You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).1 The command of Jesus impelled His followers to an astonishing journey of action; indeed a series of actions, one after another, involving the disciples and the early believers who, under the influence and power of the Holy Spirit, took the message of the risen Savior to the “ends of the earth.”
That action is what the book of Acts is all about. Watch the ascension of Christ, the anointing of the apostles by flames of fire, enabling them to speak in different languages, which, in turn, led to the first great conversion surge, overwhelming the Jerusalem establishment and setting off lay missionaries to the Roman Empire’s distant outposts. Race with Philip to catch up with the eunuch of Ethiopia and, through him, see the march of the gospel in distant Africa. How about the action of Stephen’s stoning leading to the miracle of the Damascus road that produced Paul, the great missionary, who literally tore down every frontier to reach “the ends of the earth”? Ponder over Peter, his Pentecostal sermon, his encounter with Cornelius that prepared the church for the challenge of the mission to the Gentiles. See the First Apostolic Council of Jerusalem and its impact on the church’s great march through history. All these, and other action stories, keep us excited to read a book that tells of a church becoming a living organism, growing and expanding, looking for new ways through sea and land until pursuing its way to the ends of the earth. These were truly the acts of the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.2 The book of Acts is, indeed, an inspiring chronicle of how an insignificant sect inside Judaism becomes a worldwide movement, confronting religious and philosophic systems that hitherto dominated the world. This achievement became possible because the early church was involved in an outstanding missionary movement, unmatched by any other Christian movement through history. That movement was rooted in an unhesitating response to a direct command of Jesus at the beginning of the book of Acts.
The book starts with a few disciples, hidden in the upper level of an unknown house in Jerusalem, their hearts filled with fear. It ends with thousands of people joining the new Christian movement and with those same disciples, now filled with a bold vision, sharing freely and with joy, announcing the Christian mission to the whole world, no matter what. The book clearly tells us that many of them did that, risking their lives.
What was the reason for such a fantastic change? What happened in between? We find an incredible message carefully wrapped in the book of Acts. But the most important thing about the book is the sequential and careful unfolding of a command given by the Lord Jesus Christ at the very beginning of the book.
A critical text and its context
Let’s examine the last conversation between Jesus and His apostles. This represents a solemn gathering—the last reunion of Jesus with His disciples on earth. The disciples asked Him: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). We see here that at the very beginning of one of the most outstanding moments in the life of the early church, the disciples did not yet see the whole picture. They simply misunderstood the Lord. They were opinionated and thinking politically, not religiously. They were still Jews expecting political supremacy in a world governed by Gentiles. But their narrow-minded vision would soon be changed forever.
They were moments away from the departure of Jesus to heaven. This magnificent and memorable event in their lives had been engraved in their memory, and it represents the key in the analysis of the rest of the book. Because this topic occurred in the context of the last moments of Jesus on earth, in reality, it compares to the starting march of the next dynamic and colorful event that began to define the very essence of the book of Acts.
Acts 1: 6 “forms something of an outline for Acts.”3 At that moment, they received power not to rule, but to witness.4 Jesus referred to them now as witnesses, and He did it in a legal sense. “A witness . . . is someone who helps establish facts objectively through verifiable observation.” 5 The Lord did not reproach the disciples for their misunderstanding, but simply said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 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” (Acts 1:7, 8).
Jesus here appointed them, not only as disciples (they already were), but as witnesses because they were living testimonies of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.6 The resurrection of Jesus was a fact, directly seen by His disciples. Therefore, they were witnesses of historical facts and the convictions of faith in the early church. They were witnesses to the ends of the earth that may even have to put their lives at risk in defending the authenticity of their statement.
What does the phrase “the ends of the earth” mean? Some authors have speculated the meaning of this expression.7 Clearly the book shows an interest in Rome (the capital city of the empire), but some think this may not only refer to reaching out of the hub of Rome to the Gentile world, but that the gospel will continue to go beyond Rome. Hence we may well conclude that the phrase “the ends of the earth” is geographical and ethnic in scope, inclusive of all people and locales. This mission includes a multi-directional and eschatological focus. Independent of the Jewish expectations of the early disciples, who were anxiously looking for the restoration of the kingdom, God’s intention was the world; not a part of it, nor a portion of it, simply the entire world.
