In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:1–3)
I am glad that God puts it in the hearts of some doctors to do more than medicine. Every doctor I know in this church has dreams bigger than mending bodies and making bucks. I thank God for that. But the doctor I am most thankful for in all the world is the doctor called Luke. In Colossians 4:14, Paul calls him “the beloved physician.” We meet him for the first time in Troas where he joins Paul and Silas and Timothy on the second missionary journey (Acts 16:10, note the “we”). He may have been converted there and joined the missionary team as a kind of staff doctor.
But oh, how much more than a doctor he became! He traveled with Paul for years and went with him finally to Rome where Paul died. I find one of Paul’s most moving sentences in his last letter (2 Timothy 4:11) during his final imprisonment in Rome. He says simply, “Luke alone is with me.”
All these years in all these travels, including two years in Palestine, Luke is taking notes about the works and words of Jesus and the progress of the church. Finally, God moves him to write a two-volume work that makes up more of the New Testament than what any other New Testament writer wrote, including the apostle Paul.
Luke’s Aim in Writing
He wrote the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. And his immediate purpose in writing them was to help a man named Theophilus see the truth about what Jesus did and taught and how the church spread throughout the Roman world. It may help to see this first-hand. In Luke 1:3–4, he writes:
It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
Then in Acts 1:1 Luke refers back to the gospel and says:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.
Theophilus is probably some kind of Roman official because of the title “most excellent” which Luke uses only for Roman officials like Felix (Acts 23:26) and Festus (Acts 26:25), the governors of Judea. Theophilus had some knowledge of Jesus and the church, but it was not clear and certain and complete. Luke’s aim was to give him a faithful account of what Jesus did and said and then of the progress of the church in the world.
This morning I want to begin a series of messages on the second volume of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles. And I think if I just dive right in, you’ll see why this is so relevant for us today. So let’s focus this morning only on the first three verses.
Jesus’s Deeds and Teaching: The Beginning
Acts 1:1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up.”
The key word for understanding the relevance of the book of Acts is the word “began.” Luke says, “In the first book — in the gospel — I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach until his ascension into heaven after his resurrection.” The gospel of Luke ends (in Luke 24:51–53) with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. And Luke says that the story he told, ending with the ascension of Jesus into heaven, was the beginning of the teaching ministry of Jesus. It was the beginning of the deeds of Jesus.
The Finality of Jesus’s Work
Now I don’t want to minimize the finality — the once-for-allness — of the saving work of Jesus on the cross and in his resurrection. Hebrews 10:12 says, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” When Jesus cried, “It is finished,” the debt was paid, the sins were covered, the wrath was removed and Satan was mortally wounded. I don’t want to minimize the glorious once-for-allness of that in any way.
Only the Beginning
But I do want to stress what Luke says here — that what Jesus did on the earth in his tough, compassionate, loving, healing deeds and what he said on the earth in his truthful, authoritative, convicting, comforting teaching was only the beginning of his doing and his teaching. This is absolutely crucial for understanding the purpose of the book of Acts and who we are as a church and what this age is all about. Because the clear implication is that now — now that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father — he is not finished. He is not done with his work and with his teaching. He is not dead and he is not absent. He is alive and he is present. He is doing and he is teaching.
“The book of Acts is not just the acts of the apostles; it is the acts of the risen, living, enthroned Jesus.”
The incarnation of the Son of God into human flesh, the once-for-all sacrifice of himself for sin on the cross, the mighty resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand is just the beginning of what Jesus came to do and to teach. And the rest of what he came to do, he does now in this age until the time appointed by the Father for the consummation of all things. That is the point of the book of Acts and that is why we exist as a church and that is what this age is all about. The book of Acts is not just the acts of the apostles; it is the acts of the risen, living, enthroned Jesus. He said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This is Luke’s point. Jesus began his doing and teaching until he was taken up to heaven. Now he goes on completing his doing and teaching — he goes on building his church just like he said he would.
Illustrated in Paul’s Ministry
Let me illustrate this from Paul’s ministry. Paul is one of the main human heroes of the book of Acts. Half the book could be called the Acts of Paul. But listen to what was really happening in the ministry of Paul, from Romans 15:18–19:
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has worked through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whatever Paul accomplished for the kingdom, it was Jesus’s doing and teaching. Note the same pair of words: Christ worked through me “by word and deed.” Jesus is speaking and acting. He is alive, and he is building his church. That is what the book of Acts is about. And that is why it is so relevant for us today. Jesus is still alive. He will always be alive! He is still speaking and working. He is building his church, wherever people come under the authority of his name and receive his forgiveness for sins and trust his power. That is what we long to see happen more and more in this city and among all the unreached peoples of the world.
