s concern for the nations outside of Israel,# “The Lord’s willingness to save Nineveh shows that his hesed (‘covenant love’) cannot be predicted or confined to Israel.”# Further, in Isaiah we see three expressions of Isaiah’s activity in mission. First, is his understanding and use of justice. This involves judgment, politics, and the servant’s establishment of a government. Secondly, Isaiah develops a theme of the covenant for the people. This covenant is universal and will be inclusive to all people not just the nation of Israel; “…the Lord announces that he is ready to expand the ranks of the covenant community (56:3-8). He opens the doors of his temple to foreigners and eunuchs, both of whom were previously excluded from the worshipping community (Deut. 23:1-8).”# And finally, the servant is to be a “light for the gentiles.” This encompasses the worldwide mission that God had planned for Israel to fulfill. George Peters outlines three truths that surround this mission: (1) Their mission is God-appointed, (2) It is God-centered, and (3) It is a mission to the nations (cf. Isaiah 40:5; 42:1, 6-7, 10; 45:22-23; 49:6, 26; 51:4-5; 52:10, 15).# Thus we see that the plan of God is that missions be two headed, both centripetal and centrifugal. This means that the missions approach must be contain both; one must be “salt and light” to attract the attention and respect of the lost, and then they must use the Gospel to explain the love and grace of God.
Here, in the N.T., we see the beginning of the coming Kingdom of God that is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God announces His mission and institutes a new covenant. This covenant will include the whole world, Israel as well as the Gentiles, as Jesus brings the realization of the Gospel to the forefront; “Jesus introduced an entirely new theme: the gospel was no longer a future hope but a present reality full of eschatological significance.”# It is this present reality and eschatological marker that was announced by Jesus (Lk. 4:16-21) and preached by the Church (Ac. 2:14-36). Though Jesus is the initiator of the New Testament’s missionary explosion,# it is interesting to note that Jesus himself was not actively involved among the nations in His ministry. Jesus is clearly pictured in the Gospels# as focused, almost entirely, on the Jews and seeing them turn to salvation, as Glasser points out, “he deliberately confined his mission to “the lost sheep of Israel” and asserted that this limitation had been defined for him by his father (Matt. 15:24).”# Ferinand Hahn lists four attempted solutions to this idea: (1) The Gentiles were entirely outside of Jesus’ ministry horizon. (2) Jesus was the “first missionary to the Gentiles” because he demonstrates a positive attitude to them in his interactions with them. (3) Jesus limited himself to Israel, but envisaged and commanded a universal mission after his resurrection. And (4) Jesus confined himself to Israel with the idea that the salvation of the
Gentiles was “God’s own action in the last days” and this mission was not on the disciple’s horizon until after the resurrection.#
It is my conclusion, then, that Jesus was ultimately and supremely concerned with the salvation of all the nations, but that his ministry was purposely limited to Israel until his resurrection. Even then, Christ’s mission was not to the nations, rather he commissions the church to wait for the Holy Spirit, then take His Gospel to the nations.# Further, the outpouring of the Spirit would have been seen as a distinctive marker of the eschaton and thus a rallying cry for worldwide mission, “Thus…Jesus [envisages] the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles as a part of the eschaton…”#
In Acts, we see three distinct theologies that contribute to the larger theme of this emerging missions focus. This includes the disciples’ Christology, Pneumatology, and Eschatology. Each is dynamically and fundamentally linked and can be viewed rather progressively as the doctrine of the Sprit emerges from their Christology, and how the new revelation of the Spirit leads to the realized fulfillment of the prophesies.
The Christology of the church in Acts was obviously developing. With the dramatic events of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the apostles were likely still overwhelmed from it all and just beginning their reflections of Christ’s ministry. Now the apostles must continue the ministry of Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, however, the apostles add to their kerygma teaching on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Taking this newly developing kerygma very seriously, the apostles set specific standards for the man who was to replace Judas the betrayer. In chapter 1, Peter makes the connection to the gospel in his speech, in that, he makes it a requirement that the replacement apostle be able to act as an eyewitness of the gospel (e.g. that he be able to be a witness of Christ’s life from baptism to His resurrection).
