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What in the world should the church be doing as we face a new millennium? Jesus' missionary mandate, which is a preview of the content of Acts, gives us the answer: You will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth (1:8). The entire preface so undergirds and clarifies this command that we are led not only to the conviction that Acts must be viewed from a missionary perspective but to realize that we too must find our places in fulfilling that mandate, which is also a promise.
Luke's review of his gospel stresses comprehensiveness: all that Jesus began to do and to teach (v. 1). It also provides forward-looking continuity with the second volume: presumably Acts will report what Jesus continued to do and teach (as in 2:47; 9:34; 14:3; 16:14; 18:10).
The review focuses on Jesus' postresurrection preparation of the apostles to be authoritative guarantors of the truth of his resurrection and the gospel's content. Luke notes that the risen Lord instructed the apostles whom he had personally chosen through the Holy Spirit (Lk 6:13), thereby emphasizing the authoritative link between the words and work of Jesus and the message and mission of the church.
Jesus qualified the apostles as guarantors of the truth of the resurrection by appearing to them repeatedly over a period of forty days (Acts 1:22; 10:41-42). The many pieces of empirical evidence could lead to no other conclusion than that he was alive.
During his postresurrection appearances, Jesus spoke to the apostles "things pertaining to the kingdom of God." "Kingdom of God" became for Luke a shorthand phrase for the content of the early church's preaching (see 8:12; 19:8; 28:31). And rightly so, for the final reign of God has arrived "in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to proclaim these facts, in their proper setting, is to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God" (Dodd 1964:24; Is 33:22; Zech 14:9; Lk 11:20).
The importance of such continuity for Luke's evangelistic purpose and the church's fulfillment of its missionary mandate cannot be overestimated. Here is the proof that a gospel message that claims to go back to the apostles can be trusted: the apostles received it from Jesus. Here too is the clearly articulated basis for belief that the gospel's key salvation event has actually happened. The empirical evidence of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances point steadily in only one direction: Jesus is alive! We can boldly and unashamedly invite unbelievers to hear our witness and consider the evidence.
Luke's review climaxes with Jesus' command to wait for the Holy Spirit's coming (1:4-5; see also Lk 24:49). Jesus gave this instruction on a number of occasions (not only one, as in the NIV).
Luke understands the Spirit's baptism as occurring at Pentecost. It is a foreshadowing of the end-time deluge of the Spirit and fire (Is 66:15; Ezek 36:25-27; 39:29; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:1-13). "The future encounter with God's Holy Spirit-and-fire will be like an angry sea engulfing and sinking a boat, or like a massive surge of flood water suddenly sweeping down on a man as he attempts to cross the river and overwhelming him. It will be immense, majestic and devastating" (Turner 1981:51). This coming baptism, then, is to be an overwhelming eschatological experience of God's Spirit. It is unique, unrepeatable in church history.
Jesus promises that in a little while God will supply the church with all the resources it needs for fulfilling its missionary mandate. Lloyd Ogilvie observes, "We have been instructed in the things Jesus did, but know too little of what He continues to do today as indwelling Spirit and engendering power" (1983:26). Christians who have not done so need to appropriate the power that is already theirs, all because Jesus' promise was fulfilled at Pentecost.
The disciples' question Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?--which they asked repeatedly (NIV indicates only one asking)--was most natural for Jews to address to the resurrected Messiah.
Central to Old Testament faith was the conviction that God would in the end time fully restore his people to their inheritance in the land, where they would live securely without foreign domination (Jer 16:15; 23:8; 50:19; Hos 11:11; Joel 3:17). In response to Jesus' resurrection or to his teaching about the kingdom (Acts 1:3; also see Lk 22:28-30), the disciples want to know a date. Such a question is selfishly nationalistic and betrays an eagerness for the end of history and an ushering in of God's perfect reign. The disciples had consistently asked such questions throughout Jesus' ministry (Lk 19:11; 21:7).
Jesus' mild rebuke affirms that God alone is qualified to know such things, since by means of his own authority he has established the times or dates, the stages and critical events through which humankind must pass until the kingdom comes (compare Acts 17:26).
Acts 1:8 sets out clearly what the church is to be doing until Jesus returns. Through a command-promise, Jesus tells his disciples of the resources, content and scope of their primary task. The essential resource is God the Holy Spirit, who will come on them at Pentecost as he did on Mary at the incarnation (Lk 1:35). By this Spirit-baptism they will receive the supernatural ability to work miracles and preach effectively (Acts 4:7-10, 31, 33; 6:5, 8; 8:13). Their witness will be bold and will produce conviction leading to positive or negative decisions (2:37, 41; 4:8, 13, 31; 6:5, 10; 7:54-58).
