Obedience

Last week our church did a week long study on Obedience as part of a larger church-wide study on “revival.”  As I mentioned in the lesson on Sunday morning, the way the lesson was laid out was problematic and it was my hope to correct theological misconceptions and legalistic tendencies that the lesson book veered off into.

First and foremost is that our relationship with God is not based in any way whatsoever on OUR obedience.  Rather it is based on the obedience of Jesus Christ.  So, the lesson plan that states our “obedience is foundational” to our relationship with God, it simply incorrect.

It is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that we have any ability to stand before God’s throne or His people.  Paul tells us this much in Romans 5:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [16] And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. [17] For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. [18] Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. [19] For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:15-19 ESV)

Our service to God in obedience is a biproduct of our love for Him and His work on our behalf.  However, even the love itself is not of us, but rather of and from Him who took the initiative and gave us the example of love in His Son, and imparted His Holy Spirit to empower us to love.  Here’s what John had to say about the matter:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. [8] Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. [9] In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. [10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. [11] Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. [12] No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. [13] By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [14] And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. [15] Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. [16] So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:7-16 ESV)

Because of this love, we are compelled to stop sinning.  Paul says this:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. [14] For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
(Romans 6:13-14 ESV)

Therefore, the key to obedience is not a checklist – as the book provides us – of items that we need to ensure we do each week, but rather the key to obedience is love for God and others.  We love and obey because of His work within us.

In very practical ways, we can do this by the power of the Holy Spirit by reading our Bibles and praying for God’s help.  The renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) goes hand in hand with our presenting of ourselves as living sacrifices.  We need to be in the Word and we need to be in prayer if we’re to have any hope at all of even wanting to obey!

Once we have been in the Word and in prayer the Holy Spirit will prompt our obedience – now is the time to take action! Be a doer of the Word and show your fruit.  Listen to what James says:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [15] If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, [16] and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? [17] So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [18] But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18 ESV)

Therefore, our actions in obedience to Christ’s commands will prove our faith and show forth his work in us.  This is not a matter of legalism, its a heart issue.  Listen to what Jerry Bridges says about this:

We have loaded down the Gospel of grace of God in Christ with a lot of “oughts” – “I ought to do this” and “I ought to do that.” “I ought to be more committed, more disciplined, more obedient.” When we think or teach this way, we are substituting duty and obligation for a loving response to God’s grace.

Finally, when God helps you obey, and you live in His will you will want to give Him glory.  Check out this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [14] Do all things without grumbling or disputing, [15] that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, [16] holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. [17] Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. [18] Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:12-18 ESV)

Indeed it is God who is working in us for His good pleasure.  It is Christ’s obedience that is the foundation for our relationship with God the Father, for He is the Cornerstone of the church upon which our faith is built.

No lists; just grace!

Peace be with you all,

PJW

Acts Study Notes 11-1-12

PJ’s Notes on Acts

Acts 1:12-2:13

1:12-14 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. [13] And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. [14] All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.  

The first thing that is striking about this portion of the text is that the apostles were in a situation in which their Lord had once again been taken away, and now they were to wait for the promised Spirit, yet they didn’t all disperse.  They all gathered together, and made sure to stay as a group in proximity with one another so that they could, no doubt, encourage one another, and pray with one another.

The second thing, and perhaps the most obvious thing, that stands out here is their activity. They were “devoting” themselves to prayer. The men and the women were all praying together. Can you imagine being there? To see Mary, and Peter, and John and James and 120 other people gathered together in a room for corporate prayer…it must have been an amazing thing. The tension that they must have felt waiting to see what would happen, the expectancy of the moment would have been high, the words of these saints would have been precious. Oh to be a fly on those walls!

John Stott says this, “We learn, therefore, God’s promises do not render prayer superfluous. On the contrary, it is only His promises which give us the warrant to pray and the confidence that He will hear and answer.”

1:15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, [16] “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. [17] For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” [18] (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. [19] And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and “’Let another take his office.’

God Foreordained it to Take Place

There’s a difficulty here for some folks because of the fact that Judas, it says, was prophesied to have defected – now his name is never mentioned of course, but God knew all along that this would happen and He spoke of it by the mouths of His prophets. But we need to recognize that just because God is completely sovereign, that does not mean that we are not personally responsible for our actions.  Stott agrees and quotes Calvin who says this, “Judas may not be excused on the ground that what befell him was prophesied, since he fell away not through the compulsion of the prophecy but through the wickedness of his own heart.”

