November 1, 2020
Jason Meyer (Downtown Campus) | 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, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.—Acts 1:1–2
I am going to start this sermon by telling you how I am going to end this sermon. I will ask two groups of people to stand up: (1) current global partners (i.e., those who have been sent by us) and (2) those in the Nurture Program (i.e., those who are preparing to be sent by us). In asking you to stand, I will be calling you to recommit to the call of Jesus upon your life for global missions.
Then, I will turn my attention to a third group of people. I will ask this third group of people to do more than simply stand up, but to come up and stand here at the front. Who is this third group? I know that God is going to work through his word and some of you are going to have a fresh sense of stirring in your heart for global missions. There will be no guilt trips. There will be no gimmicks. We have a text and we are going to ask God to speak to us and move in us so that we have the Christ-exalting clarity to know what to do and the Christ-exalting courage to do it.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.
The first book is a reference to the Gospel of Luke. Luke mentions Theophilus in the Gospel of Luke in chapter 1, verses 3–4.
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 have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
We will have a whole sermon next week on who Theophilus was and why it matters in terms of what Luke is doing in the book of Acts.
At this point in the sermon, I want to zero in on one amazing little word because it opens up the connection between Luke and Acts. It is the wonderful word, began.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.
The word began implies a process that has a beginning and a continuation. Jesus started to do something in the book of Luke, and now he is going to continue to do something in this book, the book of Acts. What was the book of Luke about? All that Jesus began to do and teach. How should we read the book of Acts?
In popular opinion, we hear that Luke is the story of Jesus and Acts is the story of the early church. When people hear the title “Acts,” they often spell out the title as the “Acts of the Apostles.” This title has some truth. We certainly see the ministry of the apostles on display: Peter, James, Paul, etc. But that title overemphasizes the human agency of the apostles and underemphasizes the divine agency of the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps people recognize that the apostles do these acts in the power of the Holy Spirit and so they say, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” But that title overlooks the human agency of the apostles.
Those titles are inadequate because they are incomplete. Luke does not make the connection between the book of Luke as the story of Jesus and the book of Acts as the story of the early church. Luke presents these two books as the Acts of Jesus himself. The explicit connection is between two stages of the ministry of the same Jesus (cf. John Stott, The Message of Acts, p. 32).
In other words, we read Luke as “What Jesus Began” and then Acts as “What Jesus Continued.”
So it is time now to dig a little deeper into this two-stage ministry of Jesus in Luke and Acts. What are the two stages and how does his ministry change in these two books? The two stages could be conceived of as two places. In Luke, Jesus came from heaven to earth. In Acts, he went from earth to heaven. Therefore, Luke is the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and Acts is the story of Jesus’ ministry from heaven.
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.
And there is a watershed moment in these two books. If I were to ask you what the watershed moment of history is, I wonder how you would answer. Would you say the death of Jesus? Would you say the resurrection of Jesus? I think I would have combined those and said, “the watershed moment of history is the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
But that is not what Luke says. Luke puts the focus on the ascension of Jesus. Look at the phrase again: “until the day when he was taken up.” This is the Ascension. There are clues for this point everywhere in Luke/Acts. Let me give you a couple. Look at Luke 9:51.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
We often think of Jesus going to Jerusalem and we think that the day of his death or the day of his resurrection is coming there. Luke tips his hand already at the start of the journey, by focusing on a specific day: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up.”
But let me be explicit when I say that there are clues everywhere in Luke/Acts for the significance of the Ascension. I do not merely mean individual verses or grammatical structures. I mean it is built into the very structure of Luke/Acts. Luke/Acts has a unified structure that features parallel pairs. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ birth is situated explicitly in the context of Roman rule. The rest of the book follows the movement of Jesus from Galilee of the Gentiles, to Judea/Samaria, and then finally to Jerusalem and the climax of the story with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Book of Acts starts with the Ascension and then traces the movement of the gospel of Jesus in parallel with Luke: Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, the Gentiles, and finally a focus on Paul’s trial before the Roman rulers and journey to Rome.
