Main Idea: Luke begins his second volume by highlighting the ongoing ministry of the ascended Christ that continues through his Spirit-empowered witnesses.
Multiple times I’ve been asked, “How old is your church?” Since our congregation is a church plant, people often raise this question, and I have to do the math in my head to answer them. To simplify matters, and to teach a bit of church history, I have started to respond by saying, “We are about two thousand years old!” You see, the account of the early church recorded in the book of Acts is our history. The people mentioned in that book are our brothers and sisters.
Of course, the people of God did not originate in the first century. God has always had a people for himself—a people to whom he displays his glory, and a people through whom he displays his glory (to paraphrase my friend, Steve Timmis). Nevertheless, the book of Acts marks a pivotal turning point in redemptive history. Acts describes the history of the mission of the early church, and because we are part of the church’s history and mission, the book is of great importance to us.
My children are currently studying United States history, so we are going over the facts and details of the American Revolution, the early presidents, and our founding documents. Learning about these topics is important because we are Americans. American history is our history. But as vital as learning about the founding of our nation is, it is even more important that my children understand church history. It is our spiritual history, a family history.
This history recorded in the book of Acts covers a relatively short period of time. Commentator Michael Green says,
Three crucial decades in world history. That is all it took. In the years between AD 33 and 64 a new movement was born. In those thirty years it got sufficient growth and credibility to become the largest religion the world has ever seen and to change the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It has spread into every corner of the globe and has more than two billion putative adherents. It has had an indelible impact on civilization, on culture, on education, on medicine, on freedom and of course on the lives of countless people worldwide. And the seedbed for all this, the time when it took decisive root, was in these three decades. It all began with a dozen men and a handful of women: and then the Spirit came. (Thirty Years That Changed the World, 7)
So much happened in thirty short years! It makes me ask, What may God do through a modern local group of believers throughout the same period of time?
Because Acts involves history, I should clarify what a proper approach to studying history entails. Generally speaking, three types of people study the past: scholars, admirers, and soldiers.
While some scholars are no doubt also committed soldiers, anyone who wants to study Acts needs to reject the posture of what I’ll call a cold scholar. Our purpose in launching into the book of Acts is not merely to analyze dates, places, and people as if we were cramming for a test. Instead, our goal is to allow the message of this book to transform our hearts and lead us to a mission. We must not study the Bible as people scrutinizing a book for insights into the distant past. Rather, we should approach it as people who are desperate to see the God about whom we read move mightily in the present.
Some who study history are more hobbyists than scholars; they have a casual interest in historical events that may lead them to read a piece on the Civil War, World War II, or the New York Yankees purely for pleasure. Such people may visit museums and even collect antiques and memorabilia related to their interests, but casual admirers rarely dive deeply into the contents of history. Seldom do they allow the events they read about to change them in the present. We, however, must move beyond merely admiring things about the history of the early church. We must not read the Bible lightly or scan it as if gathering insights to add to a mental museum. We should not be casual admirers but committed soldiers.
Good soldiers are known to study history, and they do so to become better soldiers. Good soldiers know there is much to be done. And they see themselves—and we must view ourselves—as continuing a mission. Acts is not merely the history of the early church; it’s the history of the mission of the early church. And we are to continue that mission. So let us dive into the contents of the book that we may better serve our King.
We need to keep a few principles in mind. First, we should read Acts in light of the entire Bible, with the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments in mind. A failure to allow the whole Bible to help us rightly interpret the book could lead to some serious problems. Second, we should read Acts in light of Luke’s Gospel in particular because Dr. Luke wrote both books. Third, we must read Acts in light of its genre. It is a historical book, which means that while in it Luke describes the events of the early church, he does not always commend its practices to us. For instance, I don’t think we should read of Paul’s “healing handkerchiefs” and assume we need to start a handkerchief ministry! Rather, we must allow the whole of the Bible to help us make interpretations and applications for the modern world. We’ve got to be sensible soldiers, honoring the dual authorship of this book: it was penned by Luke and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Since Acts is the second volume by Luke, the book opens as a story already in progress. There is also an abrupt ending to Acts, leaving us with the correct impression that even today the church is living out the mission. As we look at the opening verses of this book, we’ll see that three acts are continuing: the message, the ministry, and the witness of Christ’s church. We will look back on the opening section throughout our studies in Acts.
