Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This week we move out of the four Gospels and into the book of Acts. You will recall that one of our Gospels was written by Luke, who was not himself an apostle, but was a close companion of the Apostle Paul. In Luke’s Gospel, he told us in the introduction that he had carefully researched everything he was about to write about, so that his readers could know the certainty of the things they had been taught. It was addressed to Theophilus, who was likely a wealthy benefactor who was paying for the Gospel account to be produced.
Well, as we move into the book of Acts, we come to the second volume in Luke’s great writing. Even though they are separated in our New Testaments by the Gospel of John, they are meant to be read together. Acts completes the story of Jesus and his people that the book of Luke began. Now, however, Jesus will primarily act through the Holy Spirit, through his appointed apostles, and through his church, rather than in his own physical body. This history is essential for understanding several things. Number one, how the church grew in the early days after Christ’s resurrection. Number two, how the apostles spread the gospel message, and how they made decisions among themselves about matters important to the faith and to the church. And perhaps most importantly, Luke gives us a detailed account of the life and missionary work of the Apostle Paul. In the next article we will begin to move into Paul’s thirteen New Testament letters. Because of the history that is given to us here in the book of Acts, we are able to know much more about the context of those letters than we otherwise would have been. Acts is a crucial text in filling out our picture of the early church.
Acts 1:8, which is quoted above, gives us a good grid to lay over the whole book and produce an outline for us. First, the Gospel takes root and spreads among people in Jerusalem. Then, because of persecution, it pushes out into the greater Judean countryside and into the region of Samaria. Finally, the apostle Paul takes the gospel to the greater Roman world (“the ends of the earth”).
If we follow this pattern, the first part of the book takes us through the opening seven chapters. Jesus leaves the disciples and ascends to heaven in chapter 1 but tells them to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high. This power comes in chapter 2, where Peter is then inspired to preach the first gospel sermon. Three thousand people respond and are baptized on that first day, and the story of the church is off and running. Throughout the remaining five chapters of this section, we see how the church continues to grow, how it experiences growing pains, and how they face persecution from the Jewish ruling class. Despite the opposition, the gospel spreads like wildfire.
Section two goes from chapter 8 through chapter 12 and tells the story of how the church begins to spread its message beyond Jerusalem. Providentially, it is the persecution of the people in Jerusalem that makes them leave the city. But in leaving the city, they take the Gospel with them everywhere they go. The surrounding Judean countryside, along with the region of Samaria, now receives the gospel, and in chapters 10 and 11 we even have the story of the first gospel presentation to the Gentiles. Some of this persecution is being led by a Pharisee named Saul. Saul will have a dramatic conversion in chapter 9, which will lead him to becoming the greatest early Christian missionary. But first, Saul disappears from the scene for a number of years, before he returns with a bang in chapter 13.
The third section of the book (chapters 13-20) tells the story of Paul’s three missionary journeys. Barnabas is the one responsible for finding Saul and inviting him to work with him in Antioch. But from there, Paul sets out on three different preaching missions. The first primarily is in the region of Galatia. The second takes him to Europe and cities like Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. And then finally, the third mission trip takes him primarily to Ephesus, including return visits to other places where he had already preached.
The final section goes from chapter 21 to the end of the book. Here we follow Paul on his journey to Jerusalem, his arrest and trial there, and the various trials and appeals he has to make in order to come to Rome itself. The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, awaiting his trial before Caesar.
The book of Acts is vital history for Christians. It gives us a taste of what the ministry of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit accomplished in those important early years. It also serves to inspire us to continue the work of proclaiming the Gospel. God is reserving for himself a people from every tribe, nation, and language to be his redeemed community.