One reason I love to study the book of Acts is its uniqueness. It is the sourcebook for the spread of early Christianity. Without it we would know little about the apostolic church except what could be gleaned from Paul’s epistles. It is the chronicle of the spreading flame of the Holy Spirit.
It is also a book with a splendid theme, tracing the work of the Holy Spirit through the birth, infancy, and adolescence of the Church. Its title could well be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” or “The Acts of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit Working through the Church.” Acts forms the perfect counterpart and contrast to the Gospels. In the Gospels the Son of Man offered his life; in Acts the Son of God offered his power. In the Gospels we see the original seeds of Christianity; in Acts we see the continual growth of the Church. The Gospels tell us of Christ crucified and risen; Acts speaks of Christ ascended and exalted. The Gospels model the Christian life as lived by the perfect Man; Acts models it as lived out by imperfect men.
The study of Acts is particularly important to us because it teaches us how to experience a stimulating, exciting life—how to make our lives count. One man said, “I have been a deacon in my church for years; built a church building, raised money, served on committees. But one thing my church never gave me was a relationship with Christ that would make my life exciting.”1 Rather than having an effervescent, relevant faith, this man found his life about as stimulating as a stale glass of ginger ale. He did not know the secret of Acts.
In our day one of the nicer things said about the institutional church is that it is “irrelevant.” The book of Acts carries the remedy. Whether you are young and virile with Superman-like energy, or restless with what you have seen of a dull, ho-hum, business-as-usual Christianity, or at the age where you are receiving birthday cards that say things like “When it’s time for a dental checkup, do you send out your teeth?” the message of Acts is for you!
The author of Acts was Luke the physician, and he begins with a reference to his already completed work on the life of Christ, which we know as the Gospel of Luke:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (vv. 1, 2)
Naturally Theophilus remembered, and his thoughts turned to Luke’s great scroll and its remarkable account of Christ’s life. He was thereby primed for what was to follow.
Then in verses 3–5 Luke continues with some new information as he tells Theophilus something more of the time after Christ’s resurrection:
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. (v. 3)
Luke is the only Scriptural writer who tells us that Christ’s post-resurrection ministry covered forty days. Evidently Jesus appeared at intervals, coming and going from Heaven at will, showing miraculous signs and instructing his disciples “about the kingdom of God.”
Luke’s record of the stunning encounter on the road to Emmaus is a typical example. Christ met the two followers in an altered physical form and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), so that they later said (Luke 24:32), “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” The picture of those forty days is one of enraptured excitement, unfolding mystery, suspense, and anticipation.
Luke goes on in verses 4, 5:
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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Christ’s conversation with the apostles must have been awesome! It may have even led to all-night rap sessions. What was this baptism “with the Holy Spirit”? Would Jesus take them to the Jordan and rebaptize them? Would they hear a voice from Heaven like Jesus did? Rabbis had said the restoration of Israel’s political fortunes would be marked by the revived activity of God’s Spirit. So now some of the disciples burned with the hope of a political theocracy. Would they themselves be given supernatural powers? Peter probably wanted to go through walls just like the Master had done. What would be their duties? Certainly each one would have a special mission marked with incredible power and great success. They were forbidden to leave Jerusalem for now, but then... How long before this would happen? Jesus said, “Not many days from now.” They could not wait!
In the midst of this ongoing, frenzied speculation, Jesus called the eleven together at the crest of the Mount of Olives. The apostolic band was aflame with expectancy.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.” (vv. 6–8)
These were Jesus’ final earthly words. It has been more than 2,000 years, and Jesus has not during that time planted his feet on terra firma and audibly addressed his followers. Perhaps that silence is intended to prevent anything from obscuring Jesus’ last words, so they will continue to reverberate in the Church’s ears.
Our Lord has laid down in the clearest terms the mission for those who are to follow him. This is the mission of the church that would dare to call itself New Testament—the mandate of apostolic Christianity.
Verse 8 is the key verse of the entire book of Acts. Chapters 1—7 tell of the witness “in Jerusalem,” chapters 8—11 the witness “in all Judea and Samaria,” and chapters 12—28 the witness “to the end of the earth.” This is the foundation on which to build an effervescent, exciting faith.
1. Lloyd John Ogilvie, The Drumbeat of Love (Waco, TX: Word, 1976), p. 12.
How did Christianity become one of the most important religions in world history? To answer this question, we must begin with the book of Acts, which chronicles the tumultuous days of the early Church and the spread of Christianity in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this insightful volume, Pastor Hughes leads readers to rediscover the history of the New Testament Church, examining key events in Acts such as the bold preaching of Christ’s early followers, the dramatic persecution of Christians, and the perilous missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul.