Saturday, February 4, 2012

To the Ends of the Earth

The book of Acts is nestled in the Bible just after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. After Jesus died and was resurrected, he appeared to his disciples and followers for 40 days. In the book of Acts, he instructs them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the promised Holy Spirit to come. He said that the Holy Spirit would give them power to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. I'm sure they wondered what he meant. By the way, Judea was the larger region surrounding the city of Jerusalem, and Samaria was the area just north of Judea.

Illogical Instructions

His instructions probably shook them up a bit. The apostles were from Galilee. (Acts 2:7) In the Galilean culture of that time, everything revolved around local community/village life. Villages were "inward focused" and its residents looked out for one another.  In addition, God had told the Jews that they were his chosen people. They were proud of that fact and felt tremendous animosity toward those on the “outside.”  Samaritans (a mixed race with one Jewish parent/one non-Jewish parent) and Gentiles (no Jewish lineage) were all outsiders. Gentiles were the people living at “the ends of the earth” beyond Judea and Samaria. Do you think it might have been difficult for them to do what he was asking - to go to those people they felt such animosity toward?

A New Way of Thinking

Some believe Jesus’ primary intent was to instruct his followers to minister and preach first in their hometown – then go out from there. But was there more to it than that? As he spoke his last words before his ascension, was he trying to break their inward-focused mindset? Was he trying to get them to see God’s heart? Was his intention to stretch their thinking and help them see what he had been revealing along the way – that the gospel was meant for the outsiders too? 
The Early Church is Born

In Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit came from heaven and filled the apostles permanently. Through the power of the Holy Spirit they began speaking in foreign languages so that many could understand their words. About 3,000 people put their faith in Christ that day, and the church was born. Those who followed the way of Christ shared their possessions with one another. They were devoted to learning, loving, worshipping, praying, and evangelizing together. Individual churches supported and encouraged other churches. They were one in heart and mind. 

The Early Church - An Example For Today

This unity is something I don’t see much of today. Denominations divide us. Church walls divide us. People become angry when members leave one church to go to another – even when it’s for constructive reasons. Many churches in America today have adopted a “we” versus “them” mentality. It seems that a huge number of churches view each other as competition – and it’s killing us. We’ve forgotten that we’re on the same team. If we were to remember the one who links us, and love one another like the early church did, we just might see God “add to our number daily those who are being saved” - like he did back then. Unfortunately, too many people have been damaged by the church and have run for the hills.

The Gospel Spreads

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, a man of faith named Stephen, was stoned to death after speaking to the religious elite – the Sanhedrin. On that same day, great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem. The believers fled town to avoid being imprisoned or murdered. And guess what? They fled to the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria. As they uprooted their lives and made their way to safer places, do you think the words of Jesus ran through their minds? Instead of questioning their faith as they endured persecution, I wonder if his words brought them comfort because things were unfolding just as he said they would. Is it possible that his words in Acts 1:8 weren't so much a command as they were a statement or prophecy of what was to come?

“. . . and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.” Acts 1:8

As they established new lives in these areas, they took their faith with them - and shared it.

Paul - Preacher to the Gentiles

What about those at “the ends of the earth?” Well – along came Saul. Among the Jewish religious leaders, he was royalty. He had the right lineage, understood the scriptures . . . and viciously persecuted Gentiles and Christians. One day as he was traveling to Damascus to persecute Jews who had escaped to that area, he encountered Jesus and everything flipped. Instead of being a persecutor, God made him a preacher to the Gentiles. What a turnaround! His name was changed to Paul.

Paul's Journeys

Here’s a quick rundown of the places Paul traveled and the letters he wrote during that time. These letters are now “books” in the Bible.

1st Missionary Journey:

After Paul’s first missionary journey to Galatia, he returned to Antioch and wrote Galatians. He had heard that false teachers had come into the new church and were teaching a false gospel. He wrote to the Galatians defending the truth of the gospel and encouraging his readers to live the Christian life in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2nd Missionary Journey:

On his second missionary journey, Paul traveled to Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. While in Corinth , he wrote 1st and 2nd Thessalonians to encourage, commend, answer questions, and call his readers to hope and greater excellence in Christian living.

3rd Missionary Journey:

On his third missionary journey, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus to address factions in the church, immorality in their midst, unjustified lawsuits, and questions. He wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia to commend believers who had changed their ways, to encourage them to give funds to help believers in Jerusalem, and to defend his authority.  Paul had a strong desire to preach Christ in Rome. He traveled back to Corinth and wrote Romans – the most theological of all his letters that included a thorough explanation of Christian doctrine and its application to everyday life.

4th Missionary Journey:

Paul’s fourth missionary journey took him to Rome as a prisoner. He wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians.

After his release from prison, he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus.

During his final imprisonment in Rome, he wrote 2 Timothy - his last letter before being executed for his faith.

When I look at the books of Act, I see strong faith, earnest prayer, great courage, tenacity, unity, and tremendous perseverance. Christians in the book of Acts were committed believers who boldly proclaimed Christ and loved one another well. Love that!! Want to be like that! I am so thankful for their example and for their faithfulness so that the message of the gospel could come to us today. Now it's our turn to be his witnesses even to the remotest parts of the earth, and we know Jesus will be with us as his Holy Spirit empowers us to do so.