Missions in the Bible
The Acts of the Apostles. Surely after the resurrection the disciples now understood what Christ's coming was all about. Yet one of the very first episodes (1:6) portrays their continued grasping for power, stated now in terms of "are you now [at last] going to set up your kingdom [where we will share in your power]?" How often we have naively read Acts 1:8 as just one more pleasant reiteration of the Great Commission, but now we see that instead of being an unconditioned promise of power, the promise was that the power from the Holy Spirit would be given then because they would need it in the job they were to do. In other words, the power of the Holy Spirit was not for their enjoyment, nor even primarily for their own spiritual growth¬ as important as that was but so that they could "testify about me with great effect... to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). There was no promise of the power of the Holy Spirit without this accompanying command to ! See how similar this is to Gen. 12: 1 3 where the promise to be blessed carried with it the responsibility to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
The fascinating thing about Acts is that except for early brief references to Phillip, John and Peter, the whole book is about Paul, not one of the 12, to whom the Great Commission was given. The command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth was for all the followers of Jesus, especially for the 12, but after his conversion Paul saw himself as uniquely commissioned to reach out to the Gentiles (see Acts 15:7, 22:21, 26:17, 2 Cor. 10:16, Gal. 1:16, 2:7 9, Eph. 3:8, 1 Tim. 2:7). As a former Pharisee he was well qualified; he had abundant training in the exposition of scripture and he was intimately acquainted with the Pharisaic structure for sending missionaries. (See Jesus' comment in Matt. 23:15 about their "traversing land and sea to make a single proselyte," and also Acts 15: 5 where it is implied that the Pharisees long had been involved with Gentile converts but had always insisted that they become proselytes through circumcision and adoption of the Jewish customs.) Indeed the coming of Christ did not increase the amount of missionary work being done. Nevertheless Paul came to the task not only understanding that Christ was the Messiah but understanding all sorts of Old Testament passages which formerly he had overlooked. (Read Gal. 1:16 19).
What was it Paul was struggling to understand in the desert? The fact that he tells this to the Galatians gives us a clue: he was saying that God himself had revealed to him something he instinctively knew would raise a storm of protest ¬namely, that Gentiles were always a part of God's concern and that they did not need to become Jews in order to be acceptable to God (see 1:20). In fact, Paul insisted (especially in Galatians) that this kind of legalistic cultural switch was actually repugnant to God because it involved only outward forms, "circumcision of the body" rather than faith in Jesus Christ or "circumcision of the heart" (see Gal. 1: 6 8, 1:18). For the first time Paul saw clearly that God was equally concerned for the other peoples of the world. This concept was at once so startling to him and yet so obvious once he could see it that he spoke of his new understanding as "a mystery long hidden" (see Rom. 16:25, 15:8 12, Eph. 1:9, 3:3 6, 8, Col. 1:25 27, 2:3). It made such an impact on Paul that, unlike the other writers of the New Testament, he constantly referred to God's plan for the Gentiles, and spoke of his special joy of telling them about it (Eph. 3:8).
At the same time, Paul was well aware of the consternation and fury his new gospel would bring. In Eph. 2:14 19 he spoke of the angry resentment that existed between Jew and Greek, but insisted that in Christ by faith they were equally children of Abraham, equally to share in the rights of inheritance of God's sons (Eph. 3:3 6). And fury Paul met, even as Christ had in his sermon at Nazareth (see Acts 13:42 48, 14:19, 22:22). In fact, about the only time Paul could repeat his commission to the Gentiles without arousing fury was when he spoke privately with Agrippa and Festus (Acts 26:17, 23). Yet throughout the epistles (all addressed to Greeks except those to individuals like Titus, Philemon and Timothy and the book of Hebrews) he constantly refers to this commission. In Romans Paul speaks to both Jews and Greeks and makes it very clear that the children of Abraham who were to receive the blessing were not those who had his _seed (after all Esau and Ismael had been rejected!) but rather those who had his faith and that would include peoples from every nation, every ethnic unit (Rom. 4:17). (See the same emphasis in 2 Cor. 11 12, Gal. 3:29, Gal. 4:28, Rom. 15:8 10.)
Clearly, then, in the New Testament we see that God's concern for all the peoples of the world is central. "Gentiles" referred to all who were not Jews and for us as for them that would include every tribe, tongue, and ethnic unit. Paul saw God's concern for all peoples as a "mystery": "But now as the prophets foretold and as God commands, this message is being preached everywhere, so that people all around the world will have faith in Christ and obey him" (Rom. 16:25). In comforting a suffering church, Peter encouraged them to hold on, knowing that Christ would return soon. (See II Peter 3:15, 16) But Peter adds that there are those who deliberately misunderstood Paul and interestingly ties this to their refusal to obey the Great Commission.
Today we have the same kind of Christians. In Matt. 24:14 and Mark 13:10 Jesus reminds us that all the peoples of the world must hear the Good News of the Kingdom, "and then, finally, the end will come." Yet how often the only comment made by earnest Christians about this statement of Jesus is: "That is a hard verse!" Going to the frontiers "where no one else is working " (2 Cor. 10:16) is all too often still considered an option not a command Is it because our eyes are also blinded? Are God's purposes as much a mystery to us as they were to Paul before the experience on the road to Damascus? It matters not where one works so long as he understands that God's first concern is not with his own personal salvation, nor that of his church, but to go to the regions beyond, to the lost sheep. Missions is not peripheral in God's mind and heart. It is not the thing that his children do once they have done other more essential things. To those with obedient open hearts it is no longer a mystery. He is a missionary who shares Christ's passion, who prays for the lost of this world and who will not rest until from every lost tribe, tongue and nation there are some who call Him Lord.