From Small Beginnings
Introduction: The opening verses of the book of Acts pick up right where we left off last Sunday. On Easter Sunday we found Jesus walking with two of His disciples on the Road to Emmaus and dispelling their spiritual depression by revealing Himself to them as the living, risen Christ. Now in the early verses of Acts the 40 days of Christ’s post-resurrection ministry are summarized, climaxed by His ascension to Heaven. Let’s read Acts 1:1-11:
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of things regarding the kingdom of God. 4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So, when they had come together, they began asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time that You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 But He said to them, “It is not for you to know periods of time or appointed times which the Father has set by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth.”
9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took Him up, out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, then behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them, 11 and they said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went up to the upstairs room where they were staying, that is, Peter, John, James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 All these were continually devoting themselves with one mind to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
This morning I want to accomplish two things. I want us to carefully examine what is taking place in these verses, but I also want us to get an overall view of what the book of Acts is all about. And probably the general picture should come first, though we will deal with it briefly.
Acts is above all a transition book, filling in the gap between the Gospels and the epistles. In the Gospels the Church is present only as a prediction made by the Savior (“I will build My church”, Matthew 16:18). In the Epistles the Church is an accomplished fact, fairly widely distributed around the eastern Mediterranean basin. It is from Acts that we acquire information about how the Church was founded, grew, and spread.
You see, the Church did not spring full-blown onto the scene the day after the resurrection. It had to be planted step-by-step, first in Jerusalem, then in the rest of Palestine, and finally to the wider civilization. Certain doctrinal and ethical issues had to be hammered out upon the anvil of experience and controversy. Organization and disciplinary procedures had to be forged. All this is found in the book that is called “the Acts of the Apostles.”
But Acts is not just a book of historical transition. It is also an immensely practical book. It demonstrates how disciples who were totally convinced that Jesus was alive, and totally committed to Him, could turn the world upside down without any political, military or economic influence whatever. As we move to a new facility next month (from Sanford Brown Business College to Westminster Christian Academy) and launch a new stage in the growth of our church, I think it is most appropriate that we have the book of Acts before us as an example of how faith and courage can combine to perform the impossible when the Holy Spirit is appropriated in all His power. Let’s begin, then, with a brief discussion of the background of the book.
Background of the Book of Acts
The Author. Luke wrote the book of Acts, making him the author of the two longest books in the NT. He even refers to the Gospel that bears his name when he says in verse one, “The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up.” The key word is the word “began.” The Gospel of Luke tells what Jesus began to do and teach; Acts relates what he continued to do and teach through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the agency of His apostles and other witnesses. In other words, the Gospel of Luke dealt with the life of Christ from conception to ascension; the book of Acts is the sequel, detailing the ministry of the ascended Christ through the Church for the first thirty years of its existence.
It might be helpful at this point to further compare and contrast the Gospel of Luke with the book of Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, the Son of Man offers His life; in Acts, the Son of God offers His power. In the Gospel, Christ is crucified and raised; in Acts, Christ ascends and is exalted. In the Gospel, we’re given a model of what Christianity is in the person of Christ. In Acts, we’re given an example of how Christianity is lived out in the arena of life.
Luke was a Greek, a physician, and a close associate of the Apostle Paul, though not himself one of the Twelve Apostles. He accompanied Paul on his trip to Rome and was with him during both his first and second imprisonment. The aging Apostle probably had need of the beloved physician’s medical services, as well as, of course, his companionship. As a physician he possessed an appreciation for detail. The history he writes reveals careful research, thoughtful preparation, and chronological arrangement.
The structure and purpose. Probably the easiest way to analyze the structure of the Book of Acts is by using Acts 1:8 as the key: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Chapters 1-7 deal with the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem, chapters 8-12 with the spread of the Gospel in Judea and Samaria, and chapters 13-28 with its spread to much of the rest of the civilized world.
From start to finish the thrust of Acts is missionary. Significantly, its close is abrupt, as though to tell the reader that what Paul was doing in Rome, under conditions not wholly ideal, continues to be the task of all later generations of believers. The unfinished book underscores the unfinished task.
Now let’s tackle the beginning of the book itself. The first topic we find is the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus.
The risen Lord’s post-resurrection ministry (3-5)
The period from Easter Sunday to the ascension was both the conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the beginning of the work of the Church. This period had several important characteristics. It provided irrefutable evidence that Jesus was alive, and it gave Jesus time for last-minute instructions and marching orders for the Apostles.
Jesus convinced His followers that He was alive. The text says that He presented Himself alive by many convincing proofs, appearing over a period of forty days. Throughout the book of Acts there is a marked emphasis upon the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection was that great fact which inspired and stimulated the labors of the early Christians. Nothing except the resurrection can satisfactorily account for the success of the Christian Church.
