“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28.19fFrom Martin Hayward:
Our Christmas present from the family this year was a subscription to Netflix. The result has been that we have spent far too many hours since then binge-watching boxed sets of American political thrillers, costume dramas and comedies. What’s not to like about a sequel?!
And that is what the New Testament book of Acts is; it is a sequel to the message begun by John the Baptist, Jesus, and His twelve apostles in the gospels, which tells the story of the early church, faults and all. John Stott makes the point that although it is popularly called The book of Acts, that does not indicate whose acts are in mind. Acts of the Holy Spirit goes some way but omits the human beings through whom the Spirit was working. The traditional title is The Acts of the Apostles, “but” says Stott “none of these titles do justice to the opening verse which attributes the works and words to Jesus.”
Luke doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know, but he includes every essential detail from the earliest days of the Christian movement and shows that the Christian faith is firmly rooted in the facts of history. It is the story of how the church responded to Jesus’ command “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), whilst living in a predominately pagan culture.
So, what can we learn from Acts that will give us a clue as to how Jesus wishes his work to continue through his church today?
The main thing, I would say, is that early Christians were wholeheartedly committed to mission. We read in Chapter 2; 47 that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. Now let’s be clear: the work of conversion is Jesus’ job, but almost without exception the message of salvation comes via the witness of believers. We read of how they worked by preaching and by the everyday witness of church members through their words and their common life of prayer, welcome, support, fellowship and love. The church was zealous in its daily work and Jesus was zealous in his work of conversion. On a daily basis people were being saved and added to the church. Fast forward 2,000 years and we see church numbers in the UK on a seemingly fatal downward spiral. The comparison begs the question: “who is being less zealous than in the past? Is it the church in its job of witness or is it Jesus in his job of conversion and salvation?”