Almost every time I have heard this passage preached in a church setting or expounded in a bible study, it has always been interpreted metaphorically. What do I mean by this? I mean to say, that rather than properly exegeting the passage and explaining its historical context and how that affects us today--it is instead turned into a metaphor for Christian living.
|Historic Movement--Not Metaphor for Evangelistic Priorities|
The metaphorical interpretation of this passage does injustice to both the proper understanding of the book of Acts, and our understanding of missions in the 21st century!
This verse, in many ways, is an outline of the book of Acts. The disciples of Jesus stayed in Jerusalem until they were filled with the Holy Spirit--that happened at Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter two. They continued in Jerusalem until they were pushed out by the first wave of persecution after the death of the deacon Stephen in Acts chapter seven.
From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria
Philip the Evangelist, a fellow deacon with Stephen, is most famous for leading the Ethiopian Eunuch (a gentile convert to Judaism) to faith in Christ. His greatest accomplishment however is often overlooked--he was the first of the disciples to step out in faith and start sharing the Gospel in Samaria!
"Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:4-8)The Gospel jumped the first great hurdle, just as Jesus had commanded and prophesied in Acts 1:8. It was no longer restricted to Jerusalem, or the Jews--but had gone to their near neighbors, the Samaritans. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but had more in common than different--it would be like trying to tell the difference between Norwegians and Swedes.
That was just the beginning though--the book of Acts is over twenty chapters long, and we're less than half way through the narrative. In the next chapter God commissions Saul as a missionary to the gentiles! By the power of the Spirit, he is turned from the most zealous persecutor of Christianity into its greatest apologist. Then Peter is given revelation that the Gospel is not just for the Jews, converts to Judaism (like the Ethiopian Eunuch), or Semitic cousins to the Jews like the Samaritans--it is for all peoples!
From Judea and Samaria to the Ends of the Earth
In Acts 12, we discover that the blood of Stephen is still bearing an eternal harvest even beyond Judea and Samaria! The diaspora Christians driven out of Jerusalem in the first great persecution of the church settled as far away as modern day Turkey. It was there in the city of Antioch that--simultaneous to what God was doing through Peter with Cornelius--Christian disciples willingly and intentionally went to gentiles with the Gospel!
"Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord." (Acts 12:19-21)This verse begins the third stage of the movement that was outlined in Acts 1:8--the ends of the earth. We are still in this stage of the movement. Until Jesus returns, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel to all creatures. This means that a proper exegesis of this passage will emphasize the ends of the earth! A preacher or teacher properly handling this text must impress upon those that they are teaching that we are in the midst of this third stage!
Instead, they are told to go to their family--they are not challenged with the big picture task of completing the third stage of this Kingdom advance. Acts 1:8 is a challenge to continue this advance in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: The Ends of the Earth, the Big Picture and our Short Attention Span
If Acts 1:8 has a proper historical context--and even a literary context within the Luke-Acts narrative as an outline of the Kingdom expansion throughout the world, then why is our knee-jerk reaction to turn it into a metaphor which emphasizes the exact opposite of what a proper understanding of it would emphasize? Because it is uncomfortable, difficult and expensive.
It is easier to tell our congregations that they are responsible for their family and community rather than telling them that they are responsible to take the Gospel to people that are, for the most part, far away (linguistically, culturally, religiously, geographically), difficult to reach and resistant to the Gospel. As John Piper says in his article, How Much is Left to Do in the Great Commission, "I am not unaware that most of these... peoples are in places and under regimes that are hostile to Christian presence. So I am not saying it will be easy to reach them. It will be very costly."
For that reason, as he says, we need to become "radical, sacrificial goer[s], or... radical, sacrificial sender[s]." The task of reaching the Ends of the Earth--the most difficult and resistant to the Gospel-- is not going to be achieved without well trained and equipped cross-cultural workers that have a long-term vision for reaching these peoples. However, because of our short attention spans and growing desire for instant gratification we are increasingly emphasizing short-term solutions to long-term needs--we are trying to fight a war with toys rather than weapons.
I want to finish with these challenging words from a blog post by missionary Ben Stevens, "in every other field of human endeavor---whether medicine, accounting, or teaching---we think a person needs education and experience to do their job well. But it is increasingly popular to assume that everyone---no matter their commitment, education, or experience---can do equally well in explaining the gospel to people of a different culture. This is a kind of insult to the unevangelized. This view testifies to our belief that people outside our neighborhood or borders are somehow less sophisticated, or more easily appealed to, than we would be. Real work takes real time, and real people deserve our long-term attention."
This is the uncomfortable truth, if we properly read Acts 1:8, it should spur us on towards resourcing trained and qualified ministers of the Gospel to serve long-term among the unreached of the world! The elephant in the room is, that for decades now, long-term missionary sending and funding has been in decline. Maybe we have chosen to reinterpret this text to justify our complacency.