In this series of posts, we are simultaneously exploring some of the vital components of God’s mission in Scripture and the corresponding features of the new ministry, Empowering Subjects. I am hoping this will serve the dual purpose of encouraging us to faithfully participate in God’s mission in various ways and also creating more awareness of Empowering Subjects so that more congregations may utilize it to equip their members for that mission.
Already we’ve emphasized the need to follow God’s guidance in Scripture as we act on his mission, to ensure that it really is his mission we are participating in. Listening to Scripture will also give us the other key aspects of the mission that we will consider in this series.
We begin with the foundational truth that it is God’s mission, and he is at work in it.
In the Old Testament God described the work he intended to do among us through Christ as setting up a kingdom. The promises make clear that this is a work he would do (Daniel 2:44-45). Sometimes they simply say he would do (Isaiah 9:7); other times they mention that he would do it through a special agent (Jeremiah 23:5-6; Micah 5:2). Regardless, it would be his work.
The New Testament makes the same point by describing it as the kingdom of God. It is his kingdom. Matthew (only) often substitutes the equivalent phrase, kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 13:31 with Mark 4:30-31), since he is writing to Jewish Christians who still may have had a tendency to avoid direct reference to God. Both phrases underscore the fact that it is God’s kingdom, something we are prone to forget.
As we consider some of the specific ways God works in his mission, notice that they are sometimes attributed to the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Spirit. Though we can discern distinct roles overall in Scripture for Father, Son and Spirit, there is also overlap in the ways they work in the mission.
In Acts 1 Luke refers to his Gospel as “my former book” and says that it is about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (v.1). The reference to his Gospel, the word “began” and the appearance of this statement at the beginning of Acts all suggest that Acts will be about what Jesus continued to do and teach through his people. It is not merely the “Acts of the Apostles” but also the acts of Christ through them and through others.
Jesus had told his followers to wait until they were clothed with power from on high before they began their mission (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). On the day of Pentecost, they were indeed clothed with power and began to testify (Acts 2:1-4, 14ff.). The Spirit continued to empower their speaking throughout (Acts 4:31).
I am struck by how the apostles’ speaking of the gospel in Acts was the result of God giving them the opportunity. Acts contains seven extended summaries of the apostles speaking the gospel to non-Christians, and in all seven God gave them the opportunity to do so.
In Acts 2 he did it by pouring out the Spirit and gathering a curious crowd (2:1-12). In Acts 3 he did it by healing man who was paralyzed and thus gathering another curious crowd (3:1-11). In both Acts 4 and 5, he did it by having the Jewish authorities arrest the apostles and demand that they give an account for what they were doing and saying (4:7; 5:27-28). Jesus had said this would happen and would be an opportunity (Matthew 10:17-20). In Acts 10, God and the Spirit worked extensively on both Peter and Cornelius to bring the two together so the good news could be spoken (10:1-23). In Acts 13, Jewish officials invited Paul to speak (13:15, a common custom but nevertheless), and in Acts 17, Greek philosophers do the same (17:18-21). On other occasions God also connected Phillip with the Ethiopian nobleman (Acts 8:26ff.), Ananias with Saul (Acts 9:10ff.), and Paul with the Macedonians (Acts 16:6-10). Elsewhere opportunities such as all these are described as God opening a door for the message (1 Corinthians 16:8-9; 2 Corinthians 2:12).
Don’t forget that God also literally created the message (Acts 2:22-24, 36; 5:30-32; 10:36-43), and sometimes we are told that he opened people’s hearts to receive it (Acts 16:14). The Lord is the one who forgives sins, brings about conversion and gives people his Spirit and new life (Matthew 9:6; Titus 3:5; Galatians 3:5). Jesus is the Savior (John 4:42; cf. 1 Timothy 2:3). Thinking collectively, he is also the one who gives the growth. And he has a primary role in the transformation of believers both individually (Romans 12:2, a passive) and collectively (9:31; 13:52; 15:28; 20:28). No wonder when Paul returned from missionary journeys, he reported on all that God had done through them (Acts 14:27; 21:19).
God’s vital work in his mission is emphasized in the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29). The farmer plants the seed and goes to bed! (v. 27). All by itself (the Greek word here is automatos, the source of our word automatic) the earth produces the crop. This is the work of God.
God’s work is also emphasized in Jesus’ teaching about the vine and branches (John 15:1-17). The clear point of this section is that we cannot bear fruit alone but must remain in him (vv. 4-5).
God’s work is stated overtly when Paul reflects on the roles that he and Apollos served (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Though he planted and Apollos watered, it was God who made it grow (v. 6).
