It is my privilege to join with you in worship today. Let’s pray for God’s power and presence to be made manifest through the preaching of his word.
Our goal this morning is to provide a part II to the introduction Pastor Brad gave last week. Acts is a very large book. It covers 30 years of history in 28 chapters. It is the bridge between the gospels and the epistles and provides the background for the Epistles.
Providing a solid introduction to this 30-year history is essential for our considerable journey ahead, as we work verse by verse, passage by passage, through this historical monograph called Acts. But today, we are not following our usual practice. Today we are not working through a small portion of scripture drawing out or exegeting the text. Our aim today is to provide a 10,000 foot view and perhaps an occasional 500 foot view of some passages—but primarily it’s to see the forest and not the trees. As a result, over the course of many months of expository—or verse by verse preaching—as we examine the trees among the forest, we will see God at work in the early church in a more meaningful, holistic, providential, and God-centered way.
Now you may not normally be a note taker during the sermon … this morning I would encourage you to do so. Please have your bibles at the ready for we will be turning pages this morning.
Right from the outset, disavowing all the traditional norms of sermon prep and presentation, we will start with the application first. And here it is:
Rise up Christian. Rise up church. Almighty God has called you to be a witness—a living sacrifice. Children of all ages. Young adults. This is for you as much as for your parents. Whenever and wherever you are—in Costco, at the park, with extended family—you are a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. These are serious times as they were in the first century AD. The witness of the first century saints in Acts should shake us out of our apathy and doldrums.
You know, it is not really possible for this church to be unchanged after preaching through Acts. So here is the application of this sermon on the overview of Acts: Go and advance the gospel. Go and advance the gospel.
I pray our time together this morning will cause you live out your faith like the believers in the 1st century church lived out theirs.
Let’s start by asking ourselves two questions:
- Who is Luke? That is, who is the author? What do we know about him?
- What is Acts? That is, what is its purpose, what does it accomplish?
Additionally, we will state explicitly what Acts is not. This book has been mishandled and abused in some circles, particularly in the last 100 years in America, so we want to be clear about what it is and what it is not.
- Firstly, who is Luke?
Luke is a physician – in Colossians 4:14 Paul concludes his letter to the church of Colossae with a final greeting that includes the note: “Luke the beloved physician greets you…”. Luke is mentioned two additional times in the NT, in 2 Timothy and Philemon. Proverbs 18:24 states: A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Luke is the companion of Paul who sticks closer than a brother. It is of note that all three of Paul’s references to Luke are written from prison. It is Luke who is either with Paul, or Paul wishes Luke to be with him. He is not simply a companion on Paul’s journeys. Rather, he is a fellow soldier and slave of Christ.
Luke is an historian. Although time will not permit this morning to discuss this in great detail, Luke’s educated Greek usage and style, his emphasis on speeches, and accuracy with Geography and his knowledge of Roman power-players and local politicians, speaks to his astute, savvy, and careful writing. Sir William Ramsay (d. 1939), was a renowned archaeologist and New Testament Scholar—he was also a one-time critic of the accuracy of Acts—he came to the conclusion that, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.”
Luke is believed to be a gentile. (See again, Col 4.) This is simply a term meaning non-Jew. If so, he would be the only gentile author in the OT and NT. We cannot conclude this conclusively, but it does seem to fit the NT evidence.
Luke, then, is a doctor and historian, a traveler with the apostle Paul around the Mediterranean. His purpose is to write an account of the advance of the gospel after the ascension of the Jesus.
2. What is Acts?
A. If someone were to pick up this book with no presuppositions, no baggage, no bias, you would love it. It is fast-paced, succinct, and rich in history, culture, anthropology, and religion.
On the last point, Luke provides several lengthy examples of first century religious sensibilities. Listen to how Luke deals with false gods that they encounter or how he simply mentions them in passing:
- Our first example is Paul’s preaching and debate with Athenians – Acts 17:22-27
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us
ii. Our second example is the riot in Ephesus – Acts 19:23-28
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion,
iii. The last example is the shipwreck on the way to Rom – Acts 28:11
After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.
Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus and considered the patrons of sailors.
These and other narratives are fascinating. But, Luke’s 30 year history of the church is not just another ancient account with riveting tales of Greek and Roman gods. It is not simply on par with the classics of antiquity. It is divine scripture able to pierce, and convict, and strengthen.
Hebrews 4:12 reminds us:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
B. Acts is also a book of beginnings. The beginning of the NT church era. The beginning of so many new creations in Christ.
We see this upon Peter’s preaching at Pentecost when “about three thousand souls” were added to the Lambs Book of Life.
We also immediately think of the Apostle Paul in Acts 9, who, while traveling to the ancient city of Damascus, was on a mission of persecution, to bind the “people of the way” in chains and bring them to Jerusalem. It is on the road to Damascus that Jesus reveals himself to Saul as Lord and Savior. It is there, that Saul in the flesh became Paul in the Spirit.
C. It is also a ministry handbook. Stop by a Christian bookstore and you’re likely to find 3 shelves on doctrine and theology but 3 aisles on how to grow your church. <Side Note to Christian bookstores everywhere looking to promote church growth: All you need to grow and strengthen and deepen a local church is to drink deeply from the well of the book of Acts. The book of Acts is, literally, a Ministry 101 course.
