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Lesson 1: The Church: Continuing What Jesus Began (Acts 1:1, 2)

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How do you launch a worldwide enterprise? In the last century, Coca-Cola did it. You can go just about anywhere in the world and buy a Coke. They are the world’s largest multi-national corporation. Right behind them is Microsoft. Last year when I was in Poland and Romania, I discovered that although the languages were different, their computers looked and worked just like mine, with the familiar Windows and Word screens.

The church is Jesus Christ’s worldwide “enterprise.” He prophesied that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). The Book of Acts tells us how His church began in Jerusalem and spread to the ends of the earth. It provides a vital link between the gospels and the New Testament epistles. How did the Christian faith that began with a few followers of Jesus in Israel spread to Rome and points beyond? How did an ardent Jew who was not even a believer become the apostle to the Gentiles? How did the early church, which was exclusively Jewish, begin to reach out to and incorporate the Gentiles? Without Acts, we would be hard pressed to answer these questions. While we have four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, there is only one Book of Acts.

The title, Acts of the Apostles, was probably added sometime in the second century, but it is a bit of a misnomer. “Acts” fits, since there is plenty of action. But “apostles” isn’t quite right, since the story does not tell of the deeds of most of the apostles, but primarily of Peter (chapters 1-12) and Paul (chapters 13-28). The book actually describes the acts of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in His servants.

Almost all Bible scholars agree that Luke was the author of Acts. He was a physician (Col. 4:14), and the only Gentile author of the Bible. An early writing, dated between A.D. 160-180, tells us that Luke was a Syrian from Antioch, a single man who accompanied Paul until his martyrdom, and who died himself at age 84 (cited by Simon Kistemaker, Acts [Baker], p. 20). Luke probably wrote Acts about A.D. 62-64, toward the end of Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, where the book leaves off. There is no mention of the intense persecution launched by Nero in A.D. 64, or of the martyrdom of Paul in about 68, and so Acts was probably written before these events.

The first verse of Acts links it with the introduction of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). Both volumes were written to an otherwise unknown man, Theophilus, who was probably a Roman official, to provide an accurate historical foundation for his faith in Jesus Christ. Together, Luke and Acts comprise about 30 percent of the New Testament, surpassing both the writings of Paul and John in size (Richard Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], p. 207).

Purpose: Why did Luke write Acts? Several theories are proposed, but probably his primary purpose was to provide an account of the beginnings of the Christian church in order to strengthen his readers’ faith and to give assurance that its foundation is firm (I. Howard Marshall, Acts [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 21). Perhaps a skeptic had tried to convince Theophilus that his faith was based on myths or legends. Luke wants to show through his gospel and Acts that the accounts were based on eyewitness testimony given by credible men who were not promoting it for personal gain. In fact, they proclaimed the message in the face of strong opposition and even death.

Luke also intended to explain how the church spread from Jerusalem to Rome, encompassing both Jews and Gentiles, in accord with God’s purpose. One key to understanding Acts is to see that it is a transitional book, showing how the worship of God moved from the Jewish temple, to the hesitant acceptance of Gentiles into the Jewish church, and finally to the Christian worship of predominately Gentile churches all over the Roman empire. Acts shows us how God went from working primarily with the Jews as a nation to working with the church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles on equal footing. In Matthew 21:43, Jesus had told the Jewish leaders, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.” Acts shows us the transition that lasted from the death of Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.

Acts records many miraculous signs that were given to prove to Israel that they had been wrong to reject Jesus as their Messiah and Lord. The main message that the apostles and others in Acts proclaimed centered on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which was the primary sign authenticating Jesus as the Christ, and on the offer of forgiveness of sins in His name. The apostles were given unusual miraculous power, authenticating them as God’s witnesses to Jesus Christ and His resurrection. While God obviously can and does work miracles today (after all, He is God!), to claim as some do that miracles should happen today with the same frequency as in Acts is to miss the transitional nature of the book. God had a special purpose for miracles, to authenticate the apostles within this transition period.

Themes: In addition to the transitional nature of Acts with miracles to authenticate the message and the messengers, and the central message of Christ and His resurrection from the dead, there are several other themes running throughout Acts:

         The sovereignty of God in the founding of the church and the spread of the gospel. Clearly, God is at work and nothing can stop what He intends to do.

         The power of the Holy Spirit, given to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

         The importance of prayer in the life of the church.

         The importance of preaching God’s Word. Acts contains numerous sermons and speeches, including eight by Peter, nine by Paul, one lengthy sermon by Stephen, and a shorter one by James. The addresses by Peter, Paul, and Stephen make up about 25 percent of the book (John Stott, The Message of Acts [IVP], p. 69).

         The importance of mission to all peoples. This outward thrust of the gospel is the main story line of Acts. Acts shows us how to do evangelism and missions.

         The reality of opposition and suffering in the spread of the gospel. Clearly, although God is sovereignly at work and nothing can stop what He is doing, His servants often suffer greatly, even unto death, in the cause.

         The life and organization of the church. Acts gives us glimpses of early church life that show us how the church dealt with problems as it grew.

