The account of the life of Jesus undertaken by the first-century doctor-biographer Luke has its parallel in the continuing history of Jesus’ early followers. Luke wrote not only the extensive Gospel that carries his name but also the second-longest book in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles.
This sequel begins with mention of the previous account, indicating that the history now continues, and is addressed to a man named Theophilus. Luke had written his Gospel to the same person, whose name means “lover of God.” This is either a general term indicating later followers of Jesus, or the name of a specific convert and perhaps the author’s benefactor. Luke acknowledged that others who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” had produced similar accounts. But, he says, “it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account … that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3–4).
It seems the second part of the history had no title but was simply treated as a continuation of Luke’s earlier account. The first record of it having a name comes around the middle of the second century, when the Greek word Praxeis (Acts) was applied to it. Only later was this expanded to Praxeis Apostolon (Acts of the Apostles). The Greeks, whose language was the lingua franca of the Roman world, used praxeis to describe the achievements of leading figures.
If the book’s first title was simply Acts, whose acts was Luke talking about? From the name by which we now know it, you might think the account celebrates only the apostles’ achievements. Some have gone as far as to say that the focus is really on the accomplishments of only Peter and Paul. But as we will see, many other individuals achieved a great deal.
Asking the question “Whose acts?” allows us to focus on the central point that Luke is making—that men and women empowered by God accomplish more than they could ever imagine. Thus in reality, it is God’s acts through human beings that are demonstrated throughout the book. Because it is about people and not primarily a statement of beliefs, the book is a rich tapestry of human endeavor in the fascinating multicultural world of the first-century Roman Empire. Here we see belief in action, faith in practice. Luke speaks about the followers of Jesus as people who practice “the Way.” They are not known as Christians but as followers of the way of life that Jesus represented. In this series, we can expect to find practical examples to guide us if we want to emulate those first followers.
The Power to Achieve
Acts begins with Luke’s recounting of the essentials of Jesus’ last 40 days on earth (Acts 1:1–9). Christ had proven His resurrection from the dead by making several appearances to His disciples, giving them commands, and teaching them about the kingdom of God to come. Because Jesus had overcome a gruesome death perpetrated by the Romans, the disciples had understandably hoped that God’s rule would be established immediately, ridding them of their oppressive pagan overlords. But Jesus told them that their attention had to be on the job at hand, not on the timing of the coming of God’s kingdom. They were to wait in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit from God the Father would be given to them. That spirit would empower them to accomplish great things around the world in service to Jesus, who would soon return to His Father. His disappearance from the earth by ascension from the Mount of Olives surely took them by surprise, despite the forewarning He had given them on the evening before His death (John 14:25–29; 16:16). But they were reassured by angelic beings that Jesus would return one day just as He had departed (Acts 1:10–11).
With these encouraging words in their ears, the disciples went back into Jerusalem. Together with Jesus’ mother, Mary; His brothers; and a number of women, they waited in a prayerful frame of mind as instructed. During their wait, at Peter’s suggestion, they chose a replacement for Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot, now dead by his own hand. Over the previous three years, various other men had become followers of Jesus. Some had recently witnessed Him as a resurrected being. Choosing two, the remaining eleven disciples asked for God’s direction, and by the drawing of lots, Matthias was selected (Acts 1:12–26).
On the Hebrew holy day Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), about 10 days after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples’ wait was rewarded. Suddenly, in the early morning, the house in which they were gathered was shaken as if by a great rushing wind, and what looked like a tongue of fire rested above each one’s head. Luke records that at that moment they were filled with the Holy Spirit and given the temporary ability to speak in other intelligible languages (Acts 2:1–4).
Visitors to Jerusalem
The Feast of Weeks, observed 50 days after the Passover season, was also known as Pentecost (meaning “count 50” in the language of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures of that time). The holy day brought to Jerusalem many Jews and converts to Judaism from a wide geographic area. Luke mentions visitors from 15 different locations, from Parthia and Arabia to North Africa and Rome. When some of them heard the sound of the great wind, they gathered outside the house, wondering what was happening. They were even more surprised and perplexed when they heard many languages being spoken by the disciples. Each group was hearing in their own language what the apostles were explaining about God’s great works. Some could only think that the speakers were drunk (Acts 2:5–13).
