Lecture 8: Acts . . . the Gospel hits the road
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With Gospel foundations in place, the disciples have only to put Christ’s mandate – “go and make disciples” – into action. But all isn’t that simple. With numbers small, their leader in heaven and plenty of confusion and opposition to go around, it’s going to take some miracle level experiences to get these early leaders and the church they’re called to launch on the move. And as always, God delivers just what they need just when they need it with the result that a church explodes into the Roman Empire and beyond. Let’s see how it all happened.
Acts . . . the Gospel Hits the Road
I. Big Picture Realities
A. Pattern book
B. Portrays the life of Christ's servants as a life of adventure
C. Expansive nature
D. A summary of what was happening
F. Key People
G. Important places
H. Cycle of behavior
II. Summary of Chart [Lesson 8 Handout — Acts]
Lecture: Acts....the Gospel Hits the Road
Welcome to session eight. We are in our New Testament book. If you will look with me and imagine for a minute, if you can think of The New Testament in three boxes. The top box is the foundational box that contains the gospels, which we just looked at. We have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these four authors. I don’t know if you noticed, but interestingly enough with these four authors, none of them come from really the sect leadership groups of the day. None of them are Sadducees, none of them are Pharisees, none of them are priests. They are all picked from different aspects of the land and the people, I think to look at this life that was the life of Jesus Christ and to portray it in ways that help us see it in a full sense. So he picked a tax collector, he picked a fisherman, he picked a physician/historian and he picked a missionary to help us look; with Matthew showing us the King, connecting Him to all of those great Old Testament things that we looked at, the promises there, the work of the people, the calling of the people of Israel. The unfolding of all of that through the 400 silent years we looked at, then into the gospel pages and the life of Christ. This is the fulfillment. It all boils down to this person, Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the King, the servant, Mark would say. Luke would say, the perfect man. John would say, “No, it is the Son of God.” He is all of those things.
Jesus at the end of his earthly life gives an injunction to his disciples. Remember, disciples are followers. “You come follow me and I’m going to make you a disciple. You’re going to know when you’re doing that because you are going to catch people. Come follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men.” At the end of his earthly days, before he ascends to the Father, he issues this commandment, what we call the great commission. That is, to go into all the world and make disciples to do that very thing. Followers now finding other followers, helping them to become followers of Jesus and to be made into disciples, who will then make other disciples, who will make other disciples, who will make other disciples.
Book of Acts
If you are watching this today with me as we move from the gospels into the book of Acts, our one historical book of The New Testament, and you are a disciple of Christ, you have become a follower of Him, you have believed in Him. As John would have said, “Believing you have found life eternal in Jesus Christ.” Then you are in that long line of disciple, after disciple, after disciple, after disciple, such a significant thing to see. We see the beginning of that in the book of Acts. So this will be a great book for us to pay attention to along the way.
We have these three boxes. We have the gospels, the foundation of The New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We are moving into the historical box. Over in The Old Testament we had 12 books in it, but here we just have one, the book of Acts. In the next session we will move down and take a look at the letters, these are the instructional documents and they are going to be very different. We will talk a little bit about that literature and how different it is when we get there. But now we are in this middle section in the book of Acts. Foundation, history, instruction: four books, one book, 22 books. We are in that one book as we begin today.
I want to start by giving you just kind of an overview of some of the important aspects of the book. I am going to give you big picture realities of the book of Acts. I want to talk you through that. Then I want to take you to a chart. Note: Oftentimes when we are doing this New Testament segment, people say to me after one of these sessions, “This was really good, but it was really different than The Old Testament.” Let me tell you why it is different. It is because in The Old Testament, if we start with Abraham and go to Ezra, we are covering 1500 years. If we go to Jesus, we are covering 2,000. If we go back to Genesis, I don’t know how many we are covering, but it’s a lot. So we have a huge time span. In The New Testament, from the birth of Jesus to the end of the writing of The New Testament books, you have about 90 years. So the compact nature of the history forces us to cover it differently. In addition to that, we have more books in The Old Testament. We have this huge sweep of things with leaders coming and going and nations coming and going and all of the stories in between and prophets and poets. It just has a dynamic that is totally different than this compact period of time in which the focal point now narrows down out of this huge sweep out of The Old Testament into The New Testament and into the life of one Person, that life being Jesus Christ; and how that life is going to impact all lives; and how God has planned for that life to bring life through his death and burial and Resurrection. Then, how that spreads out to all the nations. “Go into all the nations and make disciples.” That begins here in the book we are looking at today, this historical book called the book of Acts.
