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Pentecost and Missions

The book of Acts is filled with stories of missionary exploits that can excite us to bold acts of faith. But at times it can unfortunately become a heavy club to strike the sheep for their lack of zeal for the lost. And, possibly worse, the Great Commission becomes the whip that drives such obedience. But is this what Christ had in mind when he commissioned his church to go? We’ll look to answer this by analyzing the motivation behind the early church’s zeal for missions as portrayed in Acts. We want to answer this question: what motivated the early church to reach the gentiles with the gospel? The answer will also provide us with the proper motivation for our missionary calling as a church today.[1]

Acts 1-9 — Ethnically Nearsighted Missions

Acts does not begin with a church zealous to reach the gentiles with the good news of the gospel; in fact, the gentiles are not even on their radar. The witness of the church in the first nine chapters is limited to those who were either members of or related to the Jewish community. The two exceptions would seem to be Philip’s proclamation of Christ to the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25) and to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (8:26-39). However, the Samaritans were not regarded as purely gentiles since they had Jewish ancestry and the Ethiopian eunuch is depicted as a God-fearer since he was in Jerusalem for Passover and possessed a Jewish scroll (Isaiah)—he was likely a proselyte to the Jewish religion.

Why is it that the church, who during this time had already received the Great Commission, was not compelled to reach the Gentiles with the good news? Christ had commanded them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; cf. Acts 1:8). Yet, this command did not expand the limited insight the Jews had regarding the universality of the gospel. They remained ethnically nearsighted, targeting only the Jewish population, so that the issues and problems surrounding the incorporation of the gentiles into the church were not entertained or even imagined. Thus, the first nine chapters of Acts surprisingly supports the notion that the Great Commission did not “play a role in launching the church on her missionary labors” outside the Jewish community.

Acts 10 — Peter’s Encounter with Cornelius

Peter himself gives six utterances of a universalistic nature (2:17, 21, 39; 3:25, 26; 4:12), yet it is not until his encounter with Cornelius that he understands the true universalistic nature of the gospel to be for both Jew and gentile alike. It is in Acts 10 that the “gentile-problem” begins to appear as a blip on the church’s radar. It’s here we perceive the motivation that leads the church to bring the gospel to those outside the Jewish community.

It’s interesting to note that the “gentile-problem” is first encountered here in Acts 10 and not at the Jerusalem Council found in Acts 15.[2] Peter’s words are telling when he stands up before the council and says, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (15:7). Peter indicates that the council was not meeting to necessarily answer the problem, since God had already clearly provided an answer earlier. But, as Harry Boer notes,

At the Jerusalem conference it was established that believing gentiles need not observe the law of Moses. Before the Church effected this clarification it had already, in connection with the conversion of Cornelius, made the fundamental affirmation that gentiles as gentiles could be the recipients of salvation. When later developments threatened the integrity of this affirmation (“Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved” Acts 15:1) the Church acted and acted resolutely to safeguard it. The Jerusalem conference did not bring a new state of things into being. It simply rejected a heresy. The new state of things had been brought into being earlier at Jerusalem when the Church accepted as valid the conversion and baptism of Cornelius.[3]

Let us then look more closely at Acts 10. It opens with Cornelius, a gentile centurion, seeing an angel of God in a vision who commends his offerings before God and commands him to send his servants to Joppa to bring the apostle Peter back to his home (10:1-8). As his servants journey to the city, Peter falls into a trance. He sees a great sheet descending with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds in it (a good friend likes to speak of this as Peter’s bacon dream). Then a voice speaks to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (10:13). Peter, bewildered at the command, replies, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (10:14). But the voice comes to him a second time, saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (10:15). Following this vision Cornelius’ servants arrive and invite Peter back with them (10:17-23). They arrive and Peter says to Cornelius, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (10:28). Cornelius goes on to explain what happened to him a few days earlier (10:30-33). Peter then speaks the good news of the gospel to Cornelius and his household, hitting some universal notes that he previously had been shortsighted to (10:34-43). Then comes this significant conclusion to the event:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:44-48).

