Over the last several years, with my emphasis on the nature of the church, the Book of Acts has become a familiar friend. Prior to this, I think I frequently overlooked Acts and even trudged through it semi-unwillingly during reading plans. On the one hand, it’s not the gospel accounts of our Lord’s earthly ministry and on the other hand it isn’t doctrinally detailed like the epistles. However, what if we considered that Acts isn’t so much that of the Apostles, but that of the Risen Lord, even more so the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our view of Acts needs to be reconsidered as more than just a narrative, rather a historical account of those who went before us in the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the commission of our Risen Lord.
As we know, Acts was written by the physician Luke, who also authored his own gospel account. While both are the product of divine inspiration from the Holy Spirit, Luke begins both as an address to his friend Theophilus. The opening of both are cited below:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.Luke 1:1-4
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 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.Acts 1:1-3
Understanding the relationship between the Gospel of Luke and Acts helps us to better frame them as essentially a part 1 and part 2. The Gospel of Luke concludes with the ascension of our Lord and after the introduction in Acts, we pick up again just prior to this. In Acts 1:4-5 our Lord commands His disciples to wait at Jerusalem for the promise of the Father (see also Luke 24:48) and then references John 1:26 on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The connection here is easy enough to make that the promise of the Father is the Holy Spirit. Keeping this in mind helps better interpret the passage in chapter 2 that references the promise is for, “you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” as clearly a reference to the Holy Spirit, thereby removing any hint of reference to infant baptism.
As chapter 1 of Acts continues, we arrive at an overlap with the ascension which Luke mentions briefly at the end of his gospel account. Here, however, there is an important inclusion not otherwise cited. With His disciples gathered together, our Lord delivers to them the following commission, “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.” (Acts 1:8) Fascinatingly, Matthew 28:18-20 is often cited as the Great Commission, and rightly so as it transcends time and application down to this very day. However, Acts 1:8 is no less important for the disciples, now apostles, and it provides the structural foundation for the entirety of the Book of Acts and is a geographic compass for the spread of the gospel from the Jews to the Gentiles.
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.”Acts 1:8
In this passage we find a promise and a commission. The former is again a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit that will bring power, a clear note that something different that is about to happen, and the latter a commission to be witnesses, literally martyrs, for Christ in the power of the Spirit beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. Both of these elements should not only be expected encounters on the journey through Acts, rather they especially form the foundation for the entire book. This begins of course with the ascension of our Lord and the apostle’s obedience to retreat into Jerusalem as they await the promise of the Spirit.
In Acts 2 the apostles, as well as others numbering 120, are in an upper room as the Holy Spirit comes as a rushing wind. Here we get our first preview of the Lord’s very own superintendence of His earlier commission as those who are gathered at this sound (and sight) were Jerusalem Jews from “every nation under heaven”, but also proselytes, those who had converted to Judaism. The significance here is that they are in Jerusalem and the advancement of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit is to the Jew first (Romans 1:16), both natural and converted. Additionally, we are offered a preview of what’s to come as these Jews are representatives from every nation. From another angle, this signifies an inauguration of a regathering of scattered Jews. Clearly this anticipates the global spread of the gospel that our Lord had commissioned earlier.
As Peter’s sermon develops, we find further confirmation of this Jewish emphasis as he addresses, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14), again in vs. 22 “Men of Israel”, and also vs. 36, “let all the House of Israel”. Finally, in Acts 2:21 we see the expansiveness of the gospel as it extends to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. At the end of his exhortation, we reach a prophetic statement concerning the gospel’s expanse and the promise of the Spirit,
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”Acts 2:38-39
As seen above, the promise of the Spirit, Who brings salvation, is not limited to those who were present at Pentecost, rather it is for both Jew (for your children) and Gentile (those who are far off). The application of this, however, is something that remains to be seen later in Acts.
Acts 3 and 4 emphasize the presence of the gospel in Jerusalem and the rejection of it by the religious authorities. This section highlights the power of the Holy Spirit that was to accompany the gospel spread manifested through gifts given to men which resulted in healings, miracles, and boldness in preaching the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. Acts 5 summarizes the “Jerusalem” phase with the death of Ananias and Sapphira and the statement found in Acts 5:12-16, “The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem.”
Acts 6 begins a transition, though not yet geographically, as it is clear that the effects of the gospel have extended beyond Jews now to Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:1). The Hellenistic Jews were Jewish by birth but culturally Greek, receiving their name from Helen of Troy, a Greek mythological figure who was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world. During this first century, the entire region was undergoing a transition of sorts from Greek culture, which had accompanied the dominance of the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) to Roman culture with the rise of the Roman Empire (Battle of Corinth, 146 BC). Israel, under the kingship of the Herods, was a vassal state under Caeser. Because of the supposed neglect that the Hellenists claimed to be receiving, the apostles asked the whole church to select seven men of good reputation who were filled with the Holy Spirit. As we find out, these seven men, notable among them are Stephen and Philip, are all Jews who are identified with by their Greek names.
Acts 7 signifies yet another transition, as to this point the emphasis has been on Jerusalem, extending to the Hellenists. With the martyrdom of Stephen, at the hands of the Jewish leaders – and one Saul of Tarsus, judgment that was once pronounced on Israel by our Lord (Matt. 23:37), represented by Jerusalem, is now extended once again via Stephen (Acts 7:51-53). As perhaps would be expected, Stephen suffers the same fate as those who preached the prophetic word before him as he is stoned to death by the religious Jews, outside of the city. With Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution whereby Christians, both male and female, were being dragged out of their homes, something remarkable happens. It is literally through the blood of Stephen, shed outside of Jerusalem, that the gospel path is paved to advance.
In part 2 of our look at the structural foundation of Acts, we’ll pick up this thought with a huge shift not only in the book, but with the geographic spread of the gospel.