Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Missionary Work of God

Reading: Acts 13  
The title written over Acts 13:1-3 in my bible1 is, “Preparing for the Mission Field.” I think this title is a little misleading. I recommend titling it, “The Missionary Initiative of the Holy Spirit,” since what follows is far less about human preparation for the mission field than about the initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission.
2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4).
This initiative of the Holy Spirit in mission doesn't end once he gets Paul and Barnabas on their way. What follows reveals that this whole endeavor of spreading the Gospel is entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. The prayer and fasting of the disciples in Antioch were less about preparation for the mission field and more about our complete inability to advance the mission of the Gospel on our own. They were about our utter dependence on God! And whenever we are prayerless, it reveals that we think we are not utterly dependent on God to advance the Gospel.
On the first leg of this journey, on the island of Cyrus, Paul and Barnabas had an opportunity to proclaim the message to Sergius Paulus, a government official. However, Elymas the sorcerer was right there persuading him not to believe (Acts 13:6-8). So the Holy Spirit empowers Paul to do a miraculous work that results in Sergius Paulus believing! (Acts 13:9-12) Without this work of the Spirit, Sergius Paulus would not have believed.
Their journey soon brought them to Pisidian Antioch where they went to the Synagogue and were shortly invited to speak. Beginning with the Old Testament story of Israel, walking them through the coming of Jesus, Paul proclaimed the Gospel to them. In this Gospel presentation, Paul highlights something that shows why we are so dependent on the Holy Spirit to advance the Gospel.
27The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:27-29)
Paul points out something we also learn in John's Gospel. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world2 did not recognize him.” (John 1:10) We might expand on that saying, “He came to Israel, to those who had the words of the prophets about the coming Messiah, and heard them every Sabbath and yet they did not recognize Him when He came. Not only did they fail to recognize Him, they rejected Him, sentencing Him to death by disregarding the very law which predicted Him. Although not recognizing Him, even unjustly condemning Him, they fulfilled everything it said about Him right down to laying Him in a tomb.”
How does this reveal our dependence on the Holy Spirit in Gospel proclamation? The people we share the Gospel with cannot recognize Jesus even though they were made through Him! The only thing they can do, apart from the Holy Spirit's empowering work, is reject Him, hate Him, and unjustly condemn Him (and those who preach Him).
Paul doesn't let this discourage him from preaching the Gospel. Paul knows that, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2) awaiting God's creative word to be spoken, the Holy Spirit hovers over the sea of humanity working as the Gospel is preached to transform lives. So Paul preaches the Gospel. In this preaching, He gets to the core of the Gospel, the very nuclear reactor of the Gospel, by declaring forgiveness of sins and justification through Jesus Christ (for more on this see What is the difference between Law and Gospel? (part 3)).
38Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
This promise also gives us a clue as to why we are so dependent upon the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel with others when it says, “Through him everyone who believes …”. One must believe in order to partake of this benefit. How are we going to believe if we do not recognize Him and are so inclined to reject Him? In fact, the very next verse tells us, “that you would never believe, even if someone told you.” (Act 13:41) This reveals just how desperately dependent we are on the Holy Spirit for the proclamation of the Gospel to have any effect. Yet it also demonstrates exactly why we can have confidence in preaching the Gospel: their acceptance of the Gospel is beyond our pay-grade. That is the Holy Spirit's work!
How can anyone believe the Gospel then? What is it that made the difference between you, if you have believed, and someone else who has not? The Holy Spirit graciously opened your eyes. What will make the Gospel you preach effective in the lives of those you share it with? The Holy Spirit's work in opening their eyes to recognize in Jesus Christ the One through Whom they were made. This is why we read, “...all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
Because the missionary work we do can and will be effective when “underwritten” by the Holy Spirit, we must pray and we must preach. Pray and preach for the mission we are on is the mission of God! When rejected we share in the sufferings of Christ; when believed we observe first hand the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in opening eyes for those appointed to eternal life. Salvation is from God from beginning to end!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1I am reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
2Ironically, in John's Gospel the Jewish nation is considered “the world.” “There is no difference, for all have sinned...” (Romans 3:22-23).