A lesson from Acts: You are not the saviour of the world

In 1992, when Glasnost and Perestroika came to the Soviet Union, a group of teenagers boarded a plane from London to Moscow to bring the gospel to that great city. Small Bibles were stuffed in their socks, and their suitcases contained hidden tracts. Arriving in Red Square, they marvelled at the architecture of St Basil's and Lenin's mausoleum. After singing Beatles songs in the historic Arbat artisan region to draw a crowd, they began to preach and tell their testimonies. They felt like they were back in the book of Acts pioneering the spread of the gospel in a new frontier. Until they met Alexander Ogorodnikov on the street and stopped talking and began listening.

St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. Russia has a rich history of Christian faith.Pixabay

Alexander was a Russian Christian who had been imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane because of his faith. He had spent years in the Russian Gulags including the notorious Perm-36 camp of death. He explained to the group of teenage missionaries how he had spread the gospel under severe persecution in prison even when he was placed in solitary confinement, using a broken pipe to share the gospel with his neighbouring prisoner.

At this point the English teenagers saw themselves less as 1st-century evangelists and more as 21st-century tourists. They were not, as they thought, bringing the gospel to Russia – there was already a rich history of Christian faith in its art, literature and architecture. And there were many believers in the country who were willing to pay the cost of discipleship.

I was one of the teenagers who had their lives changed that day on the streets of Moscow. My experience changed my understanding of mission and I began to read the book of Acts with new eyes.

It is not only teenagers who are quick to read themselves into the starring roles of the story of the spread of God's justice. Our churches and books and reading notes often encourage us to think of ourselves as Peter, Steven and Paul. We often fail to see what God is already doing in other countries and cultures and assume we are at the epicentre of God's work in the world.

But the journey of the gospel travelling from Jerusalem to Rome has already taken place. Now we are privileged to live in a time where we can join in with what God is doing in the world as a result of what he has already done.

When we read Acts, or indeed any of the Bible, we have a tendency to an egocentric anthropocentric approach. This is a double problem. First, it puts human beings as the most important players in the story – that's the anthropocentric part – and second it puts ourselves as the focal point; that's the egocentric part. As with the rest of the Bible, it should be God that is centre stage. What we need is a theocentric approach. And when we apply that to the book of Acts, there is a surprising result.

1. Read the book of Acts in God's cosmic context

The Bible's creation account starts on a cosmic scale, retelling the story of the beginning of the universe itself. The Genesis account zooms in on the formation of our earth and tells the origin story of all the nations. But then, only a few chapters later, we finally zoom into the story of a childless elderly couple in Ur of the Chaldeans: Abram and Sarai. The story moves from the universal to the particular, from the interstellar to the intimate.

The story of God's justice revolves around the choosing of one nation, Israel, for the sake of the world. (Genesis 12). In the book of Acts this process is reversed. Starting with an intimate reunion of the disciples with the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem the story soon explodes across the world just as Jesus said it would as the gospel is taken to ' Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8) The book of Acts demonstrates that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have global consequences.

As the good news of the gospel bursts throughout the world we see farmers and city dwellers come to faith in Christ, we see both Jews and Gentiles come to find peace with God and with each other. We see a slave girl and a prison warden find freedom in Christ. We see a businesswoman and international dignitary come into the family of God. The book of Acts underlines the fact that all human beings whatever their gender, status or race are loved by God and have the possibility of receiving forgiveness for their sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit and a call to participate in the mission of God. Reading the book of Acts in cosmic context will help us to put the God the cosmic king at the centre of the story.
2. Read the book of Acts in its Canonical Context
The Acts of the Apostles was originally circulated together with Luke's Gospel because the two books share the same author and act as a comprehensive book of Christian origins. When the books were separated, as Luke's Gospel was circulated with three complementary biographies of Jesus – the four Gospels – the book of Acts was given its distinctive name. This name may have been a deliberate attempt to counter the heretical teaching of Marcion, who not only rejected the Old Testament but argued that Paul was the only apostle who faithfully recorded God's teaching. So even though Paul is the apostle with the most amount of airtime in Acts, the title underlines the role of all of the apostles.[1]

But some have argued that the book should have been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity takes a very clear central role in the pages of this book. Right from the introduction where we are told: ' In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach' (Acts 1:1), the implication is that now in this latter book we will be told about the work that Jesus continued to do through his Church in the power of the Spirit. And just seven verses later there is the promise of the empowering of the Holy Spirit for the Apostles. Acts 1:8 acts as a manifesto and indeed a prologue for the structure of the entire book. The Spirit-empowered Church will witness to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ by spreading the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Reading the book of Acts in its canonical context means we recognise that Jesus continues his work through the Church in the power of the Spirit – and again we save ourselves from being the centre of the story.
3. Read the book of Acts in its continental context

The book of Acts is a travelogue of how the gospel spreads from Jerusalem, thoughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It is not the story of how the gospel spreads from Europe to Africa, nor the story of how Christianity moves from America to the rest of the planet. Reading the book of Acts in its global context prevents us from putting ourselves in the centre of the story and helps us to recognise the role of our global brothers and sisters.

The book of Acts is full of challenges: danger from bandits, Jews and Gentiles; danger in the city, in the country and at sea; dangers from unbelievers and from false believers. But reading the book in its global context reveals that, sadly, it is the relationship between Christians and Jews that is at the heart of the on-going conflict in the story of the early Church. Acts shows us that Christ came to bring reconciliation between human beings and God, but also between people from different nations. And it also shows us that just as God chose the Jews to be a light to the nations, so now the Church is to take up this calling. In our fragmented world, the book of Acts has a lot to teach us about what it means to live together as God's people. Indeed five times we are informed of the unity of the believers and how they lived, prayed, shared and worked with one accord: (Acts 1:14, 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25).

On the streets of Moscow as a teenager that was a lesson I needed to learn – Christ only has one Church, made up of believers from the east and west, rich and poor, black and white – and we are all called by God to participate together with his people in his story of his justice.

Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. He contributed to 'God's Justice Bible' (Hodder), writing the commentary on the book of Acts.

[1] See Bruce, F.F. (1988) NICNT The book of the Acts, Eerdmans, p.5