The audience that day was a microcosm of those to be reached by the good news that the apostle Peter was about to deliver. That the children of Israel, and in particular that branch known as Jews, would no longer be solely designated the people of God had been foreordained. The prophets of old had spoken of God as the God of the gentile peoples—strangers to the children of Israel. Jesus’ birth had been announced as bringing great joy “to all people” (Luke 2:10, emphasis added throughout). In his Gospel, Luke had given the account of the infant’s blessing by Simeon. The man had referred to the baby as “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (see Luke 2:32 and Isaiah 42:6). Later, as an adult, Jesus had been recognized by Samaritans (who were much despised by Jews) as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). He had taught principally in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15), where the effect of East-West trade was felt as nations mingled and the cross-fertilization of ideas and cultures occurred. Just before His ascension, Jesus had commissioned the disciples to be witnesses to Him “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; see also Matthew 28:19). And now on Pentecost, adherents to Judaism from many gentile lands, including Arabs (Acts 2:11), had been the first to hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit that day.
And yet as we will see, not all early followers of Jesus understood that God was now opening the way for all humanity to come to know Him.
Peter began his explanation by denying that he and his colleagues had had too much to drink—it was but nine in the morning. Rather, he said, an ancient Hebrew prophecy was being fulfilled. The ninth-century B.C.E. prophet Joel had written of a day when God would “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh.” It would be the beginning of the final era of human history before the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth (see Acts 2:17–21 and Joel 2:28–32). Peter said that the miraculous speaking in other languages was evidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit to humanity. He went on to explain in the boldest terms that the well-known miracle worker, Jesus of Nazareth, recently crucified by the Romans at the insistence of Jerusalem’s Jewish religious leadership, was now alive by resurrection.
Perhaps acknowledging the Jewish tradition that King David had died on the Feast of Weeks a thousand years earlier, Peter reminded them that the monarch’s tomb was there in Jerusalem for all to see. But Jesus, the son of David and the Messiah to come, was alive from the dead, as the king himself had prophesied (Acts 2:22–32 and Psalm 16:8–11). Further, David’s remains were still in his tomb; he was not in heaven. On the other hand, Jesus, whom they had crucified, is now there and has sent the Holy Spirit from the Father.
The audience was stung by the realization that they were complicit in the death of an innocent man, a man who had paid the ultimate penalty for their individual sins. They asked the apostles what they could do to make amends. Peter instructed them to be baptized by immersion in water as a token of their willingness to be washed clean of sin of all kinds, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them live according to God’s way (Acts 2:38). The same path would be open from that time on to all those whom God would call to an understanding of personal sin and the price that Jesus had paid for all humanity.
The New Testament Church Flourishes
Because of God’s calling, about three thousand people were baptized by immersion in water that day and joined with the apostles and other followers of Jesus. A new dynamism surged through the whole group, and as Luke says, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine [i.e., teaching] and fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Miracles continued to be performed; people shared their goods so that none was in need. There was energy and conviction. The disciples were of one mind as they went about their daily lives, in the temple and visiting each other in their homes. The Church began to flourish.
It was at the temple that the young Church met its first challenge. The apostles Peter and John had gone there at the hour of prayer, three o’clock in the afternoon, and a congenitally lame man who regularly begged at one of the gates was there as usual. He asked Peter and John for money. Peter said, “Look at us… . Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (Acts 3:4, 6). Peter lifted him by the right hand and the man’s feet and ankles were strengthened. He immediately leapt up and was able to walk. He caused a great stir among the people when he went into the temple and was recognized as the man who had been lame for more than 40 years.
The crowd’s amazement provided Peter with the opportunity to explain what had happened and why. He repeated some of his Pentecost message, saying that they were ignorantly complicit in the death of Jesus, and yet it was through faith in the resurrected Jesus’ name that the lame man could now walk. What they needed was to change their way of living and be baptized, so that the penalty of their sins could be blotted out. He told them that Jesus Christ would return to the earth when the prophesied “times of restoration” would be initiated. By that he meant the era when the kingdom of God will come to the earth and human rule will be replaced by godly rule. He reminded them that Moses had prophesied of the time when a great Prophet would come. That man, he said, was Jesus of Nazareth. Just as surely as His death had been prophesied and had happened, so His promised return would happen. Both events were to be understood as a blessing for all humanity (Acts 3:12–26).
