It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.
The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.
The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.
One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.
Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.
But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.
Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –