This morning we begin a study of the book of Acts. It was written by Luke, Paul’s physician companion, and is the sequel to his first book which we call the gospel of Luke.
Before we get into the actual text, I want to consider the purpose of this book by raising a question: What would it be like if Acts weren’t in the New Testament? What if you turned from John to Romans and the next twelve letters? You would be confronted with a series of bewildering differences:
TIME: The gospels cover the life of Jesus and end with his death and resurrection (33AD). The earliest New Testament letters were written around 48/49 AD--fifteen years later. What happened during that decade and a half? The book of Acts sheds crucial light on this period.
CHARACTERS: The gospels feature Jesus and his disciples, the leader of whom was Peter. Who is this Paul character? How did he get to be an apostle since he was not one of Jesus’ disciples? The book of Acts explains this important development.
LOCATION: All of the action in the gospels takes place in around Israel with Jerusalem as the key city? How did Christianity spread across the northern Mediterranean Basin all the way to Rome (PP MAP)? The book of Acts explains this important development.
ETHNIC FOCUS: Jesus and his disciples dealt primarily with Jewish people. How did Christianity become a predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) movement? The book of Acts explains this important development.
So the book of Acts is crucial to the New Testament because it is the BRIDGE between the gospels and the epistles that explains each of these key transitions.
Here is another question that will help you to understand the purpose of this book: What would you think of Christianity if you were a Roman official in the mid-first century?
You would be aware that its founder was a Jew (a nation with whom Rome had rebellion problems), that he was convicted of sedition and executed by a Roman governor. You would know that it was a fast-growing religious movement led by a man named Paul who seemed to precipitate riots wherever he went (Acts17:6 - “...These men who have upset the world have come here also...and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus."), and that Paul was now imprisoned and charged with sedition against Rome. Because of these things, Christianity would probably appear to you to be a dangerous, politically subversive Jewish sect.
Luke composed his 2-volume work to just such a man. Read Acts 1:1 and Lk.1:1-4. He writes as a careful researcher to inform this man about the origins and content of Christianity.
“Most excellent Theophilus” (“lover of God”) was probably a Roman official (see Acts23:26; 24:3; 26:25) who was possibly a new Christian seeking further information about Christianity and/or involved somehow in Paul’s trial.
Luke’s work was evidently a defense of Christianity for the Roman mind. He shows that Christianity, while a fulfillment of Old Testament Judaism, is distinct from and rejected by first century Judaism. He shows that Christianity is not politically subversive, and that Paul had been consistently acquitted by Roman officials of such charges. He also shows that Roman officials were consistently friendly to Christianity, and that some (Cornelius; Sergius Paulus) had even become Christians.
Its Main Theme
Read vs 3-11. Here Luke summarizes the events between Jesus’ resurrection and his earthly departure forty days later (vs 3).
He empirically verified his resurrection by appearing to them repeatedly.
He departed from them, and angels reminded them of his promise that he would return at the end of the age (vs 11).
He instructed them about the new phase of God’s kingdom that would soon be inaugurated. This is the main theme of the book of Acts, and it is concisely stated in vs 8. It consists of a mandate and a promise.
The Mandate: “Be my witnesses”
Read vs 8b. During this phase of God’s kingdom, the apostles (uniquely) and all Christians are to be Jesus’ witnesses. In other words, we are to carry the message of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus’ death to people all over the world who haven’t heard or received it, and build them up in it (HUMAN AGENCY).
Jesus elaborates on this mandate in Matt. 28:19,20 (read).
His followers are to take (“Go”) this message to every ethnic/people-group in the world. They are to lead open people to receive Christ (“baptizing”) and then help them grow to maturity in Christ (“teaching”). Only when this task is completed will the age end with Jesus’ return (Matt.24:14).
Luke traces the fulfillment of the mandate outlined in this verse. It forms the basic outline of Acts.
Chapters 1-7 focus on the spread of Christianity among Jews in JERUSALEM.
8:1 narrates its spread to other Jews in JUDEA.
8:1,5-25 describes how Christianity spread into SAMARIA to the people that orthodox Jews hated.
Chapters 9-28 describe how Peter first took the gospel to Gentiles, and how Paul, the key persecutor of the Christian movement, became the first Christian missionary who spread the gospel to the REMOTEST PARTS OF THE EARTH. Acts has no real ending because the work is to go on until some from every ethnic group have heard and responded to Jesus’ gift.
