Good morning. ‘Seven weeks that changed the world’ - that’s our current series. We’re tracking Christian history from Jesus’ resurrection to the birth of his church. And today we have come to the start of the book of Acts. And Acts is a book like no other, in that it vividly portrays this seismic change for the world. At the start there’s no church, there are no Holy Spirit empowered disciples, they have no courage, no authority, no direction, no purpose. But, by the end this group of ordinary men and women have been so utterly transformed and empowered that the world will never be the same again. They have been emboldened with a God-given power to teach and proclaim the good news about Jesus to anyone who will listen. The new church spans the whole Roman Empire – from Jerusalem to Rome!
We’re not going to the end of Acts in this series, we’re just going to spend some time in the first couple of chapters, but right here at the start of Acts, Luke (the writer) makes crystal clear how this change will take place. God’s plan is that his gospel is proclaimed all over the world by his Holy Spirit empowered people. That’s how the change took place then. And it’s how it takes place now. God’s plan is that his gospel is proclaimed all over the world by his Holy Spirit empowered people. Three headings this morning. Firstly then:
1. The end of the beginning
Take a look at Acts 1.1:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…
So, let’s just get our bearings. We really do need to understand that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are a two-part work by Doctor Luke. Dr. Luke was a friend and associate of the Apostle Paul, and his two-volume work is addressed to this chap called Theophilus with the expressed intention, don’t forget, to write an orderly account so that we may have certainty concerning the things [we] have been taught. That’s Luke 1 (we’ve covered it before). And here in Acts 1.1, Luke begins by linking back to his gospel account. In effect he says “that was Part 1! And Part 1 was all about what Jesus began to do and teach.” It is, if you like, the end of the beginning. But the implication here is very much that Jesus is in both parts. So often we think “Gospels: Jesus. Acts: the Church”, but from the outset what Luke says is “Gospels: what Jesus began to do. Acts: what Jesus continued to do.” Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus is still very much alive and at work (Acts 1.1-2):
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…
Hang on! Jesus was taken up to heaven. We saw that last week. The disciples worshipped and praised him as he went. How is he going to continue this work if he’s in heaven? Keep reading (Acts 1.2):
until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
Answer: Jesus will continue his work through his people, in the Holy Spirit’s power. And what is his work? It is the growth of the Kingdom of God by a Risen King - one who is risen from the dead and very much alive. Take a look at Acts 1.3:
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
I don’t know about you guys, but I have been so encouraged by spending time looking again at the proof that Jesus rose from the dead; the empty tomb discovered by the women, the appearance on the road to Emmaus and the burning hearts of the disciples, the sudden appearance in the disciple’s midst as they touched the wounds of his suffering, the eating of the fish, the continued teaching. Yes, we can have confidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Sin conquered, death defeated, kingdom established. It is the end of the beginning, but there is still work still to do! And for that work, followers of Jesus need an essential equipping. Our second main heading this morning:
2. An essential equipping
Take a look at Acts 1.4-5:
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
What does Jesus mean by this? Clearly Jesus had spoken with his disciples about the Father’s promise. Perhaps he had mentioned the way God had promised to work in a new way by his Spirit in Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Perhaps Jesus had referred to Joel 2.28 with his disciples, in which God says it shall come to pass…that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and that the Lord would call his remnant in Jerusalem. Whatever the specifics of that, Jesus makes very clear that the words of John the Baptist are about to be fulfilled. In other words, God’s plan is progressing. That is what we are supposed to see here. God’s promise is about to be fulfilled. And the place of Jesus’ rejection (Jerusalem), the place that had so horrifically seen the end of the beginning (Jesus on the cross, the disciples scattered, the dream in tatters), was about to witness the beginning of a new mission. “Don’t leave Jerusalem – this is where Phase 2 will begin! And for it to begin, you need my power!” That’s what Jesus is saying. Now, as we read God’s word, we need to be careful. It’s very easy to read this passage and Acts 1.8 which says:
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you
It’s very easy to read this, jump ahead to Acts 2 and the wind, fire and tongues and make the leap immediately to ourselves. “We’re Jesus’ followers, just like they were…we’ll receive the Holy Spirit, just the way they did…when we really become Christians and are sent on mission by God…and if some don’t it must mean they’re not really Jesus followers.” Be very careful. Just because Luke records the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that this is way it is for all Christians throughout all time. the first disciples were unique. Their time was unique – a crucial turning point in God’s story of salvation all of which needed to be appropriately signalled, not only for them, but for those, like us, who follow after.
