Today we begin a new series through the Book of Acts. This book is especially significant for me. It was the first book I studied in depth as a new Christian. It was the book God used to speak to me as I was graduating university and wondering where he was leading my life. I’ve taught the book of Acts a number of times here at the church and have seen how it is transformative as we find our place in God’s mission.
Why Read Acts? Many different people have different reasons for why they might study Acts
- Personal devotion
- Interest in the history of the early church
- To learn how the early church was established and expanded into far regions
- Church polity
- Spiritual Gifts
The question we need to start with is not what is our purpose for studying the book, but what is the Holy Spirit trying to say to us through the book. What’ is the Holy Spirit telling us about God here? About Jesus here? About ourselves here? We get some clues here in this first chapter:
Acts 1:1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
Acts 1:4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazintg into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
We see right away in verse one, that Acts is a unique book because it is the second book that Luke is writing to this man, Theophilus. The first book book “dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach”; Luke is here referring the Gospel of Luke. And when we look the opening of the Gospel of the Luke, we do see that it opens in much the same way,
Luke 1:1: Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
And so our first hint is that there is something about the story of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus, that was not completely told in Luke’s Gospel. The other gospel writers wrote their accounts of the life, death, burial resurrection and ascension of Jesus and left it at that, but it appears that the Holy Spirit directed Luke to go on and write another volume, to be read with the gospel, not that we should ever leave the gospel behind, but that there are always implications of the gospel that at times need to be spelled out. Both the gospel and its implications must be preached in the the churches in order for us to be shaped as Christians. This is the full counsel of God. These are not at odds with one another. In the first book, Luke writes about what Jesus began to do and to teach during his ministry on earth, and he in Acts Luke writes about what Jesus continues to do and to teach the church, through the apostles He chose and commanded.
Which brings us to our second hint: Theophilus himself. Now you might hear someone say that the Bible is written as a love letter to you. That’s not exactly true. The bible was not written to individuals, but generally, the books of the Bible are written to churches, to be read in community. But Theophilus can say, at least these parts of the bible were written to me. Who is Theophilus?
- He is a Christian. His name means lover of God. he has been discipled.
- He is likely a noble. Luke calls him, “most excellent Theophilus” He must be pretty important for Luke to write two extremely long letters to him. It is possible that he holds considerable position within the Roman government. In chapters 23-26 of Acts, the governor Felix is address in the same way. He is a Roman. Roman name. Most likely some high official in Rome.
- Though he has been taught the Christian faith, he needs for assurance about the Christian faith. Luke 1:4 “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
So the book is written to a Roman Christian of some nobility, likely young in his faith who needs assurance about the things he’s been taught. Can we get more specific? I believe we can. Many have noted the importance of Acts 1:8 as a key to unlocking the message of the book.You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. This forms an overview of the book - the gospel starts in Jerusalem, travels through Judea and Samaria, and then, if not to the ends of the earth, to Rome, the centre of the Roman world - where Theophilus lives.
So, Perhaps the question Luke is answering is “how did the gospel come to me?” - this is what i focused on perhaps the first 5-6 times i taught the book of Acts. However, as I’ve taught this book multiple times, but also as I have pastored here at OCBC, I’ve begun to see that look is not so much interested at the geographical movement of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, but the ethnic movement: from Jerusalem (“the genre of the Jewish world”) to Rome (“the centre of the Gentile world”). To Luke “Geography is theology”. Not just geography, tearing down cultural barriers and inclusion into the church. So Theophilus’s question is not just informational, (“how did the gospel get to me?” it’s more powerfully personal “Is the Gospel for People Like Me?” The Book of Acts is Luke’s apologetic that Yes, the gospel is for all people!
- Because All Are Sinners
- Because Christ died for the sins of all types of people
- Because Christ is calling a people to Himself from every nation, language, and tribe.
Not just how did the gospel get to Theophilus, but how does the gospel still get to people? Now that will be unpacked the rest of the book. But I want you to notice some things here to start.
