Originally published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly. The link has since broken, so I've reposted it in full here.
In the year leading up to our decision to be missionaries my wife and I had prayed much, and we had received encouragement from our churches, families, and friends. I certainly felt a nudge on my heart for missions, but it was a far cry from the absolute certainty that I craved. The prompt on my heart to go to the field had not been replete with miraculous visions that illuminated a path before me, and so my understanding for what it meant to be called as a missionary was being challenged. My “calling” — if I could accurately refer to it as that — had been more like trying to discern a mountain trail on a cloudy evening: the basic outline was there, but the bumps in the road were hidden, and my awkward stumbling was unavoidable. If this was our missionary calling, then my wife and I had been left to make a critical decision in the middle of profound uncertainty. The truth is that I just wasn’t sure. I was doing what seemed like God might be orchestrating, but the possibility for grave error loomed over me. Had I known that a strong sense of calling is one of the top factors in missionary longevity1 before we went to Mexico City, we might not have gone at all.
The example of God’s miraculous guidance in Acts 10 might be more commonly associated with a missionary call, but God’s subtle action in Acts 15 also provides an accurate picture of how he often chooses to direct his workers. By looking at these examples of calling in the Bible, and focusing on the “ordinariness” of Acts 15, I hope to take another look at missionary call and offer some practical insights for both veteran missionaries and for those missionary candidates who are like I was — having a heart sense, but lacking certainty. Perhaps missionary calling from God can be found not only in the miraculous, but also in subtle, plain circumstances.
Acts 10: The Obvious Call
As my wife and I drove the 1,300 miles from our home base in the U.S. to our new home in Mexico City for the first time, I reflected on my teammate’s story of how he and his wife were called to missions in Mexico City. He was a good friend and a gifted storyteller, and he frequently recounted his experience of God’s miraculous missionary calling in his life. His calling story was like a modern-day version of Cornelius being called to Peter in Acts, complete with miraculous signs. There were multiple confirmations and answers to prayer. One such time, while driving, he and his wife were deep in prayerful conversation about the possibility of mission in Mexico City, and as they prayed aloud together, “Where should we go, Lord? Is it Mexico?” they rounded a corner to be confronted with a giant sign that read “MEXICO” in flashing lights. In the case of my teammate, God literally provided the proverbial “neon sign.”
Perhaps in heaven, Peter, Cornelius, and my teammate can compare notes on their stories of calling. In Acts 10, both Peter and Cornelius received clear-cut callings with virtually no room for misunderstanding. Peter saw a sheet lowering from heaven loaded with unclean animals, and a heavenly voice announced, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:13). As if the vision and voice weren’t enough, just to be absolutely sure, this happened three times as Peter sat on the rooftop (Acts 10:15). Cornelius (a God-fearing Gentile) had a vision a few days before Peter’s vision. In it, God’s call was so thorough that it provided the name of the person whom Cornelius was to consult, and even the address where Peter was residing so that Cornelius’ servants could easily locate him (Acts 10:6). The Book of Acts is so filled with miraculous cases that it can be easy to read through chapter ten without giving it much thought. But the calling on Peter and Cornelius introduces one of the most fundamental aspects of Luke’s second book: the mission to the Gentiles. In the chapter, God introduces this mission in no uncertain terms; the visions and voices provide abundant direction for both Peter and Cornelius to respond with confidence.
Acts 15: The Subtle Call
My call to Mexico City was not like what happened in Acts 10. With no neon sign, no voice, no angel, no animal-laden sheet lowered from heaven, my call felt more like a hunch than a divine leading. Going to be missionaries in one of the world’s largest cities without the call of God sounded like it had the makings of a major crisis. As I drove across the Mexican countryside, slowly coming closer to a radically different life, I was at a crossroads of the heart. Either I was embarking on a major mistake, or God had indeed called me — albeit in a decidedly less miraculous manner than what was experienced by Cornelius, Peter, and my teammate.
What happened in Acts 15 was more concurrent with my experience. In the chapter, the radical implications of Peter’s rooftop vision (Acts 10:9-16) and subsequent visit with Cornelius (Acts 10:23-33) were formalized by the church council in Jerusalem. Volumes have been written on the profound implications of the decision made by the council and their decree that they sent out with Judas, Silas, Paul, and Barnabas. The reasons these events have been so studied are numerous: there are ecclesiastical, theological, legal, and missiological consequences. In short, with the introduction of the Church’s first formal decree concerning Gentile conversion, Acts 15 is nothing less than the “centre of Acts both structurally and theologically.”2 But the council’s decision itself, with all of its profound implications, is not what has recently drawn me to this chapter; instead, it is how the council’s decision was made that has piqued my interest. It is fascinating to notice just how seemingly little divine intervention went into this paramount decision-making process, especially in light of Acts 10.
