Lecture: Acts 1-12
We’re going to look at Acts, the first twelve chapters. In terms of commentaries there is a lay-level commentary in the Tyndale series by I. Howard Marshall. It’s very good and most anything you want to understand you would be able to find in that book. There’s not really any advance commentary on Acts yet that would be helpful for you all, but the one by Marshall is.
There are several different ways to divide up the Book of Acts. Some people will break it into the three-fold structure that you see in Acts 1:8 where Jesus says to the disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jerusalem is in Judea, that’s the first place, and that’s why there are three and not four there. There’s a basic expansion of the church out from an all Jerusalem context to a partial Jewish context, the Samaritans, and then from there out to the ends of the earth into the fully Gentile lands, the non-Jewish lands. That’s one way that people break up Acts.
Another way that people break up Acts is built on the two main actors in the Book of Acts, Peter and Paul. The first twelve chapters are about Peter’s ministry. Sometimes they tend to call this a Jewish ministry, but that’s really not accurate because what you have in the first twelve chapters is the growth from the church being Jewish to being Jew and Gentile. So you get the first five chapters of Acts that are all about Jews, and then in chapters 6-9 the church starts to expand into Samaria with Peter. Then you get chapters 10-12, where the expansion of the gospel is into the Gentile lands.
There is a verse where Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Protestants tend to interpret that verse the exact opposite the way the Catholics do. Catholics say, “Peter was the first Pope and everything was built on him.” Protestants tend to say with that verse that it was the proclamation that Jesus is Christ, that that is what the church is being based on, on Jesus Christ. I go back and forth between those two interpretations, but I think it is interesting that Peter was at the forefront at every stage of the expansion of the church. It was Peter who preached at Pentecost, it was Peter and John who went to Samaria, and it was Peter who went to Cornelius’s house.
Regardless of what you do with that verse, Peter did have a pivotal role in the growth of the church from being Jewish to being a Jewish and Gentile entity. Student: Would you explain the Protestant view again? Response: The Protestant view is that Peter has just said that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The Protestant churches argue that the basis of the church is the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ. I just think it’s really interesting that Peter played such a pivotal role in the expansion of the church. I’m not too sure the Protestants are right on that one.
In this division, the second half, chapters 13-28, is Paul’s ministry. This is generally called the Gentile ministry. Now again that’s not totally correct, because where did Paul go whenever he went to a new city? He went to the synagogues. He almost always presents the Gospel initially to the Jews. Some believe, but most reject him, and he turns to the Gentiles. That’s how the basic division is laid out. Paul’s ministry is broken into three missionary journeys. There’s Acts 15, where there is the Jerusalem Council, and then at the end of Acts is the story of his arrest and trial. Those are just different ways that people will break down the Book of Acts. I’m going to follow the two-fold division. So what we’re first going to do is look at Peter’s ministry, which is primarily Jewish, but expands from the Jews to the Samaritans to the Gentiles—the non-Jews.
The Birth and Expansion of the Early Church (Acts 1-5)
We’re going to start in the first five chapters, with the birth and expansion of the early church, specifically the Jewish church. Acts 1 has to do with the first fifty days of the church. There are fifty days between Easter and Pentecost—between Passover and Pentecost. Acts 1 is the story of what happened in the first forty days of the church.
Luke starts off in the first five verses by introducing himself and making it clear that the Luke who wrote the third Gospel is the Luke who wrote the Book of Acts, which is a continuation of the story. If you write out the Book of Luke and the Book of Acts on scrolls, each one fills a scroll. There’s one scroll that is the Book of Luke and another full scroll for the Book of Acts.
The First Forty Days (Acts 1)
In the Book of Acts, we start in chapter 1 with the first fifty days following Passover heading up to Pentecost. Luke starts by introducing himself, and that this is the second half of the story that Luke wants. Then in verses 6-11, we have the story of his ascension, that Jesus has been appearing for forty days and that time period has come to an end and he is going to ascend up into Heaven. Verse 6 is a really important verse: “When they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” I referred to this in earlier talks: they still think the kingdom is an earthly kingdom. They still haven’t figured it out what it is, that it’s a spiritual kingdom. They are still expecting an earthly kingdom and they are going to sit on thrones, it’s really interesting. It does show you the power of the spirit and how badly we need the spirit. Here are these three guys, they’ve been with Jesus for three and a half years and they still can’t get it through their heads that the kingdom is spiritual, not earthly. They still think it’s going to be a physical kingdom, but Jesus goes through this process of ascending into Heaven—he probably wants it to be clear to them that he’s gone, that he’s not going to reappearing to them as he had in the previous forty days.
There’s a repeat of the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit in verse 8 that we read earlier, that they should stay in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit is going to come and he’s going to bring power. In verse 11, there’s the promise of another return, after Jesus has gone up into Heaven, and two men, two angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into Heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” You have Jesus ending this time of earthly appearances, he reminds them they are to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit and the angels come and say he’s going to come back again, which of course is what the church has been waiting for the last two thousand years. So that’s the story of the ascension.
