This week we begin our final official chapter of Legacy, our 8-year-long look at the story line of the entire Bible. Over the next few weeks we will be looking at the major events found in the Book of Acts… the one book in the Bible that gives us an historical overview of the first few decades of the church. And while I hate having to turn on a teaching fire hose, I’m going to have to turn it on for just a minute or two because it’s important that I give you some background on the book we will be looking at over the next few weeks… so here we go!
The Book of Acts is actually the second half of a two-part book… the first half is the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Luke and The Book of Acts are actually one work that was originally written on two scrolls. They probably should have been put next to one another in the Bible, but that is another story. Also, almost everyone agrees that this two-volume work was written by a Gentile man named Dr. Luke. Now to be honest, we are taking the early church fathers at their word when we say this book was written by Dr. Luke. It never says this in the Bible. Luke is mentioned in St Paul’s letter to the Colossians as one of Paul’s co-workers, and Paul is one of the main characters in the book of Acts; but, Luke having written these two books is a part of early church tradition… it’s very reliable tradition, but it’s tradition none-the-less. And we are also pretty certain we know why Luke took the time to write what turns out to be ¼ of the New Testament: another Gentile Christian man named Theophilus (a Greek name which means ‘one who loves God,’ by the way) most likely commissioned (as in paid) Luke to investigate the life of Jesus and the beginnings of the church and then to write down his findings. If we look at the first four verses of the Gospel of Luke we’ll see Luke’s purpose in writing. He said, ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 And he repeats himself in the first verses of the Book of Acts, telling Theophilus that what he is about to do is a continuation of what he did in his first book. I am confident that Dr. Luke had no idea that what he was creating was someday going to be called ‘Scripture.’ Luke’s primary concern was that one man, Theophilus, understood the facts about Jesus and the beginning of the church. That was what was on his mind. Oh, and when you hear that Luke was a doctor, don’t think of the highly-educated scientists of our day. Most 1st Century doctors were slaves who’d been sent by their owners to get an education in the ‘medical’ arts. Doctors did learn to stitch up wounds, set broken bones, make herbal salves and pull teeth, but mainly they were schooled in incantations purposed to get the gods to heal people. And because much of a doctor’s knowledge had to do with secret spells, Jews were really skeptical of doctors; good Jews didn’t go to doctors; they went to their priests for medical advice, not to pagan slaves. And yet I think this is an important point to remember as we read Acts: Acts is a book written by a gentile doctor who was probably suspect to many Jewish Christians, for another Gentile who must have been hearing from some Jewish Christians that Jesus’ mission was just for the Jews. Theophilus wanted someone to give him the facts about Jesus and the beginnings of the Church so he could be confident that his faith in Jesus wasn’t in vain… and this is exactly what Luke wrote for Theophilus: he wrote a book purposed to prove to Theophilus that what was once just a Jewish deal was now ‘everyone’s’ deal. Back in Luke 1 we read that Luke wanted to give Theophilus certainty about what he’d been taught… and what had Theophilus been taught? He’d been taught that Jesus came to save all people and the church was a new organism made up of Jews and Gentiles, men and women and freemen and slaves. Luke wanted to make sure that Theophilus was absolutely certain that Jesus died for all people and as we will see over the next few weeks, Luke went to great lengths to prove that the gospel was for people like Luke and Theophilus and he did this by simply by writing down the verifiable, historical facts.
And knowing this, that this is a book of historical facts, we must never forget that the Book tells us what happened… not what happens. Now, I know that what I am about to say goes against what a lot of people believe about the book of Acts, but I am very confident about this: Luke did not write the book of Acts to Theophilus to tell him how to do church. Acts is not a template for the church. Actually, we can get into trouble really fast when we start seeing this book as a ‘how-to-do-church’ manual. Certainly, we are going to find some over-arching attitudes and truths in this book that are absolutely applicable to any church at any time, but there isn’t a single place in the entire book that says anything close to, ‘And this is what is expected to be happening in all churches everywhere.’ No, Luke wrote down what he discovered through investigation had happened over a long period of time… for one particular reason: so Theophilus would see, and anyone else that ever heard or read his work would see as well, that God was very active in the early days of the development of his church, working to ensure that the message of good news of Jesus spread to everyone, everywhere throughout the whole of the world.