Peter’s carrying out of the Great Commission in baptizing and teaching Cornelius and his household was not motivated by Christ’s command itself, but by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the uncircumcised gentiles. That the gospel was intended for both Jew and gentile was not inferred from the Great Commission, but from the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gentiles.

Now it’s not that we’re to look for the Pentecost event (or something similar to it) to repeat itself upon a certain people group or household to then be motivated to bring the gospel to them. Rather, Pentecost was a once for all accomplishment that belongs to redemptive-history, as Gaffin has made a convincing case for in his book Perspectives on Pentecost (see also our interview with him). But isn’t the Pentecost event of Acts 2 repeated in Acts 10? Sinclair Ferguson helps us to understand the redemptive-historical significance of Acts 10,

The coming of the Spirit to the household of Cornelius marks the breakthrough of the gospel into the Gentile world. … The event is viewed as epochal, programmatic, rather than paradigmatic.[4]

This is how the church in Jerusalem interpreted the event, saying, “Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). They did not see it as only motivation to reach Cornelius and his household, but the entire gentile world.

Acts 11 — Peter’s Mission Report in Jerusalem

This is precisely the defense Peter will give before the circumcision party in Jerusalem who criticized him for going to and eating with the uncircumcised. He does not say, “Do you not remember that we were commanded to make disciples of all nations by our risen Lord?” Rather, his defense is grounded in the indicative of Pentecost. After recounting his vision to them and the subsequent actions, he says,

“As I began to speak [to Cornelius and his household], the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. … If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:15, 17).

Again, his defense did not center on the Great Commission, but on the act of God pouring out his Spirit on the gentiles. Upon hearing this, the circumcised party was silenced “and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11:18). Notice there is no discussion of the Great Commission, only the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion: The Pentecostal Indicative

The Great Commission was being fulfilled without direct consciousness of it!

“The gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his family removed in Peter all tension resulting from the contradiction between his ingrained Jewish exclusivism and the divine leading that required him to preach the gospel to the gentiles.”[5]

The Great Commission did not confront the early church with the “gentile-problem”; instead, it was the Pentecost event that did. This is not to say that the Great Commission was irrelevant, but that it did not carry with itself the motivation and power to reach the uncircumcised. “The Great Commission … derives it meaning and power wholly and exclusively from the Pentecost event.”[6] To demand obedience to the Great Commission without grounding it in what God has done at Pentecost is legalism. It is the indicative of Pentecost that empowers the church to carry out Christ’s command to go and make disciples of all nations. This is what moved the early church to action, and this is what should move us today.

[1] See Harry Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 15-27 for a historical survey that tries to explain the present disproportion between the Great Commission and Pentecost. He argues that the ratio in the early church favored Pentecost, while today the scales have shifted: the Great Commission receives the emphasis, while Pentecost receives very little attention at all.

[2] Boer points out that Luke gives more verses to Cornelius’ conversion (66 verses) than to the crucial Jerusalem council (35 verses). He believes that this supports his conclusion that the important Gentile-question was first answered with Cornelius than with the council.

[3] Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 35.

[4] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 81. Gaffin, in his article “Pentecost: Before and After,” argues the same point that Pentecost belongs to historia salutis not ordo salutis. He writes, “Pentecost… is an event, an integral event, in the historia salutis, not an aspect of the ordo salutis; Pentecost has its place in the once-for-all, completed accomplishment of redemption, not in its ongoing application. Without Pentecost the definitive, unrepeatable work of Christ for our salvation is incomplete. The task set before Christ was not only to secure the remission of sin but, more ultimately, as the grand outcome of his Atonement, life as well (e.g., John 10:10; 2 Tim. 1:10)—eternal, eschatological, resurrection life, or, in other words, life in the Spirit. Without that life “salvation” is obviously not only truncated but meaningless. And it is just that life, that completed salvation, and Christ as its giver that is openly revealed at Pentecost. … All in all—from a full, trinitarian perspective—Pentecost involves the epochal fulfillment of the ultimate design and expectation of God’s covenant purposes: God in the midst of his people in triune fullness. Pentecost brings to the church the initial, ‘firstfruits’ realization of the Emmanuel principle on an irrevocable because eschatological scale.”

[5] Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 40.

[6] Boer Pentecost and Mission, 47.


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