The book of Acts is the action book of the New Testament, and one of the most exciting books of the Bible. It is a record of power exercised in the midst of persecution; an account of life and health pouring from a living Christ into a broken society through the channel of obscure men and women, very much like you and me. We could never understand the New Testament if we did not have the book of Acts, for it fills the gap that would exist between the Gospels and the epistles. At the end of the Gospels we read that the disciples and followers of Jesus who had seen the risen Christ! Imagine if you finished the gospels then turned over to 1 Corinthians and thought, “Who is Paul? How is there a church in Corinth? Acts tells us these important details.
The first eleven verses of chapter one constitute an introduction to the book of Acts, giving us the key to the book. Here we have revealed the essential strategy by which Jesus Christ proposes to change the world, a strategy which is the secret of the revolutionary character of the church when it is operating as it was intended to operate. Most Christians suffer from an inferiority complex when we confront the world around us. We have bought the idea of many around that the church is quite irrelevant, a not at all important segment of society. The church is the most important body in the world. Whatever happens in the world happens as a result of something that is, or is not, happening in the church. We shall see this clearly in this book of Acts, starting in Verses 1-2:
In the first book, O Theophilus I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2 RSV)
The writer here is Dr. Luke, that “beloved physician” who accompanied Paul on his journeys. We do not know how he became a Christian though probably through the ministry of the Apostle Paul. He was Paul’s companion through danger, hardship, trial, and endless difficulty, up and down the length and breadth of the Roman empire. He wrote two books of the New Testament, The Gospel According to Luke, and the book of Acts. The one to whom this book is written is a man named Theophilus. We do not know anything more about him than that. Luke’s formal greeting “Most Excellent Theophilus” suggests that he may have been an important Roman official (see Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25). It is strange that he is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, although someone with the name Theophilus might well tend to remain hidden most of the time.
Some boys had a friend whose middle initial was “T”, and he would never tell them what “T” stood for. One day a friend of his announced that he had discovered what that “T” stood for! It stood for “Theophilus,” he said, because when the doctor first saw this baby, he said, “That’s The awfulest baby I ever saw!” Actually Theophilus means, “Lover of God” or “Friend of God in Greek.
In his first statement here, Dr. Luke gives us a key by which the Lord works among mankind. He says, “In the first book, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” The Gospel of Luke is the record of the incarnation of the Son of God. In John’s word, he was “the Word made flesh, who came and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14 KJV). Jesus, the God-man, came to begin something, “to do and to teach,” and the record of that beginning is in the Gospels. But, by clear implication, this second book is the continuation of what Jesus began to do. Acts is not the acts of Christians, but the continuing acts of Jesus. It is an account of what Jesus continues to do and to teach. In the Gospels he did it in his physical body of flesh. In the book of Acts he is doing it through the bodies of men and women who are indwelt by his life. Whether in the Gospels or in Acts, incarnation is the way by which God changes the world.
Whenever God wants to get a message across to men he does not simply send someone to announce it; his final way of driving it home is to dress the message in flesh and blood. He takes a life and aims it in a certain direction and, by the manifestation of his own life through the blood and flesh of a human being, he makes clear what he has to say. That is the strategy of the book of Acts. It is the record of incarnation; men and women, possessed by Jesus Christ, owned by him, and thus manifesting his life. That is the secret of authentic Christianity. Anytime you find a Christianity that is not doing that, it is false Christianity. No matter how much it may adapt the garb and language of Christianity, if it is not the activity human beings possessed and indwelt by the life of Jesus Christ it is not authentic Christianity. That is the true power of the church, as we shall see in this book.
The book of Acts is an unfinished book. It has never been ended, but is still being written. The book abruptly closes with an account of Paul in the city of Rome, living in his own hired house. It just ends there as though you might turn over the next page and begin the next adventure. This book is Volume 1, and we are writing Volume 21 now. It may well be the last volume in the series. I hope so.