This structure is called a chiasm. You can see a visual of it below.
A Jesus’ Birth in the Context of World History/Roman Rule (Luke 1:1–4:13)
B Jesus in Galilee of the Gentiles (Luke 4:14–9:50)
C Jesus in Samaria and Judea (Luke 9:51–18:34)
D Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 18:35–23:56)
E Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Luke 24:1–53)
E’ Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:1–11)
D’ The Church in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12–7:60)
C’ The Church in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1–12:25)
B’ The Church in the Gentile World (Acts 13:1–20:38)
A’ Paul’s trial before the Roman rulers and journey to Rome (Acts 21:1–28:31)
But once again, I emphasize the fact that this is not merely a structural point. The structural point is bursting with theological significance. The flow of the book matches the flow of all of history. Everything in Luke builds to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Everything in Acts flows from Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
Can you see the stunning significance of this structure for Global Focus? Missionary endeavors do not spring from the hearts and minds of self-starters and initiative takers and strategic planners. All missionary endeavors flow from heaven’s throne. The High King of Heaven must be the focus of Global Focus.
Let’s tighten the screw a little bit more here as we look at our cultural moment. We all know that the election is on Tuesday. Everyone knows that it is important and it will have far-reaching consequences. I want to affirm what everyone instinctively feels: It is important.
But I also want to place it in its proper perspective in the Bible. We should talk about it like it is important, but not like it is essential. Here is what I mean. When you read Luke and Acts, you will never get the impression that the coming of the Kingdom and the spread of the gospel is directly dependent on earthly rulers or places of earthly power. It does not depend on who is the president, prime minister, czar, emperor, local dignitary, sultan, or tribal chieftain. You never get the impression that the real place of power is the emperor’s palace—certainly not the White House, or the House of Lords, or the Kremlin in Moscow. Jesus would be insulted if you are a Christian and you put too much stock in those places of power. The key question in Acts is not who is in Rome, but who is on the throne. The strategy of the early church under the commission of Jesus was never, “Let’s try to get the right ruler in power.” Why? Because the right ruler is in power. That is the very point of the ascension.
This point also sets Christianity apart from every other world religion, not just every other earthly ruler. I love what John Stott says about this dynamic. About the apostles, he says, “It is no exaggeration to say that they set Christianity apart from all other religions. These [other religions] regard their founder as having completed his ministry during his lifetime; Luke says Jesus only began his.” (John Stott, The Message of Acts, p. 34).
We have been talking especially at Global Focus about Muslim ministry with Afshin Ziafat. The difference between Muhammed and Jesus could not be clearer and more decisive here. Islam regards both Jesus and Muhammed as prophets of Allah. They think these prophets finished their ministry during their lifetime. But the Bible could not be clearer. Yes, Jesus taught that he was a prophet. But so much more than a prophet. What did he do? His words and his actions did not share the way to God like a plan of salvation—“Do these commands and these things and you will be saved.” He pointed to himself. He said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him. He did not give a way; he is the way. He did not give us commands to keep to be saved. He kept all the commands in our place so we could be saved.
That is why the focus in Acts is always on Jesus.
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved—Acts 4:12
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 commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
Jesus is the focus of all of these verses. The first book is what Jesus began. His ascension was the watershed. Now we have the third piece of the puzzle. Jesus was not taken up until after he had given instructions to his chosen apostles through the Holy Spirit.
This point is so clear in the original language—even in the word order: “Until the day when, having instructed his chosen apostles through the Holy Spirit, he was taken up.”
In other words, before ending his personal ministry on earth, he made explicit and deliberate provisions for his ministry on earth to continue through them.
How do we capture the cumulative sense of human and divine work with the right emphasis on the reign of Christ? The more accurate title even if it is slightly cumbersome is, “What Jesus continued to do and teach by his Spirit through his apostles.”
