Acts 12 has a note of satire to it. On the heels of James’s tragic death at the hands of Herod, Peter awaits a similar fate from prison. But that night, while Peter is sleeping, the Lord sends an angel to deliver him from prison and certain death. Peter, not fully aware of all that was happening, realizes he is free and decides to go to Mary’s house where some disciples had gathered—no doubt to pray for his deliverance.
Knock, knock. Rhoda, a servant girl, comes to answer, hears Peter’s voice at the door, and absolutely stunned, leaves him at the door and goes back to the prayer meeting exclaiming, “Peter is here!”
“You’re out of your mind,” they respond. Meanwhile, Peter, standing outside, keeps knocking. Think of the irony! They were knocking on heaven’s door while heaven was knocking on their door . . . and they didn’t even realize it! The appearance of Peter’s angel was apparently more believable than answered prayer.
In seeking Jesus, they missed the moment Jesus showed up. In their activity, they missed his activity.
I wonder if Mary’s house that evening may represent our modern missions strategy meetings. We open Acts. We pull out the maps. We pray. We seek. We strategize. We are desperate to see the nations reached. Amen. All good things. But then Rhoda bolts in. “Listen!”
“Rhoda, shhh! We’re praying. We’re planning. We’re busy.” Knock, knock.
What if, in seeking movement, we’ve missed the Mover. In our seeking, we’ve missed the One sought for. In developing a playbook, we’ve missed the main Player. What if our preoccupation with our activity has us missing his? What if we need Rhoda to interrupt our “strategery?” I am convinced that the book of Acts, read on its own terms, is the knock at the gate we need.
The Knock at the Gate
While everyone agrees that Acts is about mission, not everyone agrees how it should shape mission. Some view it as a “how-to” manual, or, to switch the metaphor, a “playbook” for missions. Our goal becomes simply trying to run the same “plays” that Jesus called for the earliest disciples. I outlined my primary concern with this approach in a previous post. The practical need for strategy, I believe, has distracted us from the story of Acts and left us as confused as the disciples at Mary’s house on the night when Peter stood stranded at the gate. Only for us, the message of Acts is Rhoda.
“Shh! Luke! We’re praying. We’re planning.” We host our studies, pour over episodes of church planting, yet somehow, in an ironic twist, we’ve made the book of Acts about our activity. Meanwhile, Someone stands outside. Knock, knock.
We need to reimagine a world where Jesus shows up and moves the mission forward. Acts narrates that world—the world as it truly is. Look at how the promises and actions of Jesus take center stage in the story of Acts.
The Promises of Jesus
The progress of the gospel in Acts is the result of Jesus’s promise, not the result of a program or a paradigm. Jesus’ ongoing work through his Spirit drives the mission forward in Acts, not the outworking of strategic thinking. Luke begins Acts by telling us that the “first narrative,” a reference to the Gospel of Luke, dealt with everything that Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The obvious implication is that now Jesus is up to something more in the second narrative, Acts.
Notice the promises Jesus makes to his early followers: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis added). Even the “end of the earth” language in Acts 1:8, quoting from Isaiah 49:6, heightens our awareness that the broadness of the mission fulfills biblical prophecy, not a man-made program. In other words, Jesus is not simply giving us a list of places to go. Now, this does not mean that we don’t have a significant role to play in the church’s mission (see Matthew 28:19), but it does mean that the will of Jesus is primary.
Could it be that in an effort to make Acts into the playbook for modern missionary strategy, we’ve missed the most important aspect of our strategy, namely, the sovereign will of the risen and reigning Lord Jesus?
The Actions of Jesus
In addition to emphasizing the promises of Jesus, a right approach to Acts will also highlight his actions. “Jesus Take the Wheel” could serve as a banner over the entire book. The Lord Jesus has the keys to the car; he presses the gas and pumps the brakes of gospel advance. It is Jesus, sometimes through his Spirit, sometimes through an angel, who opens the doors and broadens the impact of the gospel. The apostles are not moving out ahead of him, asking him to bless their strategic thinking. If anything, Acts reveals a tendency for the early believers to fall behind. Jerusalem is clearly not the headquarters behind the operation.
The book opens with a group of disciples staring up into the clouds, praying and waiting for the promised Spirit. These are not the actions of a team poised and ready to take on Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Likewise, when Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit in chapter 2, he does not find Peter in a planning session with maps spread across the table.
Luke’s de-emphasis on human planning continues throughout the story. Who told Philip to engage the Ethiopian eunuch with the gospel? The Spirit (8:29). Who engineered the stoning of Stephen as the key to the recruitment of a Jewish persecutor named Saul? The Lord Jesus (9:4ff). The Spirit’s voice is heard during a worship gathering in Antioch, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work,” expanding the church’s vision for cross-cultural engagement (13:1-2). It was Jesus who told Paul not to leave Corinth. (18:9).
Gentile inclusion and gospel advancement was headquartered in heaven by the Lord Jesus. He outpaced the early disciples in mission, showing us that the focus should be on the “Who” of mission more than the “how” of mission.
This emphasis on Christ’s activity does not mean that he does not use us in significant ways. Certainly, he worked through the apostles and the early church to advance his cause. Yet, the primacy of Jesus’s activity in the narrative plotline should make us pause before employing Acts as a “how-to” manual. Acts contributes to our missions strategies in significant ways, but Luke would surely scratch his head if he were to see the playbook we’ve developed from his pages.
The book of Acts highlights the unstoppable power of Jesus to overcome any obstacle on his mission. We need a Rhoda moment, and Luke has given us that in the book of Acts. I hope to flesh this out further in my next article.
–To read the first article in this series, go here.