A Theology of Evangelism and Missions in Acts


Introduction

“But 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” (Acts 1:8).[1]

The Acts of the Apostles is the playbook for the theology of evangelism and missions for the New Testament church, and when the Lord Jesus Christ departed the earth he did not provide a detailed list of requirements, but that the revelation of the Holy Spirit would provide all they needed to be witnesses.

Matthew Henry provides an overview of Acts,

Christ had told his disciples that they should be his witnesses, and this book brings them in witnessing for him,—that they should be fishers of men, and here we have them enclosing multitudes in the gospel-net,—that they should be the lights of the world, and here we have the world enlightened by them; but that day—spring from on high the first appearing of which we there discerned we here find shining more and more. The corn of wheat, which there fell to the ground, here springs up and bears much fruit; the grain of mustard-seed there is here a great tree; and the kingdom of heaven, which was then at hand, is here set up. Christ’s predictions of the virulent persecutions which the preachers of the gospel should be afflicted with (though one could not have imagined that a doctrine so well worthy of all acceptation should meet with so much opposition) we here find abundantly fulfilled, and also the assurances he gave them of extraordinary supports and comforts under their sufferings. [2]

Christ said he would build his church. His resurrection proved his words were true, and now he promised the Holy Spirit would empower them for the mission. In our modern-day context, it is hard to imagine the confusion this group must have faced. There continued to be a misunderstanding of Christ’s mission, as evidenced by their question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The thought of becoming witnesses, or martyrs, as the word means, would have been a complete shock to them at this time. Hence, the need for the Spirit of God to fill them with power.

The Acts of the Apostles provides a critical understanding of the beginning of the New Testament Church, and the starting point for Spirit-empowered evangelism and missions. Acts primarily contain historical narrative, and how do Christians apply a narrative to the work of evangelism and missions? Do these narratives serve as prescriptive imperatives for the church, or are they only descriptive? If they carry implications for the modern church, how should they be enacted? This paper will seek to define the role Acts plays in evangelism and missions, and how to carry forward the Lord Jesus Christ’s call to reach the nations.

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the End of the Earth

The Lord Jesus Christ has provided the instruction to wait upon the Holy Spirit, to receive the power of the Spirit, and then to go into the world and be witnesses. Christ has given this instruction in what one might describe, like concentric circles. It starts in Jerusalem and begins to expand from there and to spread out.

While expressing their concerns about the coming kingdom, Christ redirects the conversation. The real need they had to prepare for the mission ahead is power. R. C. Sproul provides a commentary,

Jesus went on to say that as soon as He received His crown, He would declare the sending of the Holy Spirit upon them, upon His church, to empower their mission. The mission of the church, the reason we exist, is to bear witness to the present reign and rule of Christ, who is at the right hand of God. If we try to do it in our own power, we will fail. The reason for the outpouring of the Spirit is not to make us feel spiritual. It is not to give us a spiritual high. It is so that we can do the job that Jesus gave the church to do.[3]

Thinking about the impossibility of the task at that moment in time must have been overwhelming. These young believers probably had no idea what it meant, but the Lord was clear what the intention was, and he articulated in no uncertain terms the job was not to restore an earthly rule, but to be witnesses to what Christ had done. In our modern context, it may seem like a more relaxed time and an easier task, but would that be the case? Michael Greene has this to say,

Wherever they went, Christians were opposed as anti-social, atheistic and depraved. Their message proclaimed a crucified criminal, and nothing could have been less calculated than that to win them converts. To the Greeks such a story showed how ridiculous the new faith was; to the Romans how weak and ineffective it was; while the Jews could not bring themselves to stomach it at all. To Jew and Gentile alike Christians were offensive, on account both of the doctrines and of the behaviour credited to them. All this they had to live down if they were going to win anybody at all for Jesus Christ. [4]

It was not an easy time to be a Christian, and it was not an easy task the Lord had laid before these Christians. It was an impossible mission, with impossible odds, but in the hands of a living God, all things are possible, and it does not take long to realize God can do impossible things with ease.

