Are We Interpreting Acts 1:8 Wrong? (by Alan Cross)

Alan Cross blogs at Downshore Drift.

Acts 1:8 is where Jesus is speaking to his disciples right before his Ascension into Heaven where he says, “But 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.” This was spoken to a small group of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem around 33 AD. He was telling them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and empower them to be witnesses/martyrs for him starting in Jerusalem. Then, the gospel would go throughout Judea and north to Samaria and then all over the world. As we read Acts, we see that very thing happening. The gospel spreads to Samaria by Acts 8 and by Acts 10-11 it has broken through to the Gentiles and then spreads all over the Roman Empire and beyond until Paul could say in Colossians 1:23 that the gospel had been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. The gospel had spread to the ends of the earth within the first generation of Christians – or, at least it had to an extent. Obviously, not every person had heard since not every person has now heard. But, the gospel was going out all over the world.

Which brings me to how we interpret Acts 1:8. I have often heard preachers make it personal and say that your Jerusalem is your hometown or the people that you are in close relationship with. Judea consists of the people a little farther away. Samaria, a bit farther still – or a bit different. And, “the ends of the earth” involve foreign missions to places like Africa and India. But, here is my question: In personalizing this promise/command, do we trivialize what God has already done and place ourselves at the center of the world? Do we forget that the Ethiopian Eunuch took the gospel to Africa after Acts 8, most likely, or that Thomas took the gospel to India (according to Christian history). Do we make mission something far off that we have to go someplace else to do? Do we minimize the work of Christians in other parts of the world who have been laboring for a long time to proclaim and demonstrate the gospel where they are?

I live in Montgomery, Alabama. There are a lot of churches in Montgomery, but this is not Jerusalem. Montgomery was not even a thought when Jesus told the disciples that they would take the gospel to the ends of the earth. In a sense, Montgomery IS at the ends of the earth from Jerusalem. When I go to India and do pastor/missionary training, it is a long way from Montgomery and it seems like it is at the ends of the earth, but only to me. For people born and raised there, including the indigenous church that we work with, it is their home. They are at the ends of the earth the same way Montgomery is and only in relation to Jerusalem – not in relation to me.

My point is that I think that Christians in Montgomery should see their mission the same way that Christians in North India see their mission. We are all at the ends of the earth. The gospel has come to us and we have a responsibility to live out its implications wherever we are – in this culture and in this time and wherever God might sovereignly send us. We are all “sent” people and mission is not something for those who might move to Africa or India where Christianity has existed for almost 2000 years. Just because there are a lot of churches in North America does not mean that we are Jerusalem and every place else consists of the far off heathen lands where the gospel has not been heard or believed. That is a very ego-centric mindset that harms our involvement in God’s mission because it removes it from our everyday lives and places it in the realm of responsibility for the specially called. It also both minimizes the lives of Christians in far off places as not being powerful enough to reach their regions and simultaneously exalts them as being different or special because we unnecessarily come to think that it must be so very hard to live for Christ where they are.

We are all missionaries. And, we are all regular Christians who are filled with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to declare and live out the gospel wherever we go – whether it be Montgomery, Alabama in the United States where I live and work or Jacmel, Haiti where I am headed next week, or Dehradun, Uttarakhand in India where we go regularly. God’s Mission to seek and save the lost and make disciples of nations happens everywhere. I am not at the center of it and my life and home is not Jerusalem. The gospel has come to me from long ago and far away and it is to pass through me wherever I live and wherever I roam till all hear and Jesus returns.

Let us not interpret Acts 1:8 personally, but instead, see ourselves as part of God’s sovereign work of bringing His salvation to the nations. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And, people will stand on our shoulders one day too.

Comments

  1. David Rogers says

    I think the motto of the Lausanne Movement is biblically based, in this respect: “The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.” As Americans, we are called to be team players alongside the rest of the Body of Christ around the world in the task to which God has called us all. That being said, whether we get it from Acts 1:8 or not, I do think there is some value, and some biblical basis, to giving a special effort, and dedicating special resources, for reaching the relatively unreached with the gospel. Just as Paul and Apollos, though, some are called and gifted primarily to plant the seed, and others to water what has already been planted.

