To the ends of the earth

The crowd of college students swayed gently to the music. They had just heard a moving story from an overseas missionary, telling in vivid detail of the need for the gospel in other lands. Many of the students had their eyes closed; some were weeping. “I will go,” they sang in earnest. “I will go to the ends of the earth.” The chorus repeated again and again, as if waiting for everyone to give some sign of having made the pledge.

“I will go” — presumably, overseas, to spread the gospel message. Hundreds of young people committed themselves to Christian missions that day. But not everyone who sang those words actually went.

I know this, because I was there. I sang the words. But I didn’t go.

Have I failed the mission?

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Jesus’ words at the beginning of the book of Acts both echo and continue what was spoken at the end of the gospel of Luke. When the disciples eagerly asked the risen Jesus if he would now restore the kingdom of Israel to its former dominance, his answer probably wasn’t what they had hoped:

It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8, CEB)

That’s not exactly “No,” but rather, “It’s none of your business.” The Father, apparently, had his own plans for Israel, and the disciples were on a strictly need-to-know basis. They had their own mission to accomplish.

The disciples had been waiting for the one who would reestablish the earthly kingdom of Israel. Jesus had come preaching the kingdom; the crowds had even proclaimed him king. Anticipating the glory days they thought were just around the corner, the disciples even jockeyed for positions of prominence in the kingdom that was about to burst upon the empire.

But it was not to be the kind of kingdom they expected.

The arrival a new king was typically announced by heralds. One thinks, for example, of the story at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, in which a heavenly host appeared to an astonished group of shepherds, bringing them the joyous news of the birth of their Savior.

The disciples would follow in that tradition. They were not being commissioned to sit back and enjoy the arrival of a new earthly kingdom, a shift in the balance of political power. They were being sent out — no longer just disciples, but apostles — to bring news of a Savior. Their message would be one of forgiveness and repentance in the name of Jesus:

This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)

And they would bring that message first to Jerusalem and then work outward: from Jerusalem to all of surrounding Judea; from Judea to their ethnically despised neighbors in Samaria; and from there to the rest of the world.

Many have noted that this serves as a good rough outline for the book of Acts as a whole, as the story winds from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. Luke could scarcely have imagined the lands beyond the Roman Empire, but it doesn’t matter. He wrote the story to be open-ended, and we are part of the action. We’re the beneficiaries of those who took the gospel beyond the Mediterranean, and we are charged with keeping the story going.

One need not go on a mission to other lands to be a missionary in its broadest and most inclusive sense. What matters is being a witness, a living demonstration, in both word and deed, of the truth of the good news. The Holy Spirit empowers our repentance first: our ability to acknowledge our need for forgiveness, to embrace that forgiveness wholeheartedly, and to set our sights on newness.

In other words, we must ourselves, individually and corporately, be conquered by the King. Because when that happens, nothing can stop the story from spreading to the ends of the earth.

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