We have now finished all four of the Gospels, which are the four accounts of the Good News about Jesus, and now we are moving into the book of Acts. The book of Acts provides a glimpse into the first three decades of the early church (AD 30-63) as it spread and multiplied after the ascension of Jesus Christ. It is not a detailed or comprehensive history. Rather, it focuses on the role played by apostles such as Peter, who ministered primarily to Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
The book of Acts is formally anonymous. The traditional view is that the author was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke—Luke the physician and traveling companion of Paul. As early as the second century AD, church leaders such as Irenaeus wrote that Luke was the author of Acts. Irenaeus based his view on the “we” passages in Acts, five sections where the author changes from the third person (“he/she” and “they”) to first-person plural (“we”) as he narrates the action. Irenaeus and many scholars since his time have interpreted these passages to mean that the author of Acts was one of the eyewitness companions of Paul. Luke fits this description better than any other candidate, especially given the similar themes between the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.
The date of composition of the book of Acts is to a large extent directly tied to the issue of authorship. A number of scholars have argued that Acts should be dated to the early 60s (at the time of Paul’s imprisonment). Acts closes with Paul still in prison in Rome (28:30-31). Although it is possible that Luke wrote at a later date, a time when Paul had been released, it is more plausible to think that he completed this while Paul was still in prison. Otherwise he would have ended the book by telling about Paul’s release.
Imagine how ignorant we would be if we did not have the book of Acts. The New Testament would be about 12 percent shorter than it is today. We would have in the New Testament a collection of letters from a man named Paul, whom we would barely know. A few smatterings of biographical information exist in his letters, and there is a reference to him in 2 Peter 3:16, but there is nothing more. Because we do have the book of Acts, we can develop a workable timeline of Paul’s life and ministry. Without Acts the competing arguments would be legion! But in Acts we gain information about things other than the life of Paul. Without the book of Acts, we would have no idea how Christianity spread from Judea to the farthest stretches of the Roman Empire. We would have no idea how Gentiles were incorporated into the Church. We, who follow the Jewish Messiah, would be wondering where so many of the Jews went. We would be less sure about the date of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We would not know the basic contours of the early history of the church. Moreover, the book of Acts addresses many theological issues like the deity of the Holy Spirit, repentance and faith, and salvation by grace alone. We would be doctrinally poorer without Acts. In many ways, Acts is foundational to the church’s understanding of itself.
In reading such a large book like Acts, we need to think about how it is organized. The structure of Acts carefully follows a geographic progression. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commands and predicts that the disciples will be his empowered witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The book shows the gospel moving out from Jerusalem in exactly this order, culminating in the city of Rome. In the first section, where Luke lays the foundation for the church and its mission (1:1-2:47), the main event is Pentecost, when followers of Jesus are baptized in the Holy Spirit. The second section describes the early church in Jerusalem (3:1-6:7). The disciples are witnessing and growing (with some internal strife). The initial expansion of the church is at the stoning of Stephan. After Stephan’s death, all the believers (expect the apostles) move out into Judea and Samaria, carrying the gospel with them (6:8-9:31). In chapter 9, a man named Saul is converted; he will carry the gospel to the nations. In preparation for the Gentile mission, the next section chronicles the first Gentile converts (9:32-12:24). And the next section conveys the start of the formal Gentile mission with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas. We read about the penetration of the gospel into Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, (12:25-16:5). The second part of the Gentile mission records the evangelization of Greece (16:6-19:20). More opposition arises, but the gospel in unhindered. Then the focus turns to Rome (19:21), though some issues in Ephesus will still surface. The last section of Acts details how Paul got to Rome (19:21-28:31). His was not an ordinary trip to the city. In the final verses of the book, Paul is in Rome preaching the gospel without hinderance.
Luke’s writing is vivid and exciting. His account has all the things that would mark it as great literature: political intrigue, warring factions and racial tensions. In it we see supernatural phenomena, miraculous escapes and angelic visitations. We read of journeys and shipwrecks, magnificent loyalty and bitter betrayal, flawed humans and a perfect God, unholy demons and the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts is edifying and riveting.
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. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”—1:1-5
The prologue to Acts is a continuation of the prologue to Luke’s Gospel. At least three matters support this. First, the works are plainly connected by the use of the phrase “former book.” Second, according to Luke, the former treatise was about what Jesus began to do and teach. This suggests that the present work is about what Jesus continued to do (which the contents support). Finally, the prologue (at 1:4 specifically) references Luke 24:49. Luke summarizes the last chapter of his Gospel as he begins this book, overlapping the two works. Acts 1:5 is an allusion to Luke 3:16 and prepares the disciples for what is to come, especially the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which we will discuss in detail when we get to Acts chapter 2 and Pentecost.
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”—1:6-8
The question about restoring the kingdom seems to be the hope or belief that the completion of the second exodus was near (if not immediate). That prophesied event (Isaiah 2:2-4 and 11:1-16) culminates with the full realization of the kingdom. It features not only the Messiah ruling but the Gentiles coming to Zion. Jesus’ answer should not be interpreted as a denial of his immediate return. Instead, it is a reminder to stay out of the Father’s business and be focused on the business we are given. The date and time for Jesus’ return is God’s privilege. History is littered with predictions by those who are faithful and those who are charlatans. Both are serious breaches of obedience. While we wait, we are to be busy for the king.
