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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The People’s Bible – Acts, by Richard D. Balge, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1988.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTS
The book of Acts is a continuation of the gospel of Luke. It is Volume 2 of the account that the author prepared for “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). Its narrative begins where the gospel of Luke ends, with the appearances of the risen Christ and his Ascension. (Compare Luke 24:36-51 with Acts 1:1-11.) Since the author of Acts does not address Theophilus with the formal title “most excellent” in Acts as he did in Luke, some scholars suppose that Theophilus had become a believer in the time between the two writings.
The author described his method of gathering information and setting it down at the beginning of his first writing (Luke 1:3). He “carefully investigated everything,” and he set about “to write an orderly account.” He gathered information from eyewitnesses, and especially in his reports of official proceedings, he probably used written accounts and records. There are four sections in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15;21:1-18; 27:1–28:16) in which the writer uses the personal pronoun we, which suggests that he was with Paul personally during the events described in those sections.
Luke’s authorship of the third gospel and of Acts was not questioned until modern times. The second-century teachers of the church assumed that both volumes were written by the man to whom Paul refers as “our dear friend Luke, the doctor” (Colossians 4:14), who sends greetings Philemon 24, and who was with Paul when the latter wrote his final epistle (2 Timothy 4:11).
Luke’s authorship of Acts was challenged by certain German scholars in the 19th century. However, from about 1900 until now, even those who are inclined to question everything about the Bible do not generally question that Luke wrote this book. There is nothing in the book or in history that compels us to doubt that Luke wrote both volumes of this history for Theophilus, although he does not mention himself by name in either Acts or his gospel.
Luke did not provide a title for either of his accounts. One of the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament gives Volume 2 the heading “Acts.” Another calls it “Acts of the Apostles.” The second title, especially, could be misleading, since the book does not report all of the acts of all of the apostles. Only once are all of the Eleven mentioned (1:13), and the election of Matthias to replace Judas is reported in 1:26. Thereafter, only Peter, James, and John are mentioned. There is no reason at all to assume that the other nine apostles failed to carry out the Lord’s Great Commission, but Acts does not report their activities.
In chapter 9 Luke reports the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul. Luke reports the work of Peter and Paul in considerable detail but has little to say about the other apostles. He also recounts the work of men like Stephen and Philip, as well as Paul’s mission companions, especially Barnabas. The book is really an account of “some acts of some apostles.”
Some have suggested that this book could be titled “The Continuing Acts of Jesus,” for throughout the book we have he record of how Jesus was present with his grace and power to spread abroad the salvation that he had won. Others have proposed that it be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” for the writing is also the story of how the promised Spirit empowered the followers of Jesus to witness to their Savior. Someone has pointed out that just as in the Creed the Second Article moves on to the Third Article, so the story of Jesus’ work in the gospel of Luke moves on to the
story of the Holy Spirit’s work in the book of Acts.
Content and purpose
Luke’s history in Acts shows how the promise and instruction of Jesus, recorded in 1:8, was carried out. Our Savior said, “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.” The book reports the events of Pentecost and then traces the ever-widening course of the gospel.
The story begins in Jerusalem, reports the work in the Holy Land, follows Paul to Asia Minor and the European continent, and finally ends with Paul continuing his work as a prisoner in Rome. The time span of all this is from A.D. 30 to about A.D. 62. That is, it covers the time from Pentecost to the time of Paul’s two years of house arrest in Rome. Thus, we could say it covers the first generation of the New Testament church’s history.
Luke makes several important points for Theophilus, which the Holy Spirit inspired him to write for our sakes also. They are as follows:
1. He reports Jesus’ continuing activity in the interest of his church and for the salvation of sinners, as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit and the power he gave to believers to witness.
2. He records what the message of the church was from the very beginning. We learn that it focused on the crucified and risen Savior, it was a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the apostles regularly based their message on Old Testament Scripture and the facts of salvation history. Acts is full of examples of their preaching and teaching.
3. He shows how the break between Christianity and Judaism came about, also describing relations between Jewish and gentile Christians.
4. He provides information on what the attitude of the Roman authorities was before A.D. 64, when the first government persecution against Christians broke out in Rome.
Without this book we would have only a scanty record of the apostles’ activity and the gospel’s spread. We would have little knowledge of church life in the first generation of the church. We would have only hints from the epistles as to the matters that are reported in vivid detail in Acts. We also have a clearer understanding of the epistles because of the historical information that Acts provides.
Time and place of writing
It is clear from the last verse of Acts that Luke wrote after Paul had been under house arrest at Rome for two years. Since the author was not reluctant to report the deaths of other Christians in his writings, there is no reason to think that Paul was dead at the time Acts was written. Nor does Luke say anything about the outcome of Paul’s trial before Caesar. He is silent about the burning of Rome in A.D. 64 and about the cruel persecution under Nero that followed. These events would all have had a bearing on the story of Paul and would have been a concern to a man like Theophilus.
