In What Respects Has The Book of Acts Provided The Basic Model For Christian Mission?

Robert I. Bradshaw

[Please note that this is an undergraduate essay and should not be cited in your own work]


In many ways it would be easier to write about how the Church has failed to follow the models for mission provided in the book of Acts. For surely the mass conversion of the majority of the Roman Empire after 313 CE. or the mediaeval crusades had more to do with expediency and military conquest (respectively) than Biblical Christianity.

The central theme of the book of Acts is mission[1], chapter 1:8 being an accurate summary of its contents[2]. Although at first the Jerusalem church appeared reluctant to engage in its worldwide commission, sudden persecution forced the believers to scatter, and in scattering they spread the Word (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19-21).

Mission in Acts began not with individuals, but with the churches corporately expressing the desire of the Holy Spirit. All mission has to be church based if it is to be effective[3].

I.H. Marshall writes:

It... seems likely that Luke especially understood the gift of the Holy Spirit as equipping the church for mission, and consequently that he regarded the essence of being a Christian as the activity of mission.[4]

It was therefore men filled with the Holy Spirit who became the missionaries of the Early Church (Acts 6:5; 11:24). It was the Jerusalem church who sent Peter and John to Samaria (8:14) and Barnabas to Antioch (11:22), and it was to that Church that Peter was answerable for his actions (11:1-3). Paul too was no free-lance, even though he had received his commission from the throne of God (9:15). On the contrary he was very much church based. It was through the ministry of the believers at Antioch that he received the command to start his first journey (13:1-3). The wording of v.2 suggests that Paul & Barnabas already had an idea that the Lord was leading them in that direction, but they waited until their calling was recognised by the church. Paul submitted to their commissioning and set off as apart of a team, initially comprising of Barnabas, John-Mark and himself (13:2, 5; 14:36-31). On completion of their journey it was to their home church base that they returned and reported (14:26-28)[5]. This balance... [between Divine calling and human recognition of that calling provides a] healthy corrective to opposite extremes. The first is a tendency to individualism, by which a Christian claims direct personal guidance by the Spirit without reference to the church. The second is the tendency to institutionism, by which all decision-making is done by the church without any reference to the Spirit. Although we have no liberty to deny the validity of personal choice, it is safe and healthy only in relation to the Spirit and the church. There is no evidence that Barnabas and Saul 'volunteered' for missionary service; they were 'sent' by the Spirit through the church. Still today it is the responsibility of every local church (especially of its leaders) to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, in order to discover whom he may be gifting and calling.[6]

F.F. Bruce points out that "the two men who were to be released for what would nowadays be called missionary service overseas were the two most eminent and gifted leaders in the church"[7]. Silas and Barnabas too were men whose gifting had been recognised by the church in Jerusalem. "Even Timothy, young as he was, was appreciated not only by his home congregation in Lystra, but was apparently also well spoken of by those in the nearby city of Iconium as well (16:2)[8]. Paul's second journey was brought about through the recognition of a need rather than by a gift of the Spirit (15:36) showing that he was guided by a combination of the Holy Spirit and common sense.

Paul always made a point to visit the vital centres of trade and culture, knowing that each of them radiated an influence on the surrounding area. Not that he ignored villages, for connecting cities to surrounding villages were permanent lines of communication.[9]

A study of the cities that Paul visited is sufficient to prove this point. Antioch in Pisidia[10], Lystra[11], Troas[12], Philippi[13], and Thessalonica[14] were all Roman colonies and therefore connected by Roman roads. Paphos[15], Thessalonica[16], Athens[17], and Corinth[18] were the capital cities of Cyprus, Macedonia, Attica and Achaia respectively, and therefore centres of Roman administration. The others were either ports (Salamis[19], Paphos[20], Attalia[21], Perga[22], Troas[23], Neopolis[24], Ephesus[25] and Cenchrea[26]) or connected by major land routes. One exception to the general rule is Beroea, which lay off the beaten track, however, it was "one of the most populous towns in Macedonia"[27].