D. It is a book of Expansions. And here we are going to spend some time
There is an Expansion in the “witness” of believers in at least three ways:
But before we elaborate further, let’s be clear that a witness is not only someone who proclaims the truth of God – like an evangelist. Paul was a witness who evangelized – but he also lived with those he evangelized for years at a time—like the Corinthians and Ephesians! It is not giving a mere DRIVE-BY gospel presentation. A witness is one who, for the name of Christ and the sake of Christ, pours out the truth of God and lives out the truth of God by the power of the word of God.
Let’s examine the three expansions:
- The first is an Expansion in terms of a geographical witness
Turn to Acts 1:8
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.
ii. The second expansion is one in terms of a witness to people of varying social status, and class, and demographic; and what we might call today: Socio-Economic-Status.
In Acts, the gospel is free to Felix and Festus, Roman governors of Judea, as well as to natives on the island of Malta. And today as it has always been true, the gospel is free to all colors and creeds and backgrounds: death row inmates and Hollywood socialites. The gospel is free yes, but Christ never leaves a believer to be simply a color or a peasant or a former murderer. Jesus and the gospel eliminates the tribalism and artificial and superficial categories of such things.
Galatians 3:27-29 states:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The context of these verses in Galatians is that everyone is saved in the same manner – we are justified by faith. And if so, then all of these externalities are superfluous. What matters is that we are Christ’s. That is THE most important thing about us. Not our cultural background, not our SES, not our job title, but that we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
iii. The final Expansion is in terms of witnessing to varied religions and worldviews
D. Next, Acts is a book of Deeds; of doing! Of action! The Greek word for Acts = deeds
The very last proclamation of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is the command and promise to not only hear Jesus’s words but to also be a doer of his word. Jesus said, to do so is to be like a wise man, building his house on the rock. Conversely, the one who hears and does not do, he is a foolish man, building his house on the sand. In James chapter 1 we see that a doer of the word is one who “acts” (v.25). and he will be blessed in his doing.
There are those who will sit in church and listen for years and decades. Hearing and sitting. Hearing and sitting. Hearing and sitting. We don’t see this in Acts. We see witnesses at work. We see transformed hearts, transformed lives, living out their faith. We see fishers of men, fishing for men.
This book is not a history of great men; rather, a history of great acts or deeds by men who serve a great God.
Luke tells us in the introduction of Acts, to Theophilus, that he wrote his first work, the gospel of Luke, to address “all that Jesus began to do and teach”. We might say that he wrote Acts to address all that the church began to do and to teach.
It is, in effect, written as response to the Great Commission.
As we near our conclusion, let’s learn What Acts is Not:
First, it is not a social gospel. The primary focus of Acts is not social justice. In the immediate context of James 1, where we are called to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, James says pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. Is does not say to lobby the local magistrate for fairer housing costs. Now that is certainly something worthwhile. But this is not what Christ asks his disciples to do as the essential work of the kingdom.
We see the apostles seeking the lost and proclaiming the gospel. Preaching, fellowshipping, sharing their material wealth. Loving the lost through sacrificial activity, not slothful passivity.
Christian: the gospel effort we see in Acts should both convict and comfort. It should convict because we quickly realize that we fall far short of their effort. It should comfort because we see weak, sinful, men—like us—walking in the spirit and serving God — and we quickly realize that we too can serve God in a similar way.
B. However, Acts is not a blueprint. It is not what should exactly happen or what we should exactly do today. Acts is a history of what actually happened, not what should continue to happen in the exact way today.
An analogy might be the Lord ’s Prayer. Our Lord modeled this prayer, he did not tell us to repeat it in every prayer, like a mantra. It is a model prayer, not a mantra. Acts is a history book of the witness of Christians around the Mediterranean through the power of the Holy Spirit. It absolutely does not give us a license to enact and seek the same experiences. It is not a blueprint, but the apostles are a model for us to follow. This is a matter of proper biblical interpretation primarily, something we will examine in the coming months.
C. Acts is not a portrait of a perfect people. The only perfect one ascended to the right hand of the Father. Fallible, fleshly men made fallible and fleshly choices. There are no halos on the apostles.
D. Acts in not a portrait of the easy life
When Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus the Lord blinded him for three days. The Lord then spoke to Ananias, a disciple living in Damascus. Jesus told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he must suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name. The Christian faith is a call to take up one’s cross, not a fast track to health and wealth.
E. Lastly, Acts is not a hand’s off, “let go and let God” Christianity. It’s not a “your best life now” Christianity. There is boldness. Purpose. Pressing on for the advancement of the gospel. They had a mission and calling from the Lord Jesus. And so do we. They were called to make disciples. And so are we. They had the Power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And so have we.
They would witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth. Will we witness in our neighborhood, in Clovis, throughout the United States as God leads, or on an overseas mission trip?
They would witness to the rich and poor, eunuchs and magicians, intellectuals and those with disabilities, men and women, slaves and soldiers of occupying armies, and even powerful politicians. Will we witness to the yuppies and homeless, homosexuals and Wiccans, the professors and the mentally disabled?
In sum, a sermon on the overview of Acts, has one application: Go and advance the gospel.