Tue, Oct 12, 2010
3 - Acts - Introduction - Part 1 [a]
Acts by Robert Dean
Series: Acts (2010)

Introduction, Part 1

 

Whenever we come to study any book in the Bible we ought to ask the question: Why is this here? Why has God revealed this information to us? Why did He reveal other information to us? Of all the things that happened in the life of Christ we are only told a small amount in the Gospels. At the end of John, John says that if all the things that had been done by Jesus were written down they would fill volumes and volumes and volumes of books, but all we have are the four Gospels and that is it. And three of them—Matthew, Mark and Luke—cover about ninety per cent of the same material. John is very different, but those three are called the synoptic Gospels because they are synonymous, very close to one another, elucidating basically the same kind of situations. We have all these things in the book of Acts that covers the period from roughly AD 33-63, a thirty-year period. Think of all the things that happened in the world, all the things that happened to believers, all the thing that happened to all of the twelve disciples and only two apostles are really emphasized in the book of Acts. John is mentioned, but he doesn't speak, and we see the others on the scene in Acts chapter one but they don't say anything; it is only Peter and Paul who carry the action in the book of Acts. What about all the others, the ones who went to Africa, to India, to Persia, north and on up into what is today Ukraine and Russia? Why didn't God tell us about what they did? Why do we have this historical book of Acts revealing to us this information?

The key verse in Acts is 1:8 which Jesus stated to the disciples: "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 even to the remotest part of the earth." That is the structure of Acts. The first twelve chapters focus on Peter; the rest of the book focuses on Paul. Peter takes the church from Jerusalem to Antioch; Paul takes it from Antioch to Rome.

Title: We know this book as the Acts of the Apostles and sometimes simply as Acts, but the book itself does not come with a title. The title itself actually gets added to the manuscript somewhere in the

second century. They had to call it something so the term that was used was the Acts of the Apostles. But that title actually is a misnomer and distorts the thrust of the book. It is not about the apostles. It ignores ten of them and the only ones that we focus on are Peter then Paul. John is briefly mentioned, James is briefly mentioned, neither of them saying anything; but the real actor is the Holy Spirit. It is the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The one who is performing the real background action, giving birth to the church in the second chapter, the one who is expanding the church through the next three chapters, and the one who is protecting the church from problems within, such as the lying of Ananias and Saphira, and it is the Holy Spirit who is protecting the church from enemies from without such as those who want to arrest Peter and John and put them into prison and try to shut down this fledgling body of Christ. And it is the Holy Spirit who is working behind the scenes to propagate the gospel.

So the book of Acts focuses on how God the Holy Spirit is empowering the early church, specifically through Peter, then through some of the other leaders such as Stephen and Philip, and then through the apostle Paul, to take the message of the risen Messiah, the risen Savior, and to proclaim the fact that He is resurrected, that He is the Messiah, and that the kingdom—initially the message that Peter is proclaiming in Acts 2 and 3—is still offered to the Jews. This raises a lot of questions with people, and one of the things that we will examine later on is understanding the fact that this is a transition book. At the beginning of Acts they were still operating under a Mosaic dispensation where God the Holy Spirit is not indwelling, baptizing or filling anyone in Acts chapter one. Acts chapter one is still functioning under the Old Testament economy. It is not until the Holy Spirit descends in Acts chapter two that there is the birth of the church, and then there is a dispensational shift.