What is often forgotten is the religious significance of these cities. Just as Jerusalem was the Spiritual capital of Israel, so many of these cities were dedicated to a particular god. Perga was dedicated to the 'Queen of Perga' (a variant of Artemis[28]); Antioch in Pisidia to Mên[29]; Lystra to Zeus (loosely connected to the 'Zeus' of Greece, but with local additions [14:13][30]; Thessalonica to Cabirus[31]; Ephesus to Artemis (19:35)[32]; Athens to Athena[33] (among a plethora of others[34]), and Corinth to Aphrodite[35]. Paul well understood that by bringing the gospel into the cities his converts would soon spread the Gospel the surrounding regions[36] .

Paul's modus operandi was to go first to the synagogue (14:1; 17:2)[37], which was the obvious place to start, because the Jews themselves had been very successful in evangelising the Gentiles. By attending these gatherings as a visitor he would be invited to address them (13:15). So he was able to use the OT Scriptures to point to Jesus as the promised Messiah (9:22; cf. 2:14-40), and show that they foretold his death and resurrection, as well as his immanent return[38]. In this he had the advantage of being able to speak to people who, like himself, used the LXX[39]. His epistle to the Romans shows that he also had strong theological reasons for going to the Jews first[40] (Rom.1:16).

When proclaiming the Gospel the early Christian preachers sought to find an area of common ground. It was pointless to refer to Jewish history or to quote a fulfilled prophecy when neither were accepted as authoritative by their audiences[41]. Instead, when speaking to peasants living at Lystra, on the borders of Greco-Roman civilisation, Paul spoke of God's kindness in giving rain and crops in their seasons (14:14-18)[42]. To the Athenian philosophers he proclaimed the 'Unknown God' - from an inscription that he had seen on one of the multitude of altars in the city (17:22-23). Don Richardson[43] and others link this altar with one of several set up by the Cretan prophet Epimenides in the seventh century BCE[44]. Other writers are more cautious in their identification[45]. Frend points out that while the audience had listened to him patiently while he was on their philosophical ground, as soon as he shifted "to specifically Christian themes, the mood of his audience changed... common ground disappeared"[46] and he failed to make much progress with them.

Early Christian preaching was not with "wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power" (1 Cor.2:4; cf. 4:20). The Apostles moved in the realm of the miraculous. Acts records miracles of judgement (5:3-11; 13:6-12); of healing (3:6-8; 5:12; 14:8-10; 19:11-12); of the dead being raised (9:40-41; 20:9-12); of deliverance from demons (16:16-18; 19:11-12), and of deliverance from death (27:3-6; cf.Mk.16:18). All of which fulfil Jesus' promises in Mark 16:17-18.

Although it is seldom referred to in Acts (1:14; 12:5; 16:13; 20:16) prayer formed a foundational role in the missionary activity of the Church. the area of finance Paul made it very clear that he could expect to receive an income from preaching the Gospel (1 Cor.9:7-12), but chose not to do so. Instead he worked hard at tentmaking when he could (Acts 18:3; 20:34) unless he had sufficient members in his team not to need to (18:5).

After a time of intense teaching Paul moved on, after appointing elders (cf. 20:28-31; Titus 1:5). Peter Wagner illustrates a common misunderstanding in this area of missionary work:

"My job is to work myself out of a job." The fallacy involved is to project the need for a national to take the missionaries place rather than for the national, in his own style, to lead the national church... If the Apostle Paul had been captured by this mentality, I am afraid he would still be in Iconium.[47]

Luke gives in Acts 15 an example of how to solve a cultural problem in Mission, as David Burnett points out[48]. Faced with a situation that could have split the Church between Jewish and Gentile Christians a council was convened. After hearing from both sides (15:7-12) James spoke up as chairman of the Council, yet it is clear that the (temporary[49]) compromise that was reached was the decision of the Holy Spirit as well (15:28)[50]. This was not the end of the debate, as Paul's letters show (Rom.14:13-23; I Cor.8; Gal.2:11-21), but it had succeeded in securing the unity of the Church.