Now the “convincing proofs” involved many appearances. One of those appearances we saw last Sunday in the Easter morning account of the two Emmaus disciples in Luke 24. In 1 Cor. 15:5-8 the Apostle Paul details some of the other appearances: “He appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
The word “proofs” in Acts 1:3 is an unusual one, occurring nowhere else in the New Testament. It denotes “a sure sign or token,” “a positive proof manifest to the senses.” Jesus proved to His disciples that He was alive in that He spoke with them, ate with them, walked with them, and showed them the scars in His hands and His side. They were convinced by sight, touch and hearing. The resurrection was thereby placed forever beyond the reach of reasonable doubt, and necessarily so, for if Christ was not raised, our faith and hope are vain (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
The evidence, of course, has never been sufficient to satisfy the skeptics and the agnostics. But that’s the way God always works, doesn’t He? He leaves His fingerprints all over the universe, but at the same time He leaves just enough room for doubt so that the person who does not want to believe is not forced to do so. “By grace we are saved, through faith,” not through proofs.
He instructed them concerning the Kingdom of God. In the book of Acts the term “Kingdom of God” does not seem to refer to the future kingdom in which Christ will bodily reign on earth so much as to the spread of the Gospel through the Church. I think a good definition for the “kingdom of God” as it is used in Acts is “the saving, sovereign action of God in calling out a people for Himself.” There is a relationship, of course, between the future kingdom and the present kingdom, in that those who are part of the present kingdom will be the ones who reign with Christ in the future. But our tendency is often to focus almost completely on the prophetic aspects of the kingdom rather than the present. In fact, that’s the very mistake the Apostles make in verse 6, which we will examine in a moment.
We are not told the specifics of Jesus’ message regarding the Kingdom, but we might well suppose that it included something about the divine purpose regarding the inclusion of Gentiles, something about appropriate methods of evangelism, perhaps even some instruction regarding church organization. Whatever it was, it prepared them well for the task before them.
He commanded them to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In verse 4 we read that Jesus gathered His disciples in Jerusalem, apparently toward the end of His 40-day post-resurrection ministry, and He commanded them not to leave but to wait for the promise of the Father, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Why were they commanded to wait in Jerusalem? Their natural inclination was to leave Jerusalem. Several already had, and it’s not hard to see why. This was the city which had slain their leader. Besides, their homes were up in Galilee. Wasn’t the Holy Spirit able to come upon them in Galilee or in Emmaus? Of course, He could. But Jerusalem was the divinely intended place for the initiation of the Spirit’s new ministry. The place where Jesus was rejected was to be the place where fresh witness to Him would begin. If the Gospel could make its way in Jerusalem, it could go anywhere in triumph.
Why also did they have to wait for the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t He available in the Old Testament and during the life of Christ? Yes and no. Yes, the Holy Spirit was active from the time of Creation Week until Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit was evident at every point in the earthly life of Christ. Certain OT saints had a special portion of the Holy Spirit. But up until this point, believers were not universally baptized and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit is expressly promised in all four Gospels (Matt. 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33), but every time it is mentioned it is spoken of in the future tense. Now Jesus indicates that the time of this great event is just days away. We will speak more about what it means later.
So far we have seen in verses 3-5 that during Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry He convinced His followers that He was alive, He instructed them concerning the Kingdom of God, and He commanded them to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now beginning in verse 6 we are informed concerning …
The risen Lord’s final commission to His disciples (6-8)
Jesus gave many commands to His disciples during His earthly ministry. But none is more important than the one before us in verse 8, known as the Great Commission (found in Matthew 28:18-20 also). It is introduced to us by means of a contrast between what the disciples see as important and what Jesus sees as important.
The disciples are gently chided to get their attention off prophetic chronology and onto evangelistic opportunity. Notice the question they put to Jesus in this their final meeting: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” The disciples are like so many of us. We want to know “when.” So many Christians anxiously try to calculate the probable course of events in the last days, spending energy that would much more profitably be used in evangelism and discipleship. But the disciples have another related problem, which is also shared by many today—their focus is on the future political kingdom that Christ promised rather than on the present kingdom during which the Gospel does its work in human hearts.
Jesus corrects them on both issues, essentially telling them that the Father’s timetable for that future earthly political kingdom is none of their concern. What is their concern is the opportunity for sharing the Good News that Jesus lives and that there is salvation in no other name than His name. They are to be witnesses, before they become princes or kings in an earthly kingdom.
But we can be grateful that Jesus did not merely deflate their earthly expectations; He also told them of their spiritual resources.
The disciples are promised the power to accomplish the task committed to them. (8) “But you shall receive power and you shall be My witnesses.” The question is often asked whether this is a command or a promise. The answer is that it is both. As prophecy the disciples could count absolutely on its realization. Jesus had not said, “I will build my church if everyone cooperates;” rather He said, “I will build My church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” But there is a command here too—they were to make themselves obediently available. The power will come from one source and one source only. It doesn’t come from ordination, or from a seminary degree, or from some position in society, or from experience. It comes from the Holy Spirit. And that power would be made available when the Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost.