Luke begins his second volume by dedicating it to Theophilus. Luke addresses the same recipient in the prologue to his Gospel. That Theophilus is called “most honorable” (Luke 1:3) implies that he was a Roman official (cf. Acts 24:2; 26:25). And based on Luke’s intention of providing more “certainty” to Theophilus (Luke 1:4), he seems to have been a Christian seeker or perhaps a young believer. It is also possible that he gave financial assistance to Luke, allowing his author-friend the means to research and report on the astonishing work God was doing through followers of Jesus Christ.
What do we know about Luke? We know he was a doctor (Col 4:14). As such, he would have been educated and presumably wealthy. He made trips with Paul and was loyal to him, even while the apostle was in prison (Acts 28; 2 Tim 4:11). I can imagine that his medical skills came in handy; Paul regularly needed a doctor after all those beatings he took.
Luke was also a prolific writer. He recorded for us the stories of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. And his work shows a remarkable depth of precise historical research. Luke traveled and carefully interviewed those with key roles in Christ’s life. (In his quest to collect details, he was more like Indiana Jones than a history professor!) He investigated and reported on a vast amount of information. In fact, Luke-Acts is comprised of more material than all of Paul’s letters combined, and since Luke was a companion of Paul, it’s clear he was involved with writing the majority of the New Testament.
Yet Luke records virtually nothing about his own life. This is a sign of humility. He does not boast about his relationship with Paul, nor does he go into detail about his own story. Instead, in Luke-Acts we read about the man’s passion for the life-changing gospel, his sensitivity to the disadvantaged, his heart for prayer, and his concern for the Gentiles. Each of these characteristics reflects the church in Antioch (11:19-30), Luke’s hometown according to an ancient second-century document (Anti-Maricon Prologue to Luke).
All of this history reminds us that Christianity is not built on man’s speculation or on someone’s wild imaginings but on historical revelation. Jesus Christ really did live. He died. He rose bodily. He appeared to hundreds of witnesses. He taught for forty days before ascending. Luke records details about the real life and ministry of Jesus as well as insights into the beginnings of the early church. This is supremely important. While the world wouldn’t need a historical Buddha to have Buddhism, it must have a historical Christ to have genuine Christianity. And we do! Further, if Jesus is dead, then Christianity is dead. But he’s alive! Historical facts like these serve as wonderful faith builders for Christians and as important apologetic arguments that are useful as we commend the faith to present-day Theophiluses.
Luke says in his Gospel that he wrote about all that Jesus “began to do and teach.” In Acts, Luke writes about the same thing: the ministry of Jesus—which continued after his ascension and is still in progress today. The title of the book could be “The Acts of the Lord Jesus through the Apostles and the Church by the Power of the Spirit.” After all, the church is continuing the ministry of Jesus. So Luke not only has a historical purpose behind his writing efforts but also ministry purposes.
Additionally, Luke’s second volume appears to have a political purpose. He seems concerned about the Roman attitude toward Christianity. Luke, then, plays the peacemaker. He illustrates that Christianity is militarily harmless by showing that some of the Roman officials, such as Cornelius, became Christians; that Christians were legally innocent (the Romans could find no fault in Jesus or in the apostles); and that Christianity was lawful (it was not a new religion but a fulfillment of Judaism).
Finally, Luke clearly has an evangelistic emphasis. He not only writes about the good news and Christ’s converting power, but he also includes some twenty sermons in Acts, which occupy around one-fourth of the book! Luke surely wanted to win his readers to Christ, and he also underscores the centrality of proclamation in world evangelization. The Christian faith, our faith, is a heraldic faith. Luke shows what led to the explosive growth of Christianity: gospel proclamation.
Luke refers to Jesus in each of the opening eleven verses. This is a fitting opening, for Luke is preparing us to see how Jesus’s ministry continues through the church.
