Pastoral Exhortations Regarding The Move To Athens

(The following letter was given to the members of Oasis Church on the Sunday when the elders announced the vision to begin meeting in Athens.)

To Oasis Church Meigs from the Elders
Pomeroy, OH

7/21/13

“…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.” – Acts 1:8

We live in an in age in which the culture of the church of God, generally speaking, has leaned far in one direction, as far as missions is concerned, or far in the opposite direction, but has largely forgotten about the significance of the vast expanse that lies in between.  (Sadly and tragically, some local church congregations don’t have a heart for missions at all, but by God’s grace, that is not Oasis, and therefore we are thankful to say that this is not a concern that we feel we must address to your hearts.)  We’re not writing this as a letter of any concern that we have for you, but merely as a pastoral exhortation to freshly embrace the same passion for the missionary work that Jesus has called His church to walk in, by faith.

Jesus spoke the words in Acts 1:8 after He rose from the grave, conquering the power of sin and death, while His people were gathered to Him in Jerusalem.  In this short conversation, before Jesus ascended into heaven right before their eyes, He lovingly told His people why He was leaving them here on this sinful earth, as opposed to immediately taking them to heaven with Him, which He surely could have done.  Jesus left them, but not without assuring them that they have a purpose (or a mission to be accomplished) in this world, and not without assuring them that they would have the power to fulfill the mission that He was calling them to.  These words are the very last words that Jesus ever said to His church before He ascended on high, and He so lovingly made sure to leave them with words of great hope at a time when it would be so easy for them to be filled with despair.  Their Savior was leaving them, after all.  What could be worse than that?  And without Jesus, what could be worth living for?

“…you shall be My witnesses,” Jesus said.  In other words, “You are here to tell the story of Me… of who I am… of what I have done, and of what I have said I will do.”

Jesus, knowing that these people had come to find their identity in being followers of Him, not only assures them that their identity is still going to be found in Him, calling them His own (“Mywitnesses”), but He said it in such a way that also communicated to them that being His witnesses is not only who they are, but it is also what they are to do (“…you shall be My witnesses…”).  This statement is both an affirmation of identity and a call to action.  This is who we are, and this is what we are to do… identity and purpose.

And hope.  “…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  We know who we are, we know what we are to do with our lives, and now we know two more things:  One,that God will be with us as we go, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  And, two, that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to fulfill our mission.  Without either one of those things, there would be no hope for us, as we would be spending our lives in despair over the fact that God is no longer with us, and/or we would have to rely on our own strength to keep us faithful to our mission, as we tell the story of Jesus to a world that persecutes those who tell the story.

Oh, but this is not the case!  God is with us, and God is our strength!  These are words of great hope… not an intangible hope for us to be always grasping for (like we all so sinfully do, regarding the things of the world), but an unshakeable hope that will not leave us or forsake us!  This hope is the only good reason that we have for motivating us to even get out of bed in the morning to fulfill whatever tasks lie before us.  This is the only hope that guarantees success in life.  Pursuing the values and treasures of this world always leaves us reaching for that which we can never obtain or accomplish, but this hope, the hope of God in us, assures us that more than what we could ever need or want has been granted to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit’s very presence… and that more than what we could ever dream of accomplishing will be accomplished through us in the power of God the Holy Spirit, Himself.  We know who we are.  We know what we are to do.  And we are filled with the assured hope that God is with us, and that He will do what He wants to do through us.  God is our identity.  God is our purpose.  God is our hope.

We said these words at the beginning of this letter: “We live in an in age in which the culture of the church, generally speaking, has leaned far in one direction, as far as missions is concerned, or far in the opposite direction, but has largely forgotten about the significance of the vast expanse that lies in between.”  Now, what do we mean when we say this?  (Again, in this letter we are not considering the local church congregations that have no passion for missions at all.  The letter we would write to them would be much different than this, and would be written as a strong rebuke.  This is not a letter of rebuke at all, but of encouragement to a church who really loves the Lord Jesus, and who really loves the people that He has created to bear His glorious image.)

“…you shall be My witnesses… in Jerusalem,” Jesus said.  Now, Jerusalem is home to the people He was talking to, and if it wasn’t home, it was certainly kind of the “home base” for them.  By “home base” we mean that much of their lives revolved around Jerusalem.  Why?  Well, most recently it was because they had given everything they had once had, to follow Jesus wherever He was going, and so much of Jesus’ life revolved around Jerusalem.  We don’t want to get into the various reasons for that in this letter, but we just want to point out that it was a fact that Jesus and Jerusalem had a very deep and important relationship.  Now, Jerusalem didn’t love Jesus anywhere near as much as Jesus loved her, but regardless of that fact, the depth of their relationship is undeniable.

And this is where Jesus was calling His people to be His witnesses… right here at home… right here amongst the people that knew them well, and the people that they knew well… right here where they are used to and comfortable with the cultural customs… right here where they all speak the same language and slang terms… right here where everyone eats the same foods… right here where everyone finds entertainment from the same things… right here in Jerusalem, as opposed to those far-away places in the remotest parts of the earth.

