The Acts of the Apostles Blueprint for World Missions
Today the orchestration of worldwide missions presents us with some difficult and timeless questions… Should we look for true guidance in anything beyond the oracles of God? Where shall we turn for guidance if not to these very oracles? Over these “pillars of Hercules” is forevermore written, ne plus ultra (no more beyond). Beyond this word, there is nothing satisfactory, nothing needful. God has magnified His word above all His name, and herein lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
On this principle then we should seek to practically apply the Acts of the Apostles to world missions. The Acts prove themselves to be both a history and a philosophy of missions in one. What is found in the four Gospels in precept and principle is found in the Acts of the Apostles in practice and application. The gospel teaching as set forth by Luke the Evangelist is applied literally and historically by the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Luke, who in the gospel tells us what Jesus “began,” in the Acts tells us what He “continued, both to do and teach,” by the Spirit through disciples. Pentecost links Old Testament prophecy with New Testament history. The Gospel is successively opening the door of faith to Hebrew, Roman, and Greek believers. This is the book of witness, both man’s witness to God, and God’s witness to man. It is the sequel of the gospels, and the whole basis of the epistles.
Acts is not so much the acts of the apostles per se, more so, it is the acts of the Holy Spirit and of the risen Redeemer in the person of the Comforter. It is here the Spirit is seen applying the truth and the blood to the penitent believers followed directly by anointing them for service. After that they are sent forth as heralds and witnesses to preach the kingdom, to make disciples, and to organize disciples into churches.
It is interesting to note that the period of time covered by this book is only about thirty-three years—the length of our Lord’s human life, which is the average of one generation. This should serve to teach us what could and should be done in every successive generation even until the end of the world itself! The Acts of the Apostles thus forms one great, inspired book of missions, God’s own commentary and encyclopedia for all ages as to every question that touches this world’s evangelization.
The initial chapters of the Acts bear the designing marks of a great sequel, not only to the gospel of Luke but of all the four gospels. It braids together into one their four strands of testimony. In the structure of the New Testament this is the entablature resting upon and uniting the four columns which support it and which it surmounts. Hence, to read this book aright, we must perceive its fourfold character or aspect. It is the book of the advent of the Holy Spirit, and of the generation of the Church of Christ, begotten of the Spirit in the womb of our humanity. It is the beginning of the gospel of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. It is the orderly setting forth of the great fact and truth of the Spirit’s outpouring, as most surely believed among those who were eyewitnesses of His majestic advent. And it is the first clear revelation of His persona, that in the beginning the Spirit of God was with God and was God.
In a word, what the fourfold gospel is to Christ, the Acts of the Apostles is to the Spirit. It is the inspired account of the Spirit’s advent, and of the birth of the Bride of Christ. It is the beginning of the gospel of the Spirit’s presence and power. It reveals and declares the supreme secret of a spiritual life of holiness and faithful service to be none other than the inner working and power of the Spirit of God. And finally, it is the unveiling of His eternal identity with, and procession from, the Godhead. Truly this book is the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, the advent of the Spirit, and His activity in and through the Church, are the keys, which open the doors to all the chambers in this House of the Interpreter. From the first chapter to the last, the theme is the same: the coming of the Spirit to apply the truth, arouse the conscience, soften the heart, subdue the will, anoint the tongue, and hallow the lip.
Is the advent of the Spirit an attempt to take the place of the absent Lord? Nay, rather it is to make real to believers the promise of His perpetual presence by becoming to every renewed soul all that Christ would have been had He remained on earth. Hence, to the Church, this book of the Acts is the Principia embodying the great laws and principles for our guidance in the work of missions. It is the history of primitive missions, illustrating the practical operation of these laws and principles during one whole generation.
Yet this book is manifestly and designedly incomplete, unfinished. This unfinished character is shown forth both in its beginning and its closure. The opening statement, “The former treatise have I made O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach until the day in which He was taken up,” implies that this latter book was now going to show what Jesus continued to do and teach after He was taken up. This introduction qualifies this book as a continuance and sequel to a previous narrative, which is necessary to its full interpretation. Accordingly, we are prepared to see Christ in the Acts continuing His words and works through the Spirit. He, who for forty days after His resurrection gave in His personal presence many infallible proofs of the reality of that resurrection, here gives equally infallible proofs of His perpetual presence in the work of the Holy Spirit.
But when do the Acts of the Apostles stop? How long will He continue to work and teach in this manner? So long as He has a believing body of disciples who still go forth into all the world as witnesses bearing His message. The wondrous story opens with the enduement of Power, and throughout exhibits its effect in qualifying witnesses for their work. There is never any hint that this Power ever was, or will be, withdrawn. The narrative stops, but the history goes on. Wherever devout disciples claim in prayer and by faith their full share in that Pentecostal fullness, they may go forth endued with power from on High. Throughout all the ages, wherever Christ’s witnesses have gone forth in obedience to His word, the same essential marks have attended their service and explained their success.