The scene in Acts 15 is a gathering of church heavyweights, responding to a new controversy surrounding Gentile circumcision. Some, including those of the party of the Pharisees, and presumably others in Antioch, had been teaching that Gentile believers needed to be circumcised before they could truly become gospel believers. Paul and Barnabas vehemently opposed this teaching, insisting that Jewish proselytization was not necessary for Christian conversion. Peter, the receiver of the miraculous vision on the subject, spoke authoritatively that circumcision was not necessary. James agreed, and the counsel organized the formal decree proclaiming the nascent Church’s decision — but only after “much debate” (Acts 15:7).
Naturally, this decision proved to be a watershed not only for the Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, but for the entire Christian missionary enterprise from that point until today. In this sense, the gravity and finality of the Jerusalem Council almost cannot be overstated. Herein lies my fascination with the chapter. If this decree was so radically important (and it was), then why did it come about the way it did? With the Church’s formal doctrine on the line, where were the Acts 10-style miracles now? Instead of a vision and voice from heaven, there was the heated debate of imperfect people, who argued until they finally relented to a decision introduced by the little phrase, “it seemed good” (Acts 15:22).
The Scandalous Little Phrase
How could God’s mission call to the Gentiles have been found in such a plain and uncertain phrase as “it seemed good”? After hearing a brief devotional on Acts 15 delivered by a teacher and friend, I became fascinated with the passage. I was struck with the idea that the leaders of the early Church acted on the principle of what “seemed good.” That such an important ecclesiastical decision hung on this phrase had all the appearance of scandal.
After reading the passage myself in several different versions, I was even more amazed that the phrase “seemed good” appeared not once, but three times within seven verses (Acts 15:22, 25, 28). What did this mean? Why was it there? These questions and others led me to first do a word study of this key phrase. The three appearances of “seemed good” in translations like the NAS and ESV are true to the Greek text, which also uses the same word three times. In total, the Greek word, dokeo, is used sixty-one times in the New Testament, eighteen of which are by Luke. It is used in different contexts with a range of meanings from “desire,” to “presume,” “suppose,” and “deem superior.” In the Louw and Nida Greek Lexicon, a telling definition is offered: “to regard something as presumably true, but without particular certainty”.3
The decree portion of the chapter (Acts 15:22-29) opens with dokeo. After the debate between Peter and James and those of the Pharisees, the decision comes: “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (15:22, emphasis mine). Again, in the decree itself, the phrase is present: “…it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you…” (Acts 15:25), and “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Here Luke has offered three separate mentions of dokeo in a single paragraph, with verse 28 offering the most curious usage because of its coupling with the Holy Spirit.
Predictably (and understandably), most commentators are primarily concerned with the theological implications of the Acts 15 decision rather than how exactly that decision was reached. While many offer insights into the restrictions placed on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:20, 29), fewer mention the triple usage of dokeo. However, both C. K. Barrett4 and Hans Conzelmann5 note that dokeo was sometimes used to express an official letter or decree. While this might partly explain its expression here, it should be noted that nowhere else in the New Testament is the “decree usage” of dokeo employed. Also, Barrett calls the usage of dokeo in verse 28 to be an “outstanding example…that all developments in the church’s life were directed by the Spirit.”6 If this is the case, then God’s miraculous call isn’t absent from the episode in Acts 15 at all; it is simply less overt.
The Messiness of Missionary Life
The comments from Barrett and others lead me to think that what is seen in Acts 15 is an incredible example of the Holy Spirit initiating and directing a call by “ordinary” means. What makes this passage all the more noteworthy is that the very subject of Gentile Christianity had been dealt with so extraordinarily in Acts 10, with the overlapping miraculous visions of Peter and Cornelius. Why here, with the same topic, do the apostles find themselves instead led by debate and consensus? While the text does not explicitly say so, it is reasonable to assume that the council was also engaged in prayer as they considered their decision. Even so, simple prayer and agreement pales in comparison to the miracles of guidance seen in Acts 10 and elsewhere in the book. The only hint of God’s intervening action is found in verse 28, and even that is qualified with the uncertainty of dokeo. Like other biblical instances of the miraculous followed by the mundane, the text does not explain why God chose to work in such different ways in times of similar need.
All of this serves as an ideal example of the messiness of our missionary life. God provides his direction, to be sure. His Holy Spirit is powerful in effecting action in his people. But the Holy Spirit’s work is sometimes overt and sometimes covert. Sometimes his action is elaborate and comes without human prompting (like it did as Peter dozed on a rooftop). And sometimes his action can seem rather muted (like it did with the group of church leaders trying to decide what to do about the Gentiles). The irony of the story is that the miracle came when nobody was asking for a word from God. The subtle response came when the church leaders were in immediate need of a clear direction on the subject of Gentile circumcision and were seeking to create an official decree. So, for a single Gentile, God orchestrated multiple visions, complete with explicit instructions and a residential address. But for the official decree that carried with it the enormous gravity of forever shaping the direction of the Church — the decree that ultimately has resulted in me, a Gentile, reading the story to begin with and writing this sentence — it is left to the human discernment of a Holy Spirit nudge in the hearts of a few people in Jerusalem!
