The Synoptic Gospels all conclude with an account of the resurrection of Christ, but all alike make it clear that the King's story is far from over. The disciples are told that they are now to "disciple the nations" based on the resurrection authority of Christ Himself. We often refer to this assignment as the "Great Commission." We frequently quote it from Matthew 28:19-20; but Luke, in his two-volume work, shows us how this process began and proceeded through the early church. It is instructive for us to learn from the early church so that we might be faithful in our generation to continue and perhaps complete the task of advancing God's Kingdom to the ends of the earth.
In the first volume (Luke 24:49), Luke tells us that Jesus instructed His disciples to tarry until they receive power from above. In Acts 1:8 the promise is now clarified with the assurance that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. It is apparent from their question about "restoring the kingdom to Israel" in verse 6 that the early disciples had been interested in political power. But now they are informed by the resurrected Lord that they would receive a power that was far greater and nobler than any they had ever imagined. The same Holy Spirit that empowered the life and ministry of Jesus will now come to indwell the disciples as they continue and complete the work of the King.
We sometimes fail to take into account the incredible power that has been made available to us for ministry. We plan and act as if the discipling of the nations is a work we must accomplish by our own ingenuity and strength. We complain that we don't have the money, the staff, or the ability to finish the task. We see ourselves and our churches as small and insignificant when it comes to reaching the nations. We keep searching for a new program or strategy that will jumpstart our church when what we need is a growing confidence that God has gifted and empowered His church by the gift of the Spirit to accomplish the task of "discipling the nations." We must reorient our thinking based on the "empowering from on high."
Paul obviously ministered based on the conviction that God could use him and Apollos as instruments through which He built the church. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Do your ministry and your church reflect the confidence that God Himself will give the growth? Since we are "empowered from on high" our first task is to "take to our knees." Perhaps now we can see why prayer is such an essential element of the story of the expansion of the Gospel in the book of Acts.
The King's Witnesses
While we often focus on the word "witnesses," I love the personal pronoun "my." I belong to the King, and I have no higher calling than to bear witness to Him. Isaiah had declared to Israel — "You are my witnesses" — but Israel had ignored the responsibility and focused on the privileges of being the people of the King. Now Luke declares that the disciples will be His witnesses. It is not insignificant that Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47 in regard to the mission work of himself and Barnabas. The task of bearing witness to the King has now become the ministry and calling of the New Testament community of believers.
As we read the book of Acts, we notice that "being a witness" was not so much a strategy as it was a lifestyle. They were "always" witnesses. They looked at every event as a Kingdom moment where they could bear witness to the transformation that Christ can bring. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the phrase "you will be my witnesses" is the overarching theme of the book of Acts.
We should not overlook the fact that this text does not give us an option when it comes to the matter of being a witness. We are "witnesses" in the same manner that we are "salt" and "light." It is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of reality. We have encountered the King and by virtue of our relationship with Him, we have become His witnesses. The book of Acts illustrates that the King's plan for expanding His Kingdom is through the testimony of those whose lives have been forever altered by Him.
Do you bear witness to those you encounter daily? Does your church have an intentional strategy for bearing witness to people in each of the four quadrants of responsibility — Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth? Do you have partners in ministry that will help you to accomplish this task?
The Global Task
The expanse of the task is breathtaking — Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The uttermost part of the earth and nothing short of that is our task and our goal. Most commentators point out that the book of Acts is outlined based on these four quadrants of concern. This would be an overwhelming assignment if it were not for the supernatural empowering and Kingdom partnerships available to the church to accomplish this work.
A quick glance at the last book of the Bible indicates that the King's witnesses will be successful in this task. Revelation 5:9-10 speaks of a Kingly people made up of every tribe and language and people and nation. This task will be completed on God's timetable! The singular question is whether we will make ourselves available to be instruments through whom God brings this task to fruition.
Does your church have global focus? It is this global vision that defeats the spiritual "myopia" that causes the church to become introverted and stagnant. If we aim at reaching the world, we will of necessity become more effective at reaching our own Jerusalem. I have heard testimony after testimony from pastors and laymen confirming the truth that when their church caught a glimpse of the lostness of the nations of the earth, they became more aware of the lostness of their own neighbors.
The Kingdom-Centered Local Church is the Key
When you read through Acts, you cannot help being startled by the simplicity of the King's plan. The witnesses tell the King's story which, in turn, leads to the establishment of local communities of believers, who plant other local churches that work in cooperation with one another. The scattering of the church in Jerusalem led to the planting of the church in Antioch which, in time, sponsored the Pauline church planting initiative that we read about in the book of Acts. When we read the Pauline letters we discover that he continually encouraged the local churches to work together for the greater impact of the Gospel.
Acts 1:8 is a commission given to the local church. It will be accomplished by the church but only when each church has a Kingdom passion and a Kingdom vision. We must move beyond the concern of mere "church growth" to embrace the passion for "Kingdom expansion."
Every church must think strategically about outreach and ministry in all four quadrants. The witness "to the ends of the earth" cannot be handled sequentially; it must be a simultaneous effort. If we wait until we reach Jerusalem to manifest concern for people living in Judea or Samaria or at the ends of the earth, we will never complete the task assigned to us. Thus every church must look beyond Jerusalem to the other three quadrants at the same time that they are actively reaching their Jerusalem.
For any church to be effective in this task, it will require that we think in terms of partnerships. Our partnerships for reaching Jerusalem are found in our local association where churches cooperate with likeminded churches to penetrate Jerusalem. Our partnerships for reaching Judea are found in our state conventions. In Southern Baptist life we also have partners that enable us to work effectively in Samaria and the ends of the earth through our North American Mission Board and our International Mission Board. Our strategy is not simply to give through the Cooperative Program to pay those entities to do the "rest of our Kingdom work," but it is to involve our church through these partnerships in every quadrant. You can do this through focused prayer and short-term mission trips.
With supernatural empowering, effective partnerships, and a Kingdom vision, we can accomplish this task together! In the next few articles we will begin to explore the character of the Kingdom-centered church.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.