The great expository British preacher of half a century ago, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, made a sermon series on the Book of Acts which took a good part of the 1960’s to go through. He was concerned about the many people who were trying to define what Christianity is or should be. Some saw it as a supplement to the state, a stare religion. Others thought of it as a welfare agency. All of the different definitions of the church were causing great confusion. The church seemed to be wandering in the wilderness.
Jones used the Book of Acts to demonstrate that we must get our definition of the church from the Bible itself. The Book of Acts tells us what the church is, and what it is to do. Should not the head of the organization define what his or her company should be and not the workers? As owner and absolute Lord of the church, Jesus must call the shots. It behooves us then to listen to what God is saying.
The same confusion which existed in Britain fifth years ago is in our country today. And the same things the church tried to do are being tried here today. The church of Jones’ day wanted to make church fun and substitute entertainment for preaching, cut out the Sunday school and Sunday night services, and other such gimmickry was tried. Did that help? One can look at the sad state of affairs in the British church today to see the disaster that awaits us if we do the same.
What we need to do is what Lloyd-Jones did. We need to go back to the authentic account of the church to get our definition of the church and follow it. We must follow the recipe. Even a bad cook will make something good if they follow the recipe faithfully. Let us do the same.
Exposition of the Text
If one has read the Gospel of Luke and then goes to Acts, it becomes apparent that the same person wrote both. First of all, both are addressed to Theophilus. Scholars have debated who this Theophilus was. Was he a new Christian who needed additional instruction? Or was this to explain to a non-Christian what Christianity is? Some see this as a defense document to be used at Paul’s trial before Caesar. The name itself means “lover of God” which indicates to me that Theophilus was either a God-fearing Gentile who had halfway converted to the Jewish religion or a person interested in Christianity. The truth of the matter is no knows who Theophilus was.
The writer of both Luke and Acts was almost certainly Luke the Physician, who was Paul’s companion in ministry. Part of Acts uses the first person pronouns which shows that the writer himself was witness to some of the events. As Luke was with Paul during his imprisonment, he would have had the time to do additional research in Jerusalem. Luke may even have made himself Paul’s slave. As a slave, he would have been able to come and go from prison and have acted as Paul’s messenger. Roman citizens like Paul were permitted this privilege. As a slave, he also had legal protection from prosecution. Someone who was not a slave may not have had access to Paul or even could have been imprisoned with him as a fellow Christian. We don’t know that Luke served as Paul’s slave or not in a formal sense, but as a physician, he had ample opportunity to care for Paul’s sicknesses and many wounds.
Luke was a remarkable theologian in his own right as well as a doctor. Not only this, but he had complete mastery of the Greek language. Luke begins the gospel with fine classical Greek prose, then switches to the language of the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Then he gradually transitions to the common Greek of his own day. This went along from the transition from the promised Messiah to Israel to the Christ of all nations.
Luke in Acts begins with the statement that this was a continuation of a previous work to Theophilus which was the Gospel of Luke. This makes the two works fit together in what was called and “epic” in Greek. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer is an example of such a work that you may have had to read in school. In modern terms, the book of Acts is a sequel. It picks up the story where the last work left off.
We now come to the text “which Jesus began to do and to teach.” The most logical understanding of this is that Acts is then a continuation of the ministry of Jesus done through the church. Jesus himself in the Gospel of John said in John 14:12 that his apostles would do even greater works than He did. This does not mean greater in quality, but quantity. Jesus’ ministry was confined to Palestine, and that mostly in the land of Israel. The disciples were to go out with his message to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). These works and teaching of Jesus would be continued by the church through the promised Holy Spirit.
After the brief address to Theophilus, Luke picks up the story. Both Luke and Acts mention the Ascension, the only biblical witness to the event, even though it is assumed elsewhere. The Ascension then serves as the hinge that ties Luke and Acts together. It serves as a transition from the earthly works and teaching of Jesus to his heavenly work as intercessor and director of the mission of the church.
The Ascension also shows that Jesus is now king of the universe and is king of the universe. Jesus as the one by whom God created the universe was already this, but now it is publicly displayed to the Apostles who would have to undergo great dangers in their proclamation of the gospel. They had to be sure of the person of Jesus and that no matter whatever happened, their eternal future was assured. This would be a source of great strength and joy to the Apostles and the followers of Jesus.
The text reveals that Jesus gives final instructions to the Apostles. They are to return to Jerusalem and await the promised Holy Spirit. They are first called to obedience to the gospel. There is also something interesting in the text of verse 4. Most translations say that he summoned them together. The Greek would support this with the exception that one finds a passive verb rather than an active one. There is another Greek verb which is spelled exactly the same way, except that the breathing mark at the beginning of the verb goes the other way. As the early Greek manuscripts were written in all caps and left out all punctuation and even spacing between words, either meaning is possible.
If the second meaning “took salt together” is taken, then this means that Jesus had lunch with them, sort of speak. The meaning of the term is similar to our use of braking bread together. As feasting as well as the importance of the idea of the heavenly banquet which was included by Luke in the first communion service, it serves as a reminder of Jesus’ return. This too would strengthen the Apostles for the journey ahead.
During the course of this last earthly supper Jesus had with his Apostles, the question came up whether this big event which Jesus promised would happen would be the reestablishment of the earthly kingdom of Israel. As Jews, this had been their life-long expectation. The Messiah would overthrow the Age of the Gentiles who had oppressed the Land of Israel and establish a new Kingdom like its greatness under King David a thousand years earlier.
Jesus’ response did not deny that the coming of the Holy Spirit would usher in the kingdom age. What He did deny is that it be the kingdom they were expecting. In a way, the church is an earthly representation of the kingdom of God. Jesus even said “the kingdom of God is among you.” (I take ‘you’ here to be a plural, the church and not just the individual believer. Luke 17:21). This was not going to be the universal revelation of the Kingdom which will occur at the time Jesus returns. Only the Father knew this time. Instead, Jesus calls them as servants (slaves) to obey Him.
There are several statement of Jesus which could properly be called “the Great Commission.” Verse eight is certainly one of these. Verse one gives us light to what we are to do, that is to continue the ministry which Jesus began. Verse eight tells us the scope of the mission. It was not to be confined to the land of Israel or even to the Jewish people scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Instead it was to go out to everyone everywhere, starting in Jerusalem. The work as to go then to the uttermost parts of the earth. To this we might add to the uttermost of the realm of time—until Jesus returns.
We can see from this passage that the church of Jesus’ day was to continue to teach what Jesus taught and to do what Jesus did, other than the church cannot and does not atone for sin. This alone is Jesus’ proper work. The church is called to share in this common suffering with Christ in anticipation of the kingdom. We as the church today can be seen as episode three in what Jesus began to do and to teach. Some have even said the church is in the 29th chapter of Acts. This is indeed true to the extent that we are to remain faithful to proclaim the same gospel the Apostles did. Even though the great age of miracles have for the most part passed which God used to establish the church and the canon of Scripture is closed in that no more is to be added to God’s word, we are still to remain faithful, even unto death.
God is still at work in His church because He promised he would be with us until the end of this age (Matthew 28:20). What seems to be clear from the passage is that it is God who works through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why the church was to wait. It is Christ’s church, and as head of the church, things are to be done His way. Obedience to the gospel is its first requirement and firstfruit. We are not to be innovators, but followers. Out task is either to plant (evangelize) or to water (nurture the brethren). It is God who makes for the increase. We must rely on God to do His part while we are faithful as servants to do what He has called us to do.