Although many aspects of the missionary experiences recorded in Acts may not be relevant for today, given the vastly different culture and circumstances that we find ourselves facing, there are, in Acts, many helpful principles for Mission. Max Warren[51] and J. Verkuyl conclude that supreme among these are:

... being always open to the beckoning call of the Holy Spirit and constantly seeking to know the will of God in your work.[52]


1. I.H. Marshall, "Acts," TNTC. Leicester: IVP, 1988. p.25.

2. ibid.

3. M. Griffiths, Cinderella With Amnesia. Leicester, IVP. p.138.

4. I.H. Marshall, Luke ~ Historian & Theologian. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1988. p.200.

5. F.F. Bruce, "Acts," NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. p.246; Griffiths, op.cit., p.153: Acts 14:26ff "...Would that more sending churches would insist that their missionaries should spend a considerable portion of their furlough with their home congregation. A certain amount of 'deputation' elsewhere is desirable so that other congregations may hear of the missionary work in which their own congregation's missionaries are involved. But it seems highly desirable that the definite relationship with a particular congregation should be fastened and encouraged by spending a particular time with them."

6. J.R.W. Stott, "The Message of Acts," The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: IVP. p.218.

7. Bruce, "Acts," op.cit., p.246.

8. Griffiths, op.cit., p.154.

9. J. Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. p.113; W.H.C. Frend, The Rise Of Christianity. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1989. p.93.

10. B. Van Elderen, "Antioch in Persidia," ISBE, Vol.1. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1979. p.142.

11. D.A. Hagner, "Lystra," ISBE, Vol. 3, 1986. p.193.

12. G.L. Borchert, "'Troas," ISBE, Vol. 4, 1988. p.923.

13. G.L. Borchert, "Philippi," ISBE, Vol. 3, p.345.

14. K.P. Donfried, "The Cults Of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence," New Testament Studies, 31 (1985): 345.

15. R.A. Gwinn, "Paphos," ISBE, Vol. 3, p.651.

16. Donfried, op.cit., 345.

17. D.H. Madvig, "Athens," ISBE, Vol. 1, p.352.

18. D.H. Madvig, "Corinth," Vol. 1, p.772.

19. Gwinn, 'Salamis', ISBE, Vol.4, p.284.

20. Gwinn, 'Paphos', op.cit., 651.

21. E.J. Banks & R.P. Meye, "Attalis," ISBE, Vol. 1, p.363.

22. E.A. Judge, "Perga," ISBE, Vol. 3, p.768.

23. Borchert, "Troas," op.cit., p.923.

24. H.F. Vos, "Neopolis," ISBE, Vol. 3, p.115.

25. H.F. Borchert, "Ephesus," ISBE, Vol. 2, 1982, p.115.

26. R.P. Meye, "Cenchrea," ISBE, Vol. 1, p.628.

27. D.H. Madvig, "Beroea," ISBE, Vol. 3, p.462; Longenecker points out that this strategy of concentrating on major cities was not a hard-and-fast rule as it "...ignores the insignificance of Lystra and Derbe in the South compared to Ancyra and Pessinus in the North". 'Galatians', WBC, Vol. 41. Waco: Word, 1990. p.lxix.