The end of chapter one has to do with choosing a new twelfth disciple. Judas went out and killed himself, so they cast lots and they choose Matthias to be new twelfth disciple. They evidently knew that there was significance in the number twelve—there were twelve tribes of Israel, there are twelve in the new Israel in the church, and so they had to get back up to the number twelve. One of things that is interesting just to mention it in passing is that this is the last time people cast lots for things. There was a lot of lot casting before. We don’t know for sure what it is, but it’s analogous to the short straw or something like that. The reason they cast lots was they believed God controlled the lots. When there’s lot casting in the Old Testament especially, it’s not a game of luck and chance. They believe that God controlled the lots, and in this case God obviously did and indicated which of the candidates was his choice to be the new twelfth disciple.
There are no more lots after the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s a shame isn’t it? I mean life would be a lot easier if we just had to draw lots to know God’s will, but evidently that’s not how he wants it. The Spirit is who is in our hearts helps makes these things clear. One of my favorite prayers is, God will you make it so clear that there’s no choice? I hate choice. Of the eighteen possible variations, just make seventeen go away will you, because I’m not real bright and I don’t always get these things. I’m still hoping for casting lots to come back into use, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Pentecost (Acts 2)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit and Speaking in Tongues
We then get to Acts 2, which is one of the most important chapters in the Book of Acts and one of the most important chapters in the history of the church. Chapter 2 is about Pentecost, it’s about the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised. Let me just read some of this starting at verse 1, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place (1). And suddenly there came from Heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (2). divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them (3). And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (4).” Tongues is simply another way of saying languages. They started speaking in languages and it was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to speak in other languages. It appears that they started in a house because, “it filled the entire house,” and we’re not explicitly told this, but they evidently moved out of the house to a public place, probably the temple. In verse 6, people are going to hear them speaking in these different languages because each one is hearing the Gospel proclaimed in his own language, so they are probably in a public place with a lot of people around. When Peter’s done preaching, three thousand become followers of Jesus Christ. I don’t think antiquity had a house that big so they had evidently moved, and most likely, had moved to the temple.
What actually is going on in this passage? I want to ask you to read this like you’ve never read the Bible before. That’s really important, especially in the first twelve chapters of Acts because there are all kinds of things about tongues later on in Corinthians and other places. Put yourself in a first century position and read this, and it will keep you from making some of the mistakes you might otherwise make. What actually happens, verse 4, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This is referenced to again in verse 6: “because each one was hearing them” (the disciples) “speak in his own language.” In verse 9 they actually name all the languages, these people were "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia (9), Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome (10)."
Now what’s going on? What had happened is that as Jesus had promised, back in the final discourse in John, as he had told the disciples at the beginning of Acts, that the Holy Spirit has been poured out and the evidence of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all of them was the supernatural ability to speak in other languages. I think it’s safe to say, in this portion of Acts, when we talk about tongues, the only thing we’re talking about is other known human language. The whole issue of spiritual gifts of tongues doesn’t arise here because they specify the languages that are being used. A most natural reading of this is that this is just a supernatural gift to be able to speak another language. Any why were these languages given? So that they could proclaim the Gospel to people who spoke other languages. Verse 11: “Both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” You can imagine being a foreigner making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you would have been a Jew most likely, but you would have lived in all these other places in the world. You’ve made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this festival and all of a sudden here are a bunch of untrained fishermen speaking in all these different languages and proclaiming the Glory of God and his mighty works. It must have been quite a scene.
The other thing that is happening that’s really important is that the Holy Spirit is coming in a permanent way. The Old Testament sees the the Holy Spirit for the most part as a temporary possession so that somebody could do a specific task. The Spirit fell upon Saul and he prophesied. The Spirit fell upon Gideon and he went to war. The Spirit fell upon Samson and he killed the lion. In the Old Testament, for the most part, when you talk about the work of the Spirit it was a temporary possession in order to accomplish a specific task, and when the task was done the Spirit would leave. What’s happening here (and you wouldn’t know it from here, but as you read on), what happened is that the Spirit was coming as a permanent possession of believers. That’s one of the primary differences between Old and New Testament people. There are other kinds of fulfillment going on here too, like the New Covenant that God would write his law on the hearts by the power of his Spirit, as well as other Old Testament prophesies at work.
In terms of prophesies being fulfilled, there’s the one of the New Covenant, but the one that is directly quoted here is the prophesy from Joel. What happens is that the disciples are speaking all these different languages and people hear them and start responding and they think that they are drunk, sometimes when you hear someone speak in other languages that’s what it sounds like, isn’t it? In verse 14, Peter says, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem (14), For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day (15).” In other words, even Galilean fishermen don’t get drunk this early in the day. He goes on to say, the prophesy that Joel made is being fulfilled. Verse 17 is the prophesy from Joel, “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” It goes on, verse 20: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.” Then comes the most important verse: “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (21).”
Joel was speaking of a theological concept called the Day of the Lord. It comes up in several places in the Old Testament. It was believed that God was going to come back and that it was going to be his day and that was when his rule was going to begin. The Day of the Lord is talked about in the Old Testament mostly in a negative sense by the prophets to say, “You want the Day of the Lord to come? You think in the Day of the Lord the Jews are going to be elevated? You shouldn’t want the Day of the Lord to come because God’s going to punish you for your sin.” The Jews felt that because they were Jews, they would necessarily be raised to positions of power when God came back, when the Day of the Lord came. What’s going on is Peter is saying that Joel’s prophesy is being fulfilled, God is pouring out his Spirit on all people so that anybody that calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. The emphasis really is on all because salvation is not just for Jews, it’s for all people, the Parthians and Medes and the Arabs and everyone that they named. Salvation is for everyone, not just this small group of people. That’s what’s going on in the outpouring of the Spirit in Pentecost. The prophecy of Joel is being fulfilled, the New Covenant realized. The sign that the Spirit has come is very visible and the fact that the sign of the Spirit’s coming is visible is the theme that ties the first twelve chapters together. We’ll get to that in a second.
