In today’s church, it is typical to think only of certain specially called, specially trained, and specially ordained people as “missionaries.” The early church had a very different idea of their mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the people, villages, cities, and regions around them.
When we think of “missions” in the early church, we tend to start with Saul/Paul. His dramatic conversion from a persecutor of the church to an “instrument” of God is recorded by Luke in Acts 9. Similarly, Luke records how the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch set apart and sent Paul and Barnabas as itinerant servants of Jesus Christ in Acts 13.
The conversion and sending of Paul tends to fall into the pattern that has been practiced by the modern church. However, focusing on Paul’s story fails to take into account the broader account that we find in Acts.
For example, in Acts 8, we see that the church is scattered as result of persecution following the stoning of Stephen:
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1 ESV)
While the term “all” is probably hyperbolic, it seems that a great number of Christians left Jerusalem and were scattered “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” This parallels Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (It is interesting that the apostles (the Twelve) remained in Jerusalem.)
But, what did this early Christians do while they were being scattered throughout Judea and Samaria? Luke tells us just a few sentences later:
Therefore, those who had been scattered went from place to place proclaiming [the good news of] the message. (Acts 8:4, author’s translation)
While it took persecution to force those early Christians (except the apostles?) away from the comfort zone of Jerusalem, once they were forced away from their homes they remembered their common call to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they went.
The verb that I translated “went from place to place” indicates that many of them (at least) did not settle in one place, but continued moving around in order to proclaim the good news. (For other related usages of this same verb, see Acts 8:40 and Acts 9:32.)
Of course, in the remainder of Acts 8, we see Philip as an example of a believer who was traveling from place to place and proclaiming the good news. At one point, he’s telling entire villages about Jesus Christ, and at another point he’s telling a single person about gospel. Either way – wherever he is and whoever he’s around – he’s proclaiming the gospel.
What was the result of the service of these early Christians? By the time we get to Acts 9:1, we see Saul (Paul) traveling as far away as Damascus in order to continue persecuting the church. Later, at the end of chapter 9, Peter is traveling through Lydda and Joppa and finding established believers there as well.
(As an aside, it is interesting that the end of Acts 9 finds Peter traveling. Before, if you remember, the apostles were all staying put in Jerusalem. Perhaps God used Saul/Paul as an example to push the apostles into the role that God had called them to: itinerant servants of Jesus Christ.)
This is the context where we find Saul/Paul’s conversion and sending to the Gentiles. While Paul’s story is dramatic, he is not alone in being sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to encourage Christians that he finds. In fact, while Paul and Barnabas is sent far away from their homes, they are not the first nor the last early Christians that God sent on his mission.
The first chapters of the Book of Acts – and Acts 8-9 in particular – shows that the early church saw missions (proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as well as strengthening the church wherever they went) as their common calling. While there were some who were specially called or gifted to travel from place to place or even to go to a specific place, this special calling or gifting was not necessary for them to take their part in God’s mission.
Each Christian recognized that when God called them to himself, he was also sending them out into the world. (Of course, even then God had to push some out of their comfort zone – even through persecution – before they took their part in God’s mission.)