- 1 Since the second century the book we are about to read has been known as the Acts of the Apostles. It is highly doubtful that Luke supplied such a title to his second volume. The title is a summary provided by a later reader or publisher. And it isn’t an entirely satisfactory title. For one thing, Luke tells us virtually nothing about what the apostles were doing during the time covered by his history. We learn about a short period of Peter’s ministry, we read of the martyrdom of James, the son of Zebedee, but of the others we hear nothing. We hear nothing about Thomas, for example, who apparently went east rather than west from the Holy Land, and made it as far as modern day India. Perhaps others went to North Africa, or remained in the environs of Jerusalem. John was later in Asia Minor but we hear nothing of his ministry in Acts. So this book is hardly a record of the ministry of the twelve apostles. For another thing, while Peter and Paul are certainly important figures in the history of the early church, as we will see, their acts were first and foremost the acts of another! That is a point that Luke is to ring the changes on.
We begin this morning a series of sermons on the Book of Acts. I have preached through Acts twice before, but always in the evening, most recently nearly twenty years ago. I have never preached through the book at the pace of a Sunday morning sermon series, paragraph by paragraph. This morning, as we begin, I want to commend to you the fabulous importance of this book of the Bible. There are, of course, many ways to evaluate that importance. It is one of the longest books of the New Testament, only slightly shorter than Luke’s first volume, the Gospel, which is the longest book in the New Testament. Acts has 18,374 words as compared to the Gospel’s 19,404. [cf. D. L. Bock, Acts BECNT, 6] Luke’s two volumes together make up approximately one-quarter of the New Testament.
There are five books of history or narrative in what we call the New Testament, the last twenty-seven books of the Bible. Four of them, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are devoted to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. There is but one book that continues the narrative from that point. Were it not for Acts we would know almost nothing about how the gospel came to be a power in the world, or what the disciples of the Lord did after his ascension to heaven, or what the church was to be and do until the Second Coming.
You are probably generally familiar with the content of Acts. It begins with an account of the ascension of the Lord and in this way Luke linked his second volume to his first. If you remember, the Gospel of Luke finished with a brief account of the ascension. Acts begins with a longer, more detailed account of the same event. The ascension of the Lord marked the dividing line between the earthly and the heavenly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. Luke will make very clear that the story he tells in Acts is, as it was in his Gospel, the story of the ministry of Jesus Christ. But this continuing ministry was now conducted from heaven through the Holy Spirit, not by his immediate and physical presence, as it had been before.
This is very important. Luke does not regard volume one as his account of the ministry of Jesus Christ and volume two as his account of the ministry of the apostles or the church. As he tells us in the opening verse of Acts, his former volume was an account of all that Jesus began to do and teach until he was taken up to heaven. In his second volume, he very clearly implies here and makes explicit later, his subject is what Jesus continued to do and teach after his ascension to heaven. So it was that Jesus’ personal and public ministry on earth was followed by his ministry from heaven exercised through the Holy Spirit and his apostles. [Stott, The Message of Acts, BST, 32] This is why there are two accounts of the Lord’s ascension. In Luke it serves to conclude the Lord’s earthly ministry; in Acts it serves to commence his heavenly ministry.
What Peter said to the great assembly on the Day of Pentecost, can, in a way, be taken as the theme of the book:
“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has [that is, the Lord Jesus has] poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” [2:33]
Jesus Christ, in other words, is just as much at work in the world then and today as he was when he was in the midst of his disciples physically and immediately during the days of his public ministry! He is as powerfully and wonderfully present today as he was during the days in Galilee and Jerusalem. The late John Stott drew the following conclusion from the way in which Acts begins.
“Luke’s first two verses are, therefore, extremely significant. It is not exaggeration to say that they set Christianity apart from all other religions. These regard their founder as having completed his ministry during their lifetime; Luke says Jesus only began his. … This, then, is the kind of Jesus Christ we believe in: he is both the historical Jesus who lived and the contemporary Jesus who lives. The Jesus of history began his ministry on earth; the Christ of glory has been active through his Spirit ever since, according to his promise to be with his people ‘always, to the very end of the age.’” 
