Acts, Part 1
One of America’s favorite cookies is the Oreo, two chocolate wafers with a creamy frosting in between. But when asked what makes the Oreo so popular, invariably, it is not the wafers. It is the frosting in between. Nabisco understands this, so in the past decade or so they introduced a “double stuffed” Oreo. They know it’s what’s in between that makes an Oreo an Oreo! If you will give me some grace to make an analogy, the accomplishment of Jesus, the King, might be compared to an Oreo cookie. His first coming, that which inaugurated the Kingdom of God and his second coming, that which will complete the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the New Heaven and New Earth, have an in between. This in between is the mission of the Spirit of God through the people of God, the Church, which is to spread the message of the Gospel among all peoples on earth. The story of this in between begins in the Book of Acts.
Acts is the second volume of the history of Jesus and his disciples written by Luke to a man named Theophilus, an acquaintance of Luke who was either interested in the story to fulfill his own curiosity or to preserve it for future generations. It could be that Theopholis was a prominent figure in Roman society, given that he is addressed as “most excellent” (Luke 1:3), a common designation for influential leaders (see Acts 23:26; 24;3; 26:25). Perhaps Theophilus commissioned Luke to write, or Luke wrote to Theopholus in order to present evidence of the power of the Gospel in an effort to convert him. At any rate, the reference to this man brings added evidence that the author of Acts is the same author as that of the Gospel of Luke.
Acts is organized to chronicle the progress of the Gospel in four phases, as outlined in Acts 1:8.
But 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.” (Act 1:8 NIV)
Chapters 1-8 tell the story of the Gospel’s growth in Jerusalem. Then in Chapters 8:5-12:25, we see it spread to Samaria and Judea And in chapters 13-21, it spreads from Judea to the outermost parts of the earth. The last chapters account for the final days of the Apostle Paul, with a rather abrupt ending, probably signifying that the chronological account of the story has been recorded up to that time, with Luke anticipating continuing it, but never having the opportunity to do so.
As the book of Acts begins, Luke records that the risen Jesus appears to his followers many times over a period of 40 days, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3). When they came together for the final time in his presence, they asked him if this was the time when the KOG would be established on earth. But to what must have been their disappointment, Jesus instead commissioned them to spread the Gospel throughout the world, and then the end would come. Dramatically, Jesus is taken up from them. But where did he go? Later, Peter tells us (2:33; 5:31) that Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. Instead of a throne located in Jerusalem from where the Messiah was assumed to rule a world-wide earthly empire, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, on a throne that is exalted above the world, a place of highest authority and honor. Now Jesus truly is “Lord”, and his early disciples, as well as those of all ages, bow before him and confess that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. The mission of his followers is to proclaim his status and spread his message. But they would not be alone in that quest. They would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Prophecy promised that God’s Spirit would be poured out on the Messiah (Is 42:1) and on his people (Joel 2:28-32). About ten days after the ascension, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, God’s word was fulfilled. In a mighty display of God’s power, the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus and empowers them to accomplish their mission. Jewish literature from the 2nd Century BC reminds us that the Jewish festival of Pentecost lost its harvest significance. “Instead, it celebrated the promise God had given to Abraham, that his descendants might become an elect people…and an inheritance from all of the nations of the earth from henceforth and for all the days of the generations of the earth forever. Thus, in Jesus day, the Feast of Pentecost celebrated the covenant renewal of Israel and the inclusion of the nations within the covenant made between God and Abraham. Now, at that Feast of Pentecost the Spirit comes in fulfillment of that expectation and hope.” (Bartholomew and Cohen, The Drama of Scripture.) People from many parts of the Roman Empire heard the Gospel in their own language, making the message of the Kingdom of God available to a variety of people, both Jew and Gentile. God’s rule begins to work outward from Jerusalem to the nations, just as God said it would.
Next time, I will deal with this marvelous event in more detail and continue to discuss the progress of the Gospel to the nations.