The key ingredients of this strategy of incarnation are set before us in this introduction. Here we learn the historic basis on which the strategy rests, and the elements that make up the continuous program by which it operates. That is what any good introduction is for, to tell us what the book is all about. The first of these historic elements is the resurrection of Jesus,
Jesus Gives Us a Purpose
To them [i.e., to the apostles] he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, (Acts 1:3-4a RSV)
Dr. Luke stresses for us the great and central fact of Christian faith: Jesus alive! That incomparable fact is what thrusts Christianity ten thousand miles ahead of its nearest competitor in the field of religion. There is nothing else like it. Jesus alive, risen from the dead! Life has great purpose when we know that Jesus overcame death, the grave and sin. We too can have a resurrected body! We also have teachings and instructions to follow.
This man, Jesus Christ, has risen from the dead: “He presented himself alive after his passion by many convincing proofs.”
The Greek word for “proof” here is a word that includes the idea of being convincing — infallible, as the King James Version has it. Dr. Luke gives us three categories of these proofs. He does not give us the detail which you will find in other places, but he lists the three categories of proof that Jesus Christ was alive. As you well know, from the very earliest centuries and throughout the twenty centuries of Christendom, we have accounts of the enemies of Christianity who tell us that the appearances of Jesus were really nothing but hallucinations, they occurred only in the imaginations of these disciples, and that he really was not there. But, says Luke, let me show you the three categories of proof that he was risen:
One, he appeared to them during forty days. The word here is one from which we get our word, ophthalmia, i.e., the word for the eye, or literally, the eyeball. If we were to use the modern vernacular, what Dr. Luke says is, these disciples “eyeballed” him for forty days. They saw him again and again, not merely once, but many times during this period. Each time he looked exactly the same. It is hard for an hallucination to accomplish that.
Then continuing with how they can live with purpose he spoke to them: “about the kingdom of God.” Why, says Luke, we even remember his subject matter. He talked about the kingdom of God. We saw him and heard him, two objective sensual experiences that confirmed to us that this was no fantasy, no hallucination.
Finally, third, the ultimate proof was, “he ate with us.” The word, “staying” has a marginal reference which gives eating as the actual Greek word used. “He ate with us,” says Luke, and those who were there saw him eat. They saw the food disappear. It’s hard to get an hallucination to eat! Luke says, “This is the proof; he ate with us, so we know he is alive.”
This marvelous fact of the resurrection of Jesus is the bedrock upon which all Christian faith ultimately rests. Anytime you are troubled with doubts, or are under attack for your faith, come right back to this fundamental fact. The Apostle Paul, remember, holds it up for us and says, in effect, to the enemies of Christianity, “Look, if you want to destroy our faith then disprove this fact. It all rests on this. If Christ be not risen, then our faith is in vain,” (1 Corinthians 15:17 KJV). Throughout the centuries many attempts have been made to disprove the resurrection of Jesus, but none has ever been successful. In fact, oftentimes the ones attempting this have themselves becomes convinced by the evidence and have become Christians. It is fact Number 1 upon which the strategy of incarnation rests.
Jesus spent 40 days teaching his disciples, and they were drastically changed. Before the Resurrection, they had argued with each other and had deserted their Lord. One of them (Peter) even lied about knowing Jesus. Here, in a series of meetings with the living, resurrected Christ, the disciples had many questions answered. They became convinced of the Resurrection, learned about the Kingdom of God, and discovered their power source—the Holy Spirit. By reading the Bible, we can sit with the resurrected Christ in his school of discipleship. By believing in him, we can receive his power through the Holy Spirit to be new people. By joining with other Christians, we can take part in doing his work on earth.
Jesus Give Us Power
The second historic fact is called in this passage, “the promise of the Father.”
