I once asked an Orthodox Jewish “anti-missionary” what he thought was the overarching message of the Hebrew Bible. Not usually at a loss for words and usually ready with an answer, this question somehow threw him. “We don’t think of the Bible in those terms” was his first attempt at an answer. Exactly. That is precisely why many first-century religious leaders in Jerusalem failed to recognize the time of redemption had come. Not to be too hard on the rabbis — at first the apostles didn’t fully understand the sort of redemption Jesus had accomplished either.
The context of the book of Acts is the whole history of redemption. If I were asked to sum up the overarching message of the Hebrew Bible, my answer would be: “blessing, curse, blessing restored.” We use that word “blessing” in too cavalier a manner and often forget its profound significance. God created Adam “and God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion . . . ’” (Gen. 1:28). We were created under God’s blessing, His face turned lovingly toward us and shining upon us. All was right between us and God. That’s what blessing means (Num. 6:24–26). When we sinned, Paradise was lost and we came under God’s curse, the opposite of blessing. When God promised Abraham that he would be the channel through which blessing would come to all nations (Gen. 12:2–3), that promise of blessing must be understood in light of the preceding chapters. Blessing after the fall means removing the curse and coming back into a blessed relationship with the Creator. God’s promise to Abraham set the theme for the whole of the Bible (Gal. 3).
What specifically does blessing encompass? In Eden man lived peacefully in God’s presence. All was right in their relationship. A loving Father ruled over those created in His image. There was harmony between Adam and Eve, between man and nature, and, most importantly, between man and God. Man was innocent, purehearted, and guiltless. There was no death. All this was lost in the curse of the fall. Return to a state of blessing would mean a restored relationship with the Father, the removal of death, readmission to the Tree of Life, and a renewed or “circumcised” heart (Deut. 36; to see a helpful chart of this story, go to www.chaim.org/ bigpicture.pdf).
In the later prophets we see this theme of Paradise restored associated with the coming of Messiah (Isa. 11:1– 11). To recover full blessing, a “second Adam” needed to take the curse upon himself and win the blessing by faithfully obeying the Father (chap. 53). God’s purpose of having people created in His image being fruitful and multiplying is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible, a theme repeated throughout the history of Israel. All this provides the context for understanding the missionary thrust of Acts. Luke’s second volume recounts how Jesus continued to bring salvation to Israel and to all nations after Jesus’ ascension (a major theme in the gospel; see Luke 1:32–33, 54–55, 68–79; 2:29–32; 3:6; 4:18–19, 43; 24:46–47).
An Apostolic Question
At the beginning of Acts, the disciples asked the risen Jesus: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Not unlike the Pharisees, they had misunderstood the nature and extent of the messianic redemption. Jesus’ reply is both enlightening and intriguing: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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” (vv. 7–8). He didn’t deny the validity of their hope for Israel’s redemption; instead, He gave an answer showing them that it was grander than they imagined.
Fruitful and Multiplying
As the apostles preached, Luke tells us in Acts: “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7) and the “word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24). It is significant that Luke, who would have used the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), uses the same two Greek verbs in both of these references that were used in the LXX in Genesis 1:28. Paul also used these same two verbs to reveal that the ultimate realization of fruitfulness and multiplication is found in the gospel (Col. 1:6, 10). Nothing less than the reestablishment of God’s original purpose in a redeemed creation is in view. The scope of redemption is universal and overthrows the curse of the fall.
In Acts, the issue of speaking in tongues confronts us straightway. Whether or not the gift of tongues is for the church today is not going to be addressed here. Unfortunately, that debate often obscures the significance of the apostolic phenomenon of tongues. At Babel, rebellious and haughty mankind was scattered by the confusion of languages. Pentecost, also called Shavuot, is the Jewish feast dedicating the wheat harvest to the Lord. Jewish tradition held that the Law was given at Shavuot and that the Gentiles who had also come out of Egypt heard the Law given in their seventy languages (see Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, P&R, 1997, p. 60). On Pentecost, thousands of Jews and Jewish proselytes from many nations heard the Word of God each “in his own native language” and were harvested for the kingdom (Acts 2:8). As the gospel went forward to an ever-expanding audience, Samaritans (a half-Jewish people) received the message and wonders ensued. Then, in Joppa, where Jonah fled from his call to preach repentance to the heathen, Peter received a vision about the inclusion of the Gentiles and was called to preach to them. The household of the Roman centurion Cornelius believed (chap. 10), and the tongues of Pentecost reoccurred. God’s kingdom was going forward, uniting Jew and Gentile and overturning both the separation between man and God and between men of different tribes and languages. Instead of scattering, gathering was taking place.
Blessing for All Nations
Peter’s report concerning Cornelius brought to apostolic attention that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18). While hotly pursuing the followers of the Messiah, anti-missionary Rabbi Saul was gloriously confronted by the Lord who called him as “a chosen instrument . . . to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). Paul began to preach to Jews, then Gentiles, and soon the gospel was spreading through Asia Minor and Greece. The apostles in Jerusalem wrestled with the inclusion of the Gentiles and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, realized that not only were the Gentiles to be admitted to the messianic community without first being circumcised, but also their inclusion was what the prophets had envisioned when speaking about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom and the harvest of the nations (Acts 15, quoting Amos 9:11–15). What was promised to Abraham was being fulfilled by the Messiah. As Psalm 72:17 had envisioned, the Abrahamic blessings were coming to fruition through the ultimate Davidic Son: “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!”
A “Two-Pronged” Worldwide Mission
When Paul was brought before King Agrippa to defend himself against charges that he opposed the Law, he responded, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but w
hat the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23). Bringing the good news to both Jew and Gentile was God’s plan all along. They had asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Now they understood God’s redemptive purpose went way beyond Israel.
Isaiah 42:1–7 and 49:1–6 had revealed that the messianic Servant “would have a two-pronged ministry, both to Israel and to the Gentiles” (Johnson, p. 40). The good news continues to go forward to both Jews and Gentiles. It is the power of salvation “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Just as the Jewish apostles took the good news to the Gentiles, now both Jewish and Gentile believers take the gospel to the world — and also back to the Jewish people. Theologians such as John Calvin, John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen all recognized God still purposes to bring “times of refreshing” to the Jewish people through the gospel. Dr. Clair Davis, Westminster Seminary Professor of Church History (emeritus), often said revival of commitment to take the gospel to Jewish people has always gone hand in hand with revival of commitment to world evangelism.
Our Glorious Purpose
It is easy to get bogged down in mundane and parochial concerns. Dull details of the daily grind constantly scream for our attention. We must not lose sight of the glorious purpose for which we have been called: the restoration of all creation. Our witness, our prayer, our service to bind up the wounds of the suffering in the name of Jesus are all part of something spectacular and wonderful, something the prophets longed to look into (1 Peter 1:10). May God renew our zeal for His work in our own neighborhoods and for His worldwide missionary enterprise. May He revive us to pray and work in faith toward both Jews and Gentiles being restored to blessing. Messiah Jesus is still at work advancing the Father’s kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. The second volume of the book of Acts is still being written. Let us recommit ourselves to this gospel enterprise, from Jerusalem, to all nations — and then back again.