28. Judge, op,cit., p.767.

29. Van Elderen, op,cit., p.142.

30. Hagner, op,cit., p.193.

31. Donfried, op,cit., p.338.

32. Borchert, 'Ephesus', op,cit., p.115.

33. Madvig, "Athens," op,cit., p.351.

34. Don Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts, Revised. California: Regal Books, 1985. p.11.

35. Madvig, "Corinth," op,cit., p.772.

36. R. Allen, Missionary Method: St. Paul's or Ours? London: Robert Scott, 1913. p.18.

37. Also Acts 13:5, 14-15; 17:10, 16-17; 18:4, 19; 28:17, 18.

38. K.S. Latourette, A History of The Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1971. p.79.

39. Frend, op,cit., p.93.

40. J. Drane, Introducing The New Testament. Tring: Lion, 1986. p.262.

41. R.N. Longenecker, "Acts," EBC, Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981. p.475; Frend, op,cit., p.98.

42. Longenecker, "Acts," op,cit., p.436.

43. Richardson, op,cit., p.22.

44. A. Barnes, "Acts," Notes On The New Testament, Vol. 3. London: Black & Son, n.d.. p.261.

45. Longenecker, "Acts", op,cit., p.475.

46. Frend, op,cit., p.89.

47. P. Wagner, The Babylonian Captivity of The Christian Mission. Pasadena: 1972. p.16.

48. David Burnett, God's Mission: Healing The Nations. Bromley: STL, 1986. pp.180-183.

49. As the Jewish content of the Church declined over the next century these regulations became of less importance. However, recent correspondence in Redemption shows that they are still regarded as binding among some Christians. David Petts responds: "The passage in Acts 15 must be interpreted in its context. The decision at the time to tell the Gentiles to abstain from meat offered to idols etc., was only considered 'necessary'... because of evident difficulties that had arisen between Jewish and Gentiles Christians. To keep the peace the Council agreed that the Gentiles need not be circumcised but that they should abstain from certain meats offered to idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication, of which were intimately connected with pagan worship of  the time.

Interpreted this way the decision of the Council need not be understood to be binding on all Christians for all time (although of course the prohibition against fornication is backed up elsewhere). That this interpretation is basically correct is confirmed by the fact that in I Cor.8-10 (written some five years after the Council of Jerusalem) Paul makes it clear that in principle one may eat meat offered to idols and need only abstain if one is likely to cause a brother to stumble. David Petts, Redemption Magazine. (December 1990): 35.

50. Marshall, "Acts," op,cit., p.255.

51. Warren, op,cit., p.92: "a lively response of Spirit-inspired opportunism ever alert to the certainty that God will provide different opportunities in different circumstances."

52. Verkuyl, op,cit., p.113.


Allen, R. Missionary Method: St. Paul's or Ours? London: Robert Scott, 1913.

Barnes, A. 'Acts', Notes On The New Testament, Vol.3. London: Black & Son, n.d.

Bromiley, G.W., gen.ed. International Standard Bible  Encyclopedia, Rev., 4 Vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-1988.

Bruce, F.F. 'Acts', New International Commentary On The New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Burnett, David. God's Mission: Healing The Nation. Bromley: STL, 1986.

Donfried, K.P. 'The Cults Of Thessalonica And The Thessalonian Correspondence', New Testament Studies, Vol.31, (1985).

Drane, J. Introducing The New Testament. Tring: Lion, 1986.

Frend, W.H.C. The Rise Of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

Griffiths, M. Cinderella With Amnesia. Leicester: IVP.

Latourette, K.S. A History Of The Expansion Of Christianity, Vol.1, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1971.

Longenecker, R.N. 'Acts', F.E. Gaebelein, gen.ed. Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol.9, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Longenecker, R.N. 'Galatians', Word Biblical Commentary, Vol.41, Waco: Word, 1990: lxix.

Marshall, I.H.  'Acts', Tyndale Commentary On The New Testament. Leicester: IVP, 1988: .25.

Marshall, I.H. Luke ~ Historian & Theologian. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1988.

Petts, David. Redemption. (December 1990): 35.

Richardson, Don. Eternity In Their Hearts, rev. California: Regal Books, 1985.

Stott, J.R.W. 'The Message of Acts', The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: IVP.

Verkuyl, J. Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Wagner, P. The Babylonian Captivity Of The Christian Mission. Pasadena, 1972: 16.