After months of "setting the stage' by examining the times and culture which led up to New Testament times, we're finally ready to launch into our first study series. This series will examine the beginnings of the New Testament church through a detailed study of the book of Acts and related letters written by the apostle Paul.
Background of the Book
The book of Acts (or more completely, The Acts of the Apostles) was written by the gospel-writer Luke in approximately 63 A.D. The book was written as a sequel to the gospel bearing Luke's name; while the gospel of Luke records the life and ministry of Jesus on earth, the book of Acts continues the story by providing the historical account of what happened during the 30 or so years following Jesus' resurrection and ascension.
The book of Acts is the connecting link between the Gospel accounts and the remainder of the New Testament. Luke's book records the ascension of Jesus back to heaven following his bodily resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the beginnings of the Christian church - first in Jerusalem and then gradually throughout eastern Europe. Acts is the historical link between the teaching of Jesus Christ (as recorded in the gospels) and the application of that teaching to daily life (as exposited in the letters which make up the remainder of the New Testament).
The Gospel of Luke - Part II
In the opening words of the book of Acts we read:
"The first account" mentioned here is the Gospel of Luke. Compare these verses with the first few verses of the book of Luke:
Theophilus was, most likely, a Roman official of Luke's acquaintance (assumed from the title "most excellent" which usually referred to someone of political office) and either a convert to Christianity or at least someone very interested in the "new" religion. Luke's first letter (probably written some 2-3 years earlier) had ended with a brief account of the ascension (Christ's return to heaven after the resurrection); he now wished to continue the account by explaining what happened afterwards.
Verse 3 provides a succinct summary of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples.
Forty days! Six weeks! The New Testament records no less than eleven post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ to his followers after rising from the dead. These range from appearances to individuals (e.g., Mary and Peter) to small groups (the eleven remaining disciples following Judas' death) to as many as 500 people at the same time (see I Corinthians 15:6)! During this time Jesus continued to teach his disciples and interacted with many people in plain, everyday ways: he took walks with people, ate meals, and even went fishing with his disciples! The fact that Jesus was in fact risen from the dead was not simply the claim of a few individuals with some esoteric visions; it was witnessed by a large number of people in the midst of everyday life.
Points to Ponder:
Do you really think of Jesus as alive today? Most Christians will quickly answer "Sure!" -- but do we really? The disciples saw Jesus face-to-face -- and were changed forever. They lived out the rest of their lives energized by the assurance that their savior was alive! If you find your spiritual life lacking in zeal, take some time to remember you do not serve the memory of a good man -- you serve a God who is alive and well!
As the time for his departure approached, Jesus gathered his closest followers around him for some last words of instruction.
The second person of the Trinity, the Son, was about to return to the Father from where he had come. But he would not leave those he loved uncared for. With his departure, the next stage in God's plan was about to begin -- the Church Age. Beginning not too many days from then, the Spirit of God would be given in a way that had never happened before. From that point forward, God (in the form of the Holy Spirit) would actually indwell those who put their trust in Jesus. (This is what Jesus meant by being "baptized with the Holy Spirit".) Jesus was about to outline their life's mission -- a mission which would be empowered by the actual presence of God within them.
But the disciples still didn't quite get it.
Like most Jews of that day, the disciples were still looking for a lesser Messiah. Under the teaching of the Jewish rabbis, most Jews had grown up thinking of the Messiah promised in the Old Testament as a political hero -- an earthly conqueror who would overthrow the domineering government of the Romans and once again establish an independent Jewish nation with a Jewish king. The scriptures, however, had a much greater Messiah in mind. Jesus came not to free the Jews from political domination (a real but temporary condition), but to free them from the lasting consequences of sin's domination. The disciples were focused on the temporary -- Jesus was focused on the eternal.
Points to Ponder:
Do you sometimes pray for something and get frustrated when you don't see God's immediate answer? Like the disciples, we sometimes have a smaller goal in mind than God does. Keep trusting in God -- don't give up. He may have a much larger goal in mind for you than what you've been thinking, and He knows just the right time to let you know. Trust he has your best in mind, and keep living faithfully.
After instructing His disciples what not to focus on, he then turned to what they were to focus on:
The New Testament Church was about to be born, and it was to start with the disciples. They were to wait in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49) until the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Then, and only then, were they to begin the work of telling the world the truth. The American Heritage Dictionary [Note 2] defines "witness" as
1. One who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced
The disciples were to tell the world what they had experienced. Author Ray Stedman helps us understand the role of a witness as it was intended to be:
The disciples had spent three years in intensive training. Now it was almost time to put their training into practice.
He had loved them, he had taught them, and soon he would empower them by the Holy Spirit. The gift had been given and it was up to the disciples to share it with the rest of the world. His mission accomplished, it was time to return home -- for awhile.
With that he was gone. But as the angels informed the disciples, so the scriptures inform us: One day He'll return just as he left -- physically, visibly, and as indicated in I Thessalonians, with authority:
Put it in the bank. It will happen just as it says. Will you be ready?
Next Lesson: The Replacement