Mission is the vocation of the church. Lately, there has been a resurgence in thinking about the church’s task critically, manifesting the desire of many to be faithful to their calling and fruitful in their labors. This is a good thing. Nevertheless, in many contexts a clear definition of the church’s mission and how it is to be accomplished has proven elusive, often producing obscurity rather than clarity. This obscurity is evidenced by the spate of recent books on the subject and the increasingly common practice of churches adopting unique purpose and mission statements. Even new jargon is being used to describe the sacred task, words like “missional” and “incarnational” being preferred. All of this manifests a curious diversity when it comes to approaching the church’s mission.
Luke’s second volume has the potential of bringing unity to such diversity and offering clarity in the midst of this obscurity, for it informs us about our calling. The title given to Luke’s work is illuminating in this regard: The Acts of the Apostles. Such a title reminds us, as Dennis Johnson has put it, that “Luke does not intend his description to be a nostalgic retrospect of ‘good old days’ long gone, but rather as a pattern for the present” (The Message of Acts). In this way, then, Acts is informative, being both descriptive and prescriptive, telling us not only what happened, but also how the flame ignited so long ago may continue to spread in our day. Since Luke’s gospel is an account of what Jesus began to do (Acts 1:1), his companion volume is an account of what He continued and continues to do.
Through Luke we hear of the risen Christ continuing His work by extending the kingdom of God (28:31) through His church to the very ends of the earth (1:8). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the apostles boldly proclaimed Jesus was the Christ (17:3), the promised Savior of whom the Old Testament had spoken (10:43; 26:22; 28:23) and, perhaps most centrally, the one whom death and the grave could not hold (1:22; 2:31; 3:15; 4:2, 10, 33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33–34, 37; 17:3, 18, 31; 26:8, 23). So central was the resurrection to the church’s message that it emerges as a theme of Luke’s tome. To this simple message God attached His blessing, established His church, multiplied and added to its number (2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 11:24; 12:24), and called those out of darkness into His marvelous light (26:18, 23).
More than incarnating the gospel, then, the apostles were heralds and witnesses (1:8; 2:32; 8:12, 25; 20:24; 22:15; 26:16), testifying to profound, objective, and earth-shattering realities. Even when we find them “giving their testimony” (4:33), it is a testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Consistently and constantly they pointed their hearers away from themselves to the free grace of God granted from the risen King.
Of course, preaching a message that declares Jesus is Lord and King and Caesar is not (17:7) and calling for heartfelt repentance (20:21) is always risky cultural business and at times proves deadly. Stonings, arrests, imprisonments, slander, suffering, and intense persecution were for the early church their lot in life. But they were ready to die (21:13) if the Lord should will it (v. 14) because their lives were not dear or precious or of any value to themselves (20:24). Instead, their hope was in the One who had died for them and who lived again. Their hope was in the resurrection of the last day (23:6; 24:15), a resurrection assured by the resurrection of the One on the first day (17:31). Their message fueled their mission.
Practically speaking, Acts offers the divine encouragement that the church will be successful—rightly defined—in her mission when she is faithful to the message, no matter how costly that may prove or how foolish her message may be perceived (26:24). To some such a statement sounds like overconfidence. On the contrary, it is nothing more than faith in the God who opens eyes (26:18) and hearts (16:14) so that those who hear may believe. This heart-opening, eye-opening work comes not through programs or creative ingenuity or new spins and twists; rather, this divine power is attached to the gospel message of good news (8:12, 35). We might even go so far as to say, to put a twist on an old phrase, the message is the mission. That in itself is good news to every pastor, church, and Christian engaged in proclaiming the unadulterated, unencumbered gospel of the risen Christ.
Temptations abound to depart from the simple message, though. All around the siren call echoes, tempting God’s people to be something they were never called to be and adopt messages they were never called to proclaim. Often I will listen to young preachers who want to mimic the styles of those pastors they deeply respect. Their mannerisms, phrases, tone, and applications are eerily similar to other men and they give the impression that they are desperately trying to be someone they are not. My advice is always the same: be yourself. That same tendency threatens the church. My advice to the church is the same advice I give to those young preachers: be yourself and stick to the message. Proclaim the victory of God in Christ and leave the rest up to the plan and providence of God.