They say you can’t really know who you are until you understand where you came from – your roots. If you were to look into your family genealogy – your ancestors – you would find some heroes and some villains, some victories and defeats, joys and sorrows – we all have them. The book of Acts is our roots – who we are and where we come from. Not the 19th century story of a religious movement called the churches of Christ – which is a great story in itself, but I mean all the way back to the 1st century – to understand where our real roots are.
I want to begin our study of Acts by telling you a couple of things about the book that you already know – but if you didn’t know, you would be at a real disadvantage in understanding the book.
The author is Luke – yes, the same Luke that wrote the Gospel. He was a traveling companion of Paul, a physician, a very thorough researcher and writer who gives us a unique perspective on the life of Jesus and the life of the church.
In reality, chapter 1 of Acts is chapter 25 in the larger 2 volume work. Acts is based upon, and a continuation of the Gospel of Luke – and we’d get a better sense of that if the Gospels had been ordered differently so that John didn’t sit in between them, but it is and so it isn’t quite so obvious.
The title itself is a little misleading:
· It’s not really the Acts of the Apostles (remember the titles aren’t inspired) – the work of only 2 apostles is described in any detail, most of the people involved aren’t apostles – though we get glimpses through the ministries of these men of what happens when God is released into the world.
· It’s not a travelogue of Paul’s missionary journeys, though those journeys provide the backdrop against which we see the power of God working.
· It’s not a textbook on conversions – though we do get a powerful picture of what happens when the gospel touches the lives of people.
· It’s not a book of church history – it is historically accurate, but it’s not Luke’s purpose just to give the chronological details – there is a larger picture involved.
· What is this book then? We could more accurately title it the Acts of the Holy Spirit – because when we look at the heart of the book, the main character that shows up in every chapter, is the Holy Spirit. You find the Holy Spirit 58 times in the 28 chapters of Acts. Just as the Gospel of Luke focuses our attention on Jesus, Acts focuses our attention on the activity of the Holy Spirit.
And just as Acts is a continuation of the story in Luke, Acts does not conclude with a tidy ending, “they all lived happily ever after.” In fact, Acts is a continuing story. Paul is in prison, but the gospel is not shackled. The gospel will not end in Rome, it has lit a fire that is burning out of control and spreading like a wildfire in dry grass. We would almost expect to turn the page and read another exciting account of God working in the lives of his people – that story isn’t finished. And the premise of our study is that that is exactly the point. Acts is not an historically isolated, culturally bound, spiritually limited phenomenon that came to an end twenty centuries ago – but a movement, directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit that is still alive in the 21st century.
I want you to look for two central themes running through Acts:
God’s Power in His Church
· This power of God is especially evident because it is set in contrast and often in conflict with human powers – whether it is the Roman authorities, the Jewish Sanhedrin, an angry mob, or a conniving magician. To borrow Paul’s words in Eph. 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” That is the conflict we see being waged in Acts.
· But God’s power is not, and cannot be thwarted – at what seemed like a stunning defeat, as Stephen is being stoned, a persecution of the church begins and Christians flee Jerusalem – then Luke adds the words, “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there.” If persecution had not begun, if Christians had not fled, Christianity would have remained a little provincial oddity, isolated and confined – but in God’s power, the worst thing they could have imagined was the best thing that could have ever happened. As the Jerusalem Christians were scattered, they took the gospel everywhere and the church became a movement of global proportions.
· We see God’s power released when Jesus is preached – on the day of Pentecost, in Cornelius’ house, in Damascus, Ephesus, Corinth, Macedonia, Rome, to a crowd of thousands or a single individual – when Jesus is preached – power is released, lives are changed, the church grows and matures, the message explodes and God is glorified.
· God’s power is demonstrated when God’s people pray – not the polite little before dinner prayers, but prayer that believes in the power of God, and petitions the power of God to do great things – and they saw their prayers answered again and again – not always in ways they expected, but always in ways that were more than they ever dreamed. Prayer was a force to be reckoned with.
A second theme is the mission we hear in 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.” It is really the same commission we heard in Matt. 28 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” In Acts, the progression is specific and observable.
