Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 10)

In the last installment, I argued that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 should not be taken out of context and made the preeminent motivator and description of evangelism. Those verses appear at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, and their meaning cannot be discerned apart from a careful analysis of the whole gospel.

Similarly, the world mission command of Acts 1:8 functions as an outline for Acts, and its true meaning cannot be discerned apart from the entire book. As I have previously noted, this verse is not a command but a promise. Jesus said to his apostles: “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.” What Jesus promised came to pass. The apostles became witnesses of the risen Christ, and the gospel did go out from them to Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. As I explained in part 5 of this series, this propagation of the gospel did not come about through the apostles’ visionary planning, effort and zeal. It happened just as Jesus said it would, through the power and initiative of the Holy Spirit.

The preeminent role of the Holy Spirit in missio Dei is one of the great underlying themes of the book of Acts through which we are to interpret the world mission “command” of Acts 1:8.

As I re-read the book of Acts last month, another underlying theme caught my attention. This theme was so obvious that I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed it before. In addition to the work of the Holy Spirit among the apostles, there was another powerful force at work that drove the gospel out from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Can you guess what it was?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, here’s the answer: It was the rejection of Christ by the Jews.

Not all the Jews rejected Jesus, of course. All of the apostles were Jews. The original 120 disciples, and the 3,000 who were baptized on the day of Pentecost, were overwhelmingly if not exclusively Jewish. So it would be more correct to say that it was the acceptance of Christ by a minority of Jews, combined with the rejection of Christ by the majority, that carried the gospel to the Gentiles.

The author of Acts does not present the Jews’ rejection of Christ as an incidental detail, but as a key piece of the mysterious puzzle of missio Dei. Here is some evidence.

In Peter’s evangelistic message on the day of Pentecost, he told his audience, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). Peter did not absolve the people of their responsibility; he declared them to be culpable in Jesus’ death. But he also explained that God deliberately planned for this to happen. It was an integral part of his glorification, a necessary step for him to become our rejected, crucified, risen Messiah.

After the day of Pentecost, the Jewish authorities were not able to stop the apostles from preaching the resurrection of Christ; the apostles had become too popular, and the good works that God was doing through them were undeniable (chapter 4). But a fresh wave of Jewish opposition arose when Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew who had been appointed by the apostles to a position of leadership along with six other Hellenistic Jews, began to preach and perform miraculous signs. Stephen’s ministry (chapter 6) and speech before the Sanhedrin (chapter 7) infuriated the religious leaders and the populace of Jerusalem. In the middle of Stephen’s speech, they dragged him out of court and stoned him to death. The stoning of Stephen was a gross violation of civil and religious law; he had not been convicted of any crime.

Why did Stephen’s speech infuriate them so much? That is a truly interesting question. To answer it well would require a careful exegesis of his speech, which is beyond the scope of this article. But two features of the speech stand out. First, Stephen pointed out that God does not dwell in any building made by human hands (Acts 7:48). He greatly diminished the importance of the temple, inferring that Jerusalem was no longer (and, in truth, never had been) the focus of God’s redemptive history. Second, he declared that the Jews had failed all along to keep the covenant of law that God had given them. All along they been resisting the work of the Holy Spirit, and the crucifixion of Jesus was just the latest and most blatant example of their rejection of God’s purpose for them (Acts 7:51-53). To hear these words from the mouth Hellenistic Jew – and Hellenistic Jews were generally regarded by the Hebraic Jews as worldly, compromised, too liberal in their lifestyles, etc. – struck at the heart of their religious identity. It brought to the surface huge amount of conflict, anger and resentment.

After the murder of Stephen – and it is correctly called a murder, because due process was not followed – a wave of violent opposition broke out against the Jerusalem church, and everyone except the apostles was driven out of the city. As a direct consequence of this persecution, the gospel went out to Judea and Samaria. Philip, another one of the seven Hellenistic church leaders, was instrumental in the evangelization of Samaria (chapter 8). In a very ironic twist, it is Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle Paul, who is a ringleader in the persecution effort. Even before Paul’s conversion, he was already being used as God’s a divinely elected instrument to drive the gospel toward the Gentiles.

When the Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, they traveled to Cyprus and regions of modern-day Turkey (chapters 13-14). They intentionally focused their efforts on the Jewish community, preaching in synagogues on the Sabbath. Paul believed that it was God’s plan for the Jews, God’s chosen people, to receive the gospel first (Romans 1:16). A few Jews would respond favorably, but most would reject it. However, the message would be received with great enthusiasm by the God-fearing Gentiles who had not taken the step of conversion to Judaism by being circumcised. This became a recurrent pattern throughout Paul’s missionary journeys.

