Writing Acts 29
Dr. Jim Denison
This morning we have an unusual Scripture passage—the entire book of Acts. Don’t worry—we won’t be reading the text past lunch. For the rest of January we’ll be discussing themes within the Apostolic Christian movement, the church of the Book of Acts. And so today we’ll overview the entire twenty-eight chapters, then decide how we wish to write chapter twenty-nine.
Here’s the question we need to ask throughout: what was their passion? Why did they do what they did?
No movement is successful without a passion, a galvanizing, catalytic purpose which drives and motivates us. Light diffused is a bulb—focused, it’s a laser. What was their passion? What should ours be?
Drawing the blueprint
Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16.18). The book of Acts tells us how he did it, and is still doing it today.
The Master Carpenter knows that a building has three requirements: an excellent blueprint, a strong foundation, and an effective structure. So Jesus first draws the blueprint in his last words on earth. You know them well.
The purpose of the church is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” We “will be” his witnesses—this is not optional. This is our reason for being.
The people is clear: all believers. “You” is plural—not just Peter or James or John; there is no clergy in the book of Acts. This is the life purpose of each Christian.
The power is clear: the Holy Spirit enables God’s people to fulfil his purpose. We cannot convict of sin or save souls. We can only share our witness, trusting the Spirit to use us to bring others to Jesus.
The priority is clear: we begin where we are. They started in Jerusalem because they were in Jerusalem, then moved to Judea, Samaria, and the “ends of the earth.” We plant the seed where we’re standing. We begin with the people we know, then take Christ to our city and world.
In a biography of Alexander the Great, the writer describes the panic felt by the Greek army when Alexander died. They discovered that they had marched off their maps, and had no idea where they were or where to go.
This will never happen to us. Here Jesus gives his followers a map we’ll never march off of—a blueprint we will use until the end of time. It is so simple that any Christian can understand it, and so challenging that we must never think we are finished.
Laying the foundation (1.8-8.1)
Now, blueprint in hand, Jesus begins to lay the foundation. First he settles the leadership of the church to replace Judas: “they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles” (1.26).
Then he empowers his church by his Spirit. We’ll study this event in detail next week, and see how it can happen to us today.
The Spirit falls on the day of Pentecost: “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2.4). The Spirit empowers them for personal evangelism: “how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (2.8); “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (2.11).
The Spirit empowers Peter for public proclamation, with the result that “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (2.41).
The Spirit empowers Peter and John for personal ministry with the crippled man outside the Temple: “he jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (3.8).
The Spirit empowers the first Christians with bold courage: “know this, you and all the people of Israel: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (4.10, 13).
The result for the entire church: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.31). Then the Spirit expands the church:
The Spirit purifies God’s church from the deceit and corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (5.1-10) and “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11).
He grows their numbers: “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (5.14).
He empowers their witness: “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (5.29-32).
And he gives them great joy even in suffering: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (5.41-42).
The Spirit gives the church more servant leaders, the first deacons. Here’s the result: “The word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6.7). Things are going extremely well in Jerusalem, reaching even the priests for Christ.
But there’s a problem: they’re still in Jerusalem. When the foundation is poured, we must then build the house.
A few years ago a church in west Fort Worth laid the foundation for a new building and completed the frame, then stopped. For a long time it stood that way, a sad reminder that beginning isn’t enough.
This fledgling Christian movement has not done that. Jesus called them to start in Jerusalem, but not to stay there. So far they’ve done nothing in Judea, Samaria, not to speak of the “ends of the earth.” They’re doing well where they are, and are apparently quite content to stay there.
Whenever we’re unclear about our mission mandate and purpose, God clarifies things very quickly. I’ve heard it said, “God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must.
And so he must use Stephen’s martyrdom and its result in the early church: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (8.1). Acts 1.8 is fulfilled through Acts 8.1.
Building the church (8.1-28.31)
Now Christianity becomes the first universal faith in human history, transcending local religions and local gods to reach across the globe and across the centuries to you and me today.
We can chart its growth by key statements of the movement’s progress and success. First they expand geographically to Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (8.1-9.31).
Philip evangelizes the hated Samaritans as the first “foreign” missionary, and “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said” (8.6).
Then Philip reaches the Ethiopian eunuch, the national treasurer of his country (the Alan Greenspan of his day): “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (8.38).
The gospel moves north to Damascus and Syria through Saul’s conversion: “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (9.19-20).
Here’s the result of this expansion: “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (9.31).
Next they move racially across the most dangerous barrier of all: the Gentile world.
Remember that the Jewish people had been taught that God made Gentiles only so there would be fuel for the fires of hell.