Language Used for the Coming of the Holy Spirit
One thing that I want to mention as parenthetical is that the language in the Book of Acts that is used to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit varies a lot. Especially the words filling and baptize have engendered a lot of debate. Let me just say a couple of things about that. If you look at all of the language that is used to describe the Holy Spirit coming, it breaks down in two categories. One category refers to the initial experience of the Spirit being given. In other words, when they become a Christian, they talk about the person being baptized in the Spirit, (e.g., Acts 1:5; 11:16) always in connection with John the Baptist’s baptism. It’s interesting. Luke talks about the Spirit being poured, people receiving the Spirit, the Spirit being given, the Spirit falling upon people and the Spirit filling. Those are all different words that are used to describe the initial experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit when the person becomes a Christian.
There is a second category in these verses though that describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in reference to an ongoing experience of a Christian. In other words, a Christian is filled or baptized or receives the Holy Spirit when they become a Christian, but the language of being filled by the Spirit is also used for later events. So you have to be pretty careful at how you use these words. For example, in Acts 4:8, when Peter and John are before the Sanhedrin, it says, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them,” and then he preaches a great sermon. You can look at that and realize that the word filled is used two different ways in the Acts: it’s used as the initial coming of the Spirit, but it’s also used in a way that’s very reminiscent of the Old Testament’s usage of the coming of the Spirit.
You have to define it a little differently, but what happens in the New Testament is that people who are Christians can be filled with the Spirit, and I think the best way to explain it is that there are certain times in our lives where the Holy Spirit grips us in an especially strong way and enables us to do things that are beyond what we would normally be able to. Now there’s an old English word that is used when that happens to a preacher: unction. The unction of the Spirit is what happens when a preacher gets up and he is filled by the Spirit in a very special, unusual way, and things come out of his mouth that aren’t planned. There’s just something different. That’s how verses 4-8 and several others are to be understood. If any of you have had much experience speaking, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It does happen, and there are times when I’ll step down, as any pastor—I’m not singling myself out, but I know it because I have experienced it—and Steve will walk over to me and say something like, “Where did that come from?” There was something different, I can’t control it, I don’t want to control it, I don’t understand it, but I just know that it happens. That’s the thing that is going on in Acts 4:8 and other places. You have to be careful with the word filled. It is used, for example, in Acts 2:4 and 9:17 of the initial of the coming of the Spirit when a person becomes a Christian. It’s used in three or four other places to describe the special gripping of the Spirit of a person who already has the Spirit. Luke is just picking up Old Testament language. If you go to some of the Old Testament books you can see the same language being used. When I was in college this was a huge debate; I don’t think it’s as big of a debate any more.
Peter’s Sermon (2:14-40)
The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples, and they end up at the temple speaking in languages they don’t know. Peter has explained that they are not drunk, and that this is a fulfillment of the Joel prophecy and then he starts his sermon in verse 22. I’m going to pick and chose some of the verses that I want to read. There’s a neat word that you can use to impress your friends: kerygma. It’s actually is a Greek word that means proclamation. The kerygma is the recognition that as you go through the sermons in the Book of Acts, they almost all have the same basic characteristics. They are almost all making the same basic points. A British scholar by the name of C. H. Dodd coined the phrase “kerygma,” and it’s really important to see it because this is the essential nature of New Testament preaching. This is what they preached.
Listen as I read through some of these verses and you’ll start hearing bits and pieces. Verses 2:22 and following, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know (22)—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (23). God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (24).” Verse 32: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. Verse 36, Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (36). Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do (37)?’” It doesn’t matter to them if you are the elect or not, but that’s another topic. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized’” (in other words, respond) “every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (38). For the promise is for you and for your children and for all” (you can hear the Joel prophecy here) “who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (39).” Verse 41: “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
If you look at this sermon and then you start comparing it to the other sermons that run through Acts you’re going to see that there are four basic things they say: (1) They talk about Jesus’s life. They always say something about Jesus’s life, his birth, his miracles. He was the fulfillment of prophecy, but they will give content to who Jesus is. By the way if you don’t know where I’m going with this, this should inform how all of us share the Gospel. If this is how the apostles did it, this is how we should do it. They talk about Jesus. (2) They always talk about Jesus being crucified. They always make the point that he was killed at the end of his life. (3) They always make the point that Jesus was raised from the dead. (4) There is always a call to repentance. Now as we have it here, they interrupted Peter, he didn’t get to that, they asked and so he told them what they had to do to repent.
But those are the four basic parts to the kerygma, the essential nature of New Testament teaching. The pattern that is laid down in all the sermons in the Book of Acts. It does give cause to stop, I think, and ask the question, what the minimum it takes to be a Christian? What is required in order to be a Christian? For example, I’ve heard altar calls where you didn’t have to know anything about Jesus; you just had to be sorry for your sins. That stuff does not fit the biblical pattern at all. There’s content, there’s the necessity of believe in the crucifixion, there is the necessity of believing in the resurrection.
Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized.” The question is, repent of what? They’d be slow to answer this question. Look at what Peter has been talking about, what are they supposed to repent of? They are to repent of their misunderstanding of who Jesus is. They are to repent of the fact that this Jesus who lived, who was crucified and was raised from the dead and is exalted at the right hand of God—they killed him. They understood him to be this religious fanatic. They did not understand who Jesus is. That’s the most logical thing in this context that they are called to repent of. While he’s described their sins, that word hasn’t occurred yet. We tend to think repent means repent of our sins, but I think first and foremost what they are being called to repent of is they thought incorrectly about Jesus. They thought incorrectly about who he was, they have to change their mind, they have to repent of that. They have to change and they have to start agreeing with the kerygma and agree with who Peter says Jesus is.
Student: In the Old Testament they killed the prophets for giving the Word of the Lord and they did feel that Jesus was a prophet. Response: It establishes a pattern, especially Stephen in chapter 7: your father killed the prophets and you’re just like him, so there certainly is a continuation of behavior. This is really important I think for example in Acts 5:42. This is after they got in trouble with the Jewish authorities. Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. That’s what was going on in the preaching of the early church. They wanted people to know who Jesus was.
That’s why I think it’s critical when we share the Gospel. There’s not just this tirade against sin. While that’s certainly an important part, we have to make sure that in our evangelism we’re telling people about Jesus and it’s focused on Jesus and who he was and what he did and what happened to him. This is why when I preached the New Believers Sermon Series, I spent two talks on who Jesus was and what he did. I didn’t spend two sermons on any other topic because that is central in the early preaching of the early church. Christians are people who have come to a right understanding of who Jesus is.
Now I think there is a second answer to the repentance question. They are to repent of their sin of crucifying Jesus, but of their sins in general as well. For example, in 2:38, he talks about the forgiveness of your sins, so obviously that has something to do with it. In verse 40 he says, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” There are certainly calls to confess your sin and to turn from your sin. Acts 3:26 says, God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” There’s ample evidence that certainly includes the idea of repenting of your sin, but I think first and foremost in this context, repent means changing your attitude about who Jesus is. Once you do that all the other stuff falls into place. If you talk to your friend at work and he thinks that Jesus is a good guy and a prophet, you need to get him to repent of a totally inadequate view of Jesus Christ, and he or she needs to come to understand who Jesus is. The minute they do that, they will then start realizing that they are dead in their sins and Jesus died on the cross to save them from their sins and you’ll get the other part. We must include the content of who Jesus is in our sharing of the Gospel.
I made a joke earlier and I should give you some background to it. I have a lot of hyper-Wesleyan friends and I have a lot of hyper-Calvinist friends. I have full ends of the spectrum. I had an office mate in graduate school who was this hyper Calvinist. He was like a 38 point Calvinist, and he had a picture of an Indian lady on his desk. I finally was talking to Henry one day and I said, “Who’s the Indian woman?” he said, “That’s my wife.” “You married an Indian?” “No, she’s not, but we were missionaries in India for a year and she was dressed in native garb.” I said, “You were a missionary in India, you 38 point Calvinist?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “But did you think that going there had any effect on anyone’s salvation?” “No, because God’s foreordained everything.” “So, if you don’t think going there had any good at all, why did you go?” he says, “Because God told me to.” I said, “Henry, if you were Peter giving the Acts 2 sermon and they said, ‘Henry, what must we do to be saved?' would you respond 'well nothing, either you’re elect or you’re damned.'?” And he said, “Yeah.” That’s not Calvinism, that’s 38-point Calvinism. That’s always my tongue-in-cheek way of saying that when it comes to the issue of salvation, that the Bible says people must respond. I’m reformed, but if you talk to reformed people who don’t hold out the necessity of a response, then they’re not biblical. It’s really important that you see that division. He calls for a response and whatever we believe about election and foreordination we must call for a response. They have to respond. If they don’t respond they go to Hell. That’s Acts 2; it’s a tremendously important passage theologically and really the rest of Acts is what happened at Pentecost working its way out.
The Story Continues
The story continues. I’ve got to skip some stuff here. Paul is going to talk about the communal life of the early church; they sold everything and had things in common. In chapter 3, Peter heals a lame beggar. He looks at them and he wants to receive something, and Peter says in verse 6, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” I was at a Campus Crusade for Christ school once where evidently instead of leaving tips people were leaving four Spiritual Law booklets and saying, silver and gold have I none, but here’s what I have. They were told not to do that anymore. He goes on, if you read this, you’re going to see the kerygma again, very clearly laid out.
Boldness (4:8-20, 29-31)
In chapter 4 you have a fabulous passage where the Jewish leaders, and you can imagine they thought that everything was taken care of because they killed Jesus. “That catastrophe’s over; we can go on for a while.” All of a sudden all of these uneducated fishermen up their preaching and having huge conversion rallies, evangelistic rallies. Again, you have Peter’s sermon in 8-12. It’s beautiful; again the kerygma is there. Verse 12 says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This is a tremendously bold sermon to the religious powers of the time. They are very unhappy with them; they don’t want them to talk about anything. Verse 19, “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge’”; that’s Peter saying, you can have all the arguments you want, but we’re going to obey God over man. By the way, this is a very important verse when it comes to civil disobedience, but we’ll talk about that later. Verse 20: “For we cannot, but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Again this is the power of a personal testimony.