Although there is much left unknown in Luke’s account of the Acts 15 council, he gave us a few nuggets that might be helpful in discerning missionary calling. I believe there are at least three things that missionaries can take away from the story recorded in Acts 15.
- God’s calling can be found in what he has been doing, not just in what he is doing in the moment. In my case of questioning my calling to Mexico City, denying God’s call meant simultaneously denying what he had been orchestrating in my life in the years leading up to our move to Mexico. God had provided ministry internships for me in an overseas mission setting, in a domestic urban setting, and in a church youth ministry setting. Each of these experiences worked to shape my vocational desires, and each had important repercussions for the mission in Mexico City. In Acts 15, the council first agreed to what seemed good (v. 22) only after Peter recounted the miraculous work of God leading up to that time. God had been working specifically on the issue of Gentile Christianity, and he had specifically prepared Peter — who was to be a prominent leader at the Jerusalem Council. At the time of the vision, Peter did not know there was going to be a council. When the council was convened, however, Peter connected what God had been doing to what was happening. To not consider the historical action of God in the months leading up to the council would have denied God’s sovereign oversight of his Church and would have fundamentally skewed the council’s decision.
- God’s calling can be found in community. Although it was eight years ago, I still remember plainly seeking God’s guidance about whether or not to go to Mexico. I remember sitting in the wilderness of central Texas, while camping with a handful of Christian friends who were praying for me and with me. Although there was never absolute certainty, after a few days of prayer and talking there was a general consensus. It wasn’t the undeniable call I had hoped for, but it provided enough for me to move forward. Looking back, especially when considering Acts 15, I know that God’s call was made clearer through that little Christian community. In Acts 15, there’s a shift the second time dokeo is used, as it appears within the decree itself. Rather than “it seemed good to the apostles,” it reads, “it seemed good to us” (v. 25). An important community dynamic was at work. We know that some strong debate took place, but somewhere along the line, there was a shift. Verse 25 elaborates that the apostles and leaders had “come to one accord.” There was consensus. The Christian community was moved together to reach their decision.
- God’s calling is initiated and sustained by his Holy Spirit. Again, when I was agonizing about whether or not to go to Mexico City, the Holy Spirit moved within me and those around me. How was that consensus with my praying friends reached? How was it that two newlyweds, freshly graduated from college, from families with no previous history of long-term missions, promptly won the blessing and support of their parents and communities? How was it that the finances and other logistics came together at the right time? It was all possible by the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15, there was a moving of the Holy Spirit. It may not be the most extravagant outpouring of the Spirit, but it was nevertheless a unique one. In the Bible, there is no other mention of the Holy Spirit like there is in verse 28.7 I was unable to find a commentator who was able to adequately explain the fact that the council’s decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit.” While something “seeming good” to the Holy Spirit is a strange concept, the phrase does, however, provide an intimate picture of God’s Spirit struggling alongside the leaders to reach the best decision for the Church. Bible scholar Joseph Fitzmyer sums up, “The assembly admits that this letter comes as a result of its deliberation, but it also insists that it is the decision of the Holy Spirit.”8
When I wondered about and even doubted my call to Mexico, it wasn’t God’s calling that was really in question — it was my understanding and definition of his call that was the problem. Since our going to the mission field, it has occurred to me that there might be a need to reevaluate how missionaries sometimes define call. It’s been more than six years since my wife and I moved to Mexico City to be a part of a new mission team. By the time of our departure date, we were excited and nervous. Although we had committed ourselves to work there, there still lingered within me a subtle doubt of “But how do I know that we’re doing the right thing?” Had I known then the story of missionary call to the Gentiles found in Acts 15 as thoroughly as I do now, then I would have known that, well, sometimes God’s call just seems good. And that’s enough.
Taylor, William. 1997. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library Publishers.↩
Marshall, I. H. 1980. pp. 242. The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.↩
Louw, Johannes and Eugene Nida. 1989. pp. 31.29. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies. (Emphasis mine.)↩
Barrett, C. K. 1998. Acts 15-28, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.↩
Conzelmann, Hans. 1987. Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.↩
Barrett, C. K. 1998. pp. 744. Acts 15-28, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.↩
Bruce, F. F. 1988. pp. 298. The Book of the Acts (Revised Edition). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.↩
Fitzmyer, Joseph. 1998. pp. 561. The Acts of the Apostles. New York: Doubleday Books.↩