By Gregg Bing
The New Testament book of Acts is critical to understanding the progressive unfolding of God’s purpose for the ages. It provides the bridge between the gospel records of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and the epistles, particularly the epistles of Paul. What a vast difference between Jesus’ exclusive ministry to the Jews (Matt. 15:24) and Paul’s teaching that there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile (Rom. 10:12). The book of Acts sits in between and explains what brought about such a significant change.
Regrettably, the book of Acts is also one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible. The most widely accepted theological position is that the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) marks the beginning of the Christian Church. Matthew Henry, for example, in his introduction to the book of Acts, writes:
“We are members of the Christian church, that tabernacle of God among men, and it is our honour and privilege that we are so. Now this book (Acts) gives us an account of the framing and rearing of that tabernacle. The four gospels showed us how the foundation of that house was laid; this shows us how the superstructure began to be raised, 1. Among the Jews and Samaritans, which we have an account of in the former part of this book; 2. Among the Gentiles, which we have an account of in the latter part: from thence, and downward to our own day, we find the Christian church … Such a body as this there is now in the world, which we belong to: and, to our great satisfaction and honour, in this book we find the rise and origin of it, vastly different from the Jewish church, and erected upon its ruins; but undeniably appearing to be of God, and not of man. …” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary)
Henry contends that the church described in the book of Acts is “vastly different from the Jewish church,” but a careful study of the book of Acts shows there is little difference between the earthly ministry of Jesus and that of His twelve apostles in the early chapters of the book of Acts.
When we talk about “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), we usually focus on noting the differences between God’s dealing with men throughout history. However, rightly dividing also requires that we recognize when things stay the same, an observation that helps us understand the real purpose of the book of Acts.
Luke opens the book of Acts with these words:
“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:1-3).
The former account refers to the gospel of Luke, which is also addressed to Theophilus, a man whose name means “one who loves God” or “one who is a friend of God” (Luke 1:3). The gospel of Luke records all that Jesus “began to do,” from His birth in Bethlehem to His ascension. The implication is that the book of Acts records a continuation of what Jesus began while on earth, this time through the twelve apostles whom He had chosen.
Jesus spent forty days between His resurrection and His ascension preparing His apostles for their coming ministry. He appeared to these eleven men numerous times, demonstrating that He was bodily raised from the dead. He opened their understanding of the Scriptures to see that Israel’s promised Messiah had to suffer and die before He could enter into His glory (Luke 24:44-49). In preparing His apostles for their ministry to the Jews, Jesus spoke about “the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
This is the same kingdom of God that both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed was “at hand” or near (Matt. 3:2 and Matt. 4:17). The kingdom was near because Israel’s Messiah, the One anointed by God to be their King, was in their midst. This kingdom was not just a spiritual kingdom to be established in the hearts of men, but a literal kingdom to be established upon the earth with Christ reigning over all the earth (Jer. 23:5, Luke 1:31-33) and Israel reigning with Him as “a kingdom of priests” (Exo. 19:6, Rev. 5:10).
When Jesus was presented to Israel as their promised Messiah and King, they rejected Him, saying, in effect, “We will not have this Man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14), and insisting, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). What would happen to Israel and their promised kingdom, now that they had refused Him as their King?
As He hung on the cross, Jesus looked down at the faces of those who crucified Him, not just the Roman soldiers, but the Jewish rulers and the Jewish people who stood looking on. He heard their cries of derision, mocking and taunting Him; but, instead of reviling them in return, Jesus prayed for them,
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
This prayer showed the love and mercy of our Savior for all men, even those who rejected and crucified Him, but His words had special significance for Jesus’ own people, Israel.
Living under the law, God the Father spoke to His people through prophets (Heb. 1:1), but they would not hear them (Jer. 25:4). With the entrance of the Lord Jesus into the world, God spoke to Israel in His Son (Heb. 1:2), but, they refused to hear Him and put Him to death instead (John 1:11). From the cross, Jesus acknowledged that the people of Israel did not know what they were doing when they crucified Him, and prayed for them to be given another opportunity to hear and believe.
The book of Acts is God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer. That same generation which rejected and crucified God’s Son, was given one last opportunity to hear and believe the good news of their promised King and kingdom, this time through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as He spoke by those who were apostles of Jesus Christ.
Next Issue: Acts, Chapter 1: “The Stage is Set, But for What?”