Like its counterpart Luke, the book of Acts is a carefully organized volume. We moved geographically from Jerusalem in Acts 1 to Rome in Acts 28, just as the gospel has been “sent to the gentiles” (Acts 28:28). The result is that in the 28 chapters of the book we get to watch as Jesus' great commission to his followers reaches its fulfillment (1:8). We watch as they witness to him first in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and eventually work their way out to the “ends of the earth” where Paul witnesses boldly to Jesus among Jews and gentiles alike in Rome (Acts 28). It is an exciting and well crafted journey that reveals the startling growth and reach of the Kingdom after only a few decades.
To tell that story, Acts understandably follows some of the key leaders of the early church: Peter, Paul, James, John, etc. But what is almost more startling to me than the sudden growth and spread of the church or even than the incredible work of the apostles is the work done by the “ordinary” believers that went ahead of them. They are easy to miss, but they are all over the New Testament, working quietly but effectively all over the world.
One of the places you see them is in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 1:11-12, in the introduction to his letter, Paul explains that he longs to come and visit the church in Rome, so that they may encourage one another. What is interesting to me is that Paul - who we often think of as this dynamic, trailblazing missionary (which he is), is writing ahead to the church in Rome. Paul has not yet been to Rome, and yet here already is an assembly of believers loyal to Jesus. And in fact, this is often the case. No matter where he goes, Paul finds that the gospel has gone there ahead of him. How does it get there?
The answer is that “ordinary” missionaries beat Paul (and Peter and John) to the punch. If we look, we can easily find two groups of people who heard and believed and took the gospel with them. In Acts 2, Peter preaches to a crowd of Jewish pilgrims “from every nation under heaven” (2:8). These people believed, but then eventually, they went home. They took the gospel with them, and apparently shared it with friends and neighbors. Later, in Acts 8, we read that following the death of Stephen (where Paul was an approving spectator, 8:1), a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem scattered the believers. And what did those scattered believers do? “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went (8:4).”
The church needs Pauls and Peters, but it also needs Priscillas and Aquillas - and arguably, it needs more of the latter. The apostles did amazing things, performed signs and wrote great works of theology that still engage the most brilliant minds of our day. But most of the work was done by people like you and me: “ordinary” people who heard and believed and shared that good news with the people in their lives.
Our church-wide goal this next year is that 50% of our congregation would have one meal a month with someone far from God for the purpose of being friends. That goal is modeled on the “ordinary missionaries” of the New Testament as much as it is on anyone. Yes, God raises up certain people for certain times, but most of the time most of the work is done by people like us, people who hear, believe and then share that good news with the people in our lives. And if you don’t believe that can change communities, cities and the world, just ask Paul - who traveled to the ends of the earth only to find that the gospel had already beat him there.