And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:4-8 RSV)
There is here a four-fold characteristic of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Literally, what Jesus said to these eleven disciples (Judas now having left them) was, “Stick around in Jerusalem.” That is the literal Greek expression. “Stick around! Don’t go outside the city until the promise of the Father has come upon you.” Why? Because you’ll make a mess of it if you try witnessing without this. This is an essential. You cannot be an effective Christian if you are not operating in the power of the Holy Spirit. Every attempt made to advance the cause of Christianity which does not arise from that source only destroys the message God wants to convey. “It is absolutely essential,” Jesus says to these men, “so don’t try anything without it. Just wait, for, in a few days, you will receive the promise of the Father.”
What did he mean, “the promise of the Father“? He meant several things. First, he indicates that the Holy Spirit’s coming would not be ritual but reality. John, he said, baptized with water. That is a ritual, a shadow, a picture. But the reality will be the actual Spirit himself, coming to live in you. The promise that was made to Abraham two thousand years ago (i.e., prior to that point in history) will be fulfilled in you. If you want to read that promise you will find it in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. There God said to Abraham, “I will bless you, and make your name great, … and all nations shall be blessed through you,” (Genesis 12:2-3). We are not told exactly what that blessing is when we read this in Genesis. But in Paul’s letter to the Galatians he tells us very explicitly what the blessing consisted of. In the third chapter of Galatians, Verse 13, Paul says,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us — for it is written “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree” — that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14 RSV)
Our Lord stresses the reality of this. The Holy Spirit is given now, immediately when anyone believes in Jesus. There is no sign, no feeling, no emotional indication of it. It occurs, as Jesus said it would, when any believe on him. It is the means by which the risen life of Jesus becomes available to us, continuously and constantly. All that he is made available through all that I am.
This means that I can have every bit of his attention all the time. All that he is, is available to me, and I do not have to share him with anyone. I can have everything there is of Jesus Christ. He is looking at me, he is talking to me, he is related to me, and everything that he is I can have all the time! But the amazing thing is, so can you! This is why it was important that the Holy Spirit come because it is by means of the Spirit that Jesus’ life is made available to us.
Notice that Jesus points out that not only is this not ritual but reality; it is also not a program, but power. These disciples said to him, “Lord, are you going to at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were thinking in terms of timetables, schedules and programs. “What are you going to do? When is this all going to happen? How is it going to happen? The Lord Jesus said, “That is not for you to know. Times, schedules and programming is not for you to know. That is all in the Father’s authority. Your task is to be the manifestation of power, not the knowledge of a program. The Father will take care of that. You content yourself with exercising the power that is given to you, and the Father will put it all together and work it all out just right.”
Here has been the mistake of the church. The church has thought it had the task of programming the work of God, that it was up to us to set up timetables and establish the structures and framework by which the work would go on; to carry it all out consistently and systematically across and around the world. But we have never been able to do it. The reason is because that is not in our authority. The times and the seasons are not for us to know. The Father has kept that in his own authority. But, said Jesus, though I am not going to let you know the program, I will give you power. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
What kind of power? This is a most wonderful thing! It is resurrection power. It is the power of a risen Lord, resurrection power, a different kind of power. It is not demonstrative or spectacular; it is quiet power. It is the kind of power that never makes any sound, any demonstration. Most kinds of power that we know about make some kind of sound — they hum, or buzz, or throb, or pulsate, or pound, or explode, or something. But this kind of power does not, it is absolutely quiet. But, though it is quiet, it is irresistible. There is no way to oppose it, no way to overthrow it, no way to stop it. Every obstacle thrown in its path is but turned into an opportunity to advance. You can find many demonstrations of that in the Gospels and church history. Today some of us are watching a demonstration of this in our local scene where certain attempts are being made to resist the working of the Holy Spirit. Every attempt thus made is but opening the door wider, for this is resurrection power at work.