They leave and yet there is this marvelous passage where they pray for boldness starting at verse 23. Look at the prayer, let’s pick it up at verse 27. This is the church praying to God after they’ve left the Sanhedrin: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel (27), to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” We’re going to come back to that (28). “Now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness (29), while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus (30).” when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (31).” I think that’s one of those prayers that God always answers. If you’re having trouble with unanswered prayer, then pray for boldness to proclaim the Gospel in a hostile environment. My guess is that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s one of my favorite passages in Acts.
The Sovereignty of God
I need to say something about the concept of sovereignty of God, because we’re hitting some verses and Acts is very strong on this and we’re going to see it as we go through it. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is simply that God is sovereign and that God’s King; that God’s in charge. People are going to do many different things with that. I have a friend who believes that God controls every atomic motion in your body, in other words, that he is absolute sovereign over absolutely everything. Romans 8:28 starts with, “God works together all things for good to those who love him and are called according to his plan.” God is capable and promises to, in all situations, be in such control that he can work his good for you in the midst of circumstances. That’s the sovereignty of God. Now again there are people that stretch it different directions in terms of how much control he exerts, but the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is a precious biblical doctrine and it’s all the way through the Bible that God is King, that he is in sovereign, and that he’s in control.
We’ve already seen some amazing verses and let me just point out a couple of them. In Acts 2:23, in the middle of proclaiming the kerygma, Peters says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” I preached a sermon a year ago on Easter, on who killed Jesus. The ultimate answer was that God killed him. God killed his son. That’s the ultimate answer. The sermon was in the context of one of John Piper’s book. God is in such control that he has a definite plan, he knows beforehand what’s going to happen, and he makes it happen. Yet people, Judas and other people, are still responsible for their sin.
One of the things that happens is that people struggle with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God because they think then the people aren’t responsible. That may be a logical conclusion to some, but it’s not a theological conclusion, it’s not a biblical conclusion, because when you and I sin we are always held responsible. Jesus says that it would have been better if Judas had never been born; he was responsible for his betrayal and he paid the consequences of it. Yet, somehow, in the sovereignty and the majesty of God, that was God’s plan from before the beginning of time and things proceeded just as he chose them to proceed. There’s always mystery in these deep concepts, but that’s a pretty powerful statement on the sovereignty of God.
If you get down to verse 39 Peter says, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” In Paul’s language that’s election isn’t it. Do you remember that passage in John, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him," or when Jesus is arguing with the Scribes and Pharisees and he says, the reason you can’t understand me is your Father is Satan, you don’t have the capability of understanding me? This is the doctrine of election and we will talk in more detail when we come to other passages about it, but I wanted you to see it is all the way through the Bible. We may struggle with how to apply it and understand it, but there it says, “Everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” those who respond are those who God has called to himself. God is King, God is sovereign, God is in control.
Back to chapter 4 verses 27 and following. These are the verses that we read earlier that all these people, Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles the Jewish leaders, they did whatever God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. These are all verses that I just wanted to mention to get you aware of them. These are all verses that have to do with the sovereignty of God, that he is in charge, that he’s the boss, and that he calls the shots. Nowhere are you and I excused for our sin, but God killed his Son. That was his plan and he did it through the sins of man. Depending upon your theological background and good experiences or bad experiences, this is really a hot button issue. My encouragement to you at this point is that when it comes to the sovereignty of God, thank him for it. Thank him that he’s in charge, even when we can’t see it, even when we don’t understand it, even when we don’t know how to fit it with other things we believe. Thank him that he’s in charge, that he’s not some weak little person off in the corner of the universe. That’s how a lot of people treat him, that’s he’s incapable really of doing anything about my problems. Thank him that he is in charge, he is in control, and that someday we will understand this.
There’s a great verse in Revelation, I think it’s in chapter 14, where all the saints who wouldn’t worship the beasts and were killed are calling out from under the throne, “holy and just are all your ways.” Some day we will be able to look at everything, the devastation in Indonesia, and we’ll be able to understand that holy and just are all God’s ways. We’ll see it much more clearly. Now it’s a faith thing, then I think we’re going to see it. The sovereignty of God is a great concept.
The stories go on. There is the sharing of wealth in the church. You have the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the first two people truly slain in the Spirit; they lied and God killed them. There are several other things. The Jewish leaders are getting really frustrated with them, they call them in, the beat them, they demand that they stop talking about it. Look at 5:40: “When they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go (40). Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (41).” I think there is something these disciples understand that most American Christians don’t. It was a badge of honor; it was a joy that they were beaten for the cause of Christ, that they were worthy to do that, a slightly different outlook on life than many of us probably have. We come to the end of the first phase of the church’s expansion.
The Second Phase of the Church’s Expansion: Samaritans (Acts 6-9)
In chapter 6, we move into the second phase of the church’s expansion, and this is the expansion of the church out of a purely Jewish context into the Samaritan context. If you know your history, what happened is that when the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom they took out the Jews and replaced them with foreigners; that was one of the ways they conquered the land. It was a way to destroy ethnic identity. There were some Jews left, but a lot of non-Jews, and they all inter-married and so the Samaritans were considered to be of mixed race. It was almost like the Jews hated them more than the Gentiles. There was this phenomenally intense racism at every level between the Jews and the Samaritans. That’s why this expansion of the church into Samaria, the area right north of Judea, was so important.
