Most of us who have spent a significant portion of our lives in an evangelical, Bible-believing church are used to hearing missionary reports. According to the usual pattern of things, local churches give monthly financial support to many missionaries, and each missionary is expected to return to his supporting churches every four years or so to give a report of what he has done while serving as a missionary. Often these reports include an impassioned call for people in the sending church to become missionaries themselves. Many missionaries say that they were originally inspired to do missionary work through the testimony of a missionary who spoke at their church.
Many modern missionaries have delivered extraordinary reports of God’s work through them in foreign lands, and have motivated new generations of missionaries. But for the most impactful missionary report ever told, we must turn to chapter 15 of the book of Acts. The events in that chapter occurred just after the apostle Paul, together with Barnabas, returned from their first great missionary journey, which was to Cyprus and Galatia. That first journey, of course, was not prompted by the inspiring report of another missionary—it was made in response to the direct call of Paul and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit during a church meeting in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their successful missionary journey, they first gave a report of their mission work to the church at Antioch, which had commissioned them (Acts 14:26-28). But trouble quickly arose, when Christians with a background in rabbinic Judaism came to Antioch and began to argue that the Gentiles who had believed through the work of Paul and Barnabas had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas were unable to convince these “Judaizers” otherwise (Acts 15:2).
While schism in the church is, in itself, a bad thing, this particular quarrel resulted in something very positive, for it led the church at Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas to meet with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (Acts 15:2-3). There at Jerusalem, a church council was called to resolve the theological dispute (Acts 15:4-6). One positive result of this council was the promulgation of an official statement by the church on the issue of salvation by grace through faith, apart from the works of the Law (Acts 15:22-29). But the detailed report given by Paul and Barnabas to the other apostles of the mass conversion of Gentiles through their Spirit-empowered ministry (Acts 15:12) had another very significant result.
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem early in AD 49, they found the original group of Twelve apostles (minus James the brother of John, who had been murdered) still living in Jerusalem, ministering to the Jewish church that was there (Acts 15:6; cf. Acts 8:1). Peter had had a temporary ministry in some coastal towns in Palestine, but had returned to Jerusalem. The apostles basically had not moved at all from the place where the church had originally begun. They knew that Jesus had commanded them to take the gospel to the farthest parts of the earth (Acts 1:8), but in the sixteen years since Jesus’ resurrection their missionary efforts had not advanced beyond Jerusalem.
It is evident from church history, as well as from circumstantial evidence in the New Testament, that, shortly after Paul and Barnabas left Jerusalem, the other apostles followed Paul’s lead and scattered from Palestine to take the good news about Jesus Christ to the whole world, some traveling as far as Ethiopia (Matthew) and India (Thomas). It seems that it suddenly occurred to the apostles that it was indeed possible for a Gentile church to exist apart from Jewish support. Paul’s stories of the rejection of the gospel by the Jews and the acceptance of the gospel by the Gentiles must have made the other apostles decide that the time had come for them to give up on their efforts to reform institutional Judaism through a mass conversion of the Jews, and to instead focus on building up the church as a transnational entity. They were also stirred up and impassioned by the missionary report given by Paul and Barnabas, and they determined to go forth and do the same sort of work themselves.
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