I remember receiving a phone call from a new believer in Jesus. After he came to faith, he developed an appetite for the Word of God. He began at the Gospel of Matthew and began working his way through the New Testament. When he had a question, he would call me or someone else for an answer. I was not surprised when he called one day, but I must admit that I was a bit concerned. My friend was about to make a confession, and I was not sure I wanted to hear it. Was there a serious moral failure, a relapse back into some former sin? I was about to find out.
My friend continued, “I read the Gospel of Matthew, and then Mark and Luke, but I was so eager to get to Acts, I skipped John.” I assured my friend that this was not a serious problem. I would wish that each of us were as eager as my friend to immerse ourselves in this great book of the New Testament. In this introductory lesson, I will attempt to point out some of the unique contributions of this book, and thus to motivate you to commit yourself to a serious and consistent study of Acts in these next few months.
Most of you are probably aware of the fact that the Book of Acts is the second of two volumes, the first of which is the Gospel of Luke:
1 Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. 3 So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know for certain the things you were taught (Luke 1:1-4).2
The Book of Acts simply continues the account where the Gospel of Luke left off:
1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3).
By the second century, Luke was recognized as the author of both Luke and Acts. No serious challenge to this conclusion has been made. Luke is named three times in the New Testament, and from these references, we learn something about him.
Our dear friend Luke the physician and Demas greet you (Colossians 4:14).
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. 24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my colaborers, greet you too (Philemon 1:23-24).
From these two texts, we learn that Luke was a physician and that he was a fellow-laborer with Paul. From the Book of Acts, we learn that Luke accompanied Paul on some of his journeys. This is evident by the so-called“we”passages in Acts (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16).
In Acts 16, we can see that Luke must have joined Paul and his other co-workers in Troas. This would mean that he was present when Paul received his Macedonian vision. Luke thus accompanied Paul and the others to Philippi. He was also with Paul in Troas, when the church gathered and Eutychus fell from the window and was taken up dead. Was it Dr. Luke who pronounced this young man dead, making his healing even more emphatic? We find Luke with Paul as he was in Caesarea, on his way to Jerusalem. Luke would have heard the ominous prophecy of Agabus, warning Paul of what awaited him in Jerusalem. Did he agree with those who urged Paul not to go? Finally, we find Luke with Paul on his journey to Rome. He was there with Paul when their ship was broken up on the rocks. He witnessed Paul’s miraculous deliverance from the snake bite and the healing of the father of Publius.
We assume from the final chapters of Acts what Paul makes absolutely clear in his final epistle:
10 For Demas deserted me, since he loved the present age, and he went to Thessalonica. Crescens went to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is a great help to me in ministry (2 Timothy 4:10-11, emphasis mine).
Luke was not only Paul’s companion and coworker in ministry; Luke was a man who faithfully stood with Paul to the end. I can respect what a man like this writes, inspired by the Spirit of God.
Some of you will recognize that I have written on the Book of Acts before.3In this earlier effort, I outlined a number of reasons why the Book of Acts is important. This time, I would like to approach this matter from a slightly different perspective. I would like to suggest what it would be like if there were no Book of Acts. What would it be like without the Book of Acts?
First of all, our Bibles would be smaller. When combined with Luke’s first volume, his two accounts – Luke and Acts – take up over one-fourth of the real estate of the New Testament. If the importance of a subject is indicated by how much space is devoted to it (I call this the “law of proportion”), then Luke’s writings must be significant.
Second, the absence of the Book of Acts would diminish the contribution of the remaining New Testament epistles.There would be a significant historical gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the New Testament epistles. How would we know why the church at Corinth suddenly appears as the recipient of two preserved epistles? Where did this church come from? It is the Book of Acts that provides this information.
These words of Peter would have little impact on us, apart from the Book of Acts:
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker (1 Peter 4:12-15).
The Gospels do not leave us with a very positive impression of Peter. He denied his Lord three times rather than risk dying with Him. But when we read the Book of Acts, we find a transformed Peter. He now stands before some of the same people who orchestrated our Lord’s crucifixion and says,
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power. . . . 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:22-24, 36).
13 “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a man who was a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses!” (Acts 3:13-15)
When commanded not to teach in the name of Jesus, Peter responded,
29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).
It is the Book of Acts that certifies Peter as a man who is qualified to speak on the subject of suffering for the name of Jesus. Thanks to Acts, Peter’s exhortations carry much more weight than if Acts had not been written.
