There is something wonderfully paradoxical about the Christian church. Its origin as a unique social phenomenon clearly dates from the Pentecost events described in Acts 2. Yet at the same time, Jesus’ disciples would say that this “new” community of faith was simply part of a centuries-old already existing people of God, stretching back all the way to Abraham and his family. The connection between the old and the new is the story of the Bible.
It can be summarized like this:
First, God created this world and uniquely fashioned the human race with attributes that reflected its maker.
Second, through human willfulness the world lost its pristine vitality, and is now caught up in a civil war against its Creator.
Third, intruding directly into human affairs for the sake of reclaiming and restoring the world, the Creator began a mission of redemption and renewal through the nation of Israel.
Fourth, Israel’s identity as a missional community was shaped by the Suzerain-Vassal covenant formed at Mt. Sinai.
Fifth, in order to be most effective in its witness to other nations, Israel was positioned at the crossroads of global societies, and thus received, as its “promised land,” the territory known as Canaan.
Sixth, the effectiveness of this divine missional strategy through Israel was most evident in the tenth century B.C., during the reigns of David and Solomon, when the kingdom grew in size and influence among the peoples of the ancient near east and beyond.
Seventh, this missional witness eroded away, almost to oblivion, through a combination of internal failures and external political threats, until most of the nation of Israel was wiped out by the Assyrians, and only a remnant of the tribe of Judah retained its unique identity as the people of Yahweh.
Eighth, because of the seeming inadequacy of this method of witness, as the human race expanded rapidly, the Creator revised the divine missional strategy, and interrupted human history in a very visible manner again in the person of Jesus.
Ninth, Jesus embodied the divine essence, taught the divine will, and went through death and resurrection to establish a new understanding of eschatological hope, which he passed along to his followers as the message to be communicated to the nations.
Tenth, Jesus’ teachings about this arriving messianic age were rooted in what the prophets of Israel called the “Day of the Lord,” a time when divine judgment for sins would fall on all nations, a remnant from Israel would be spared to become the restored seed community of a new global divine initiative, and the world would be transformed as God had intended for it to be, so that people could again live out their intended purposes and destinies.
Eleventh, instead of applying all aspects of this “Day of the Lord” in a single cataclysmic event, Jesus split it in two, bringing the beginnings of eternal blessings while withholding the full impact of divine judgment for a time.
Twelfth, the Christian church is God’s new agent for global missional recovery and restoration for the human race, superseding the territorially-bound witness through Israel with a portable and expanding testimony influencing all nations and cultures.
Thirteenth, since the “Day of the Lord” is begun but not finished, Jesus will return again to bring its culmination.
Fourteenth, the church of Jesus exists in this time between Jesus’ comings as the great divine missional witness.
Each of these themes is implied or explicit in the first two chapters of Acts. God and sin and the divine mission are all part of the fabric of the narrative, while Israel’s role in the divine mission, along with the changing strategies, is declared openly. Jesus is at the centre of all these things, but the unique divine intrusion he brought into the human race is now being withdrawn, as he ascends back to heaven. Now the church must become the ongoing embodiment of Jesus’ life and teachings, so that it may live out the divine mission until the remainder of the “Day of the Lord” arrives when Jesus returns.
Acts is the second of Luke’s two volumes on the life and work of Jesus, presented first through his immediate person in the gospel, and now through his extended “body,” the church. Guiding this part is Jesus’ statement in Acts 1:8 – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke describes the way in which this witness emerged first in Jerusalem (chapters 2–7), then swept through Samaria (chapters 8–12), and finally began its push toward the ends of the earth (chapters 13–28).
A full missional harvest
Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for a special gift (Acts 1:4), must have seemed vague at the time, but the arrival of the explosive power of the Holy Spirit during the Pentecost feast made sense. This celebration was both a harvest festival and a time for recalling the gift of the original covenant documents to Moses at Mount Sinai. These two themes intersected marvelously with what was taking place. First, there was the dawning of a new age of revelation and divine mission, paralleling the first covenant declaration in the book of Exodus. Second, during the Pentecost harvest festival, the first sheaves of grain were presented at the temple, anticipating that God would then bring in the full harvest. This expression of faith served as a clear analogy to the greater missional harvest of the church, which was begun through a miraculous “first fruits” in Jerusalem that day.
Those in Jerusalem that day would have had their senses charged to understand these things. For instance, a single word, both in the Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) languages, serves to designate “wind,” “breath” and “spirit.” Thus the sound of a rushing wind captured the attention of all who were about to breathe in the Spirit of God. Second, this fresh, divine breath was confirmed visually by the single blaze of fire from heaven that became multiple flames burning from each head. Jesus’ cousin John had said that he baptized with water, but that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 1:16). Now, in full view of all, the single divine Spirit baptized everyone at the same time.
One more image had to come to mind among the Jewish faithful, steeped in scriptural history. Although not explicitly stated, there seems to be a conscious undoing of the troubles that started at Babel through the miracle of multiple-language communications at Pentecost. In Genesis 11, the human race was becoming unified against its Creator, and the divine solution to dissipate this rebellion was to multiply the languages spoken, forcing the community to become segmented into competing groups. At Pentecost this action was reversed, and the many people who communicated in their diverse local languages suddenly all heard the same message of grace at once, and were knit together into a new common humanity of the church. Babel was undone by Pentecost!
Peter capitalized on these themes when he preached a sermon explaining Joel’s prophecy of the “Day of the Lord.” Peter tied together God’s extensive mission, the history of Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the splitting of the Day of the Lord so that the blessings of the messianic age could begin before the final divine judgment fell. The pattern for entering the new community of faith was clearly outlined: repent and be baptized. The former indicated a transforming presence of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts, while the latter became the initiation rite by which the ranks of this missional society were identified.
What had been a centripetal energizing motion during the first phase of God’s recovery mission on planet Earth (that is, drawing all nations toward a re-engagement with their Creator through the strategically placed people of Israel), was now shifted into a centrifugal motion of divine sending out these blessings of testimony to the world, in ever-widening circles of witness. The Christian church, born as a Jewish messianic sect, became a global religion.
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