It is a very exciting book. Some people say it is very boring, but you have to get past that. There is a lot of stuff here. There are places and this and that. You can kind of just read your way through; but if you stop and really look at it, which I want to do for just 30 minutes or a little more here today, I think you are going to say to yourself, “This is an amazing period of time that is registered here in the book of Acts.”
Let’s take a look at some of the big picture realities. The first thing is, it is a pattern book. That is, it’s not so much a theological or teaching book, as it gives us patterns of the way things began to be done in the early church. I think it helps us to realize that in the early church there had never been a church before, never been this called-out group; and now, all of a sudden it has begun to multiply and grow and there are things that need to be handled. In the book of Acts you are going to watch a lot of that. There are patterns. How did they do things? How did they think about things? How did they handle persecution? How did they stand before each other and help each other? All of these kinds of things shaped out in the book of Acts in summary form.
The second thing that I would like for you to understand is that the book of Acts portrays the life of Christ’s servants as a life of adventure. I think sometimes we miss that. You read about Paul in II Corinthians 11. Never hurts to look at the Book, does it? II Corinthians 11, Paul describes his life in such interesting ways. He is kind of defending himself as a Hebrew as well as a Christian. In verse 23 he is speaking to some of these other people who are challenging him. He says, “I speak as if insane. I am more so. In far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.” It kind of sounds like an Indiana Jones sort of life, doesn’t it? “Sometimes I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers of rivers, dangers of robbers, dangers of my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, with hunger and thirst, often without food, unclothed and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is always the daily pressure on me of the concern for all the churches.” Is that not a life of adventure? A little scary, but I want you to see this. A life of following Jesus is not some dull, ho-hum life. The book of Acts portrays that in one of the main characters you see in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul, reflecting on his own life, which is a little bit frightening sometimes to look at. Doesn’t he portray it as a great and amazing thing, the impact that he had as he traveled from city to city, country to country. Through all of these things is an impact that was the result of knowing Jesus. This is a marvelous thing. I don’t want you to miss the adventure.
I don’t want you to miss the expansive nature of the book. Expansion is what the book is all about. It starts small, and it gets big. That is one of those patterns we need to see. The church starts as a little, small group, huddled up in Jerusalem. All the way through the book of Acts it grows and it spreads. Not that it doesn’t have persecution and difficulty; but for some reason, in all of that it multiplies itself and we need to see that expansive nature. That is what the church is like. We plant a little church in downtown wherever, you name it, and God’s goal is not towards it staying little. God’s goal is not for just a great gathering in a place; but in various ways it multiplies itself in the lives of many people until, through its work, there are disciples scattered all around this area. Maybe it causes you to even have a regional mission or a global mission. We can talk about those things in a minute. Multiplication, growth, the expansiveness is what we want to see, like the mustard seed. The mustard seed parable, that little seed that a person casts into the ground; and somehow mystically and wonderfully, it grows into this huge bush that birds can rest in. That is how Jesus portrays the Kingdom of God. It is a summary of early church life.
The word “summary” if you want to circle it, that is the crucial thing. This isn’t everything. These are summaries of things. They give us an idea of how the church was developing, but it is not the whole picture. There are pictures way beyond this picture. This shows us one slice of it. Even as things are going on in the places that Peter goes and Paul goes, you know that there have to be similar things growing out of life impacts of other believers who have followed Jesus into Egypt and North Africa and other parts of the Roman Empire. We just get a glimpse of it as we look at the book of Acts and how that begins to carry its way out.
There are sermons in the book you should pay attention to, particularly those of Peter, Stephen and Paul. Largely what you will see in most of their sermons, two things come to the fore, the Person of Christ and the Resurrection. Many times as I have preached and spoken in places, I have reminded myself that the greatest sermons of the Bible, some of which are found in the book of Acts, have their emphasis on the Person of Christ and the Resurrection. If I miss those things, I am probably missing the most important things. We try to get at those as much as we can.
There are key people. Peter and Paul dominate, but there are others along the way that are amazing people, that you want to pay attention to. Particularly the role of Peter and the role of Paul are emphasized. Peter being the key in the Jerusalem ministry and the real key in eventually building a bridge in terms of Gentile ministry. We will see that in a minute. Paul then picking up that bridge that Peter builds and taking that ministry into the Gentile world. So Peter and Paul are huge, though there are others that are mentioned that are important as well.
There are important places that you want to pay attention to. Many of them will look like names on the letters that we are going to look at in the next session because Paul is going to go particularly to these various places where he is going to establishes churches and works. We see those places also mentioned in the history with Acts.
