1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Once upon a time, many years ago, into the dark and pagan world of the first century, a world of violence, tyranny, slavery, and ignorance, a new people emerged. Their presence was, at best, tolerated with bemused irritation or, at worst, despised and plotted against. They were a strange people and they had strange ways. The faithful members of this new group sounded like madmen. They refused to offer incense to the Emporer as a god, claiming instead that they could only offer praise and offerings to the one true God of Heaven and earth. They practiced a strange kind of classless society: the poor and the wealthy were treated the same and were seen to be of equal value. They valued those elements of society that society at large saw as irksome reminders of human weakness: the sick, the infirm, the impoverished, the outcast, the undesirable. When respectable Roman women had babies they did not want and followed the custom of putting the baby in the wild to be consumed by wild animals or the elements, these odd people would go, gather them up, and raise them. They acted as if people had intrinsic value, not value conferred by status or earned by accomplishment. They called for peace and the end of violence. They suffered bravely when persecuted and did not complain. The conferred the title of “brother” and “sister” to those who were not of their biological family, thereby redefining the very nature of family.
Their beliefs strained credulity. They claimed that God had become a man and had been born in Palestine, of all places, to a virgin girl. They claimed He worked miracles and healed the sick. They claimed He announced the coming of a new Kingdom, a Kingdom of which He was King and a Kingdom populated by all who would come to Him in repentance and faith. When this God-Man was nailed to a cross and killed, they claimed He allowed it to happen so that, in so doing, He could pay the price for the sins of the world. When He was buried they claimed the grave could not hold Him and that He rose again. They claimed He lived still, reigning at the right hand of the one true God, but reigning also in the hearts of His people through the Holy Spirit Who He sent to seal, keep, instruct, and guide His people. They claimed He is coming again.
It is fascinating to see what this strange group of people did say two thousand years ago. It is also fascinating to note what they did not say. We never find them involved in sustained complaint against the fallenness of the world. We never find them protesting the secular businesses of the Roman Empire. We never find them protesting this or that movement in the world. We never find them appealing to the secular powers to aid and assist them in the advancement of their cause. We never find them angry at the world for being the world. We never find them hating the world for being the world. We never find them expecting Rome to be anything other than Rome. We never find them expecting Rome to legislate in their favor. There were no “culture warriors” among these people. They were concerned only with proclaiming their peculiar message to the lost culture and calling fallen men and women to come to their King in obedience and faith.
As I say, it was a strange group indeed!
This group of people were first called “Christians” in the city of Antioch but were also known as “The Way.” They were also called “the Church”: that body of people comprised of Jesus-followers who recognized Him as Lord, King, and God.
It is interesting to hear the Church spoken of in this way in our day. In our day, the Church, in many quarters of America anyway, has become a somewhat domesticated puppet of the state: held on a leash of false promises, manipulated and cajoled into thinking that the Church still matters, is still valued by society at large. For our parts, we want desperately to believe this nonsense, though the increasing secularization of our society is making this mythology harder and harder to believe. Born on this side of Constantine as we are, we have been raised in a context where government support or, at least, appreciation is a given. It is debatable if this has ever really been the case, of course, or if the Church in America simply received the thankful nod of the state insofar as it was politically expedient for the state to do so.
Regardless, it is time for us to come to terms with the death of the Bible Belt and the coming death of nominal Christianity in America. Why? Because as our society becomes increasingly secularized and thereby more belligerent to the Church, it will ostensibly cost more and more to follow Jesus in this society. Thus, there will be a kind of pruning of the fringe. We will experience what the believers of the first centuries experienced and what the persecuted Church experiences today: the need for genuine commitment if we are going to identify as Christ-followers in the world.
Which is simply to say that the Church needs the book of Acts now more than ever. This is because the dominant culture ethos in which we reside is coming increasingly to mirror the ethos of the society in which the first Christians first lived. The world of Acts is now our world, and we would do well to listen.
I say none of this in an effort to complain. Far from it. The stripping away of the nominal Christian veneer from society will force the Church to be the Church. This is a good thing. It is so because it means we now reside in an arena in which the scandal and prophetic challenge of the gospel can be clearly seen and clearly felt by society insofar as it is clearly proclaimed by the Church. And this means that the light may now shine in the darkness since we can no longer deceive ourselves that the darkness is really light after all. It is not. It is darkness. Christ is light. The sides are now clear and the lines are more easily discernible.
This means that we are now free to receive both the outrage and admiration of the watching world since the watching world, in our country anyway, no longer feels the need to pretend to be Christian. Make no mistake, the watching world of the first century felt both: outrage and admiration, the desire to kill or the desire to join. There were very few responses in between.