There were some in Israel, just like the old man Simeon at the beginning of Luke, and when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple for His dedication, who recognize that He is the Messiah. They are Old testament saints who make a transition at that point by believing in the Messiah. That is the message from that point on and why it is thought that the life of Christ is in some sense a unique dispensation because the message isn't the Old Testament dispensation message to believe God is going to send a savior. It is not the present message to believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. During that period of time the message was that this is the Messiah. Some did and a lot didn't. The majority of the Jews rejected that message, the leadership rejected that message, and so there was no kingdom that came in. So there was a new dispensation, a new administration that was not foreseen or foretold in the Old Testament Scriptures. But there were still Old Testament saints who were believers in an Old Testament sense that are going to transition into the new dispensation. But a certain number of these people weren't believers in the Old Testament sense or a New Testament sense who heard the gospel from Peter on the day of Pentecost and again in Acts chapter three, and the message is still oriented to Israel. "Repent the times of refreshing will come" is the same message John the Baptist had—"Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Jesus came and initially His message was "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," He sent His disciples to go to the house of Israel and the message was "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." When they didn't then Jesus goes through a transition period at the end of His ministry where He is training the disciples for a time when He is not going to be there, in preparation for the church age, and He instructs them about the kingdom (Acts chapter one). In the first part of Acts Jesus ascends to heaven and there is still this offer, a legitimate offer, of the kingdom to Israel.

But what we see here is that there is a shift that has taken place and it is based on this message that the risen Messiah is there and has ascended to heaven. That is the message of the first twelve chapters, but by then it is obvious that the beliefs are being hardened, solidified, and those among Israel who are going to trust in the Messiah have done so. But the nation and the leadership isn't turning to Jesus and so there is the transition more and more to the Gentiles until there is the apostle Paul being sent out in chapter 13, taking the gospel message to the Gentiles on his three missionary journeys.

The earliest evidence that we have for the name "Acts" is found in a document that was written between 150 and 180 AD, and it is written in a prologue to an anti-Marcionite document. Marcion was one of the heretics that popped up in the middle of the second century. He was one of then most significant individuals in the second century and was influential on the negative side. He was the first person who tried to put together a collection of authoritative New Testament documents and he said that there were eleven official New Testament books: Luke, which he edited a little, Acts he didn't like, and he had ten epistles from Paul. He felt that the God of the New Testament was not the same as the God of the Old Testament and he was extremely anti-Semitic. He became a real problem, but as soon as somebody stood up and said these are the only eleven books that we ought to have in the Bible it forced everybody else to answer the question as to what books we should have in the Bible. Because of his heresy he forces the church to define the canon. So one of the writings that was written against him to refute what he was saying referred to the book of Acts as the book of Acts.

Who wrote the book of Acts? If we read from Acts chapter one through chapter twenty-eight we will never find anything in the book that identifies specifically who the author is, but there are certain clues embedded within the book that gives us a good idea so that we can be confident as to who wrote the book. In the early church the belief was that it was written by Luke. Some people think Luke was a Gentile; some people think he was a Jew who was Hellenized. He was close friends with the apostle Paul. In the early church one of the most significant church fathers was a man named Iranaeus. He later became the bishop of Leon in France and he wrote a number of very significant things in the second century. He was the first person to recognize that there are some sections in the book where all of a sudden the narrative shifts from a third person—he, they—to we, and us, and then in the next chapter it shifts back to he and they. The "we" and the "us" indicates that whoever was writing the book of Acts was traveling with the apostle Paul for some of that time. When he began to examine these particular passages it became clear that the person who seemed to fit this best was Luke.

We also have a clue about the write of Acts because of the first couple of verses which connect is back to the Gospel of Luke. In the first four verses of Luke he writes to someone he knew, either a colleague or a friend, someone he had come to know by the name of Theophilus. There is some debate as to whether Theophilus was an actual name or just a title. Luke 1:1-4 NASB "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write {it} out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught." It implies that there were other people who tried to write down information about Jesus and what the disciples did, but haven't been accepted. Luke seems to have a very precise mind. We know from other references that he was a physician. He researches what he is writing and has gone to people who were eyewitnesses of these events, taken notes, and under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit he writes the Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke is really book one, and then at the beginning of Acts we read: Acts 1:1 NASB "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 by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen." So he is continuing to give Theophilus a detailed account of everything that had taken place.