Outline: A simple outline of Acts is contained in Acts 1:8:

  1. The witness in Jerusalem—primarily to Jews (1:1-8:3).
  2. The witness in Judea and Samaria—including the first Gentiles (8:4-11:18).
  3. The witness to the remotest parts of the earth—to the Jew first, but predominately to Gentiles (11:19-28:31).

With that as a brief introduction to the book, let’s look at the first two verses, which develop an important theme:

By the power of the Holy Spirit the church is obediently to continue to do and teach what Jesus began.

Luke’s words about his gospel, that it contained what Jesus began to do and teach, have the strong implication that His work is not done. He was taken up into heaven, but His work on earth did not cease. Rather, His body, the church, continues to do and teach what Jesus began. Jesus was God in human flesh, dwelling among us, showing us what the Father is like (John 1:14; 14:9-10). While Jesus was totally unique, perfect in all of His ways, we are given the daunting task of representing Jesus Christ to the world as His body. Ray Stedman makes the point that whether in the Gospels or in Acts, God uses incarnation—His life manifested through human life—as His strategy to change the world. The book of Acts, he says is the record “of men and women possessed by Jesus Christ and manifesting His life every day. Anytime you find a Christianity that is not doing this, it is a false Christianity” (Acts 1-12, Birth of the Body [Vision House], p. 14).

To understand what we are to do as His church, we must first understand what Jesus Christ began to do and teach:

1. Christ’s work was to bring salvation to a lost human race.

As I said, Jesus Christ was totally unique in all history, in that He alone was God dwelling in sinless human flesh. John makes this clear in the prologue of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Christ’s mission was to come to this earth to offer Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). When on the cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He had completed that work of redemption, offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. In all these matters, Jesus Christ was totally unique. No further offering for sin is needed. Christ is the sufficient sacrifice (Heb. 10:12).

Christ’s mission was to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus was always focused on the task of reconciling sinful men with the holy God. He did this through His life and deeds and through His teaching of God’s Word.

2. Christ’s work is to continue through His obedient church.

Before Jesus was taken up into heaven, He gave orders to His apostles. This can refer to all that He commanded them over the course of the three years that He taught them. But specifically it focuses on the final command, the Great Commission, to take the good news to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). As you read through the Book of Acts, it becomes obvious that the apostles and early church were not doing their own thing, formulating their own plans, and building their own empires. Rather, they were instruments through whom the Lord was working His purpose and plan.

When they choose a successor to Judas, it is the Lord who chooses (Acts 1:24). When Peter explains the phenomenon of tongues on the Day of Pentecost, he makes it clear that it was the risen Jesus who did it (2:33). When we read of the early church growing in number, it is stated, “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47). When Peter and John healed the man by the temple gate, they make it clear that it is not them, but Jesus Christ the Nazarene who healed him (3:6; 4:10). When Saul of Tarsus is converted, it is plain that the Lord sovereignly saved him and sent Ananias to open his eyes (Acts 9:1-19). And so it goes throughout the Book of Acts. Men are merely the instruments; it is the Lord who is at work through them.

This same truth can also be seen in the way that the narrative of Acts picks up and then drops various men according to the degree which they are for the moment the instruments of Christ’s power. If Acts had been written solely by Luke (apart from the Holy Spirit), do you think that he would have said nothing about the majority of the twelve apostles, or that he would have treated his main characters as he did? Peter, the most prominent apostle, slips out of the narrative without a word after chapter 15. James, another of the inner circle with Jesus, is mentioned only in the list in 1:13, and then in one verse when he is martyred (12:2). John, the other inner circle apostle, is only referred to in the first four chapters, once in chapter 8, and then in reference to his brother’s martyrdom, and he passes from the scene in Acts. Barnabas, who pioneers the first Gentile church in Antioch and who goes with Paul on the first missionary journey, slips into oblivion after chapter 15. Even the great apostle Paul, who dominates the last half of the book, is left in the final chapter in Rome in prison, with no account of his subsequent work or martyrdom. (For the above two paragraphs, I am indebted to Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Acts 1-12:17 [Baker], pp. 12-14.)

Students of the Book of Acts have puzzled over the somewhat abrupt ending. The narrative is sailing along, telling of Paul in prison in Rome, when suddenly it stops. The best explanation of this is that Luke intended for the book to be viewed as an unfinished story. The followers of Jesus throughout the centuries are writing the remainder of the book. As G. Campbell Morgan (The Acts of the Apostles [Revell], p. 11) observes:

When we come to the study of this book, therefore, we must understand that it is not a merely mechanical story of the journeyings of Paul, or of the doings of Peter. It is intended to reveal to us the processes through which Christ proceeds in new power, consequent upon the things He began to do and teach, toward the ultimate and final victory, which we see symbolized in the mystic language of Revelation.

What kind of men does Christ use in His work?

3. Christ’s work continues as He works through:

         Chosen men.

Luke begins by stating that Christ had chosen the apostles. He wants us to know that these men were not self-appointed leaders. They did not even volunteer for the job. Jesus Christ sovereignly chose them, first to salvation, and then to apostleship (the word “apostle” means “sent one”). They were men under authority, laboring as bondservants. They were not entrepreneurs, building their own empires. They did not make up or preach their own message. Rather, they were witnesses, relaying to others what they had seen and heard.

