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The book of Acts is essentially a history book. But instead of relating world history, or regional history, the book of Acts records the early history of the Christian church.
Christianity is the continuation of the Old Testament worship of Yahweh, or as He is more commonly called, “the LORD”. So, you could say that the history found in the book of Acts isn’t the beginning of the Christian church at all. But here’s the difference. Before Jesus came, the followers of the LORD were always looking forward to the time when the promised Messiah would come and rescue mankind from sin and hell. After Jesus came, their hope changed in this way. Now the church proclaimed that the Messiah had come. And that the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.
In our Sunday morning Bible Class this year we’ve had the opportunity to study the book of Acts in detail. And recently I had the opportunity to study through the book again, in preparation for an outreach talk presented in Vancouver. From these studies, three key observations rose.
First, the disciples who went out to preach sins forgiven through Jesus presented His resurrection from the dead as unshakable proof that their message was true. The disciples were first and foremost, witnesses to the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And in their preaching they explain what significance this has for all sinners.
Second, miraculous signs done through the power of the Holy Spirit served to confirm the apostle’s message. The history of Acts is filled with miracles. The disciples speak in languages they never learned. People are instantly healed of their sicknesses. There are demons cast out of people. Others are raised from the dead. But no matter what kind of miracle was performed, the ultimate purpose of each one was to point people to Jesus, and to the forgiveness of sins that He offers.
Third, the message of sins forgiven through Jesus was no manmade religious idea. The Gospel was God’s proclamation to the world. And therefore, the message couldn’t be stopped. By God’s power and according to His plan, the Gospel made it’s way through fiery persecutions and opposition and spread throughout the world.
These are three of the major observations that arise from a study of the book of Acts. And interestingly, these three teachings are encapsulated in the very first chapter of Acts, from which we read today.
The disciples of Jesus might summarize all of this by saying, “We are His Witnesses”. We are witnesses of His resurrection. We are empowered by His Holy Spirit. We are tools of the Father through which His forgiving grace is made known to all.
Acts 1:1-11 (ESV)
1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard 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 asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
When the apostles set about filling Judas’ empty place among the Twelve, they selected a pool of men who had been with them from the time of John’s baptizing to the time of Jesus’ ascension. They did this because this new apostle would need to be a “witness to His resurrection”. Once the pool of candidates had been selected, they drew lots, and Matthias became the twelfth apostle. But the main point here is that the twelfth apostle needed to be someone who could say, “Yes, I knew Jesus before He died, and I saw Him after He had been raised to life.”
As you read through the book of Acts, you find sermons of the apostles recorded on different occasions. One thing that the apostles routinely come back to in their preaching is that they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
And they didn’t just see Jesus like an Elvis, or Bigfoot sighting. The resurrected Jesus, complete with nail holes in His hands, spent FORTY days with His disciples after the resurrection. During this time He continued to teach them about the Kingdom of God, and He laid to rest any doubts they might have had about the reality of His resurrection.
Have you ever woken up the morning after some momentous event, and had to honestly ask yourself if it was a dream, or if it had really happened? I’m guessing that this was common among the followers of Jesus after the first Easter Sunday. It makes sense that Jesus would stay with them until the shock wore off and they were sure of who they had seen.
It was important that these disciples be sure of the resurrection, because it would be the cornerstone of their preaching. In the book of Acts, the apostles mention Jesus’ resurrection specifically some 21 different times. And here’s the reason. If Jesus was really raised from the dead, that was God’s power at work. If God raised this teacher from the grave, that was God’s stamp of approval on His message. By raising Jesus from the dead, God was saying, “This is the Christ I have sent to take away your sins”. Boil it down and this is what you get: If Jesus was truly raised from the dead, He is the Savior God promised, and your sins are forgiven because of His suffering and death on the cross.
Our faith is not a faith without foundation. Our trust in Christ is based on the resurrection witness of the men who were there. All who hear the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection hear evidence which demands a verdict. Is the testimony of these men true, or not? If it’s true, then that changes everything.
Now, when the Gospel first went out, God also caused miracles to happen around it, to serve as a secondary witness that this message was true. At the end of Mark’s Gospel it says,
“19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (Mark 16:19-20 ESV).
Jesus’ own ministry had been marked by all sorts of miracles. It makes sense that the message of Jesus would be accompanied by more. And that’s what we find in the book of Acts.
At Pentecost the disciples speak in languages that they had never learned. In Jerusalem, Peter heals a paralyzed man. The sick are healed and demons are cast out. A faithful woman by the name of Tabitha is raised from the dead. Peter is set free from prison by an angel. And on and on the list of miracles goes.
But listen to the account of Paul doing a miracle on the island of Cyprus. When a wicked man by the name of Elymas tried to turn people away from Jesus’ message, Paul turned to him and said...
“You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:10-12 ESV).
The telling line here is, “he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord”. Miracles were impressive, yes, but what was more impressive was the message that accompanied the miracles.
If you think about it, a Christianity without miracles would still have the message of sins forgiven and eternal life given through God’s own Son. But a Christianity with loads of miracles but no message, would have so much less to offer.
The last part of our sermon reading for today takes place on the Mount of Olives. This was a mountain that was just east of Jerusalem. From that mountain the disciples would have had a pretty good view of the city.
Jesus took His followers to this mountain at the end of the forty days. The disciples were still hoping that Jesus was going to kick their Roman overlords out of the country and establish a golden age for Israel. They ask Jesus,
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 ESV).
But Jesus had a better plan in mind. The plan of the Father. Instead of a temporary earthly kingdom, Jesus would send the disciples out into the world to establish the invisible Kingdom of Grace. He tells them,
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).
This would be a pretty bold prediction for any mere human being to make. But Jesus was the Son of God. And He knew that the message they were taking out was God’s message to the world. It would succeed because God cannot fail. And it has. Followers of Christ are now found in even the furthest corners of the globe.
As one final sign that God’s power was at work here, Jesus was then lifted up into the air and disappeared from their sight when a cloud drifted between them. And then angel messengers reassured the gawking disciples that Jesus would one day return in the same way that He left. All of this is to say, God’s plan was laid out, and it would progress according to the Lord’s will.
Some scholars aren’t satisfied with the way the book of Acts ends. The book ends with the apostle Paul arriving at Rome where he is to go on trial before Caesar. Here’s the final words of Acts…
“30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31 ESV).
The scholars who don’t like this ending want to know what happened to Paul? How did the trial go? What happened to Paul after this? They question, have we lost the final chapters of Acts?
But really, this is the perfect ending. The Gospel message that Jesus sent out with His witnesses has reached the capital city of that part of the world. It is being preached freely and is bringing more sinners to the throne of God’s grace. What the Father planned out, is being accomplished through the tools He chooses to use.
Instead of the question, “What happened to Paul”, we aught to ask, how is the Lord going to use my little life to bring glory to God and sinners to Christ? For one day Jesus will come again, like the angels said.
How can I be a witness of Christ’s resurrection?
How can I move at the impulse of the Holy Spirit?
What part does God have for me to plan in His plan of saving the world through Christ?
These are the questions we need to have in our minds as we imagine Jesus ascending into the sky. Our ever living King has gone up to rule the universe for our good. He has left with us His precious message of free forgiveness and life eternal. He promises that His followers have His power to compensate for our weakness.
May these thoughts give you peace and strength as you face the troubles of this life, and as you wait for Jesus to descend in glory.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.