Beyond Peter and his epistles, the situation is even more dramatic with Paul and his writings. Paul was a man well known by the Christian community – as a persecutor of the church:
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias,” and he replied, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 Then the Lord told him, “Get up and go to the street called ‘Straight,’ and at Judas’ house look for a man from Tarsus named Saul. For he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and place his hands on him so that he may see again.” 13 ButAnanias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call on your name!”(Acts 9:10-14, emphasis mine)
When Paul writes, he writes with the full authority of an apostle:
From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother (1 Corinthians 1:1).
1 Am I not free?Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you, for you are the confirming sign of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Corinthians 9:1-5, emphasis mine)
37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge thatwhat I write to you is the Lord’s command(1 Corinthians 14:37, emphasis mine).
For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher (2 Timothy 1:11).
For I consider myself not at all inferior to those “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5).
11 I have become a fool. You yourselves forced me to do it, for I should have been commended by you. For I lack nothing in comparison to those “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).
Apart from the Book of Acts, how would we know and heed Paul’s instructions as those of a true apostle? In Acts, we have three accounts of his conversion and commissioning (Acts 9, 22, 26). We see not only his desire to associate with the saints, but also his willingness to suffer as a Christian. It is the Book of Acts that certifies Paul as a true apostle to the readers of the New Testament. We might dare say that it is in the Book of Acts that Paul “earns his stripes” (literally) as an apostle of Jesus Christ. And so it is that we can read:
From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body (Galatians 6:17).
The theological issues addressed in the epistles would be without background or context, except for the fact that Acts describes the origin of some of these problems. Let me simply list some of the issues the church faced in New Testament times (many of which persist as potential problems today):
The relationship of the Old Testament to the New4
The explanation of how the ethnic makeup of the church is more Gentile than it is Jewish5
The relationship between Israel and the church6
The relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in the church7
The relationship between Gentile saints and Judaism (do you have to be Jewish to be Christian?)8
The influence of Judaisers or Jewish heresies in the church
The roots of many of these problems can be found in the Book of Acts, so Acts helps us to understand the problems that are addressed in the epistles.
Without the Book of Acts, we would be hard pressed to find an example of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. Think of the many rich sermons we find preached by the apostles:
Acts 2:14-36Peter’s powerful sermon at Pentecost
Acts 3-4Peter’s preaching (as a result of the healing of the lame man)
Acts 7Stephen’s powerful sermon, which sums up the Old Testament in terms of Jewish unbelief
Acts 10Peter’s gospel message at the home of Cornelius
Acts 13:13-41Paul’s sermon at (Pisidian) Antioch
Acts 17:16-31Paul’s preaching at Athens
Acts 20:17-34Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders
Acts 26Paul’s appeal to Agrippa
The examples of the “apostolic preaching of the cross” are found in the Book of Acts and virtually nowhere else (at least in the form of a preached sermon).
I would like to suggest some “mental hooks” which may help you think through the message of the Book of Acts. These appear to be some of the key themes of the Book of Acts, which are intertwined throughout the book.
Many changes are documented as one reads through the Book of Acts. Consider the following areas of transition:
There is the transition from a primarily Jewish church in Jerusalem to predominantly Gentile churches elsewhere.Initially, the church in Jerusalem was almost exclusively Jewish (with perhaps some proselytes as well). This was not entirely coincidental, for in time it became evident that the Jewish believers (which appears to include the apostles) were opposed to evangelism among the Gentiles. We see this in their response to the salvation of those at the home of Cornelius, when Peter preached the gospel to them:
1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:1-3).
It might appear that their only concern was that Peter (along with those Jews who accompanied him) had defiled himself by eating with these Gentiles, but this can hardly be the case. Notice their response after Peter explained how all this had come to pass:
18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18).
Now notice the following verse:
19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews (Acts 11:19).
It was not the apostles who were at the forefront of Gentile evangelism; it was an unnamed, unknown (to the Jerusalem Jewish believers, it would seem) group of Hellenistic Jewish believers who spread the gospel to the Gentiles. They didn’t seem to grasp the fact that this was frowned upon by the Jerusalem Jewish brethren, or they simply refused to abide by such narrow thinking. There is absolutely no question but what unbelieving Jews adamantly opposed taking the gospel to the Gentiles.9In spite of these obstacles, the gospel was taken to the Gentiles, and thus more and more predominantly Gentile churches were planted. It was Paul’s practice to take the gospel“to the Jew first,”but when this message was rejected, Paul turned to the Gentiles (see Acts 18:5-7).