Do You Have to be a Jew to be a Christian?
What we’re entering into is the first theological battle of the church. This battle is going to go from chapter 6 to chapter 15. Chapter 15 ended this battle and it never really surfaced again, but the basic question is, do you have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian? In other words, can you be a Gentile Christian or do you have to be a Jewish Christian? All of the intense racism said, yes, you have to be a Jew if you want to be a Christian. You have to proselytize, you have to be circumcised, and you have to give your offering to the temple and be baptized. There’s no real way I think, especially for people living in this city, to understand the intense racism that the Jews had. I think in America you’d have to go fifty years back into the deep south to understand the racism that really existed here and why this was such a serious problem. That’s the first theological battle the church had to fight, whether you have to be a Jew in order to be a Christian.
Stephen (Acts 6-7)
We start in chapter 6 with the story of Stephen. The widows who were Jewish and spoke Aramaic had formed one group, and the Hellenistic widows (they were Jews, but they spoke Greek) formed another. Those two groups were fighting and claiming that one group was getting preferential treatment over the other. The Apostles said, we’re not supposed to be waiting tables, we need to be devoting ourselves to prayer and to preaching, and so they let the people pick seven Greeks (all their names are Greek) to oversee the money being distributed to the widows so that the Hellenistic widows, the Greek speaking Jewish widows, knew that they’d get their fair shake. What’s interesting is that two of those Greek Jews that were invited to help serve tables and take care of money were Stephen and Philip, who are two of the best preachers that we have in the Bible. They chose these men to help.
One of them was Stephen. Right away he starts preaching and he’s arrested. Up to chapter 15, they keep Jewish Christians and Jewish non-Christians separate. Those are two different groups, it’s obvious, but sometimes if I just refer to Jews, you need to say is he talking about Jewish Christians or Jewish non-Christians. Stephen was arrested by the Jewish non-Christians. They made some pretty strong charges. In verse 13 they got their false witnesses together and they said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place" meaning the temple "and the law." In other words, they saw Stephen as a threat to their religious traditions and their holy place. Later on in verse 14 they say, “For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” They saw Stephen as threat to their religious traditions, their way of doing things.
In chapter 7 you have a very long sermon, and I’m not going to go through it, but Stephen’s making two basic points as he goes through this sermon. A lot of it is just a repeating of Jewish history; he didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, but what he’s emphasizing is that the Jewish nation has a history of rejecting God’s servants. They had rejected Joseph, they had rejected Moses, and the implication is that they rejected Jesus. A lot of chapter 7 has to do with the Jewish history of rejecting God’s servant. Then secondly he talks quite a bit about the temple. The point he makes is, yes, God designed the tabernacle, yes, God had the temple built, but God doesn’t live in a home made with human hands. By saying that, what he’s saying is, God doesn’t live in this temple. He’s called them a race of sinners, a bunch of people who reject God’s people, and added that God doesn’t live in this temple any more. Then in verse 51, he gets right to the point: “You stiff-necked people,” there’s not a lot of real sensitivity on the part of the New Testament preachers about how people feel about others, “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” that’s not a nice thing to say to a Jew if you’re wondering, “you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (51). Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One,” (Jesus) “whom you have now betrayed and murdered (52), you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (53).” He makes the actual accusations, and they take him out and they stone him. In this chapter we meet a fellow named Saul, who approved of his execution. That’s the introduction of Saul, whose name was later changed to Paul. You have the first Christian martyr in Stephen.
Philip in Samaria (Acts 8)
What happens then is that persecution starts coming from the Jews. They are persecuting the church and the church is scattering. Saul is actively involved in that persecution. Then in chapter 8, starting with verse 4, you have this little parenthesis about Philip, another one of the seven who was chosen in Acts 6. Philip, that innovator, takes off and goes to Samaria. Starting in verse 4, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (4). Philip went down” (you always go down from Jerusalem even if it’s north) “to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ (5).” There’s your quick kerygma in a sense. “The crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did (6). For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed (7). there was much joy in that city (8).” This is a pivotal time in the church because you have this Philip going into a non-Jewish area and preaching and people believing.
You have an interesting story about Simon the Sorcerer. The real issue you can see for the church is the fact that it’s non-Jewish. Look at verse 14, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John (14), who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (15), for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (16). Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (17).” Let me just say that the story concludes with Simon the magician getting into trouble. Peter and John evidently learned something in the process because look at the last verse 25: “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord,” (this is John and Peter), “they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” What’s happening is this renegade Philip goes to a non-Jewish area, preaches the Gospel, and people receive it and start to become Christians. The city, the pillars of the church thinks, what’s go on? They send two major figures down to Samaria to figure out what’s going on. When they get down there they pray for these people, they lay their hands on them, and then they visibly receive the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t say they spoke in tongues, but most likely that’s what happened. Peter and John realize the Gospel is supposed to even be proclaimed to Samaritans. On their way back to Jerusalem they start preaching in all the Samaritan towns they come to. This is something new.