In hindsight, we can say that the rejection of the gospel by a majority of the Jews was necessary for the Church to develop, both sociologically and theologically. If large numbers of Jews had embraced the message, then Christianity could never have become divorced from Jewish custom and tradition, and a Torah-free gospel could not have been preached throughout the world. The schism in the Jewish community created by the gospel forced the leaders of the early Church to take stock of their theology and clarify what the gospel is truly about (chapter 15). But this rift caused a great deal of personal angst, heartache and pain among the Jewish believers. The rejection of the gospel by the Jewish majority, and the tension between Jewish and Gentile elements in forging the identity of the Church, is one of the most salient issues on the minds of the writers of the New Testament. It strongly colors all four of the gospels and many of the epistles. Given the overwhelming hardness of the Jews toward the gospel, and the rapid spread of the faith among the Gentiles, what was God doing, and what should the Church leaders now be doing? What would the Church look like after one, two, or three generations? Was the apostolic mission to the Jews now finished?

Nowhere is this struggle to understand what God was doing more evident than in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. It is the focus of chapters 9-11, which are difficult to understand but regarded by many scholars as the heart of the book. We will discuss that in the next installment.


  1. Thanks, Joe. I love these series of posts.

    Indeed, the gospel has been opposed in history most damagingly by those who “believe in God” and “believe in the Bible,” such as the moral legalistic traditional conservative rigidly inflexible Jews, who persecuted the early “free of law” Christians. I’d like to propose a major reason why.

    Richard Lovelace (one of Tim Keller’s mentors) explains why in his Dynamics of Spiritual Life. This quote which I’ve shared before best explains it, I think: “The culture is put on as though it were armor against self-doubt, but it becomes a mental strait-jacket.”

    Simply speaking, we strongly and emotionally oppose Christ as Savior (though we say and insist that we believe in Jesus and the Bible), because practically and functionally, it is our religious practice, or method, or church/temple/synagogue/denomination tradition that is our real savior, security, stability, and sense of significance. (Sorry for my obsessive love of aliteration.)

    I’ve found personally that it is always “so hard” to simply trust Christ as my only Savior. But it is so easy to trust myself, my church, my status, my tenure, my “fruitfulness,” my faithfulness, my “absolute attitude,” my sense of my own significance (or my church’s significance), my children’s success, etc, as my real functional practical savior. May God have mercy on me.

    Sorry, if this “abstraction of sorts” doesn’t quite make sense.

  2. Ben, thanks. Your comments make perfect sense.

    I have found that when leading a ministry, it is especially difficult to trust Jesus as the real, functional, practical savior of others.  The leader’s tendency is to try to step in and become the practical savior of the disciple, becoming his source of knoweldge, is source of encouragement, his conscience, etc. Although well intentioned, it can actually hinder their true sanctification and their personal relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. As James Kim has noted, the desire to hurry up, preach the gospel and make disciples quickly can be counterproductive. It’s so hard to truly entrust our disciples, our children, and ourselves to Jesus, because he often works more slowly than we want him to, and in different ways than we envision.

    I guess it always comes back to the gospel. Whatever we need, at every point in our Christian life, is found in the gospel. And that gospel is always notoriously difficult to believe.

  3. James Kim

    Thanks Joe, Ben for wonderful posts. These days we study Galatians. Gal 6:12,14 say, “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised—” “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ—” Our new identity in Jesus was highly elevated something like, “sons of God, co-heirs of Christ”. By the grace of God we were saved from the pit of despair, misery and darkness. Through conversion, our situation was greatly elevated from nobody to somebody, from infamous to famous as we often hear from many life testimonies. However, in reality, our sinful nature was not completely crucified. Because of our human sinful nature, when we have something that others do not have (comparatively speaking), we like to boast about it in our action or secretly in our hearts whatever that may be, wealth, intellect, outward beauty etc. In this world that kind of boasting is well accepted and often desired.
    But there is another identity in God when we received his saving grace. Gal 6:3 says, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself”. According to Paul, we should come down from “somebody” to “nothing” like the incarnation of Jesus. There is no distinction, no class, no boasting in God. We are in the same ground, Christian or non-Christian, senior or junior. It is my task how to balance these two identities in Jesus. Of course, it is easier said than done. I find myself it is extremely hard. I see this as a process of growing into the image of Jesus.