There is also the transition from opposition by the Pharisees in the Gospels to opposition that is led by the Pharisees in Acts. When comparing the frequency in which the terms “Pharisees” and “Sadducees” (singular or plural) occur in Luke and Acts, one can see an indication of the transition from Pharisee-inspired resistance to the gospel in the Gospels to Sadducee-initiated resistance in Acts.10It is not really difficult to understand how this change came to pass. The Pharisees opposed Jesus because He claimed to be God, and because they considered Him to be a law-breaker – particularly a Sabbath-breaker. They probably were motivated to oppose Him because He was so critical of them:
20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Matthew 23 contains an even more strident denouncement of the Pharisees, because of their hypocrisy. It is no wonder they opposed Jesus.
Jesus made it very clear that He would rise from the dead, as the great and final sign proving the validity of His claim to be Messiah:
38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:38-40).
The Pharisees were very aware of His claim that He would rise from the dead, which is why they took such efforts to secure His tomb:
62 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “Take a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the soldiers of the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
The resurrection seems to have “taken the wind out of the sails” of the Pharisees. They are strangely silent in Acts (compared to the Gospels), and in fact, some Pharisees appear to be very cautious about condemning the apostles:
33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.” He convinced them, 40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:33-40, emphasis mine).
Here Gamaliel, a prominent Pharisee, cautioned the Sanhedrin about opposing the apostles. Later on, the Pharisees somewhat come to Paul’s defense when the Sanhedrin meets once again, this time to try Paul on charges of defiling the temple:
6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, andsome experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9, emphasis mine)
Thus, it is the Sadducees who take up the cause of opposing the gospel and the apostles in Acts:
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the temple guard andthe Sadducees came up to them(Acts 4:1, emphasis mine).
Likewise, there is a transition from an emphasis on the “kingdom of God” in the Gospels and early Acts to “the church.”The expression,“the Kingdom of God”is found 31 times in Luke and a total of 49 times in all the Gospels combined. It is found only six times in the Book of Acts and eight times in the rest of the New Testament. On the other hand, the term“church”occurs only twice in the Gospels, both times in Matthew (16:18; 18:17), while it is found 19 times in Acts, and 88 times in the epistles. One is therefore obliged to explain this transition. It is probably best to turn to Romans 9-11 for this explanation.
There is yet another transition from Peter and the Jerusalem apostles in the first half of Acts to “Paul and his companions” from chapter 13 on. It seems apparent that while Peter is dominant in the first half of Acts, he is overshadowed by Paul in the last half of the book.
There are geographical transitions as well in the Book of Acts.It has been noted by many that Acts 1:8 provides an excellent geographical outline of the Book of Acts:
“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 farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The events of chapters 1-7 take place in Jerusalem and Judea. Samaria is reached with the gospel in chapter 8, and from there it goes to“the farthest parts of the earth,”ending in Rome (chapter 28).
Acts contains some of the landmark decisions of the early church, the implications of which are great. These decisions are to the church what certain Supreme Court rulings (like Roe v. Wade) have been to our country, for good or evil.
The first decision came reluctantly, when the apostles reluctantly acknowledged that the gospel was for the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. This entailed a recognition that our Lord had set aside the Jewish food laws of the Old Testament (see Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-16; 11:4-12). As we learn from Galatians 2:11-14, Peter had to be reminded of this fact.
We recently had a very practical object lesson regarding the way these food laws separate Jews and Gentiles. This past week, several from our church went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to assist Hurricane Katrina flood victims by serving (good!) food to the emergency medical personnel who were risking their lives in the rescue efforts, particularly in New Orleans. We would serve up to 200 people or more, so you can imagine the impact of a few who observed the Jewish food laws. They required not only different food, but they could use only certain cooking utensils, and the end result was that they cooked for themselves separately. In no way do I wish to demean these devout folks for observing the rules of their faith; I simply wish to show how doing so separates folks. Having this experience helped me appreciate the magnitude of the revelation that foods should no longer keep Jewish believers from sharing their faith with Gentiles.
