Acts 01a - Living Lord
Acts is a thrilling book for the Christian. There is no other book quite like it in the whole Bible, because it alone tells how Christianity began. How a small group of disciples, with the Holy Spirit to guide and empower them, grew in number and influence, until some years later, thousands of people throughout the Roman Empire, and beyond, had come to faith in Jesus Christ.
The Acts of the Apostles is the name given to the second part of a two-volume work written by Luke, a companion of Paul. There is little doubt that the author of Acts is Luke. Although he does not name himself, there are a number of pieces of evidence that show he was responsible for its writing.
But Luke and Acts are not just independent writings from the same pen, they are a single continuous work. In his gospel Luke showed how men and women were confronted by the word of God in the earthly ministry of Jesus. In Acts Luke seeks to show how men and women continue to be confronted by that same word through the ministry of the Church.
1.1A reliable account
Luke who wrote this book as a follow-up to his gospel, was something of a historian. Like most ancient historians, Luke tried to be as accurate as possible and to get information from eye-witnesses. And, this first paragraph is a model of what historical research should be; Luke, as a doctor, began with a scientific attitude. He mentions facts, and he wants to put them before his friend Theophilus. In Luke 1:3 he says, Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus. Here he tells us that his main purpose is to record all that Jesus continued to do and teach through His Spirit-led followers, after He Himself had returned to His Father in heaven. Acts, like the gospels, is written throughout with a strong sense of the sacred nature of the concrete facts it narrates, because the author believes that it is through what actually happened that the purposes of God were made known and fulfilled.
In the first five verses of Acts, Luke sums up what he had dealt with in his gospel - the purpose of Christ's coming to this world, His suffering on the Cross, His resurrection, His appearance and instructions to the apostles, His promise of the Holy Spirit, and His ascension to heaven.
Luke also gives us a fascinating picture of what it was like to be part of the first Christian community - its joys, frustrations, ideals and divisions. These are all presented with an equal amount of honesty and sensitivity. The book also gives essential background information to help us understand what Paul was writing about in his letters to the various churches. As history, Acts is an extremely reliable guide to the situation in the mid-First Century A.D.
As we read Luke's introduction to both his gospel and Acts, it becomes clear that he intended his writing to strengthen his readers' Christian faith. He aims to assure them that what they had already been taught was well-founded. Here, in his introduction, he concentrates on four factors, the command to witness, the apostles, the Holy Spirit, the ascended Lord. Each is a major emphasis and runs throughout Acts. And they are all laid out together in verses 1 and 2 : In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Luke gives first place to Jesus' command to witness. The instructions he has in mind are undoubtedly those he has already set out in Luke 24:48-49 as the climax of Jesus' earthly ministry. "You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
1 Christ's Continuing Ministry
In verse 1 Luke tells us how he views his two-volume work on the origins of Christianity. He doesn't regard volume one as the story of Jesus Christ from His birth through to His triumphant ascension, and volume two as the story of the Church of Jesus Christ from it birth in Jerusalem to its triumphant conquest of Rome some thirty years later. In this sentence he shows that Jesus' ministry on earth, exercised personally and publicly, was followed by His ministry from heaven, exercised through His Holy Spirit by His apostles. The watershed between the two was the ascension. Not only did it conclude Luke's first volume and introduce his second, but it concluded Jesus' earthly ministry and inaugurated His heavenly ministry.
One word in the opening sentence of Acts tells us what the book is all about. The word is began. What Jesus began in the gospel is continued in the Acts. Began sets up the parallel between all that Jesus began to do and to teach as recorded in His gospel, and what He continued to do and to teach through His Church, as described in Acts. As the gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach, so Acts tells us what He continued to do and teach by His Spirit in the apostles after His ascension. The expression to do and to teach sums up well the twofold subject matter of the gospel: it consists of the work and words of Jesus.
The Saviour had not finished when He ascended on high in His glorified form. Luke's emphasis is on the living Christ, who after his suffering, ... showed himself ... alive, and demonstrated His resurrection by many convincing proofs. He carries on through His Holy Spirit, moving upon and ministering within the redeemed men and women who make up His Church.
