In Acts chapter 7, Stephen is dragged before the Sanhedrin and demanded to explain his beliefs. What follows is a sweeping history of the people of Israel, culminating in their handing over Jesus to be crucified.
That didn’t go over so well, so he was dragged out of the city and stoned, becoming the first Christian martyr. His death sparked fierce persecution, largely from the efforts of a young man named Saul. This persecution was so intense that we’re told in Acts 8:1 that, “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.”
But at the end of that verse, we see an interesting anecdote. It says they were all scattered “except the apostles.”
What could that mean?
Except the Apostles…
Well, it’s best to skip forward in the story a bit to see how this plays out before we dig into that.
The rest of Acts chapter 8 details Philip’s proclaiming of the gospel to Samaria, which is one the specific places Jesus told his disciples they would witness for him back in Acts 1:8.
But Philip is not an Apostle. He’s not one of the twelve guys that were chosen directly by Jesus to herald his message. So what’s he doing spreading the message about Jesus to parts unknown?
And he’s not the only believer to go around telling unreached people about Jesus. Acts 11 shows us where those believers who were forced to leave town after Stephen’s murder ended up. They went all over the place, but some of them went to Antioch and began preaching the gospel to the non-Jewish people who lived there.
Barnabas, a trusted man in the church at the time, was so impressed with what was going on in Antioch that he went and brought his friend the Apostle Paul. Together they taught and encouraged this fledgling church where for the first time followers of Jesus were called “Christians.”
It’s easy to miss what’s going on here though, because it’s literally not mentioned. What is it that’s not mentioned? The names of the Christians who took the gospel to parts unknown.
Remember the Apostles? They’re back in Jerusalem.
Which is crazy if you think about it. If you had to pick one person or a team of people from your church right now to go and take Jesus somewhere new, there’s no doubt most of us would pick our senior pastor or the team of pastors at our church.
But the Bible specifically tells us they didn’t do it in this case.
Instead, a mostly unknown group of Christians took the gospel into places like Antioch, planting churches as they went. These were everyday, average people with normal jobs that had to earn a living.
And by the way, Antioch ends up becoming the church-planting center of the early church. They actually sent Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey.
So it wasn’t the Apostles that sent out missionaries, it was the other way around.
Would you know what to do?
Which brings up an interesting question: If you were one of those believers who were scattered to parts unknown, would you know what to do?
If there was no church to invite people to, no engaging services to bring down the anxieties of the unchurched, no safe and fun children’s ministry for their kids, would you still know how to tell them about Jesus?
I’m afraid that for far too many people in the American church the answer is a resounding no. They would have no idea where to begin. No idea of how to evangelize their neighbors, baptize them, and start teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments. No idea of how to live in community with other believers in a way that’s so attractive to those around them that they can’t help but ask what’s going on.
That’s a problem.
Because if the first Christians didn’t know how to do that, there would be no church in America. The movement would have died in Jerusalem along with the Apostles.
But instead of dying, it began thriving. Why is that?
Taking the Great Commission personally
Because the early Christians took the Great Commission personally, as well as collectively.
They knew that they were part of a close-knit, life on life community that was called to love one another like their own family. The book of Acts and the Epistles attests to that.
But they also knew that they were each called to make disciples. Not just the elders. Not just the Apostles. But each and every one of them.
The church today takes the Great Commission very seriously. But I’m worried that it’s only in a collective sense. I’m worried that there’s a loss of a personal call to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded us.
And we can say that we don’t need to do that in America today because we have freedom to have large churches with lots of pastors and many seminaries to train more and they can do the bulk of the work.
And that’s true. All of those things are possible. And it’s, I would argue, how the church is actually operating.
But does that make it the right way to operate?
Just because we can structure things that way, should we?
Imagine yourself being dropped off in the middle of a city like LA or Chicago or San Francisco. But instead of there being churches all over the place, there are no believers anywhere to be found. Would you know what to do?
The answer to that reveals a lot about whether or not we should be operating in a way that removes personal responsibility for the Great Commission from believers.
The personal burden to make disciples
Only when Christians wake each day with a burden to make disciples in their particular context, only when that is their primary calling and way they view the purpose of their life, does the church function in the way it was intended.
Only when Christians gauge their effectiveness based on their own fruit instead of their pastor’s does the gospel multiply.
Otherwise the church gets bogged down arguing about strategy and philosophy of ministry and all the things that keep the church from focusing on Jesus’ last words.
But we’re always tempted to think “bigger picture.” To come up with new ways of doing things that reach more people at the same time and get more people to attend an event. We’re constantly tempted to think bigger when Jesus’ example was to think smaller.
Instead of coming back from the dead and calling an assembly of all the government leaders of his day, Jesus called together the small band of people who followed him. And even then, it was primarily a group of 11 men. At the most, we’re told their full number was 120.
And it was to this small group of people that Jesus handed over responsibility for completing his mission.
True disciples have been made in the same way ever since. By one group of believers investing in the people around them, converting them, and teaching them to follow Jesus.
It was simple.
He told each of them to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything he taught them until the ends of the earth were reached with followers of Jesus. Each of them, and all of them.