We’re beginning today a new series of studies on the book of Acts. And what I intend to do is to go through the book, almost verse by verse to see what we can learn here about the early church and the extension of Christ’s kingdom following his resurrection and ascension.
And since there are 28 chapters to the book of Acts, it will take us some time to get through it all.
So, verse 1 of chapter 1. It’s commonly accepted that the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by the same author. And one of the reasons for thinking this is because at the beginning of Luke’s gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts, the author addresses this same man, Theophilus. Back in Luke chapter 1, Luke explains that he’s writing his gospel for Theophilus so that Theophilus will know the certainty of the things that have happened. Luke has researched all the various records of what the Lord Jesus had said and done and now he had decided to write an orderly account of these things for Theophilus. And here in verse 1 of Acts 1, the author addresses Theophilus again and refers him to his former book, the gospel of Luke. And so, that’s one reason for thinking that Acts was written by Luke.
The name Theophilus means ‘friend of God’ and some commentators think it’s a kind of made-up name. You know, Luke is addressing anyone and everyone who loves God. It’s a kind of literary device by which Luke is saying to every reader: ‘Do you love God? Are you his friend? Well, I’ve written this book for you.’ However, Theophilus was also an ordinary Greek name and so other commentators believe that Luke is referring to a real person. In Luke 1, he refers to Theophilus as ‘most excellent Theophilus’ which suggests he may have been a person of importance; perhaps someone who was high up in society. And some suggest that Luke may have been hoping that he would be willing to sponsor his work and pay for it to be distributed widely.
In verse 1 of Acts 1, Luke summarises what the gospel of Luke was about. I wonder, if someone asked you to summarise Luke’s Gospel, could you summarise all 24 chapters of it as briefly as Luke does here? According to Luke his gospel was about ‘all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven’. And that’s remarkably accurate (isn’t it?) because that’s what Luke’s gospel is about: the things the Lord Jesus said and did: his parables and his sermons and his sayings (all that he said); and his birth and his visit to the Temple when he was twelve, and his miracles and then his death and burial and resurrection (all that he did). And the gospel ends with a brief account of his ascension to heaven.
And that’s a reminder to us, of course, that the Bible is all about the Lord Jesus. Some people say the Bible is our guide-book for life; our instruction manual for how God wants us to live; the Maker’s instructions. And, of course, the Bible does contain commandments and instructions and laws for us to follow. But first and foremost, the Bible is about the Lord Jesus. From beginning to end, the focus is always on him and so when we have the opportunity to tell people about Christianity, then we should follow the example of the Bible and tell them about Jesus: what he said and what he did for sinners like us.
Now, there’s one more interesting thing to note about verse 1. Luke explains that in his former book he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach. And you see, the implication is that if the Gospel of Luke recorded what he began to do, then the book of Acts records what he continued to do. The book of Acts is a book about what the Lord Jesus has continued to do through the preaching of the Apostles and by his Spirit. And so, for instance, who was it who poured out the Holy Spirit upon the believers on the Day of Pentecost? Well, in chapter 2 we read that it was the Lord Jesus. And who was it who appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus and appointed him to go and preach to the Gentiles? Well, in chapter 9 we read that it was the Lord Jesus. And who was it who opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message in Philippi? In chapter 16 we read that it was the Lord — and it’s a reference to the Lord Jesus. And it was the Lord Jesus who appeared to Paul in chapter 23 and revealed to him that he would testify about the Lord Jesus in Rome as well as in Jerusalem.
In other words, the book of Acts is all about what the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ did to extend his kingdom and to build his church throughout the earth. From his throne in heaven, he sent his Spirit and he equipped his Apostles to go and make disciples of all nations. In his former book, Luke told us what Jesus began to do. In his second book, the book of Acts, he tells us what Jesus went on to do. And he’s still doing it today. He’s still extending his kingdom and building his church throughout the world through the preaching of the gospel and by his Spirit who enables some of those who hear the gospel to believe and to repent.
In verse 2 Luke explains that his Gospel ended with the ascension of the Lord Jesus into heaven. And he also adds that before he was taken up to heaven, the Lord gave instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Now, it’s not entirely clear what Luke means by ‘through the Holy Spirit’ but perhaps it’s a reminder to us that we can only understand the good news of the gospel through the work of the Holy Spirit who enlightens us and enables us to know that these things are true. If the Apostles needed the Holy Spirit to understand the Lord’s teaching, then so do we, which is why we must always ask the Lord for the Spirit’s help whenever we read the Scriptures. And it’s why we must always pray for the Sunday services, asking that the Holy Spirit will work among us as we hear the word of God read and preached on Sundays. And Luke also reminds us here that the Apostles were chosen by the Lord Jesus: he selected them and sent them out to preach his word.
And then in verse 3 Luke refers to the Lord’s suffering by which he means his death on the cross.
