In Acts 7, a leader in the Church named Stephen is dragged before the Sanhedrin and demanded to explain his beliefs. Assured by Jesus that the Holy Spirit would give him the words, he opened his mouth and started talking. What followed was a sweeping history of the people of Israel, culminating in their handing over Jesus to be crucified.
As you might imagine, that didn’t go over so well with the Jewish crowd. Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. His death sparked intense persecution for followers of Jesus. So intense that, as we’re told in Acts 8:1,
There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
At the end of that verse, there’s an interesting detail. It says everyone was scattered “except the apostles.”
Why is that so interesting? Well, just before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples they would spread his teaching from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). The moment Jesus-followers were scattered, the spread of the gospel out of Jerusalem and into the rest of the world began.
And the Apostles weren’t a part of it.
Imagine if you had to pick one person or team of people from your church to go and take the message of Jesus somewhere new. You would probably pick your senior pastor or the team of pastors at your church, right? What a shock it would be to find out that, not only were they unable to go, but you and your small group were the ones that had to do it.
EVERYONE EXCEPT THE APOSTLES
That’s what the Bible is telling us here—a mostly unknown group of Christians took the gospel into places like Judea and Samaria, planting churches as they went. These were average people with normal jobs that had to earn a living and figure out how to spread the gospel.
That means they had to do something fundamental: they had to make disciples.
And they did. Acts 11 shows us where the believers who were scattered after Stephen’s murder ended up. They went all over the place, but some went to Antioch and started preaching the gospel to the non-Jewish people living there.
Barnabas, a trusted man in the church, was so impressed with what was going on in Antioch he brought his friend the Apostle Paul to check it out. Together they taught and encouraged this fledgling church where followers of Jesus were called “Christians” for the first time.
It’s easy to miss what’s going on here because, well, it’s missing. And that’s the names—the names of the Christians who took the gospel to parts unknown. These were literally no-name men and women who were making disciples and planting churches.
By the way, the church in Antioch ended up becoming the church planting center of the early church. The church in Antioch actually sent Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey.
From the beginning of the Church, then, we see everyday Christians making disciples, planting churches, and sending missionaries.
TAKING THE GREAT COMMISSION PERSONALLY
These early Christians knew they were part of a close-knit, life-on-life community that was called to love one another like their own family. The book of Acts and the Epistles attest to that.
The Church knew then, like it does now, that it had collectively been given the Great Commission. But the first Christians went one step further—they took the Great Commission personally.
They knew they were each called to make disciples. Not just the elders. Not just the Apostles. Every one of them. The early Christians took the Great Commission personally and collectively.
We’ve seen a renewed focus on the gospel and its sending emphasis of late, which is incredibly hopeful. Much of that emphasis is on churches as collective bodies, and rightly so. But let’s not lose sight of our personal call to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded.
This lack of emphasis on a personal call to make disciples is why most churchgoers’ lives look no different than their unbelieving neighbors. It’s why the divorce rate is the same among Christians and non-Christians. And it’s why Christians believe they should share their faith, but most of them don’t.
DO YOU TAKE THE GREAT COMMISSION PERSONALLY?
Just imagine yourself in a modern-day version of the situation in Acts. Imagine being dropped off in the middle of a city like Los Angeles or San Francisco. But instead of churches all over the place, there are no believers to be found. There are no church leaders, no pastors, no denominations. If you found yourself in that situation, would you know what to do?
I’m afraid for too many of us the answer is a resounding no. We would have no idea where to begin. No idea of how to evangelize our neighbors, baptize them, and start teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments. No idea of how to live in community with other believers in a way that’s so attractive that those around us can’t help but ask what’s going on.
We can say we don’t need to be directly involved in discipling people because we have the freedom to have large churches with lots of pastors and seminaries to train them to do the work (here in America, at least).
And that’s true. All of those things are possible, which is perhaps why that’s largely the way evangelical churches operate in America.
But does that make it the right way to operate? Just because we can structure things that way, should we?
Here’s a diagnostic question: If there was no church to invite people to, no engaging services to ease the anxieties of the unchurched, no safe and fun children’s ministry for their kids, would you still know how to tell your neighbors about Jesus?
The answer to that question reveals a lot about whether or not we should be operating in a way that removes personal responsibility for the Great Commission.
THE PERSONAL BURDEN TO MAKE DISCIPLES
Only when Christians wake each day with a burden to make disciples in their particular context—only when that is their primary calling and way they view the purpose of their life—does the church function the way it was intended. Only when Christians gauge their effectiveness based on their own fruit instead of their pastor’s does the gospel multiply.
Otherwise, the Church gets bogged down arguing about strategy and philosophy of ministry and all the things that keep it from focusing on Jesus’ last words (Matt. 28:18-20).
When Jesus came back from the dead, he called together the small band of people who followed him. His intimate circle included eleven men. At most he had 120 followers. It was to this small group that Jesus handed responsibility for completing his mission by making disciples just like he did.
True disciples have been made in this same way ever since: by a group of believers each investing in the people around them, giving them the best news they’ve ever received, and teaching them to follow Jesus.
Grayson Pope is a husband and father of three, as well the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as Pastor of Community at his church in Charlotte, NC and has earned a MACS at The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Grayson’s passion is to equip believers for every day discipleship to Jesus. For more of his writing check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.