Different Accounts?

Matthew’s gospel is the only other place in scripture that gives an account of Judas’ death, and he says that Judas hanged himself.  Here we read from Luke that Judas fell down in a field and his intestines burst out. Is there a contradiction?  No, there need not be.  For as Stott, Grudem, and many other scholars have pointed out, it is likely that Judas simply fell from the tree on which he was hanging and had his body burst open in the field. Greek scholars have said that this is perfectly plausible given the words used here (for more details see Stott’s commentary on the word “prenes”).

Matthew also says that the field where Judas died was purchased by the Pharisees with Judas’ money, whereas Luke says it was purchased by Judas – both can be correct.  It was still Judas’ money that was used to purchase the field.

Lastly, Matthew says that people called the field where Judas died the ‘field of blood’ because of the blood money that was used to purchase it, and Luke doesn’t directly say one way or another, but seems to infer that it was called this due to the way Judas’ body was found. It’s possible that it was called this for both reasons by independent traditions – so neither account is wrong, but are correct.

The Apostles’ Understanding of Old Testament Scripture

One of the things that we need to be keeping in mind as we study the book of Acts is the way that the Apostles understand the Old Testament Scriptures. During the time between the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, He spent time “opening up their minds” to the truths of Scripture (Luke 24:45).

Why is it important that we understand how the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament? Well its important because so often we come to the Bible with a man-made system of understanding it and we often end up “wrongly dividing” the word of God.  What happens is that many Christians grow up learning to view the Bible through a system, be it dispensationalism, or traditional covenant theology, and then a passage(s) in the New Testament confront us with the scary prospect that the way we’ve viewed the Bible may have been incorrect altogether.  Then what happens is that in our pride we adapt the passage in the New Testament to fit what we see as the metanarrative of our system.  We don’t do it purposefully, or maliciously, but since we assume our system is correct, then that must mean that our assumptions about this or that passage in the New Testament are correct, when they may by completely off base.

This may seem like a lot of theological mumbo jumbo, but it is from these pitfalls that we get disagreements about whether or not infants should be baptized, whether or not there’s a “secret” rapture, and so on.  These are issues that don’t materialize from simply misinterpreting a single passage; rather these issues materialize because when we read New Testament passages about this or that doctrine, we often come to them with presuppositions.  Some are good, and some are bad.  But we ought never to think so highly of our own systematizing of the Bible that we believe ourselves to be dogmatically infallible and averse to correction.

Therefore, when we see the Apostles dealing with the realities of the New Covenant, and the promise of the Spirit, and the mission they’ve been given, we see that their interpretive lens is a Christ-centered lens – because it was Him who opened up their minds to understand that He was the central focus of all Scripture in the first place.  They see the entirety of Scripture through the words and work of Jesus Christ. And that is how we ought to see Scripture as well.  So, throughout Acts, we will see the Apostles quoting Old Testament passages, and when they do, notice what they say.  Don’t glance over them quickly to get to the next part in the passage.  Take some time and see how they apply Old Testament passages to the realities of the New Covenant.

1:21-22 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, [22] beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

What are the qualifications listed here to be an apostle?  Well, it seems that they wanted someone who they knew and who had been with Christ from the beginning, but the main purpose of this was stated lastly, namely that this man “become with us a witness to his resurrection.”  So this man had to have been a witness to the resurrected Savior, and he had to have been taught directly from the mouth of Jesus Christ, or have spent a good deal of time with him.  These men spent three yeas with Jesus, and I don’t know if this is simply irony or not, but before Paul even came to Jerusalem and was counted among the brethren – before the launch of his public ministry – he also spent 3 years learning from Christ after seeing the resurrected Lord on the Damascus road (Gal. 1:17-18).  Just some food for thought…though some say that Paul didn’t fulfill this second more “full” (Stott) qualification.

The last qualification is that the Apostle had to be chosen by Christ himself. This was certainly true of the original Apostles and of Paul who came later, and we see it is true of Matthias.

