An overview of Acts

INDEX

The four gospels (written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) covered the thirty-three years (approximately) of the life of Jesus on Earth. The book of Acts covers (approximately) the first thirty-three years of the ministry of the Holy Spirit on earth. "Joy for Life" has subtitled this study "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" because the whole book is permeated by the directions He gave to the apostles. As they were guided by Him, we can see the amazing miracles and guidance that took place as the infant church slowly began to understand that it formed part of a worldwide and life-changing movement that will never end until the return of Jesus as Lord and King.

The book of Acts was written by Luke and it follows on from his gospel. Luke was a medical doctor and had been trained to be meticulous in identifying and recording incidents and events. He had the added advantage that he had been a disciple from the early days of the church and a constant companion of Paul. He probably met Paul in Troas as the apostle travelled back from Corinth on one of his missionary journeys. As a doctor, Luke would seldom have been out of a job. Wherever Paul travelled, preached the good news about Jesus Christ, he was invariably met with hostility, so he was probably in need of a doctor on more than one occasion! (See 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.)

Timeline of Paul's Life

 

But although the book of Acts features Paul many times, it is certainly not all about Him. It is a record of the events leading up to the formation of the church and its establishment. It shows how the apostles were led and guided by the Holy Spirit. It is one of the most exciting and dynamic books in the Bible and can be read from beginning to end in excitement, awe and wonder at what God can do with ordinary men and women.

macedoniaHave you ever considered that, as an ordinary person, God wants to use you to do extraordinary things?

He is looking for people who are prepared to put Him first in all they do. Get alone with God. Talk to Him. Listen to Him. Tell Him the things that are on your heart. Obey Him and follow His commands. "For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him." (2 Chronicles 16:9) You may think that through something you did (or did not do), perhaps years ago, that you have messed up and missed your opportunity with God. But the good news is that God has not rejected you. He knows where you are and He is just waiting for you to turn back to Him. Just like the Father in the parable of the "Prodigal Son", He will welcome you with open arms. (See Luke 15:11-32.)

So how does such a book begin? In a very matter-of-fact way – just as you might expect from Dr Luke. It was written to "Theophilus" which means, literally, "lover of God". Whether this was an actual person or intended as a means of addressing all people who sought to know God better, we cannot really say. However, it certainly has appeal, meaning and direction for all Christians (Lovers of God) in today’s world.

It was written between the years 63 and 70 AD while Paul was still alive but under house arrest in Rome. It forms a connecting bridge between the four gospels and the various letters to different churches that had been established in Ephesus, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth, Rome, Colosse, Thessalonica and amongst Jewish Christians (Hebrews). We can also include those churches and leaders to which Jesus wrote special words in the book of Revelation. They were found in: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. (See Revelation 1:9-3:22.)

It covers the transition from the preaching of the good news to the Jewish people through to the preaching of good news to Gentiles as well. It is exciting to understand that there was never a time so favourable to the expansion of the gospel as in those days... until now - the days that we live in. There have been revivals throughout the two thousand or so years since then, but never has the good news been so widely preached to such effect that it literally changed the entire, known world. We now face a similar opportunity in the time that remains before Jesus returns for His "bride" - a symbolic name for the worldwide church.

roman empire

It is safe to say that, by the end of the first century AD, less than seventy years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, every country in the known world had heard the good news. The men and women who were responsible, under the Holy Spirit, for that feat were dedicated, selfless and totally convinced that Jesus was, as He had said: "the Way, the Truth and the Life". They believed that nobody would come to the Father except through Him. (John 14:6)

The beginnings

This book of "The Acts of the Apostles" begins with the disciples sharing their lives together in the upper room – probably the same room in which they had taken the last supper together with Jesus. We see them sharing fellowship with the risen Lord and learning from Him. They must have been excited enough to want to tell others, because Jesus commanded them not to leave Jerusalem (Acts 1:4-5). After forty days, He left for heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit (the "Comforter") to them, but not before instructing them what to do after the Holy Spirit came (Acts 1:8). The focus at the beginning of the book is on Peter who was changed overnight from a fearful follower (John 18:25-27) to a truly dynamic disciple, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-41).

We are certainly not any greater than the apostles, so we also need the empowering of the Holy Spirit before we can be truly effective in our ministries, to which the Lord has called us individually and for which He has also prepared us. The word "power" carries with it the meaning of "ability, efficiency and might". Without the Holy Spirit "coming upon us", we cannot have this power for it is God-given and the only way to receive Him is by having Him "come upon you".

How does the Holy Spirit "come upon you"? Well, first of all, it happens individually. We can be reminded of the way in which the Holy Spirit "clothed" Gideon with Himself as He empowered him to deliver Israel. (See Judges 6:34.)

