Jesus' Two Great Commissions
The Divine Pattern for Missions?
Churches committed to the restoration principle and the maintenance of New Testament Christianity are committed to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The ambition "to do Bible things in Bible ways" correctly leads these churches to determine appropriate spiritual practices through examination of Scripture. While the restoration principle never attempts to impose first-century culture on today's church, it does seek to discern divine patterns when such are revealed.
The person who has studied the first-century world often finds it difficult to distinguish between an expression of first century cultural incidentals and the revelation of a divine pattern. The person who has not devoted himself to such study is virtually certain to confuse practices of first-century culture with divine pattern. Today, when one is seeking to determine divinely authorized patterns for appropriate acts of worship or fellowship, one must exercise knowledgeable carefulness in his examination of the New Testament. Unless he exercises knowledgeable care, he may find it necessary to include "the holy kiss"! in fellowship for the same reason he endorses acappella music in worship.For the same reason, knowledgeable care must be taken when one seeks to distinguish a first-century opportunity/ circumstance from a divine pattern. It is a misleading oversimplification to do the following: (1) take a successful endeavor in the first-century church made possible by unique circumstances of that age and (2) create from that successful endeavor a universal standard for today's church which ignores those special circumstances. Restoration objectives must not be established by a process which divorces first-century church activities from its circumstances. Such mistakes condemn earnest restoration efforts to ineffectiveness.
Missions: The Classic Example
A classic example of (1) formulating a restoration pattern and of (2) defining a restoration objective while (3) ignoring the special circumstances can be seen in some evangelism concepts in the church. Without developing an in-depth understanding, some preachers/teachers declare the evangelistic activity in the book of Acts to be the pattern and the yardstick for evangelistic activity today. This is a common assumption: evangelists who have the faith, courage, motivation, commitment, and the sacrificial attitude seen in Acts can produce the results of Acts anywhere in the world. An honest study of Scripture will not support this assumption.
Chapter three documents the fact that the explosive spread of the gospel in the mid-first-century period occurred in the midst of exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances did not exist before or after that time. In fact, they ceased to exist well before the end of the first century. The circumstances of today's world do not begin to approximate the unique circumstances of that mid-first-century period. A one-empire world, a universal language, the diaspora, the God-fearers, the open synagogue, and a segment of pagan society disillusioned with old religions and yearning for cleansing, security, and immortality created a phenomenal set of circumstances!Neither a pattern for producing nor a yardstick for measuring successful evangelism today can be devised legitimately by using exclusively the evangelistic activity recorded in Acts. The material in Acts is a fragmentary account of early evangelism among the Jews and early evangelism among the Gentiles. The entire book covers only a period from the early 30s AD. to around 60 AD. The account of evangelism among the Jews of the Jerusalem/ Palestine area2 covers at most a few years. The account of Paul's mission work among the Gentiles covers a period of approximately 20 years, beginning with his work in Antioch around 40 A.D.3 and ending with his imprisonment in Rome around 60 A.D.4
First, it must be noted that Acts does not present a "pattern" for evangelism which was equally effective in all places. Evangelism in Jerusalem resulted in the death of Stephen and a systematic persecution which sought the complete destruction of the church. Certainly, in those circumstances the Jerusalem church did not continue to experience explosive growth. From the time of Stephen's death, the previously abundant references5 to that congregation's growth cease until the time of Acts 9:31: So the church throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria had peace; and ... was multiplied.
The mission efforts of Paul /Barnabas or Paul/Silas did not produce the same dynamic results in all areas. There is no reference to explosive growth during the initial evangelism of Cyprus.6 Though they went through the whole island7 teaching in the synagogues, the text acknowledges only the interest of the proconsul Sergius Paulus. The text is silent about the receptivity at Lystra where Paul was stoned and left for dead.8 The audiences of Athens were indifferent9 resulting in few conversions. No one would choose to use Cyprus, Lystra, and Antioch to fashion a divine yardstick for measuring effective evangelism.
The Certain Promise of Early Receptivity
Every missionary yearns to be involved in the early efforts within a receptive area when "it breaks." There have been a number of highly receptive countries in recent years, especially the 1960s and 1970s. Most such areas have been third world countries.
Evangelism in a receptive third world country generally follows a pattern. First, there must be those first brave few who establish a presence, secure permission to preach, and create a livable situation--no small chore! The first year or more is a tedious, tiring grind of working through government red tape, establishing good relationships with key officials, creating a living situation which will sustain life and reasonably protect health, and planning a basic strategy for beginning the work.