Remember how the story goes. The disciples, having been instructed to wait in Jerusalem to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, were there on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit descended with power upon them and enabled them to preach the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ with phenomenal effect to the great congregation that had assembled for the feast from many parts of the world. The disciples were not the same men we had met and come to know in the Gospel. They had been transformed by their own experience of Christ’s resurrection and the time they had spent with him during the forty days that separated his resurrection from his ascension to heaven. And the power of their words was altogether greater because Christ was speaking through them by the power of his Spirit. We read then of what followed in Jerusalem, the multitudes who heard them gladly – a substantial portion of Jerusalem’s population becoming followers of Jesus – and of the growing opposition of the Jewish authorities, whose plan to rid themselves of Jesus and his followers had so spectacularly backfired.
That opposition led in time to the active and increasingly vicious persecution of the fledgling church and to its dispersion; Christians leaving Jerusalem to find safety took the good news with them. Communities of Christians began to spring up in the towns of Judea and Samaria and eventually in largely Greek cities of the Levant, Antioch in Syria first among them. As utterly counter-intuitive a message as the gospel was, as utterly contrary to the prejudices and expectations of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds of that day, that the church began to grow so rapidly is unquestionably, humanly speaking, one of the most unlikely things that ever happened in human history. But then the Lord Christ was making it all happen, changing hearts by his Spirit and opening minds to truths they had never imagined before, indeed would have ridiculed before. Luke then tells us of Peter’s early ministry, for the first time establishing Christian congregations of Gentile converts. Remember how the Lord Jesus had once said to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” And so it was. But from chapter 13 to the end of the book the focus is instead on the church planting ministry of the Apostle Paul, an erstwhile enemy and persecutor of the church, whose encounter with the glorified Christ had produced a sudden and dramatic conversion. Luke narrates Christ’s transformation of Paul into the early church’s greatest champion in chapter 9 as a prolepsis, the anticipation of a story to which he would return and that would occupy the largest part of his early church history.
From Antioch, Paul and his associates would embark on three distinct evangelistic and church planting tours, first through Asia Minor, present day Turkey, and then into Europe, modern day Greece especially. It was on the second of those journeys that Paul met Luke, a medical doctor, an educated man whose native tongue was Hellenistic Greek. Luke’s Greek, perhaps for that reason, is the most stylish Greek of any New Testament writer. [cf. D.G. Peterson, Acts PNTC, 16] It should come as no surprise that the best writer of Greek prose among those who wrote the books of the New Testament is the only Gentile, the only non-Jew, among them. Luke was himself – as a writer of Holy Scripture – a sign and seal of one of the great truths taught in the Book of Acts, namely that the salvation of Jesus Christ was intended for both Jews and Gentiles alike, indeed for the whole world. In any case, Acts, like the Gospel before it, is no dull reporting of events; it is scintillating literature.
While there have been skeptics – more often in the past than the present – there is no reason to doubt that Luke was the author of both the Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts and few dispute his authorship today. But therein hangs a tale, one of the more fascinating and romantic untold stories of the history of the New Testament.
We know that Luke accompanied Paul at certain points on his evangelistic and church planting travels. Though Luke is never mentioned by name in Acts, he is named as a companion and associate of Paul in several of Paul’s letters. Just as John never mentions his own name in his Gospel – though he mentions the other disciples of the Lord and refers to himself obliquely as, for example “the disciple that Jesus loved” – so Luke never mentions himself by name in Acts, though he mentions a number of other associates of the Apostle Paul and refers to himself obliquely. The absence of Luke’s name is virtually his signature on the work. However on several occasions in Acts the narrator moves from the third person to the first. These are the famous “we-sections” of Acts in which the author of the book writes as a participant in and eyewitness of the events he relates. Much of Acts took place before Luke became a Christian and much of Paul’s ministry took place before Luke became his traveling companion and aide de camp. But Luke was present at some of the events narrated in the later chapters of Acts. For example, Luke was in Philippi when Lydia and her family and the jailer and his family became the first Christians of that town, some of the very first Christians in Europe. And so in Acts 16 we read not that Paul was in Philippi, but that “we” were there: that is, Paul, Silas, and Luke, among others! He was an eyewitness of that part of the history he relates.
