Introduction To Acts Sunday, December 10, 2017
The Ascension Of Jesus
AN INTRODUCTION TO ACTS
By James Lewis Thornton and Mary Lee Thornton
The last recorded words of Jesus is recorded in Acts 1:8 and has come to be known as "The Great Commission."
Acts 1:8. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. (KJV)
The Book of Acts is the story of the men and women who began to fulfill that commission and began to spread the news of a risen Savior to the most remote corners of the known world.
We could begin by asking, “Why did Luke write this letter that we call, The Book of Acts, to Theophilus?” The purpose of Luke, in writing Acts, was to supply, by select and suitable instances, an illustration of the power and working of that religion (Christianity) which Jesus had died to establish. Luke emphasized that the chief agent employed in the conversion of men is the Holy Spirit. It is this fact which led the author to detail so minutely the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the various gifts and influences by which its work was accomplished. He thus teaches the reader what part this divine power performed in the conversion of sinners, and how he performed it. There is, therefore, no one book in the entire Bible to which the present generation of Bible readers so much needs to have their attention specially directed.
We will find that the book of Acts presents, in living form and unmistakable simplicity, the work of the Holy Spirit. If it be asked why we may not as well take for our model the cases of conversion which occurred under the former dispensation, or during the life of Jesus, the answer is obvious. We do not live under the law of Moses, or the personal ministry of Jesus, but under the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, just previous to his ascension, committed the affairs of his kingdom on earth into the hands of twelve men, to be guided by the Holy Spirit, which descended shortly after he ascended; and now all that we can know of present terms of pardon must be learned through the teaching and example of these men. If, then, the conditions of pardon under any preceding dispensation be found to differ from those propounded in Acts, in all the points of difference the latter, and not the former, must be our guide.
Luke’s Opening Statement:
A record of the life Jesus of Nazareth, designed to convince men that he is the Christ, would most naturally begin with his birth (Luke 1 & 2) and terminate with his ascension to Heaven (Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9). Such was the “former narrative” which Luke had addressed to Theophilus, and he alludes to it as such in introducing his present work: Acts 1:1 “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2. Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:” These commandments were also included in the first treatise (Luke 24:46-49).
During the personal ministry of Jesus, he authorized no human being to announce his Messiahship. On the contrary, whenever he discovered a disposition to do so, he uniformly forbade it and this not only to various recipients of his healing power, but to the Apostles themselves. When Peter made the memorable confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” we are told that, at the close of the conversation, “He charged His disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.” Such was his uniform injunction on similar occasions.
Even when Peter, James, and John had witnessed His transfiguration, and heard God himself proclaim him His Son, as they came down from the mount, “Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man is risen from the dead.” The reason for this can be found in the mental condition of the disciples themselves. Their crude conceptions of the Messiahship, their gross misconception of the nature of the expected Kingdom, their misunderstanding of much that He had taught them, and their imperfect remembrance of that which they had seen and heard, rendered them incapable of presenting His claims truthfully, not to say infallibly, to the world. Moreover, their faith had not, as yet, acquired the strength necessary to the endurance of privations and persecutions. While laboring under these defects, they were most wisely prohibited from preaching that He was the Christ.
During the last night he spent on earth, Jesus at length informed them that this restriction would soon be removed, and they should receive the qualifications necessary to be his witnesses. There is a scripture in Luke’s Gospel that tells us on that last night, “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
He also says, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you.” “I have many things to say to you, but you can not bear them now; howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all the truth.” “He shall testify of me: and you also shall testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” In these words they have a promise that they shall testify of Jesus, with the Holy Spirit for their guide; but the promise looks to the future for its fulfillment.
Finally, “in the day in which He was taken up,” He gives them the commandment which is to unseal their lips, and authorizes them to preach the glad tidings to every creature. Without this commandment, they could not have dared to tell any man that he was the Christ; with it, they are authorized to begin the labors which our historian is about to narrate. But even yet there is one restriction laid upon them; for they have not yet received the promised qualifications. “He commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem; but await the promise of the Father, which you have heard from me.” This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost only a few days later.
In Acts we see the Church change in one generation from a Jewish church to almost a totally Gentile Church.
