In the Old Testament, we met Judges, Kings, Prophets, Priests and a Temple at the centre of Israel’s religious life. In the New Testament we suddenly encounter Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Teachers of the Law, and Synagogues (not to mention Romans). It’s difficult to understand the connections until we realize how drastically the Exile changed Israel’s social structures and religious practices. (It’s less surprising when we factor in a time-frame of 400 years). The one thing these groups shared in common was the belief that Israel was God’s chosen people, central to God’s future plan. Jesus arrived into this diverse and complex social, political and culture landscape and challenged everything – even the centrality of Israel.
We think of Jesus’ life ending in death, resurrection and ascension, but his ascension is barely mentioned. (The Gospels seem afflicted with ‘ascension deficit disorder’). A person’s last words are highly regarded, and before he ascended Jesus’ last words were recorded in all 4 Gospels and Acts, each in a different way. We call this the Great Commission. The Acts version provides the description of Jesus’ ascension, and his last words provide the framework for the continuing story of Christianity: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8).’
The Holy Spirit is the key to everything – without the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost (Acts 2), nothing else would be possible. The disciples (and all who follow) receive power; not a human power, but the power of Christ’s spirit working through his people – the power to overcome fear and be witnesses of the gospel – even unto death. A witness (the same Greek word as ‘martyr’) is one who sees and tells.
Where would they witness? In Jerusalem (at home), in Judea (the surrounding region), in Samaria (the home of their enemies – people they despised), and the Ends of the Earth (foreign nations, pagans, Gentiles). This was the framework for Christianity’s outward expansion in the book of Acts – through Stephen, Philip, Peter, and Paul. This was no longer a plan for Israel, but for the world! Jesus had become the new temple, his people were ‘living stones’. Jesus had fulfilled the role of Israel in bringing salvation into the world, and now the new Israel would move outward, to every culture, people, nation and language.