In the third of these “we-sections” we learn that Luke accompanied Paul to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, the journey that ended with Paul’s arrest and eventual imprisonment for two years in Caesarea, the account of which we have in Acts 21-26. In the fourth and last of the “we-sections” we learn that Luke accompanied Paul to Rome where he was to face trial before the emperor, a trial still awaited when the book ends in chapter 28. What we learn from this is that Luke, in all probability, spent those two years in Palestine awaiting the outcome of Paul’s legal proceedings, and then, after Paul had appealed to Caesar, awaiting his transfer to Rome. Then as now court cases dragged on for years
Paul was under arrest, but Luke was a free man. What was he to do while he awaited the outcome of Paul’s court case? How was he to spend his time? Luke was an educated man, a literary man. He had the time and the opportunity, and, as we can well imagine, the enthusiasm sufficient to put this idle time to good effect. No doubt with the urging and the assistance of Paul, — perhaps it was Paul’s idea, his orders to his young associate whom he must have visited regularly in his jail cell – Luke set to work to accumulate the material needed to write his history: his history of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus and his history of the Lord’s work through the Spirit since his ascension to heaven. His association with Paul would have opened every door of the Jewish Christian communities of Judea and Galilee.
Luke tells us in the prologue of his Gospel that he consulted eyewitnesses in compiling his history. And no doubt he took the opportunity afforded him by Paul’s uncertain situation to find as many of those eyewitnesses as he could. It is reasonable to suppose that he traveled to Galilee – scarcely further from Caesarea, where Paul was imprisoned, than Jerusalem was – to visit the scenes of the Lord’s ministry there and to talk to those who had known the Lord, witnessed his miracles, and heard his teaching. Scholars have been impressed with Luke’s accurate depiction of Nazareth and Capernaum. He must have visited both places. But no doubt he spent time in Jerusalem as well, talking with older Christians there.
Was the Lord’s mother, Mary, still alive when Luke was accumulating data for his history? Perhaps Luke got from her directly the accounts of the annunciation and the details of the birth of the Lord Jesus that we find only in his Gospel. It is fascinating to imagine the Gentile doctor scribbling notes as he interviewed Mary, now an older woman, perhaps in the home of one of her sons or daughters. James, her son, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem when Paul was arrested there.
Can you imagine the scene, the conversation between the old woman – now nearly eighty years of age – and her eager interviewer? “Sister Mary, could you please repeat that, but more slowly? Are you saying that you arrived in Bethlehem and couldn’t find a place to stay? Did you ever talk to Elizabeth after the angel told you that she was also pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit?” It is not unlikely that, in a similar way, he spoke to Peter and James, to Philip and John Mark, whose recollections became the basis of Luke’s narrative both in the Gospel and the early chapters of Acts. Did he also meet Bartimaeus, the blind man whom Jesus healed, or Zacchaeus, or Simon of Cyrene, who carried the Lord’s cross? Scholars have noticed that the early chapters of Acts have what has been called a “Semitic coloring.” That is, it reads in some ways as if it had been written by a Jew. Luke was not a Jew, but then what Luke wrote down was the reminiscences of others, all of whom were Jews. He had not been there, but his informants had been and Luke wrote what they told him had happened. We can hear Peter’s voice or Philip’s through Luke’s.
Since human nature was then as it is today, we can easily imagine Zacchaeus or another of those older folk who had known the Lord Jesus asking as the conversation came to an end, “By the way, Doc, my arthritis has been acting up of late. Anything you can recommend?”