A second watershed decision was that of the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15. The decision that the gospel should go to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews, was reached in Acts 10 and 11. In Acts 15, the question arose as to just what would be required of Gentile converts to the faith. Some insisted that while the Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus as the Messiah, they must submit themselves to the Law of Moses. In effect, in order to be saved, one must also become a Jewish proselyte. Paul and Barnabas strongly opposed this requirement, and thus the Jerusalem Council was convened. The end result was the decision that Gentile converts did not need to submit themselves to Jewish laws, but needed to observe a handful of prohibitions that would minimize offense to Jewish believers. The implications of this decision were monumental, and the epistles will take this matter up in much greater detail.
Another theme we find in the Book of Acts is that of fulfillment. There is, of course, the element of fulfillment in that Old Testament texts and promises are fulfilled in the Book of Acts. Peter views the death of Judas as a fulfillment of Psalm 69:25. Further, he believes that Psalm 109:8 will be fulfilled when they identify someone who will replace Judas (see Acts 1:15-26). Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is punctuated with Old Testament texts, which have been fulfilled in the Pentecost experience and in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. Later, in Acts 4, the saints in Jerusalem understand their persecution in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly Psalm 2. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is a concise survey of Old Testament history, with emphasis on Jewish resistance and rejection of God’s leaders and leadership. Paul’s preaching also includes the element of fulfillment of the Old Testament (see Acts 13:41).
There is yet another aspect of fulfillment in Acts, and that is the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the Gospels. For example, we find the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises in John 14-16 regarding the coming and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Luke also records our Lord’s instruction to wait for that which the Father promised (Luke 24:49). We find the beginnings of the fulfillment of the Great Commission (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20). We see Peter’s leadership as the fulfillment of our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:16-19. We can also find the first fruits of our Lord’s warning to Israel that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to another people (Matthew 21:43), and of our Lord’s forewarning of coming persecution (John 15:18-21). We see examples of our Lord’s promise of a Spirit-inspired response to unjust charges (Matthew 10:16-20).
These words are difficult to grasp when reading John’s Gospel:
12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing,and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14:12, emphasis mine).
But as we read through the Book of Acts, we can see what a great impact the gospel had on many Jews and even more Gentiles, because of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in and through the apostles.
It is fervent and persistent prayer in Acts 1 that precedes the coming of the Spirit in power in Acts 2. Reference to prayer is found 31 times in the Book of Acts,11more than any other New Testament book. Prayer precedes nearly every significant event in Acts. The lame man was healed as Peter and John made their way to the temple for prayer (Acts 3:1f.). The church’s prayer for boldness was dramatically answered (Acts 4:23-31). The apostles prayed and then laid hands on the seven“deacons”12they appointed to oversee the feeding of the widows, so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6). Who can forget Stephen’s prayer, as he was dying:
59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died (Acts 7:59-60).
I believe that the conversion of Saul was an answer to this prayer.
Prayer played a significant part in the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul as the first missionaries from the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-4). Paul and those with him encountered Lydia at a place of prayer in Philippi, and thus she was the first recorded convert in Macedonia (Acts 16:13). Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise just before the earthquake released them and paved the way for the conversion of the Philippian jailor and his family (Acts 16:22-34). In the Book of Acts, when God’s people were moved to prayer, God did great and mighty works.
I have to admit that I did not recognize the sovereignty of God as a dominant theme in Acts the first time I taught through the book. But the more I study Acts, the more I see that this is not the account of apostles and early saints who did everything right, thus prompting God to act. Indeed, Acts presents flawed saints, through whom a sovereign God worked, often in spite of human failures. And even when the apostles seemed to “do it right,” God chose to carry out His purposes in a different or somewhat modified way. Let me seek to illustrate what I mean.
In Acts 1, Peter and those with him are prompted to fill Judas’ place as an apostle, and as a witness of our Lord’s resurrection. The process appears to be a godly one. They are prompted by Old Testament prophecies from the Book of Psalms. They take action after prayer and discussion, when unity regarding their actions has been reached. They nominate two men and leave the final selection to God. What was done seems to be biblical and necessary. And yet we never hear of Matthias again (by name). He appears to play no significant role in the church. But then in chapter 8, we are introduced to Saul, who is converted in chapter 9. Saul, who becomes Paul in chapter 13, becomes not only an apostle, but the driving force behind the evangelization of the Gentiles. The choice made by the apostles in Acts 1 appears to be overruled by God. He will appoint His apostles His way. We shall explore more about this in our next lesson in this series.