We will see the unique way he equipped his disciples as we continue to look through Acts—especially verses 3–5. Let’s take the two words that best summarize these disciples in verse 2: apostles and chosen.
The word apostle is used for the first time in Mark 6. Up until that point, these men were called his “disciples.” What changed?
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.—Mark 6:30
He had sent them out. They were his official ambassadors—they represented him and were given authority from him. So it says when the apostles returned, they told Jesus about what they had done and taught.
Luke also reminds us that the apostles are chosen. Jesus does the choosing and Jesus does the sending. But Jesus sends and equips by the Holy Spirit. He gives instructions by the Holy Spirit. And we learn later that he still chooses and sends through the Holy Spirit—even those who were not among the initial number of the apostles here in verse 2.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.—Acts 13:2–3
We are all in Acts 13 right now. We are in the midst of worship. We have open hearts before the Lord. We joyfully acknowledge his Lordship over us. And we acknowledge the gravity of this moment. A.T. Pierson says it well:
Church of Christ! The records of these acts of the Holy Ghost have never reached completeness. This is the one book which has no proper close, because it waits for new chapters to be added so fast and so far as the people of God shall reinstate the blessed Spirit in his holy seat of control (A.T. Pierson, Acts, , pp. 141–142).
I would only correct this slightly. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Jesus is the one reigning from heaven. He is Lord. Jesus the Lord has given us his Spirit and he continues to choose his disciples and command them to go. New chapters are added under his Lordship. How are you to be one of those chapters? Submit to his call now.
You are part of the story as those chapters are added. In terms of the call to go to new places, you are all supposed to be goers or senders (or we are disobedient and should repent).
You are part of God’s plan, and we are asking you to pray about what part you are to play in that plan. We are not competing for parts in a play or saying that some paths are second class or sub-par. This is God’s plan. He has planned for some of you to go and for most of you to stay. There is no first class or second class—there is only obedient or disobedient.
Some of you will hear about the need of the nations right now—unengaged and unreached people groups—and God will confirm his plan for you, that the works prepared for you in advance will involve another people group.
It will absolutely break your heart to hear that unengaged people groups are the most lost, the most out-of-reach of salvation, because they have the least access to knowing the Name of Jesus. They have an equal need for salvation along with everyone else, but they do not have equal access to the salvation—the Name of the Savior. They have zero chance to know the Name because they have zero access to the Name.
The tragedy intensifies at this point because the people who know the name, in fact the people that are called by his name (Christians), are not telling them. No, even worse—they are not even targeting them so that they can eventually tell them.
Put this tragedy into specific perspective in terms of missionary workforce. One would think (hope) that the most lost places on earth would be the largest targets for missionaries. But 90% of all foreign missionaries work among already-reached people groups (Winter and Koch, Perspectives, p. 543). The places that need workers most are receiving the fewest.
So here is the call. Right now we are asking the Lord to help you discern if the path that he has laid out for you will mean going to the nations. Do not hear the call and look to yourself. It would be wrong to hear the call and look at yourself and say, “I got this.” You do not. You have to be called: “the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). And don’t hear the call of the Holy Spirit and say, “No way—I could never do it, I am not equipped.” You are not the point. He does not call the equipped; he equips the called. Self-reliance or self-doubt are both ditches right now. I call you to get your eyes off of yourself and listen for the voice of King Jesus through his Holy Spirit.
I am going to call three groups forward: (1) current global partners (already sent), (2) those currently in the Nurture Program (preparing to be sent), and (3) those feeling a fresh stirring to pray about being sent. The good news is that you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. We have many people here who believe that part of the good works God has ordained for them is helping others discern their sense of calling to missions!
Main Point: The Message of Acts is What Jesus continued to do and teach by his Spirit through his apostles
Pray for a grace to discern Jesus’ call upon your life through the Holy Spirit.