Of course, Luke could talk to Paul himself about his conversion and his evangelistic ministry prior to their meeting. We definitely hear Paul’s voice behind Luke’s narrative of the ministry of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He could get still more detail from Silas and perhaps from Barnabas, Paul’s partner on his first evangelistic tour.
What Luke says, especially in the preface to his Gospel, which serves equally as a preface to Acts, is that he took care to write an accurate and reliable history. He checked his facts with those who had been present when the events occurred. He was concerned to get it right, important as his history would be for future generations of the church and the world.
In the 19th and the early 20th century it was fashionable to regard Luke as a theologian rather than a historian. That is, he fashioned his story to serve the message he wanted to proclaim. His so-called history was, so many thought, more an historical novel than a narrative of what actually had happened. But as time has passed and as Luke’s history was carefully checked against available information from other sources, Luke’s reputation as a historian continued to grow. Indeed, in case after case, as archaeology and the materials of Greco-Roman history were examined, Luke was proved to have reported even the most minute details accurately. As often before with skeptics of the historicity of the biblical narrative, the skeptics were proved to know considerably less than the biblical authors did! The British scholar A.N. Sherwin-White, an Oxford historian of the Greco-Roman world summed up the situation:
“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” [Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 186]
If you want exhaustive confirmation of Luke’s historical reliability there is Colin Hemer’s more recent work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Hemer, also a classical historian, comes to the same conclusion: so far as Acts can be checked its historical reliability is unimpeachable.
Now, to be sure, we are going to read of miracles in the book of Acts as we read of them in the Gospels. There are those who do not and will not believe than any such things could have or ever did occur: the miracle of tongues or languages on the Day of Pentecost, or accounts of miraculous healings, such as we will read in Acts chapter 3, for example. We understand their skepticism. Such things do not happen in our experience. They transcend all ordinary experience. Science provides no explanation for them. And so on. But, of course, if Jesus Christ were indeed the Son of God, the creator of heaven and earth; if he did, in fact, rise from the dead, if he ascended into heaven as Luke reports that he did, if he promised to continue his work through the Spirit and his apostles, then there is nothing intrinsically impossible about the record of his own miracles or that of the miracles of his apostles. In any case, the account of the miraculous in Acts, as in the Gospels, is an account verified by eyewitnesses who were themselves flabbergasted by what they had seen. And all of it part and parcel of an historical narrative that in every other respect commands our confidence. We read Luke and we can tell he’s telling us what actually happened! This is not a historical novel; this is serious history.
Luke was indeed a theologian. He is going to teach us our faith and our life as Christians. But he was unquestionably an historian, a notably reliable historian. My dissertation supervisor, I. Howard Marshall, a specialist in Luke’s two-volume work, wrote a highly regarded book, published in 1970, entitled, Luke: Theologian and Historian. His point was that we cannot set theology against history. Luke wrote both and each depends on the other. As so often in the Bible, Acts is theology embedded in historical narrative, the truth about God and man revealed in events that actually happened in space and time.
Ours is an historical faith. Fundamental to our convictions as Christians is that certain events – however remarkable, however unrepeatable – have actually happened in the world. Indeed, the gospel, the good news, the message we have believed and the message we proclaim to the world is precisely that God entered the world as a man in ordinary history as Jesus of Nazareth; that he suffered and died for our sins on a cross outside of Jerusalem when Tiberius was the emperor and rose to give eternal life to all who trust in him. But we also believe that he has granted his Holy Spirit to his people to enable them to become the means of his saving grace to the whole world. The time that stretches between the Lord’s first coming and his second, between his ascension and his return, is the time when the salvation of Jesus Christ is to be made known to every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. We live in the real world. Acts is a record of the history of the gospel in the real world and of Christians in the real world.
