Acts 1:8 versus the Great Commission

Jerry Rankin recently posed the proposition that Acts 1:8 has been distorted in our evangelistic efforts. This passage, in which the risen Christ tells his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”, is referenced by Rankin in light of the Acts 1:8 Challenge.

Acts 1:8 is employed by some as a directive for evangelistic efforts, urging churches to concentrate their evangelistic efforts in all of the “spheres” of missions cited in the passage: each church should be engaged in missions in its Jerusalem, in its Judea, in its Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Rankin proposes that some churches consider this to be a sequential directive, causing them to engage in “their Jerusalem” and stop there. The idea that a church accomplishes evangelism in one “sphere,” then works on the next, is the distortion Rankin decries.

This emphasis and the chatter surrounding it is indicative of an apparent shift of focus in evangelism and missions. It seems relatively recent that Acts 1:8 has been adopted as a rallying cry of world missions, almost supplanting its long-time predecessor, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.

Some will respond that there is no such “shift,” but that Acts 1:8 is simply a continuation of the charge given in the Great Commission, adding vital instructions for disciples hoping to accomplish the witness of the gospel to the nations.

However, there is a huge difference between Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. The Great Commission is directive, while Acts 1:8 is descriptive. That is, Matthew 28:18-20 lays out the command and Acts 1:8 lays out the consequence. Acts 1:8 is a results passage: it is, in effect, the Great Conclusion to the Great Commission.

Note, for instance, the direction of action in Acts 1:1-11. Christ presented himself alive to the disciples, appearing to them and speaking to them (1:3). Jesus ordered the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise: they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:4-5). The disciples would receive power, the Holy Spirit would come upon them, and they would be his witnesses (1:8).

All the action is being done to the disciples. The focus is on what the Holy Spirit will do. In other words, the action in Acts 1:8 is passive. The disciples are told what they will receive and what they will be. In contrast, Jesus’ charge to disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 is active: go, make disciples, baptize, teach.

Acts 1:8 is a great promise of what will happen when the Holy Spirit empowers and works through followers of Christ. But using the promise of what we will be (witnesses) as the instruction on what we should do may be less helpful than is supposed. For example, what does it mean to “be a witness”? Neither Acts 1:8 nor the passage in which is sits tells us, so for that we must turn to the gospels and other commands issued by Christ (Acts 1:2 refers to these “commands”). In those, we are told to go, make disciples, baptize, teach (Matthew 28:18-20), proclaim the gospel (Mark 16:15), proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and “feed my lambs” (John 21:15-17).

There is certainly a direct, unequivocal command from Jesus himself to be about the business of proclaiming the gospel to all nations until he returns. But that command is in the Great Commission. The danger of using the Great Conclusion as our missions and evangelism strategy is that it omits these other positive commands, most significantly, the command to “make disciples.” It is, after all, much easier to “be a witness” than to “make a disciple.”

Taking the natural import of these passages together, we find that when we act under the authority of Christ and in his abiding presence through the Holy Spirit, we receive power to proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and baptize and teach those disciples. As the Spirit works this increase of the Word through us, we serve as a testimony to the nations that Jesus has risen in power, that his work on earth continues through his disciples, and the authority and power for this work is through the Holy Spirit and the word.

The significant thing for Christ-followers is not that we are to engage in certain “spheres” – because invariably the spheres don’t cover all areas – but that we, empowered by the Holy Spirit that Christ gives, are to make disciples of all nations.

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