“The Acts of the Apostles” is the name given since at least the middle of the second century to the second volume of Luke’s two volume history of Christian origins. Originally the two works would have circulated together, but as soon as the four Gospels were gathered into a single unit, the two volumes of this single work were divided and took separate places in the Canon of Holy Scripture. The Dutch name for Acts is “Handelingen”. Schilder plays on the title and says that it could just as well have been called the “Mishandelingen” which is the Dutch word for “mistreatment.”
This is, in other words, volume 2 of a two-volume history, with the Gospel of Luke the first volume. There has almost never been any doubt that the author of Acts is also the author of the third gospel. It is an unfortunate accident of history that Acts is separated from Luke in the order of NT books and so leads folk to assume that it is a separate work, when, in fact, it is the continuation of the third gospel.
That has some significance. Acts begins with a prologue in which Luke says that he told us in his first volume “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Acts apparently is intended to tell us what Jesus continued to do and teach after his ascension to heaven, but now through his witnesses. For the real understanding of the Gospel requires that we know that the living Christ is still at work in the world and that his death and resurrection will bring life to the world. By writing in this way, Luke has emphasized the unity between the history of Jesus’ ministry and the story of the beginning of the new epoch in the life of the church.
Assuming that Theophilus was already a Christian, as seems most likely, Luke uses this early history of the aftermath of Christ’s life and work to demonstrate how the gospel was confirmed in history. But, of course, he is as well supplying for the Gentile church an ordered account of events, only some of which they would know, but all of which they needed to know. And, in this history, he as well had occasion to teach both theology and Christian practice.
Now, I have said that the author of Acts was Luke the physician. We know that in two ways. First, the uncontested tradition of the early church is that Luke was the author. Second, not only is there no reason to disagree with that tradition, there are a good many pieces of evidence that lend support to it. They are too arcane and boring to mention here but suffice it to say this is a point of history about which there should be little doubt: Acts is the second volume of a two volume work of history by Luke, a man who was associated with the Apostle Paul and was a physician.
“until he was taken up” The Gospel ends with a brief account of the Ascension; but it is included again as the first event in the main narrative of Acts (vv. 9-11).
“suffering” lit. “passion.” 40 days! At the flood it rained for forty days; Moses was on the mountain forty days; and Jesus fasted forty days.
“kingdom of God” a dynamic concept in the Gospels — not so much a place, a realm, as a rule, a sovereign activity; the “reign” of God, his present action in salvation and judgment. The “kingdom” has come among you”, that is God was present in Christ to accomplish salvation and judgment. For the Jews, “kingdom” had another meeting, a more earthly, worldly sense of political peace and prosperity, as v. 6 will indicate.
“Which you have heard me speak about” — e.g. John 14-16; (cf. Luke 12:12). The fact that Luke does not contain any substantial account of this teaching indicates that the gospel writers knew much more than they included in their accounts of Christ’s life and ministry and teaching. The disciples, many of whom were from Galilee, would otherwise perhaps have returned to Galilee, but Jerusalem was to be the place of the Spirit’s descent — no doubt chiefly to demonstrate, by the presence of so many from the diaspora, that the Gospel was going no longer to the Jews only but to the entire world.
We are going to discuss at some length on some subsequent Sunday evening what this “baptism with the Holy Spirit involves.” In brief, at this point, we will say that the Lord himself gives an interpretation of his words in v. 8 where he says the same thing in other words and indicates that the baptism with the Holy Spirit has chiefly the effect of empowering the disciples as witnesses for Christ. This same use of “baptism” will occur in Paul, especially in 1 Cor. 12, where Paul links baptism with the Holy Spirit to the exercise of gifts for the sake of the whole body and the world. Think of baptism, in these instances — the word is very rich and has a wide field of meanings — less of cleansing and more of a pouring out of the Spirit’s gifts and power for the sake of our fruitfulness.
