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Christians On the Move
The Continuing Work of Jesus Christ Through the Apostles and the Early Church
By Bayard Taylor
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Gospel Light
All rights reserved.
The Mega-story of Human History (Luke 24; Acts 1)
Jesus' continuing work on the earth as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.
Key Verses to Memorize
Wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
The Acts of the Apostles
At its simplest, most basic level, the book of Acts is the history of the birth and growth of the Church as it was just getting started. The full title of the book is "Acts of the Apostles." The word "apostles" means "those who are sent or appointed" and refers to the first leaders in the Jesus movement, while the word "acts" refers to notable deeds performed by those apostles. The two lead apostles in the book of Acts are Peter, one of Jesus' original 12 disciples (the one whom Jesus designated to lead the others after He left the earth), and Paul, a religious leader who at first persecuted followers of Christ but who later became one of the greatest proponents in the Jesus movement.
The book begins in Jerusalem with the resurrected Jesus giving His final instructions to His disciples and then ascending into heaven. It ends in Rome with the apostle Paul under house arrest but preaching the gospel relatively unhindered. It spans a little more than 30 years, from Jesus' resurrection and ascension (the spring of ad 32) until three years before the death of the apostle Paul (about ad 67). Scripture does not tell us about Paul's death, but we know from Eusebius (ad 263-339), a court historian for the Roman Emperor Constantine who wrote sometime after ad 320, that Emperor Nero had Paul beheaded in Rome. This sad event likely occurred during the winter of ad 67.
Transformers, Parts 1 and 2
Lots of movies have sequels. For example, the movie Transformers had a sequel called Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Similarly, Acts is part of a larger story that began with the Gospel of Luke and, like the two movies mentioned, Luke and Acts are about transformers — just different kinds.
According to Eusebius and Irenaeus (c. ad 180), Early Church Fathers, the author of both books is Luke. (Incidentally, the authors of the Gospels didn't name themselves out of modesty, not because they were trying to hide something — we know their names from post-New Testament Christian writers.) "Luke" is a Greek name, not a Jewish name, and based on this and the fact that Luke is intensely alert to Gentile sensibilities in both books, we can surmise that he was a Gentile believer in Jesus who wanted to communicate well to other Gentiles. Luke is known as "the beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14, KJV) and was Paul's traveling companion during some of Paul's missionary journeys (as seen by the shift from "they" to "we" in Acts 16:6-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16). He was also a close attendant near the end of Paul's life (see 2 Timothy 4:11).
Both Luke and Acts start with similar remarks from the author (see Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2). In Luke's Gospel, he describes that work as a thorough research project; in Acts, he refers back to that book as "my former book." Both are addressed to the same person, Theophilus, a Greek name meaning "friend of God." Scholars are unsure as to whether this refers to an actual person or is an honorary title, but in either case, Luke's purpose in writing his Gospel and Acts is to present an "orderly account" so believers "may know the certainty of the things" they have been taught (Luke 1:3-4). In presenting both the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Church in Acts, Luke shows believers that the foundation of their faith is secure.
Many scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written before ad 70, which would place the writing of Acts at around the same time. There are several reasons for this dating. First, there is no reference in Luke to the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman Emperor Titus in ad 70, which was a significant event for both Jews and Christians and one that Luke would have certainly included. Second, as previously noted, Luke makes no mention of the death of Paul, which occurred around ad 67. Third, Luke wrote Acts as a historian interpreting events that occurred at an earlier time, though it is apparent he took part in many of the episodes. Even more striking is the fact that Luke appears to have not read the letters of Paul, which makes a later dating of the book less likely.
A Question on Historical Accuracy
As a historian, Luke is not without his critics. Many scholars have accused Luke of sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of his theological perspective — of altering events and "rewriting" the history of the early Jesus movement to make certain doctrinal points. Much of this criticism comes from what some see as contradictions between Luke's account of the apostle Paul in Acts and Paul's own writings.
One of the main problems in determining Luke's historical accuracy is the difficulty in knowing what sources he used in his writings. We know from Luke's Gospel that both he and Matthew drew on Mark's Gospel, but Luke also drew on secondary sources (known only as the "Q" document, short for German Quelle or "source"), which were likely personal conversations with prominent members in the early Jesus movement. If those individuals provided erroneous information — or if Luke truly altered what he had heard to fit a specific agenda — it would call into question the historical accuracy of both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.
There are a few points to keep in mind when considering these claims. First, there is no evidence that either Luke or those in the early Jesus movement were driven solely by theology and not interested in the history of the movement. "Belief" and "history" are not exclusive — and Luke states up front that his desire is to set down an accurate account of Jesus' ministry and the early followers of Christ. In fact, scholars have found that Luke is quite accurate in his portrayal of first-century Roman life — archaeologists have proven that the details he provides about names, titles, customs and practices in different places are correct. In this way, the events Luke reports support his theology, rather than the other way around.
