The First Chapter of Acts

Theme: The Events Following Christ's Homegoing

Outline:

  1. The Simple Announcement (Verses 1-8)
  2. The Sublime Ascension (Verses 9-12)
  3. The Stirring Assembly (Verses 13-14)
  4. The Strange Appointment (Verses 15-26)

Section One.
Expository Notes on Luke's Introduction to His Second Book

The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: to whom also he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: and, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence (vv. 1-5).

An Interesting Preamble

A great amount of discussion has revolved around the identity of the person to whom Luke addressed his two books. The name Theophilus was derived from two Greek words. Theos means "God," and philein means to "love"; therefore the name indicates "lover," or "friend of God." "Theophilus is found as a proper name as early as the third century before Christ, both in the papyri and inscriptions (J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p. 288), and as a Jewish name in the Flinders Petrie Papyri (II, 28 2.9), also third century before Christ. Theophilus may well have been a baptismal name used among Christians" (The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 5, p. 721). These facts introduce us to some interesting possibilities. (1) Since the name means "A Friend of God," the recipient of this manuscript could have been any God-fearing person known to Luke. If it was indeed a pseudonym, the person bearing the name could have been almost anybody who sincerely loved God. (2) The fact that in Luke 1:3 the man is addressed as "most excellent Theophilus" indicates he was a man holding an important position within the Roman Empire. The identical title was used by Claudius Lysias when he wrote a letter to Felix. (See Acts 23:25-26.) This suggests that Theophilus was no ordinary person. Yet, when we compare this description with the first verse in the Acts, we note that the imposing title has been omitted. Theophilus might have become a Christian, and had been removed from office by his pagan overlords. Perhaps, another possibility is that, having become a Christian, he was now considered to be a brother in the faith.

There is also the possibility that fierce persecution threatened any Roman who embraced the Christian doctrines, and the letter was addressed to "the lover of God" in order to protect the official to whom it was sent. The idea has also been expressed that Theophilus was the governor of a Roman province, whose decisions could seriously affect all Christians and that Luke was writing to him to refute the evil allegations that had been made against the disciples of Jesus. Believing that truth could overcome error, Luke was careful to place all the facts before the official in the hope that by so doing he would influence the governor in whose hand rested the safety of many Christians.

The consensus of opinion seems to dictate that the recipient of the two letters was a Roman official who ultimately became the sponsor of Luke. It was customary in the early days of the church for wealthy men to supply the finances that enabled authors to produce books. Many of the early philosophical writings were made possible by wealthy donors, and as a recompense letters or books produced by the authors were dedicated to the men whose generosity made them possible. It should also be remembered that some theologians consider the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to be two halves of the same letter. This may be hard to believe, for Luke clearly mentions "The former treatise" (Acts 1:1). It would seem, therefore, that, having written the introductory story of Jesus and His Gospel, at a later date, Luke commenced again where he had earlier finished and proceeded to supply his illustrious friend with the glorious sequel of the first letter. (See the "Introduction, The Beloved Physician, and the expository notes on section one of the first chapter in the author's commentary, Luke's Thrilling Gospel, pp. 13-22. See also the special homily, "Portrait of an Author." ibid., pp. 22-24.)

Luke wrote: "The former treatise have I made... of all that Jesus began both to do and teach." It is interesting to note that, whatever Jesus had accomplished during His ministry on earth, it was only the introduction leading to even greater things. This text is in harmony with the Lord's prediction: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father" (John 14:12). To Luke this was a sequence in the unfolding of the divine revelation. The miracles performed in Galilee and Judaea were to be insignificant when compared with what would be done throughout the Roman Empire. Therefore, if the telling of the first part of his story was essential, it was even more necessary to inform Theophilus that the same Christ continued to work through His appointed missionaries. If the reader had been thrilled by what he read in the first treatise, he would be inspired to hear of the continuing success of the risen Son of God.

