God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Learning to Live in the Spirit:
An introduction to the book of Acts
Dr. Jim Denison
Book of Acts overview
West Texans know the difference between a “flush-pump” well and an “artesian” well. A flush-pump well is drilled down to a water source; the tubing and pump handle are installed; and the handle is pumped until water is forced to the surface. An artesian well is quite different: when it is drilled to the water source, the underground pressure forces the water through the hole to the surface.
Many of us live a flush-pump faith. We pump ourselves up by studying Scripture, praying, attending worship services and religious events, and striving to grow in our faith. But an artesian well faith is possible. We can live in Christ so that his Spirit flows through us in victorious and power-filled daily experience. Who would choose the former when the latter is available to us?
The book of Acts describes Christianity as God intends it to be lived. Here we meet those who laid the foundations upon which the Church has worked to build the Kingdom across more than twenty centuries. These men and women were closest historically to Jesus; many of them walked personally with him in his incarnate ministry. His Spirit used them to initiate the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.
Let’s remember the purposes and priorities which motivated the apostolic Christians. Then we will live in the Spirit and continue the Acts which he empowers.
What is the book of “Acts”?
Who wrote the book?
Nowhere does the book we title “Acts of the Apostles” name its author. But reading the book, we encounter an interesting phenomenon beginning with Paul’s trip west to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17): the writer describes Paul’s group as “we.” He includes himself in the missionary team again when they moved from Philippi to Troas and Ephesus (20:5-16), on their journey to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and to Rome (27:1—28:16). So in identifying our author, we are looking for a missionary associate of Paul.
We know that Luke the physician was a close companion of the apostle. Paul calls him a dear friend and doctor (Colossians 4:10-14), his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), and lists him among his companions at the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11). In addition, early tradition names this doctor as the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) and the Muratorian Canon (end of 2nd century) are among the important historical sources. By the 3rd century, the Church held the unanimous opinion that Luke is the author of our text.
So who was he?
He was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Luke 1:1-4, where he states that he interviewed eyewitnesses in preparing his book). He was a man of excellent education; his Greek is the most advanced in the New Testament, and his use of medical terms is unique in the Bible (cf. Acts 3:7, where he describes in medical language the healing of the cripple).
Luke was a Gentile, probably the only Gentile writer in the New Testament (excepting perhaps the author of Hebrews). He makes clear that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 2:21; 10:43; 13:46-48; 15:16-18; 28:28). He shows God’s care for all persons in need (cf. the beggar of ch. 3, Cornelius in ch. 10, the sailors of ch. 27). Women are important to him and to the Kingdom (cf. Dorcas, 9:36-42; Lydia, 16:11-15).
He wrote to a world filled with skeptics against his faith. For instance, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian wrote (A.D. 118), “The Christians got their name from one Christus, who was executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh—not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world collect and find a home” (Annals 15.44).
In a very real sense, Luke is more like us than any other biblical writer. We are not eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ; we are Gentiles; we live in a world of modern education; we work in a global economy and share universal concerns; and we face a skeptical culture. The God who used Luke’s work to change his world will use ours in the same way, if we learn to live in the Spirit as he did.
How was Acts written?
The traditional title of our book, “Acts of Apostolic Men” or “Acts of the Apostles,” was given to the work in the mid-second century. The original text, as with all the book of the Bible, was untitled. This title is not entirely accurate—only four apostles are mentioned in the narrative (James, 12:2; John, though he never speaks; Peter; and Paul, the primary figure from ch. 13 forward). A much better title is “Accts of the Holy Spirit.”
The book, like the Gospel of Luke, is dedicated to “Theophilus” (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). His name means “lover of God,” but his identity is otherwise unknown. He may have been a Christian whose given name Luke wishes to keep secret for protection. He might have been a high government official whom Luke wrote in attempting to defend Christians against persecution. It is possible that he was Luke’s former master (doctors were often slaves). Perhaps Theophilus released Luke, and the physician wrote and dedicated this book and his Gospel to him in appreciation. Or he may have been Luke’s financial sponsor for his project.
The unidentified recipient of the book makes the narrative even more universally relevant. You and I are not Romans or Philippians; no book of the Bible was written specifically to us. But if we are a “lover of God,” this book is for us.
The book seems dependent upon the Gospel of Mark, and thus would have been written after A.D. 45. It does not record Paul’s death, which occurred before Nero’s demise in A.D. 68. Tradition places the origin of the book at Antioch, Paul’s headquarters. But Rome is possible, as the book ends there, as is Ephesus, a major focus of the narrative.
What is Acts about?
The spread of the gospel: The theme of the book comes early. Jesus’ now-familiar final words before his ascension command his followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Luke’s narrative therefore describes the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the “ends of the earth.”
Six key phrases trace the progress of the gospel and serve as turning points in the story:
The Jerusalem section ends, “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem; and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (6:7).
The Palestine and Samaria section ends, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was multiplied” (9:31).
The Gentile extension to Antioch and Cornelius ends, “The word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24).
The extension through Asia Minor and Galatia ends, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (16:5).
The extension to Europe ends, “So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily” (19:20).
The extension to Rome ends with Paul “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (28:31).
