The First Assignment in the Great Commission: “Do Nothing”

This is the 2nd of a four-part series about the Holy Spirit. You can see part 1 here.

These are working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

I’ve always thought that Jesus gave a very odd “first step” to completing the Great Commission: “Do nothing until the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” With millions of people waiting to hear the gospel, he told the only ones who knew anything about it to sit and wait until he had sent them something mysterious from above. That meant they were not to write books. They were not go out and try to make converts. They were to do nothing.

Why? They were to do nothing until the Spirit came because they truly could do nothing effectively until he did. Jesus had promised that he would build his church, and he could accomplish more in one moment through his Spirit than they could accomplish in 10,000 lifetimes through all their expertise.

Do you live with that sense of dependence on the Holy Spirit? Do you really believe that you can do nothing without him? As a parent, as a spouse, as a friend, as a witness?

The book of Acts tells the mind-blowing, earth-upturning story of what a group of people filled with the Holy Spirit can do. We’re still reeling today from that first Christian century. New Testament scholars have pointed out that the book of Acts has really been given the wrong title. Rather than “The Acts of the Apostles,” many say it should probably be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” (Note that the original book had no title. It was assigned later, so suggesting a change is not like suggesting we edit Scripture!) They say that because even a quick read of Acts reveals that the Spirit of God is the primary actor. He guides, speaks, and moves. The disciples are simply trying to keep up. At their best, they are merely conduits of this mighty rushing wind. At their worst, they are obstructions.

Now, it is true that some unique, once-in-history things happen in Acts, and that means we need to approach certain stories with some caution (more on that later). I don’t walk down the beach trying to heal people by letting my shadow fall on them, and I’ve never struck anyone dead in an offering (Acts 5:4–5, 15). But I also know that Acts is also the only example God gave us of how Christians follow Jesus and walk with him in this present age. And the idea that the only example God would give us of how to walk with him in this age would have nothing in common with our experience doesn’t make much sense to me.

The Apostle John told the first Christians:

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3).

The Apostle John claimed we should have the same kind of relationship to God that he and the other apostles had. A relationship of fellowship, in which we commune with, not just obey, God. And that happens through the gospel, in the person of the Holy Spirit (1 John 1:6–9; 2:26–27; 4:13). John Newton, the writer of the song Amazing Grace, said in a letter to a friend,

Many… who would not flatly contradict the apostle’s testimony in 1 John 1:3 (i.e. that we should have fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit) attempt to evade its force by restraining it to the primitive times… but who can believe that the very nature and design of Christianity should alter in the course of time? And that communion with God, which was essential to it in the apostle’s days, should now be unnecessary?[1]

We are as dependent on the Holy Spirit as they were, and the Holy Spirit wants to fellowship with us as much he did those first believers. And when I read the book of Acts, I don’t have any problem seeing how the apostles would have considered the Spirit’s presence in them to be better than Jesus beside them. They turn out to be much more effective witnesses after Jesus leaves. The Peter denied Christ three times in one night before the Spirit came boldly tells a crowd of 3000, “You crucified Christ by wicked hands.” And while the Holy Spirit was working through Peter in Jerusalem in Acts 15, he was simultaneously speaking through Paul in Philippi in Acts 16. Jesus (in the incarnation) couldn’t have done that. Now that the Holy Spirit had come, God’s healing power was not localized in one person in one place. He was in every believer with the faith to access his power.

Maybe you’re still skeptical—and you cannot understand how it possibly could be better to have an invisible presence inside of you than a bodily Jesus beside you—but be encouraged by this: what Jesus said has to mean something, right?

And that “something” is what God has waiting for you.

The Word and Spirit Dynamic

Throughout the remainder of this book I want to show you that God’s Word and God’s Spirit operate together in one powerful dynamic. Pursuing one without the other leads to spiritual ruin, but pursuing one in the other leads to power and life. We see this interdependent relationship of Word and Spirit over and over throughout Scripture.

In the beginning, God established the world by his Word, but the Spirit hovered over the expanse and brought order and beauty to the firmament God had spoken into being. That’s a good example of how the two relate: the Word issues the command and establishes the foundations; the Spirit quickens and makes alive.

The Spirit takes God’s timeless truths and makes them come alive in us. He helps us understand them, shows us how to implement them, and empowers us to accomplish them. He shows us what part of his mission belongs to us specifically, and our unique role is in his kingdom. He turns task lists into a relationship.

The Word is eternal and unchanging. The Spirit’s direction is temporal and varied.

The Word gives us promises. The Spirit compels us to risk.

The Word outlines the mission. The Spirit inspires the vision.

The Word sets the standards. The Spirit guides the operations.

The Word shows us the end game. The Spirit, where we should begin.

The Word sets our expectations. The Spirit inspires our hope.

The Word describes the character of God. The Spirit draws us into his emotions.

The Word recounts God’s acts of salvation. The Spirit sheds abroad his love in our hearts.

The Word gives us the revelation. The Spirit, the explanation.

The Word provides the content. The Spirit, the conviction.

The Word helps us to know. The Spirit enables us to learn.

The Word commands us to hear. The Spirit empowers us to listen.

The Word commands us to obey. The Spirit beckons us to follow.

Has God’s word become personal to you? Have the doctrines and assignments turned into relationship? Has the Great Commission been translated into some specific vision for your life—do you know you are walking with, and following, Jesus in the Holy Spirit?

Has the Spirit of God generated in you holy desires that function something like the arrow of a compass, pointing you to God’s “true north” for you? Do you know your specific role in his kingdom?