In these narrative of historical type books this is not history or biography as we have come to see history or biography written in our time, it is more of an editorialized biography or history written from a divine viewpoint so that we get God's interpretation and purpose of an for these events. It is clear that the writer of the book of Acts is the same as the writer of the Gospel and that he is someone who was very close to the apostle Paul and accompanied him on his second and third missionary journeys. So we have these "we" sections of Acts: 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-29; 28:1-16. These are when he was accompanying Paul.

According to what we see in Acts 16 Paul first met Luke in Troas in Anatolia where Paul had the vision to go across to Macedonia. There is speculation that Luke may have known Paul earlier since one of the major medical schools in the ancient world was located in Tarsus where Paul was from. So if Luke was from a Jewish background but was attending medical school there then he could possibly have known the apostle Paul, but that is speculation and there is uncertainty there. Luke went with Paul from Troas over to Macedonia, to Philippi. He stayed for six years and pastured the church there before he rejoined Paul. We only have three references to Luke in the Scriptures: Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon.

The date: Probably sometime around 61-63 AD, and before 64. In the Gospel of Luke and in some of the earlier sections of Acts Luke takes note of some significant historical events that take place—the death of Herod and some other things—and so he does not ignore events in secular history but makes reference to them. There are two major historical events that take place during this decade of history. One is the burning of Rome and the beginning of the Neronian persecution with began in AD 64. If Luke was in Rome and Paul was a prisoner in Rome still when Rome burns and there was the persecution by Nero we believe Luke would have mentioned it. That is an argument from silence so it is not definitive but why does he not mention either the burning of Rome or the first major persecution Christians? The second thing that occurs at the end of that decade is the Jewish revolt against Rome which began in 66 and ended in 70 when the armies of Rome under Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. But there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Luke in Acts. Furthermore there is no mention of the death of Paul in 64 in Acts, so it was written before Paul died. The character of the subject matter is very early. We have the mention in Acts 5 of the choice of some men who are going to help with the administration of the money and the food that had been given to help the widows. These men are chosen in order to help them. They are not called deacons there. In the Baptist church they always go there to show "deacons." They are never called deacons. The verb to "minister" is used but they are not called deacons. It is a prototype, a foreshadowing but there is not in the book of Acts a formalized church structure yet. The closest is when Paul stops at Miletus on his way to Jerusalem and the elders of the church at Ephesus come to meet with him. That is the closest we get to any formal structure. In the early part of Acts there is no formal structure in the churches.

Also we see an early nature of theology, especially in the first two thirds of Acts, and there is not a very detailed analysis of any kind of theological topic. Paul is writing at that time but it is interesting that the writer of Acts never mentions when Paul writes any of his epistles. We have to put things together from historical circumstances.

The attitude of the Romans towards Christianity is positive throughout al of the book of Acts. The enemy that we see to Christianity in the book of Acts is the Jews who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. They will follow Paul from town to town, stir up trouble and cause riots. From the Roman perspective Christianity was still part of Judaism, and Judaism was a legitimate or legally recognized religion by the government of Rome. Up until the burning of Rome and the persecution by Nero the Romans basically looked at Christians as just a subset of Judaism. It was only after the burning of Rome and that first persecution of Christians that Roman authorities were taking a hostile view of Christianity. We don't see that hostility in the book of Acts anywhere.

The place of Acts in the Bible: Many of us have been in Bible classes so long that we become so detailed in some of the minutia of the text that we lose sight of the forest. It is important in Scripture to do the detailed work to make sure we understand what is going on in the big picture but the doctrines are revealed not just in terms of minutia but also in terms of broad patterns. We have to do both. In the big picture we have to understand how and why this book is in the canon. What is God's purpose in giving us this information? It is not just history. The reason God revealed His Word to us the way He did is because it forces us to stop and think about it. If God had given it to use in a systematic theology we would pull the systematic theology off the shelf, read it from cover to cover, close it, put it back on the shelf and never think about it again. Every time we take out our Bible and read it we ought to be scratching our head and asking what that means. There are some people who say they just have to wait for the pastor to explain it to them. No, they don't! They will never learn it that way. We need to be reading our Bible all the time. The questions that come to mind and we write in the margins of our Bible are the questions that are going to motivate us so that when we come to Bible class and are studying that, maybe some years after originally reading it and written the questions down, we want to know what this is all about.