APPLICATION: The central purpose of the church is evangelism and discipleship!! We have a tendency to pervert the church’s purpose into hoarding and enjoying our own blessings--but Jesus continues to remind us that our main purpose is to take this blessing to others.
This is evidently what was behind the disciples’ question in vs 6. It was not just an academic question; it was a desire to stay safe and secure in Israel and let the world come to them. This is why Jesus cut them off in vs7 and reminded them that their role is to go into the world and serve them.
The Christian church in America suffers from this same problem. It is involved in many things: POLITICAL ACTION; FAMILY & MARRIAGE SEMINARS; END-TIMES PROPHECY CONFERENCES; INNER HEALING; CORPORATE PRAISE; etc. Some of these things are highly suspect, because they embrace ideologies that are antithetical to biblical Christianity. Some of them are biblical goals, but when they usurp this as the main goal, they are unhealthy.
Yes, we need healthy marriages and families--but we need this to be more effective witnesses, and a healthy home life by definition means a home that is centered around reaching out to others with the love of Christ.
Yes, we should be involved in the political process as citizens. But our main goal should not be political reform so we can impose a Christian consensus on our society. True social reform will occur only as a result of effective Christian evangelism and discipleship.
Yes, we should be involved in praising God and experiencing his love. But this should be one of the ways we are refueled for the task of outreach and discipleship. The moment it becomes the primary goal, it is corrupted.
Xenos is above all else an evangelizing and discipling church! In everything we do, every ministry we start, etc., we try to consciously ask: “How will this help us to do a better job at evangelism and discipleship?” Our leaders do not view their main responsibility as caring for the members, but as equipping the members to care for those who don’t know Christ, or who are just getting started in their walks. You need to understand this if you want to benefit from your involvement here.
The Promise: The Spirit’s Power
This is a daunting task! Imagine how these people (11 flawed disciples; 120 total; hostile city) must have felt as Jesus said “Your task is to take this message to the whole world--I’m out of here.” No wonder they kept looking into the sky (“But, but, but...”)!! But before he left, Jesus promised them the resource to accomplish their mandate. Read vs8a.
Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus would continue to be present with them and provide them with all they needed to accomplish this task. That’s why Luke says vs1 (read). What Jesus began to do and teach in one body, he now continues to do and teach through his new Body (the church) by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The title “The Acts of the Apostles” is inaccurate--it should be “The Continuing Acts of Jesus through His Followers by the Power of the Holy Spirit.”
Throughout the rest of Acts, Luke traces the fulfillment of this promise. He shows how, at every juncture, the Holy Spirit provided them with everything they needed to fulfill his mandate.
He sovereignly guided them to people who were ready to hear about Jesus: Ethiopian eunuch; Cornelius, Lydia, etc.
He enabled them to communicate the message boldly and effectively: 2:4; 4:8; 4:31; 7:55; 9:17; 13:9-11a; 13:52.
He transformed the characters of people so they could fulfill God’s unique role for their lives: 6:3; 11:24.
The key to the early church’s dynamism was not that they had unique people or historical opportunities. They key was that they were empowered by the Holy Spirit!
This same Holy Spirit--and his empowering--is available to us today. Although the apostles played a unique role and there were some unique features of this period, the Holy Spirit is alive and well and ready to empower us as well--if we are willing to comply with his conditions. There are basically three:
Have you received Christ? Before you can experience the Spirit’s power, you must receive Christ. Read Jn.7:37-39. Notice the way Jesus defines believing in him--not passively acknowledging that he exists, but consciously coming to him as the source of spiritual life and personally receiving his Person into yourself. If you have never done this, why not do so today?
Have you embraced his agenda for your life? The number one reason why true Christians do not experience the power of God’s Spirit is that instead of presenting ourselves to God fulfill his purpose for our lives, we ask him to bless our agenda. Read Col.1:28,29. Notice the connection between Paul’s experience of the Spirit’s power and his purpose for living! Have you told the Lord to do whatever he needs to do with your life so it can count for Christ--or are you still firmly in control and wondering why he won’t bless your agenda?
Do you depend on his power? Even true Christians who sincerely embrace God’s agenda for their lives often try to fulfill that agenda by their own wisdom and power. That’s why Jesus reminds us of the need for consistent dependence on him. Read Jn.15:4,5. Do you regularly turn to scripture and dependent prayer as you seek Old Testament serve him? Is there any connection between your answer and your experience of the Spirit’s power.
NEXT WEEK we’ll see how Jesus inaugurated the church by sending the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.