Luke reminds us that Jesus’s ministry involves both words and deeds. He refers to all that Jesus began to both “do” and “teach” (1:1). During his earthly lifetime Jesus taught the disciples, and then after his resurrection the risen Christ taught the disciples about the kingdom of God for forty days. What a magnificent forty-day Bible conference that must have been!
In verses 7-8 Jesus responds to a question about whether he will restore Israel. He essentially tells the disciples, “That’s none of your business” (v. 7), and then proceeds to tell them, “This is your business,” as he issues to them the mission of bearing witness to him throughout the world (v. 8).
Jesus was all about teaching and doing. Jesus’s deeds illustrated his words, and his words explained his deeds. He left the church with the same ministry, intending that we let others see our good deeds that glorify the Father (Matt 5:16) and helping others understand the good news that leads to eternal life.
The words and works of Jesus go together. In the Gospels we see Jesus performing various merciful and miraculous deeds. We also see him teaching with astonishing authority. Similarly, in the book of Acts, we see the church caring for physical needs (e.g., 3:1-10) while also relentlessly preaching the good news (e.g., 3:20) with the Spirit’s help. In Romans Paul reflected on his own ministry passion, the Christ-empowered ministry of word and deed among the nations (Rom 15:18-19).
Many things do not belong together. I recently drove by one of those strange places that has two fast-food chains in the same building; they have side-by-side kitchens but divergent menus. The scents wafting from the partnering kitchens combined to form one terrible stink. These two restaurants should never have been joined. The ministry of deeds and words, on the other hand, go together. And when done by the power of the Spirit for the good of others and the glory of the King, they produce a pleasing aroma of worship to God.
The ministry of Jesus is continuing in the book of Acts. But are we faithfully taking part in this mission?
The ascension of Jesus is in some ways like Elijah passing off the mantle to Elisha. The disciples had been with the greater Elijah, and now Jesus was giving them the privilege and responsibility of doing his work and proclaiming his Word after his home going.
Importantly, this mighty ascension of Jesus was preceded by a transitional period of forty days. We know from the Gospels and from 1 Corinthians 15 that he appeared to more than five hundred people after he rose from the dead. They saw him, touched him, and learned from him; they knew he had truly been resurrected. The ministry of Jesus continues, in fact, because Jesus really is alive!
Christ’s ascension also included an exaltation. In verses 2 and 11 we read that Jesus was “taken up.” Verse 9 says, “A cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). This cloud reminds us of Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man (Dan 7), of Jesus’s transfiguration (Matt 17), and of the exodus cloud (Exod 13). The whole sight is one of magnificent glory. This glorious exaltation demonstrated Jesus’s promotion from earth to heaven, and it prefigured the manner of his return—visible, glorious, and climactic.
Some of the early church fathers viewed Psalm 24 as being ultimately fulfilled in the ascension of the totally righteous Lord Jesus and his entrance into heaven. The psalmist says,
Lift up your heads, you gates!
Rise up, ancient doors!
Then the King of glory will come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates!
Rise up, ancient doors!
Then the King of glory will come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord of Armies,
he is the King of glory. (Ps 24:7-10)
If this was the heavenly reaction to Jesus’s ascension, how did the disciples react to it on earth? With bewilderment. Like children watching a floating balloon drifting skyward, the disciples were enamored with the sight. But soon just thinking about the glorious scene filled them with worship and joy (Luke 24:52), and they returned to Jerusalem in obedience to Jesus’s words. Our response to the ascended King should mirror theirs: we should joyfully worship and obey him.
The risen King’s ministry continues because the King is not dead. It continues because we have his Spirit and his Word. It continues because the kingdom of God is here, and it is still advancing through his Spirit-empowered witnesses.
Acts outlines how Jesus advances his Word among the nations, and the plan is summarized in 1:8. In chapters 1–7 the Lord’s Word spreads throughout Jerusalem. In 8–12 the Lord’s Word spreads in Judea and Samaria. In 13–20 the Lord’s Word spreads to the ends of the earth (in Asia and Greece). And in chapters 21–28 the Lord’s Word spreads throughout Rome.
