Listen to these words by James Davison Hunter in his latest book:, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010):
The questions that animate this book are both broadly academic and deeply personal. The basic academic question is simply, how is religious faith possible in the late modern world? . . . The more personal question is a variant of the academic one; simply, how do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?1
As I read that I immediately thought of the relevance of the book of Acts, for in it we find the answer to Hunter’s question. You see, the book of Acts records the progress of the gospel in a world that was fundamentally hostile to it. In fact there are many scholars who believe that one reason Luke wrote was to present a legal apologetic to the Roman government to show them that Christianity did not aim to overthrow the order of society. It was not a religion of social or political anarchy—in spite of the fact that the church did desire to change the world. Yes, the church has always wanted to change the world. As Hunter notes,
As a rule . . . indifference toward the world is quite rare in the history of God’s people. The passion to engage the world, to shape it and finally change it for the better, would seem to be an enduring mark of Christians on the world in which they live. To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private. This is the mandate of creation.2
The book of Acts is the record of a first century witness—Luke—to the fact that the church changed the world. But it is only the record of the beginning of such change.
Luke wrote this book perhaps as the second chapter to his Gospel. Many believe that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were initially one book. Whether or not that is so, what is certain is that Luke was responsible for giving to us more than 30% of the New Testament. There is no New Testament writer who has recorded more of the life of Christ than Dr. Luke.
As Luke tells us in the opening verse, he wrote his Gospel to give the history of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ up until His ascension. He then wrote the rest of the story (Acts) to give a historical record of what Jesus did after His ascension. And this historical account takes the church up until the early 60s.
The title given in most Bibles—“The Acts of the Apostles”—has been debated. There are those who think that it should be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” I respectfully disagree. The word translated “Acts” is praxis in the Greek language, and was used in ancient times to describe the accomplishments of notable individuals (e.g. Alexander the Great, etc.). This is precisely what Luke records in this book as he recounts the ministries of the early church, with a special focus upon Peter and Paul.
Now, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit figures centrally in this history. In fact, you will find the Greek word pneuma (spirit) some 70 times in the book of Acts. But what we should note is that though the fruit of an effective Christianity is the result of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit, He has chosen to use means. The sovereign Lord has chosen to use men and women in the spread of the gospel and the advancement of the church and it is for this reason that we have this record of “the Acts of the Apostles.” God used men to turn the world upside down (17:6) in the first century and He plans to do the same in the 21st century! But the agent is the same: the local church filled with the Holy Spirit proclaiming the message of the gospel of Christ. And we learn this in the opening eight verses of this first chapter.
This study begins what I trust will be an exciting, enthusing, edifying and evangelistic journey through the book of Acts.
It will be exciting as we read the history of how a handful of believers were used of God to impact a world. This history recorded by Luke contains plenty of stories that will keep one on the edge of his seat.
We will be enthused as we read this inspired account and are moved to do something in response to it. The late Martin Lloyd-Jones used to say that the book of Acts served as a tonic for his own soul. I can concur with such a testimony. I trust that this study will stir your soul to believe God so as to expect great things from Him and to therefore attempt great things for Him.
It almost goes without saying that our study of Acts will prove edifying. Since the book of Acts records the history of the building up of the early church, by default such a reflection will go a long way towards building us up.
Finally, this study, I believe, will prove evangelistic. The book of Acts is the record of much proclamation. The gospel is the means by which the world was impacted through the planting of churches. It is an evangelistic record of the early church and thus a study of this book will give us plenty of opportunity to hear the gospel, to learn the gospel and to equip us with the gospel for our own evangelistic efforts as a church.
Most of our evangelism comes by means of conversation and in this book we will be exposed to several such conversations. May the Lord use this study to help us to be winsome that we might win some as every one of us evangelises everyone everywhere!
As we begin our journey I want to do so under three headings, each of which has reference to the matter of history. We want to keep before us that book of Acts is history. These are events that actually occurred in space-time history. These events had witnesses who were willing to lay down their lives because of the conviction that what they were doing was rooted in historical truth. And we need the same conviction. John Stott says, “Luke’s first two verses are, therefore, extremely significant. It is no exaggeration to say that they set Christianity apart from all other religions. . . . This, then, is the kind of Jesus Christ we believe in: he is both the historical Jesus who lived and the contemporary Jesus who lives.”3
In our day the whole concept of history is debunked and the idea of a grand or metanarrative is mocked and rejected. The book of Acts is a good cure for this.
Luke begins by reminding his reader(s) that he has already given us some previous history and he is about to give us the rest of the story.