Tradition says that Paul was released after his trial and that he made a mission tour to Spain in keeping with the plans he outlined in Romans 15:28. We know from 2 Timothy that he was arrested and imprisoned a second time. Tradition says that he was condemned and beheaded, sometime between A.D. 64 and 66 (although some historians speculate that he was executed as late as A.D. 69).
Since none of these events were reported in Acts (although all of them would have been of interest to Theophilus), we conclude that Luke wrote Acts before Paul’s death. We conjecture that he wrote even before the burning of Rome in A.D. 64. Let us say he wrote between A.D. 62 and 64, probably from Rome.
Theme: You will be my witnesses
I. Peter and his coworkers witness in Jerusalem and its environs (1:1–12:25)
A. “You will be my witnesses” (1:1-11)
B. Preparation and equipping (1:12–2:4)
C. God-fearing Jews from every nation (2:5-41)
D. The Word of God spreads in Jerusalem (2:42–6:7)
E. Stephen’s witness sealed in blood (6:8–8:1)
F. Philip’s work in Samaria and Judea (8:1-40)
G. The conversion of Saul (9:1-31)
H. Salvation for the Gentiles (9:32–11:26)
I. The Jerusalem church preserved in famine and persecution (11:27–12:25)
II. Paul and his companions witness in Asia Minor and Europe (13:1–21:16)
A. Paul’s first mission tour: Asia Minor (13:1–14:28)
B. The council at Jerusalem (15:1-35)
C. Paul’s second mission tour: Europe (15:36–18:22)
D. Paul’s third mission tour: Asia Minor and Europe (18:23–21:16)
III. Paul as prisoner witnesses from Jerusalem to Rome (21:17–28:31)
A. Jerusalem: Paul’s arrest and trial (21:17–23:31)
B. Caesarea: Paul’s witness before kings and governors (23:32–26:32)
C. Paul’s voyage to Rome (27:1–28:16)
D. Rome: Paul’s ministry as a prisoner (28:17-31)
Peter and His Coworkers Witness in Jerusalem and Its Environs
“You will be my witnesses”
Acts Chapter 1, verses 1-2
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
The “former book” to which Luke refers is his gospel. We would call “the former book” Volume 1 and the book of Acts Volume 2.
Theophilus means “one who loves God.” It was a very common Greek name, and by itself it does not prove that the man was a Christian. It was often used by Jews living outside Palestine, and Theophilus may have been a Jew living in the Hellenistic world of the Roman Empire. In Luke 1:3 the author used the title “most excellent Theophilus” in addressing his first reader. That may mean that Theophilus was an aristocrat or an official. Luke does not use the title here. Since Christians did not address one another with formal titles, this may mean that Theophilus became a Christian after reading Luke’s gospel, that “Volume 1” was God’s instrument to convert him.
Luke’s gospel ended with a summary of the risen Lord’s instruction to his disciples, his promise of the Holy Spirit, and his Ascension. This account begins with a similar summary and sets the stage for the events that are recorded in Acts. The expression “Jesus began to do and teach” simply means that Jesus did these things. We could add, “He finished what he began.”
The apostles Jesus had chosen were the Eleven as listed in verse 13. Judas Iscariot was dead. The word apostles means that these men were sent out by Jesus to deliver his message. John 20:22,23 sheds further light on the instruction they received through the Holy Spirit: “[Jesus] breathed on
them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” The Spirit of God was present and active in the lives of these men even before Pentecost. They were instructed to preach God’s gospel and God’s law.
Acts Chapter 1, verses 3-5
After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
At various times during those 40 days, Jesus stood among these men, spoke with them, showed them his hands and feet, invited them to touch him, and ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence (Luke 24:36-42). Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that on one occasion more than five hundred believers saw him alive. He appeared again and again, so that there would be no doubt that he had risen and was alive.
“[Jesus] spoke about the kingdom of God,” which is not a place but an activity, not God’s realm but his reign. God rules in people’s lives by the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47).
Verse 4 reviews and restates what was written in Luke 24:49. The gift that Jesus’ Father promised is the Holy Spirit. The words “promise” and “gift” remind us that the Holy Spirit does not come by our activity or effort but from God. Even the apostles could only “wait for” him, trusting God’s promise.
“For” at the beginning of verse 5 is used in the sense of “seeing that.” The promise of the Spirit, of baptism with the Holy Spirit, had been preached by John as he announced the coming of Christ. He said: “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3), and the apostles had received the forgiveness of sins in that baptism. What they were to receive in the future was the baptism with the Holy Spirit, which would give them the power to do their apostolic work (Acts 1:8). The story of Pentecost in chapter 2 describes how this promised gift, this baptism with the Holy Spirit, was given.