The Delay of Receiving the Holy Spirit
Now there are a couple of interesting questions to ask. One is, why the delay? Why the delay of the giving of the Holy Spirit? These people became Christians, they prayed, but there was no visible sign of the Spirit coming. We have to look elsewhere to answer the question, because the reason for all of this is specifically stated in Acts 10 in the story of Cornelius. Go to Acts 10:44-48. The context says Peter is preaching to Cornelius, who is not even a Samaritan; he’s just a Gentile. “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word (44). The believers from among the circumcised” (in other words, the Jewish Christians) “who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles (45). For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared (46), ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit’”—and here are the four words—“‘just as we have (47)?’” In other words, the Spirit made no distinction: The Gentiles are receiving the Spirit just as the Jews did. “He commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days (48).”
It’s interesting that when you get into Acts 15, which is the end of this whole discussion, you can hear again the problem being stated: “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers” (the Christians) “‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” This is the circumcision party; these are Jews that claim to have become Christians, but were teaching you had to be a Jew in order to be a Christian specifically you had to be circumcised. That’s the problem. It’s the problem of the Samaritans in Acts 8; it’s the problem of Cornelius in Acts 10. Again in verse 5, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (Pharisees that had become Christians supposedly) “rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses (5).’ The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter (6). after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe (7).’” In Acts 10, the Cornelius story, “8God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” Verse 11, “11But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” I needed to do that because I wanted you to see the role that Acts 8 and Acts 10 played in the expansion of the church.
Go back now to Acts 8, to Philip with the Samaritans. Most people, certainly the commentators, argue that the Holy Spirit, the visible giving of the Holy Spirit or the giving of the visible manifestation, meaning the tongues, happened because there were no leaders of the Jewish church there to witness it. God withheld the visible expression of the giving of the Spirit until the leaders of the Jewish church could get down to Samaria and could witness the fact that God poured on his Spirit on them, just as he had poured out his Spirit on the Jews. It was an odd event because of the problem of the Pharisees and the circumcision party in the church. If they had received the Spirit and started speaking in tongues and there wasn’t a leader of the Jewish church there they may not have believed it. But they sent the two main figures from the Jerusalem church down so they could see it, and then Peter keeps referring to that and to the similar event with Cornelius, that God is not a respecter of persons, and that salvation is given to all people: Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles alike. That’s the general answer for why we have the delay of the Spirit. It’s why the giving of tongues is such a big deal in the first part of Acts. It’s not just the visible manifestation of the giving of the Spirit, it’s the visible manifestation that God wants the Gospel preached to non-Jews. That’s certainly how Peter uses it all the way through the Book of Acts. The other question that goes along with this is, is this normative, is this the way things happen? Generally, the answer is no. Most people, even many charismatics, say, no, this was an odd one out. There’s a related question is, do you have to speak in tongues to be a Christian, but that’s a different issue that we’ll handle later, but most people feel that the Acts 8 story is an exception to the general rule because of the intense racism and the theological shortsightedness of the Jerusalem church. The story continues, Philip is whisked out and he gets this great chance to talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch, explain the suffering servant passage.
Saul (Acts 9)
In chapter 9 we see Saul again, who had disappeared for a couple of chapters. Acts 9 is the story of Saul’s conversion; it’s a wonderful story. If you’re not familiar with it, you need to read it. Saul was on his was to Damascus in order to persecute and imprison Christians. Jesus strikes him down with a bright light and identifies himself, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He (Paul) said, “Who are you, Lord?” He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He goes into Damascus, he’s blind, and God tells Ananias that he needs to go pray over the Christians’ most hated enemy. You can imagine Ananias’s hesitation to do so, but he does, and Paul becomes a Christian.
There’s a neat verse in here when God is talking to Ananias about doing this. In verse 15 it says, “Go, for he” (Paul) “is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (15). For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (16).” These three days or so that Paul is blind, God was evidently very busy with him. Among other things he was showing Paul, here’s what it’s going to cost you. He was very clear with Paul about what this was going to cost him. It must have been an interesting time. But Paul became a Christian and then what does he start doing instantly? He goes out and starts preaching.
It’s amazing that when you change your presuppositions, your message radically changes. He had one basic presupposition before: Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. That gets changed and he goes out. Let’s start with verse 19: “For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus (19). immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘he is the Son of God (20).’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests (21)?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ (22).” He preached Jesus was the Messiah. You just change a couple of those basic presuppositions and the message radically changes. The Jews try to kill him, and so he sneaks out of town. He’ll talk about that later to the Corinthians. He goes down and he wants to meet the apostles. You can understand why they are justifiably suspicious, but Barnabas introduced him, and eventually Saul goes back to his home in Tarsus which is in the southeastern corner of Asia Minor.
We have this beautiful verse in 9:31 where the church actually got a break for a little bit from all the persecution, and it grew. Peter goes and he heals Aeneas and Dorcas, and he goes to Joppa, a city on the Mediterranean coast, and stays with a man named Simon. That ends the second phase of the church’s expansion into Samaria.
Student: In Galatians 2, Paul has to confront Peter because he’s turning his back on the Gentiles. Where in the frame of Acts does that take place? The question is where does Galatians fit in Acts? I think it’s before Acts 15. Peter just caved in to peer pressure, and I think that’s going on in Galatians too. He knew better than to do it, but we all do things we know better not to do. I think Acts happened because the argument is in Acts 15 the Jerusalem council, the whole church gets together, and there’s the final pronouncement that you do not have to be a Jew to be a Christian. The letter goes out to all the Gentile Christians saying to just not go out of your way to offend Jews. There’s just no way that Peter would have done what he did in Galatians 2 after Acts 15, I don’t think. I think this is Peter after Cornelius, certainly understanding things, but he just made a mistake.
