Thursday, June 22, 2006

Witnessing in Jerusalem and Beyond

In Acts 1:8, we read, "But 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."

Why did the proclamation of the gospel have to start in Jerusalem? Before we address this question, however, we need to put aside three inadequate explanations that are sometimes proposed.

First, the gospel did not begin in Jerusalem because it was home to the disciples and thus they would find a more ready or receptive audience. Jerusalem was not home for any of the disciples. They were from Galilee, not Jerusalem.

Secondly, the spread of gospel did not begin in Jerusalem because it would be the safest place to start and the disciples would be able to get experience in witnessing before moving on to more difficult or resistant areas. Rather the opposite was true. The most dangerous place on earth for the disciples to start their ministry was in Jerusalem.

Thirdly, Jerusalem was not chosen to be the starting place for the spread of the gospel because the city was familiar territory for the disciples where ministry experience would prepare them for more unfamiliar ministry later on. Looking at the gospels, one finds that Jesus and His disciples spent relatively little time in Jerusalem. The urban setting of Jerusalem was unfamiliar to the rural Galileans.

Understanding this, we begin to see that the misapplication of this passage to teach a progressive succession of evangelism from home to distant lands is completely inappropriate.

The reality is that there was only one beginning of the gospel. In God's history there will never be another subsequent Pentecost point. Every later initiative is a down-line fruition of that outpouring and obedience. We are already in the "the uttermost parts of the world" from the perspective of Acts 1:8. Our calling is not to "reach our own Jerusalem" before we branch out from there to the rest of the world. Acts 1:8 is a geographical reference as much as it is a historical one.

What is clear is that the mission of the church begins in what is probably the most dangerous place on earth at the time. And yet, the church grows rapidly in the face of opposition brought about largely because of its growth.

So why did Jesus tell them to stay in Jerusalem? Two reasons are apparent.

First, mission cannot take place apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit has empowered Jesus for His work, so the Spirit was needed to empower the disciples for theirs. Jesus knew that as the gospel was spread, that His disciples would face the same opposition that He had faced. He had trained them for martyrdom. He had also promised that just as He had known how to respond and speak when handed over to religious and civic authorities for prosecution, so His disciples would also know what to say when it happened to them. The Holy Spirit would give them the words that they would need at that time (Matthew 10:18-20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12; 21:14-15).

Second, Jerusalem was God's appointed starting place for the spread of the gospel because there were considerable missiological and theological reasons for doing so. Jerusalem was the centre of monotheistic worship on the globe. It was the focal point of God's covenant with mankind. Christianity needed to be seen to be in continuity with what had gone on before in God's plan, rather than being potentially labeled as a Galilean sect. The work of Jesus and His church was part of the plan of God from the foundation of the world. The growth of the church, as seen is Acts, is the carrying out of that God-ordained work, carried out by Spirit-filled, cross-bearing messengers who followed their Lord even unto death in order to see this plan of God carried out.

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