Remember, we are always making connections like we did in The Old Testament where you have a prophet, realizing that is connected to a piece of history, how does that connect? Here we are looking oftentimes at places and what is going on in a place, and we are connecting it to a piece in history and a letter in the 22 instructional pieces and saying, “Oh, this is some of what was going on, this is how people were thinking, this was the history there.” This becomes a crucial part of this tool that you are now building. The stories here are representative of the larger picture, I’ve already said that, but not the entire story. But they give us an idea of what is going on all over the Roman Empire as the truth spreads out.
There is a cycle that I have written out for you because I can’t remember and I didn’t expect you to remember just by listening to me. But you can see it at work in the book of Acts and it is still at work in the world. When leaders arise and they preach, that leads the people to listen to them and they respond, and the church grows. While that is going on, something else begins to grow and leads to opposition that oftentimes then leads to God rescuing and protecting his people, which then leads to the cycle repeating itself. I venture to say, if you were to look at the history of the church and all of the other things that would follow this, that you would see that same cycle over and over again throughout history. Gifted people called by God preach. People respond, they either reject or they accept it. Along with that arises opposition because we live in a world that is broken; and it is through this opposition to the good news of life in Christ that opposition sometimes feels like it is going to crush the church and crush those people. But somewhere along the way, God always rescues, God always sustains his witness and it gets restored again and moves on again.
I have seen this in interesting ways in our own time. I think of Europe that was once a centerpiece of Christianity and has fallen into disrepair, to say the least. If you walk around Europe today with its disrepair existing for a long time, we are beginning to see signs of this cycle beginning to repeat itself. There is a real awakening in various corners and a real enlivening of the church in various places in what has been viewed as a place dead to Christianity. The same thing in North Africa, where there was a strong church early on and then that church was crushed out by various groups including Islamic groups, Muslim influence. Just when you think it’s dead, all of a sudden there is a real awakening again. It is a place of some of the most profound evangelism in the world today. You see these cycles, these patterns which we want to pay attention to, and you are not only going to see them in scripture, but you are oftentimes going to see them in our own work. I think that is important. It helps us to stay on target.
I want to take you to a chart and have us kind of understand what is going on in Acts. You will notice what I am not doing with this as we work through these things, I am not trying to go off into how people variously interpret things. That is not the goal we are working on. What we are working on is giving you a set of tools so that you can manage the content which is in the Bible. If you want to explore interpretations and those kinds of things, that is a whole other approach. What I am doing is trying to settle you into first and foremost, this is the most important thing, is to begin to say to yourself, “I have a handle on the content. I have a way of building that content further.” Then you can begin to examine the content in other ways. Oftentimes we jump that part and we jump into someone’s interpretation and we miss the content. Here is the content and that is what I want you to see, that we saw in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that we saw in The Old Testament and then in part of the Bible we saw the importance of the 400 silent years, how these connected The Old Testament to The New Testament history. Now I want you to see that content in the book of Acts.
Let’s take the book apart in the time that we have to kind of work together on this. If we take the chapters in the book of Acts, it starts in Jerusalem. That is the center point for the beginning of the church and in Acts that is chapters 1-7. The key person there is Peter. He is going to be the key leader of this time in this period. There are going to be others, but Peter is going to be in a sense the prominent voice through this period of time. The audience during this period of time for the church is largely going to be a Jewish audience. The pattern during this period of time is going to be one of birth. This is going to be a birthing period. It is important to know that because in birth, even today in the birth of a church or the birth of an organization, or dare I say, even the birth of a person, there is usually a lot of energy and enthusiasm that is attached to that. That is what you see here. There is worry and concern that the birth gains energy. Peter preaches and thousands come to faith in Christ. The Spirit of God comes upon them and changes everything. Amazing things take place. There is a growth that challenges them. They answer that growth. There are Greek women who are cared for. They find great leaders who care for those needs and make assignments. You see the church beginning to energetically shape itself into a ministry that Christ sent it into, this ministry of making disciples . It is an exciting period of time.That is what I mean by birth, it has energy to it.
It is not without its challenges and problems, but it overcomes those. The other part of birth often is that birth does not seem to have resources with it. When you birth a business, oftentimes you birth it on a lot of energy and little resource. The church is kind of like that, it is birthed on Christ’s investment in a few people, on His incredible Resurrection and life and all that means, and the coming of the Spirit, all sorts of things. In terms of resources like we think of, those human resources of money and place and buildings and all that kind of stuff, they had very little of any of that. It was all built around what was happening with the people; by the way, this birth, with just a few people literally. By the time we get to the end of the third century in the Roman Empire, by the time we get there, you will now see this grow probably to somewhere between 40 million and 60 million Christians in the Roman Empire. Remember, I said it is a seed, it is expansive. That’s the story here in Acts, it’s just the beginning of the story. This is the birth.
