Acts Lesson One – Introduction and the Holy Spirit

With this lesson, we will embark on a lengthy journey through the Book of Acts. It is a fascinating account of the birth of the church and the early missionary journeys to spread the Gospel. In our modern world, with so many gadgets and gimmicks used in the church, it is refreshing to go back to the basics and see how the Gospel spread through faithful servants empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Before we begin the first lesson on the Book of Acts, let’s look at background information to establish the basic facts or positions surrounding the entire book.

Author – There is almost universal acceptance that Luke wrote both Acts and the Gospel by his name. There is no reason to doubt Luke’s authorship of the Book of Acts.

Date – There are three main positions regarding the dating of Acts.

  • Sometime between A.D. 57-64.
    • Because of the book’s abrupt ending, which doesn’t talk about the outcome of Paul’s arrest.
    • Nero’s persecution of Christians is not mentioned in the book.
    • The writing doesn’t indicate that Luke was aware of Paul’s epistles, which could have influenced or been included in Acts.
  • Sometime between A.D. 70-90.
    • Because verse one states, “the first narrative” in reference to his Gospel, Acts must have been written after it. 
    • Since Acts was written after Luke’s Gospel, a dating of the Gospel is critical to identifying the dating of Acts.
      • From the structure of the Gospels, it appears that Luke borrowed material from Mark’s Gospel, which is dated around A.D. 65. 
      • Allowing for a reasonable period of time between Mark and Luke would point towards a date after A.D. 70 for Luke’s Gospel.
      • Most scholars who support a middle dating place Acts between A.D. 70-80.
    • Scholars and theologians who support late dating are in the minority. However, there is a split within the “late date” camp.
      • A.D. 95-100
        • The basis for this dating is on references to the information contained in Antiquities by the Jewish historian Josephus, published in A.D. 93. 
        • However, the connection to Josephus’ book is weak at best as the references pertained to commonly known Jewish events.
        • The favorable picture between Christians and Roman authorities doesn’t fit this later dating as imperial persecutions had begun.
      • A.D. 125-150
        • This dating is based solely on the language contained in Acts when compared to writings by the Apostolic Fathers.
        • Understandably, this is the weakest position.

The most convincing dating of the book is somewhere between A.D. 70-80.

Recipient

There are numerous possibilities that scholars and theologians have wrestled with through the centuries, some more believable than others. The origin of “Theophilus” in Greek means “lover of God.” So does this mean that it could have been written to a group of people and not an individual? That’s a possibility. However, “Theophilus” was a widely used name at the time Acts was written. Additionally, the phrase “most excellent” would also suggest a single person and not a group of people. Although we can conclude that Acts was most likely originally written to one person, there is no arguing that its final destination was intended to the broader Christian community.

Purpose – To reinforce the certainty of the Gospel message and the early church through a historical account of followers of Christ.

Themes

  • World Mission
  • Providence of God
  • Power of the Holy Spirit
  • Restored Israel
  • Inclusive Gospel
  • Faithful Witnesses
  • Relationship to the World
  • Triumph of the Gospel

We should also read Acts on three levels.

  • It is the story of the early church.
  • It is a book about Jesus.
  • It is a book that continues today with the principal characters being us, present-day believers in Jesus who continue to carry out His mission to reach the lost.

Acts 1:1-11

I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach  until the day He was taken up, after He had given orders through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen.  After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “This,” He said,“is what you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. 10 While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.” (HCSB)

Verses 1-3

This section presents the introduction of the book from Luke to Theophilus. I won’t restate the discussion on the recipient raised in the introduction to the book, but I will expand a bit on the style presented in the first.

Book dedications were common in Greek culture. Luke had dedicated his Gospel to Theophilus in Luke 1:3, and now he continues that trend in the first verse in Acts. Luke summarized his Gospel in the first verse with the concise statement, “about all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  Looking at that statement, there is one key observation centered around the word “began.” This implies that the work is not finished. As we take our journey through Acts, we’ll see that the work that Jesus began continued, and it continues today. The work will not be finished until Jesus returns. The summary ends at the beginning of verse two with the phrase “until the day He was taken up.” 

Beginning in the second half of verse two, the “new” story begins in Acts. 