It is a glorious kind of power. It does not need any props, does not require outside help, and does not borrow anything from the world. And it works best in a cemetery. It operates most visibly where everything is dull and lifeless, and nothing is happening. Anyone who is operating on resurrection power can come in and change the whole scene. Resurrection power changes lives from within and not from without. It does not start on the outside, with the environment, or the circumstances, or the external situation; it starts within, and works out, to change the environment ultimately. And it does not separate or divide; it harmonizes, it heals, it draws together and breaks down “middle walls of partition” (Ephesians 2:14 KJV) that have been standing sometimes for centuries. It batters them down and brings people together, in harmony. It is a totally different kind of power. That is what you receive when you receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Gives Us a Plan
Jesus says it will not result in propaganda, either, but witnessing. You shall not be propagandists, but “my witnesses,” he said. Christians are not like salesmen going out to peddle a product, nor are we recruiters, going around trying to get people to join our religious club. When the church becomes that it has always become a false thing and lost its power. But this has a personal note about it. Jesus says, “You will talk about me, because you will have experienced me. What you will talk about will be what I have done for you.” That is always what a witness talks about. “You won’t be talking about yourselves,” he says, “you will be talking about me.”
The mark of an unhealthy church is that it loves to talk about itself. These early Christians never witnessed about the church at all; they witnessed about Jesus. What he could do, how he would work, what a fantastic person he was, how amazing was his power, what he could do in human hearts.
This promise of the Father will not be restricted at all, but will be universal. It will begin in Jerusalem and Samaria and go to the uttermost parts of the earth. It will include all places, and all times and ages, all classes, all races, both sexes, slaves or free, it makes no difference.
In Christ there is no East or West,
In him no South or North; But one great fellowship of love,
Throughout the whole wide earth.
The promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit and the plan to reach the world are revealed. You see that emphasis all through the book of Acts, and through the life of the church since, whenever the church has been what it ought to be. Any deviation from this only results in a weakening of the power of the church. the next element Luke stresses, which will run like a thread throughout the rest of this book, is the hope of Christ’s return.
And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11 RSV)
What an amazing experience this was! As they were standing on the Mount of Olives they saw him suddenly lift and ascend into a cloud. They never saw him again; he does not go beyond the cloud, but just disappears. The cloud received him out of their sight. Jesus had told them that this would happen and that this removal was necessary. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Comforter will not come to you, but if I go I will send him to you,” (John 16:7 RSV). It is by means of the Spirit that Jesus makes his life available to each of us, so intimately and so personally.
The angels tell us that though he was to go away, his return is certain. “This same Jesus,” they say, “will come back again.” When he comes he will come in exactly the same way as they saw him go. Just as he stepped into invisibility then, he will step back again into visibility. Suddenly he will be back. And when he comes, says other Scripture, he will remove the curse from nature.
People are looking for a solution to the so called environmental crisis of “climate change” that confronts us today. How shall we solve these problems? Bad news, we will not, they are going to get much worse. The crisis will get so bad that human life will actually be unable to exist any longer on the earth. Jesus said so. He said that the tribulation of those days would be so intense, so terrible, that no person would be saved if it were not for the intervention of God. But, he says, God is going to intervene. When Jesus comes again, he will remove the curse from nature, and nature will bloom and blossom once again. God will draw back the curtains on the exciting thing he has been creating behind the scenes throughout these centuries — a new humanity. A new kind of man will suddenly be revealed. That is what Paul calls “the day of the manifestation of the sons of God,” (Romans 8:19 KJV). That hope of his return runs like a thread throughout the whole book of Acts. It also runs throughout the course of church history. It is part and parcel of the mystery of incarnation, the grand strategy that God employs.
From this modest beginning, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in an amazingly short time span. In spite of repeated attempts to stamp out the movement, it eventually prevailed and became the dominant force in Western culture for nearly two thousand years. Instead of launching out on their own, they patiently, submissively waited for the promised Holy Spirit to come and give them the power they needed and the plan to carry out.
Here in chapter 1 we have all the elements that make up the book of Acts: a risen Lord whose life is made available through the coming of the Spirit, and who will come again in power and great glory. That is the book of Acts. That is the life of the church. These are what makes any group of Christians have an impact, and exercise a vital revolutionary force in the age in which they live. May God help us experience this as well.
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Sources: Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1814.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary, The – MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Acts 1-12.