1:23-26 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. [24] And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen [25] to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” [26] And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

SIDE NOTE: The name “Matthias” means “gift of God” (MacArthur)

The Method of Choosing

John Stott points out that there are three things that the Apostles used to pick out the one who would replace Judas.

  1. They used Scripture.  They went to the Scripture and were convinced that the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to a need for replacing Judas.
  2. They used Common Sense.  The Lord ultimately made the selection, but the apostles still combed through those whom were present of the 120, and found that two that met the qualifications.
  3. They Prayed.  What a crucial part of the process.  They prayed and acknowledged their dependence on the Lord for His help in the matter.

In these three things – plus the blessing we now have of the Holy Spirit – we ought to emulate their decision making process even today.

A Note About the Casting of Lots

I believe this is the last time that the casting of lots is mentioned in Scripture.  Notice that this is prior to the giving of the Holy Spirit – another great dichotomy between the old and the new. This is also the last time we see the Apostles, or any Christian, use this form of finding out God’s will in a matter.  It ought to throw into sharp relief the immense blessing we have as Christians in the New Covenant.  With the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to being God’s hands and feet all over the world.

You Know the Hearts of All

Peter begins his prayer in this way, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen”, and I think there are a few significant things he says here.  First, he exalts the knowledge of the Lord. Peter knows that the Lord cares about the hearts of men first and foremost (1 Sam. 16:7; Matt. 15:17-20), and that He knows the hearts of all men (John 2:24).

The second thing that’s significant is that Peter knows that Jesus has already chosen someone – He already knows the man who will replace Judas.  Note that Peter says, “you have chosen” in the past tense. This reminds us of the great truth that Jesus Christ, though He was a man, was also fully God.  He was and is and is to come.  He is a member of the triune Godhead, and as such He has foreordained all that is to come, and there are no surprises to Him.  He has orchestrated His plan from the beginning and is completely sovereign over all history – past, present, and future.

Conclusion of Chapter 1

The scene is now set for the first Pentecost.  The disciples are waiting in Jerusalem for the fulfillment of the promise of Christ.  It won’t be long now before they will be “turning the world upside-down”!

Chapter 2

2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. [2] And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. [3] And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. [4] And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The Day of Pentecost

The word “Pentecost” means “fiftieth” and, as John MacArthur explains, is “the New Testament name for the Feast of Weeks (Ex. 34:22-23), or Harvest (Ex. 23:16), which was celebrated fifty days after Passover. In post-exilic Judaism, it also celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses. The Spirit’s coming on that day was linked to the pattern of the feasts in the Old Testament.” He continues, “Fifty days after the first Sunday following Passover, the Feast of Pentecost was celebrated (Lev. 23:15). At Pentecost, another offering of first fruits was made (Lev. 23:20). Completing the cycle of the typical fulfillment of the feasts, the Spirit came on Pentecost as the first fruits of the believers’ inheritance (cf. 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14). Further, those fathered into the church on that day were the first fruits of the full harvest of believers to come.”

There are seven days in a week, and seven days in a feast, and so the “feast of weeks” is like 7×7 which is 49 days – Pentecost is the fiftieth day following this post-Passover countdown.

“Suddenly”

In the ESV version of this passage it says that, “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind.”  The disciples had been told to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. No doubt they waited eagerly for this amazing event, and it reminded me of how it will be when the Lord Jesus comes back again. No one will know that hour exactly, but we await it with eager expectation. We long for that day, and we pray for it to come soon – as John did at the end of his apocalypse.

John says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 ESV).

The Fire and Wind

It is significant that the coming of the Spirit was accompanied by “rushing wind” and that the tongues came as “fire.”  Both fire and wind or cloud are used to manifest the presence of God on this earth (This is wonderfully outlined in R.C. Sproul’s commentary on Acts).  This is a theophany of the most amazing kind. They saw what looked like fire and heard what sounded like wind.  But it was neither fire, nor wind, it was the outward manifestation of God the Holy Spirit in their presence.