Verse 8 is of upmost importance to the book of Acts and to the church’s mission. Two future tense clauses serve as both predictions and commands. First, believers will receive power from the Holy Spirit. The second future clause sets the parameters of the mission: they will be God’s witnesses. The threefold geographic reference unfolds the general outline of the book. The believers begin in Jerusalem, move out to Judea and Samaria, and then go to the ends of the earth. The “ends of the earth” is a reference used in the Old Testament to refer to the whole inhabited world (see Isaiah 45:22 and Isaiah 62:11). The gift of the Spirit, then is far from being a mere privilege to the church. He comes to empower the proclamation of the gospel to the world and is the evidence that the last days have arrived. As an end-time promise, the gift of the Spirit is the down payment (see Ephesians 1:14) that the other promises will come to pass.
As we have already said verse 8 is the key verse in the book of Acts. And it is dealing with the primary purpose of the baptism in the Spirit that Jesus had already told his disciples would happen and that we are going to deal with in depth when we get to Acts chapter 2 and the day of Pentecost. The purpose of the baptism is receive power to deliver the message that those who do not have a personal relationship with God can receive his forgiveness, learn to follow Jesus and fulfill his purposes for their lives. The end result is that more people come to know, love and honor Jesus as Lord—the Leader and authority in their lives. And there are three important things that we need to see about this power.
- “Power” means more than strength or ability; it refers to a power at work or in action. Luke (in his Gospel and in Acts) points out that the Holy Spirit’s power included the authority to drive out evil spirits (to command them to release their control in people’s lives) and the anointing (the empowering and/or commissioning) to heal the sick. These were described as the two essential signs accompanying the bold message of God’s kingdom. The baptism in the Holy Spirit is God’s way of releasing the power of the Holy Spirit into a Christian’s life.
- Luke here does not relate the baptism in the Spirit to the first experience of personal spiritual salvation. He describes it as a power coming upon someone who is already a follower of Christ, then working from within him or her to effectively communicate Christ’s message.
- The Holy Spirit’s primary work in proclaiming and promoting the message of Jesus has to do with how he comes upon—or “clothes”—Christians with God’s power. The Spirit is really the one who convinces people of their need for God’s forgiveness and the truth of how Christ’s death and resurrection makes spiritual salvation and a personal relationship with God possible.
The baptism in the Holy Spirit not only provides power to proclaim the message about forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus; it also increases the effectiveness of the Christian’s personal testimony or witness. It does this through the strengthening and deepening of a person’s relationship with the Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit that comes from being filled with the Spirit. And there are five important things that we see about the increase of the effectiveness of a believers personal testimony through the baptism in the Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit reveals and makes more real to us the personal presence of Jesus. Responding to this inner voice or witness from the Spirit will bring us into a deeper and more intimate relationship with and Jesus and will result in an increasing desire to love, honor and please him as our Savior.
- The Holy Spirit witnesses both to and through Christians to convince people of God’s “righteousness” (John 16:8 and 10) and “truth” (John 16:13), which “bring glory to” Jesus Christ (John 16:14). This happens through both words and actions. Those who have already received and responded to the Spirit’s testimony about Christ’s spiritually restoring work will show Christ’s character traits of love, truth and right behavior in their lives.
- The baptism in the Holy Spirit is the starting point through which Spirit-filled Christians (those who have received Christ and have God’s Spirit living within them) receive the power to communicate Christ’s message with great effectiveness. This includes the ability to convince people of their spiritual lostness apart from Christ, their accountability to God and their need to get right with him. This awareness will affect those who proclaim Christ’s message as well as those who receive that message.
- The baptism in the Holy Spirit can be given only to those who have turned toward God in true repentance. The power of the baptism is maintained by the same devotion to Jesus Christ and his purposes.
- The baptism in the Holy Spirit is a baptism (an immersion) into the Spirit who is holy. God’s holiness refers to his purity, perfection, spiritual completeness and separation from evil. This means that if we have truly submitted to God and his Spirit is at work in us in all his fullness, our lives will become saturated with his character traits. As a result, we will be more like Christ and be an example of his holiness.
In light of these Biblical truths, those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit will have a strong desire to please Christ in everything they do. That is because the baptism in the Spirit complements (complete and/or fills up) the saving and spiritually purifying work of the Holy Spirit in Christians’ lives. Those who claim to have experienced the fullness (the baptism) of the Spirit, yet live in a way that is contrary to the character of God’s Holy Spirit, are revealing the fact that they do not have this experience. Even if people do show spiritual abilities, miracles, spectacular signs or preaching with eloquence, yet lack true faith, love and purity, they are not working by the Holy Spirit but by an unholy spirit that is not from God.
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”—1:9-11
The ascension is narrated only here and Luke 24:51. The event, however, is mentioned outside Luke writings. Other Scriptures describe Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father. Here in Acts, Luke describes Jesus rising out of the sight of the disciples, making them both eyewitnesses and, in a sense, successors. Yet these successors, instead of being independent agents, are vehicles for the continued work of the risen Christ.
The appearance of angels is both shocking and confirming. Their rhetorical question has the force of “Don’t just stand there looking up!” Christ’s return will be like his ascent, he will return visibly and bodily. In many ways, his return will different than his first coming. He will come not secretly but in public. He will come not through human birth but in glorious descent. He will come not in humility but in victory. And that is where we will pick up tomorrow as we deal with how the remaining elven disciples chose a replacement for Judas Iscariot.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
2 Kings 22:3-23:30, Acts 21:37-22:16, Psalm 1:1-6 and Proverbs 18:11-12
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