As Christians, unless the Holy Spirit "clothes" us with Himself, we will never achieve the mighty works that God has prepared for us to do. (See 2 Timothy 3:17.) We will still be Christians, but we will remain powerless. Secondly, the Holy Spirit will only "clothe" us with Himself as we allow Him. There is a price to pay for that: "dying to" (surrendering) what we want to do, and obeying what God wants for our lives. (See Galatians 2:20.) Are we prepared for that? Life as a Christian may not be simple; it may be very hard work. It may also be a life of contention. Thirdly the apostles were to wait in Jerusalem. Where is our "Jerusalem"? Do we have to wait and, if so, where do we have to wait?

 

Wait in Jerusalem... then GO...

It is in Acts that we see the establishment of the church. In those early days, this had nothing to do with buildings. A "church" was a body of people, starting with a church in Jerusalem. The disciples did as they were asked by Jesus Himself. They waited in Jerusalem. Following Jesus’ ascension into heaven, they returned to the upper room in which they had been meeting. (See Acts 1:12-15.) One of the first things they did was to replace Judas Iscariot (who had, by this stage, committed suicide rather than repent and ask God for forgiveness) with Matthias. Eventually, when the festival of Pentecost arrived, the Holy Spirit came to them. (Read Acts 2:1-47.) The church, that had been meeting behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, discovered God's power and, with it, found its voice. The whole of Jerusalem heard the "gospel" (good news) about Jesus Christ, including those who were staying there, finishing their holidays. Every nation on earth was represented at that time in Jerusalem. Every nationality heard the unschooled, Galilean disciples tell them about what Jesus had done for them by dying on the cross and rising again on the third day. (Incidentally, this was just as Jesus had said it would be! See Acts 2:5-8.)

The "church", from hiding behind closed doors, burst into the public arena and the numbers rose from one hundred and twenty to about three thousand in a single day. (Acts 2:41) Nor did the numbers in the church remain static or dwindle away. They grew on a daily basis as God added to them "such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47). We read that their numbers "multiplied" and "increased vastly". (See Acts 6:7.)

Time to move out – but where to?

As the church in Jerusalem grew, so did persecution. Our enemy (Satan) is never happy when the church grows. It was only a few weeks earlier that Jesus had "made an open show" of him and stripped him of the keys to death and hell. At that point, the church comprised simply Jesus Himself. Now there were thousands of people just like Jesus: people who were lost forever from Satan's kingdom of darkness and had been transferred to Jesus' new kingdom of light. The church had been focused exclusively on Jerusalem. The apostles had been so flat out busy coping with what had been happening locally that they had forgotten what Jesus had said to them. (See Acts 1:4-5.) They had been baptised in the Holy Spirit but they were still in Jerusalem! They needed to start looking outwards to Judea, Samaria and all the nations (Acts 1:8).

They really needed to be removed from their "comfort zone" – to be pushed out of the "nest". Persecution was extremely distressing, but it gave them this opportunity. It came initially from the religious Jews who saw their power-base being eroded and their religion being exposed for the empty set of rules it now was. It continued with the Romans, whose Emperor had decreed that he was a god and who, therefore, saw Christianity with its emphasis on the "One True God" as a threat. But persecution gave the new church of Jesus Christ all the exposure it ever needed. Christians were crucified (like their leader); they were fed to lions; they were forced to live in holes in the ground. Like their ancestors (about whom we read in Hebrews 11), they suffered horror and deprivation, but this is what God says about them: "they were too good for this world". God wanted them to wait and share "the even better rewards that have been prepared for us". (See Hebrews 11:32-40.) These Christians were about to share in the "even better rewards" mentioned in the passage. This persecution is what drove them out of Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1-8)

In our own day and age, it is essential that we do not sit in our comfortable chairs in our beautiful buildings, waiting for the world to come to us. Firstly, it won’t; secondly, God has a much bigger plan for us! It is that we should GO. Do not wait to be kicked out of the nest. Rather, leave willingly. Play your part in the expansion of the Kingdom of God. Passports and backpacks cost relatively little. The higher cost is the personal cost to our own pride as we begin to speak about something that we may think people will not want to hear. Satan tells us that the world at large is not interested, but this is a lie. Speak to people. They DO want to hear. They have been watching us, all the time wondering why we are so beautifully different and radiant. The new disciples went firstly to Judea. This was a fairly safe place to go. Judea was, after all, Jewish. No-one was going to get killed for going there! Samaria, on the other hand, was a country which had been at enmity with the Jewish people for a long time. In fact, any self-respecting Jew who travelled from the Galilee to Jerusalem (or vice-versa) would never go through Samaria. Samaritans were considered outcasts. The Jewish people would have nothing to do with them. The Samaritans had used Mount Gerizim as an alternate place to the Temple at Jerusalem to worship the Living God, but that had been destroyed one hundred and fifty years earlier.

Jesus did not live by this prejudice or tradition, so He asked messengers to go ahead of Him to get things ready. (See Luke 9:52.) He went via the shorter route (John 4:4). He wanted His followers to preach the gospel there (Acts 1:8). They did. Philip went to Samaria and revival broke out! Acts 8:4-8: "Then Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:14-17) Think back also to the instructions that Jesus had given earlier (Mark 16:15-18).