In verse 7 the disciples demonstrated a particular interest in and misunderstanding about the restoration of Israel. Jesus directs them to the global nature of his kingdom and to their part in the mission as he calls them to be his witnesses. The disciples were too limited in their thinking. So Jesus rocks their world as he tells them that the plan is for them to cross not just geographical barriers but cultural barriers as well. Jesus blows up any triumphalistic ideas they have as he calls them his witnesses—or more literally, his martyrs. The way of the kingdom is one of suffering before glory.
These believers were to proclaim the person and work of the risen Christ (Luke 24:44-49) as taught by Jesus and foretold in the Old Testament. They were to proclaim how Christ accomplished the ancient prophecy of crushing the head of the serpent, Satan, providing a way for sinners to be reconciled with the Father. Importantly, we as modern disciples of Jesus participate in enjoying this message of life with the first disciples. But they were witnesses in another sense: they actually saw Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 10:39; 22:15). While we do not enjoy this privilege, we are the recipients of eyewitness testimony that comes to us in the form of the writings of the disciples. Now, like them, we have the privilege of bearing witness about the good news of the Messiah to everyone. Let us consider five aspects of a witness.
One of the great gifts of Pentecost is that all believers can now speak for God (2:14-21). In a sense all believers are prophets. No believer is a mere fan but a player! The apostles certainly led the church, but the gospel advanced largely through the words and deeds of unordained and uneducated people—informal missionaries. The church today, in fact, desperately needs to recover this practice. The only difference in a believer sitting in his or her American home and a foreign missionary on the field is location, not identity. Every Christian is a missionary. And so each of us should ask, Where do I serve? To whom do I minister?
To follow the Lamb involves suffering. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus told the disciples they would suffer (e.g., Luke 21:10-19; John 15:18-27). In the book of Acts, we find that they indeed did suffer. Crossing cultural barriers and standing up in the face of opposition requires sacrifice. First we see that there was an escalation of persecution in Jerusalem; it moved from threats to floggings to martyrdom. A theme of suffering continues through the rest of the book, and it continues into our day as the evil one rages against the church (Rev 12). Even this, however, is part of God’s ordained means of advancing the gospel—dedicated believers share his truth wherever they go, in spite of what they encounter. The gospel never triumphs apart from some measure of sacrifice. Someone has to sacrifice (and sometimes die) so that others may live.
Fortunately, we are not on our own in the mission Jesus assigned us, for Luke reminds us once again of the Spirit’s power (cf. Luke 24:49). We must, in fact, be clothed with power to be faithful witnesses. Having received essential teaching, the disciples would eventually be given the essential power required in witnesses of Jesus. The ordinary people of God, equipped with the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, dedicated to the Son of God, can accomplish the mission of God. Sharing the right message is only half the matter. We must also be personally reliant on the Spirit of God.
We see two marks of the Spirit’s work in the disciples: boldness and the magnification of Jesus. References to Spirit-empowered boldness appear through the book (e.g., 4:29; 28:31). This is how Peter could stand at Pentecost and preach so courageously after cowering in the presence of a little girl just weeks earlier. Further, we are reminded that the Spirit purposes to glorify Christ (John 16:14). Peter has a spotlight ministry that always focuses attention on Jesus. This is a great reminder that when people are living a Spirit-empowered life, their thoughts and words will be centered on Christ, not self (see Acts 4:20).
Christians have no tribal deity. We have a Savior who loves and died for the nations! That means that we must relinquish any prejudices that keep us from sharing him faithfully. We must repent of any ethnocentrism or unconcern for unreached peoples. Jesus sent ordinary people to the nations, just as he sends us.
A zeal for the kingdom comes only when we have a passion for the King. As these disciples gazed into heaven in astonishment of Jesus’s glory, and as they later received Jesus’s promise of the Spirit’s power, they were enamored with Jesus. And we should have a similar attitude toward him. Because to phrase things negatively, little love for the King produces little zeal for the King’s mission.
May the Spirit deepen our love for this global Savior as we seek to understand and apply the message of Acts. Let us pray for Spirit-empowered boldness, for a love for all the diverse people groups around the world, and ultimately for hearts enthralled with the King of kings.