Luke's opening statement could be paraphrased as, "In this second volume I am dealing with what Jesus continues to do even though He is not around to be seen. He died, rose again from the dead, ascended to the Father - but now He is back. And how!" Make no mistake about it, it is the risen Christ we see at work in the Acts of the Apostles. He is, as someone described Him, "The Great Contemporary." Jesus' ministry may have had a beginning, but it never has an end. This is why there can never be a complete biography of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can there be of someone who lives for ever?
Luke's first two verses are therefore extremely significant. It is no exaggeration to say that they set Christianity apart from all other religions. Other religions regard their founder as having completed his ministry during his lifetime. Luke says Jesus only began His. For, after His resurrection, ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit, He continued His work, first and foremost through the unique foundational ministry of His chosen apostles, and subsequently through the Church of every time and place. This then is the Jesus Christ we believe in: He is both the historical Jesus who lived and the contemporary Jesus who lives. The Jesus of history began His ministry on earth; the Christ of glory has been active through His Spirit ever since, according to His promise in Matthew 28:20, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Luke's stress on the Word of God as being the message of salvation in the risen Christ, is rooted in the confessions of the earliest believers and the consciousness of Jesus Himself. For Luke the message of salvation in Jesus proclaimed by the Church is in direct continuity with the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Is this a message we are concerned with, or even aware of, today - that the Lord Jesus Christ is still living and working in our midst?
2 The Kingdom of God
When they related the story of Jesus, the apostles were proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God - the same good news that Jesus Himself had announced earlier, but now given effective fulfilment by the saving events of His passion and triumph. As Luke tells us in 24:45-47 of his gospel, Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. With the drawing near of the kingdom, the age to come has invaded the present age, and those who receive the kingdom by faith belong spiritually to the coming age and share its life, even though in time they still belong to this age. Are you a citizen of the Kingdom?
The kingdom of God refers primarily to His sovereign rule both in human life, and in the events of history. God's sovereignty is universal. As Psalm 103:19 affirms, the LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. How do we regard God's Kingdom? In Acts the phrase the kingdom of God usually appears as a convenient way of summarising the early Christian proclamation. And the things of the kingdom of God at the beginning of Acts are identified as the things of the Lord Jesus Christ at the very end of the book.
3 The Promise of the Spirit
In verses 4-5 Luke parallels his emphasis on the living Christ by stressing the coming and baptism of the Holy Spirit as essential to the advance of the gospel. But only those who are enabled to hear by the Holy Spirit can understand spiritual things. And verse 4 shows us that the Holy Spirit does not come upon a person because he has got himself into a spiritual attitude of readiness. The Holy Spirit comes by sovereign grace as ordained by God.
The mention of the Holy Spirit strikes the chief theological keynote of Acts. So much so that some have suggested that a theologically more accurate title for Luke's second volume, would be The Acts of the Holy Spirit. Throughout there are references to the promise, the gift, the outpouring, the baptism, the fullness, the power, the witness and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It would be impossible to explain the progress of the gospel apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. In Luke's eyes it is the Spirit of Jesus who directs the disciples in His work of bringing God's rule into the hearts of men and women. Not only does the Holy Spirit bring the presence of Jesus to His followers, but He also shows unbelievers the power of the gospel to change peoples' lives through signs and wonders.
The Word of salvation is a message for all times and people. It is spread to the ends of the earth to include all kinds of people. It is a word of God that affects the lives of many through the power and activity of the Holy Spirit, that self-same Spirit that came upon Jesus at His baptism, and through whom He accomplished His mission. The faith of the earliest Christians was in a person. And we need to become as aware of His living presence as people of the first century were, because this is still the only basis for faith. What matters is not what you believe, but whom you trust. That is the message of the gospel. It's not what you know, but who you know.
Luke's account in Acts shows that where the powerful word of the Lord is preached, opposition is dissolved and the good news spreads still further. It is an encouragement to God's people, as they see how God is always in control, despite trouble and opposition. Acts is a book about mission, God's mission. This mission, this work of telling and sharing the good news of Jesus and His kingdom continues today. It is still good news. Have you received it?