The coming of Christ and, then, of His Church was a threat to the dominant world system. Christ turned everything on its head. In For the Time Being, W.H. Auden imagines Herod’s reaction to the news that “God has been born.” Though a fictional imagining, of course, this is likely an accurate depiction of what despots then and now feel when they see Christ and His gospel taking root in the populace:
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all. Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions…Idealism will be replaced by Materialism . . . Life after death will be an eternal dinner where all the guests are twenty years old. . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
Yes! This is the threat of Christ and His Church to a society lost in darkness. It inverts the assumed verities and shows them for the farces they are. Christ changes everything!
More positively, Boris Pasternak got at the revolutionary implications of the coming of Christ in Doctor Zhivago, when he had Nikolai Nikolaievich record the following in his diary:
Rome was a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples, a bargain basement on two floors, earth and heaven, a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction. Dacians, Herulians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Gyperboreans, heavy wheels without spokes, eyes sunk in fat, sodomy, double chins, illiterate emperors, fish fed on the flesh of learned slaves. There were more people in the world than there have ever been since, all crammed into the passages of the Coliseum, and all wretched.
And then, into this tasteless heap of gold and marble, He came, light and clothed in an aura, emphatically human, deliberately provincial, Galilean, and at that moment gods and nations ceased to be and man came into being – man the carpenter, man the plowman, man the shepherd with his flock of sheep at sunset, man who does not sound in the least proud, man thankfully celebrated in all the cradle songs of mothers and in all the picture galleries the world over.
The revolutionary impact of Christ on civilization simply cannot be overstated. The book of Acts tells the beginning of His impact on and in the world through the life of His people, the church. Again, we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves with the story of Acts, if for no other reason than to see again what Jesus did through a group of people living in a predominately hostile environment and what He can do in and through us in a similar environment today.
Acts is presenting evidence that the work of Jesus continues in and through the Church.
Acts is the second volume written by Luke, the physician and historian, as he notes in the beginning of Acts.
1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach
This Theophilus is either an individual who bears that name, or he is an individual to whom Luke has given a pseudonym, possibly for his protection, or this is a general reference to those who are “loved by God,” as the word suggests. Regardless, Luke sends this letter as a follow-up to his “first book.”
The first book was Luke, the gospel of Luke. It tells the story of Jesus: His birth, His life, His teachings, His miracles, His death, His burial, and His resurrection. That is telling because of how it pours meaning and significance into one word in Acts 1:1. That word is began. “I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…”
Why is that significant? Think it through. It is as if Luke is saying this:
Theophilus, do you remember the first book I wrote and sent to you? The book of Luke? Do you remember how in that book I told you all about Jesus? And do you remember how in that book I told you about what Jesus began doing? Well, in this second book I want to tell you the rest of the story. I want to tell you what Jesus is still doing. You see, Theophilus, He is still at work. He has not stopped. You might wonder how He is still working, since He has ascended to Heaven. I’ll tell you. He is working through His church. That’s right. Think of it like this: Volume 1 – What Jesus started doing. Volume 2 – What He is still doing. Volume 1 – Jesus’ incarnate life. Volume 2 – Jesus’ life continuing through His church.
T.C. Smith notes that many commentators see the phrase “began to do” in “Jesus began to do” as being “poor form” grammatically, or grammatically “clumsy.” Against these critics, Smith argues that Luke “has a purpose in using this so-called clumsy expression.” The purpose in using this wording is to show that “the earthly ministry of Jesus is but the beginning of an action which is without termination.”
This is why Acts needs to be studied and studied carefully: it is a chronicle of how Jesus continued His life in and through the life of His people after He ascended.
Do you see? If we do not grasp the reality of the current reign of Christ in and through His people we will be forever limited to discussing our Christian life in terms of our conversions and not in terms of what Christ is doing in and through us today, here and now.
Acts is presenting evidence that the Church continues the work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit (v.2,4-5)
But how does the life of Christ continue in and through His church? It cannot be through mere imitation of Christ. Left to our own devices, our best-intended efforts to do what Jesus did inevitably end with futility and an increased awareness of the disconnect between who He is and who we are.
Left to our own devices, that is.
But what if we aren’t left to our own devices? Based on Luke’s introduction to his second volume, the early church was certainly not left to its own devices. This is abundantly clear in verse 2 as well as in verses 4-5.
2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
Luke says first that Jesus instructed his disciples during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension “through the Holy Spirit.” His instructions, in other words, leading up to His bodily removal from them through the resurrection were bathed in the Holy Spirit. True, the Spirit of God would fall upon the disciples in a unique and powerful way at Pentecost, but here, in this season of preparation, Christ speaks to them “through the Holy Spirit” about what is going to happen when He ascends.