The Third Phase of the Church’s Expansion: Gentiles (Acts 10-11)
Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18)
In Acts 10-11, we have the third phase of the church’s expansion, and this time it’s fully into Gentile land. This is the story of Cornelius, which we’ve already looked at pieces of, but let me just summarize it. I do want to say that this is a really long story and if you read through Acts, they keep telling the same story over and over again. That’s an indication of how intense the problem was, that they had to be reminded that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all people.
A visitor comes to Cornelius; he’s a Centurion, a Roman soldier. It says in the text that Cornelius feared God. We know that there were a class of people called God-fearers and they were people who were attracted to the ethical stance in Judaism, but they didn’t want to proselytize, they didn’t want to become Jews. This was a group of people that would pray with the Jews, would give alms to the temple, which is what Cornelius did, but they didn’t fully proselytize, they didn’t get circumcised or go through that ceremony. Cornelius probably fit in that category of people who had formally connected themselves to Judaism because they liked a lot about it, but hadn’t fully become a Jew.
An angel comes to Cornelius and says send some people to get a man named Peter. Peter is simultaneously having a vision. He’s up on top of the house; he’s waiting for lunch; and in 10:11 we can see the vision, “and he saw the Heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth (11). In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air (12).” The important thing is that they were all non-kosher animals, they were animals that Leviticus said you can’t eat. “There came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat (13).’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord (14).’” Isn’t it interesting how many times these people argue with God? Certainly if God ever talked to us we would never argue with him would we. Bad illustration. “‘For I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’” I’ve never broken kosher food laws. “The voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common (15).’” This happened three times and the thing was taken up at once to Heaven. The whole vision is repeated three times, trying to make the point.
God is saying two things. He’s saying all dietary laws are gone. He’s already done this back in Mark 7, He already declared the food laws passé, but he’s doing something much more fundamental. He’s trying to get people to see that there are no people who are unclean; there are no people who are outside the scope of the Gospel’s call. Peter doesn’t get that. While he’s mulling over the vision the men come from Cornelius. They all travel to Caesarea, and he tells Cornelius the story of the vision, and then Peter gets it. Peter puts the two things together in 10:28, he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” Peter puts two and two together and he got four this time; he understood that God wanted the Gospel proclaimed to all peoples including the Gentiles. You’ve got this great story starting at verse 44 of the conversion, and that Peter was saying these things the Holy Spirit fell on them. The Jews who had come with Peter were amazed because they saw the gift of the Spirit being poured out, even on Gentiles and they said, “I guess God’s not going to make a distinction.” Once again you have the importance of a visible manifestation connected with the giving of the Spirit with the becoming of Christian so that they would know to incorporate the Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation.
When this is all over, Peter goes back and is questioned. They bring him back to Jerusalem in chapter 11, and the circumcision party was criticizing him, saying, you went to uncircumcised men and ate with them. These are Pharisaical Jews who had supposedly become Christians. I struggle with the idea that a Christian can believe that there are certain things that you have to do in order to gain God’s favor. That’s my struggle; I’m not the judge and I’m not going to judge these people, but that’s why I’m qualifying myself. I don’t know if they were Christians, because Paul pronounces damnation on the Galatians when they think they can earn their way to Heaven.
Peter comes and what he does is he just repeats the vision and the giving of the Holy Spirit, and then he concludes in 11:17, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” You want me to get in front of that bus? I don’t think so. I’ll let you get run over, but I’m not going to do it.
The power of human traditions and racism are immense. They are just as prevalent in the world today in some places as it was in ancient times. Remember the story of my Dad’s preaching in the small town in Kentucky? My sister was in Campus Crusade for Christ and was stopping through from beach witnessing with a whole bunch of people, and one of the girls was black. Mom and Dad didn’t think it could possibly be a problem in the Christian church, but after bringing her to church, they started getting obscene phone calls. That’s the best example I know of what’s going on here. Those people in that church in Kentucky had no intention of proclaiming the Gospel to that girl. She was fully outside the scope of God’s salvation. The power of religious traditions and racism—never underestimate how strong they are.
The Church in Antioch
Briefly, the story then in 11:19 moves up to Antioch, and you have the beginning and the growth of the Gentile church. Barnabas goes up there as well. Antioch is in the northern part of modern day Lebanon, and so we’re really outside of Israel, among the Gentiles. Barnabas goes up, he gets Paul, and they spend at least a year there. There’s a story about a famine and there’s a story about Herod’s death, Herod kills James the brother of John, arrests Peter, but Peter gets out and Herod ends up being killed by God.
That ends this stage of what we’ve called, Peter’s ministry, where Peter is the primary person and it’s a story of the expansion of the church from Jewish to partially Jewish to totally non-Jewish audiences.
I’ll just mention this in closing. I suspect that there is inherent in all of us something that tends to limit our offer of salvation. You see two people standing there and you’re going to go talk to one of them about the Lord. Which one do you pick? The one that’s the same color or same socioeconomic status? I imagine in all of us there are hesitancies. It’s going to be different for each one of us, but I think the message of the first twelve chapters of Acts is that we may not limit the offer of salvation. We must share the Gospel with all people because God’s spirit is poured out on all people. It’s just something that’s worth reflecting on.