A footnote in the NIV about verse 5 informs us that the Greek expression may be understood as “in” water rather than “with” water. “With” seems to suit the sense better, since it provides a contrast: “with water . . . with the Holy Spirit.” “In” would simply remind us that John did his baptizing at the Jordan River. It would not be teaching that baptism must be by immersion.
Acts Chapter 1, verse 6
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus’ resurrection had demonstrated beyond a doubt that he is the Lord’s Anointed. Would he now do what many hoped the Lord’s Anointed would do? A popular hope among the Jewish people was that the Messiah would bring back the days of David and Solomon, when the kingdom of Israel was at its greatest. They hoped that Israel would not only be free from Roman domination but would also be a
world power. Even the select group of the apostles still needed instruction about the Messiah’s purpose and the nature of God’s kingdom.
Acts 1, verses 7-8
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 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.”
It was not for the disciples (or us) to know when God will bring his great plan to completion. It is enough to know that he has a plan for his kingdom and that his will is gracious and good. He has his calendar, and he has marked the day and made a note of the hour. We are not to calculate the time of our Lord’s second coming, the date of judgment day.
Before his resurrection, when he was in his state of humiliation and not exercising his divine knowledge to the full, Jesus had said he did not know the day of God’s judgment: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Here he does not say, “I do not know,” but, “It is not for you to know.”
From his Word we know that Jesus’ kingdom is not political but spiritual. We know that it is not limited to the Jewish people but includes all believers, the spiritual Israel. We know that our Lord will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
The apostles were not to busy their minds with what they could not know. Rather, they were to be occupied with the great mission assignment that Jesus was giving them. Beginning at Jerusalem, they would go out as his witnesses in ever-widening circles. Judea is the area in which Jerusalem is located, the southern part of Palestine. Samaria is the area to the north, between Judea and Galilee.
Witnesses are people who tell what they have seen and heard. The apostles had seen Jesus’ deeds and heard his words. They had witnessed his obedient life and death; they had seen him alive from the dead. It would be their mission to tell this to the farthest parts of the earth. The book of Acts describes in part how they carried out that assignment. Through the writings of the New Testament, the apostles continue to witness to this day.
What the apostles had seen and heard qualified them tobe witnesses. Power from the Holy Spirit would equip them for this work. Here Jesus himself tells what the Baptism with the Spirit will be. It will be an enabling and equipping power. For example, on Pentecost (2:32), at Solomon’s Colonnade (3:15), and before the Sanhedrin (5:30-32), Peter would be able to testify clearly and fearlessly that God raised the crucified Jesus to life. “We are witnesses,” he would say.
“You will be my witnesses” is a promise. We, of course, are not witnesses in the same sense that the apostles were. But we have received the Holy Spirit, who enables us to trust Christ, to know what he has done for us and for all people. This gives us the ability and the responsibility to speak of Christ and his salvation, beginning at home and continuing in ever-widening circles.
Acts Chapter 1, verses 9-11
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The Ascension was in the vicinity of Bethany (Luke 24:50)on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12), a short distance east of Jerusalem. This is the only account in the New Testament of what the apostles actually saw when Jesus ascended. Jesus being taken up and hidden from their sight made it clear that the apostles must not expect him to establish a political kingdom with visible glory. It brought home to them that they must wait for the promised Spirit to empower them for their mission task. It signaled that Jesus would no longer appear and disappear as he had been doing during the 40 days since his resurrection.
The apostles did not see the resurrection, but they saw Jesus alive afterward. They did see the Ascension, but from now on Jesus would be hidden from their sight.
The sudden appearance of the “two men,” the description of their clothing, and the fact that they had a message from God made it clear that they were angels. The description is similar to that in Luke 24:4, where the angels appear to Peter and John at Jesus’ empty tomb. Angels are spirits, but at times they assumed human form to communicate with people.
The apostles kept straining to see Jesus after the cloud hid him from their sight. The angels’ question reminded them that they had a mission to carry out and that they must not spend their lives gazing at the sky. Jesus will be returning, and there is work to do before that.
The angels’ words are also an answer to the disciples’ question about the kingdom (verse 6). The disciples would be workers in God’s kingdom of grace, bringing his gracious rule into people’s lives. The perfect fulfillment of that kingdom will occur when Jesus returns visibly.
The heaven to which Jesus ascended is not the realm of astronomers, the sky with its stars and planets. It is not a place where he is confined or to which he has retired. It is the state of glory in which he who shares our humanity enjoys all the power and glory that he had with the Father from eternity. God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills me everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:20-23). He fills the whole universe (Ephesians 4:10).
Our Savior did not retire when he ascended to heaven. He has not deserted us. He is involved and he is in charge. The apostles’ acts and the church’s work in every generation are his doing. This work is not only done for him; it is done by him.
He will return from heaven visibly, say the angels.
Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will
mourn because of him.
So shall it be! Amen. (Revelation 1:7)