In Acts following Pentecost we see the gospel exploding with power through much of the known world at the time. Reading though some of the apostle Paul’s epistles one might reasonably get the impression that he thought the Great Commission was near completion in his time, leading up to the Second Coming of the Lord. But we know that at that time there still remained vast swaths of the planet still completely untouched by the gospel—like the Far East, Africa, and the Americas. There was still much work to be done. But something is not right here. While the gospel spread rapidly through much of the world of the New Testament within decades following Pentecost as recorded in Acts, we cannot say the same of what took place in missions after that. It has been a relative eternity of well over 1,900 years since the close of Acts, and it does not appear that we are near to making disciples of all nations. The acceleration of the spread of the gospel we see in Acts in the Middle East (and beyond) has vanished. Even more alarming and saddening, the Middle East where the gospel was born has been nearly completely overrun and dominated by Islam. Turkey, where the Seven Churches of Revelation were located, is now a strongly Muslim state. Europe is now post-Christian. Thus we see that the gospel at least in those areas has suffered catastrophic losses instead of advancing as it did in Acts—notwithstanding of course advances in countries like China where the gospel is spreading. Let us face this issue head on instead of sweeping it under the rug as past generations may have done.
Why were the early missionaries in Acts far more fruitful than missionaries after that, including missionaries today?
One salient hallmark of missions in Acts was the prevalence of miracles—especially miraculous healings—to confirm the truth of the gospel to the Jews and the gentiles. Time and time again in Acts we see people, sometimes multitudes, coming to Jesus Christ through the evidence of the miraculous demonstrating that our Father is the only true God and that Jesus Christ is the only way to Him. This took place in particular through the ministries of the apostles Peter and Paul and the evangelist Phillip. Among other disciples we believe not mentioned, they were missionaries of the First Century. But by and large church history does not record miracles taking place on the same scale following Acts and even up to the present. Although there were and are exceptions, the miraculous appears to have vanished for the most part. Lacking the incomparable miracles demonstrating without question to the pagans that our God is the only true God and Creator, the gospel became one of several different competing world religions. Today there is little outwardly to distinguish Christianity from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and idol-worship. The miraculous evidence for the truth of the gospel seen in Acts is for the most part missing today. The personal lives of most “Christians” around the world, moreover, differs little from the lives of their pagan counterparts. There is little reason for multitudes of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to convert to Jesus Christ as we saw happen among Jews and gentiles in Acts.
Why is the miraculous evidence for the gospel generally no longer seen today?
Cessationists of course attribute this to God Himself. Following Acts and with the completion of the New Testament Canon God took away the power and authority over disease and demons which Jesus delegated to his disciples in the gospels. Since we had the Word of God, the miracles were no longer necessary and therefore ceased—ergo, cessationism. But could there be another reason other than the Lord ceasing to do the miracles? We must consider this possibility for the sake of the many believers who do not subscribe to the teaching of cessationism. If it’s not God’s doing, then we are forced to look at possible failure in the Church. We know that the Church is imperfect and can and does fail. We note that of the seven churches in Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 which were addressed by Jesus over 1,900 years ago, only two of them were not in any way rebuked for shortcomings as were the other five churches—sometimes sharply. Why do we in the Church fail?
When we fail in some area, it is often simply because we have not followed Scripture which of course is authoritative and inerrant. Let’s apply this in the area of New Testament missions.
In Acts we often see miraculous healings confirming the preaching of the gospel not as the result of traditional prayer to God, but as the disciples exercised authority by issuing commands in the name of Jesus Christ. Moreover, on at least one occasion Paul laid hands on a sick man to heal him (Acts 28:8). By performing the actions of exercising authority and the laying on of hands, the disciples in Acts were simply continuing to use the authority and power over demons and diseases delegated to them by the Lord according to Luke 9:1. (It is crucial to understand that this authority and power was to be utilized in preaching the gospel to the lost and therefore separate and distinct from the gifts of the Holy Spirit which were used for edifying the body of Christ.) However, in the Church today, this authority and power over demons and disease are almost never taught to believers, much less applying them to heal the sick effectively and actually as Jesus did. We submit to you moreover that missionaries sent to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and idolatrous people groups in foreign lands need such training more than anyone else. But although they might be very well trained in every other area as befits missionaries, they are never taught how to use this authority and power effectively and consistently to provide visible evidence to their gospel-resistant listeners that Jesus is the only way to the Father. That evidence of course is the miraculous which can be demonstrated by properly trained missionaries on a very consistent basis—nearly every time the gospel is preached to those who never heard. The miracles occur regularly and not simply once in a while as occasionally reported by missionaries. The spiritual environment faced by our missionaries is similar to that faced by the early missionaries in Acts. The latter preached the never-before-heard gospel to resistant Jews and gentiles who already had their own firmly-entrenched religious beliefs and gods handed down to them by countless generations of venerated forbears. The Lord knew their condition, and so performed great miraculous signs through his early missionaries to enable the listeners to overcome their understandable resistance to the foreign teaching being presented to them, especially in the case of the idolatrous gentiles. The challenge faced by present-day missionaries preaching the gospel in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and idol-worshiping lands is similar. And when they use the Lord’s authority and power over disease and demons as did the early missionaries in Acts, they will see similar results in terms of the miraculous—and the subsequent harvests they will reap.
The crucial element here is being trained in the use of authority and power following Scripture very closely.
We have found that much current teaching in this area—whether traditional evangelical or traditional charismatic—is infected yes, with tradition instead of closely following Scripture, making it ineffective and producing few results. When we discard tradition (as “sacred” as it may be to us) to follow the gospels and Acts instead, we will not surprisingly see Acts-like results. When the gospel is preached in western, “Christianized” countries, however, the results in terms of the miraculous and souls saved will be different. Such countries, compared to gospel-resistant countries in the 1040 Window, can be considered for the most part already “reached.” Understandably, the Lord today is instead concentrating his firepower in areas of the world inhabited by those billions who never heard. (China might be an exception to the argument presented here. Because of the godless atheism imposed on her by her Communist rulers, a great spiritual vacuum developed in the hearts of the formerly Buddhist and ancestor-worshiping Chinese. In this vacuum the gospel has found very receptive hearts. But this might not be true in countries where for millennia false gods and idolatrous beliefs have been imprinted on the people’s hearts and minds by the state and culture.)