  • There was a period of instruction given to the apostles to carry on the work He began.
  • This was a transition period as Jesus handed over the keys to them.
  • Luke points out that the same Spirit that empowered Jesus during His earthly ministry would now empower the apostles as they continued the work. 
  • Jesus taught them directly during His earthly ministry. Now, they would be taught and led by the Spirit.

Starting in verse three, Luke presents the fact that Jesus rose after His crucifixion and is alive. The phrase “after He had suffered” refers to the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. However, His death was not the end. After He rose on the third day, He appeared to His followers repeatedly over a period of forty days. The imagery from the wording of the passage is not that Jesus was with them for the entire time; rather, He came and went during the forty-day period. The fact that Jesus appeared to the apostles during this time was essential for their primary role in Acts of being witnesses to His resurrection.

  • Acts 1:22
  • Acts 2:32
  • Acts 3:15
  • Acts 5:32
  • Acts 10:39-41
  • Acts 13:31

Here is a summary of Luke’s argument that Jesus is the resurrected Messiah.

  • The resurrection is a fact – the disciples knew Jesus had been raised from the dead.
  • If the resurrection is a fact, it proves Jesus’ deity. Jesus claimed to be divine before His crucifixion. God would not have raised Jesus from the dead if His claim to deity was false.
  • A divine Christ must speak the truth because God is truthful and must speak truthfully.
  • If Jesus speaks the truth, we can trust everything that He teaches. We can trust the Bible because Jesus taught it was the Word of God. We can believe that God has forgiven our sins because Jesus taught that God would do that for all who believe in Him.

The reference to forty days has strong ties to Old Testament events and the period after Jesus’ baptism.

  • Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the law.
  • Elijah spent forty days on Mt. Horeb.
  • Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was forty days.
  • Now Jesus will spend forty days preparing His followers to carry on the mission.
  • Forty days also fit the dating of Pentecost.
    • Resurrection on the third day.
    • Appeared for forty days.
    • Approximately one week in the upper room.
    • Pentecost, fifty days after the crucifixion.

What did Jesus speak to His followers about during this time of instruction? It is likely from looking at other conversations that He had in the Gospels that Jesus used the Old Testament to show that He was the expected Messiah. His followers would now carry on the work He had started.

Verse 4

The original construction of this verse in Greek sheds light on what Jesus’ followers had been doing. The verse literally means “stop departing from Jerusalem.” This implies that they had been coming and going from Jerusalem. Jesus tells them to stay in the city and wait for the Father’s promise, introduced in Luke 24:49 and explicitly revealed in the following verse.

There is a lesson here for us. How often do we try and rush off and do things before the proper time? Or even worse, how often do we try and do things in our strength and not in the power of the Holy Spirit? 

Verse 5

Here Luke presents a reminder to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with reference to the water baptism that John the Baptist was conducting in the Jordan River. However, the reference here is to the one-time occurrence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. John’s baptism was one of repentance and is still used today to signify a person committing their life to Christ and entering into the spiritual family of God. In contrast to the water baptism, new converts to Jesus would now receive the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. As we move through Acts, we will see this pattern repeated in various sequences. However, two things are essential to the conversion experience; repentance and the gift of the Spirit.

Verses 6-8

These verses tie neatly together with the disciples asking when the kingdom will come, Jesus rebuking their speculation, and refocusing them on the task He give them.

Although initially, the location of the conversation is vague, it becomes clear over the next several verses that this conversation is the last one that takes place between Jesus and His followers. It occurs right before His ascension and takes place on the Mt. of Olives. Because of Jesus’ previous comments to His followers about the coming of the Spirit and the fulfillment of God’s promises, the disciples had come to the conclusion that the final appearance of God’s kingdom could be right around the corner.

However, Jesus redirects their attention to the task at hand for all of His followers. 

  • They are not to worry about when that would occur.
    • That is solely in line with God’s purposes and authority.
    • Even Jesus had no knowledge of when this would occur.
  • To speculate on dates and times is pointless.
  • The return of Jesus doesn’t revolve around speculation about the timing.
  • It does revolve around God’s purpose.
    • Salvation of the lost in the world.
    • The quickest way to the return of Jesus is worldwide evangelism.

Verse eight puts the disciple’s question in the proper perspective. The restoration of the kingdom would involve a worldwide missions movement. Jesus’s statement is looking towards the future, both imminent and long-term. Jesus promised His followers two things.