Many church congregations have done well at being Christ’s witnesses (or missionaries) in the place that they could consider their “Jerusalem.”  These churches seem to have some measure of involvement in everything that is going on in their town, and because of this involvement, the town sees the church as being not only a blessing to the community, but a very important part of the community.  We want our church and all churches to be this kind of witness in their “Jerusalem.”  We want churches to have such an impact on their communities, that if they were to cease being there, the community would suffer a recognizable loss.  “Where are those people?!  We need those people!”  This is what a community should be thinking about a church that once was a part of their community, but for whatever reason, no longer is.

Opposite Jerusalem is what Jesus referred to as “the remotest part of the earth.”  To us Christians here in America, this means places like Africa, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Peru, China, North Korea, etc…  Places super-far away with extremely different cultural practices and values than we are accustomed to, here where we live.  Jesus told us that we (who live in our various “Jerusalems”) are to go out to these far-away people and be a witness to them of the glorious news that Jesus came to this world, lived a sinless life, died as a holy sacrifice for our sins, rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and gave His faithful word that He would return one day to judge the whole world and bring those who believe in Him to the place in heaven which He has prepared for us.  We call this “the gospel,” and it is our job to spread it as far as we can.

We tend to call the people that go from their Jerusalem to the remotest part of the earth “missionaries,” and that is exactly what they are.  Now, the truth is that every Christian is a missionary, in the sense that God has sent all of us on the same gospel-spreading mission, wherever we may be, but these missionaries have a huge task before them.  Before they can go to these strange people in strange lands, they must first spend an incredible amount of time educating themselves about the people and the place that they will be going to.  They have to learn of the different cultural values and customs.  They must learn about the climate in which they will be living.  They must learn of the history of the people.  They must learn more things than we have time to mention in this letter, oftentimes even how to speak a whole new language, which could take years.

There are countless stories of these specific missionaries going out to these people, so that they could be saved by hearing and believing in the gospel, and we listen to these stories and so often hold these missionaries with high honor in our hearts… which is the only response due them, as they have sacrificed literally everything they had to go out to these people, so that they might come to know Jesus.  We need more of these missionaries in the world, just as we have need of in our own home towns, our Jerusalems.

But what about “Judea and Samaria?”  Jesus said, “You shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

What is “Judea and Samaria” anyway?  Well, Jerusalem was in Judea.  It was a small, but significant, part of Judea.  Jerusalem was a town, and Judea was a region, made up of many towns and a lot of countryside.  Samaria was the region that neighbored Judea, which was also made up of its own many towns and miles of countryside.

Since Jerusalem was in Judea, there were some cultural overlaps amongst the peoples of the neighboring towns that were in Judea, although each town did have its own unique characteristics.  Being kind of far away from Jerusalem, the Samaritans, on the other hand, were quite a bit different from the people of Jerusalem.  Not completely, but more than the people that live in towns closer to Jerusalem.

Despite their differences, however, Jesus told His people that they were to leave Jerusalem and go out into all Judea and Samaria, to be witnesses of the glory of God.  What this required was not so much education and training, as if they were to be going to the remotest parts of the earth, but rather just a little bit of sacrifice… a little bit more work… a little bit more devotion and commitment to the call to follow God by loving these people.  Sacrifice takes time, effort, a giving of one’s self, and commitment takes a steadfast heart.  All Jesus was saying here was, “Hey, I died for all the sinners that would love me.  Will you get up and go tell the sinners that?  They need to hear it.”  This is what it would take to fulfill the call to be God’s witnesses in “all Judea and Samaria.”  It was something to ask of them, but not too much.

The churches in America today who are passionate about spreading the gospel tend to put a lot of focus on sending missionaries out into their own Jerusalems and/or to the remotest parts of the earth, but spreading out to Judea and neighboring Samaria doesn’t seem to be as high of a priority for us American Christians today, for whatever reasons.  But Jesus wants us to reach the whole world with the gospel, whether it’s our next-door neighbors, the people in the Middle East or anywhere in between.  Everyone needs Jesus, and they need to hear that He has come to save them.

Oasis, Jesus is sending us on a mission to fulfill Acts 1:8.  He desires for us to be passionate about all of these things.  He has given us the gospel, yes, so that we would be eternally blessed by it and celebrate together because of it, but also that we would spread it… near, far and everywhere in between.  He is sending us past the boundaries of Pomeroy and Meigs County, our Jerusalem, and into Athens, where there are more people needing to know of the grace of God that has come to us in the person of Jesus.  Athens is just another town out there in Judea.  It’s not that far away.  It’s not as different as some may think, although it is different in some ways.  And it won’t require much of a sacrifice for us to reach out and love them with the love of Jesus.  And remember, since He is the One sending us, He will also be going with us to accomplish His work through us.  His Holy Spirit will empower us to fulfill this mission.  Our question to all of you at Oasis is:  Will you come and follow God with us to these people?  Jesus gave His everything for us.  Will you sacrifice something for the love of the gospel, and for the love of these people who need to hear it and see it alive in action?  You are being invited to come with us to love God by loving the people of Athens.  Will you come?