And we see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples during the last time he was with them. Let’s look at these together. (Acts 1 page ???). ‘After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”Acts 1:3-5. Jesus, in the midst of doing everything he could to give his disciples convincing proofs he was alive also had some specific things he wanted his disciples to do: and the first thing he wanted from them was that they stay in Jerusalem Now, let’s be clear, leaving Jerusalem would have been the best thing the disciples could have done. Jerusalem was home to the people who had killed Jesus and they weren’t opposed to killing his disciples. The logical thing for the disciples to do was to make the 3-day journey back to Galilee and simply melt back into their old lives. But Jesus said he had a gift for them and it would be arriving in a few days. Well, this ‘gift business’ got the disciples thinking. Verse 6 tells us, ‘Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ I can see their minds working. “He’s talking about the Kingdom of God… maybe now is the time that he is going to kick out the Romans and the evil Jewish religious leaders, take power and set up his earthly kingdom! Maybe the gift is that we’re all going to get important jobs in his new government!’ But Jesus put a stop to this immediately in verse 7. ‘He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts1:7-8). In fact, Jesus said elsewhere that he didn’t even know the times or the dates these things would happen. But what WAS important was this: The disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit came on them.” Power the Greek word is dunamis; what this word means is this: to have within you the potential of doing something that can bring about great change. Dunamis is about having the ability in you if you need it; it is always there when the time for big change presents itself. And the Holy Spirit was going to give them this potential! We have the English word dynamite that comes from dunimus. Dynamite has dunimus because within every stick of dynamite exist the possibility of causing great change. The possibility is always there even if it isn’t being used. My bet is that when Jesus said “you will receive power,” the disciple’s minds jumped to, “Power! Oh, boy! Have I got some things I’d like to do with that power!” But Jesus had told them what this power was going to be given to them to do: to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This word ‘witness’ in the Greek is martus. It was a word that was used during trials; a martus was a person who could give an eye witness account of an event. In 1st Century court cases the word of eye witnesses was paramount and 2 identical eye witness accounts settle a case! The disciples were going to be Jesus’ witnesses… they were to publically settle the case about Jesus by telling everyone the facts... and they could do this because they had been eye witnesses to what he’d done! And then Jesus went on to say they were to be his witnesses, but not just in Jerusalem, but also in Samaria and Judea and to the ends of the earth as well. What is interesting is that this list seems at first to be a list of places but it is also a list of people groups. Yes, Jerusalem was a local city but Samaria wasn’t an official location, it was the name given by the common people for the land where Samaritans lived. And when the disciples thought of Samaria their minds went right to the people there… the disgusting, misguided, different and often dangerous people that Jews knew Samaritans to be. Jesus said they’d be witnesses to them? Why? Well, if they’d been paying attention when they’d spent 3 days in Samaria after Jesus met that woman at the well, they’d have remember that every life mattered to Jesus… even Samaritans. And this phrase ‘the ends of the earth,’ was more than a way to talk about going someplace far away. The ‘ends of the earth’ was the phrase the Romans used to talk about the uncivilized, barbarian tribes that lived on the edges of the empire. And it was also a condescending phrase Jews used to refer to non-Jews: the ends of the earth. This phrase had more to do with people than places. And why would the disciples be called to be witnesses for Jesus to ‘the ends of the earth?’ Again, because every life matters; everyone has the right and the need to have someone tell them the truth about Jesus. But the next question is, ‘Why would they need power to be witnesses to Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea and the ends of the earth?’ Well the answer is actually very simple: Because everywhere they’d go someone would be out to get them: religious leaders, political leaders, you name it, someone would not be happy with their words of witness. Jesus had warned them about this when he said these words John 16: All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. John 16:1-4. And they also knew that ‘The Jewish leaders had already decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.’ John 9:22. The gift Jesus promised, the gift we’ll talk about next week, the Holy Spirit, would enable the disciples to stand up in the face of the same kind of adversity that had put Jesus on a cross… this gift would give them the strength to be witnesses, martus, for Jesus; and this gift would comfort them when things turned rough. It’s no wonder that our word martyr came straight out of the Greek and into English as a word that means ‘someone who has been killed for standing firmly in their faith; killed for witnessing… killed for telling the facts about Jesus. Jesus could not have made what he expected from of his disciples any clearer: they were to be his witnesses to everyone everywhere: Jew or Gentile; man or woman; slave or free. Every life mattered. Everyone needed to hear the Good news of the facts about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection… and he wasn’t going to leave them alone; he was going to give them the power to do just what he’d commanded.
