The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls]“myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story. Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on. —Karl Barth
The Book of Acts opens with two events of great salvation-historical importance: the going up of Jesus from earth into heaven (the Ascension), and the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples (Pentecost). Both events are commemorated by Christians in this season of the year. Jesus’s resurrection from the dead inaugurated God’s new beginning, which the New Testament calls “the last days.” In Jesus Christ, the future has invaded the present, and Christians are those “on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Jesus’s Ascension into heaven does not mean that he is absent from his followers, but rather that he is present to them in another form.
Before Jesus died, he said to his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). From Pentecost on, the Spirit of God, who is also called the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Christ, would come to live in everyone who repented of their sins and believed in Jesus. Many Christians describe their new relationships with God as having Jesus in their hearts. “You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, ‘Papa! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6, The Message). Truly to know God in this way is the greatest thing that can happen in anyone’s life. The Bible says it is like being born again, or raised from the dead, or coming out of the deepest darkness into the light of day. But none of this would be possible without the witness and work of the Holy Spirit, who not only makes us aware of our need for God and puts us into a right relationship with the Father through the Son, but also fills us and empowers us to walk with Christ every day and to grow in our love for him and for one another.
What we are talking about here is not a matter of self-improvement, of turning over a new leaf. Nor is it a question of having some ecstatic mystical experience. The saving knowledge of God is unattainable by human effort. That is why justification, our being declared right before God, is by faith alone, not on the basis of any good works or personal merit we can claim. As a hymn by Augustus M. Toplady puts it, “In my hands no price I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Salvation is based solely on what God has once and for all done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Christ has done for us, though, must be appropriated personally through our turning away from sin (repentance) and our turning in reliant trust to the Savior himself (faith). John Calvin, a great teacher of the church, put it this way: “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us” (Institutes 3.1.1.).
The Gospel is inherently personal, but it is never merely a private affair. Imbued with the “glad tidings” of new life in Jesus Christ, the early Christians fanned out from Jerusalem and Judea to carry this Gospel into all the world. They went everywhere—into the arena, into the academies of learning, into the marketplace, to faraway lands such as India and Ethiopia, into every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire. When, in the early fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea set out to chronicle this history from the days of the apostles up to his own time, he described the activity of those heralds of faith through whom the spread of the Gospel was first carried out:
Leaving their homes, they set out to fulfill the work of an evangelist, making it their ambition to preach the word of the faith to those who as yet had heard nothing of it, and to commit to them the books of the divine gospels. They were content simply to lay the foundations of the faith among these foreign peoples: They then appointed other pastors, and committed to them the responsibility for building up those whom they had merely brought to the faith. Then they passed on to other countries and nations with the grace and help of God.
The last word in the Greek text of Acts is translated as “unhindered” (akolytos), an adverb used to describe the unstoppable progress of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. This does not mean, of course, that the early Christians faced no opposition. Indeed, they often came into dramatic and violent conflict with the ruling authorities. It is not coincidental that the word “martyr” derives from the Greek marturia, meaning “witness.”
In the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed that when Christ calls one to follow him, he calls him to take up his cross and die. This was literally true for many early Christians, for whom there was only one Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God,” an imperial title they refused to ascribe to anyone but Christ. The martyrs were revered and the dates of their executions remembered as their “birthdays.” In seeking to stamp out Christianity, the Roman authorities provided it with an effective means of evangelism! The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. Still today, many thousands of Christians are put to death every year because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
The course of Christian history is not marked by smooth and inevitable progress. There have been many setbacks. With the establishment and toleration of the Christian religion came a new freedom to go out into the world. At the same time, in a new and dangerous way, the world entered into the church. There have been periods of decline, apostasy, and unbelief. But there have also been great moments of reformation, revival, and renewed faith.
Several years ago I had the experience of being in a worship service and receiving communion from the Bishop of Durham, a high official in the Church of England who had become notorious for denying some of the most basic truths of the Christian faith, such as the virginal conception of Jesus and his bodily resurrection from the dead. The sermon was really bad, and I was quite depressed. After the service, I stayed in the cathedral to think and pray. As I walked through this massive Romanesque structure, I became aware of many evidences of the Gospel all around me. There were the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed engraved on a wall. Here was a prayer book and a Bible used by faithful Christians for generations. There were the stained-glass windows of the saints and martyrs of ages past. The building itself was in the shape of a cross. I suddenly realized that while bishops come and go and heretics rise and fall, the Word of the Lord abides forever. God has never left himself without a witness, even when that witness is silent and unobserved and contradicted by foolish thoughts and wayward words. The stones cry out, and the Gospel goes forth!
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.