In Acts 6, we read of the appointment of the seven deacons, who are put in charge of the care and feeding of the widows in Jerusalem. The problem was a serious one, threatening the unity of the church. The solution that the apostles proposed appeared to be a wise thing to do. Highly qualified men (who all appear to be Hellenistic Jews) were selected and brought before the apostles, who commissioned them for this task. The inference of the text is that the apostles appointed these seven men so that they, the apostles, could pray and preach – in other words, so that they could take the lead in evangelizing the lost. The simple fact of the matter is that it was two of these“deacons”who became the frontrunners of evangelism, especially among those in Samaria and among the Gentiles. Stephen became a powerful preacher (Acts 6:10), whose death precipitated such persecution that all the saints (except the apostles) had to flee Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-2), and thus take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). Philip was sent to Samaria and was instrumental in the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:4ff.). And so it is that those who were appointed by the apostles to care for the widowsso that the apostles could minister the word of Godbecame more effective in their evangelistic ministry than the apostles they were to assist.
The “Great Commission” of Acts 1:8 is not carried out purposefully by the apostles who were given the commission, but it is carried out providentially by the persecution of Acts 8:1. What the apostles didn’t initiate, God Himself initiated through the death of Stephen and the persecution of the church.
The sovereignty of God is also evident in the Book of Acts by the way He bestows His Spirit. Acts illustrates what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12:
It is one and the same Spirit,distributing as he decidesto each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:11, emphasis mine).
There is no simple “pattern” set down in Acts by which we receive the Spirit as the church did at Pentecost. There is no formula that Christians can “plug in” in order to get what they desire. God is sovereign, and He acts in sovereign freedom, as He wills. Even when the church appears to “do it right,” God retains the right to do it His way, just so that men will recognize it is all of Him, and not of us. He is the potter; we are the clay. That is the way it is supposed to be.
Before I close, I would like to suggest several “grids,” or ways of thinking through the Book of Acts. There is, first of all, the geographical grid, which is set out at the beginning of the book:
“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 farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I have already mentioned this, but we can see that the Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome,“the remotest part of the earth”from a Jewish point of view. We can thus see that our Lord’s Great Commission in Acts 1:8 is sovereignly accomplished in Acts, but in a very different way than anyone would have imagined.
Another grid would be to think of the Book of Acts in terms of its leading personalities. The Book begins with Peter in the lead, along with John and their fellow apostles. But midway into Acts, we find that Paul has become the dominant personality in Acts, accompanied by his associates in ministry.
While the Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem with a predominantly Jewish church, it ends in Rome with a predominantly Gentile population. The book begins with the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the offer of the kingdom, and it ends with the rejection of the Jews in Rome and the refocusing of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.
I would suggest one final approach to the Book of Acts. I believe that Acts is the repetition of the ministry of our Lord, accompanied by the repetition of the response of Judaism’s leadership to Jesus, as seen in the persecution of the apostles, the early church, and especially Paul. Just as Jesus“set His face toward Jerusalem”(Luke 9:51, ESV, KJV, NKJV), so also Paul determined to go to Jerusalem, knowing what awaited him there (see Acts 21:10-14).
I hope these observations will convince you of the importance and relevance of the Book of Acts. While we have four Gospels and numerous epistles, we have only this divinely-inspired account of the birth of the church and of the ministry of the apostles. May God give you an appetite, a hunger, for this book. And may we come to grasp more fully the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church (collectively), and in our lives (individually).
1Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in theStudies in the Book of Actsseries prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 18, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than 20 biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:www.netbible.org.
4See for example 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, the entire Book of Hebrews.
5See Romans 9-11.
6See Romans 9-11; Ephesians 2 and 3.
7See Romans 14-15.
8See 1 Timothy 1:7; Titus 1:10-14; 2 Corinthians 11, especially verse 22; Philippians 3; Revelation 3:9.
9This is evident in texts like Luke 4:16-30 and Acts 22:20-22.
10In Luke’s Gospel, the term“Pharisee”is found (singular and plural) 26 times. In Acts, this same term occurs only six times. In Luke,“Sadducees”is found once, while it occurs five times in Acts.
1131 times in the NET Bible; 30 times in ESV; 29 times in NASV.
12The noun form used to designate deacons is not found in this text, but a form of the same root is employed to describe their function.