Jerusalem

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:36-38).

What does it take for the salvation of three thousand souls in one sermon? Peter, being anointed by the Holy Spirit, delivers a powerful message on the streets of Jerusalem, and at this moment, the New Testament church begins. There are several noteworthy points about Peter’s sermon that are relevant to the work of missions.

The first point is that Peter bases his argument in the Scriptures. Peter cites the prophet Joel, the Psalms, and references the life and death of David, stating that David is still in the tomb, but Christ is risen, as prophesied, and not only this, but this Jesus is declared both Christ and Lord.

Secondly, Peter argues that Jesus proved himself to be the Christ through might works. Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—” (Acts 2:22).

Lastly, there is a call to repentance and faith in Christ. What is noteworthy in Peter’s methodology and the sermon is this emulates the model utilized throughout the book of Acts. The gospel call goes out. God saves the elect. Peter, and the rest of Acts, is an exercise in what Voddie Baucham refers to as Expository Apologetics, and in his book, he defines what it means,

In its simplest form, expository apologetics is about three things. First, it is about being biblical. We answer objections with the power of the Word. Second, its about being easy to remember. If we can’t remember this simplicity, we won’t use it in our everyday encounters. Third, it is about being conversational. We must be able to share truth in a manner that is natural, reasonable, and winsome.[5]

The theology and philosophy behind evangelism and missions must begin with the authority of Scripture. Peter illustrates this perfectly; additionally, it must hinge on the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing to bring to the table outside of the truths of the Scriptures. Peter’s sermon to Jerusalem illustrates this perfectly.

Judea and Samaria

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:4-5).

The New Testament church had been established and was growing nicely. God was blessing the work of evangelism. In all the success, the church seemed to have forgotten its mission was to expand outward. These early Christians begin to suffer persecution, but now it is going to force the church out of its nest.

Saul has begun his reign of terror, and God uses this to spread the gospel into Samaria. God always uses persecution to break the church free from its comforts. J. H. Bavinck provides a critical understanding of this,

And still further it is of importance to notice the means God used to move his reluctant church to missionary work. During the time of the apostles he utilized the persecution in Jerusalem, and in later centuries he employed many different means. He let the Roman Empire be flooded by diverse nations, and thereby made his church again become active. [6]

The scattering is a natural occurrence to persecution, and what happens as a by-product? Christ is proclaimed abroad. This paper will explore the concept of evangelistic methods later, but for now, it is crucial to see that Philip is an evangelist, and he has a missionary zeal for his calling. Philip is entering Samaria, he is openly preaching Christ, and people are converted.

The conversion of Saul begins the expansion into further points of Judea and Samaria; additionally, Peter’s vision reveals the gospel is also for the Gentiles.

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power (Acts 10:34-38).

The gospel message begins to spread through the means of persecution and conversions. Sinners receive the gift of salvation and go forth to proclaim the message—ordinary people, not professional ministers. J.H. Bavinck remarks, “In particular it is to be noted that the book of Acts makes repeated reference to the use made of unofficial preachers.”[7]

The Ends of the Earth

While 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.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them (Acts 13:2-5).

The conversion of the Apostle Paul is one of the most significant events in history. God used Saul to scatter the church, but God then used Paul to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul’s knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and his training in Judaism, as well a knowledge of logic and rhetoric, made him a formidable apologist for the Christian faith. Additionally, Paul’s empowerment of the Holy Spirit enabled him to endure suffering beyond comprehension.

R.C. Sproul commenting,

We can commission people, but we have no power. We can license, ordain, and send people on sacred tasks, but unless the Holy Spirit anoints them, their labors will be in vain. In this brief text we find the onset of the most significant missionary undertaking in the entire history of the church, indeed in the entire history of the world.[8] (189, 190).

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul was enabled to take the gospel throughout the entire Mediterranean region, and finally to Rome. The significance of the gospel getting to Rome means that it would continue its spread throughout the Roman Empire, and to the ends of the earth, and this should be the concern of every Christian today. John Piper makes this clear,

We should love to hear how the advance of King Jesus is faring. We should love to hear of gospel triumphs as Christ plants his church among peoples held for centuries by alien powers of darkness.