Now Peter preaches the good news to Cornelius, a Gentile and, even worse, an officer in the Roman army which occupied and oppressed Israel. Here’s the result: “Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (10.47), an astounding admission for a Jewish man to make.
Next, “men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11.20-21).
Here’s the result of this expansion: “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12.24).
And now the gospel moves to the larger world, in three separate missionary journeys, the first in religious history.
Paul and Barnabas sail to the island of Cyprus, and “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13.12).
Then on to Asia, mainland Turkey today. At the town of Pisidian Antioch, the Gentiles “were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (13.48-49).
Next to Iconium, where “Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (14.1).
But things were not always easy. At Lystra, “some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” (14.19-20).
At Derbe, “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (14.21).
In chapter 15, the church back at Jerusalem, still the headquarters of the Christian movement, affirms their ministry to the Gentiles. Here’s the summary statement: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (16.5).
On their second journey (15.41-18.22), God calls Paul further west, to Greece and Europe. In Philippi they win Lydia, then the jailer (ch. 16). In Thessalonica, “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” (17.4).
At Berea, my favorite church in the New Testament, “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (17.11-12).
Even at Athens, capital of the skeptical philosophies of the day, “A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (17.34).
In Corinth, the synagogue ruler and his entire family believed, “and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (18.8). So, “Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God” (v. 11).
From there to Ephesus, then back to Jerusalem.
During the third journey (18.23-21.17), Paul revisits these churches. Note this result in Ephesus: “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of God…Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas [a year’s salary for 137 men]. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (19.10, 18-20).
And from here through Greece and back to Jerusalem.
Finally, the gospel moves to Rome, the “uttermost parts of the earth” (21.26-28.31).
Paul witnesses to the crowd (22.1-21), to the Sanhedrin (22.30-23.11), to Governors Felix (ch. 24) and Festus (25.1-21), and to King Agrippa (25.26-26.32).
Finally he is taken to Rome herself, with this result: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus” (28.30-31).
Here’s the point: the plan worked. A tiny movement in far-off Jerusalem has now spread across the known world to Rome herself. My friends, God will do with us what he did with them, if we will make their passion ours.
So, what was their passion? Why did they do it? Why give their lives for this? Why would Peter preach to the very men who crucified Jesus? Knowing full well that they possessed the same authority to crucify him as well?
Why would Philip witness to the despised Samaritans?
Why would Paul, the zealous Pharisee, give his life for the Gentiles? Thrown into prison shackles, beaten and whipped, pummeled unconscious with stones, shipwrecked, finally beheaded—why?
Because of their passion for the lost? For evangelism and missions?
A week ago I would have said that, but then a conversation I had this week changed my mind. This past Monday, a staff minister talked about his passion for his family. He doesn’t have a passion for talking about them, but for them. That’s why he talks about them—because he loves them. That’s true about Jesus as well.
The apostolic Christians’ passion was for Jesus. They loved him so much they couldn’t help loving those he loves. And they wanted others to love him, too.
I used to say that my heart’s desire is to know Christ and make him known. I now believe that statement needs to be changed: to love him and love others to him.
Then we fulfill the two great commandments. Then we make his passion ours. Then we find the “one thing” which makes life meaningful.
How do we develop this passion? We’ll say much more about this in the coming sermons, but for today let’s focus on these simple keys: worship him and serve others.
The more we worship Jesus, personally and with others, the more we love him. And the more we love him, the more we want to worship him.
Mother Teresa, when asked how she found the strength for her work, said, “Spend one hour adoring Jesus, and you’ll have all the energy you need.” She was right.
And we love others through service. A kind word, deed, letter, phone call. Praying for a lost person. Sharing the gospel with them.
And if we don’t feel love, act as if we do. Counselors say it’s better to act ourselves into feelings than to feel our way into actions. If you don’t feel love for a person, spend some time worshiping Jesus and he will warm your heart. If you don’t feel close to Jesus, love someone in his name and you will.
As we develop their passion for Jesus and others, we write Acts 29 today.
Tillie Burgin has long been one of my heroes. She and her family were missionaries in South Korea before the younger son developed a very serious medical condition and they had to return to the States. God called her to be a missionary in Arlington instead. Nearly fifteen years ago she founded Mission Arlington with one Bible study in one apartment community.
Today Mission Arlington reaches over 130 apartment communities and over 3,000 each week. The results in the city have been amazing—drugs and crime are down, and God is at work. The city even named her “woman of the year.”
Tillie works every day from 4 a.m.. until late into the night. She has an energy, a drive which is staggering. Once her son Jim, my dear friend, asked her why she did it. She looked at him for a moment, a tear came to her eye, and she said, “Jim, I just love him so much.”
The Book of Acts Christians would have said, “Amen.”