How Does the Book of Acts Relate to the Great Commission?

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from 40 Questions About the Great Commission
by Benjamin L. Merkle

There are several ways that Acts relates to the Great Commission and so only a few can be considered in addition to what has already been discussed above (see Question 23). The focus will be on (1) the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit, (2) opposition to the fulfillment of the mission, and (3) baptism and teaching. It is fitting that baptism and teaching are considered in Acts because of their key role in Matthew 28:19–20. Acts is thoroughly missions-driven, and so only a few cursory discussions can be attempted.

God’s Work in Missions

There is a need for prayerful dependence upon God the Father for missions because God is sovereign in bringing about salvation. God is the one commanding repentance (Acts 17:30) even as Paul preached to the people (17:22–34). God is sovereignly speaking as his servants proclaim the gospel throughout the world. The Son is also sovereign in salvation. Stephen Walton explores the characterization of Jesus in Acts and concludes, “Jesus is now present in heaven, at God’s right side, but in such a way that he can continue to be active on earth in the missio dei, guiding his people and drawing others into the body of Jesus-believers.”[1]To provide just one example, when Jesus sent Ananias to Saul (Paul), he told him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:15–16). Jesus emphasizes his own role in sending Paul on his mission by using the terminology of “chosen instrument.”[2] Jesus is clearly active in orchestrating salvation for Jews and Gentiles since Paul was, according to Jesus, an instrument “of mine” and carried “my name.”

The Holy Spirit enables witnesses of Jesus to speak with boldness. In Acts 4 Peter and John are arrested (4:3) and threatened (4:18, 21) for their witness. They went and met with others 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 4:31). The Holy Spirit’s ministry through people in Acts includes both the act of speaking (the gospel)[3] and bold speech (despite op- position). Acts 4:31 parallels the filling of the Spirit with speaking.[4] There is a similar idea in the Old Testament when Micah states, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Mic. 3:8). While Luke may not have had Micah specifically in mind when writing Acts 4, there is a similarity between Micah and the apostles in Acts.[5] When the prophets spoke of judgment, as in the case of Micah, it was for the purpose of turning the people from their evil ways and back to God (2 Kings 17:13; cf. Acts 3:26). Both Old Testament and New Testament messengers spoke by the Spirit in the midst of opposition.[6]

Speaking with boldness in a context like Acts 4 means to speak with courage or confidence.[7] Boldness is confident trust in God’s word as spoken in the midst of opposition. Whenever the world is set against the gospel, the temptation can be to doubt, be silent, or become angry. With boldness from the Spirit, Christians can overcome these temptations. Calvin encourages the church today regarding boldness from the Spirit as “a perpetual profit of prayer, which is also set before us for an example.”[8] Boldness is a “divine gift.”[9]

Opposition to the Great Commission

Acts shows people obeying the Great Commission despite opposition to it. In addition to the arrest and threats in Acts 4, opposition includes murder (7:54–60), persecutions (8:1–3), prison (16:23–24), criticism (11:2–3; 28:22), spiritual warfare (16:16–18), beatings (16:22–23; 21:32), and mob tactics (17:5; 19:29). Despite this list of challenges, the book of Acts still ends by referencing Paul teaching “with all boldness” (the same term from Acts 4:31) and “without hindrance” (akōlytōs; 28:31).[10] Richard Longenecker comments, “Since the final word of Acts is the crisp adverb akōlytōs [“without hindrance”], we may say with reasonable confidence that it was Luke’s desire to close his two-volume work on this victorious note, namely, that the apostolic proclamation of the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, despite all difficulties and misunderstandings, had moved forward throughout the Jewish homeland and into the Roman Empire ‘without hindrance.’”[11] Challenges to the Great Commission may vary by time and place, but the Spirit’s power can enable every Christian’s witness to the ends of the earth.

Baptism and Teaching in Acts

Acts shows how missions includes the work of baptism and teaching. Water baptism is consistently referenced throughout Acts:

  • Peter commands repentance and baptism (2:38).
  • Philip preaches; men and women are baptized (8:12–13).
  • Philip disciples an Ethiopian and then baptizes him (8:35–36, 38).
  • Ananias commands and baptizes Saul—later called Paul (9:18; 22:16).
  • Peter (again) commands people to be baptized (10:44–48).
  • Lydia, a woman from Thyatira, is baptized along with her household (16:14–15).
  • A prison guard in Philippi is baptized along with his household (16:32–33).
  • Crispus, the ruler of a synagogue in Corinth, is baptized along with his household; other Corinthians are baptized (18:8).
  • Disciples in Ephesus are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (19:5).

There are several common traits that are found in the above passages regarding baptism. First, there is often a command to be baptized. Second, there are both individuals and entire households being baptized.[12] Third, in each instance mentioned above, the message is delivered before baptism.[13] Fourth, the regularity of baptisms in Acts shows that Jesus expects the baptism of new converts. Robert Stein argues that even when baptism is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, it can be assumed when conversion is mentioned.[14] In addition to the assumption that new believers are baptized, there is the opportunity to ask new believers about their family members so that they too can come to know Christ.