This is God’s design in world history—that people from all nations and tribes and languages come to worship and treasure Christ above all things. Or as Paul put it in Romans 15:9, “that the Gentiles [all the peoples] might glorify God for his mercy.” There can be no weary resignation, no cowardly retreat, and no merciless contentment among Christ’s people while he is disowned among thousands of unreached peoples. Every Christian (who loves people and honors Christ) must care about this.[9]

Paul’s evangelistic methods and approach to missions should compel the church to consider its approach, whether in theory or practice is to be determined, and the next sections will tackle these topics.

Evangelism

And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen (Acts 13:14-16).

Evangelism is nothing more complicated than the propagating of the message of the good news that in Christ, God has provided the gift of salvation. The message is consistent, God is consistent, but methodologies take different approaches given the needs of the moment. Acts primarily deal with the ministries of Peter and Paul, and while the narrative is different, there are similarities in the methodologies.

Looking into the ministry of the Apostle Paul shows a clear pattern of his methodology. He arrives in a new community; he begins by entering the synagogue, reasons with the people, and he attempts to win converts, and when enough are converted, a church is planted. In some instances, this goes well for Paul, but in many situations, Paul’s intrusion into the community is unwelcomed and ends in violence.

Reasoning

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:19-22).

It was evident by the context of this passage that Paul had achieved a reputation. He was well known to have been the one that was seeking to destroy the church and punish all adherents to this new religion called The Way. Paul’s conversion was remarkable in countless ways; however, what is even more remarkable is the immediacy and urgency with which Paul begins his new ministry. Paul has a plan, and he immediately puts it into practice. What is this plan? Reasoning from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, this is a consistent pattern of Paul (Acts 9:19, Acts 13:5, 15, Acts 14:1).

Paul’s methodology was presuppositional. He reasons from the Scriptures. Acts 17 provides three examples of Paul’s evangelistic efforts in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens.

Thessalonica: And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2).

Berea: “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue” (Acts 17:10).

Athens: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17).

Paul had formed his theological framework for evangelism. His intent and method were to engage the Jews in the synagogue and engage the Gentiles in the marketplace. One slight modification to this is the conversion of Lydia. In Acts 16, Paul comes across a small community that did not have a synagogue, so he goes to where they meet.

“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16:13).

No matter the place or the setting, Paul is prepared to evangelize, and while he is primarily speaking and reasoning, we also see Paul preaching at the Areopagus. In their book, A Certain Sound, Ryan Denton, and Scott Smith argue, “Crowded markets and thoroughfares were always seen as excellent opportunities for proclaiming the gospel.”[10]

Paul’s consistent pattern of reasoning is apparent as we examine the evidence Acts lays out, and we saw this similarly with Jesus as he began and continued in his public ministry, and in addition to the ministry of teaching, Jesus preached as he went into the towns. Let us turn our attention to the public preaching of the gospel as an approved method of articulating the gospel message to the masses.

Preaching

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words” (Acts 2:14).

Preaching in the open-air is rich in tradition throughout the entirety of the Bible, but we see clear examples of how this spread Christianity throughout the world. Starting in Jerusalem at Pentecost, Peter delivers a message that many consider one of the greatest sermons ever preached, except for the Sermon on the Mount, by the Lord Jesus himself. Not even Christ had this kind of “success,” or so the argument might go, but God, for his purposes, chose to save over three thousand souls at this moment.