It is true that we have a role in God’s mission as well. God has called us to participate with him. I marvel at this sometimes, but he has. We are familiar with many passages that call us to reach out to others (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Peter 3:15-16). But even as we do our part, it is still clear that God is at work (Acts 11:19-21).
Along these lines it is helpful to notice that on the seven occasions in Acts when Luke gives us an extended summary of the message and indicates that God gave these opportunities, the humans still had to recognize and make the most of them. Peter explained what had happened with the Spirit’s coming (Acts 2) and the miracle (Acts 3), and then he took the opportunity to tell the good news that lay behind these. The apostles apparently remembered Jesus’ words that they would be called before authorities and that it would be an opportunity to testify, because that’s exactly what they did (Acts 4-5). God prompted Peter to go see Cornelius, but he had to get up and go (Acts 10). Likewise Paul had to agree and make the most of the invitations to speak in the synagogue (Acts 13) and Areopagus (Acts 17). The humans must cooperate with God’s working.
Sometimes there is no mention of God opening a door, and there will be plenty of times when we do not sense him opening one for us either. I’m not saying he is or is not involved in such cases, only that we may not be aware of him doing anything. The Scriptures show us that it is right in such cases for us to do whatever we can to seek opportunities. For example, Paul seems to have gone to the synagogue in Antioch (and many other places), knowing that he may well receive an invitation to speak but without any indication that God was sending him there. Similarly, before he received his invitation to speak at the Areopagus, he was spending time in the marketplace, where people gathered, and reasoning with those who happened to be there (Acts 17:17). Likewise, before receiving the “Macedonian Call,” Paul and his companions were trying to find a place to go and share the word (Acts 16:6-8). In other words, God will sometimes open doors of opportunity for us, but even when we do not see any, it is still right for us to do whatever we can to seek opportunities to share the good news.
There are many conclusions we could make about the joint work of God and us in his mission. I’ll share four.
First, we should definitely pray (Matthew 9:38; Acts 4:23-31; 6:4; 13:3; Colossians 4:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2). How much and how earnestly we pray says something about who we believe is responsible for the success of God’s mission.
Second, related to this, we should emphasize watching for and making the most of opportunities God gives us. We noted several examples of him doing this in Acts, and elsewhere we are also told directly to make the most of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5-6). The immediate context of this instruction in Colossians 4 (cf. vv. 2-4) indicates he is referring especially to opportunities to reach out.
Third, we should avoid the mentality that we are in control of God’s mission. I realize it is natural for us to focus on our own part. Still, we must remember that this is a joint venture between God and us, and we are the junior partners. We dare not try to do this on our own, and God doesn’t want us to (remember Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8; also consider Matthew 28:20b in the context of vv. 19-20a). I’ve been in plenty of meetings, strategy sessions, and conversations that reflected no awareness of God’s involvement whatsoever. We must remember that there is a Lord of the harvest, and it isn’t us (Matthew 9:38).
Fourth, surprisingly, we should work hard! The conclusions above, especially the third, might make us sit back and not get overly involved. That is not what we see, however, in Jesus (Mark 4:36, 38; Luke 4:42-44; 8:1; John 4:31-34; 9:3-5) nor the early Christians (Acts 5:28, 42; 20:17-24; 1 Cor 15:10; Col 1:24-29). In spite of their clear, firm trust in God, they themselves worked really hard in their role. We need to find a way to do the same.
We noted in the last post that Empowering Subjects reflects faith in God by its focus on hearing what the Scriptures actually say and building the ministry on that, instead of coming up with an approach and trying to find prooftexts to support it. We believe God is at work and has described his work in the Scriptures. So we seek to hear what he actually says and follow that. No ignoring. No stretching. No proof-texting.
Empowering Subjects also advocates authentic trust in God to work by its content and makeup. It does not teach a method we can use on people but rather a way of life with God so that he can use us with people. The second lesson in the follow-up material is devoted entirely to helping us see and believe that God is at work in his mission. The practical applications in that lesson call us to pray, and we are urged to continue in prayer throughout the training. It is not too much to say that, if God doesn’t work through it, Empowering Subjects will not work. Yet that’s what we want, right? Do we really want a training program that will (appear to) produce results regardless of whether God is working? Or do we want to partner with God?
Another specific way Empowering Subjects reflects faith in God’s working is that the evangelistic material is not focused on how to convert people but rather on understanding and communicating the message God has entrusted to us. Salvation is not produced by our persuasive abilities but by his message. If the good news about Jesus does not convert people, we certainly cannot do so. So we seek to learn and speak his message, the only thing that will generate authentic conversion.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is equipping God’s people for his mission, see here.
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