Then we read that Jesus showed them why he needed them to be his witnesses: he was leaving… leaving them for a good while. Verses 1:9 says, ‘After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Can you imagine this? And so back to Jerusalem they go. Verse 12. Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
This is what happened and while we are not being asked to stay in Jerusalem it is important for those of us who call ourselves disciples to take stock of what in what happened is essential for us today. I have a couple of suggestions. First, it’s clear that Jesus intended for his followers no matter when they live, to be witnesses for him. Now, I know that that term comes with a lot of baggage for some of you… it does for me. When I think of witnessing I think of being in Middle School and being dropped off at the mall and told to start conversations with strangers hoping to work things around to asking them where they thought they’d go if they were to die tonight. This was called ‘witnessing.’ But being a witness is really about telling people the facts as I’ve experienced them to be… I’m a witness when I tell someone of my experience of who Jesus is, what I’ve seen him do and what kind of a man I’ve found him to be. These are the facts that I am an eye witness to. Something I’ve found over the years is that my story of having met Jesus is far more powerful and engaging than my trying to convince people they need something. I’ve also found that a lot of people want what I have when I simply tell them the facts… the facts about what I’ve witnessed to be true about Jesus. And something else I noticed in this passage, the disciple did what they were told to do even though it surely went against everything they thought was wise: they obeyed; they did not to leave Jerusalem; they stayed and waited… and prayed. And while they waited they did something really important: they prayed. This is huge. So often I want to get moving and knock down the gates of hell… I want action… and I believe with all of my heart that God does lead me and empower me, but and sometimes I need to settle down and give him the chance to do his work first. Sometimes I do my best serving of our Lord by standing and waiting and praying. The disciples were right on the cusp of plenty of action and we’ll see this action in the weeks to come. But right now, when things were unclear they simply obeyed; they stayed and waited and prayed. And I think we can learn from their obedience.
One last aside; I find it interesting that Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea and the ends of the earth have now come to us. The world is now present in central Indiana. And Jesus left his church with a mission… a mission to be witnesses to all of the various sorts of people these places represent… and now we can do just that right in our own backyard. We have almost no excuse for not fulfilling his command to us to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea and the ends of the earth. And at least for me I know that how I respond to this microcosm of the world at our doorstep will prove whether I truly believe that every life matters.
I’m sure that when Theophilus first received the scroll with the book of Acts written on it and he rolled open the first bit and he read that Jesus had commanded his disciples to witness to the ends of the earth, Theophilus thought something like this, “Boy, am I every thankful that they obeyed Jesus, because I am an ‘end of the earth’ to a lot of people and where would I be if they’d not listened and obeyed and brought me the good news of Jesus’ love?” And we can still be a part of creating this kind of thanksgiving in others by obeying the command to tell the world the facts... the facts that Jesus came from his father’s throne with a purpose: to live and die and rise again from the grave to give everlasting life to everyone that believes in his name. Again, every life matters to God and Jesus is the proof. Those are the facts and we, the church, the followers of Jesus are called to be witnesses to this truth to everyone, everywhere.