    • says

      Absolutely right. I do not deny that at all. I just think that seeing Acts 1:8 as a progression of what God has done in spreading the gospel through the Church – and what He is still doing – actually motivates me to see my daily life as a part of God’s mission. Instead of “Mission” being something that really happens when I am “over there,” I am now at “the ends of the earth.” I should be as missional as I hope that my Indian brothers and sisters are with the same sense of urgency. The push to take the gospel to unreached people’s comes from a Biblical desire that all of the nations would worship and be discipled, not from a geographical progression that starts with me at the center.

      There are obviously other ways to get at this.

      • Christiane says

        I think you are right about all Christians being ‘sent forth’ into ‘the world’

        The last instruction given to us before we leave our service is this:

        “- Go forth . . . .
        – Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.
        – Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.
        – Go in peace. ”

        And the people’s response:
        ‘Thanks Be To God’

        Among the oldest ways of ending a Christian service
        were to say
        ‘ go forth, you are dismissed
        (from the the Latin ‘missa’ meaning ‘sent forth’)

    • cb scott says

      I like this post by Alan Cross and this comment by David Rogers.

      If I may, I would like to add a point regarding the duration of Acts 1:8. Acts 1:8 is a mandate for the church from generation to generation until the return of Christ.

      The principles of the mandate of Acts 1:8 never change. The methodologies by which we fulfill the mandate should be progressive for greater effectiveness as new methodologies of conveyance avail themselves.

  2. says

    First of all, Acts 1:8 was a prophetic history of the expansion of the church – in Jerusalem first, then in the ancient nation of Israel, and then through Paul and his compatriots, to the ends of the earth.

    I do think it is helpful to think of missions in three categories – simply because they require different approaches.

    There is local ministry – hands on, personal, performed by the church.
    There is regional/national ministry – less hands on perhaps, though we can be involved in many ways. Done primarily by those who represent us and whom we support with our offerings.
    There is international ministry – in which we can have some personal involvement, but is almost exclusively carried on by the missionaries we send and support.

    I think Alan makes good points, but I also think there is some level of personal approach to this.

    • says

      Yep. That is a good breakdown, Dave. I agree. I heard a message last week that used the Jersualem/Judea/Samaria/Ends of the Earth categories and applied it to our personal lives. It was from a Baptist pastor of a large church and he was telling us that Jerusalem involves people like me – my affinity group. Judea involves people mostly like me but a bit farther away – perhaps culturally similar but geographically a bit of a reach. Samaria involves people culturally and religiously different, but still in my basic geographic area. And, the Ends of the Earth are people both culturally and geographically removed from me in lands far away. I sat there listening to that like I have a thousand times in Baptist settings and again thought, “that is not what that is saying at all.” We should minister Christ to people all over everywhere we go. If I move to North India, do I see myself then at the ends of the earth, or does that become my Jerusalem if I live there long enough? I am just thinking that using the verse well in the Biblical context is better and then make your case for global and local ministry/evangelism/missions from other sources is probably the way to go. We are most definitely to do all of it as God leads and provides.

      • says

        Yeah, I think the most correct interp of the passage according to authorial intent is the historical view.

        But it is more than possible to take that principle, as you have pointed out, and make some silly (or at least significantly stretched) applications of it.

        Good post, by the way.

  3. Jess Alford says

    Alan Cross,

    In light of Acts 1:8, Do you think we are behind in the evangilizing our own country, If so in what area are we lacking, is it the local church or something else?

    • says

      Jess, I do. At least in the newest generation and the immigrants that have moved here. A primary reason, I believe, is that Evangelicalism in the United States has taken on a defensive posture by which we largely seek to promote our own way of life. Because we seek to save our lives instead of lose them, we are not in the position to enter into the lives of others as servants who are holding out the gospel. We have lots of plans, but our overall perspective usually focuses on what most benefits us instead of what benefits others.

      • Jess Alford says

        Allen,

        AMEN, I hope things change. I don’t know what it will take to turn things around. Maybe we need to put more feet on our prayers.

      • Tim Peters says

        Alan, thank you so much for your Spirit filled thoughts about Acts 1:8. I have been wondering for a long time if the church (my church) in America even has relevance in our country/culture today. Perhaps if we took the emphasis off of our comfort and put it back where it need be we would be much more effective for Christ.