When we read of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, we read that the Lord God descended in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

So often we read this passage, and we marvel at the gift of tongues, and the sort of bewildering image of all these men and women speaking in different languages, and we completely pass over the significance of what is happening here.  God Himself, the Deity, has come down from heaven to indwell His chosen ones from among humanity.  His Holy Spirit, One of (and co-equal with) the Trinity, the eternal Godhead, has come down in a visible manifestation of wind and fire!  Yet how quickly we focus our attention back onto man.  How quickly we shift gears away from the awesome presence of a Holy God and to the outward manifestation of His gift to us.  It is fine to bless God for the gift, but let us first bless God for who He is, let us bless Him for His awesome character and condescension that He would inhabit us – lowly sinners!  That the pure and holy God of the universe would descend and empower us to do His will for His glory because it was His pleasure to do so! What an incredible reality.

John Stott comments, “We must be careful, however, not to use this possibility (the event being one of a kind in history) as an excuse to lower our expectations, or to relegate to the category of the exceptional what God may intend to be the church’s normal experience. The wind and the fire were abnormal, and probably the languages too; the new life and joy, fellowship and worship, freedom, boldness and power were not.”

2:5-13 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. [6] And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. [7] And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? [8] And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? [9] Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, [10] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, [11] both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” [12] And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” [13] But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

People from All Over the World

Luke takes great care in naming all the regions from which there were representatives at this amazing event. He moves from East to West in his minds eye (Stott) and, though he may not even fully realize this, those whom he names includes members of all three major branches of the Noahic family.  Stott comments, “Luke does not draw attention to what he is doing; but in his own subtle way he is saying to us that on that Day of Pentecost the whole world was there in the representatives of the various nations.”

What does this mean?  I think it shows how the message of the gospel was being prepared to go out to every tribe tongue and nation!

In his commentary on Acts, John Stott has some amazing insight into the significance of this event, and the reason for such diversity in people being present:

“Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly than this the multi-racial, multi-national, multi-lingual nature of the kingdom of Christ. Ever since the early church fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the curse of Babel. At Babel human languages were confused and the nations were scattered; in Jerusalem the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ, prefiguring the great day when the redeemed company will be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language.’ Besides, at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth.”

The condescension of Christ is sometimes overwhelming to us as we stare up at the cross, or peak down into the manger. But we often overlook how the entire Godhead is of one mind and one heart, and here we see the condescension of the Spirit of God.  That the Holy Spirit would come down to dwell within us is a remarkable thing.  That He would empower us to do the works of God is an amazing thing.  That He would touch our minds and hearts and breathe the breath of new life into us so that we can see God, that is an astoundingly gracious and merciful thing, too great to fathom, too deep to plumb.

In Their Own Languages

It is significant to me that the text says several times above “in his own language” because there are some today who say that these tongues that are speaking are some kind of heavenly language.  It seems that from the text that this is not a heavenly language, but rather human languages. In fact the text even tells us which languages in verses 9 through 11.

MacArthur comments, “The text, however, is not ambiguous. Far from being ecstatic speech, the tongues spoken on the Day of Pentecost were known languages.”

The purpose of tongues was a sign for unbelievers and, as MacArthur argues, was associated with being filled with the Spirit – not with being baptized by the Spirit. Paul lays out the purposes of this in 1 Corinthians: “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ [22] Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (1 Corinthians 14:21-22).

Modern Day Tongues?

One of the things that the modern day Pentecostal movement would like to point out is that the tongues as describes in Acts 2 differ from the ones described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  The differences, they say, are that the tongues in Acts 2 are known languages, and the tongues in 1 Corinthians are some form of ecstatic speech.  They also say that the purpose of the tongues in Acts 2 was to communicate the things of God to men, whereas the tongues in 1 Corinthians seems to describe the edification (or lack there of in the case of the Corinthian church) of the body of Christ.

Despite this, there is no specific description of the tongues in 1 Corinthians.  The only place in the Bible where we have a specific description of this phenomenon is in Acts 2, and its very clear what the purpose and type of activity was going on there.  As John Stott wisely says, “Acts 2 is the only passage in which it (tongues – glossolalia) is described and explained; it seems more reasonable to interpret the unexplained in the light of the explained than vice versa.”

Because we now see people in the church speaking these odd tongues that are often not interpreted (as Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians), it leads me to be very skeptical on the matter of modern day tongues.  Because this is a matter of interpretation, and one of the important “rules” of interpretation is humility, I am open to correction on this matter. But from what I have studied, the overwhelming evidence points to a more cessationalist position on this matter.

