Wednesday, April 13, 2011

149. The prophetic moment of missional expansion in the book of Acts

I have been studying the book of Acts lately and I keep coming back to Acts 1:8 where Jesus says "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I keep thinking about this progression from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Several things stick out to me.

1. It was a four phase process. It worked itself out progressively, from the center to the edge.
2. The first three phases are in close proximity to each other, both geographically and culturally. Then it jumps to a global mission focus. Big jump!
3. The Holy Spirit is the one who generates and empowers the church to move from one phase to the next. 

It is interesting to look at the transition points in the book of Acts when it begins to go from one phase of the process to the next. I want to focus on number one, specifically the transition from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. 

The church stays in Jerusalem for 7 chapters of the book of Acts. Most people think it was persecution that caused them to leave. I would agree, but only partly. In chapters 4 and 5 they had already experienced persecution. So what was it that got them to breach the lines of Jerusalem and move out beyond the boundaries of the city? 

Well, it all points to Stephen on this one. Stephen presents a riveting interpretation of God's activity with most of Israel's heroes....and almost all of this activity happens outside the boundaries of the Holy Land. Even when they get to the Temple section of the their history, Stephen is quick to point out that God snuffed at the idea of being located in a Temple. The heaven is my throne, the earth is my footstool." Stephen is deconstructing what some today call Temple Theology. The longest sermon in the book of Acts is, ironically, not about the "gospel" per se, but about how God does his most important work away from, and is "located" outside of, the Holy Land and the Temple.  Stephen has taken on the establishment and literally the "holy cows" of his day. 

It is important to notice something about the nature of Stephens critique here though. Stephen does not negate the temple here. He is not delegitimizing the place of the temple in history. What Stephen is doing in his sermon is neutralizing the Temple by pointing to places and people that God did amazing work through outside the boundaries of the Temple. Negating and neutralizing are two different things. He is not saying "remove yourself from the Temple," but rather to "re-map the Temple in relation to God's history and present mission."

It is not until Acts 7 that anyone makes it out of Jerusalem with the gospel. It is interesting to note here, also, that the same word Luke uses in Luke 10:2 to say "send out" workers into the harvest field  is the same word Luke uses in Acts 7 to describe Stephen being thrust out/sent out of the city of Jerusalem. The word is ekballow, which has a violent, disruptive flavor to it. Stephen is the first to break the boundaries of the city in the Acts narrative, but only by violently being "sent out" by the authorities that he pisses off in his sermon. 

Stephen is obviously playing a prophetic role here in Acts 7 by calling out the gap in their theology and calling for a re-mapping of space in light of God's previous activity, and ultimately the ascension. It is not surprising Luke uses a disruptive/disequilibrium word here for "send out" then. Being dis-located is often a disruptive experience, no matter who you are, and it often requires some outside forces to create movement. (This is one reason why Jesus says the Holy Spirit will bring you power to move you across these boundaries.)

So what we have here is a prophet stimulating, provoking, and activating the missional forces of the church! Through Stephens prophetic ministry, the church is "ekballowed" out of the city into the harvest field...Judea and Samaria. Unfortunately like most prophets, they are marginalized by the establishment, "outside the city," and do not necessarily enact the thing that they envision. Oddly enough, it is at the death of this prophet that we are not only introduced to a new chapter in the churches missional journey, we are also introduced to an apostle who will help the church make the transition from Judea and Samaria to the utter most parts of the earth...the apostle Paul. once again, we see a connection between the prophetic and the apostolic, both in individuals, and in vocations. No wonder Paul says apostles and prophets are foundational ministries in the church, they are at the very forefront of the church breaking out of its closed systems and transitioning into new territories and phases of missional expansion.

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