Remember, Christ had spoken frequently of his return and of the coming of the kingdom in power, and his resurrection and his speaking of the kingdom of God after his resurrection (v. 3) had rekindled the disciples’ hopes. No wonder they wanted to know! The Lord’s reply is a most important caution, too often forgotten in the history of Christian thinking about the return of Christ. He says not only that we do not know the time of the Lord’s return, or that we cannot know it, but that it is not for us to know it, i.e. we shouldn’t know it, it wouldn’t be good for us to know it.
It is highly interesting that these men still think in terms of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, of the renewal of the nation of Israel — probably they were thinking both of Israel’s deliverance from Roman oppression and her spiritual renewal through faith in Christ –, despite all that Christ said during the ministry of the nation’s impending judgment for unbelief. That was a hard lesson to swallow and the shift to a Gentile focus for these men was not to be without pain and confusion (e.g. Peter in Antioch, etc.). [If we had true sympathy and put ourselves in their place, we would understand how wrenching this adjustment would be. Think of how hard it will be for Americans to adjust to second class nation status, as no doubt will be our lot in due time. And that is nothing compared to the nation that was the church of God! General Gordon on complaining about Israel’s complaining about the lack of water in the desert!]
The NIV’s “times and dates” is lit. “times and seasons.” “Times” is perhaps best taken to refer to the ages that may elapse before the return of Christ and “seasons” to the particular crises or great events that will mark these ages.
Their task will not be speculation about the end, but filling up the time that does remain with bearing witness to Christ throughout the world. A witness is simply someone who tells what he knows, what he himself has seen and heard (cf. 4:33 “the apostles testified” or 10:39).
“Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” is something of an outline of the book of Acts. Chapters 1-7 = “in Jerusalem”; 8:1-11:18 = “Judea and Samaria”; and the rest of the book, “to the ends of the earth.”
He had given them the instruction they needed, their commission, and told them to await the descent of the Spirit. His work was done and so he left them. A Vanderbilt Univ. religion prof. a few years back argued in the press that Christ couldn’t have ascended into heaven because we know that bodies that ascend from the earth go into orbit. The ascension happened on the Mount of Olives, as we are told in v. 12. Actually, specifically near Bethany (Luke 24:50), the Lord’s home away from home.
Note the quiet removal; no pomp, no ceremony, as would have certainly been the case in a legendary account.
As they had been eyewitnesses of everything else in the ministry, so they were in this, the Lord’s ascension to heaven. In Luke 24:4 and angel is called “a man.” (So too Acts 10:30).
There is almost a reproach in the words of the two angels: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky?” You have a commission from the Lord, an assignment, why have you not left already to perform it! They were dawdling as seemingly unwilling to say farewell to the Lord. It is a gentle reproach as indicated by the fact that they encourage them with the thought that the Lord will return, just as they saw him leave.
Combining the thoughts emphasized so far in the passage, we have the teaching of the Lord recapitulated that the Gospel must be preached through the entire world before he comes again (Mark 13:10). The Ascension and the Second Coming stand and fall together.
Now it is an interesting and important fact that the Ascension of the Lord to heaven is reported here, at the beginning of Acts and not, as a rule, in the Gospels as the conclusion of their history of the Lord’s ministry in the world. Indeed, the only Gospel writer who includes the Ascension at all is Luke, who gives a very brief account of it at the end of the Gospel’s last chapter, which serves stylistically as a bridge to the more complete account in the opening paragraph of his second volume. Even he considers the Ascension to belong with Acts and not with the Gospel. Now we would do well to inquire as to why this is so.
It is clear, of course, that even during the 40 days following the resurrection the Lord Jesus did not relate to his disciples in the same way that he had during the ministry. He is not with them on the same terms as before. He comes and goes. He forbids Mary to touch him. Yes, he does meet with his disciples to teach them, but this teaching is explicitly to prepare them for the ministry he will leave behind for them to perform in his absence.