The apostles were acting on what they believed, but when the priests and the Sadducees heard them speak about Jesus and resurrection from the dead, they became upset. By religious party affiliation, the priests were mostly Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection from the dead. Understandably, the group feared the apostles’ influence over the people. Accompanied by the captain of the temple guard, they arrested Peter and John and imprisoned them till the next day, when they would be questioned by the Jewish authorities. As for the people who had heard and responded to Peter and John, Luke says the number of men alone reached five thousand, either in total in Jerusalem or specifically because of Peter’s speech. This was significant growth.
Called Into Question
When the high priest, his family and other leaders came together the following day as the Sanhedrin, or religious council, they asked the apostles by what power or in whose name they had healed the lame man. Peter boldly told the truth and reminded the same religious leaders who had sent Jesus to His death that it was because of His resurrection and faith in His name that the man was now able to walk. He also emphasized that there is no other name by which men may come to God and be saved (Acts 4:12).
Knowing they were trapped by the public’s knowledge of the evident miracle, the Sanhedrin conferred and decided to curb the apostles by threatening them and forbidding them to speak in Jesus’ name again. Peter and John stood their ground, insisting that they had to bear witness to what they knew to be true.
Allowed to go, they returned to their colleagues and together prayed that God would give them more boldness to speak the truth of God and to perform similar miracles. Again their meeting place was shaken and the Holy Spirit empowered them to be united in the work at hand, sharing their possessions readily. One man who freely donated the proceeds of a land sale was a Jewish Cypriot named Barnabas. Luke introduces us to this man as the “Son of Encouragement.” He was to play an important role in the spreading of the message beyond the land of the Jews.
Greed, Lies, Death and Healing
Barnabas’s example of generosity is contrasted by Luke to that of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who had also decided to sell property and had pledged all the proceeds as an offering to the Church, yet had then held back part of the money. The result, once Peter had met with them separately, was their immediate collapse and death. It was a powerful warning to the Church not to renege on commitments to God (Acts 5:1–11).
At the same time, the apostles’ reputation for miracles was growing, so much that the physically and mentally ill were brought from miles around Jerusalem. This did not escape the attention of the high priest and his Sadducean party. Soon Peter and the apostles were back in prison, only to escape by angelic intervention during the night. By morning, unknown to the religious authorities, they were back in the temple obeying God’s order to speak out boldly “all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). Again, we see that it is a way of life, a practical path that is being taught.
When the officers came to the prison to bring the apostles before the high priest, they were astonished to find their cell empty, though the guarded door was still locked. Someone came with the news that the freed men were in the temple teaching once more. Now they brought the apostles back to the council without violence for fear of the people. Questioned about their disobedience to the earlier ruling not to teach about Jesus and the rulers’ complicity, the apostles responded even more directly that God was the one they would heed, not the murderers of Jesus. Peter and the other apostles answered, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). It is a vital principle, based in practical obedience to God when the other choice is to follow human rulings that contradict God’s own commands.
The council was furious and began to devise ways to kill the apostles. It was then that the wisdom of one council member, a respected Pharisee and teacher of the law named Gamaliel, prevailed. He counseled that if the apostles were of God, then it would be foolish to oppose them. But if they were indeed merely men without God’s backing, then they would fail anyway. Just as previous troublemakers such as Theudas and Judas of Galilee had come to nothing after they had started popular new movements, so waiting out these men was wise. The council agreed and, having beaten the apostles and again prohibited their speaking in Jesus’ name, freed them once more (Acts 5:33–42).
As the Church continued to develop, certain practical challenges occurred within. One concerned what appears to have been a case of discrimination against widows who were Greek-speaking. It seems that the provision of funds or daily food among the followers in Jerusalem was uneven, with Hebrew-speaking widows receiving preferential treatment. The dispute needed the apostles’ attention. Their decision was not to resolve the matter themselves but rather to have the congregation bring forward the names of seven respected men whom the apostles could appoint to take care of such physical organizational matters.
Chosen for what was later to become the role of deacon—a capable local leader—were seven men known by reputation to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Significantly, all had Greek names, and the last listed was non-Jewish, a convert to Judaism from Antioch in Syria. They were Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas. The apostles wisely agreed that men with these characteristics would be least likely to discriminate against any of the widows. Once they prayed and laid hands upon the men, conferring authority to do the work at hand, the Church in Jerusalem no longer experienced the same problem and began to grow in numbers again. Even some members of the priesthood joined with them (Acts 6:1–7).
Two of the seven men named, Stephen and Philip, will become more familiar to us as we continue next issue with Part Two of The Apostles, “Beyond Jerusalem.”