Now, in Acts 2, the impetus of mission comes by the Holy Spirit through the church in the dramatic narrative of Acts. Here we see the dramatic initiating event of the Church, the Day of Pentecost. This event carries significant theological meaning, as “Pentecost both consummates Easter and represents its fullness.”# At this moment salvation history took a dramatic turn as God chooses to work through the body of Christ rather than particularly working through the Israelites. We also understand this event as it “stands uniquely within an eschatological context.”#
The concept of the end being a present reality must have stunned the apostles. With all the elements in place (e.g. the Messiah and the Spirit) as fulfillments of prophesy, the obvious next step must have been to see the salvation of the Gentiles as the final fulfillment of Jesus’ words.# Working to see those words fulfilled, the suggestion is that the apostles expected the end of time to be consummated in their lifetime. What’s more, later writing and attitudes concerning the eschaton seem to be surprised at its delay, but hopeful for its soon arrival.
Turning our attention now to the speeches, we will examine each one in hopes of seeing the development of this universal inclusion of salvation that begins (at least in its fullness) here in Acts. First, we see the final words of Christ given to the apostles just before His ascension. This discourse holds within it all three of the great theological developments that Acts presents; Christology,# Pneumatology,# and eschatology.# Moreover, here Luke presents the Christian community with the commission to witness about Christ “to the farthest parts of the earth”# In doing so “Luke presents the theme for the entire book. This text contains the promise of Pentecost and the mandate to witness for Jesus in the following geographical areas: Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and the world.”#
The geographical references may be of interest. The assumption made here is that Jesus posits a missionary strategy to spread the gospel in ever widening circles until the whole world has heard the Gospel.# The ends of the earth here may be seen as either Rome or Spain. While Spain would have been understood as the furthest west, and thus the ends of the earth there is also evidence that Ethiopia was also considered to be on the extremity of the earth.# However, it seems that Luke may be developing the narrative towards Rome as the ends of the earth for “in Acts, he focuses on Rome as the destination of Christ’s gospel. From Rome the Good News reaches the entire world.”# And it is in Rome that Luke concludes his narrative with Paul establishing his ministry in the city.# Regardless, of the implied destination the pattern seems to be followed rather closely as “[…] the geographical references in v:8 are programmatic for development of the story in the rest of Acts.”# Thus, we see the preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem and Judah (chapters 1-7), in Samaria (chapter 8), and to the ends of the earth (chapters 13-28). Therefore, if Luke is developing the narrative as taking the Gospel to Rome, he does so by following the pattern that Christ spoke in 1:8.
In chapter 2, we find the initiating event of the church as the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples in a dramatic and exciting way. The event is charged with a theological explosion of pneumatology and eschatology. The outpouring of the Spirit was seen as a distinctive marker of the eschaton and this event is seen as fulfilling prophesy. Two significant prophesies must be considered here, one is declared by Peter in his speech the other is implied. Beginning with the implied prophesy, we see that the apostles could have seen the manifestation of the Spirit in the “violent wind” as related to Ezekiel’s prophesy on the restoration of Israel.# Further, “the wind was held to symbolize the spirit of God,” and its possible allusion by Jesus in John 3:8 could relate again to the Ezekiel prophesy.#
While the disciples would have likely recalled this prophesy, Peter only refers to the prophesy of Joel# in his apologetic. The interpretation of Joel’s prophesy indicates a strong use of Pesher as the interpretative method. This shows Peter’s understanding of the event, as it relates to prophesy, and a realized eschatology on Peter’s part. This is seen in the use of Pesher as he develops this two fold interpretation of the passage; what is fulfilled and what is yet to be fulfilled.#
Nevertheless, caution must be given when assuming that the Day of Pentecost and the resulting speech automatically indicate a universal mission. Though Peter preaches to men “from every nation under heaven”# the text identifies them as Diaspora Jews or possibly proselytes. Thus, as Bruce notes, “The people who heard the sounds on this occasion, however, were not Gentiles but Jews and proselytes; the evangelization of Gentiles was a revolutionary development, recorded with a fanfare of trumpets, at a later stage in the narrative of Acts. Yet those ‘devout’ visitors are apparently considered by Luke to be representatives of the various lands from which they had come”#
Though not completely universal just yet, the speech represents both the initiation of the missionary movement and its effectiveness (v:46-47), especially when observed from the standpoint of the ever widening circles of evangelism that Luke presents.# Nevertheless, in Peter’s speech we see “The ambiguous declaration […] (‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’) [which] emphasizes the universal character of the gospel and thus anticipates the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Christian community…”# Further, “Peter uses the last verse of his quotation from Joel’s prophesy as an introduction to his explanation of Christ’s gospel (vv. 22-36) Paul cites this same text in his discussion on salvation (Rom. 10:13)”# Thus, it would appear that Peter (and the community) fully anticipates the inclusion of the Gentiles in salvation as fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy and other prophesies from the Old Testament. Interestingly, while Peter must see the eschatological significance of this event and understand that the Gentiles will be included in salvation, he does not seem to realize fully what God is doing until God gives him a vision in chapter 10. Nevertheless, the Gospel is spreading throughout the region, as Christ said, and then turns to the Samaritans.