Have some biblical visions become God-ordained passions? Have a bunch of good ideas in your life been replaced by a few God ideas?

In my experience, it’s better to discover one “God idea” for your life than have 1000 good ideas. Because that’s when Christianity explodes.

Christianity Ignited

I have seen this happen in the church I pastor. Not only in the lives of guys like Brennan, but in our church as a whole as we have sought to follow the Spirit of God.

Back in 1962, a man named Sam James planted our church. He worked with a core team for eight months, but on the Sunday the church officially launched, he left to be a missionary to Vietnam. That day, he preached the only sermon he would ever preach at that church. Using Isaiah 54:2–3, William Carey’s famous missionary text, he explained that just as God commanded Israel to “expand her borders” and “lengthen the cords of her stakes,” God had called this new church to expand her vision so that they could bring the nations into her tent of blessing. He sensed that this was part of what was in God’s mind when he had moved that core team to plant the church.

He left for Vietnam, and didn’t return for forty years.

Sadly, the church did not follow the vision Dr. James had laid out. Like many churches, it turned its focus inward.

I came to be the pastor in 2002. During the interview process I sensed that God was doing something in this church regarding missions. I had never heard of Sam James, and didn’t know anything about the church’s history. But it was clear that God’s Spirit had placed a call on this church for the nations.

It surprised me to see how quickly the vision took root in our church when I began to preach about it. After the first year, we were recognized by the International Mission Board as the highest missions giving church, per capita, of the 45,000 churches in our denomination. I’d love to say that was due to some unusual preaching or leading ability on my part, but it would not be true. I have tried to lead in many things (even in our church) that were not nearly that successful.

It was as if, in this area, we were propelled by an unseen hand.

College students “discovered” our church in 2003. College students, if you don’t know, travel in herds. So our attendance tripled in three weeks while our average weekly giving went up about $13.48. While we were not destined to be a rich church, we would have a lot of workers to mobilize for the nations.

Today, more than 175 of our members live overseas on one of our church planting teams. In the last 10 years, we have sent out close to 500 on domestic and international church planting teams. Earlier this month, we commissioned another 100 college seniors who have given their first two years after graduation to serve on one of these teams.

I’m not being falsely humble when I tell you that I’m not quite sure exactly how all this has happened. I really can’t figure it out—our success in this area has come too fast and too strong to explain it merely as the result of good leadership techniques.

Another reason explains it.

This is what God’s Spirit had called us to. He beckoned our church to follow him, and then waited. When we finally put up the sail, the mighty rushing wind exploded our efforts.

A couple of years ago I discovered Sam James was still alive (he is now in his late 80s) and I brought him back to Durham for our church’s 50th anniversary. I heard, for the first time, his story. As he told it, a lot of our past ten years began to make sense. For the last ten years that I’ve been pastor, we’ve simply been following his lead. We’re not doing something for God so much as we’re doing something with him. He is working through us. It sometimes feels like we’re just along for the ride.

Recently, I’ve sensed the Spirit of God pressing this vision deeper into my heart. God’s invitation in Psalm 2:8 feels on fire to me: “Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance.” That verse belongs to all Christians, of course, but the Spirit of God has beckoned our church, in a special way, to believe and take it for ourselves. So we have asked God to let us plant 1000 churches by 2050, to send out over 5000 members on church planting teams, and to let us be a part of seeing a major gospel awakening in at least three other countries.

I can’t guarantee the future of our church, of course; I cannot even guarantee I’ll wake up tomorrow! But I know that I have heard the Spirit’s voice beckoning, “Follow me.” And I feel more confident than ever. I am not merely obeying assignments laid out in the Scriptures; I am following the initiatives of the Spirit.

How about you? Has the mission of God translated into a specific vision for your life? The full mission is the responsibility of every believer, but through his Spirit, God invites you to specific aspects of it. The Great Commission becomes a focused burden; kingdom work becomes a personal calling; good ideas get replaced with God ideas.

Led by the Spirit, Taught by the Word

I once heard a Christian leader say, “Better to spend one hour on your knees pursuing the Holy Spirit than ten hours studying the Bible.” Tweetable, maybe, but very wrong. You cannot separate what God has inseparably joined and expect to get good results. Better to spend one hour on your knees pursuing the Holy Spirit through the Bible. Scripture invites you into a relationship that involves both Word and Spirit. Both are indispensable.

Every word of Scripture is a revealed Word of God, but God desires more than for us to learn the doctrines and obey the precepts. He desires relationship. Jesus did not just give us a book of things to believe and a list of tasks to execute. He called us to follow. To walk with him, interact with him, and live in his power. Anything short of this is not true Christian discipleship.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, British pastor of a previous generation, said,

Those who have received the Holy Spirit are aware of a power dealing with them and working in them. A disturbance, something, someone interfering in our lives. We are going along, and suddenly we are arrested and pulled up, and we find ourselves different. That is the beginning; that is what always happens when the Holy Ghost begins to work in a human being. There is a disturbance, an interruption to the normal ordinary tenor of life. There is something different, an awareness of being dealt with—I cannot put it better; that is the essence of the Holy Spirit dealing with us.[2]

“But wait a minute,” you say. “What does that kind of communion feel like? How do I know when the Spirit is moving in me? Should I hear a voice? Get goose bumps? If not, am I not walking with God?”

Excellent questions. Now, let’s see if we can find some answers.



[1] The Letters of John Newton, “Letter IV: Communion with God.” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 29.

[2] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002).

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  1. David Blanton   •  

    Sam James, Wow! In East Asia we still have good memories of Sam James. With this post, I learned that he had been a church planter in my home state.

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