· We watch as the gospel begins to spread from Jerusalem to surrounding Judea, then to Samaria, and then following the entrance of the first Gentile convert, Cornelius – to the ends of the earth. But even beyond that, we see the gospel’s march toward Rome.
· Rome wasn’t just a little European city – it was the threshold of the world. It was the goal toward which the gospel marched, gathering its armies.
· In Luke’s Gospel there is a dramatic movement toward Jerusalem as Jesus sets his face on that city of destiny. In Acts, it is as though Paul is drawn irresistibly to Rome – and a confrontation between the gospel and the seat of government and power.
· The message moves out from the ethno-centric, sectarian Jewish beginnings to the cosmopolitan, pluralistic city that Rome symbolized. The message of the gospel is so designed, flexible and powerful that it can reach out and penetrate and profoundly transform all of the world and its people and cultures.
· Luke shows us in Acts how the gospel sidestepped and overcame so many of the traps that could have stopped its movement and force – language, geography, culture, sectarianism, politics, racial bigotry, intellectual snobbery and plain old sin. And in the drive of the gospel towards the ends of the earth, we see a new world begin to emerge as the gospel makes its impact.
· And what is the impact of that gospel? Changed lives – a Samaritan magician, an Ethiopian eunuch, a Roman Centurion, the Philippian businesswoman, a calloused, battle hardened Jailer in Philippi, soldiers and servants from the Emperor’s own staff – and even an incorrigible, murderous Pharisee named Saul.
What becomes most noticeable as we read the book of Acts is that what happened then isn’t happening now. In the book of Acts we see the powerful movement of God in and through his people – but the church today is settled in and stagnant. Why the difference?
· Because they had miracles? Lots of people saw miracles in the 1st century, but didn’t accept the Lord. The sweeping power of the community of God then was not because people saw miracles, but because of the faith they saw working in the lives of Christians.
· And perhaps it’s because they believed some things that we don’t believe. Different doctrine? Not really – but it’s the difference between believing and believing.
They really believed:
That Jesus is alive
That’s what the resurrection meant to them. For us it is a past historical truth and a future hope in heaven.
For them it was a spiritual reality and a present dynamic.
We need to reclaim that present, active, powerful presence of Jesus in our lives.
That the kingdom of God is the rule of God.
We have sanitized and rationalized what this means.
They saw God’s sovereign rule as a living, vibrant reality – God was not the object of theological discussions but the one who was King over all kings and Lord over all lords.
That the Holy Spirit is indispensable to ministry.
We have boxed him, packaged him, limited him – if the H.S. were suddenly to be removed from our Bible and our beliefs, most of our churches would go on with business as usual – because there is no reliance on the Spirit in our lives or our churches.
They believed that the H.S. was at work – he lived in them, empowered them, guided them.
That the church’s mission is global evangelism at all costs.
We believe that if the church isn’t going to die, we ought to get a little more interested in evangelism – set up a soul-winning class, pump a few more dollars into missions – get the word out about something that happened 20 centuries ago.
They were witnesses, not of a past event, but of something that God was doing in their lives right now – and they were willing to die for it.
That Jesus really is coming again.
We believe that too, don’t we? But their lives were lived with an urgency and expectancy that is missing from our lives. We need to reclaim that urgency and expectancy in our lives if we are ever to live the kind of vibrant, exciting life in Christ that we long for.
When we become a people who believe that Jesus really lives, that the king is ruling even now, that it is the power of God’s H.S. working in the church today, that the commission Jesus gave is worth dying for, and that our Lord really is coming again – we will see the power that was present in the 1st century church come alive in the 21st century church.
For the first century church, the crucial moment was when the faith ignited and the gospel became – not just a geographically, culturally and nationalistically bound message confined to the faithful few in Jerusalem – but a message of such power that it could no longer be contained in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem they found comfort and strength in being God’s people – but when their faith was challenged and they were persecuted and driven from Jerusalem, made to suffer and sometimes die for their faith, they found purpose and real identity in being the people of God with the precious message of their Savior who died for them and now sent them to the ends of the earth to proclaim him.
The question this morning is, what is your Jerusalem? What locks your faith in its boundaries, comfortable and secure, but dying to break loose and be sent into the world so that its fullest potential and purpose might be realized?