The book of Acts is a unique book in the Scriptures because it is not loaded with doctrinal exposition, like Romans, Hebrews or even Revelation. It is a narrative of how the church grew from 120 believers meeting in an upper room in the first chapter to Paul being under house arrest in Rome at the end of the book, and the dynamics of that expansion and how God the Holy Spirit engineered that and how he protects the church. The book of Acts describes the propagation and the progress and process by which the gospel moves from being a local Jewish phenomenon to being a global phenomenon and having an impact that changes the world. Why doesn't the book of Acts go with Peter to Babylon? Why doesn't the book of Acts go to Africa? That goes back to Noah's prophecy about his three sons. The book of Acts is important for understanding the unity of the body of Christ, the expansion of the infant church, and how God the Holy Spirit is engineering this.

Why the book is important:

  1. It records the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost in AD 33, and the miraculous pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. That is the birth of the church, and it is described by a broad phrase called the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is just a general term that is borrowed from Joel chapter two. If you are a dispensationalist terms like indwelling, filling, baptism of the Holy Spirit, are familiar and you understand what they mean. If you come out of a Presbyterian or Reformed or Calvinistic background that is not dispensational—they believe all of these things happened from the time Adam got saved—the filling of the Holy Spirit is irrelevant, you just have to do the commands of the New Testament. All of this just runs counter to the book of Acts. Acts is about God the Holy Spirit's work through the disciples.
  2. It describes how the infant church expands from Jerusalem to the halls of power in Rome. We see opposition and how the apostles handle the opposition.
  3. It enables us to understand the transition from the age of Israel to the age of the church, the transition from law to grace, from Jerusalem to Rome, from being a small unknown Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a worldwide international, transformational religion as Christianity completely separates from Judaism.
  4. We see that as the church develops we understand how God the Holy Spirit provided for its leadership, administration and organization. They don't have much at the beginning, it is transitional.
  5. We see that Acts laid the foundation for the church age concept of missions. Two things ought to be pounded into us as we study Acts. One is the importance of prayer; the other is the importance of missions and evangelism. Acts is the beginning and it doesn't stop until the Rapture.
  6. Without the historical structure provided by Acts we would not understand the context of the Pauline epistles, and a number of things that Paul says in the epistles would not really have a lot of meaning for us if we didn't understand the historical context in which they were written.
  7. Acts provides the only historical sequel to the events of the Gospels. We wouldn't even know about the ascension without it!

One other thing about Acts and its place in the Bible is that Luke wrote it as an apologia (a legal defense, not an apology). It is a rationally structured argument to prove a case. It is a rationally structured argument for showing that what Jesus started at the resurrection and ascension is carried out by God the Holy Spirit from Acts chapter two through to a maturity point in chapter twenty-eight. Luke uses the most interesting people to make his case. For example in chapter four, Gamaliel, the most well-known Pharisee and rabbi at that time is being pressured by the Jews in Jerusalem to do something to stop the Christians: if God is behind it you can't stop it; if God is not behind it, it is going to go away. Luke has used Gamaliel's words to set forth his basic argument: nobody could stop it! It exploded. All kinds of people were claiming to be messiahs, and it was only the Messiah who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, only the Messiah who died on the cross, who met all the credentials of the Old Testament. And when He ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to replace Him this began Christianity and it couldn't be stopped by anyone. One of the first things Luke says to indicate this is Acts 1:3 NASB "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 the things concerning the kingdom of God." If Jesus thought it was necessary to establish his credentials through many infallible proofs then why is it that we get the idea that we don't really need to know these things?

When we are having a discussion with somebody we don't have to validate what we are saying about Jesus. Do we realize that most Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and other cultists know more about what we are going to say to them when they talk to us than you will ever know about their religion. That's terrible.