The Infallible Presentations

That the disciples, who had been commissioned through the Holy Spirit, had wrought amazing miracles, none could deny. Yet it should always be remembered that Jesus, who predicted He would conquer death, had honored His promise. He had vanquished the power of death and supplied irrefutable evidence of His triumph. "He showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (1:3). The undeniable secret of the success of the apostles was that Christ, who had been with them in Galilee, was still walking with them along roads that went to every part of the known world. What Luke was about to record would seem unbelievable unless Theophilus was aware of the abiding presence of Jesus. Christ was not dead as were Roman gods. He was living in the power of an endless life. His residence within human hearts had been made possible, not only by His resurrection, but also because He had returned to earth in another form. Theophilus had to be convinced of this fact, for otherwise what Luke was about to write might seem fantasy.

The Illuminating Prerequisite

"And [Jesus] being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me" (v. 4). Obviously, the disciples alone were inadequate for the task of world evangelism. Peter had denied his Lord; the other members of the small band, under pressure from the authorities, had deserted their Leader. Apparently there was no way by which cowards could regain their courage and proceed to challenge the might of Caesar. Judged by the scholastic standards of the world, the disciples were illiterate, incompetent, and completely unable to debate questionable issues of religion. They would not present a threat to any man or movement. If Peter could be demoralized by the words of a tantalizing maiden at the fire, he could hardly be expected to stand before thousands of furious men and, in spite of threats, proceed to denounce their actions. If the plans of the risen Christ were to be fulfilled, then someone had to lead a crusade against sin and sinners. There was not a disciple able to do this, unless a miracle changed incompetent men into invincible messengers. Luke was about to describe how this happened at Pentecost, but his reader would need to be aware of the details preceding the event. Therefore, Luke stressed the fact that the weak, helpless, and almost useless disciples were told to go into the city and remain there. The Lord, who had commissioned them to preach the gospel to all nations, would reveal to them how the job could be accomplished.

The Inspired Promise

"Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (v. 5). It should be remembered that Luke wrote this letter many years after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As he looked back over the early exploits of the church, it was easy for him to compare and contrast John the Baptist with those who later evangelized the world. It was written that John did no mighty works; that is, he performed no miracles, and yet all that he spoke of Jesus was true. (See John 10:41.) As a contrast to this type of ministry, the disciples not only witnessed about Jesus, but they also healed people of their infirmities. The chief difference between John and his successors was that the disciples had experienced a personal Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had arrived to inspire every effort to carry the gospel message around the world. Empowered by Him, the disciples could exclaim, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (see Philippians 4:13). The early followers of Christ were completely surrendered to the indwelling Spirit of God; that was the secret of their success.

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (vv. 6-8).

The Former Position

Nothing reveals more the spiritual blindness of the disciples than the question they asked the Lord. They had become followers of Jesus because they firmly believed He would establish the kingdom of God upon earth. The Scriptures described the glorious days of independence which Israel enjoyed during the reigns of David and Solomon, but, alas, those days had long since disappeared. Palestine had been ravaged by the invading armies of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome; and the greatness of earlier history only tormented the nationalistic Jews. It was the fervent hope of all pious men that the coming Messiah would restore the former grandeur of Israel, and it was for that reason the fishermen of Galilee, with their companions, left all to follow Jesus. Alas, the cross had shattered their faith, and they had desired to return to their former occupation. The resurrection of their Master shed new light upon everything; perhaps, after all, He would now do what they had always desired. Hence they asked if He intended at that time to restore the kingdom to Israel.

They had apparently forgotten the commission to go into all the world to preach the gospel; once again they were confined within the limited corral of preconceived ideas and prejudice. As will be seen later in this commentary, they remained in that place for many years.

The Father's Prerogative

"It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power" (v. 7). The Lord was gentle with His enthusiastic, inquiring disciples but, nevertheless, very firmly told them not to meddle with things which, at that time, were unimportant. God had a plan, but sometimes He preferred not to divulge His secrets! There would be a kingdom, but no king could rule over a country that had no inhabitants. Foreigners to the commonwealth of Israel had to be evangelized; citizens had to be found and bound together by the cords of eternal love. The world had to be made ready for the establishment of God's kingdom, and that precisely was their task. Had He not commanded them to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples? How could they forget their appointed task so soon? They had yet to learn that the kingdom of which they thought—God's kingdom—would not be a realm in which Israel would be independent and supreme. Such a kingdom, were it ever established, would be Israel's kingdom and not God's. Therefore they should pay attention to their work and allow God to attend to other affairs. If they proclaimed the message of the gospel, they would surely know the truth of the poet's lines:


Nearer and nearer draws the time:

The time that will surely be,

When the earth shall be filled

With the Glory of God

As the waters cover the sea.