Though hated by the Jews,# Christ seems to demonstrate a very positive attitude towards the Samaritans. Jesus is seen interacting with the woman at the well# and even using a Samaritan as an example of love and compassion, traits that Jesus indicates are lacking from the religious Jews.# In Acts 8, we see the progression of the Gospel to these Samaritans. Phillip seems to be the central figure, but John and Peter are also involved in preaching to the Samaritans. From that ministry to the Samaritans, God uses Phillip to bring the Gospel to an Ethiopian, who accepts Jesus and is baptized. Bruce notes that “…with the record of his conversion Luke has begun to touch on the evangelization of the Gentiles--a subject specially dear to his heart. The Ethiopians were regarded […] as living on the edge of the world […] So soon after the risen Lord’s commission to his disciples had their witness reached ‘the end of the earth’ (1:8)”# What’s more, this account provides us with an amazing picture of God’s mercy and love for all people. Being an eunuch this man was not permitted full access to the temple according to the Law# ( though “the removal of this ban is foreshadowed in Isa. 56:3-5”).# Seeing as how this man was likely a Jewish proselyte, exclusion from the temple must have been embarrassing and aggravating as he would not have been permitted to worship God. However, what the Law excluded, the Gospel included
and “through baptism, Phillip accepts the man into the membership of the church. Note the parallel of Peter accepting Cornelius and his household.”#
In chapter 11, we finally arrive at the first fully developed idea of Gentile salvation in the book. Here Peter’s speech is a defense# (following the form of “judicial rhetoric, offering a defense through narration”)# of his witness to Cornelius’ household (in Acts 10). The speech also has an element of exhortation, as Peter persuades them that God has chosen to save the Gentiles and that it is part of their mission to evangelize the “unclean.” Peter uses the lesson he learned from the vision# to explain to the Jews that God is now working in what they had previously considered the “unclean” (namely the uncircumcised; “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (v:9 and 18) Moreover, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as the initiator# and the One who validates the Gentile’s conversion by speaking in a vision to Peter (v:5-10), sending for Peter and telling him to go without hesitation (v:13-14, 12), and baptizing the house of Cornelius (v:15-17). “This emphasis on God’s initiative in sending the Spirit upon these people brings to realization the line from Joel in 2:17.”# The result of the speech is that the Jews accept that God is giving salvation to the Gentiles (v:18) and they accept Peter’s action in going to Caesarea. This speech is critical to the newly forming missions movement. Further, it is pivotal to the early
church’s understanding of salvation for the whole world, “accordingly, the Christian church now consists of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.”#
Though the church in Jerusalem had “ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles”# there arose yet another issue related to the acceptance of Gentiles into salvation. Given the statement above from chapter 11, one would assume that the issue had been settled. However, some Jewish Christians from the “sect of the Pharisees” (15:5) were objecting to the Gentile conversion without them being circumcised. They wanted the Gentile converts to observe circumcision and the “Law of Moses.” (v:5 and 1) Paul and Barnabas had “great dissension” with those who were teaching this (v:2) and “the brethren” elected them to go to Jerusalem to refute this idea (v:2). Luke sees this event as “epoch-making,”# one of the most important decisions and/or event recorded in the book.
Once in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas related their experiences with the gentiles to the council, with the impression that God was working in them as He had with Cornelius in chapter 11 (v:12). Now the leader of the church in Jerusalem speaks, James’ speech is the summary and charging speech in this episode. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas have already proven that God has accepted the Gentiles and that circumcision was not necessary, thus, James takes the stage to settle the matter and drive to a result. Further, “James speech has been recognized as taking the form known to the rabbis as a y lamm denu response, in which an appeal is made to scripture as confirming what has been said or done already and what is about to be decided.”# Thus, the prophesy in Amos 9 is quoted by James to give credibility to his statement and to once again emphasize the eschatological nature of their movement. As a result of the speeches, the council resolves that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised to be saved nor do they have to follow the Law. There are however, certain moral codes that are required of the Gentile converts that will help them live peaceably with their Jewish brothers (v:20 and 29). The council requires the Gentile believers to stay away from idolatry and immorality as well as to avoid eating blood, “a regulation that preceded the Law of Moses (Gen. 9:4).”# “Notice, then, that the letter is silent about the matter of circumcision […] Nothing is said about the ceremonial laws which the Jewish Christians continued to observe. And no reference is made to keeping the Sabbath […] The essential part of their salvation is their faith in God.”# Finally, the actions of sending the letter and the four missionaries (Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas) prove to be essential to Salvation History. Now the focus of Acts is on Paul and the missionary movement.