But what about the accuracy of Luke's sources? While it is impossible to identify each individual account Luke uses (he was skillful in blending them into a cohesive narrative), there is evidence to show that these sources were reliable. According to Colossians 4:10,14, Luke was with John Mark (the author of the Gospel) when Paul wrote that letter, which would have given him access to information about the early growth of the Church. Luke tells us in Acts 12:12 of a prayer meeting held in the home of Mark's mother, which would have allowed Luke to speak with other leaders in the Jesus movement. In addition, scholars have argued that churches were faithful in preserving the early traditions of how their congregations were established and the activities of the apostles. Based on this evidence, Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar William Ramsay noted, "Luke is a historian of the first rank [and] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."
Luke's Purpose for Writing the Book of Acts
At the beginning of Acts, Luke states, "In my former book [the Gospel of Luke] ... I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach" (1:1). An unspoken but clear implication here is that Jesus didn't ever stop doing and teaching. Therefore, the book of Acts will be about all that Jesus continued to do and teach after He rose from the grave and ascended into heaven.
In this way, the end of the Gospel of Luke and the beginning of Acts overlap one another, indicating how Jesus continues to act in the world. Luke's Gospel finishes with God raising Jesus from the dead, several post-resurrection appearances, Jesus authorizing His disciples to preach the gospel to all nations, Jesus telling the disciples to wait for the promise of the Father, and Jesus' ascension into heaven (see Luke 24). Acts begins by acknowledging 40 days of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances (see Acts 1:3); Jesus authorizing His disciples to preach the gospel everywhere, even to the ends of the earth (see 1:8); Jesus' order for His disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift God had promised (1:4); and Jesus' ascension into heaven (see 1:9).
In overlapping these events, Luke emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, His ascension into heaven, and the giving of the promise of the Father — the precious Holy Spirit — to the Church. Jesus didn't just rise from the dead, prove Himself risen, and then disappear. Instead, He ascended to the right hand of the Father, and from there He reigns as the risen Lord of history (see 1 Peter 3:21-22). From this heavenly throne, God the Father and God the Son send forth God the Holy Spirit upon the believers in Acts (see John 14:26; 15:26). In many ways, the Acts of the Apostles could legitimately be called the "Acts of the Holy Spirit," because none of the supernatural deeds the apostles accomplish happen apart from the work of the Spirit.
In the Gospel of Luke, the chief transformer is Jesus. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus transforms the world with His life, deeds, teaching, death and resurrection. In Acts, the chief transformer is still Jesus, but this time Jesus works through His people who are filled, motivated, animated, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts does not end with the disciples and the first believers — as inheritors of their legacy, we also are "Jesus People." Jesus transforms us by the Holy Spirit, and we then transform our families, churches, communities and world into something that more closely resembles God's intentions for us.
Mega-story: The Center of Human History
Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts mirror each other in other ways, which serves to reinforce the unity of the entire narrative. Luke recounts the ministry of Jesus the Messiah in His role as servant, while Acts recounts the continuation of Jesus' ministry via His role as risen Lord. Both books center all of human history on Jesus' life, deeds, death, resurrection and ascension.
Together, both Luke and Acts teach that the gospel is a universal message that applies to all people and all cultures. Luke's Gospel first acknowledges the world's rulers (see 1:52); traces Jesus' genealogy all the way back to Adam (see 3:38); follows Jesus around in His Galilean, Judean and Samarian ministries (see 4–19); and then focuses Jesus' later ministry, including His death and resurrection in and around Jerusalem (see 20–24).
Reversing direction, the book of Acts starts narrowly and then widens to the whole world. First, the risen Lord commands His followers to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (see 1:8). The rest of the book then follows the gospel's progress from Jerusalem (see 1–7); to Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Ethiopia (see 8–12); and then to Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), Macedonia and Greece (see 13–20). Finally, Acts covers the journey of Paul to Rome, the symbol of Gentile kingdoms and of the ends of the earth (see 21–28).
Luke's literary pattern in his Gospel and Acts — of starting big; narrowing to Jesus' cross, resurrection and ascension in Jerusalem; and then widening again to embrace the whole earth — serves to underscore the centrality of Jesus in human history. Luke and Acts teach us that Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah but also Lord and Savior of all peoples.
Another of the major themes in both Luke and Acts is God's sovereignty — the idea that God's plan cannot be thwarted. God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His purposes. This theme comes across in Luke and Acts in many ways:
Fulfillment of prophecy is a prominent theme in both books. History is moving inexorably toward God's ultimate purposes.
In both Luke and Acts, prayer is an important means of discovering God's sovereign will, bringing it out into the open and living it out.
God's protection is a big theme in both books. In Luke 4:28-30, God protects Jesus from the angry mob; in Acts 14:19, He protects Paul from death by stoning.
