One of my pet peeves is arriving late to a movie theater and missing the first part of the film. From the start, I feel disoriented because I’ve missed important introductory material that provides the context for the plot unfolding before my eyes.
Similarly, when I read the famous verse about the Holy Spirit and missions in Acts 1:8, “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,” I feel like I’ve missed some important introductory material that’s necessary for me to understand the Spirit-directed mission of the church that unfolds through the rest of the Acts narrative. What does it mean for the Holy Spirit to come upon someone? What does it mean to be a witness? To the end of the world—really?
What the Old Testament Says
We don’t often think of the Holy Spirit and mission in our Old Testament, but He does some important missional stuff in a few key passages. For example, Moses appointed seventy men to be leaders of the people of Israel. To equip them for their task, the Lord, “… took some of the [Holy] Spirit that was on him [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25 ESV). So, the Holy Spirit came upon the seventy men and they proclaimed a message.
About the same time, two other men not with the leadership group experienced the Spirit resting upon them and they too prophesied. This provoked a good bit of jealousy among the elders, who insisted that Moses stop the rogue activity. Moses rebuked them, “‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’” (Numbers 11:29 ESV). So, we see the Holy Spirit come upon people and this event is associated with prophecy, proclaiming some type of message. Even early on in the Bible, there is a deep wish that all God’s people would experience the Spirit and prophecy.
We also see the Spirit in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 11, a prophecy carries the tone of hope as Isaiah speaks about the future Messiah, a Suffering Servant who would save the people of God from their sins. This coming Savior would be connected to the Holy Spirit, in fact, “… the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2 ESV). A similar note to what we heard earlier in Numbers 11 is sounded: the Spirit resting upon someone. While Isaiah’s prophecy primarily associates this Spirit-endowed Messiah with the people of Israel, the Savior’s task would extend far beyond that singular group. Indeed, God promised, “‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV). So, the vision was for a Savior for all the peoples of the world!
Two more prophecies in the Old Testament echo the theme of how this global Messiah would be capable of executing His divinely-given mission. In the first, God explained, “‘Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations’” (Isaiah 42:1 ESV). As for the second, Isaiah proclaimed,
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1–2 ESV).
From Isaiah, we learn about a coming Messiah who would be anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a light and witness to the nations by proclaiming the good news to people everywhere.
What the New Testament Says
Fast forward to the New Testament where the Holy Spirit and missions come into greater focus. As he begins his gospel about the eternal Word becoming incarnate, the disciple John introduces an interesting figure: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8 ESV). Now, in the New Testament, we see the light/witness theme, with the light being the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, and the witness being John the Baptist. About John the Baptist, who wore camel-hair garments and ate locusts and wild honey, we know two other things. First, he was “… filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15 ESV). Whatever that meant for John’s poor mother, we understand the importance of him being empowered by the Spirit! We also see that John pointed beyond himself to another to come: “‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’” (Luke 3:16 ESV).
Of course, John the Baptist spoke of Jesus the Messiah. John would bear witness to Jesus, who would baptize His followers with the Spirit (John 1:33 ESV). Following this, John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. When Jesus was baptized, “… immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV). The divinely-appointed and divinely-approved incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the Spirit come upon Him to launch Him on His messianic ministry.
The Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus was no trivial or limited matter. Indeed, the Spirit came upon Jesus “without measure” (John 3:34 ESV) and as a result, Jesus carried out His entire ministry in the presence and power of the Spirit. In fact, at the very outset of His mission, Jesus did something quite extraordinary in an ordinary setting:
“And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:16–21 ESV; citing Isaiah 61:1–2 ESV).
The centuries-old promise of a Spirit-anointed Messiah who would announce the gospel was, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning to come to pass!
As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, it became clear that His mission, if it was to be global in scope as prophesied earlier, would need to include others. Indeed, as Jesus prepared His disciples for their future work, He told them of a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would fall upon them,
“‘But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning’” (John 15:26–27 ESV).
As Jesus, anointed with the Holy Spirit, bore witness to God’s salvation, so similarly would Jesus’ disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, bear witness about the salvation that Jesus would accomplish. No wonder then, as Jesus achieved salvation through His suffering death, burial, and resurrection, He urgently instructed His once-confused, now expectant disciples about their upcoming mission:
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:44–49 ESV).
According to Jesus, this was the message of the Bible in a nutshell: 1) The Messiah would suffer, die, and rise, 2) The mission of announcing the gospel would begin in Jerusalem and spread to all the peoples of the world, 3) The disciples of Jesus would engage in this mission as witnesses of what He did to accomplish salvation, 4) God the Father would send His promise upon them as they waited in Jerusalem for divine empowerment.
Just to be sure his disciples didn’t miss that last point—which was probably as unclear to them as it is unclear to us—Jesus repeated it:
“And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5 ESV).
So, here’s what we know about the fourth element: it refers to baptism with the Holy Spirit (an event that was just about to occur) and this takes us to where I began my writing: “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” (Acts 1:8 ESV).
The promise of the Father—baptism with the Holy Spirit—would be the divine gift poured out upon the disciples. As a result, they would be the Messiah’s witnesses and proclaim the gospel starting from Jerusalem and extending to every corner of the world.
Right on time, this promise came to pass:
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [Jesus’s disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4 ESV).