If we now turn to the conclusion of the Acts, we find a closure so abrupt that it suggests yet again a continuance and sequel. The curtain of silence suddenly falls upon a scene of continued action. Paul, dwelling in his own rented house, is still seen receiving all who come unto him, preaching the Kingdom of God, and teaching those things, which concern the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s life is not brought to a close, and his work at Rome is still in progress. Surely this is an unfinished picture; the canvas awaits other touches and tints from the Divine Artist.
New scenes in the lives of today’s missionaries are to supply new chapters. The last two verses furnish a formula for all true witnesses through all time. Change all but the name, and the number of the years, and each successive disciple may here find a brief exposition of his life and labor. For whoever fulfills his mission adds one more unpretending entry to this apostolic record. You may think of yourself as less than the least of all saints. Yet if in obedience to your Lord and dependence on His Spirit you spread the good tidings, to you this grace is given. Your service adds one more link in that golden chain that reaches from the upper chamber of the Jewish capital to the bridal chamber of the New Jerusalem. Furthermore, it unites into one glorious succession all in whom Jesus continues by the Spirit to speak and work.
We have therefore written discriminatingly in referring to the Acts of the Apostles as closing rather than ending, for the story comes to no proper conclusion, and is designedly left incomplete. Here is the story of only a single generation. However, no generation ever reaches completeness, but is linked and woven into the next, and its history merges into that of its successor as today melts into tomorrow. This is still the case in the work of world missions today. No eye can trace the point where the mission of one of God’s witnesses ends and that of another begins. Paul’s preaching and teaching still form threads in the fabric of missionary history, and will unto the end.
But in a grander sense, the Acts of the Apostles reaches no conclusion. Nor will the age of missions ever end, until this Divine Mission of witness to men is accomplished. Therefore, this book left incomplete, and it always will be while one believer is left to teach and preach those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ and to fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in his own flesh for His body’s sake—which is the Church.
Owen, in his Pneumatologia (study of the Holy Spirit), affirms that every age has its own test of orthodoxy or apostasy, and that the criterion of a standing or falling Church in this age is found in its attitude toward the Spirit of God.
The dispensation of the gospel age belongs especially to the person of the Holy Spirit. This divine person peculiarly fills the horizon as we study the Acts of the Apostles; and we cannot open the pages of this book of the Acts without starting an inquiry that is fundamental in importance. What is the actual place which Pentecost fills in Christian history? Was that outpouring both the first and the last, or only the foremost in a series of similar effusions? Was that revelation of the Spirit’s power and presence full and final, or was it, like Christ’s own advent, only the beginning of miracles and wonders with others to follow? And is that first advent of the Spirit to be succeeded by another, even more glorious, at the end of the age?
Christ’s Incarnation was in fact a hiding of His true self behind a veil of flesh. His star in the East, seen by a few wise watchers, guided them to his cradle, and a few holy souls who waited for His salvation were not taken by surprise. A little band of disciples felt His love and bowed to His claims. They saw His glory shine at times when, as in the Transfiguration and Ascension, His disguise was laid aside. In fact, His Baptism, Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension, were stages of the revelation of His glory. This glory will be fully disclosed when at His second coming the curtain is finally lifted and the last act in this divine drama completes the marvelous manifestation.
It has been commonly assumed, without Scriptural warrant, that on the day of Pentecost the Spirit was once for all poured out. Thenceforth, that Spirit was to dwell in the individual believer, and especially in the collective body of believers—the Church. Because of this idea, some hold that to pray for the outpourings of the Spirit, either upon saints or sinners implies absurdity and contradiction, since He is already bestowed upon and abiding in the Church.
To this position exception may certainly be taken. First of all, there is an exegetical difficulty in the way. The inspired Scriptures are marked by exactness in the use of words which show that the Spirit guided in language as well as in thought. When Peter quotes that unique prediction of Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” his words are carefully chosen. He does not say, “Now is fulfilled that which was foretold by Joel;” but, “this is that which was spoken by Joel.”
Peter might naturally have said, at Pentecost, “Now is fulfilled that which was spoken;” but Joel’s perdition was not then fulfilled. The “great and terrible day of the Lord” is yet to come, and the wonders in heaven above and in the earth beneath have yet to be wrought. And another and greater effusion—the universal outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh—is in the future. Joel’s prophecy, though not fulfilled, furnished the true philosophy of Pentecost. Explaining what was then seen and heard spectators said, “These men are full of new wine.” Peter answered that this was not spirituous intoxication but spiritual exhilaration! They were not drunk with wine wherein is excess, but were filled with the Spirit, the new wine from heaven’s vineyards!
Careful comparison of the second chapters of Joel and of the Acts must convince us that the cup of prediction has not yet been full to the brim, and waits for a more copious outpouring. Pentecost was the summer shower after long drought; the final outpouring will make springs gush forth and turn the desert into a garden, and a thousand rills, singing their song, shall blend in rivers of grace that roll like a liquid anthem to the sea.