The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
Acts is Luke’s account of the advancement of the kingdom of God by the Spirit-empowered church upon the ascension of the Lord. What we should latch onto is the fact that what happened in history gives us plenty of encouragement for what is yet to happen in history. As Barclay notes, “Acts is the second volume of a story which has no end.”4
People today often speak of our times as the supposed “post-Christian era.” I beg to differ. We live in an era much like that faced by the early church—in a pre-Christian era. What Jesus began in the first century He is still accomplishing in our day—and He will accomplish long after 21 May!
Jesus is still doing and teaching His disciples. And He is doing so through Spirit-empowered disciples. The apostles—those chosen by Christ (v.1)—were commanded by the Spirit-filled Saviour to wait for the Spirit to empower them, after which they were to command others to repent and believe the gospel.
We can command with conviction for people to believe on Christ precisely because of the historical veracity of Luke’s Gospel (and the rest of the inspired writings for that matter).
These opening verses are important, for they contain the essential themes that will fill the book of Acts. Longnecker observes, “Each of these four factors—the witness mandate, the apostles, the Holy Spirit, the ascended Lord—is a major emphasis that runs throughout Acts; each receives special attention in chapters 1 and 2.”5
The essential themes of Acts include the person and work of Jesus, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the persons and work of the apostles, and the presence and witness of the kingdom of God. (Longnecker notes, “Luke uses ‘the kingdom of God’ in an evangelistic setting as a shorthand way of speaking about the entire Christian proclamation that centres in Jesus.”6)
Verse 3 is the hub of this introductory section, for it highlights the absolute credibility of the resurrection of Christ. Luke had written about some of these proofs in His Gospel and here he refers to this again.
“Forty days” often represents a time of testing (Moses, children of Israel, Elijah, our Lord in the wilderness). Forty days was ample time for Jesus to prove to the disciples that He was alive. It was because of this proof that they were able to be witnesses of the resurrection (4:33).
As Christians, we must beware the danger of chronological snobbery. We tend to think that the ancient world was so gullible compared to our “enlightened” age—which believes that sex outside of marriage will not harm us, or that abortion is not a moral issue, or that marriage between a man and a man is no different than marriage between a man and a woman. In our “enlightened” state, our society believes that government can cure our problems, that machines will make us immortal, that all religions have equal value, that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that man evolved from some germ that merely appeared as the result of two meteors colliding in space (meteors which by the way just mysteriously existed), and that the earth just happens to be the only planet that is the perfect distance from the moon and from the sun so that we neither freeze to death nor burn up. Perhaps we should think more carefully about who is the most enlightened!
These men of the first century would have been the least likely to believe that Jesus was alive. They had seen Him arrested, beaten and crucified and they knew that they were in the same danger of the same treatment. In fact, they were hiding from the authorities.
When some women came and told them that Jesus had risen indeed they did not initially believe it, and even after He appeared to them some doubted (Matthew 28:16).
It is interesting that the Lord commanded them to remain in Jerusalem, and this helps us to see further that they understood the danger of being in the city where Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified. These men were not gullible by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I would maintain that they were some of the most sceptical people in Palestine. And it was for this reason that Jesus spent 40 days giving them many infallible proofs that they would in fact believe and then have the boldness to witness to this truth.
As we will continually see throughout our studies, the boldness of these apostles is evidence beyond dispute that the Lord has risen. They had been witnesses, to some degree, of His sufferings; they had certainly been exposed to His prophesying of such. And when they saw His sufferings they had lost all hope. They had not paid attention to His promise that He would rise the third day. But now they had ample proof that He was alive, and thus that He was Lord. They were to soon bear testimony to this fact—beginning at Pentecost.
Be encouraged that our faith is credible because it is historical. What we believe actually happened, and the one in whom we believe actually died, was buried and rose again. Further, He is still doing and teaching this very day!
When it comes to our witnessing, we need to be persuaded by the historical proof that what we are saying is true. And that truth is found in the infallible proof of God’s Word. It is found in Luke; it is found in Acts.
Don’t ever let anyone accuse you of irrelevant circular reasoning when you use the Bible as your source book for history. It is true whether others believe it or not. Don’t be intimidated by its detractors. If it was good enough for Dr. Luke, then it should be good enough for us!
One more observation should be noted. In this introduction we are told that the Lord Jesus spent these 40 days instructing His disciples regarding the kingdom of God. This is important for this was the message that they were to proclaim. In fact Stott believes that the subjects of the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God were the dominant themes that Jesus drove home during his post resurrection discipleship of the apostles. I think that he is correct.