In verses 4 and 5, Jesus foretells this powerful coming of the Spirit.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
“You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus tells them to wait and get ready because something amazing, something cataclysmic was about to happen to them. That amazing cataclysmic “something” was, in fact, Someone: the Holy Spirit.
What role did the Holy Spirit play in the life of the early church? Simply this: the Spirit enabled the church to live the life of Christ. He is the animating Spirit. He is the presence of Christ in us. He is our seal and our deposit. He is the indwelling, enabling, empowering Spirit of God. St. Augustine said, “What the soul is in our body, the Holy Spirit is in the body of Christ, which is the church.”
That is very true! Without the Spirit’s indwelling power and presence the church has no power and is no presence. This is why it is so tragic that so many churches corporately and so many Christians individually do not depend on the Spirit who has been given to them. Francis Chan put it like this:
If I were Satan and my ultimate goal was to thwart God’s kingdom and purposes, one of my main strategies would be to get churchgoers to ignore the Holy Spirit. The degree to which this has happened (and I would argue that it is a prolific disease in the body of Christ) is directly connected to the dissatisfaction most of us feel with and in the church. We understand something very important is missing. The feeling is so strong that some have run away from the church and God’s Word completely.
I believe that this missing something is actually a missing Someone-namely, the Holy Spirit. Without Him, people operate in their own strength and only accomplish human-size results. The world is not moved by love or actions that are of human creation. And the church is not empowered to live differently from any other gathering of people without the Holy Spirit. But when believers live in the power of the Spirit, the evidence in their lives is supernatural. The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.
The early church was Spirit-led. The early church was Spirit-empowered. The early church was Spirit-filled. The early church was Spirit-driven.
Jesus told them that what they were about to do they would only be able to do through the power of the Spirit. The Spirit fell and the church moved and the church lived and the church worked and changed…the…world.
Want to know the difference between a club and the church? The Holy Spirit.
Want to know the difference between an institution and a movement? The Holy Spirit.
Want to know the difference between church as a product and church as a life? The Holy Spirit.
Without the Holy Spirit, we will read the story of Acts as a story alien to us, for the presence of the Spirit of the living God can be the only connection point between us. We are separated from the church of the first century by two thousand years, by wildly different customs and cultures, by language, by ethnicity, by political context…in short, by a thousand different things. But the one thing we have in common is the presence of the Spirit of the living God Who has been sent by the divine and resurrected second person of the Trinity to indwell and to empower us.
Acts is our story only insofar as we are truly the people of God.
Acts is demonstrating how the Church advances the breaking-in of the Kingdom of God in the world. (v.3)
The church continues the life of Christ, and it does so through the power of the Spirit. But to what end? Why? Note what Jesus said in verse 3.
3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
What did Jesus speak about in the forty days leading up to His ascension to Heaven? The Kingdom of God. Why? Because the Church is ultimately serving the Kingdom’s advancement. How? By calling men and women into it through repentance and faith, by modeling Kingdom lives before the watching world, and by salting this current decaying order by being salt and light through their Kingdom lives.
What this means is that the Church in the world is to be a subversive movement, but a movement that subverts with love, the love of Christ. The Church represents the door through which the Spirit of God breaks into the world.
How revolutionary this is! How it shatters our petty church consumerism and our church shopping. When we return the church to its rightful status as a revolutionary movement, we are freed from the tyranny of having always to make the church about us. We are thereby enabled to see the Church as about God: His plan for humanity, His design, His priorities, His Son.
And when we do this, the story of Acts really does become our story. We are now able to read it as a story that is continuing, here and now, in our own lives as Christians. Acts, then, really is for us. It is our model but it is also our prequel.
The great poet John Donne put it well when he wrote:
Now the Acts of the Apostles were to convey that name of Christ Jesus and to propagate his gospel throughout the whole world. Beloved, you too are actors on this same stage. The end of the earth is your scene. Act out the Acts of the Apostles! Be a light to the Gentiles who sit in darkness! Be content to carry over these seas him who dried up one red sea for his first people and who has poured out another red sea – his own blood – for them and for us.
Yes! May we “act out the Acts of the Apostles.” We have the same King, Jesus. We are empowered by the same Spirit. We are commissioned by the same Father. We have the same goal: the salvation of every man, woman, and child on this plant.
Be the Church.
Be the Church!
 Boris Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago. (New York, N.Y.: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1958), p. 43.
 F.F. Bruce rejects the idea that this was a reference to Christians in general, pointing out that “Theophilus was a perfectly ordinary personal name, attested from the third century B.C. onward.” He goes on to surmise, “It is quite probable that Theophilus was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them.” F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Revised). The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gordon D. Fee, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p.29.
 T.C. Smith, “Acts.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.10. Clifton J. Allen, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1970), p.17.
 Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Kindle Loc. 964.
 Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Kindle Loc. 42-58.
 Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.2.