The Book of Acts has been called "the History of the early Church." as such it is the most widely read history ever compiled. This history, of a single generation of the early Church, has been translated and transliterated into almost every human language and dialect, and has had more influence on the Christian faith than any other work. We shall look at some of the major and some of the hidden influences of the Book of Acts.
In this Introduction to Acts we will look at the author and also the recipient of the letter we call the Book of Acts. We will note the transforming power which the Holy Ghost brought upon the early Church. We will note how the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread from the confines of Jerusalem to Samaria, to Antioch, and then throughout the Roman world, and ends with the author in Rome where the Gospel is being preached in the capital of the world. In one generation the Church had changed from a predominately Jewish beginning to an overwhelming Gentile congregation, and the author had been an eye-witness to much of this change.
Luke is the author of the Book of Acts. We could call the Book of Acts a sequel or a continuation of the Book of Luke, and written to the same person (Acts 1:1). Luke's name never appears in his gospel nor in the Book of Acts. In fact his name only appears three times in the New Testament, Colossians 4:14, where he is described as the beloved physician; in Philemon 2:4, where is described as a fellow-laborer with Paul; 2 Timothy 4:11, where he was with paul during his imprisonment at rome. From this last passage in 2 Timothy, many Bible scholars have concluded that Luke was put to death as a co-conspirator with Paul, but this conclusion is not certain.
I feel that Luke was a Gentile, probable Greek, whose home most likely was in Philippi. He first met Paul in Troas, Acts 16:6-11, where Paul evidently won him to Christ. Before meeting Paul, Luke knew nothing about Jesus. In all likelihood he had not even heard his name. This is the most formative event of Luke's life, his meeting with Paul. That was of the first importance, not only for his character and for the course of his life, but for the source of his knowledge. On that occasion, in Troas, Luke entered into the fellowship of the Christian faith, joined the little company of believers, and became the devoted friend and companion of the man whose message had laid its spell on his mind and heart.
In these scriptures, Acts 16:6-11, we see the Holy Ghost at work in the directing of the gospel. Paul had a mind to take the gospel into parts of northern Ga-la-tia and Bi-thyn-ia but was forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in that part of Asia. We could wonder about the results if Paul had been allowed to take the Gospel in that direction. The results could have been that all the nations that make up the central part of Asia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and etc. Could be Christians today and the nations of Europe, who make up the Christian block, be the ones who would have shut out the Christian faith. But the Holy Ghost had other plans and these plans affect you and I insomuch as the Gospel was brought towards our part of the world.
Another thing God had a man, whose name was Luke, in his plans for Paul to meet in Troas who was to write the greatest story ever told. God did not call Luke to be a preacher or a teacher, nowhere is he ever called such in the Bible, but God called him to be the Biographer of Jesus and Apostles. Luke had a story to tell that would be more powerful, more persuasive, more enlightening, more enduring than any sermon ever preached. This story, the Book of Luke, and the Book of Acts, contains more information about the life of Jesus, and the early Church than any other work, and in certain cases is the only source we have.
I feel that after his conversion at Troas Luke tried to persuade Paul to come to his home country and bring the gospel to his people. Paul was indecisive after the Holy Ghost had forbidden him to go into certain places and while he pondered on his next move he had a vision of a man of Macedonia saying come over and help us, Acts 16:9. This man would have to be someone whom Paul knew, as the people of Macedonia did not look or dress any different from the surrounding nations. I feel that Paul recognized Luke as the man in his vision and immediately left Troas for Philippi. This begins the first of the "we" sections of the book of Acts, indicating that the author joined the story he was writing for the first time (Acts 16:11). When Paul and Silos left Philipp sometime later, Acts 17:1, Luke stayed behind in Philippi as indicated by the word "they" in the verse, and that he was not with them. Six years later Paul visited Philippi again, Acts 20:5, and when he left Philippi, Acts 20:6, the author was with him, because the "we" section begins again and Luke seems to have been with Paul until his death. We could call him a traveling companion of Paul.
Luke, as far as can be determined, was the only gentile writer in the Bible. He was most likely a Roman citizen, a physician, and a well-educated man, well read, well versed in the Greek language. No one writing of that current age had a better knowledge of the customs, the governing principals, the religions, the people, the government officials, kings, priests, centurions, traveling conditions, and numerous other things than Luke the historian of the early church.