“New Wine”…the Reaction

The world’s reaction to the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit is to call these men ‘crazy’ or ‘drunk’, when in fact they had been given a divine gift as a confirmation of the empowerment and filling of the Holy Spirit.

We often face similar reactions today when we explain Scriptures or give testimony of the Lord Jesus.  It comes across as “foolishness” to those who we share with, when in fact it is the very word of God.

Introduction to Acts

This past Thursday our small group began a study on the book of Acts.  Derek Stone, Parris Payden, and myself (PJ Wenzel) will be teaching through the book verse by verse over the course of the next 10-12 months.  I’m thrilled to be starting this study, and look forward to many wonderful months of in-depth learning and growth for everyone.

In that spirit, I wanted to post my introductory notes for week one.  Enjoy!

Introduction to Acts

The Author

Very few people contend that Luke was not the author of this book.  His detailed account of things, and his reference to Theophilus early on in the both books are just two of the internal evidences that show he was the author Acts.

One of the internal evidences that Luke wrote this book and was actually a traveling companion of Paul can be found in the “we” passages of the book (16:10-17; 20:2-21:18; 27:1-28:16) where MacArthur notes that “the writer switches to the first person plural, showing he was present.”

In addition to being a follower of Christ, and one of Paul’s travel companions, Luke was also a doctor, and a man of education.  His Greek is some of the most eloquent that we find in the New Testament, and his precision when it comes to details has earned this book praise – even among critical secular scholars.

Both MacArthur and Sproul tell of the account of British Archeologist William Ramsay, who was a doubter of Christianity and decided to retrace the accounts of Luke step by step to show his inaccuracies.  What started as a de-bunking mission, ended up being a verification process of all that Luke had written.  Here’s what Ramsay said, “It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth” (cf. MacArthur’s commentary, pg. 5).

MacArthur notes further, “…he was a remarkably accurate historian. Acts shows familiarity with Roman law and the privileges of Roman citizens, gives the correct titles of various provincial rulers, and accurately describes various geographical locations.”

Luke also was very thorough in his research.  “According to tradition, Luke personally interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, to get her perspective on all the events surrounding the annunciation and the Nativity” (Sproul, pg. 20).

The Context

The first thing we must realize from a contextual perspective, is that Acts is really the second volume of a two-volume set written by Luke.

F.F. Bruce explains, “The Acts of the Apostles is the name given since the second century A.D. to the second volume of a History of Christian Origins composed by a first century Christian and dedicated to a certain Theophilus.  The earlier volume of this History is also extant as one of the 27 documents ultimately included in the New Testament canon: it is the work ordinarily known to us as the Gospel according to Luke.

Because of this, we need to realize that the introduction to the Gospel of Luke is really the introduction to both books (such was the custom in the ancient world).  John Stott comments, “it was the custom in antiquity, whenever it work was divided into more than one volume, to prefix to the first a preface for the whole.”  Therefore, it is important to first examine the beginning of Luke’s Gospel which states the following:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, [2] just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, [4] that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Sproul and MacArthur say much the same thing.  Sproul comments, “In antiquity, that standard length of a book written in this manner (scrolls) was about 35 feet long. The scrolls were then rolled up and carefully preserved as they were read and passed from church to church. Initially Luke penned two volumes on separate scolls, on, the gospel account of Christ, and the second, which was carried along with the first, the book of Acts.

The Timeframe

There are basically two schools of thought on when this book was written.  Some say that it was written during the end of Paul’s lifetime, while others say that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70AD).  John MacArthur lays out some great reasons to believe this book was written before Paul died, and before 70AD:

  1. It best explains the abrupt ending for the book of acts.  The book ends by saying, “He lived there (Rome) two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Luke doesn’t talk about Paul’s death, something that I think would have been important to note.
  2. The Roman officials in Acts were friendly, if not favorable, to Christians.  This wasn’t the case later on.
  3. Luke doesn’t talk about the violent persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero.  Given the other persecution that Luke mentions (like the stoning of Stephen), it would not have made sense to leave such an important thing out.
  4. There’s not mention of the fall of Jerusalem.  Given all the disputes about Judaizers, and the way Luke documented the Council of Jerusalem, surely he would have written about a momentous event like the fall of the temple, and the city.  The temple was central in the life of Jews until 70AD, and Christ’s coming signaled the end of its physical significance.
  5. The subject mater of Acts is really more focused on early church disputes about the new covenant, and how to deal with the law, and the dietary elements of the law etc.  Whereas later in the first century, most of the debate turned to more theological matters.
  6. Acts doesn’t reflect any theological familiarity with Paul’s epistles.
  7. There’s not one mention of Paul’s travels after his second imprisonment, even though Luke was with him during this time.  If the book was written later, it would have made no sense to leave out those other great ministry stories from Paul’s travels.