Will we suffer opposition and persecution for our loyalty to Jesus Christ? Our Lord said we would and we see it happening in Acts. Will the gospel triumph in the world despite the opposition of many? Its triumph in the teeth of savage opposition is the story of Acts. Will Christians individually and as a church fail and falter? We learn in this book that they will. Will the Lord nevertheless be faithful to promise to build his church? No matter the weakness of Christians, no matter their occasional disunity or cowardice or worldliness or near fatal misunderstandings of the message, nothing will finally deter the gospel from its course of conquest in the world! That too is the subject of Acts. The Lord Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” Acts is the story of the Lord present by his spirit with his people and what occurs because he is.
I want you all to understand how practically important this history is to your faith. Luke begins his book talking about proofs. How can we be sure that our faith is real knowledge, that what we believe is true in the ordinary sense of the word? Many people don’t think it is, clever people, highly educated people; how can we know that it’s true? We are venturing a great deal on our conviction that the Bible gives us the facts, the truth and nothing but the truth. Are we right to do so? Do we have knowledge or just an opinion? How can we tell? Luke is interested in “proofs,” in what we would nowadays call “evidence.” That is clear both in the prologue to his Gospel and here, in verse 3, at the beginning of Acts. But what are the proofs? What is the evidence?
Well, some will argue that it is our personal encounter with God in some powerful experience of conversion or because we live in a state of perpetual peace and joy. We know Christianity is true because of our experience of it. But Christians are not the only ones to have powerful spiritual experiences, many, if not most Christians, such as myself, have never had a powerful conversion experience, and some Christians who have had such powerful experiences eventually give it all up and return to the world. Many real Christians are often sad. There can be no certainty founded on the changeable condition of the human heart.
Well perhaps the proof is found in answered prayer. We know Christianity is true because the prayers of Christians are heard and answered. But how many of us have to confess, as C.S. Lewis did, that sometimes when he prayed he felt like he was posting letters to a non-existent address. After all, don’t we Christians pray, as we do in one of our fine hymns, for the grace of unanswered prayer? The unbeliever is not impressed because he knows very well that we don’t get all we ask for. Indeed he is confident that we are kidding ourselves. He thinks that when we occasionally get what we ask for it is simply a coincidence. Our wishes are going to come true at least some of the time! There can be no certainty founded on the mystery of prayer.
Or perhaps our proof is the transformed lives of Christians. But we are the first ones to struggle over our lack of transformation, to mourn our still great sinfulness, even our still great love of sinning. Besides there are unbelievers who stop drinking, who manage to save a troubled marriage, or who learn to live better lives in some other way. The world does not think that the lives Christians live prove the truth the Christian faith.
No don’t misunderstand me. I am far from denying the reality of sudden conversion or powerful experiences of conversion or Christian peace and joy. These are mighty demonstrations of the reality of salvation and the truth of God’s word and wonderful confirmations of faith for Christians themselves. So is answered prayer and so the transformation of life. But they are not obviously visible to the world and this is not the sort of evidence upon which one can base his or her assurance of the truth of the Gospel. In all of this we must live by faith and not by sight believing where we cannot prove.
That proof is rather the history of the gospel itself, the events that have occurred upon which the Christian faith rests, events in space and time, events in ordinary history, the very events that Luke has so carefully and persuasively researched and then related as real history in his two volumes. This history did not have to be believed; it was seen and it was heard by many, and we have a persuasive record of what is was they saw and heard! If you think about it, this is why you are a Christian and why you remain confident of your Christian faith in defiance of the darkness and the confusion of life and the mystery of God’s ways, even in defiance of what seems to be from time to time God’s absence from your lives. The Son of God did enter the world as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, he did perform miracles, he did die on the cross for our sins, he did rise from the dead, the Spirit did descend at Pentecost, and the gospel did make its spectacular way out into a world utterly undisposed to receive it but equally powerless to resist it. You know all of this happened. These are the hard facts of history and everything rests on them including your daily life of faith and mine. If this is what has happened – and when we read Luke we realize this man is telling us exactly what happened – then all the rest – faith, hope, and love, salvation and eternal life – inevitably comes in train. It is history that Luke records and history that we believe because it was in history that God made himself known in Jesus Christ and in history that he saved the world and you and me.