  4. says

    Alan – Great Post!! I love your insight into the American Church:

    It also both minimizes the lives of Christians in far off places as not being powerful enough to reach their regions and simultaneously exalts them as being different or special because we unnecessarily come to think that it must be so very hard to live for Christ where they are.

    There is a guy I know that when he gets up to pray always says something to the effect of “being thankful to be in a country where we are free to worship Jesus” implying that our situation is necessarily better and should be so everywhere. I find it to be misrepresentative of the truth that ALL people are free to worship Jesus; some just pay a higher price for it.

    I think our “freedom” has lead the American church to do exactly as you’ve stated: misinterpret Acts 1:8 in an Americo-centric manner. We have bundled our bible and our constitution together so that our so-called “freedom” is defended as much by God as it is by the US Armed Forces. It is (relatively speaking) so easy to live as a Christian here that it is almost imprinted on our birth certificate.

    I agree that we need to be mindful that from the author’s point of view, we are the ends of the Earth. We should live as missionaries and ambassadors always. For the believer, one’s earthly nationality is irrelevant in eternity.

    • says

      Exactly, Greg. That “Americo-Centric” perspective causes us to ignore our neighbor who does not know Christ on the side of the road while we head to a missions meeting at our church so the gospel can be preached in Uganda, a country with lots of indigenous Christians. We should do both.

      If I see my city as a provincial capitol in a far flung corner of the globe at the ends of the earth instead of at the center of the Bible Belt, I might have a different perspective on my church and how we do ministry. I might see my life differently as well. If I see other Christians all over the globe in a similar situation as I am in, then I see them a partners in the gospel instead of as people beneath me that I have to take the gospel to. There are, of course, areas of unreached people groups that we should all work together to reach. But, as an American at “the ends of the earth,” I am not more capable of reaching those people than other believers in Africa or India or China who are already positioned closer to them both geographically, linguistically, and ethnically. Instead of taking the lead, we should seek to partner, assist, and support the work of the global church just as they do the same with us.

  5. Kevin Peacock says

    Another way to look at Acts 1:8 is to see it in terms of “kinds” of people. Acts 1:8 is obviously an historical outline of Acts, with the gospel moving from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. However, we also notice that “the ends of the earth” were present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, so geographical expansion is not the only emphasis here.

    “Kinds” of people refers to those represented by those geographical areas. “Jerusalem-Judea” are those with an “incomplete faith” — those who had embraced the biblical faith of Judaism but had not yet received the Messiah. “Samaria” refers to those with a “corrupted faith,” partial biblical truth syncretized with paganism (think Simon the magician). “Uttermost parts of the earth” refers to pagans who have not yet been exposed to biblical truth, especially the truth of the gospel.

    I find all three categories in my neighborhood — and to a certain extent, we find the first two sitting in our churches. If we use Acts 1:8 as a sort of paradigm, it means that we must be ready, able, and willing to be witnesses to Jesus, not just geographically, but psychographically — to any of these kinds of people that may be present wherever we are.

    • says

      Kevin, I can see that. I think that there are many ways to see the expanse of the Gospel to all people. My main point, I guess, is that when you see where you are as “Jersusalem,” you tend to see your area as “reached” and “mission” as something that one does “over there.” It also tends to disregard the significance of other Christians in subtle ways. Where we are is not “home base” for the gospel or for the church. We ALL live on the mission field, so to speak, as we are all at “the ends of the earth” in reference to where the gospel began in both space and time.

    • says

      Yes, Kevin! So many of my fellow baptists completely miss this emphasis. The gospel moved from old covenant people to complete pagans. This was tied to geography surely, but the point is the lordship of Christ for ALL people. It’s amazing how much of practical ministry structures are built on something I don’t think is Luke’s point (i.e. people in my city, people in my region, people in the world). This is not a bad way to think but it shouldn’t be so closely tied to Acts 1:8 as if that is what the verse means.

      • Kevin Peacock says

        John, if you look at the gospel presentations in Acts you’ll find the basic gospel message tailored to each of these audiences — in much the same way that Jesus’ gospel presentation to Nicodemus in John 3 was different than His presentation to the Samaritan woman in John 4. I believe that the necessary implication of Acts 1:8 is Christ’s followers should be adept at bearing testimony to Christ to the different “types” of audiences, even more so in today’s world when “the world” has come to us.

