J. H. Bavinck, the late professor at Kampen, the Netherlands, calls the Book of Acts “A mission document par excellence” (Introduction To The Science Of Missions). This is so very true. Anyone wishing to formulate a theology of missions could ill afford to ignore the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts has much to say concerning both the principles of missions and the proper method of performing mission work. Acts records the history of the early expansion of the church. One might put it this way: Acts records the beginning of the history of missions under the leadership of the Apostles. The Book begins with the ascension of Christ and the pouring out of His Spirit upon “all flesh” and it ends with the Apostle Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, in prison in Rome.
Thus the Book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel beyond Jewry and among the Gentiles. Prior to this the Gospel, with only a few exceptions, was limited to the elect out of the Jews, the spiritual seed of Abraham. And even in the record of Acts, at the first the Apostles (especially Peter and John) ministered among the Jews exclusively. The only exception to this was the work of Philip among the Samaritans. (Cf. Acts 8.) However true this may be, the eschatological and universal significance of the Gospel was certainly known even in the early part of the history of the church recorded in Acts. This was very much in evidence in the Apostle Peter’s sermon upon the occasion of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Peter preached to that multitude that what they had seen and heard was in fulfillment of the Prophecy of Joel (chapter 2), the Day of the Lord has come. In that Day of the Lord the promise is unto you (the elect Jew) and to thy seed, and to all that are afar off even as many as the Lord our God shall call (Acts 2:39). The arrival of the Day of the Lord means that the gospel is no longer limited to the Jews. God will call His elect out of the nations.
Decisive in this connection, and that which gave the impetus to the preaching of the gospel among all nations, were the visions God gave to Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian band, and Peter, the Apostle. Cornelius is instructed to send for Peter who is in Joppa. Meanwhile Peter is given the vision of the unclean animals with the command to “rise, kill, and eat.” Through the vision Peter learns that he must not call common or unclean what God calls clean. Peter preaches the gospel to Cornelius and the latter together with his house believes and is baptized (Acts 10). Peter proceeded to Jerusalem and explained what had happened, to the Apostles and brethren there. The reaction was: “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). The spread of the Gospel among the nations was greatly enhanced by the persecution which followed the death of Stephen and the resultant dispersion of the people of God (Acts 8:4; Acts 11:19-21).
From this point on, the Book of Acts records the gathering of the church out of the nations by the preaching of the Apostles and Evangelists. Even the Jerusalem conference dealt not with the question of whether or not the Gentiles were to be admitted into the church (that was not a problem), but whether or not they had to be circumcised (Acts 15). The remaining chapters in Acts record the calling of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road and his preaching throughout the Mediterranean world. Therefore Acts reveals the universality of the promise. That which had been promised to Abraham already, “. . . in thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed,” finds its principle fulfillment in Acts.
In all of this, Acts really teaches us one, fundamental principle of missions. That principle is: missions is exclusively the work of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. This is evident already from the introduction to the book: “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the Apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1, 2). That former treatise is the Gospel account of Luke, in which the latter records that which Jesus began both to do and teach. By implication, therefore, what we have in the Book of Acts is that which Jesus continued both to do and to teach. From this point of view the book is not really the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ through the Apostles.
That the work of preaching the Gospel to the nations is the work of Christ is made clear all through the Book of Acts. Christ sheds forth the Holy Spirit and, in the power of the Spirit of Christ, Peter preaches to the multitude in Jerusalem. The fruit of that sermon was immediately evident in the three thousand souls who “gladly received his word and were baptized. . .” (Acts 2:41). Subsequently through the preaching of the Apostles, “the Lord added daily to the church such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). Christ accomplishes His work through the Apostles. Peter commands the lame man at the temple to rise up and walk “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 3:6). When a wondering crowd gathers, Peter preaches to them that it was through faith in the name of the risen Christ that the man was made strong (Acts 3:16). When they were arrested, and then on the next day questioned concerning the miracle, Peter witnesses of the same truth to the Jewish leaders, telling them: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Christ’s leading is also apparent in the martyrdom of Stephen and the consequent persecution and dispersion of the Jewish Christians throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Of these scattered Christians we read: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the gospel” (Acts 8:4). Again we read of these Christians that they were scattered as far as Phenice and Cyprus and Antioch. Some of these when they came to Antioch preached to the Grecians (Acts 11:19-20). It is Christ Who sends Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26, 29). Christ calls the Apostle Paul to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 9:4-6, 15). Christ sends Peter to the centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10 and Acts 11). The fact that the Apostle Paul was led by Christ throughout his ministry is found repeatedly on the pages of Acts. (Acts 13:1-4; Acts 16:6, 7, 9, 10; Acts 18:9, 10)
The message of the Book of Acts as far as missions is concerned is: Jesus Christ Who was crucified is present with His church, in the Spirit. He has not left His beloved comfortless or without guidance or without strength. The risen, exalted Lord Christ Whose name is above every name and Who has all power in heaven and on earth has returned to be with the church in the Spirit.
The contrast between the pre-Pentecost church and the Spirit-filled church could not be greater. Apart from the Holy Spirit of Christ the church is a little group of poor, wondering, and even frightened believers in an upper room in Jerusalem, one hundred and twenty of them. They do not understand and they do not know what to expect. They are waiting and wondering and praying in obedience to the word of their ascended Lord. Suddenly the Spirit is poured out, accompanied by wonderful signs: the sound of a mighty rushing wind, cloven tongues like as of fire on each of them, and the speaking with other tongues the wonderful works of God! Peter preaches a powerful sermon, now he understands. The Day of the Lord has come! Repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ Who was crucified but Whom God raised up and Who has shed forth His Spirit. Three thousand are saved, later five thousand more, and daily the Lord adds to the church such as should be saved. In the power of the Spirit they become instruments of Christ, driven out into the world. They become a mighty host. (Cf. Acts 2:41, 47; Acts 6:1; Acts 8:4.) They had great boldness, these who had formerly been unlearned and ignorant men (Acts 4:13). They had boldness in the faith, confidence, courage to stand before kings and governors, strength to endure cheerfully all kinds of opposition and abuse and persecution.
All this was theirs in the power of the exalted Christ. That same Christ is with the Church today. His Word is ever the same: “Go ye, into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. . . .”