At some point in these early years, "things break." Suddenly, there is opportunity everywhere. People are begging the missionaries to preach. Their presence is in such demand in so many places that villages may be jealous of each other in their determined efforts to have a missionary work in their community. Certainly, there are a multitude of motivations at work, but the end result is an incredible opportunity to teach hundreds--sometimes thousands--of people who eagerly listen and question to learn. This is the time when a missionary yearns to be a part of the work because it is the time of explosive growth, frequent baptisms, and the establishing of many congregations.
However, as certain as that time arrives, there comes with it the promise that the explosive growth will not last indefinitely. Many different factors create that promise. First, everyone will be eager to hear the gospel as long as it is a new and unfamiliar message. When the time comes that everyone has heard it and knows enough to satisfy his curiosity, the crowds will dwindle. In large population areas where there are few missionaries, that time may be a while in coming--but it will come.
Second, in every receptive area, there are those who have been waiting for such hope and life. They are like the cream on top of fresh milk. They are open, eager, receptive, and ready to respond regardless of consequences. Once these eager, receptive people have been taught and converted, the others can be reached only by penetrating prejudice and destroying disinterest. That is a slow, time-consuming process in any society.
Third, the rapid rise of congregations creates new realities which demand immediate attention, or everything will be lost. Every congregation established is literally composed of immature, unlearned babes in Christ. No one knows the Scriptures. No one is capable of teaching the others. They will not even know such basic things as how to worship. Immediately, these young congregations must be stabilized by being educated in Scripture--a slow process with few Bibles, low literacy rates, and no educational materials or books.
The only ones qualified to do such teaching are the missionaries. Every hour they spend in edifying the congregations cannot be spent in evangelizing. All efforts spent in evangelizing new areas will result in new congregations which increases the urgency of stabilizing established congregations. The primary responsibility of missionaries in receptive areas quickly becomes (a) training other people to teach, and (b) answering the endless questions and addressing the endless problems which arise in all these young congregations filled with infant Christians.
Fourth, explosive growth always creates staunch opposition. Every person converted to Christ is converted from something else. All forms of the "something else"-denominational churches, animistic religions, secret societies, etc.--deeply resent the loss of membership, prestige, financial base, and manpower. They will make every possible effort to kill the interest and reverse receptivity. They will be ingenious in their methods.
This new church and its teachers soon becomes the common enemy of groups who have little in common except their hatred of this new religion. They will form an unlikely but very effective coalition dedicated to fighting their common "enemy." Soon the missionary will find it increasingly necessary to address this opposition.Fifth, if resentment of the church is deep and widespread among its enemies, the receptive climate can quickly become a hostile climate. These hostile citizens have friends in high places; the missionary is an uninvited guest who has come for his own reasons. Government officials can become suspicious. Local officials can become uncooperative. Village and community leadership can build powerful discouragements for converts which the missionary may not even see. Converts can be subjected to all kinds of penalties and reprisals. Lying reports can be made to immigration officials. Lawless persons can be given "silent approval" to make daily life more frustrating for the missionary and the converts. Suddenly, the life and work of the missionary becomes quite complicated.
Such conditions will not stop the work of the gospel and the growth of the church. In fact, even the worst of circumstances often becomes a powerful means of maturing the church. However, such conditions do take the explosiveness out of the growth and do make individual Christians and congregations take a serious look at the cost of belonging to Christ.
So It Was!
Any serious study of Acts and the epistles readily discovers the same occurrences in the first century. The result of the explosive growth of the Jerusalem church was the death of Stephen, a systematic city-wide persecution, and the scattering of many in that congregation. The leaders of Judaism did not view this new movement kindly when it became a serious rival to their position and influence.
The result of Paul's mission work among the Gentiles produced the same reactions. Unbelieving Jews of Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium deeply resented the conversion of those who had attended the synagogue. Their opposition began the moment Paul's preaching became popular and effective, and it was vicious. The unbelieving Jews in Antioch stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas by securing the aid of women of honorable estate and chief men of the city.10 The unbelieving Jews and Gentiles in Iconium with the aid of the rulers planned to abuse them and stone them. 11 Unbelievers from both those cities traveled to Lystra and convinced the people to stone Paul.12
Resentful, angry people at Philippi illegally whipped and imprisoned Paul and Silas. 13 Jealous Jews in Thessalonica convinced certain vile fellows of the rabble to create a riot which would give them opportunity to harm Pau1.14 Failing to find Paul, they took certain Christians before the court. The situation was so dangerous that the Christians immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night (travel by night was itself quite dangerous).15 When the unbelieving15 Jews at Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching at Beroea, they came and stirred up the multitudes, and the brethren again immediately sent Paul away. 16
The Lord Himself appeared to Paul at Corinth to assure him that he would not be harmed as he continued to preach.17 The preaching in Ephesus resulted in so many conversions that there was a serious decline in the patronage of the great temple of Diana (Artemis), and a significant trade loss for those whose crafts were dependent on the temple and its pilgrims. The concern and ire of Demetrius created a city-wide protest that lasted for hours as incensed people shouted, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.1s Acts 21 through 28 is a continuing account of the successful attempt of the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem and Asia Minor to have Paul arrested and imprisoned for years in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome. Many of Paul's evangelistic efforts which began with explosive responses soon encountered explosive opposition.