        In my context, I see the those with an “incomplete faith” every day in the devout Catholics who do not yet have a personal relationship with Christ. Our society is so flooded with Mormons that the “corrupted faith” is easy to spot. And Canadian society is so full of the pagan unreached who may be involved in another religion or are proudly unaffiliated with any religion whatsoever, that they need to gospel tailor-made to them so that they can hear and understand it. All three of those live within one block of my house.

      • Kevin Peacock says

        By the way, Dave, we had Canadian Thanksgiving back in mid-October, so today is a regular work day. I will enjoy some pumpkin pie and some football tonight, however. So that’s why I’m on the internet today.

  6. says

    I think your point on our overlooking national Christians is an important one: how often have we heard “If we don’t go, no one will!” in our churches?

    Right. Because there are no other Christians in the world but us. That does not excuse us from doing what we can, but at some level we have to realize that even in the “Bible Belt” American Christians live in a lost nation, surrounded by lost people. Some of which are the most challenging group of lost people: those who affiliate with the church for reasons that are not the Gospel. I think many Bible-belt Baptist Belongers are the closest to what Hebrews 6 speaks of that I can find: those who know, see, have even tasted the grace and the glory—and have no real connection to it.

    • cb scott says

      Doug Hibbard,

      I think you are right about Bible-belt Baptists and Hebrews 6. I also wonder if the concept of the Bible-belt has validity anymore.

  7. says

    In my experience, I would say that the Bible-belt concept is generational. There are still a number of senior citizens who see things that way, but baby boomer and later generations aren’t under such a worldview.

    • cb scott says

      Dale Pugh,

      I would agree that among the Builder generation would be found far more folks who could be identified/defined as products of the Bible-belt.

      However, we must admit that the Builders were/are the parents of the Boomer generation and the idea of the Bible-belt begins to deconstruct as our generation grows older.

      The number of adults males who live by a biblical worldview on this whole planet is estimated at 4%. if that is the case, I think the concept of a geographic/demographic identity of a Bible-belt is rapidly vanishing even in the Southland.

      • says

        Yes. That’s what I was aiming at. My mind has been a mess since last Saturday evening and the great touchdown robbery perpetrated by Stanford.

  8. Wes says

    If Jerusalem is symbolic of the Christian’s hometown, then the disciples should have started in Galilee, not Jerusalem, since that was where they were from. So I’m in agreement with your idea.

        • says

          True, but note what happens next: they go right back to Jerusalem, where they had been staying prior to the ascension. From Acts 1:12, they were not far outside Jerusalem at that point, a short hop to the west in the mountains. There is a question how to mesh the location in Matthew 28 with that in Acts 1, but since we’re talking about Acts 1:8 it seems fitting to discern their location based on Acts 1:12. They were staying in Jerusalem, had taken a short jaunt to the Mount of Olives, then returned to Jerusalem.

          • Christiane says

            The Disciples were told to return to Jerusalem and wait until the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
            Only after the descent of the Holy Spirit were they, as Apostles, to go forth;
            and then, they most certainly went forth with great power on their mission.

            ‘apostoli’ means ‘sent’

            ‘as the Father has sent Me, I also send you’

            (see the Gospel of St. Luke, where it corresponds to Acts concerning the return to Jerusalem to await the Coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Disciples)

  9. Christiane says

    CHRIS,
    read about the first encounters in the Book of Acts

    for example:
    in Acts 11, this:
    ” 20 But some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were entered into Antioch, spoke also to the Greeks, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believing, were converted to the Lord. 22 And the tidings came to the ears of the church that was at Jerusalem, touching these things: and they sent Barnabas as far as Antioch. 23 Who, when he had come and had seen the grace of God, rejoiced. And he exhorted them all with purpose of heart to continue in the Lord. 24 For he was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith. And a great multitude was added to the Lord.”

    It is known that Antioch was only one of several of the first ‘centers’ of the Church, but there were other centers, such as Alexandria, Rome, Anatolia (the Asian Churches mentioned in Scripture). Strangely, during the times of the worst persecution, there was the greatest growth in the Church, something that defies human logic . . . but still, it happened.