I believe the same power promised to the disciples through the baptism of the Holy Spirit is available to the Church today, only we no longer have to wait for it. Since the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has indwelt every believer from the moment of salvation. You see, just as water baptism is a once-for-all matter (no one is urged to be baptized twice), so baptism with the Spirit is a one-time event. There is no record of anyone being baptized with the Spirit twice or three times.
True, the apostles were believers for some time before being baptized with the Spirit, but this was because of their unique historical position of being believers under both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, both before and after Pentecost. Only a unique situation in the life of the early Church dictated delay in the giving of the Spirit, as we will see in chapters 8 and 19.
There is a lot of confusion regarding baptism with the Spirit, and our study of the book of Acts will either put a rest to the confusion or make it worse; I hope the former. To baptize literally means to immerse a person in water, to deluge him with it. Spirit baptism, likewise, signifies immersion in the Holy Spirit. The new thing Jesus promised that was about to happen is that believers would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit on a daily basis, making continual control by the Spirit a possibility.
If you are a Christian, I believe you have all of the Holy Spirit you will ever have right now. However, the Spirit may not have all of you, and therefore you may not be experiencing or manifesting the supernatural power He wants you to have. That’s why Eph. 5:18 urges believers to be filled with the Spirit rather than to be drunk with wine. The analogy there indicates clearly that the filling of the Spirit is a synonym for the control of the Spirit, for wine controls the person who indulges to excess.
The task committed to the disciples here at the beginning of the book of Acts is an incredible one. They are to be witnesses starting in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the uttermost part of the world. Geographically this witness involved moving out from a center to the circumference, as ripples formed when a pebble is dropped into a pond. Someone has expressed the command in contemporary terms this way: we are to cross the street, we are to cross the states, and we are to cross the seas. That command has never been rescinded.
The risen Lord’s ascension to heaven (9-11)
Jesus disappears into the clouds. Verse 9 says, “And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” After the Great Commission there was no more that needed to be said. They had a job to do and the resources with which to do it, so Jesus left them.
One can imagine the pathos of that scene. Forty days prior, their hopes had been dashed. But just when their depression had reached bottom, Jesus appeared in His resurrection body, proving Himself to be alive. Now once again He was leaving them. They are no longer depressed, for they know He is alive. Still, the prospects for the future must have appeared overwhelming, to say the least. To be given the responsibility to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth by a power they did not yet know must have seemed formidable indeed.
Apparently the very look on the disciples’ faces betrayed their sense of inadequacy at what they had been asked to do. They just stood there gazing intently into the sky, perhaps longing for the reappearance of Jesus, or for some other occurrence which would indicate that what they had seen was not the final act in the drama. While they are gazing into heaven, however, …
Angels confirm the promise of His Second Coming. (10) “Two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?'” We know these two men were angels both from their appearance and their message. They offer, I think, a gentle reproach to the disciples for dawdling there and for their longing for Jesus to remain with them. The disciples have received their marching orders. Now the angels give them an assurance that the ascension of Jesus is actually a guarantee that, as it was possible for Him to ascend into heaven, so it will be possible for him to return in the same way.
The angels continue, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.'” The ascension was the acknowledgment by the Father of the finished work of the Son. It set the stage for the sending of the Spirit. It implied a continuing concern for the world. It also contained an implicit promise that He would return.
The disciples’ response (12-14)
Verse 12-14 report implicit obedience on the part of the disciples. They walked the mile or so back into the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives where the ascension had taken place. Luke 24:52 offers the information that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Apparently, the message of the angels was being taken to heart. Act 1:13 adds that they returned to the Upper Room, a place very sacred to them, and they “all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.” The mere fact that they had received a guaranteed promise did not indicate that their responsibility was over. Rather they saw that while the Holy Spirit is the divine gift which empowers the church, the corresponding human response must be prayer. It is as the church prays that it is able to appropriate the full power of the Spirit.
I find it a beautiful thing that gathered with the eleven disciples in the upper room were the women who had had such an important part in the earthly ministry of Christ, plus Mary His mother, and His brothers. Jesus had at least four half-brothers and they were unbelievers until after the resurrection (John 7:5). Now they are found in the company of the saints.
Conclusion: What would God have us take from this passage today? I think above all else we need to take the message that obedience, plus prayer, plus the power of the Holy Spirit can together accomplish tremendous things. I wish everyone had been able to hear Dr. Keith Phillips at the World Impact Banquet last Monday night. There are too few people in the Church at large, in my estimation, who really believe that God wants to do mighty things among His people today, as He did 2,000 years ago. I would like for us to develop a spirit of expectation and to begin turning our little world upside down.
Kathryn Kuhlman wrote a book entitled, “God Can Do It Again.” I haven’t read the book, but I love the title. And I believe what it says. May we be ready and willing to be a part of what God is ready to do here in St. Louis.
Kingdom of God
Baptism of the Holy Spirit