But, what is clear already here, and what is going to be made clear in the narrative that follows, is that the ministry of the disciples is, in fact, the ministry of the Lord Jesus still. He is still at work in the world, just as really as before; only now exercising his power through his witnesses. Matt. 28 — “Lo, I am with you always…” [v. 1 – Luke in the Gospel tells us what Jesus began to do…] Now, there was foretaste of this already in the Gospels, and, interestingly, exactly at that point where the Lord prepared his disciples for their future ministry after his Ascension to the Right Hand.
Turn up Mark 6:12-13:
[This is the account of the Lord sending the 12 out to preach, to cast out demons and to heal.] They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’
Now, see the point? The 12 went out preaching and working miracles, exercising power over the demons. But no one took from those events and those sermons that questions had to be asked about them! No, the questions had to be asked about Jesus himself. He was obviously the reason for this, it was in his name the 12 did these marvels, it was because of their association with him that they exercised such authority. Everyone knew this, everyone understood this.
Here is A.B. Bruce on this historical phenomenon.
“All the miracles wrought by the twelve were really wrought by Jesus Himself, their sole function consisting in making a believing use of His name. This seems to have been perfectly understood by all; for the works done by the apostles did not lead the people of Galilee to wonder who they were, but only who and what He was in whose name all these things were done.” [The Training of the Twelve, p. 99]
Later on, in Acts, when the apostles would first come to places, primarily Gentiles places,a places where folk were ignorant of the previous history, sometimes people would worship them for their supernatural power, but they always immediately corrected them — it was not they at work, but Christ; not their power, but his; not their authority, but his.
Now, this is going to be the great, underlying presupposition of Acts. No wonder then Luke begins here. All that he is going to report — of salvation and of judgment — all of this is Jesus’ doing, all his work, his authority, his activity by and through the Spirit.
- 2:33 Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was the direct work of Jesus Christ!
- 2:47 “The Lord” = Jesus Christ.
- 3:6,16 “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth”
- 3:23 “Listen to him”
- 4:29-30 “Stretch out your hand…”
- 5:39, ETC.
- Sometimes the veil is removed and the hand of Christ from heaven is actually seen at work in the world.
- The appearances to Stephen (7:55) and Saul (9:3-5)
The entire presentation of the Book is that of a visible history orchestrated by an invisible hand, that of Christ himself. The Apostle Paul, of course, will make this teaching explicit, but here in Acts, it is given in flesh and blood.
And this is what you and I must believe, really believe, if we are ever to get started in living the Christian life, and if we are to recover ourselves and our right minds to live the Christian life to the full again after being Christians for some many years. The Lord is here, by his Spirit, at work in us and among us and in the world. His hand is upon us to bless us and to work through us. The living conviction of that fact, more than anything else, is what distinguishes the Christians immediately after Pentecost from us. Their courage, their sacrifice, their zeal, their exuberance in prayer and witness, their confidence, the simple beauty of their faith, their denial of the world — all of this came from the fact that they lived in the active awareness of the presence of Christ himself by his Spirit in their lives and in their world. This is his world. And so it is our world, more than it is anyone else’s.
He is here not only to bless us, but to use us, to work through us. And this should animate us as nothing else. You know and I know how often this presence of Christ is but dimly perceived by us and how it leads to worldliness and dejection of mind and spirit.
We are not living in times of revival fire that makes this conviction present and powerful with no effort on our part. But the truth is the same. We must speak it to ourselves and remind ourselves of it and live by it. And if it takes more work for us than it took for them in those first heady days after Pentecost, well, to live in that light and to walk in that way, Acts will teach us, is worth whatever mental effort and concentration on the truth is required!
And it is not at all difficult to see what an enormous and wonderful difference it must make in your living and mine every day to know that Christ is really present and active, his hand is directing the events of your life and of the world, the hand of your Savior and Lord, who is now bodily in heaven, but will someday return to this earth and reveal himself as the one who ruled it all the while!