These once-fearful disciples, overwhelmed by the coming of the Spirit upon them, proclaimed the mighty works of God in languages they had never studied or spoken before (Acts 1:11 ESV). One of them, the formerly bumbling Peter, preached the gospel and three thousand people embraced the salvation that Messiah Jesus had accomplished through His death, burial, and resurrection (Acts 2:14-41 ESV). When the first persecution arose because of the five thousand men (who knows how many women and children?) had embraced the gospel the disciples prayed,
“‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31 ESV).
Even after they were thrown into prison and commanded not to preach the gospel, the miraculously escaped disciples turned right around and continued to announce the message of Jesus. This angered the Jewish leaders who hauled them into court and rebuked their stubborn disobedience.
“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him’” (Acts 5:29-32 ESV).
The disciples were echoing Jesus’ promise to them that, “… when the Helper comes, … he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness” (John 15:27 ESV). Filled with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples continued to obediently preach with boldness, no matter the cost.
And so the rest of Acts continues. As Stephen proclaimed Jesus before the furiously angry Jewish leaders, “… he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55 ESV). Enabled by the Spirit, Stephen died for the faith, becoming the first Christian martyr. Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to perform great signs and miracles, led many Samaritans to believe in Jesus the Messiah and be baptized (Acts 8:4-25 ESV). That same Philip, directed by the Holy Spirit to run and join the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch, “… told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35 ESV). After baptizing this Gentile, Philip was transported by the Spirit to continue his preaching elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40 ESV). Saul, an enemy of the church, was violently rescued from his former Pharisaical way of life. As he was transformed into an apostle, Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, carried out a formidable mission to the Gentiles (Acts 9:1-24 ESV).
That Gentile mission was inaugurated by Peter who, instructed by the Holy Spirit, put aside his prejudiced perspective and announced the gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends (Acts 10; Acts 11:1-18 ESV). As for his gospel proclamation,
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-45; cf. 11:15-17 ESV).
Baptized into the name of Jesus Christ, they became the first Gentile Christians.
As this Gentile mission came to be Paul’s particular focus, he embarked with Silas and Timothy, and was later joined by Luke, at the outset of their so-called second missionary journey (Acts 16:6-18:22 ESV). As missionaries, their calling and responsibility was to preach the gospel while they traveled. However, something unusual occurred, the Holy Spirit forbade them to announce the good news in Phrygia and Galatia/Asia, then prevented them from evangelizing in Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7 ESV). Through a night vision, Paul and the team were redirected toward Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10 ESV). Guided by the Spirit, they travelled for four hundred miles without engaging in the missionary task for which they were sent, until they reached Philippi (Acts 16:11-12 ESV). Finding some women at prayer alongside a river, Paul preached the gospel and led Lydia to the Lord. She and her household were baptized as the first converts in Asia (Acts 16:13-15 ESV). These conversions were followed by the exorcism of a demon who preyed upon a young fortune teller (Acts 16:16-18 ESV) and the salvation of a jailor and his family (Acts 16:25-34 ESV). Importantly, it was the Holy Spirit who orchestrated and empowered this missionary endeavor.
Continuing through the book of Acts, we gain the sense that this missionary expansion would know no borders; rather, it would become a global enterprise. Paul and Barnabas underscored this boundless mission when, turning from the hostile Jews to the expectant Gentiles, they offered this justification,
“For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:47-49 ESV).
What was a prophecy about the extensiveness of the Messiah’s reach for salvation (Isaiah 49:6; quoted above) became the apostles’ warrant for the extension of their gospel mission to the Gentiles. What God had promised and Jesus had inaugurated, the disciples were continuing—a global enterprise! Even at the end of Acts, Paul is quoting the Holy Spirit-inspired prophecy of Isaiah to justify his ongoing ministry to the Gentiles in Rome, the city that, in his days, was “the end of the earth” (Acts 28:23-31 ESV).
The Holy Spirit and the Mission of the Goers
Let’s do a quick review of our biblical theology sketch: Moses’ hope was that one day, all of God’s people would be prophets upon whom the Holy Spirit would come. Isaiah’s prophecy was of a future Messiah, a Suffering Servant, who would be anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a light and witness to the nations by proclaiming the good news to people everywhere. John the Baptist’s promise was of an imminently-arriving Messiah who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit. The Word who became flesh, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, was the fulfillment of these expectations. They all ultimately pointed to him. To accomplish His messianic ministry, Jesus experienced the Spirit come upon Him. He was filled with the Holy Spirit without measure, spoke to the crowds, taught His disciples, confronted His enemies, performed miracles, lived in perfect obedience to the law, and ultimately went to the cross and was raised from the dead, all by the power of the indwelling Spirit. Yet, the mission did not end with salvation accomplished by Jesus, for His mission was for all people everywhere. Accordingly, He prepared His disciples for a fresh, unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that they would be witnesses to His salvation. Thus, beginning in Jerusalem, then moving into all of Judea and Samaria and expanding to the Gentiles, Jesus’ disciples began to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
It only takes a moment’s reflection to know that the disciples’ role in this inaugurated enterprise came to a personal end with their death. But their mission did not die with them. It was carried on by innumerable Christians in the early church phase, during the medieval period, throughout the Reformation and post-Reformation era, and into the modern and postmodern age.
It continues today.