The Purpose of the Book

I think we find this laid out in Luke’s preface to his gospel, which states, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”  So I think we see here that first of all, Luke wanted to put together an “orderly account” of what had happened.

The second, and more central purpose is what he says to Theophilus “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

MacArthur comments, “…Luke’s primary purpose is to show the spread of Christianity empowered and energized by the Holy Spirit, throughout the Roman world (1:8).”

Sproul comments, “Luke’s agenda was not only to verify that Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision but to remind his readers of the commandments that Jesus gave just before he ascended. What follows is the rest of Acts is a drama of the highest magnitude – the drama of the obedience of the early church to the mission that Christ had given to it.”

The Meta-Narrative – The Kingdom of God has “come upon you”

R.C. Sproul ends the first chapter of his commentary on Acts this way:

A whole new chapter of world history began with the ministry of Christ and with his ascension to the right hand of the father, where He is enthroned as the King. One of the worst distortions of theology that plagues the Evangelical world is the idea that the kingdom of God is something completely future. That view completely destroys the biblical testimony of the breakthrough of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, especially in his ascension. Yes, the consummation of the kingdom is still in the future, but the reality of the kingdom is now. The mission of the early church was to bear witness to the reality of that kingdom in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth.

The grand scope of redemptive history has seen an ushering in of a new chapter – an entirely new epic is birthed in the book of Acts.  This book was written to remind us to, and bear witness to itself, the fact that Jesus had ushered in the Kingdom of God.

For thousands of years mankind had been living in darkness.  We had gone astray, we had failed to keep the law of God.  We had failed to live in love toward each other, and we had failed to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds.

The time for a rescuer had come.  The long-appointed time for the recue plan had finally arrived, and Jesus had been victorious over even death itself.  Now, as He was wrapping up His earthly ministry, He wanted to ensure that we had closely understood all that He had come to teach us.  We were to be His witnesses to the entire world.  What were we bearing witness to?  Answer: To the reality of His kingdom.

Jesus is reigning in glory now, and has left us to carry on the work of expanding His kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are to be obedient to that calling as Paul was – and the book of Acts tells us how this began.  That is why Acts is an important book.  It is showing us how the early church took on the mission that we carry out to this day.

In order to understand the importance of this book, we need to understand the historical importance of the time in which it was written.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is like a mile marker that divides all of human history.  By His birth we even measure time to this day.  So when we read through the book of Acts, keep in mind that reality, and the fact that this was really the beginning of an entirely new epoch in history, as well as an entirely new spiritual reality in that Jesus had ushered in His spiritual kingdom.

Lastly, we need to remember as we read this book that so much of what is written in here emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Both Sproul and MacArthur rightly comment that the book of Acts could rightly be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit through His Apostles.”  The Spirit is mentioned over 50 times in this book, and its clear that the events in this book were guided by Him.  Also, since He is the writer of all sacred scripture, we must realize that as we study this book, what is included in these pages is not a comprehensive history, but rather what God wanted us to know about this time.  It is quite literally God’s own commentary on the events as they unfolded in the early days of the church.

Overview of Each Chapter

Chapter 1

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, remains with the disciples for 40 days, and ascends into heaven.  Then the apostles chose Matthias to replace Judas as the 12th apostle.

Chapter 2

The Holy Spirit is given by God at the first Pentecost (there are four in the book of Acts), Peter gives a bold sermon that leads thousands to give their lives to Christ, and Luke details for us the harmony of the early church.

Chapter 3

Peter and John heal a lame man in the temple and give a rousing testament to the live and death of Jesus Christ, boldly sharing the gospel in the middle of the temple in Solomon’s Portico.

Chapter 4

Peter and John go before the council and speak with such bold clarity that the Sanhedrin are completely stumped and decided to chide them and release them.  Once released the church prayed for even more boldness and the entire building was shaken.  Luke tells us that they had “all things in common.”