Some of the keys here that I need to have you see, you would want to pay attention to the ascension. Christ ascends to the Father. With his ascension, he sends the Spirit. Remember, he promises the Spirit back in John. For instance, the book of John, chapters 13 through 17, you have a lot of talk about the Spirit coming. There is empowerment that takes place here, I would use the word “power.” We begin to see power in this group that we haven’t seen before. Along with it comes something that we haven’t seen a lot of before, and that is persecution. Remember the cycle. When the church begins to act with energy and power and with the Spirit of God and out of the power of Christ’s Resurrection, in a world that is opposed to Christ, it will eventually raise persecution. That is what happens, even early in the life of the church.
The central city we already have here. Basically the center of the early church was Jerusalem and it will remain so for quite some time. The dates of this section of Acts basically covers two years, the years 33 to 35 AD. This is a very intense, very tight period of time.
We move on in this period of time in the flow of this book. Remember, it is expansive, the little seed getting bigger and bigger. Eventually because of persecution, we see the elements of the church begin to push out into the region, to push out into the area around them, out from Jerusalem to areas of Judea and Samaria, still close by in the region. This is chapters 8-12.
A couple of key people you want to pay attention to. One of them is Philip and the other is Stephen. Among other things, they are going to show that leadership is now beginning to extend out. The leading of the church, the influence in the church, is now moving to other people. I want you to see that. That is what happens. Not only is it expanding in terms of more people, but it needs to expand in terms of more, dare I say, elder quality people, people who are called by God to shepherd the church. We can see that happening as well.
The audience becomes a Samaritan audience, so it is taking on a different look. It still has a Jewish element, but it is adding another element to it. Of course, that will cause issues that will have to be handled down the way.
The pattern now moves from birth to growth. As you know, whether it is a family or a church or whatever it might be, when you have growth, it isn’t all good news. Growth causes problems. How do we handle new people? Growth here causes a major problem and asks the question, the gospel had been pretty much a Jewish thing, now how does the gospel apply to Gentiles? Do we require Gentiles to obey the law? Do we not require Gentiles to obey the law? There are all of those questions that come up in this period of growing. Just like, if you and I planted a church in downtown San Francisco next week and five months from now, it grew from the five people who started to 100 people. Those 100 new people would cause us to have growth pains; to have to ask and answer questions that we didn’t have when we were just five. You can see that is going to multiply out and you can watch them work around those things as you work your way through the book of Acts.
The keys in this middle section are, persecution remains. This continues, in fact it never stops. You can add that to every list. Along with that, we have the sense now of a vision growing; and with the vision, a mission. Even though Jesus said, “Go into all the world,” it is hard to get at that. So what you see now is the outworking of that. It is a wrestling a little bit, just like it is today. Are we going to reach out to this audience? Are we going to take on this thing? These are the kind of things we wrestle with, even though we know Christ has called us to go into every segment of the world. He has indeed outfitted us all to reach into various segments of the world. We still wrestle with it, and they did too. There is a vision that grows here, largely through Peter, where he sees the sheet come down from heaven, filled with unclean animals. God says, “Kill and eat.” Peter says, “No, I’ve never done that, I’m not going to do that.” That happens three times. Finally Peter realizes that what God says is clean, is clean. The whole point of the vision was God saying to Peter, “It’s time to expand. Those people that you thought are unclean, I am declaring clean.” It wasn’t long after that until some emissaries come from the Gentiles in this region, a family who are God fearing people, who have heard about this and they want to know about this Christ, and Peter is the guy. This good Jewish guy is the guy who is going to go to the Samaritans and share the gospel. He is going to build the bridge from the Jewish context into a multi-ethnic context. He is the perfect guy to do it because he was thoroughly Jewish. Anyone else couldn’t pull this off. He is going to pull it off; and that is what happens here. So we have this vision and it is going to work its way into a mission bigger than anyone could imagine in this period of time.
The city is going to shift. Jerusalem is going to be important, but there is going to be a shifting toward Antioch. You will sense it as you read Acts. More and more believers are going to be congregated in Antioch. The dates are 35-48 AD. Here you have a longer period and you have a shift. This city is reflective of the places where churches are going to be built. If you look at your New Testament, particularly nine letters from Paul to churches, Galations, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, etc., all of those are located in huge urban centers. The early church was an urban church. The early church was a multi-ethnic church. The early church had its struggles in large settings, because that is where it was.