What about you and me? Are we prepared to listen, to be obedient and to share the truth of the gospel?

If so, there is no limit to how God can use you! Will you get your passport up to date, buy a suitcase or a backpack and be ready to go? "But where should I go?" you may ask. Simply, wherever God says. "What do I say?" Whatever God tells you to say. "How will I pay?" God will bring you the money. But the key question is this: "Are you willing to go?" If you are not prepared to go, why would God ask you? He has no need to.

Of course, the momentum of the "church" from Jerusalem did not stop as people went into Judea and Samaria. On the contrary, it was almost no time at all before Christianity was being spread throughout the world. This amazing advance was made as Christians were directed by the Holy Spirit to speak to those people whose hearts were already receptive. This was evident in the account of the young man, Saul, who had guarded the coats of the mob that stoned Stephen. Suddenly and dramatically, Saul met with Jesus Himself: the very same Jesus whose followers Saul was throwing into prison or killing. (See Acts 9:1-6.)

It so happened that there was an ordinary man named Ananias in Damascus who was a Christian and who listened to God. (See Acts 9:7-16.) Albeit somewhat reluctantly, Ananias did as he was asked. He went to Straight Street and laid his hands on this newly reformed man, Saul - subsequently renamed as "Paul". The result was not only the restoration of Paul's physical sight, but also the repair of his spiritual sight, that had been warped by the religion of the day into something akin to bigotry and hatred (Acts 9:17-19). As a result of this ordinary man’s obedience, not only did the whole Gentile world hear the good news about Jesus (or "gospel"), but a superbly accurate and precise explanation of the Christian faith, that has been passed down to us today in the form of encouraging and explanatory letters written to new Christians in new churches all over the Roman world of those days. Nothing that Satan, his forces of darkness, or any human being can do has been able to prevent the relentless and exciting spread of Christian faith, either in the world of that day or at any time since. There has always been a remnant of believers, even in the darkest and most satanic times; people who have not bowed the knee to Satan or his followers. (See 1 Kings 19:10-18.)

Today, many believe that we stand on the edge of the greatest revival the world has ever known; at the culmination of history, very close to the time when Jesus will return for His "bride" (the Church). Such a time in human history is unparalleled. Why are you and I alive at this exact point in time? Because Jesus, who knew us before the beginning of time, has chosen us to be alive now. (Read Ephesians 1:4-5.)

Paul's first missionary journey 

Jesus was present at our conception and He oversaw us being "knit together in our mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). Paul’s birth was no accident either. It made no difference that he had been breathing hatred and murder against the Christians. He was chosen by God for a specific task: the preaching of the gospel to the non-Jewish peoples (known as "Gentiles"). (See Acts 9:15-16.) Paul knew before he accepted the job how much suffering he would have to go through. When he related some of his experiences in following Jesus to the believers at Corinth (in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27), he said it without any disappointment or distress, because Jesus had already shown him how much he would suffer to get the job done. And when he reached what he believed were the last days of his life on earth, describing it as having "finished the course" and "completed the race", he was able to write to his friend and brother in Christ, Timothy, not to be afraid but to work for Jesus’ return. (See 2 Timothy 4:5-8.)

Paul undertook three (and probably four) of the most challenging and stressful journeys ever accomplished by a human being. These were his missionary journeys. The first was from Antioch, where the Holy Spirit impressed upon the church that He wanted to start a special mission (Acts 13:1-3). Later, Paul went on a second journey. This was to be more extensive and challenging than the first. (Read Acts 15:36-41.) A third journey followed, in which he started out again from Antioch. In Acts 18:23-26. we read that, "after spending some time there, he left for Turkey again, going through Galatia and Phrygia, visiting all the believers, encouraging them and helping them grow in the Lord."

Finally, it is thought that Paul may have undertaken a fourth journey, following his release from prison in Rome (Acts 28:30). This would have taken him almost to the edge of the known world (Romans 15:23-29). We may find out whether or not he this actually took place and what happened, when we speak with him in heaven!

Paul's second missionary journey

Paul's third missionary journey

The second half of Acts is focused primarily on Paul's missionary journeys to many countries north of the Mediterranean Sea. Together with his companions, Paul takes the gospel firstly to the Jewish people and then to the Gentiles. Some of the Jewish people believe and many of the Gentiles receive the good news with joy. New churches are started and new believers begin to grow in the Christian life.

As you read Acts, put yourself in the place of the disciples. Feel with them the exhilaration of being filled with the Holy Spirit,and thrill with them as thousands respond to the good news about Jesus Christ. Their commitment involved giving every ounce of their talent and treasure to Jesus. As you read of the Spirit-led boldness of these first-century believers who, through suffering and in the face of death, take every opportunity to tell of their crucified and risen Lord, decide whether you too can become a 21st-century version of those men and women of God.

Paul's fourth missionary journey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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