What does it mean that Jesus taught them concerning the kingdom of God? According to Matthew 6:9-10, the kingdom of God is equivalent to God’s will in heaven (His commanded will) being done on earth. When you think carefully, biblically about it, this is precisely what the Great Commission is all about!
Luke next describes the major themes that our Lord discussed with the apostles before His ascension: the person and power of the Holy Spirit.
And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
The opening phrase is interesting in the original Greek for the words translated “being assembled together” literally mean “eating salt together.” The picture is of the Lord eating with the disciples.
It is amazing how much is often accomplished when food is present. Major decisions are made, engagements take place and treaties are signed. One can hardly think of an important church function that takes place apart from food!
The picture is one in which the Lord communed with His disciples. I suspect that one reason for the food was to serve as one of the infallible proofs (see John 21:1-15ff; Luke 24:30, 35, 43). But another reason was no doubt to encourage the disciples that Jesus would provide for them and that He was indeed their friend (John 15:13-15). And perhaps there was another reason. The word translated “assembled together” is used only this time in Scripture. I want to make the assertion that Jesus was spending time with these disciples to make them saltier (cf. Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49-50; Colossians 4:6).
The Lord no doubt was taking this time to top up the salt shakers of their lives after their dismal failure surrounding His arrest, trial and crucifixion. He no doubt was helping them to see that their only hope to impact history for His glory would be by supernatural aid. They could only be salty by the Spirit. And so it is for us.
But related to this is the reality that the Lord Jesus had promised them that the Father would give to them the kingdom; it was the Father’s “good pleasure” to do so (Luke 12:42; cf. 2 Chronicles 13:5). And so as Jesus met with these disciples He was encouraging them with the promise of world conquest through the extension of the kingdom of God. And this, of course, would and could only occur through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the disciples were so persuaded by the presence and the proof of the resurrection that they desired to rush out and face the world with His Word. And yet they needed to know that though they certainly had the promise of kingdom growth, this would only come through the power of God. In fact, is it not interesting that our Lord Himself gave His commandments to them through the Spirit (v. 2)? If the risen Lord was “dependent” upon the Spirit, how much more are we!
Yes, the disciples then—as now—had a wonderful historical anticipation (Micah 2; Isaiah 2; 65; Habakkuk 2:14; etc.), but let us be careful to anticipate the extension of the kingdom of God while at the same time remaining in submission to Him. As Zechariah exhorts us, it is not by might, nor by power but by the Spirit of the Lord.
We should remember that the Jewish nation was familiar with the Old Testament teaching that the extension of the kingdom would be accompanied by an outpouring of God’s Spirit (Ezekiel 36-37; Joel 2; etc.). “The Promise of the Father” was precisely this, and they needed to patiently wait for it!
We should perhaps pause to consider what Luke means by the baptism “with the Holy Spirit.” First Corinthians 12:13 makes mention of a similar concept. In short, baptism with the Holy Spirit was the Father sending another Comforter—just like Jesus—to be with His church throughout the ages (see John 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11; 20:21-22). And so, when He came, it was a dramatic transitional time in the history of redemption (Ezekiel 36:25-27). We will explore this in more detail when we come to Acts 2. But for now I simply want for us to see that these apostles could not actually rub salt into the world until they were filled with the Spirit. Only then could they get out of the salt shaker and into the world. And the same is true for you and me.
What exactly does the Spirit do in and for and through us? He shows us Christ, thus making us witnesses of the resurrection (cf. John 16:12-16). This emboldens us and gives us joy and security. The Spirit produces the character of Christ in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). He convicts unbelievers of the truth of the gospel (John 16:7-9). He regenerates the spiritually dead (Titus 3:5). He connects us to other believers (1 Corinthians 12:13). He sanctifies us (Romans 8:1-4).
The Holy Spirit has not changed and we should still expect to see awakenings. Perhaps what we need in the meantime is more prayer time!
Someone has said that the early church prayed for ten days, preached for ten minutes and saw three thousand saved while the modern church prays for ten minutes, preaches for ten days and sees a handful of converts. If we will see the world changed then it will only come by the power of God; specifically, through the power of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
These men were excited about the promised extension and expansion of the Kingdom. But they—like many Christians today—needed some help in understanding how this would come about (v. 5) as well as what it would look like.
Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The reference to the apostles having “come together” may refer to their gathering on several occasions rather than on any one particular time. It seems as if they constantly were asking this question. This ethnocentrism was on their minds and the Lord spent 40 days instructing them concerning the truth that the multinational church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16; cf. Matthew 21:42).