  • They will receive power through the Holy Spirit.
    • Jesus’ followers receive divine power once they repent and place their faith in Him.
      • This applied to the original disciples.
      • It applies to us today.
    • The Greek word used for power is the same word that described the miracles that Jesus performed in the Gospels. Jesus’ followers receive the same power that He used when performing miracles.
  • They will be Jesus’ witnesses.
    • The geographical picture presented in verse eight is a rough outline for the entire book.
      • Jerusalem
        • Jerusalem is central to Luke’s Gospel.
          • The temple scenes of Jesus’ infancy.
          • The long journey to Jerusalem.
          • Jesus’ passion in the city that killed its prophets.
        • The story of Jesus led to Jerusalem.
        • The story of the church led from Jerusalem.
      • Judea – Understood as the Davidic kingdom to include the coastal territories and Galilee.
      • Samaria – Because of its non-Jewish population.
      • The ends of the earth – In the setting of the Acts, it would be understood as Rome since that is where the book ends. However, the same phrase is found in the prophets to mean distant lands. Our understanding today is that it represents the entire world where people live. The ends of the earth will not be fulfilled until all people groups have been reached by the Gospel.

Christians are constantly faced with two temptations regarding missionary work.

  • One is the temptation to idleness.
    • Jesus has saved me, so I’m good.
    • I have a nice church.
    • Everything is comfortable.
    • I’ll just sit back and wait for Jesus to return.
  • The second temptation is the one that the disciples were getting caught up in, thinking they could do the Lord’s work in the world’s way and their own power.
    • Establish the kingdom politically.
    • Put Christians into high positions in the government.
    • Impose our vision of society on the world.
    • Although we shouldn’t accept the evil in the world, it is foolish to think we can change things without God’s power.

Verses 9-11

The passage ends with the disciples witnessing Jesus’ ascension and the encounter with the angels.

Some things to note about the ascension.

  • It is found only here, in Acts 1:2 and Luke 24:51.
  • It is closely related to many New Testament passages that speak of Jesus’ exaltation to the Father. Two examples are:
    • 1 Timothy 3:16
    • 1 Peter 3:21
  • It depicts Jesus’ final departure of the resurrected Lord from the earth, ending the forty-day period of appearances.
  • There are connections with other biblical narratives.
    • The taking up of Enoch.
    • The taking up of Elijah.
    • The cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai.
    • Clouds were often associated with theophanies.
      • The transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36.
      • The same picture occurs here as Jesus is surrounded by a cloud as He ascends.
  • It also gives further basis for the witness of the disciples who testify to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as first-hand witnesses.
  • Luke stresses this point no fewer than five times in these three verses.

Now that the ascension is complete, two angels appear on the scene. There are several points to note about this.

  • Angels often accompanied heavenly visitations as interpreters of the event.
    • The significance of the empty tomb in Luke 24:4-9.
    • The disciples who stood looking into the sky in this section.
    • They addressed the disciples as “Men of Galilee.”
      • A strong Galilean witness is a central theme in Luke-Acts.
      • The women of Galilee witnessed the crucifixion.
    • Although it is understandable that the disciples would stare at the sky in amazement, the rebuke of the angels is necessary.
      • Events of a high spiritual experience are not the end.
      • It was time to act on what they had seen and become witnesses and testify to the truth of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
      • The rebuke was followed by a promise, Jesus would return in the same way that He departed, on the clouds.

Applications

  • Have we placed our faith and trust in a  resurrected Jesus and received power from the Holy Spirit? 
  • Do we study God’s Word so that we understand and can speak to the deity of Jesus? It doesn’t necessarily mean we need to memorize all the prophecies in the Old Testament about Him, but we do need to have an understanding and know where to look as we witness to the lost around us.
  • Do we wait until the correct time in our ministry endeavors and do them in the power of the Holy Spirit and not from our desire?
  • We should never pay attention, get involved with, or think we know when Jesus will return. Jesus was clear that He didn’t know when that would occur, so how can we make ourselves higher than Jesus?
  • Are we involved in mission work of some type? This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to go live in another country. However, it does mean that we are prepared and intentional about sharing the Gospel message to those we interact with and not being lazy Christians.

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