Written to The-oph-i-lus
There has been much speculation as to who Theophilus was. In Luke he is addressed as "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3), indicating a person of high birth or rank on the social order. He possibly was a person who had been won to the Christian faith, most likely in Philippi. The thing that the world owes to him is the fact that he somehow, and for some reason, retained the parchment or scroll which was sent to him by Luke. God in his wisdom and in his own way impressed upon Theophilus the value of the two documents and they were preserved. What a loss to the world it would have been if Theophilus had simply discarded them. Some letters written by George Washington, and some by Thomas Jefferson have been preserved and they are termed almost priceless, but they pale in comparison to these manuscripts which make up the cannon of the New Testament. All of western civilization owes their very existence to them. O, they would exist but their civilized ways would not. Theophilus we salute you, and give honor to you, as a preserver of the most precious gift you could have given to the world. May God reward you accordingly.
The Purpose of the Book of Acts
"The Acts of the Apostles"---though probably not given to it by Luke, sufficiently expresses its general object. Luke intended to give a faithful record of the doings of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, after he had ascended into heaven, leaving them as his responsible agents to carry on the building of his Church on earth. It is obvious that if the authoritative Christian documents had ended with the Gospels, we should have been left without sufficient guidance in regard to a multitude of important questions of the utmost significance to the Church in all ages. It was Luke’s purpose to inform Theophilus of the events which took place, and the people God used to bring the church into the life-changing organization that he had become a part of.
Contents of the Acts of the Apostles
It is not our purpose in this Introduction To Acts to give a detailed description, but we will give the highlights which helped shape the church in the first century.
Acts opens with a detailed view of the last few hours Jesus spent with his disciples just before his ascension back into Heaven. During that last hour Jesus gave them "The Great Commission" and promising them power to become witnesses of him and of his resurrection (Acts 1:1-8), then telling them not to leave Jerusalem until they received this gift. Then Luke gives us a detailed description of his ascension, and the most direct promise of the return of the Lord that we have in the Bible (Acts 1:9-11). The first chapter closes fittingly with a picture of the Church (120), gathered together in the upper room (including, most significantly, the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus), waiting in prayer for the refreshing from the presence of the Lord. We also have record of the first business meeting of the early church as they appointed Matthias to take the place of Judas Iscariot on the Apostolic Board.
Beginning of the Christian church (Acts 2)
The first major event in the history of the Church took place on the day of Pentecost and is recorded in chapter 2, the coming of the holy ghost with the evidence of all of those gathered there speaking in other tongues as the spirit gave them utterance. This was God's way of bringing the church into being. Without Luke leaving us this record we would never have known this happened. Peter's sermon followed in which he used the key Jesus gave him (Matthew 16:19) to tell those who came together what to do to be saved (Acts 2:38).
Luke emphasized the phenomenal growth of the Church, 3,000 at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), 5,000 (Acts 4:4), multitudes (Acts 5:14), Disciples multiplied (Acts 6:1), great companies (Acts 6:7) filled Jerusalem (Acts 5:28). This growth brought certain problems that the Apostles solved by appointing the first deacon board (Acts 6:1-6), which has been the pattern for the church throughout the ages. The growth also stirred up great opposition against the Church. This opposition was first directed against the Apostles (Acts 4:13-18; 5:17-18; 5:40), beatings and imprisonment followed.
In the first few chapters of Acts, Luke emphasizes the work and actions of the twelve Apostles, especially Peter and John. Then one by one we are introduced to others who would play a major role in the proclamation of the Gospel. Two of those were members of the first deacon board, Philip and Stephen (Acts 6:5).
The First Martyr (Acts 7)
Stephen was the first of these to step out, and his message so inflamed the council that they stoned him to death (Acts 7:59-60), and he became the first of millions who would give their life for the gospel.
The first Evangelist (Acts 8)
Philip, another one of those first deacons, was the first to leave the confines of Jerusalem and take the Gospel to other regions as he preaches in Samaria (Acts 8:5-40) and the regions around Jerusalem.