Commenting on their question, Calvin believed that “there are as many errors in this question as words.” Stott picks up on Calvin’s assertion when he notes, “The verb ‘restore’ shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun ‘Israel’ that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause ‘at this time’ that they were expecting its immediate establishment.”7
But we should also note that, “their belief was essentially true. Jesus encourages them to expect that there would be a restitution; how much larger and more wonderful and more spiritual than they dreamed, he does not pause to explain.”8
Let us be patient with these disciples! They were all Jewish and therefore they were on a learning curve concerning the establishment of the multiracial church.
The disciples did not expect a suffering Messiah (in spite of Isaiah 53) because they assumed that He would come and restore the kingdom to the nation of Israel. They just could not grasp the concept of their Deliverer being defeated by crucifixion. But now that Christ has risen from the dead, they grasped something of the reality of His sovereign authority and expected that soon the “regeneration” would take place and Israel would rule over all the kingdoms. “The apostles asked if Jesus would do now after his resurrection what they had hoped he would do in his lifetime; and would he do it immediately?”9
Of course, they were fundamentally correct. Israel now would rule the world and receive the land. What they did not understand was that “Israel” now comprised God’s chosen people of every people group in the world and this group would inherit all of the earth under the Lordship of Messiah. That is, the church is the new Israel of God and she rules and reigns over all the world because she is in Christ who is Lord of all.
Jesus said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” “‘Times’ is a strictly chronological word, whereas ‘dates’ [‘seasons’] (better, ‘epochs’) includes the character and circumstances of the times.”10
Luke records that the Lord mildly rebuked them as He told them that the chronology and cataclysms of the progress of the kingdom were (to be frank) none of their business. The Father had chosen not to reveal these minute details. This reminds us of a similar historical occasion in which the old covenant people of God were on the verge of “world conquest.” Moses told them that what God had revealed belonged to God’s people and to their children but the secret things belonged to God (Deuteronomy 29:29). In other words, the nation of Israel was to be busy obeying God’s Word: to conquer the nations and to leave the details to God. Similarly, these disciples were to get on with obedience to God: to convert the nations, and to leave the finer details of how this will all work out to Him.
The same counsel applies to the church of the 21st century. Much effort has been spent by various fringes of the church in figuring out details that the Lord has not given to us. Consider again the current theory that 21 May 2011 will see the rapture of the church and 21 October 2011 the destruction of the world. God simply has not given us such details, and to be derailed by these things is, in point of fact, to ignore the reason that God has left us on earth.
It is not for us to try and figure out when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. It is not for us to figure out what God is doing behind the political upheaval in North Africa. It is not for us to know all the whys and wherefores of every natural catastrophe and social upheaval. There is no doubt that there is a wise and just and loving purpose behind every one of these providences. There is no doubt that judgement day is coming. And there is no doubt that millions and billions will one day inhabit a sinless universe. But the timetable and the circumstances leading to all of this are not for us to speculate.
It is not for us to prophesy when the final day of judgement will arrive. Rather what we are to know and what we are to do in the meantime is to engage peoples in all the world as witnesses of the risen Lord.
With an evangelistic progression of concentric circles we are to witness in our Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea, and to the ends of the earth. Though cannot tell how Christ will win the nations, this much we do know: He will use His Church to do so.
“When the Spirit came in power, the long promised reign of God, which Jesus had himself inaugurated and proclaimed, would begin to spread. It would be spiritual in its character, international in its membership, and gradual in its expansion.”11 And this has been the history of church throughout the ages.
As believers go from house to house and from peoples to peoples witnessing to the reality that Jesus Christ has risen indeed, increasingly the kingdom of God will come and all nations—including the nation of Israel—will experience restoration in a way that will be remarkable. And this is only possible by the power of God.
This introductory passage should give us great encouragement as we go about making disciples. As John MacArthur notes, “This beginning was to dramatically alter the course of history, and the spread of the gospel message has continued past Acts to reach all the earth. Today, believers continue to have the responsibility for being Christ’s witnesses throughout this world. The sphere for witnessing is as extensive as the kingdom—the world. That was and is the mission of the church until Jesus comes.”12
Speculation is far easier and a lot more comfortable than engaging an unbelieving world. That is why we need the power of the Holy Spirit. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for Him. He has come! What we need to do is to submit to Him.
May God give us the grace to do so and may we make our mark in history as a part of His story.
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Kindle version, retrieved from Amazon.com. ↩
- Hunter, To Change the World, Kindle version. ↩
- John Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 34. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 1. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, Acts: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:253. ↩
- Longnecker, Acts, 9:255n. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 41. ↩
- The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 22. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 43. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 46. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 44. ↩
- John MacArthur, Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 22. ↩