Nevertheless, with that plea for caution noted, the point to make here is that all Christians are baptised in the Holy Spirit in the sense that the Lord has given himself to us all in the person of his Spirit. And with that essential, mind-boggling, equipping of God himself, we are supposed to take part in the new mission.This is my third and final point:
3. A new mission: witnesses for Jesus across the world
Of course, it’s not new from God’s perspective. This was his plan all along. From before the foundation of the world. But from the perspective of human history – it was new. From the perspective of the disciples, their whole frame of reference was being radically redefined. Something significant had changed. Take a look at Acts 1.6:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Do you see what they were expecting? “Okay we get it Lord, we were wrong. You came on a donkey, not a warhorse. You were overthrown on that cross, we were expecting you to overthrow. But you’re alive! You’ve risen! Is now the time that you will restore Israel’s national independence?
Is now the time that you will empower an army to destroy those who don’t love you?” And still they are not quite there, bless them! And, if you or I were with them, neither would we be. Jesus is patient. He is gentle. A direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to their question wasn’t what they needed. How similar we can be, asking God things, expecting a yes or no answer in return. Very often it’s not what we need. And Jesus says, “Trust me. Relax. Calm down. God has got this. He is in control and nothing, but nothing, will stop God’s plan unfolding when and how he has intended it to.” And, in a way, that’s what he says to the disciples in Acts 1.7-8:
…“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But…[here’s what you do need to know, here’s the real answer to your question, you] will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and…[and here are your new orders, here is your new mission]…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Here then, is the mission for those first believers. Here is the mission for every believer that has followed since. We are called to something greater than our own dreams. We are called by someone greater than ourselves. He calls each one of us to get involved in his mission and play our part in expanding his Kingdom for the glory of his name. Mary, Peter, Paul, Lydia, Timothy…witnesses for the risen King in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Jim Elliott…witnesses for the Risen King to the ends of the earth! What about us? When we become Christians, the sooner we realise we have a new & higher purpose, the better.
What I mean is that when we become Christians, our whole frame of reference changes. We are no longer making decisions based primarily on what we want (be it for ourselves or for those closest to us). We are no longer living and working for our own temporary comfort and ease. We have a much greater and way more meaningful task to do as witnesses for the Lord Jesus. And while eventually that may take you to the ends of the earth, it begins right now in your own Jerusalem. In other words, right where the Lord has placed you right now.
He wants you to be his witness in the office, in your family, with your school mates, in that sports team, with your patients, with your clients. And don’t say “you’re not allowed”. Don’t say, “it’s too hard”. Acts 1.8 doesn’t say “you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth if it’s easy and you have permission!” It’s a dying world out ‘there’ folks. People are on a trajectory to hell. And we have been commissioned by the King of all Kings, the Lord of all Lords (the Risen King) to be his witnesses. As always, I’m trying to preach to myself as much as I am to you guys.
How are we going to respond?
The original Greek word for witnesses is ‘martyres’ from which it will come as no surprise we get our English word ‘martyr’. Of course, first century Greek writers wouldn’t have had the connotations we have with that word – for them it was a legal term, describing someone who testified in court about something they had seen or heard or experienced. So friends, that is the issue for us. Will we tell others about what we have witnessed and heard and experienced in our own lives? It’s a simple message this morning. If you have been a Christian for a while, take it as a reminder of your ultimate mission. If you’ve recently become one, this is what being a Christian is all about.
God’s plan is that his gospel is proclaimed all over the world by his people. And we need to take heart and draw courage from the truth that we are not left to get on with the task in our own strength. There is no way I could do that! I couldn’t stand before you here in my own strength. But just like those first followers of the Lord Jesus, we are equipped and empowered to do what needs to be done. Praise him for that!