This week we’re beginning a 17-week walkthrough of the book of Acts. In Acts we find Luke the Physician writing down a careful history of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. In Acts, we can find courage in the certainty of Jesus’s triumph over sin and death, and in the fact that no power of hell or scheme of man can stop God’s plan to spread the good news of His son Jesus throughout the entire world.
I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.Acts 1:1-2 (CSB)
Date written: Probably the mid-60’s AD. After Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul’s letters to the churches. Before Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, and before Peter and John’s writings. The second half of Acts focuses on Paul and his ministry, and it is interesting to see the accounts of his missionary journeys and imprisonments, where he started the churches he writes to, and when he writes letters to them.
Narrative/history covering 30-35 years of church history.
Part of a single work: Luke-Acts. Luke had a purpose in this two-part work, that he tells us
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. So it also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.Luke 1:1-4 (CSB)
After he had suffered, he also presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.Acts 1:3 (CSB)
Luke had given his readers an example of this in Luke chapter 24, first with the encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then later in Jerusalem with the rest of the disciples.
36 As they were saying these things, he himself stood in their midst. He said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. 38 “Why are you troubled?” he asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” 40 Having said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 But while they still were amazed and in disbelief because of their joy, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 So they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 He told them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46 He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high.”Luke 24:36–49 (CSB)
Notice how similar this wording is to the next few verses in Acts. Luke sort of “Velcros” (or some have said “hyperlinked”) his two scrolls together with these words.
4 While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:4–8 (CSB)
Verse 8, our main verse for today, is a powerful one for many reasons which we’re going to talk about today. One thing this verse does, is gives us the structure Luke uses in his composition of Acts. The disciples being witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea/Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth in Europe, eventually ending up in Rome, the very heart of the Roman empire.
This structure is important because it helps us understand Luke’s purpose in writing. If we don’t understand that purpose, we’re going to get some weird ideas about what we’re supposed to do with Acts.
2. Purpose –
Luke’s composition structure helps us understand his purpose for writing.
Chapters 1-7 – ministry in Jerusalem (Peter)
- The eye-witness Disciples receive holy spirit (2:4)
- and preach the gospel in Jerusalem
- Chosen Jews in Jerusalem believer, receive holy spirit (2:38)
Chapters 8-9 – in all Judea and Samaria (Peter)
- The eye-witness scatter into Judea and Samaria and preach the gospel (8:4)
- and chosen Samaritans believe receive the holy spirit (8:17)
Chapter 10-12 – Gospel open to the gentiles (Peter)
- Peter, an eye-witness, preaches the gospel to the gentiles (10:34)
- and chosen Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit (10:44)
Chapters 12-28 – to the end of the earth – (Paul)
- Expansion into Europe and toward Rome
Acts 1:8 gives the structure: Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, Ends of the Earth
Chapters 1-12 focus on Peter’s ministry, and the introduction of the gospel message to the three distinct people groups: Jews, Samaritans (half-gentile, half-jew), and Gentiles (everyone else.)
Chapters 12-28 focus on Paul’s ministry, taking the gospel into the heart of the Roman empire.
An important note for understand Acts, and what Luke is getting at, is to think for a bit about the parts of church history that are left out. Luke focuses on one trajectory of the expansion of the church: into Europe toward Rome. We also know from church history that at the same time, other disciples were on mission East through India and beyond, as well as south into Africa. These are not chronicled for us. We are also focused on only two main missionaries: Peter and Paul. Others are mentioned, but these men are definitely put forward in the book as primary.
The book is intentionally focused, not comprehensive in scope. It details only a relative handful of things that happened over the course of 35 years.
Acts is not meant to prescribe ways of operating, or even describe things that are to be taken as normative “the right way of doing church” – and it is not meant to describe things we should necessarily expect to happen with frequency. It does not describe the everyday experience of all Christians.
It describes the mission, the expansion of the church, and the fact that when God gives us a mission, he will carry it out. He doesn’t say, “you should try to be my witnesses…” he says “you will be my witnesses.” He doesn’t say “and if you do a good job, you might even reach the entire world…” he says “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to every nation…”
We see in Acts that Jesus’s church will grow and expand, and reach every nation, and nothing can stop it. The Holy Spirit gives believers everything needed to accomplish the mission.
No power of hell, no scheme of man can stand in the way. No opposing religion, no government superpower will be able to stop the church. The miracles described in Acts aren’t meant to tell us that we should expect to see miracles, they are meant to encourage us that when a miracle is needed, according to God’s definition of need, they can happen. When he needs one of his witnesses to be free-roaming on mission, and they are locked in a Roman jail cell, he can make the doors fly open.
We never have to fear spiritual or human opposition. It will come. Some may be martyred. Some may be put in prison. Some may be beaten, shipwrecked, attacked by a mob, mauled by wild animals, we might get in disagreements along the way that are difficult to sort out, but, Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to every nation. We will have power from the Holy Spirit, and we will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the gentiles at the end of the earth.
Can you imagine how that would have sounded to the disciples?
Jerusalem? The seat of Jewish power? They crucified Jesus!
Judea? Already rejected us!
Samaria? A bunch of heretics!
The Gentiles at the ends of the earth?? They’re ruled by a pagan empire, the strongest this world has ever known. We’ve never interacted with gentiles, before, we’re good hebrews. They have their gods. We’re talking about the Hebrew God, that’s for them now?
9 After he had said this, he was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen him going into heaven.”Acts 1:9-11 (CSB)
These verses almost seem to be saying. “Well, what are you waiting for? You heard the man!”
We carry on the task today.
Our mode of operation will be different than what we see in Acts. Not every Christian had a traveling apostolic ministry, in fact very very few of them did, except when scattered by persecution. Nearly all of the thousands and thousands who believed and were added to the church proclaimed the gospel where they lived. The Church, in Acts, was commended for proclaiming the gospel announcement, where they lived.
And that’s where we can find our task. Where we live. Where we go as we move with where God takes us in life though school, work, or other circumstances, we preach the gospel where we find ourselves. Maybe a very small fraction of us will be given a traveling apostolic (means missionary!) ministry, but by and large the rest of us (myself included!) are called to be ambassadors to the people we are near.
We are called to be ambassadors for our king. Gathering together in the embassy, the church, to be reminded of what our message and our mission is, and then sent out into the world to represent our king to them, by proclaiming the gospel, and living in a way that illustrates it.
In the book of Acts we are going to find very few commands, very few things we should do today as 21st century believers, but we can certainly be inspired by the example of those first witnesses. We can be encouraged by what God shows us here: that when he gives us a task, nothing will stand in our way. And we can remember that we stand in a long line… 2000 years… of men and women who put their life on the line every day where they lived to proclaim the gospel to the people in the places God put them.
So as we embark on this series, this walk through Acts, read closely. Listen closely. Talk together with your fellow ambassadors. How can we follow in the footsteps of these witnesses. Here we are, at the very ends of the earth. Nothing has stopped the advance of the gospel in 2000 years, and nothing will. What’s our part in this work? That’s something for you to pray about, and for us to work on together as we go through this series.