The whole church, and each member of it, must take up this task. All who receive the apostles' teaching become witnesses (14:2-3; 22:15-18, 20). Richard Longenecker rightly concludes, "This commission lays an obligation on all Christians. . . . The Christian church, according to Acts, is a missionary church that responds obediently to Jesus' commission" (1981:256).
The mandate, expressed with a future-tense verb (will be), can be taken as both a command and a prophetic promise. Luke may well have intended that it be understood in both ways. Not only does he show the church obediently carrying out this mandate (2:47; 4:31, 33; 6:4, 7; 8:4; 11:19-20), but he also shows how God intervenes at strategic points to give impetus and direction for taking the mission across another cultural threshold or into a another geographical region (8:16-17, 26, 29; 10:9-16, 19-20; 11:20-21; 13:2; 16:9-10; 18:9-10; 23:11). God in his grace makes sure the mandate is completely fulfilled.
And so today the call for the church to be a missionary church is still in force. In 1974, at the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, a gracious God refocused the churches' attention on the world's hidden people groups who have yet to hear the witness.
Jesus says to be his witnesses. To be a witness (martys) is to speak from personal knowledge of facts and their significance. The apostles, as eyewitnesses of the saving events, were witnesses in a unique sense. But all those who will believe and appropriate the truth of their testimony also qualify as witnesses.
The scope of the task is given in geographical terms. Acts presents the evangelization of the first two geographical regions (Jerusalem, 2:42--8:3; Judea and Samaria, 8:4--12:25). Luke probably has no particular place in mind when he uses the phrase to the ends of the earth. He is thinking of a mission that will reach throughout the whole earth in fulfillment of Isaiah 49:6 (Acts 13:47). Since the narrative concludes geographically in Rome--the empire's center, from which roads reach to the limits of the then-known world--the mission is potentially complete but actually remains unfinished.
When the scope of the task is viewed ethnically, however, we realize that by the time of the Jerusalem Council (15:1-35) "the gospel has already reached all possible manner of men" (Menoud 1978b:123). The gospel has been extended to Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews (2:5-13), Samaritans (8:4-13), a proselyte (8:26-40), a Gentile God-fearer (10:1-48) and pagan Gentiles (11:20-21; 13:46-48; 14:8-20).
Today the unfinished task remains a formidable challenge. But it is possible to complete the task--to take the witness to the ends of the earth and plant a church in each unreached ethnic group. For the 1989 Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, David Barrett calculated that there remain twelve thousand distinct cultural groups (1.8 billion persons) that have no church in their language and culture (Lausanne Committee 1989:13-14).
Among the 1.7 billion professing Christians in the world, we should be able to find 180 million true believers. They could serve as a more than adequate support base (fifteen thousand believers per unreached people group) to field a missionary force to penetrate each of the unreached groups. With such mobilization, each unreached people group could be evangelized in the foreseeable future.
There is a way. Where is the will? Current recruitment and deployment of missionaries falls far short. Currently only thirty thousand full-time Christian workers are at work among the 1.8 billion members of the twelve thousand unreached groups. Will the vision be caught, the momentum generated, so that in obedience to Christ the last great push to the ends of the earth will take place?
Immediately after Jesus gives this command, as the disciples are watching, he is taken up from the earth, and a cloud so envelopes him that the disciples can no longer see him. The cloud probably refers to the Shekinah glory, which at once manifests and hides the divine presence (Ex 19:16; 40:34). It may also point to Christ's return (Dan 7:13; Lk 21:27; Acts 1:11).
The disciples stand in awe, looking intently up into the sky for an extended period. Luke will use the verb "to look intently" often in Acts in connection with the miraculous (3:4, 12; 6:15; 10:4; 11:6; 13:9; 14:9).
Suddenly two angels appear--two witnesses (Deut 19:15)--to interpret God's mighty act in Jesus' ascension. Their gentle rebuke to the sky-gazing disciples implies that in the interim there is a task to be done: fulfillment of the missionary mandate.
The angels describe in simple terms what has just happened: Jesus has been taken up into heaven. The implications are unmistakable. Jesus will no longer be with the disciples in the way he was with them during his earthly ministry or in postresurrection appearances. In heaven Jesus is in a position of authority, at the Father's right hand, whence he can pour out salvation blessings as by his Spirit he directs and empowers the church's mission (Acts 2:33; 4:10-12; 5:30-31). The angels conclude with an affirmation of the certainty of Christ's return. He will come in the same way that he has gone.
The fact that the Great Commission is the last instruction of the risen, now ascended and imminently returning Lord gives it great weight. He is not mentioning an optional ministry activity for individuals with crosscultural interests and churches with surplus funds. The Great Commission is the primary task the Lord left his church. The church must always be a missionary church; the Christian must always be a world Christian.