Follow God beyond borders, evangelistic focus
This article explores the Gospels and Acts to argue that Jesus’ mission to make disciples of all nations of the world is a call for his followers to cross all kinds of borders to bear witness to his name.
Focus on geographic boundaries, I argue that people from the diasporathose who had crossed physical borders, played an important role in the spread of Christianity from its inception.
This does not call us to cancel borders but rather to use them to enrich our experience of faith through cross-border exchanges, to invite us to the multicultural reality of the Body of Christ in which God makes many a new tribe, a tribe in which the identity of each people is just as important as its capacity to belong and to exchange with other peoples.
In essence then, the borders exist so as not to impose hierarchies of the tribesChrist flattened them, but to incubate and share the gifts that God has given to each tribe for the mutual enrichment of the tribes to the glorification of God to whom belongs the earth and all that it contains.
The Kingdom of God makes borders porous and calls each tribe to a posture of welcome and sharing.
It is indisputable that Jesus’ mission was worldwide. To accomplish this mission – to reach the world – Jesus had to start somewhere, in the real context of the backyard country around the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, in what was called the Galilee of the Nations ( or, as Luke translates, Galileo of the Gentiles).
Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah and on this premise – that he was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:13) – he gathered his disciples (John 1:40), who were all Jews ( even if the mission was to touch the ends of the earth).
He spent more than three years traveling with them Across the countryteaching them to save “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24) before they embark on a mission to save the world.
While he was with them, their ministry would be limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and no one else.
However, as his ministry drew to a close, Jesus began to speak of reaching the nations. The limited commission was replaced by the great commission in which Jesus sent the disciples to all nations.
Matthew tells us that Jesus, preparing to leave them, said to his disciples: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I ordered you. And behold, I am with you forever, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:19).
This is the telos of these three years of hard work. A new community of disciples was finally ready to face the nations. But were they?
The schedules of God’s work are always multidimensional. That is why it is always best to look at the larger context of history to understand some of the background work of God it may not seem obvious.
Before Jesus showed up, God had set the stage for the world-transforming movement He was about to initiate.
The event of the life and mission of Jesus is of the utmost importance, so it required careful preparation. All of Jewish history pointed to the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah.
However, the two most notable ways in which we see God preparing for Jesus’ mission are migration – in particular the dispersal of Jews from Palestine to the wider world of the Roman Empire and the Middle East and beyond – and cultural diversity of the Roman Empire.
The birth and spread of Christianity would take advantage of these two factors and because of them we have today world Christianity.
By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had gone through a series of dispersals from Palestine and many Jewish diaspora communities had emerged in the world beyond the Mediterranean Basin and Greco-Roman territories.
For several centuries since the Assyrian dispersion (722 BCE) and the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), there had been a steady dispersal of the Jews from the Promised Land.
While many of them returned in waves from Babylon during the Persian period, a large Jewish population remained in Mesopotamia. In the third century BCE, as Greek influence spread, Jewish communities continued to proliferate across the empire.
The Greek diaspora caused a further dispersion of the Jews. The Greeks and Romans moved thousands of Jewish soldiers to cities outside Palestine.
Large Jewish communities emerged in Antioch and Damascus, in Phoenician ports, and in the Asia Minor cities of Sardis, Halicarnassus, Pergamon, and Ephesus. It was the Jews of Alexandria who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, completing the Septuagint in 132 BCE.
By the time we come to Acts 2 when the church was born in Jerusalem, the The Jewish diaspora was quite large and influential.
Jews lived on most of the eastern Mediterranean islands (such as Cyprus and Crete), in mainland Greece and Macedonia, on the shores of the Black Sea and in the Balkans, in Rome and throughout the Italian peninsula, the Egypt, Libya, and as far west in North Africa as Carthage.
Luke takes the time to mention that there were presents in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost “Devout Jews of every nation under heaven… Parthians, Medes and Elamites; the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors to Rome (Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs » (Acts 2:9-11).
All these Diaspora Jews witnessed the event of the outpouring of the Spirit That day and would carry the news to their cities even before the arrival of the missionaries.
They were telling in their synagogues all around the then known world, of the strange thing that had happened in Jerusalem; “We heard them speak in our own languages about the wonders of God. It would prepare, even in a lesser degree, for the time when the gospel would be preached in their cities.
A few decades after Pentecost, there would be more Jews living in the Diaspora than in Judah. Even more so after 70 CE when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and deported many more Jews to Syria, Asia Minor, Italy and other parts of the empire.
Jewish communities sprang up in every major city of the empire, from the Persian Gulf in the east to Spain in the west. With the temple destroyed, there was not much left to look at and so the Diaspora became his home.
This strong presence of Jewish communities in the Diaspora when Christianity was emerging would play a very important role in its spread.
As we follow the story, we learn Paul’s involvement with the Jewish Diaspora. Luke depicts Paul trying to evangelize the Jewish Diaspora in the synagogues first when he arrived in a new place.
We see Paul preaching for the first time in the synagogue of Damascus (Acts 9:20), Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Iconium (Acts 14:1), Philippi (Acts 16:13), Thessalonica ( Acts 17:1-2), Berea (Acts 17:10), Athens (Acts 17:17), Corinth (Acts 18:4-6) and Ephesus (Acts 18:19, 19:8).
In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul declares that he “will now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) because the Jews have rejected the gospel, but we see him continue to turn first to his fellow Jews in the synagogues (Acts 18:19, 19:8).
Thereby, people who had crossed borders served as natural bridge builders for the gospel.
In Europe it was Lydia, a border girl from Thyatirawho became Paul first convert to Christianity in Europe in the city of Philippi (Acts 16).
Using this precedent, we can see that following Christ on mission will involve for many of us crossing borders.
Although we will certainly cross geographical borders, more often than not we will have to negotiate cultural, ethnic, theological, denominational and many other types of boundaries.
Our mission does not erase these borders. The same Paul who crossed many borders said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:22) also said, “I am made all to all” and that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”.
the the presence of borders invites us to a multi-tribal community in which we can share all that God has given us. They call us to be hospitable to strangers as we once were or may soon be.
This is how the Gospel will reach the ends of the earth. Let us continue to go through them with humility, well aware that the Spirit of God is already at work wherever we find ourselves..
Harvey Kwiyani is CEO of Global Connections and co-publisher of Vista.
Vista is an online journal offering research-based information on mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each thematic edition covers a variety of perspectives on mission-critical issues. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Vista Journal.
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