Paul faced the same problems in seeking to stabilize young congregations as does the modern missionary. First and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians were letters from Paul to congregations he established. Read the letters, note the problems, and examine the questions addressed. It will be obvious that Paul the evangelist had to spend a great deal of his time and energy seeking to stabilize and mature young congregations. This was the constant need to which Paul referred when, in listing his many burdens and trials, he declared, Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches. 19
At first the church faced Judaism's opposition. Then pagan opposition solidified. And finally, there came the opposition of the Roman government itself. The longer each opposition existed, the better organized and more effective it became. At times all three forces cooperated. Often they created an effective, powerful opposition which defeated weak Christians and discouraged the devout Christians. In the minds of Christians in the late first century, it seemed that the church which turned the world upside down in its early years was doomed to extinction.
The epistle called Hebrews was written to Christians who were seriously considering apostasy--literally renouncing Christ. For years they had suffered severe opposition just because they were Christians. Earlier, they had suffered physical persecution, imprisonment, and public humiliation without being ashamed.2o They had unashamedly stood by and cared for others who were abused and imprisoned. When their possessions were destroyed, they rejoiced because they looked with confidence to their heavenly reward. By the time this epistle was written, they were thoroughly discouraged and on the verge of spiritual defeat.
Revelation was written to Christians who were losing hope because of the severity and effectiveness of their opposition. The urgent question they confronted was not "how do we evangelize our communities?" but "how can we survive and endure in the face of such powerful opposition and overwhelming trials?"
The late first century was not a time of explosive growth or dynamic evangelism in most of the Roman world. It was a time of numerical decline, a time of Christians struggling to keep hope. The generation which began with the conviction that they could take the world for Christ carne to an end wondering if the church could survive in such a hostile world.
Even in the most receptive ages and locations, great evangelistic opportunities commonly tend to follow a sequence similar to this: (1) initial explosive growth when the receptive hear; (2) a decline in interest after the receptive are converted and the gospel becomes common knowledge; (3) the creation of enormous new spiritual needs as young congregations are formed and need knowledge, leadership, and training; (4) rising opposition from bodies/groups who are losing their people to Christianity; (5) the formation of coalitions to generate effective resistance to/oppression of the church and evangelism; (6) the realignment of the missionary's work and responsibility as time and energy must be divided between evangelistic effort, congregational stabilization, and teacher/ preacher training.
Satan does not relinquish his subjects and sections of his kingdom without a determined fight! Satan's resources are enormous, and he seeks every unjust, unfair, dishonest advantage. Not even Christ and the apostles could change that reality!
An honest examination of all the evidence verifies that explosive evangelism is not the product of good preachers/ teachers with a powerful message. It occurs when good preachers/ teachers with a powerful message are privileged to work in exceptional circumstances.
1. While it is correct to look for New Testament patterns for
Christianity, why must great care be used in identifying real patterns?
2. Should the evangelistic work of the church in Acts be used to form a pattern for developing and a yardstick for measuring evangelism today? Explain your answer.
3. In Acts, did all places react to the preaching of the gospel with an explosion of conversions? Use Scripture to verify your answer.
4. In the evangelism of a receptive country today:
a. What first must occur?
b. Second, who will be quickly receptive?
c. Third, conversions create what new reality?
d. Fourth, explosive growth always creates what? e. Fifth, what change is guaranteed to occur later?
5. From Scripture, document this same progression occurred in the evangelizing of the first century world.
On a mission field, since the present existence of a receptive people guarantees a time of hostile reaction will come, how should Christians respond when a receptive opportunity arises?
1Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.
3Merrill C. Tenny, New Testament Times (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1965), p. 216.
4Ibid., p. 294.
5Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7.
6 Acts 13 :4-12.
9 Acts 17:16-34.
10 Acts 13:50.
192 Corinthians 11:28.
Chapter 3 Chapter 5
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