Did they obey the command of Jesus?
Jonathan Lewis indicates that “Christ’s prophetic words in Acts 1:8 provide us with an excellent outline for understanding the missionary dynamic of this book.”8
This clearly shows us how the disciples went out determined to reach the target established by their Lord. The clear distribution of the mission clearly demonstrates that the disciples obeyed their Master.
In the book of Acts, a significant geographical movement occurs: (1) a territorial expansion that made inroads into the Gentile world; (2) success and advance in the mission, even in the face of clear hostility, both internal and external; (3) the headquarters of the missionary task that was set in Jerusalem (Acts 6).9 The mission given in Acts has geographical and sociological targets rather than numeric ones. Jesus did not establish numeric figures to reach Judea, Samaria, or the ends of the earth. Such a limitation would work against the urgency and universality of the message: God wanted the early church to reach the whole world, not a part of it.10 In the book of Acts, as in the Gospels, we see the growing of the Christian movement in a variety of levels representing a clear spiritual growing, because growing in the world made them grow internally in the church; a clear sociological growing with diverse cultures and ethnically diverse people and languages encompassed by the message; a clear geographical growing with the message being accepted in different places, towns, cities, and nations.
In the New Testament, Jesus was never pleased about: going fishing without catching any fish (Luke 5:4–11); seeing empty tables at a banquet (Luke 14:5–23); sowing seed that will never be harvested (Matt. 13:3–9); a fig tree not bearing fruit (Luke 13:6–8); an unaccounted sheep not brought into the fold (Matt. 18:11–14); a lost coin not found (Luke 15:8–11); a lost son who does not come back home (Luke 15:12–32); and proclaiming the Word without a response (Matt. 10:14), because God expects His work on earth to have concrete and visible results.
In the early days, the church that obeyed the command of Jesus was in constant growth. One early church father wrote to the heathen nations, challenging them: “We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.”11 Today our church needs to pay attention again to the moving words of Jesus. Those words were powerful. Not by the fact of their enunciation itself, but by the influence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts that moved those men and women to start a missionary movement unmatched through history. They did not have all the high tech and gadget resources we have today. The early Christians did not have television, Internet, email, computers, text messages, software, presentation resources, advertising, or any of the social media resources we have today. But they reached every place with the gospel message. And they reaped thousands of conversions in a surprisingly short time.
Can we not do the same? Of course we can. We need to catch the spirit of the early church. In the book of Acts, we see a church that still kept a discipleship vision. In the days to come, the church lost its discipleship vision, and we need to return to true discipleship. As Hull says, “Christianity without discipleship causes the church to assimilate itself into the culture.”12 The challenging command of Jesus for missions (Acts 1:8) remains valid and binding on the church. All we need to do is to resurrect the command, place it before our church, and plead for the Holy Spirit to help us implement it. The Holy Spirit will empower us to fulfill the command, just as He did at the beginning of church history. He now waits to move the pastoral and lay force into a big missionary movement like we have never seen in history. Then, and only then, will Christ’s saving message reach the ends of the earth—be it your next-door neighbor or the distant town on the other side of the globe.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.
2 The role of the Holy Spirit in Acts is clear (Acts 2:4; 8:29; 10:19; 15:28; 16:6, 7; 20:23). It is the Holy Spirit that says: “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (Acts 13:2, KJV).
3 A. L. Barry, To the Ends of the Earth (St Louis: Concordia, 1997), 43.
4 Paul W. Walaskay, Acts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 28.
5 Darrell Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 64.
6 Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 10–15.
7 See Darrel Bock, 64; D. W. Pao, “Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus,” Wissenchschafliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testaement 2 (2000): 93; T. S. Moore, “To the Ends of the Earth: The Geographical and Ethnic Universalism of Acts 1: 8 in Light of Isaianic Influence of Luke,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 40 (1997): 389–399.
8 Jonathan Lewis, ed., World Mission: An Analysis of the World Christian Movement, Part 1 (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1987), 79.
9 Daniel Scarone, Hasta los confines de la tierra (Alajuela, Costa Rica: Universidad Adventista de Centroamerica, 1996), 69.
10 Ibid., 73.
11 Tertullian, 37:4.
12 Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 16.