This month we launch our new preaching and teaching series at All Nations Church called Adventures in Acts. Over the course of the next few months, during our Sunday gatherings, we’ll be diving into the stories from the Acts of the Apostles. Written by Luke as a sequel to the gospel that bears his name, this book sets out how the good news about Jesus Christ spread across the ancient world – from all the way from Jerusalem to the very centre of the ancient world, Rome. There are lots of ways you can approach a book like Acts – as a history book, as a guide to the lives of some of the authors of the letters contained in the New Testament, or as an introduction to how the early church gathered and structured itself. All these things are good, by the way. But our intention over the next few months is to focus on the work of the central character of Acts and, in so doing, learn how he inspired and equipped the early church to play its part in the mission of extending and establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
Before we get to this character and why his role is the most important, let’s step back just for a moment and establish a few basic facts about the book we’ll be studying. The Book of Acts (also sometimes referred to as the Acts of the Apostles) was written by a man called Luke sometime in the second half of the first century. He was a convert to Christianity from the Gentile, non-Jewish world and he is the only known Gentile author of a book in the Bible. Luke was at one stage a travelling companion of one of the leaders of the early church – Saul later known as Paul – and he appears as a character in Acts just over halfway through. He’s also mentioned in some of the letters Paul writes to the churches he led and looked after; from those references we see that Luke was also a medical doctor. He is a meticulous chronicler of events and this is brought to light right at the beginning of his gospel. He opens his account of Jesus’ life and ministry:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.Luke 1:1-4
From there, Luke records how the birth of Jesus came about. It’s no coincidence, then, the Acts begins by Luke recording how the church of Jesus Christ came about – first by showing how Jesus met with his disciples after he was raised from the dead, then how they began praying and organising themselves after Jesus returned to heaven, before culminating in the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
And that brings us nicely to the protagonist of Acts. The central character of the book, the one consistent presence from first to last, is not any one human figure, but the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the central character in the events that take place in the Book of Acts; realising this helps us read and understand it in brand new ways. If the central character of Acts is Jesus Christ, I’m afraid to tell you that he leaves the scene before the end of chapter one. And if it’s Peter, unfortunately I’ll have to inform you that, after chapter 15, we don’t hear from him again. Now you might say, it’s not Jesus or Peter who are at the heart of the story – it’s Paul. You’d have a point: Paul plays a major part in the events that unfold in the second half of the book. But if he’s so central to the story, why does Luke wait until almost half way through before introducing him? I think the answer is that it’s not the Lord Jesus nor any of the earthly heroes such as Peter and Paul (or James and John for that matter) who take centre stage in Acts, it’s the person of the Holy Spirit. Why that is will form the focus of our series and also a collection of articles that will appear on this blog over the coming weeks.
Let’s consider how Luke opens his account.
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. After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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 in water, but in a few days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.”Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 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.” 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.”Acts 1:1-11
If Acts were a film, then this would be the opening scene – the one that takes place before the credits and theme tune are played. Here we get all the details we need to understand what is going to happen throughout the rest of the book. It begins with Jesus very much alive and kicking having been raised from the dead. He meets with his closest followers – in Luke’s account they are known as apostles – and continues his practice of eating with them and teaching them that we see so often in the gospels. Jesus continues talking about his favourite topic – the kingdom of God. But there’s a subtle change of emphasis that takes place that the disciples don’t understand to begin with but that we must grasp before we go any further.
Jesus explains to his disciples that they will be the ones doing the work on earth from now on and that they will be guided and inspired to do this by the coming Holy Spirit. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit’s arrival as a baptism, a concept all the disciples would understand because they had seen and participated in baptisms in water themselves. They knew what a baptism was: an immersion, a dunking, a saturation in a body of water that left you physically wet but also, more importantly, spiritually different. This, Jesus says, is what will happen to them very soon, and this change will empower them to be his witnesses wherever they went.
What we find throughout the rest of the Book of Acts is just how the Holy Spirit did that and the awesome and dramatic results of that followed. This is why we are calling the series Adventures in Acts. As we look together at the stories of the early church being empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission, we will have the opportunity ourselves to be challenged and changed to go on some adventures of our own. The promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is as real today as it was over 2000 years ago, so we can be confident that as the Holy Spirit led the early church, he will lead us too. Let the adventures begin!