But he then moves on immediately to refer to the Lord’s resurrection and how there is no shadow of doubt about it: Jesus died but rose again. The Lord showed himself to the Apostles and gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive. And the phrase Luke uses means ‘strict proof’ or ‘a compelling sign’. One commentator says that Luke could not have chosen a stronger term to convey to us that the resurrection was beyond doubt: the Lord gave convincing proofs to demonstrate to them that he really was alive. Back in Luke’s gospel we read how the Lord appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and we’re told that he appeared to Peter; and then he appeared to the Eleven disciples and to all those who were with them. And all of those appearances happened on the same day, on the first Easter Sunday.
Here in Acts 1, Luke tells us that the Lord continued to appear to them over a period of 40 days. And when he appeared to them, he spoke to them about the kingdom of God. He is our King and he’s extending his kingdom of grace throughout the world through the preaching of his word.
In verse 4 Luke tells us one of the explicit commandments the Lord gave to the Apostles during that 40 day period of time between his resurrection and ascension. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift his Father had promised which he had spoken to them about.
So, to what gift is he referring? We find out in verse 5 that he’s referring to the Holy Spirit. John the Baptiser used to baptise them with water as a sign of God’s promise to wash away the sins of all who repent. But in a few days, the Lord said, you — and remember he’s addressing the Apostles and perhaps also the other believers at that time — you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit. And, of course, he’s referring here explicitly to what took place on the day of Pentecost which happened a few days later; and we’ll say more about Pentecost when we get to chapter 2.
Nevertheless, he says more about the Holy Spirit in verse 8 in answer to their question to him in verse 6. They want to know if at this time he would restore the kingdom to Israel. Their question had two parts to it: First of all, they were expecting God through Jesus to do something for Israel. At that time, Israel was occupied by the Romans and things were very different from the way things were in the Old Testament and in the days of Kings David and Solomon when Israel was a glorious kingdom and ruled over the other nations. So, was Jesus the one who was going to overthrow their enemies and to make Israel glorious once again?
And the second part of their question was about the timing: was this going to happen now? Are you at this time going to do it? Look at the Lord’s response to them which is also in two parts. First of all, in verse 7: You can’t know the time and dates the Father has set by his own authority. People try to predict the future; and people try to predict when Christ will return and the world will end. But none of us knows. Only God knows. And then, secondly in verse 8: the Lord’s kingdom is not confined to Israel anymore. In the Old Testament, God had chosen Israel from among all the other nations to be his people. But now, the Lord Jesus Christ was sending the Apostles out to the ends of the earth. His kingdom was no longer confined to the land of Israel, but would extend throughout the world.
And so in verse 8 the Lord promised his Apostles that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And the work of the Holy Spirit is to equip them to be his witnesses.
They were eye-witnesses to the Lord’s death and resurrection and so he was sending them out to bear witness to what they had seen and to explain what it meant. And they were to bear witness in Jerusalem. But they weren’t to stay in Jerusalem. So they were to bear witness in all Judea and Samaria. That is, to the surrounding areas.
But that’s not all. They were to bear witness to the ends of the earth. And so, the Apostles travelled throughout the Roman Empire, and wherever they went, they told people what they had seen and what it meant. And, of course, that’s what the rest of the book of Acts is about: how they went here, there, and everywhere and preached the message of Jesus Christ and forgiveness in his name. And the Lord Jesus worked through them by his Spirit to deliver sinners from their sin and misery and to establish churches in every place.
Before the Spirit came upon them, something else had to happen. And so we read in verse 9 that, after he said this to them, the Lord was taken up before their very eyes. Do you see the emphasis again on what they saw? They were eye-witnesses who were sent to bear witness to what they saw. And so they were able to say that they saw the Lord ascend to heaven. But then a cloud hid him from their sight — and that’s significant because clouds in the Bible are often associated with the presence of God. A pillar of cloud was a sign that God was with his people in the wilderness. God came down to meet with Moses and a thick cloud covered Mt Sinai. God came down in a cloud when the Temple was dedicated in the days of Solomon. A cloud covered the mountain when the Lord Jesus was transfigured. And now the Lord Jesus was hidden by a cloud because he had gone back to heaven to be with God the Father.
The Apostles were staring up into the sky, perhaps wondering where had he gone and would he re-appear? Suddenly two men — and they’re angels, of course — stood beside them and explained: This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. This same Jesus. Not someone else. But Jesus our Saviour. He’s in heaven now. But he will come back; and he’ll come back in the same way he left: in human form.
What does this mean for us? That, because he died and was raised, we too who die will rise at the resurrection. That he hasn’t forgotten us now that he’s in heaven, but is preparing a place for us and will one day return for us. And that he rules over all things now for the sake of his church. And so, in the book of Acts, we’ll see how he guides and directs and equips his people for the task of making the gospel known throughout the world.