The book of Acts regularly refers to preaching and teaching. For example, Acts records the first sermon by chapter 2 and ends with Paul teaching in Rome  in 28:31.[15] Luke explains the missionary travels of Paul and Barnabas: “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (14:21–23). There are several principles for missions in this passage.[16] Great Commission work includes extended teaching and equipping the local church with spiritual leadership. Teaching toward the goal of spiritual maturity involves an emphasis on a person’s commitment (14:22). Detwiler writes, “It is not enough to rejoice in the decision people make to trust in Christ; older disciples must do all they can to help new disciples along in this commitment (and they should seek ongoing help for themselves as well).”[17]

Summary

The work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Acts encourages disciple-makers to fulfill the Great Commission. Consequently, Christians can engage in courageous speech in the middle of opposition to the gospel. Finally, baptism and teaching referenced in Matthew 28 are given concrete expression in the book of Acts. Those who affirm Jesus as the Messiah are baptized and taught to obey Jesus’s commands.


[1] Steve Walton, “Jesus, Present and/or Absent? The Presence and Presentation of Jesus as a Character in the Book of Acts,” in Characters and Characterization in Luke-Acts, eds. Frank E. Dicken and Julia A. Snyder, LNTS 548 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 140.

[2] For a discussion on “instrument/vessel” (skeuos), see Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 2:1655–57.

[3] See also Huber L. Drumwright, “The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts,” SwJT 17 (1974): 8.

[4] Keener writes, “The primary effect of being filled with the Spirit, though, is speaking God’s message boldly, fitting the primary activity of the Spirit in Acts (see esp. 1:8; 2:17–18)” (Acts, 2:1175). See also Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 210.

[5] Barker and Bailey demonstrate the connection of the OT to the NT when they write, “All true prophets were the Lord’s Spirit-filled messengers (see 2 Pet 1:20–21). Such empowerment is related to the Spirit’s enablement for the New Testament gospel mission as well (Acts 1:8)” (Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, NAC 20 [Nashville: Broadman, 1999], 78).

[6]  Cf. Bruce K. Waltke, A Commentary on Micah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 175.

[7] See BDAG, “παρρησία,” 781–82 (see also the verb form παρρησιάζομαι in 18:26 and 19:8).

[8] John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Christopher Fetherstone, ed. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 189. Ephesians 6:18–20 calls Christians to this example: “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

[9] Stanley B. Marrow, S.J., “Parrhēsia and the New Testament,” CBQ 44, no. 1 (1982): 443.

[10] See BDAG, “ἀκωλύτως,” 40.

[11] Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” EBC rev. ed., ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 1101; cf. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 723; Richard I. Pervo, Acts, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 687.

[12] Cf. Bock, Acts, 338. Even in the case of the individual, baptism incorporates the person into a local body of believers (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).

[13] This has implications for how to interpret “households” being baptized (cf. Acts 16:32 with 16:33).

[14] His full thesis is: “In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related com- ponents or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian com- munity” (Robert H. Stein, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament,” SBJT 2, no.1 [1998]: 6).

[15] David A. deSilva helpfully categorizes the speeches in Acts: “[E]vangelistic sermons in Acts 2, 3, 13 and 17; speeches in a council’s deliberations in Acts 15; a farewell speech in Acts 20; defense speeches in Acts 22, 24 and 26” (An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004], 351). One could then add the references to teaching in general (such as “the apostle’s teaching” in 2:42).

[16] David F. Detwiler, “Paul’s Approach to the Great Commission in Acts 14:21–23,” BSac 152 (1995): 33–41.

[17] Ibid., 41.


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Great Commission written by  Daniel L. Akin, Benjamin L. Merkle, and George G. Robinson. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Jesus’ Great Commission is one of the key pillars of the church’s evangelistic work and has been the guiding principle for missionaries throughout church history. In 40 Questions About the Great Commission, scholars Daniel L. Akin, Benjamin L. Merkle, and George G. Robinson unpack the meaning, history, theology, and practical applications of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples. Ideal for personal or group study, this volume will reignite your passion for evangelism while answering key questions like:

  • Where do we stand in relation to fulfilling the Great Commission?
    • How do baptism and teaching relate to the Great Commission?
    • What is the meaning of “I am with you always, to the end of the age”?
    • How does the Old Testament relate to the Great Commission?
    • What is the special contribution of each Gospel’s version of the Great Commission?
    • What is the responsibility of the local church to the Great Commission?
  • What are some mobilization resources that can help churches and individuals to become Great Commission focused?
Other highlights include an overview of some of the great evangelists and missionaries in church history, and a collection of notable quotations on the Great Commission, ideal for teaching and preaching.

 


Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!

 

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About Author

Benjamin L. Merkle (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the editor of the 40 Questions series and the author of 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons.

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