Chapter 5

Ananias and Saphira die for lying to the Holy Spirit, Peter and John are arrested and speak before the council, but the council decides to let them go again because, under the Gamaliel, they thought it better to let the political situation play out…and they didn’t want to be “caught” on the wrong side of what God might be doing…they never thought about testing what the disciples of Christ were actually saying against what Scripture attested to.

Chapter 6

The apostles and early church members were getting overrun with work, and some were being neglected, so 7 men were chosen to lead a special service effort – similar to what our church deacons do today.  One of the seven men was a man named Stephen.  Stephen was especially bold in his preaching and was a man “full of the Holy Spirit.” Because of this, the Pharisees brought him before the council under arrest.

Chapter 7

Stephen details the historical meta-narrative of Scripture leading up to Jesus Christ.  The end of his testimony concludes with a stinging rebuke against the Pharisees for putting the “Lord of Glory” to death.  This is one of the richest historical narratives in Acts.  The chapter ends with Stephen being stoned to death and Saul standing by approving of the execution.

Chapter 8

Saul ravages the church and drags many to jail. Meanwhile, Phillip is evangelizing from city to city and having great success.  Here we learn about a false convert named Simon, and the end of the chapter details how Phillip shared the gospel with an important officer from Ethiopia. So the gospel is now going to go south to Africa!

Chapter 9

Chapter 9 details the dramatic Damascus road conversion of Paul where he is struck blind from a light from heaven.  Later we learn that Paul immediately proclaims the name of Jesus and is baptized, and even has to escape from Damascus in a basket. After a period of about 3 years, Luke tells us that Paul went back to Jerusalem to meet up with the apostles.  Meanwhile, amazing miracles were still going on. Peter healed a blind man and even raised a lady, Dorcus, to life again.  Amazing stuff.

Chapter 10

Then Luke goes back to focusing on Peter and details how Peter was given a vision from God that related to the kinds of food that Jews were used to eating – specifically God was explaining the end of the ceremonial law to Peter. The famous line from this section is that “what God has made clean, do not call common.”  At the end of this important chapter, the Holy Spirit falls on the gentiles in an amazing show of grace from God to those outside of the physical Jewish heritage.

Chapter 11

Peter describes everything that happened in chapter ten to the Christians in Jerusalem, and Luke details how the church has been spreading abroad because of the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen.  Luke also tells us of a thriving early church in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

Chapter 12

Then Luke turns to the dramatic rescue of Peter, and the death of James.  Peter was imprisoned and freed by an angel.  God is glorified by this amazing rescue, and counter to what most would think Peter would do after this, he obeys God and goes right back to the temple the next day and begins to preach the gospel. At the end of the chapter we learn of the death of Herod.  So time is moving right along here.

Chapter 13

A major shift occurs in chapter 13.  Luke is now going to focus mostly on the mission of Paul, who, along with Barnabas, is sent off on his first missionary journey by the Holy Spirit.  This chapter also details for us Paul’s first preaching in public, and like Stephen, he makes an appeal to history, and to Scripture and shares the gospel with boldness.

Chapter 14

Paul then moves on to Iconium and Lystra and ends up facing many hurdles – the end of the chapter concludes with Paul nearly dying by getting stoned by the people in Lystra! After that they returned to Antioch and shared about how God had opened a door to the gentile world for the gospel.

Chapter 15

This chapter is details the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem where the issue of the Judaizers needed to be dealt with – men who said that the gentile believers needed to adhere to the dietary restrictions of the OT and also be circumcised.  The council finds this to be incorrect, and sends a letter of clarification to the gentile churches.  Unfortunately the chapter also ends with a dispute between Barnabas and Paul, which leads them to separate and go different paths.

Chapter 16

In chapter 16 Timothy joins Paul and Paul receives the call to the people in Macedonia.  Whereupon he sails immediately to that region and begins to preach the gospel.  But they encounter resistance and are jailed.  During their stay in jail they began singing hymns and songs of praise to God and the entire jail is shaken by an earthquake that unleashes their bonds.  But they don’t leave, instead witnessing to the Jailer in charge of their protection.  This man is saved and the leaders of the city let them go (once they learn of Paul’s roman citizenship).