The First Missionary
During the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58) we are introduced to a young man who would become the greatest missionary the church would ever know. His Jewish name is simply mentioned here as Saul. During the stoning of Stephen he is described as an on-looker, or simply a person who held the coats of those who threw the stones. Another thing of great interest is the description given of the look upon Stephen’s face and the prayer he prayed during the time he was being stoned (Acts 6:15; 7:55-60). This description could only have come from an eye-witness which most likely was Saul himself. This event had great effect on the future Apostle. The look on Stephen’s face, the prayer he prayed, all this began to weigh heavily upon his mind and God began to deal with his heart. God brought great conviction, or as it is described later as "pricks" in the heart (Acts 9:5) (one translation, oxgoads, i.e. To offer vain and perilous, ruinous resistance).
Instead of yielding to the "pricks" from God, Saul fought against them by doing everything in his power to destroy the Church. I've seen many people do the same thing, fight against conviction and get worse than they ever were before. Most of the time those people are fighting a losing battle, as Saul was. Saul instigated persecution, not only against the Apostles and leaders but against the Saints in general (Acts 8:3).
It was as though he went mad, bringing havoc (to treat shamefully or with injury, to ravage, devastate, ruin; strongs) upon the church. In other words Saul became a tyrant, a tormentor, an injurious (one who, uplifted with pride, either heaps insulting language upon others or does them some shameful act of wrong; strongs) person (1 Timothy 1:13).
The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9)
Acts 9 records the second great event in the history of the Church the conversion of Saul to the Christian faith. Luke realizing the importance of this event writes about it in three different chapters (Acts 9:1-19; 22:4-21; 26:8-20). Saul of Tarsus, best known to us by his Roman name Paul, became as zealous for the Gospel as he had one time been against it.
It was through his zeal, his preaching, his teachings, and his writings that Christianity became a world-wide religion. We will discuss this more later. Saul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians in that city when God struck him down with a great light (Acts 9:3), blinding him, and a voice from heaven called him to repentance. Three days later An-a-ni-as baptized him and God filled him with the Holy Ghost (Acts 9:17-18). Almost immediately Saul began preaching about the Christ he had persecuted (Acts 9:20).
The Conversion of the Gentiles to Christianity (Acts 10)
The third greatest event that took place was the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48). This was a monumental thing that was to have world-wide significance. Up until Peter was sent to the Roman Centurion's house the Gospel had been preached to the Jews only, but now Peter and the other Apostles realized that God had opened the door to every race, whether Jew, Gentile, Greek, or Roman. This was the beginning of the enormous expansion of the Church. This event affects you and I today, it opened the door that we also might enjoy the same experience as the Apostles did on the Day of Pentecost. It is from this point on that the emphasis of the Book of Acts switches from Jewish Christianity to a gospel to the whole world.
The First Missionaries Sent Forth:
Acts chapter 13 tells the story of the first missionary journey. The Gospel had been received at Antioch and great numbers had been added to the Church. Antioch was the third largest city in the world at that time and was soon to replace Jerusalem as the greatest promoter of the Christian Faith. It was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas were commissioned as Missionaries to take the Gospel to other parts of the world (Acts 13:1-5). It was from Antioch that all of Paul’s missionary journeys began.
James Becomes A Martyr:
Acts chapter 12 tells about James the brother of John being beheaded by King Herod, and thus became the first of the Apostolic Band which Jesus chose to give his life for the Gospel. James had indeed drunk from the cup that the Lord had ask him if he was able to drink from (Matthew 20:22).
Other Characters in Acts
In the Book of Acts Luke introduces many people who were to play a major role in the early Church, and in some cases he furnishes the only background we have of them. Without this background information we would know practically nothing about them and therefore they would be almost meaningless to us.
Even the writings of the Apostle Paul would mean very little to us without the knowledge of him we glean from the Book of Acts. From Acts we learn he was a student of the Hebrew law under the great teacher Ga-ma-li-el (Acts 5:34; 22:3; 26:24), making him qualified to write the books and letters he wrote. Acts is the only book that bears record of the great persecution that Paul himself suffered. He is stoned almost to death (Acts 14:19); beatings and imprisonment (Acts 16:22-24; 21:33; 24:27); trials before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30); trials before rulers and kings, Felix, Festus, King Agrippa (Acts 23:34; 24, 25, 26); shipwreck ,(Acts 27); arrival in Rome (Acts 28:16). Without Acts we would know nothing of all this. From this account we gain respect for Paul and are willing to read and study his Epistles.