Jesus does it “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” The books of Luke and Acts have one central theme: Jesus’ mission to bring the world to the cross and the cross to the world. Jesus started in the world and advanced toward the cross, then he, by the Spirit, chose apostles and commanded them to take the message of the cross to the world. The book of Acts is a continuation of his ministry. Throughout the book, Jesus is present in the church: not just in the preaching of the church, bot just supplying the power to heal, but visibly revealing himself to Stephen as he is being martyred, or the apostle Paul at his conversion. Jesus so identifies with his church that when his people are persecuted, He himself is persecuted. So the book of Acts is the Acts of Jesus.
We do it. “You Will Be My Witnesses” Let’s put ourselves where they are. In their eyes, it must look as if Jesus has fulfilled his mission. The question must have been on all of their minds, it just took one of them to ask it: when was Jesus going to set up the kingdom he had been talking about and which they had been waiting for? After all, He was the one who was supposed to change the world right? He was the Messiah they had long been waiting for. He had demonstrated with “many convincing proofs” that death itself could not stop him! Surely it was time for him to take his rightful place as king over all.
Yet Jesus’ answer must have astounded his followers. He is not going to set up his kingdom. He is going back to the Father. The burden of the carrying out the mission to change the world is being placed on weaker shoulders. Theirs.
But also ours. At the end of the book- gospel is in Rome, yes, and Paul, though he has freedom to preach to any who come to him, is under house arrest awaiting his trial. that’s a weird ending if you remember Acts 1:8 - the gospel has gotten to the centre of the world, but not “to all the ends of the earth”.
The Holy Spirit does it: he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
They were to stay in Jerusalem until they received the promise of the father, the baptism of the Spirit. What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Jesus contrasts it to John’s baptism, which was a one time act of repentance. In the book of Acts, it happens once at Pentecost, the first preaching of the gospel to the Jews. It happens in Acts 8 when the Gospel goes to the Samaritans who were half Jewish, it happens in Acts 10 when the Gospel is preached to the Gentiles for the first time. And it happens in Acts 19 when the Gospel is preached to John’s disciples who had not even heard of the holy Spirit. Sometimes it happens with the conduction of laying on of hands, sometimes it happened spontaneously as the apostles preached, sometimes it happened at a water baptism.
After receiving the Holy Spirit the disciples were given their mission: to be Christ’s witnesses. They needed the Holy Spirit to be empowered for ministry. In Luke and Acts, being filled with the Holy Spirit is always accompanied by prophesying or speaking boldly about he gospel. When Mary saw Elizabeth. Zechariah at John’s birth prophesied of the messiah. The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon when he met his Lord at the Temple.
After Jesus left, the apostles just stared into heaven, dumbfounded by what had just happened. An angel had to snap them back to the reality that they had things to do before Jesus would return. Do you ever feel that the church is just sitting around waiting for Jesus to come back and not really fulfilling its mission to change the world? How much do we fail to experience the Holy Spirit’s power because we are not active in God’s mission?
If we are of the same faith of the apostles, the same Holy Spirit that emboldened and empowered them for ministry is in us.
Acts 1:12-14 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying,14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer
Ultimately, my prayer for reading Acts together with you is that we would stop looking up at the sky looking for Jesus, but return once again to that place in which we are calling out to the Holy Spirit to fill us, use us, transform us, and empower us, and in doing so that we would see Christ continue his work among us to the glory of God the Father.
That’s why we read and study the book of Acts: to join the ongoing work of Jesus Christ through His Spirit-empowered Church to redeem a people for God from every nation
I hate playing church. I want to fall in love with Jesus and see this city changed for Christ and people coming to know the Lord, and the Holy Spirit move powerfully. It is in this book that we come to understand the mission of God. Where do you see yourself in this mission? Is the message of the gospel still on its way to you? Are you staring up into heaven waiting for Jesus to do something? Are you praying for revival of a gospel movement in you and through us? Are you filled with the spirit of boldness and participating in the ongoing ministry of Christ?