The defense of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative not only to show how the Kingdom spread from Palestine to Rome, but also to defend the truths that Kingdom proclaims. At least six attacks against the Christian faith can be identified and refuted in the narrative:
The delay in Jesus’ return is explained by the coming of his Spirit (ch. 2).
The ethics of the Christian community are vindicated from accusation (2:42-47; 4:32-35).
The innocence of Christian leaders is vindicated before their accusers (cf. 4:1-22).
The integrity of Saul/Paul is made clear before the Jews (cf. his conversion in ch. 9).
The divine call to the Gentiles is substantiated (chs. 10-11, 15).
The inherent logic of the gospel is demonstrated before Greek philosophers (17:16-34).
The explanation of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative to defend Christians against their enemies, but also to develop Christians in their own faith commitments. Six theological themes dominate his description of Spirit-filled faith.
First, God’s historical purposes will be fulfilled.
The events of Acts occur by his will (cf. 2:23; 4:27-29).
The life of the church fulfills Scripture: the coming of the Spirit (2:17-21); the mission to the Gentiles (13:47); the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church (15:16-18).
The life of the church is directed by God: the Spirit speaks to us (13:2; 15:28; 16:6); angels speak to Christian leaders (5:19); the Lord himself appears to his servants (18:9; 23:11).
The power of God is seen in signs and wonders performed in Jesus’ name (3:16; 14:3).
Second, God’s message will be proclaimed:
Christ fulfilled the Scriptures (2:16-21).
Christ is accredited by miracles (2:22).
He was crucified and resurrected (2:23-24).
He is Lord and Christ (2:25-36).
He saves all who call on him (2:37-41).
Third, God’s ministry will be discharged:
Judea and Samaria (8:4—12:25).
The “uttermost parts of the earth” (13:1—28:31).
Fourth, the Church will succeed despite opposition (“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” 14:22):
Mockery at Pentecost (ch. 2).
Corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (ch. 5).
Martyrdom of Stephen (ch. 7).
The church persecuted and scattered (8:1-4).
Peter imprisoned and released by the angel (ch. 12).
Sorcerer Bar-Jesus (13:6-12).
Common rejection by Jewish leaders (cf. 13:44-47).
Numerous attempts on Paul’s life (cf. 14:5-6, 19-20; 17:1-9; 19:23-41).
Paul imprisoned (cf. 16:16-40).
The gospel rejected by the Greeks (17:16-34).
Paul arrested in Jerusalem (21:27ff).
Paul rejected by the people and leaders (chs. 22-28).
Paul shipwrecked (27:13-44).
The book ends with Paul under arrest (28:30-31).
Fifth, Gentiles are included among the people of God:
All are included in salvation (2:21).
Gentiles are accepted by the Father (chs. 10-11, 15).
All races and societies are reached through missionary journeys (chs. 13-20).
The gospel is preached in Rome itself (ch. 28 fulfills 9:15).
Sixth, the Church is living and active:
The Holy Spirit is active (throughout the book).
The people are united in ministry (cf. 2:42-47; 4:32-37).
The Lord blesses his people with continued growth and progress (cf. 2:47).
How can we live in the Spirit today?
Elton Trueblood, the great Christian philosopher, believed that every successful organization has a passion, a philosophy, and a program. I’m convinced he is right. So were the first Christians. Let’s close today’s study by remembering their passion, philosophy, and program, and making them ours.
Our passion: growing the Kingdom of God
Jesus began his public ministry with this proclamation: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). He ended his earthly ministry with the same theme and passion: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God was his focus and passion. It must be ours as well.
The kingdom comes wherever God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). When we make God our King and ourselves his subjects, we enter his Kingdom. Such a commitment is the theme of our church all across this year. It must the passion of our hearts in every year.
We exist to bring as many people into God’s kingdom as we can. This is the passion which the Holy Spirit honors and empowers. It must be the purpose of our hearts in this new year, if we would know the Spirit’s power and help.
Our philosophy: making members into ministers
Jesus’ last words to his church promised his power to fulfill this passion: “You will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). God’s people must seek his purpose to have his power.
There is no clergy/laity distinction in the word of God. “You” in Jesus’ command is plural, including every one of his followers. Every believer has gifts of the Spirit to be used in ministry. To the degree that we find and follow our calling, we will fulfill God’s purpose and have his power.
Our program: meeting needs in Jesus’ name
Our Lord closed his command with a clear program: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). In Jerusalem, where they were; then spreading into the neighboring regions, then into the entire world. They would take the good news of God’s love wherever they could. They would meet the needs they found, whether for physical healing or spiritual truth. And they would use those needs to proclaim Jesus’ name and grace.
Every Christian knows someone with a need, a hurt, a problem. See that need as an opportunity for ministry. Go to that hurting heart with a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. Start where you are, and go where God directs. And you’ll continue the spread of the Kingdom which began in the book of Acts, until our Lord returns.
Much about the future is uncertain today. The war against terrorism continues; the global economy, while making progress, will always be cause for concern; some of our family members and friends are seeking work, and many are hurting physically, vocationally, financially, and relationally.
We can live a flush-pump Christian faith, getting by from day to day and problem to problem. Or we can live an artesian Christian victory, filled and empowered by the Spirit each day. If we make God’s passion, philosophy, and program their own, we will help those we influence experience the power of God’s Spirit. We can give no greater gift.