Throughout Acts, Luke puts a distinct emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the progress of the gospel. This is especially seen in the case of Paul’s dramatic conversion, which is told three times for emphasis (Acts 9, 22, 26). But we also see it in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), of Cornelius (Acts 10), where God “granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). In Acts 13:48, after Paul preached, “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” In Acts 16:14, it was the Lord who opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message. In Acts 18:10, the Lord tells Paul to keep preaching in Corinth, and explains, “for I have many people in this city.”

When salvation is genuine, those who come to the Lord know and testify that it was not their decision that saved them. It was God who mightily saved them when they could not save themselves.

         Obedient men.

Christ gave the apostles orders by the Holy Spirit (1:2). Everything that Jesus did, He did in obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Even so, we are never to live under self-will, but only for God’s will. The Book of Acts makes it plain from early on that being obedient to God’s will engages us in God’s mission, and that this often brings us into persecution. Peter and John were arrested and warned against preaching the gospel. They continued preaching, leading to all of the apostles being arrested and warned. They responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). When they were beaten, they rejoiced that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for Christ’s name, and they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (5:41-42).

The book goes on to tell of Stephen’s martyrdom and of the many trials that Paul and his companions suffered as they sought to take Christ to the nations. Paul told the young churches, “It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). But the suffering did not deter these men from obeying the orders that Christ had given them. So also should we be obedient to our Lord, no matter what the cost.

         Spirit-filled men.

The great difference between the disciples before the crucifixion and after the Day of Pentecost is clearly attributed to the Holy Spirit’s coming upon them. Before, they were confused, often self-seeking, doubting, and fearful. After, they were clear, self-denying, bold and confident. The difference was the fulness of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Since the Day of Pentecost, all believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:2-5). But, we must learn to walk daily in the Spirit’s power, not in the flesh (Gal. 5:16-23). We must be sure that we are clean vessels, fit for God to indwell and use. We must seek the Lord to fill us every day so that He can do His work through us.

         Men working together.

While the Book of Acts emphasizes the ministry of two great men, Peter and Paul, it shows clearly that these men were not one-man shows. They worked together with many others to do the Lord’s work. Luke lists over 100 personal names in Acts. He shows that God has an interest in individuals and that He works through bringing these individuals together into His church.

Furthermore, Acts shows us that God is no respecter of persons (10:34). He cares about people from every walk of life and every racial background. In Antioch, the church leaders consisted of a former Jewish priest (Barnabas, 5:36), a black man, a man from North Africa, a man brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and former Pharisee, Paul (13:1). A major theme in Acts is that the gospel is not just for the Jews, but for all people. It is to God’s glory to save men and women from diverse racial and social backgrounds and to bring them together to labor for His cause. There is no place in His church for racial discrimination.

         Men with confidence in the power of God’s Word.

Another major theme throughout Acts is the power of God’s Word. The church is to continue teaching as Jesus taught. In Luke, we saw the emphasis on the teaching ministry of Jesus. He believed in and powerfully taught God’s Word. God’s Word is the seed of the gospel that has within it the power to give life to dead sinners (Luke 8:11). The Book of Acts contains 40 references to God’s Word. The apostles did not want to be distracted with administrative duties; they declare their priority: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word” (6:4). Thus we read that “the word of God kept on spreading” (6:7). We are not committed to the ongoing work of Jesus unless we are committed to teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Conclusion

We should come away from our initial study with two great truths that should lead us to ask ourselves a basic question. First, Christianity is a faith rooted in history. We saw this in our initial study of Luke also. Christianity is not the religious speculations of a bunch of brilliant thinkers. Christianity is God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostles faithfully handed down to us what they had seen and heard concerning the life, death, resurrection, and teaching of Jesus Christ. Our faith is built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Thus we can have confidence about our faith.

Second, God is at work in history through His church. While the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the historical foundation of our faith, God didn’t just send Christ, pull Him off the planet, and stop working. Jesus began the work; His church continues it. That’s why He saved us and why He leaves us here on earth. This leads to a basic question that each of us needs to ask ourselves:

Am I committed to God’s work through His church? There are many that profess to know Jesus Christ as Savior, but if you examine their weekly schedules, they are living for themselves. I realize that most people are not going to be supported by their labors for the Lord. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a mindset, a basic focus in life. Do you see yourself primarily as the servant of Jesus Christ, fully committed and obedient to His cause? Ask any pastor in America and he will tell you that one great frustration in ministry is that only 20 percent of those who attend church are doing 80 percent of the work. If you are a Christian, serving the Lord in His cause through His church is not optional. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we as His church are obediently to continue to do and to teach what our Lord Jesus began.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is every Christian to be an evangelist, or only those so gifted? What is the difference between giftedness and responsibility?
  2. How can those in “secular” jobs be engaged in Christ’s kingdom? What does this look like in everyday terms?
  3. How does a Christian walk in the Holy Spirit? What does this involve in practice?
  4. Why is it crucial to see that our faith is rooted in history, not in religious speculation?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)