In Luke, Jesus said that whoever wanted to follow Him must be willing to publicly identify with Him, "take up their cross," and risk humiliating death (see 9:23; 14:27). This happened again and again in the book of Acts. The very word we translate as "witnesses" in Acts 1:8 is marturoi (the plural of martus), from which we get the word "martyrs." The apostles were arrested and beaten (see 5:17-41); Stephen was stoned to death (see 7:54-60); the believers were run out of Jerusalem (see 8:1-4); Paul arrested believers and put them to death (see 9:1-2); and King Herod had the apostle James killed (see 12:2). And yet, because Jesus' followers believed God was in control, they could rejoice and worship God despite the persecution (see 5:41; 16:25).
God gives supernatural guidance and communication through angels (24 times in Luke and 22 times in Acts).
The Holy Spirit plays an important role in the Gospel of Luke (He is mentioned 17 times) and an even more visible role in Acts (He is mentioned 56 times).
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus promises that when His followers are brought before human judges and tribunals, the Holy Spirit will give them the words they need (see 12:11-12; 21:12-15). In Acts, this is exactly what happens. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the Spirit-inspired speeches of Peter (see 2:14; 3:12; 4:8), Stephen (see 6:15; 7:1-2), and Paul (see 13:16; 17:22; 19:30; 21:40; 23:1,6; 24:10,24-25; 25:8; 26:1; 28:17,25).
Prayer is another prominent theme in Luke and Acts, and one that we will return to again in later sessions. For now, note that the book of Acts begins with the disciples, including women, going into an upstairs room where they are constantly praying and waiting for the promise of the Father (the Holy Spirit) that Jesus had told them about (see 1:12-14). These disciples didn't passively wait; they intensively and actively waited, together, with great anticipation.
Another example of God's sovereignty is the Matthias incident. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus had selected 12 disciples, but Judas had betrayed Him. In Acts 1:15-26, citing two prophecies in the book of Psalms (69:25 and 109:8), the 11 remaining disciples feel compelled to find a replacement for Judas. Without waiting for the "promise of the Father" to send the Holy Spirit, they move forward with their plan to replace Judas, pray for God's will to be done, and cast lots.
Casting lots is like tossing a coin or throwing dice. Today, many of us follow this same model — we use common sense and human wisdom when facing tough decisions, in effect leaving things up to chance. However, our ways are not necessarily God's ways (see Isaiah 55:8), even if we are sincere believers in Jesus and are praying for lots to decide a matter. In this case, the lots fell to Matthias, and he was thereafter counted as among "the apostles" (see 1:27) and "the Eleven" (see 2:14).
This is the last time we hear of lots being cast in the book of Acts. After God pours His Spirit out on the Church in Acts 2, He provides supernatural guidance to His people through angels and the Holy Spirit. One highlight of this supernatural guidance is that the risen Jesus reveals Himself personally to Paul and chooses him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15-16; 22:14-15; 26:16-18; Galatians 2:8; 1 Timothy 2:7). Paul then becomes the lead character of the second half of Acts (as well as the author of much of the New Testament). In effect, Jesus chooses Paul — in addition to Matthias — to "take the place" of the missing Judas. In this way, God's sovereignty goes beyond the old way of making a decision.
Jews for Jesus!
Like any good story, Acts has a central conflict. In this case, the conflict is both cultural and spiritual in nature. The Church began as a Jewish Jesus movement. Almost all the earliest followers of Jesus had grown up Jewish and were trying to maintain their traditions despite living under Roman rule. For them, Jesus was the Messiah promised by their Holy Scriptures, the end-time king appointed and approved by God. Now that Jesus had died on the cross and God had raised Him from the dead, what was next?
Excerpted from Christians On the Move by Bayard Taylor. Copyright © 2012 Gospel Light. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
How to Use this Study 5
Preface: Reading the Bible as It Was Meant to Be Read 7
Session 1 Transformers 13
The Mega-story of Human History (Luke 24; Acts 1)
Session 2 A Shadowy Star 25
The Holy Spirit in the Bible
Session 3 Happy Birthday, Church 35
Baptism by Fire (Acts 2)
Session 4 Those Awesome Jesus Women 45
Partners in the Gospel (Luke-Acts)
Session 5 Marks of the Movement 57
A Supernatural Fellowship (Acts 3-5:11)
Session 6 Living Out Loud 69
Dead to Self, Alive to God (Acts 5:12-7)
Session 7 Near Foreigners 83
Philip, the Forerunner (Acts 8)
Session 8 Was Blind but Now I See 95
An Amazing U-Turn (Acts 9:1-31)
Session 9 The Strange Sheet 107
What God Says Is Clean Is Clean (Acts 9:32-12)
Session 10 That Generous Decision 121
Free from the Law of Moses (Acts 13-15)
Session 11 Come Sail Away 133
Paul's Missionary Work Among the Gentiles (Acts 16-21:16)
Session 12 An Odd Ending 147
The Holy Spirit in You! (Acts 21:17-28)
The Mediterranean Region at the Time of Paul (c. AD 70) 160
A Timeline of Acts 163
Leader's Tips 171
Bible Reading Plans 173