The Famous Promise

"But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me... unto the uttermost part of the earth" (v. 8). The order mentioned here is very suggestive. Many dreamers fantasize about the charm of being God's missionaries overseas, but the divine order suggests that witnessing should begin in our own backyard! First, we must tell the story to those immediately around us, and that place is often the most arduous mission field. If we do well amid those surroundings, God might extend the borders of our influence. If we continue to excel, we might be allowed to take the gospel to earth's remotest ends. However, if the ambitious, would-be missionary for any reason should fail at home, where the reception might be cold or even hostile, he would have little chance of success overseas. Yet, one fact outshone all else. Whether the disciples served at home or far away, they would need a supernatural power to inspire their ministry. That power would be forthcoming when the Spirit of Truth arrived. Jesus had already said: "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (John 16:7). It was for this specific purpose they were to return to the city and wait there. God, in His own good time, would provide the power to accomplish the impossible.

Homily Study No. 1

Pentecost... The Miracle That Staggered the World

Pentecost changed the world; without it, the church would have been another sect destined to disappear within a few months. The Savior expressed superlative truth when He said, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you" (John 16:7). Even now, as in retrospect we review the whole proceeding, it seems utterly fantastic that unlearned and inexperienced men should attempt to overthrow the teaching of centuries to challenge heathen strongholds, and then to evangelize a world with the astounding news that a Carpenter nailed to a cross had been the Son of the living God. Not one member of the original Twelve had been trained in theology; not one was a polished speaker. They were rough, blunt men drawn from ordinary walks in life, but Pentecost transformed midgets into giants!

Power to Perceive

Just before the Lord ascended to heaven, He said to the disciples, "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me" (v. 8). The scope of this promise is far wider than one would at first imagine. During the Lord's ministry, the disciples thought only of an earthly kingdom, and all their preaching expressed self-desire. The writings of the prophets were never fully understood; some of the most entrancing utterances were treated as commonplace. Pentecost changed the entire outlook of these men. Ancient parchments came alive within their minds; the Lamb of God was recognized as the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world; the Old Testament sacrifices were seen as types and shadows of the gospel revelation. Their amazement gave place to wonder, and a new perception inspired their oft-repeated utterance, "Thus was it fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets."

Power to Prevail

Actions speak louder than words. It was obvious that, if these fishermen were to succeed in their tremendous task, they needed more than intellectual illumination. Simon Peter possessed a volcanic soul! He could be a flaming fury or a dormant despondent. Within these men lived their greatest enemies. It was possible to denounce the evil of passion and yet at the same time to be a victim of a vile temper. It was possible to pronounce a curse on adultery and yet to harbor secret, lustful thoughts. No man should ever preach beyond his experience. The disciples needed power to trample under their feet the very evils by which they themselves had been overcome. If Simon Peter, so recently scared by a maiden, was to stand unafraid before a crowd of potential murderers, then he needed a new dynamic to banish his former timidity. Pentecost supplied that essential. The coming of the Holy Spirit made it possible for the power of God to be manifest through human weakness. God through the Holy Spirit did for man what self-effort could never do.

Power to Preach

"And ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (v. 8). Pentecost changed a hesitant, half-hearted company of believers into a machine making hell tremble. Previously Simon Peter had probably preached hundreds of times during those memorable tours when, in company with another disciple, he had gone forth to announce the nearness of the kingdom. Yet, in spite of all his sincere efforts, there is no record that he had ever won a soul for his Master. Undoubtedly he had tried hard; he had put his best into all his efforts, but success in soul winning had seemed utterly elusive. His hearers had appeared to be clothed in impenetrable indifference.

Then, without any unique preparation, this same preacher saw three thousand souls yielding to Christ in one service. Even Peter was surely astounded. No one could claim that his effort represented perfection in preaching. There was nothing particularly �