Living Instruments of Jesus
So we turn now to verses Acts 1:2–3 and ask this question: What does Jesus give to people so that they become his fellow workers and fellow speakers in building his church in the world until he comes? Or: What do people need in order to be the instruments of the living Jesus today? There are three things mentioned in verses 2 and 3 and a fourth thing mentioned in verses 4–5, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am going to save that for next week and deal only with the three things in verses 2–3 today.
What did Jesus give to the apostles so that they could be his instruments as he moved through the Roman world spreading his reign? And how much of this might apply to us?
A Commission or Command Through the Holy Spirit
First, he gave them a commission or a command. Verse 2: “[I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach] until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
“It was through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that Jesus spoke, and the apostles received, the word of commission.”
To be the instrument of Jesus as he works and speaks in the world, the apostles needed a command, or commission, or an authorization that came with the authentication of the Holy Spirit. When Luke says that he gave them command through the Holy Spirit, it might mean simply that Jesus was prompted by the Holy Spirit to give the Great Commission to preach (Acts 10:42; Luke 24:47) and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). But I think Luke means for this to have relevance for the way the apostles themselves received the command, not just the way Jesus thought of it.
In John 20:21–22, there is one description of a commission that Jesus gave the apostles after his resurrection. Notice the role of the Holy Spirit here:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” [There’s the commissioning.] And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Doesn’t that sound like a situation which Luke might describe as giving commandment through the Holy Spirit? Some people say this is a kind of acted-out parable of what would happen at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the apostles (Acts 2:4). But the more I think about the freedom and variety of the work of the Holy Spirit, the less I feel constrained to see this as a parabolic action. Why can we not simply say that when Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” there was a real ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the apostles for that moment and that situation and for the understanding and appropriation and processing of that commission?
That is what I suggest Luke means when he says that Jesus gave them a commandment through the Holy Spirit. It was through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that he spoke, and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that they received, the word of commission. The Spirit helped them in those days before Pentecost to understand the command (Luke 24:45) and to accept the command and to be glad with the command (Luke 24:52). And this in no way contradicts that on the day of Pentecost something more happened, something deeply empowering for the fulfillment of the commission that Jesus had given them through the Holy Spirit. We will talk about that next week (Acts 1:4–5).
So to be the instrument of Jesus as he works and speaks in the world, the first thing the apostles needed was a commission that came with the authentication of the Holy Spirit. That’s the point of verse 2.
Verification That Jesus Is Alive and Triumphant
The second thing they needed from Jesus was verification — verification that he is alive and triumphant over death. Verse 3: “To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days.”
You can’t be an authentic instrument in the hands of a living Christ, if you do not think he is alive. Until the apostles were profoundly persuaded that Jesus had broken the power of death and that he was alive with indestructible life, and therefore could never be defeated and that his cause was unstoppable — until then, the apostles were ready to go back to fishing for a living. But for forty days Jesus appeared to them again and again. And Luke 24:39–40, 42–43, tell us the sorts of things he said and did:
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” . . . And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
So when forty days of appearances and conversations and meals were past, the apostles were beyond doubt. They had many infallible proofs and at the level of persuasion they were ready for their ministry. But they needed something more.
Instruction About the Kingdom of God
The last thing mentioned in verse 3 is that they needed instruction. They needed a Spirit-authenticating commission; they needed verification of Jesus’s life and power after his death; and they needed more instruction about the kingdom of God. You see this at the end of verse 3: “appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.”
The apostles had been so slow of heart to understand and believe during the ministry of Jesus on the earth. Now they needed a crash course in post-resurrection kingdom theology. What were the promises of the Old Testament really all about (Luke 24:25–27, 45)? In what sense had the kingdom really come in the ministry of Jesus? How would the kingdom show itself now in the life and ministry of the church?
What We Need
“We need a deep mind-persuading, heart-gripping verification that Jesus is alive and triumphant over all his enemies, and that his cause is unstoppable.”
Now, I affirm that we do not stand in the place of the apostles. They were unique in the history of redemption. They had unique face-to-face contact with the living Christ (Acts 10:41)! They had unique inspiration and authority as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). But that doesn’t mean we don’t need much of what they had. We do — especially if we are going to be instruments in the hands of the living Jesus who today continues working and teaching to build his church.
We need a Spirit-authenticated commission on our lives from the living Christ. We need a deep mind-persuading, heart-gripping verification that Jesus is alive and triumphant over all his enemies, and that his cause is unstoppable. And we need to understand the kingdom of God and how it came, and how it is now coming, and how it will come.
And my prayer is that in this series of messages on the book of Acts, Jesus himself will speak and act and give us just what we need to be the instruments of his power in the world.