In Acts 4:36-37 Luke introduces us to a man who was to play a major role in the life of the Apostle Paul and the early Church. His Jewish name was Jo-ses and who the Apostles surnamed (nicknamed) Barnabas, which means "son of consolation," or one who consoles and makes peace. He was a man of wealth and he sold his property and gave the money to the early Church. He was the first to befriend Paul when he returned to Jerusalem after his conversion and all the other Apostles were afraid of him (Acts 9:27).
He also sought for Paul, in his self-imposed exile, a few years later after he was sent by the Apostles to Antioch to inquire about the revival there (Acts 11:22-30). One could wonder if the apostle Paul would have become the greatest evangelist, missionary, and Christian writer the world has ever known if it were not for the friendship of Barnabas. Also Barnabas proved to be a true friend and possibly the restoration of John Mark after he had deserted Paul and Barnabas on that first missionary trip and caused a division between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:37-41)
In Acts 12:12 Luke introduces us to a young man who would become a world renowned writer by writing the Gospel of Mark. We can determine from the above scripture that he belonged to a wealthy family living in Jerusalem in a large house. It was most likely in his home where Jesus ate the Passover Supper, and where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost. We also know that he was a nephew of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) and a companion of Paul and Barnabas when they made their first missionary trip (Acts 13:5). He was later to be with Paul during his first Roman imprisonment.
In Acts 16:1-6 Luke introduces us to another young man, by the name of Timothy, who was to become very close to Paul, in fact Paul calls him "my dearly beloved son" (2 Timothy 1:2). It is believed that to Timothy Paul left the care of many of the churches.
Aquila and Priscilla
In Acts 18:1-3 Luke speaks of a Jewish couple by the name of Aquila and Priscilla, who had been run out of Rome and had come to Corinth, and when Paul came there he lived with them and joined into a working relationship with them making tents. This couple maintained a very close relationship with Paul throughout the rest of his ministry.
In Acts 18:24-28 Luke introduces a Jew by the name of Apollos who was a very learned man in the scriptures and an eloquent preacher, who was a disciple of John the Baptist. Aquila and Pricilla gave him a Bible study and convincing him of the Christian faith, and he became a mighty preacher of the Gospel. He evidently became one of the preachers in the organizing of the church at Corinth.
Workers with Paul
All of the people named above, and introduced to us by Luke, became fellow-workers with Paul in the gospel. All of them are named in his epistles and highly commended by him. Some traveled with Paul on Missionary journeys, some helped establish Churches, others Paul left in charge of different Churches, and some, like Luke and John Mark, became Gospel Writers, simply leaving their ministry for all the world to read.
The Purpose of the Book of Acts
The Book of Acts was intended to show Theophilus the onward march of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from a small beginning at Jerusalem to a world embracing Church. Luke had been awed when he heard Paul declare that "I must also see Rome" (Acts 19:21). This seems to be the direction in which Luke pointed the entire book.
Writing about the events and places they visited always having this saying of Paul’s in the back of his mind, "I must also see Rome." and in the closing chapter we find him and the Apostle Paul in the City of Rome, having fulfilled his dream. The Book of Acts is by no means a complete history of the First Century Church, but enough is written to give us instructions on how to be saved (Acts 2:38), and the only book that contains the sermons and miracles of the Early Church.
The 27th chapter of Acts contains one of greatest stories ever written about a ship at sea in the midst of a great storm. Luke, a passenger, on that voyage describes the decision by the captain to sail even after being warned of the danger of sailing so late in the season. He tells of the rising of the wind and the efforts of the crew to gain the coast of an island. Then the raging of the sea as the crew labored to save the ship. He speaks of days and days without food, then the angel appears to Paul and assures him that there would be no loss of life but the ship would be lost. He describes the breaking up of the ship and the dramatic rescue of all.
The 20th chapter of Acts tells of a church service in which a very large group of people crowded into a building and people were hanging from the rafters so to speak. Paul was long winded that night and far into the night he spoke. About midnight a young man, who was high up in the third tier, went to sleep, not only did he go to sleep, but he let go, and fell to his death. Paul rushed to him and fell on him and prayed for him and God restored the young man to life. After a period of refreshments Paul continued his sermon on until daylight.
These and many other stories make for very interesting reading.
It is my prayer that some of the things I have mentioned in this Introduction To The Book Of Acts will inspire a great love and respect to it as one of the most important books in the entire Bible.
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James & Mary Lee Thornton