Paul, will contribute greatly to the discussion of Gentile salvation and his role in seeing them come to a knowledge of Christ. In Acts 9:15; 13:44-52; 22:21; 23:11; 26:15-18; and 28:23-31 Paul defends his mission to the Gentiles by either quoting the scriptures or quoting Jesus’ words to him (especially Jesus’ words in the conversion experience in Acts 9). It is thus, Jesus who is the major factor in Paul’s view of universal mission. More often than not, Paul refers to the words of Christ spoken to him as a basis for his ministry (9:15; 22:21; 23:11; and 26:15-18). Paul then, motivated by Christ, as apparent in his conversion, goes to the Gentiles with the Gospel. Therefore, Paul’s enthusiasm seems completely dependant on his Christology, as opposed to Peter
who incorporates eschatology and pneumatology as theological elements in his development towards seeing Gentiles come to salvation.
I set out in this study trying to determine what cause(s) there were to the radical change of attitude concerning mission. As we have seen, there seems to be a complete lack of mission zeal for the Gentiles before Acts. Sporadically, through Jonah, Isaiah, the Pharisees#, and Jesus do we see a concern for them, but not until Acts 10-11 and 15 do we find a truly developed concept of Gentile mission. The causes of this are still rather mysterious to me, “it is never easy to do justice in an analysis of motivations. They are not singular but become dynamic in constellations.”# However, I have definitely narrowed it to three broad theological concepts; Christology, Pneumatology, and Eschatology, but none of these really presents itself as the main cause. The leaders, Peter and Paul, seem to have completely different mindsets and goals though they intersect for a brief narrative moment in Acts 15. Nevertheless, nothing really emerges from their speeches. Assuming that they did indeed act in such a dramatic way, motivated by a rather dormant theology/theologies, it seems only reasonable that their actions (and the actions of the church) came from the dynamic working of the Spirit; it is through the Spirit that the exaltation of Christ is confirmed and the eschaton commenced. The assortment of theological understandings (Christ’s death, atonement, and resurrection, as well as, the eschaton) were illuminated and empowered by the Spirit in such a way that God’s purposes from the beginning (namely revealing Himself to the whole world) were unhindered by ethnocentrism and/or self-righteous Laws (Ac. 11 and 15). It is the Spirit that empowers witness of Christ for the Apostles (1:8). It is the coming of the Sprit that initiates the movement and marks it as an end time phenomena, as well as sends the Gospel to men “from every nation under heaven.” (2:5) Further, it is the Spirit that includes Samaritans (8) and Gentiles (10-11), and validates them within the community through the same sign given to the apostles on the Day of Pentecost.# It is this Spiritual community, defined by faith in Christ and the fullness of the Spirit rather than observance of Laws and circumcision that it upheld and accepted in Acts 15. Or as Glasser notes, “The fundamental characteristic of this new Christ-confessing community was that all its members received the gift of the Spirit.”# It is this gift that still today unifies our faith in Christ and empowers us to live our life demonstrating the love of Christ to the world. Just as the apostles were likely provoked to mission, so also should we be driven to evangelize the world motivated by our love of Christ and thankfulness for His mercy, with a sober view of the end times, and with the power of the Spirit.
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Chisholm, Robert B. Jr. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002
Glasser, Arthur F., et al. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Hahn, Ferinand. Mission in the New Testament. Studies in Biblical Theology #47. London: SCM, 1965.
Haley, Henry H. Halley’s Bible Handbook. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Kee, Howard C. Good News to the Ends of the Earth. The Theology of Acts. London:
Kistemaker, Simon J. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990.
Knight, George W. The Layman’s Bible Dictionary. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1997.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission. New Studies in Biblical Theology 11. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001.
Peters, George W. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody, 1972.
Soards, Marion L. The Speeches in Acts. Their content, context, and concerns. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995.
Wagner, Peter C. Blazing the Way. A New Look at Acts--Sharing God’s Power Throughout the World. Acts of the Holy Spirit Series. Vol. 3 Ventura, Cal: Regal, 1995.
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