Preaching in the open air needs no apology, and although not readily accepted, it is none the less, the method employed by the biblical writers throughout the Scriptures. Spurgeon said, “It would be very easy to prove revivals of religion have usually been accompanied, if not caused, by considerable amount of preaching out of doors, or in unusual places.”[11]

Denton and Smith argue forcefully for open-air preaching from the book of Acts,

After Pentecost the disciples went to the streets with their message, which explains the enormous number of new converts piling into the church. Peter proclaimed the Word of God at Solomon’s Portico, which would have been outside (Acts 3:11-26). Philip preached on the streets of Samaria (Acts 8:6-8). It is true Paul and others preached in synagogues, but their most memorable seasons came while preaching in the open air. The entire city of Antioch was shaken by Paul’s outdoor deliveries (Acts 13:44-52). His first European convert came as a result of open air evangelism (Acts 16:11-15). His address on Mars Hill was in the middle of the city, away from the confines of the synagogue (Acts 17:22-34).[12]

It is difficult to imagine that more evidence would be required for this method of gospel proclamation. Peter, James, John, and Paul sought to proclaim Christ, to evangelize the nations, and they did it through reasoning and preaching.

Missions

The final section of this paper turns to the theology of missions in the book of Acts. This first missionary journey begins with the sending out of Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark.

“So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them” (Acts 13:4-5).

The first missionary journey provides very little insight into Paul’s missiology, it supports our earlier premise that he reasoned in the synagogues, but it does not provide details about church planting. However, as we look deeper into his second journey, Paul’s past comes into focus.

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22).

Our first clue is that there is a church established in Antioch. This church is organized under elders, and the apostles provide oversight.

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also (Acts 15:30-35).

We can surmise since Paul and Barnabas remained to teach and preach; they were additionally training men in the ministry, and clearly, Timothy was a disciple and went on to be the pastor in Ephesus.

“Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1).

The third missionary journey has found new churches planted throughout the regions, and we see them now in Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Caesarea, Galatia, and Phrygia. Disciples, churches, and missions are spreading like wildfire throughout these regions, and the Lord is growing converts quickly. As Paul is preparing to depart from Ephesus, he leaves the elders with instructions, which are still applicable to the church today.

Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:31-32).

Paul had a clear and distinct call to the mission field, and his methodology and theology are evident throughout Acts. Paul had a desire for the glory of God and sacrificed his comforts, and all he held dear. He sought to fulfill his call to spread the gospel. The missionary call is to die to self, to give up all the world values. Jim Elliot knew this calling and gave it all in the pursuit of the glory of God.

‘My going to Ecuador is God’s counsel, as is my leaving Betty, and my refusal to be counseled by all who insist I should stay and stir up the believers in the U.S. And how do I know it is His counsel? ‘Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons.’ Oh, how good! For I have known my heart is speaking to me for God! No visions, no voices, but the counsel of a heart which desires God.’[13]

Christ-centered missiology must include hunger and thirst for the glory of God, a Scriptural based directive, and counsel from those that have gone before. The Acts of the Apostles provide the most transparent overview of how this works itself out practically. Additionally, we have the pastoral epistles, and other letters in the New Testament to support our theological framework.

Conclusion

A properly informed theology of evangelism and missions includes the truth of the scriptures and the testimony and example of those that have traveled this path previously. The goal is to apply God’s truths to the hearts and minds of God’s people, through reasoning, proclaiming Christ, planting churches, which have oversight. God, in His great mercy, has provided various means by which his truths can be received, and the primary means is the preaching of his Word. Whether this is in the context of missions, in a church pulpit or on a street corner, God is gracious to provide his truth and provide a means by which the elect will be saved, sanctified, and ultimately glorified.

Bibliography

Baucham, Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.

Bavinck, J.H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions, trans., Freeman, David H. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960.

Denton, Ryan., and Smith, Scott. A Certain Sound: A Primer on Open Air Preaching. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2019.

Elliot, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1956.

Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 2003.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.

Piper, John. Don’t Waste Your Life. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.

Sproul, R.C. Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019.

Spurgeon, C.H. Lectures to My Students, quoted in Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.


[1] All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2061.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019). 9.

[4] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970, 2003), 50.

[5] Voddie Baucham, Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 20.

[6] J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, translated by David H. Freeman (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 279.

[7] J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, translated by David H. Freeman (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 39.

[8] R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 189, 190.

[9] John Piper, Dont Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 162, 163.

[10] Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 14.

[11] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 275, quoted in Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 14.

[12] Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 12.

[13] Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publisher, Inc., 1956), 2.

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