Antioch was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire in this setting. It was huge, it was crowded, it was filthy, it was stinky, it was mean, it was chaotic. It was all of those things. It was not a great place to be. When you think of church planting, I don’t know that we think of cities the way these cities really were. In the midst of these cities there were not thousands of believers, there were maybe dozens or hundreds, who had no church buildings to go to, but lived in little cubicles alongside people from all over the Roman Empire, because Rome moved people into these cities from everywhere. Antioch was about a square mile inside the walls. Antioch’s population density was about 127 people per acre. To get a picture of this: In 2010 the population density of New York was 37 I think. So you are looking at intensity to the extreme. You can see that because sometimes you could just flow right through this and not think these things. This is what is going on, these people are going into places that are both filled with opportunity and filled with stress. These are huge places. It is going to take a deep sense of vision and a deep sense of mission to make these things work. Antioch is going to become literally the center of Christianity for awhile because of the work of a few people who came out of here, who had the nerve to move over to here, who found people over here, lots of people who had Jewish backgrounds, lots of people who were God fearers, who when they heard the gospel, came to faith in Christ and began to establish this faith community we call the church. That is going to continue on.
Eventually, in chapters 13-28, we are going to pick up another person, the Apostle Paul, this guy who was a persecutor of the church, who becomes the great missionary of the era. The audience is going to move from Jewish to the Samaritan audience, which is sort of Jewish and sort of Gentile, to basically a Gentile audience, scattered all over the Roman Empire and even beyond. Remember, mustard seed, expansive. So here the pattern is birth, growth to then massive expansion.
When we think through the keys to this piece, we are thinking basically of preaching, a lot of preaching goes on; the presenting of the gospel and the Word. We are thinking of paths, I will call it. We call them the Roman roads, these paths to people all over the empire. We are thinking in terms of mission. We are thinking in terms of multiplication. Of course, as I said before, one thing always stays and that is persecution, so that will follow along. The city is going to gradually move. As you work your way through the book of Acts, you get the sense that again, the center of influence of Christianity is moving and it is going to be moving toward Rome. It happens today, doesn’t it? When we think of just recent decades and centuries, the center of Christianity eventually moved into Europe, waned in Europe, moved into North America, has been strong in North America. I think most people would agree that it is now waning in North America. You have to go south of the equator in a lot of cases to find now where really the center of gravity is in terms of the work of the church and the mission. You get the sense that God has things on the move. He is reaching, reaching, reaching. He is taking his own mandate seriously and that is the gospel be preached to all people and all nations.
So if we go to that city – the years here are basically 48-62 AD. When this ends, it ends with Paul in Prison in Rome at about 62 AD. It doesn’t end the writing of New Testament books. There are New Testament books that will come after this period. But a lot of our books and a lot of our letters mostly fit into this period as well.
So you get a sense of the dynamic of this. I need to leave you with some key words, I want to emphasize a few more. The word empowerment. You get a sense of an immediate empowerment in this period. The worldwide witness becomes so evident in this period; and along with it, the cost of that witness such as related to persecution and suffering. You find the importance of integrity all through this in terms of integrity of the church and its missionary vision, it is vitally important. You can’t live sending a mixed message. Remember in Matthew we had words, works and then responses. The words and the works had to fit together, that is integrity. We want to make sure that is the case as we look again at what is going on in and through the book of Acts and next into the letters.
The gospel is the cornerstone, the good news of Jesus Christ, his death, his burial, his Resurrection, new life found in Him. The gospel witness you will see always calls for a response. You will see that throughout the book of Acts. When Paul is before Agrippa, one of the Roman appointed leaders later in Rome’s dominance here in the region of Judea and beyond, Paul gives a witness before Agrippa and this king eventually stops him and says, “I suppose that you would want me to be a Christian, too.” Paul of course says, “Yes, I would, only without these chains that are around me now.” In every context you see these missionaries asking for a response. With the gospel, the important thing is, do you believe? May I ask, are you going to believe? And they do. It requires a response. It is a continuation of Christ’s ministry and Christ’s calling in our life.
The last thing you need to see, which you will see through the stories all through here, that no matter the amount of persecution, that God always sustains his witness in these things. So this is a powerful, powerful piece of history, that begins to work out this mandate, “Go into all the world and make disciples.”
We have to look at some instructional books to help us with that job and we will do that in the next session. See you then.
What examples have you seen, in Acts or even in your own life, of the cycle of ‘leaders arise, leaders preach, people listen and respond; the church grows. Opposition arises and then God rescues his people’?