Chapter 17

Next Paul goes to Thessalonica and his teaching persuades some but other form a mob against them uttering the famous words, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” They escape to Berea, and find a lot more willingness among these people to learn and seach out what the Scriptures have to say about the Christ. Then they go to Athens where Paul addresses the city in the Areopagus and gives his gospel message using the reasoning style and citations of the Greeks.

Chapter 18

Next Paul went to Corinth and where we meet Pricilla and Aquila who were Jews scattered by the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion). The local Jews in Corinth were so reviling in their reception of Paul that he said “from now on I will go to the Gentiles”, signifying a significant shift in his strategy for sharing the gospel.  The local Jews are so violent that they bring Paul before the roman proconsul who dismisses their charges out of pettiness.  So Paul returns to Antioch and Luke concludes the chapter by introducing us to a man named Apollos who was a great speaker and a great witness for Christ.

Chapter 19

Paul then goes to Ephesus and finds disciples who have not yet received the Spirit, and Luke details yet another Pentecost for these god fearing men and women who received the Spirit and were believers. Luke also takes time to tell us of the amazing miracles that Paul was working – even allowing people to take his handkerchief to the sick to be cured.  The amazing chapter ends with Luke telling of a riot in Ephesus over the preaching of the gospel.  The entire town – led by the silversmiths who made gods for a living – was in an uproar and a mob formed to deal with these Christians.  Fortunately, the town leaders dismissed the gathering and no one was hurt ad Paul was able to leave in safety.

Chapter 20

Paul then leaves Ephesus for Macedonia again, but the Jews plot his demise, so he sailed to Troas and preached there for 7 days during which he raised a young man from the dead who had fallen out of a window during his preaching.  Then Luke tells us that Paul sent for the Ephesian church elders and had them meet him so he could give them some last instructions before he went down to Jerusalem again.

Chapter 21-22

Luke details Paul’s trip to Jerusalem and his meeting with James where he gave a report of all that had been accomplished among the gentiles.  Then Paul went to the temple but was mobbed and for his own safety was detained by the roman tribune who allowed him to give his defense to the people – which they rejected.  The Tribune wasn’t going to keep a roman citizen bound in detention so he called for the Jewish Sanhedrin council to meet and hear Paul’s matter from there.

Chapter 23

Paul gives his testimony before the Jewish council and because of their dissension the Romans keep him in custody for his own safety.  During this time some Jews hatch a plot to kill Paul but its found out and they end up moving him to the care and protection of Felix the Governor of the area until a safe court date can be set with Paul’s Jewish accusers coming before Felix as well.

Chapter 24

Paul’s accusers arrive and lay their case before Felix who Luke tells us has a “Rather accurate knowledge/understanding of the Way” – probably because his wife was Jewish – and so Felix put them off and said he’d decide the case later.  But eventually two years passed and he did nothing until Festus succeeded him.  Festus left Paul in prison for the meantime to do the Jews a political favor.

Chapter 25

In chapter 25 we see more court maneuvering by the Romans.  Now Paul is sent to Caesarea and appears before Festus and the Jewish leaders as well as before Agrippa the king and his wife Bernice. They heart initial statements and concluded that Paul couldn’t have done anything to deserve death.  But Paul had made an appeal to the Caesar – which he was lawfully allowed to do due to his Roman citizenship, so the leadership locally couldn’t simply dismiss him now.

Chapter 26

In chapter 26 Paul gives his defense and testimony before Agrippa and it’s an amazing recounting of what we heard about in Acts 9.  Paul’s testimony is so powerful that Agrippa asked Paul if “in such a short time” he would have him become a Christian.  Paul’s answer is great: “And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.’” At the end of the defense all the authorities agreed that Paul seemed innocent enough to them, but they were forced to send him to Rome.

Chapter 27-28

So Paul is put with a bunch of other prisoners and sets sail for Rome.  In the middle of the trip they encounter a storm at sea and are shipwrecked but swim to safety on the Island of Malta where Paul is bitten by a snake with no affect on him, and then goes on to heal many of sickness and disease.

After three months of sailing and being shipwrecked, they finally arrive in Rome where Paul is greeted by other believers and placed under house arrest.  Paul preached the gospel to the Jewish leaders in Rome right after he arrived.  Luke ends the book by saying that “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”