This distinction is more than grammatical; it is philosophical. A renewed heart must neither lose its renewal nor let go its Renewer. But the anointed tongue needs its special unction only while it is used in witness for Christ. Charles G. Finney held that a true servant of God might have more than one enduement. And he who, even in spiritual self-culture, forgets his call to service, may forfeit his enduement. It is possible to be so absorbed in the permanent ministry of the indwelling Spirit as to overlook the occasional ministry of the enduing Spirit.
Even if it be conceded that, on the day of outpouring, the Spirit was once for all given in saving and sanctifying power, it does not follow that He does not, from time to time, come anew to saints in gifts of power for witnessing and working. Some careful Bible students regard Pentecost as a baptism wherein the Spirit was outpoured as into a vast reservoir, and would now urge disciples to ask not for a baptism of the Spirit, but to be filled with the Spirit, like empty vessels dipped into this Divine fullness.
But our contention is not for a form of statement. One practical question remains… Are we in faith and by prayer to seek for new effusions of power from on High? Should we expect tongues of fire to make our witness a Divine flame? Here lies the hope of worldwide missions. Without some new unction from the Spirit, we shall never feel that burning fire shut up in our bones which compels us to witness; nor will our witness without that be a power. If there is any way that this lost power from apostolic days may be recovered to the Church, it is most likely going to be from the severe school of fasting and prayer. A Church half-asleep and a world wholly dead waits for such a renaissance.
Yet a third argument is the historical. Pentecost was not the last, but only the first outpouring. It actually opened a series of such manifestations. This book of the Acts records repeated wonders similar in kind if not in degree.
When Philip preached in Samaria, and the rumor of his success reached Jerusalem, Peter and John were sent thither by the Apostles. When they came down, they prayed for the Samaritan converts that “they might receive the Holy Ghost; for as yet He was fallen upon none of them.” After they came they also received the Spirit and similar signs followed as at Jerusalem.
Again, at Cesarea, when Peter first preached to a representative Roman audience, as he began to speak the Holy Spirit fell on them, and as he expressly adds, “as on us at the beginning.” Here, once more were the signs of the first Pentecost wrought, repeated even in the gift of tongues. The gathering of the kinsmen, friends and retainers of the Centurion in the palace of the Caesars is believed to have exceeded in number the original hundred and twenty at Jerusalem! Certainly the results were proportionately larger, for the Holy Spirit fell on all those that heard the word.
Yet again, at Ephesus, among the Greeks, Paul found certain disciples, probably adherents of Apollos, who had not gotten beyond John’s preliminary baptism of repentance. When Paul laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them also, and they spake with tongues and prophesied.
Thus, within the bounds of this book and the limits of one generation, three instances are on record subsequent to the day of Pentecost. In each case, with language most explicit, the Spirit is said to have, “come upon,” “fallen upon,” or been “received,” by disciples. If within forty years there were four distinct and separate outpourings in the Apostolic age, who is competent to say that in the centuries succeeding there have been no other Pentecostal effusions. Many of them are scarcely less wonderful in some aspects than that earliest enduement. The question to us now is—are there now modern saints upon whom the Spirit has not yet fallen in the Pentecostal sense, but would come under power by an answer to believing prayer?
Recent history argues with the resistless logic of events that Pentecostal wonders are being repeated. This modern missionary century has been made both lustrous and illustrious by outpourings of the Spirit. In some respects, these outpourings are surpassing any recorded in apostolic days! Witness the story of Tahiti and all Western Polynesia; of the Hawaiian, Margquesan, Micronesian groups; of New Zealand, Madagascar and the Fiji Islands, of Nanumaga under Thomas Powell. Recollect Sierra Leone under William Johnson; of the missions in the valley of the Nile, in Zululand, and on the Gaboon River; in Banza Manteke under Henry Richards, and Basutoland under Dr. Moffat. Read the memoirs of Dr. Grant and Fidelia Fiske in Oroomiah; of Mackay in Uganda and his namesake in Formosa. Follow the work of Judson in Burma, of Broadman among the Karens; of Cyrus Wheeler on the Euphrates, of Clough and Jewett at Ongole, of William Duncan in his Metlakahtla and Joseph Neesima in his Doshisha. What are these and hundreds more examples that might be cited, but instances of mighty outpourings. In many cases these testimonies boast of Pentecostal signs and wonders scarcely paralleled on a scale of majesty and magnificence.
If this preliminary question seems to have undue heed given to it, it is for a purpose. Our supreme aim is to offset the discouraging lack and need of spiritual life and power by the encouraging fact that from time to time, and in many cases, that original blessing of Pentecost has in its main features been repeated. The history of missions with uplifted finger points to the glowing and glorious records on her shining scroll, and solemnly attests the fact that, wherever the most consecrated witnesses have gone faithfully preaching the gospel, there God has exhibited His power and bestowed His new Pentecosts.
This article was taken from
A.T. Pierson’s book
The New Acts of the Apostles (1892). It is out of print,
but is a classic work on missions.
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