We continue to look at some of the overriding themes of Acts.
(Act 1:1 ESV) In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach …
Ponder the grammar for a moment. If the Gospel of Luke is about what Jesus “began to do and teach, ” what is Acts about? The clear implication is: what Jesus continued to do and teach. Jesus’ ministry did not end with the Ascension!
Acts is all about Jesus — alive, well, active, and living through his Spirit and his church.
Jesus is, of course, not merely a great teacher. He is the Messiah — God’s King now enthroned in heaven ruling over God’s Kingdom.
In particular, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection —
(Act 1:22 ESV) 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.”
(Act 2:31 ESV) 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
(Act 4:2 ESV) 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.
(Act 4:33 ESV) 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
(Act 17:18 ESV) 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
(Act 23:6 ESV) 6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
(Act 24:14-15 ESV) 14 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.
“Resurrection” refers to a bodily resurrection, that is, not merely a spirit floating up to heaven. Jesus was raised with a body — a transformed and glorified body, but a body that could be seen, that could talk and walk and cook fish. And this claim by the early church was central to its preaching.
(Act 3:13 ESV) 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him.
Acts is also about God, but God as the God of Israel. The God of Acts is firmly rooted in the history of Israel. Over and over, God is described in terms of his ancient dealings with Israel.
(Act 3:25 ESV) 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’
And God is the God of the covenant with Abraham and the Law of Moses. Acts does not seek to remove God from his past — as though his dealings with the Jews were a mistake, to be forgotten and ignored. No, God reveals himself through his story — his dealings with Abraham and Israel — and the New Testament revelation is deeply rooted in his Old Testament dealings.
Of course, in Acts, God becomes much, much more than the God of Israel. He confronts and defeats the gods of the pagans. He begins to extend his effective rule over the entire world. But he accomplishes this, not by rejecting his past, but by incorporating the Gentiles into his people.
As a result, one of longest sections in Acts deals with the question of how to deal with Cornelius. God’s choice to include Gentiles raises the question of whether they must become Jews to be part of the Kingdom, and this is no easy question for the Jews. They wrestle with the meaning of his conversion in light of prophecy and the Torah.
The question soon divides the Jewish Christians, many of whom are unwilling to accept Gentiles who don’t convert to Judaism. Surely they must at least be circumcised! And this controversy leads to serious reflection on the nature of God’s salvation, faith in Jesus, and the Law. It also produces a number of Paul’s epistles.
But it’s no historical curiosity. We continue to struggle with these very same issues in today’s church. How do we deal with people who aren’t like us but who believe in Jesus?
The Holy Spirit
Christians from all denominations struggle with the accounts in Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit follows no easy pattern. The rules aren’t clear. We want to confine the Spirit to a set of rules and laws. We want a predictable — indeed, a controllable — Spirit. We want the Spirit to be subject to our control.
(John 3:8 ESV) 8 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit of Acts cannot be reduced to the pages of the Bible or even controlled by baptism. Sometimes the Spirit precedes baptism. Sometimes the Spirit comes later. Sometimes the Spirit tells the apostles exactly what to do. Other times, the Spirit waits until the apostles have erred to correct them. The Spirit blows wherever he wills.
And Acts is infused with the Spirit. Indeed, if we try to interpret Acts around the Spirit, focusing on just the comfortable parts, Acts quickly becomes incomprehensible. Or maybe just uninteresting. You see, the Spirit breathes the fire into the story.
Throughout Acts, the apostles are referred to as “witnesses,” a legal term (as in English). They saw the resurrected Jesus. Why else? I think it’s a reference to —
(Isa 43:10-13 ESV) 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God. 13 Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?”
This passage refers to Israel (the 12 tribes) as God’s witnesses because they saw God’s mighty works (read the whole chapter). The point of being an apostle is not so much to command people as to give testimony — to remind people of God’s actions and love. Thus, God commissions Paul as a witness —
(Act 22:14-15 ESV) 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.’
For many years, it was consider taboo in the Churches of Christ to speak of being a “witness” for Jesus. After all, only the apostles and others of that generation had seen the resurrected Jesus! But is that true? Can we “witness” for Jesus?