Sermons

November 8, 2020

The Church and the Government

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

Outline

Introduction

  1. Who Is Theophilus? (Acts 1:1)
  2. Why It Matters (The Rest of Acts)

Conclusion: How the Church Turned the World Upside Down

Introduction

Last week we saw the main point of the whole book of Acts: “What King Jesus continued to do and teach by his Spirit through his apostles.”

The ascension is when the risen Christ takes his place of power on heaven’s throne. He is ruling and reigning now until everything is under his feet as his footstool. Everything in Luke moves toward the ascension and everything in Acts flows from it.

We also noted that Acts has no proper close. Jesus continues his reign, and he continues to build his church and add new chapters to his story. We saw him do it again last week. Twenty-one people came forward in the first service and 13 in the second service. We have 50 people signed up this afternoon for Missions in the Main Hall (3–5pm).

This week we come back to these first two verses again and we ask a question about Theophilus. Who is he, and why does that matter in terms of why Luke wrote Acts the way he did?

1) Who Is Theophilus? (Acts 1:1)

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:

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.—Luke 1:3–4

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to the identity of Theophilus. First, some people assume that he was not a real person. They say that his name literally means “lover of God.” Therefore, Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts for all of those who love God.

But the majority opinion is that Theophilus is a specific person. The biggest clue concerning his identity comes in Luke chapter 1. Luke calls him most excellent Theophilus (Luke 1:3). The reason this title is such a big clue is because we see it show up later in the book.

In Acts 24, the Roman governor, Felix, procurator of Judea, is addressed as “most excellent Felix” (Acts 23:26; 24:2).

In Acts 26, Paul is on trial before Festus, who replaced Felix. Festus was the governor or procurator of Judea from 59–61 A.D. Paul addresses Festus as “most excellent Festus” (Acts 26:25).

In other words, it appears that Theophilus was a high-ranking Roman official since he was addressed in a similar way to Roman officials like Felix and Festus. It was important for Roman officials to have an accurate understanding of Christianity. For example, it says that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (Acts 24:22). Roman officials needed this understanding to do their jobs. Others (especially Jews) would make accusations against Christians and these officials would have to make judgments on these cases.

The identity of Theophilus is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. We are even more concerned with the question of why his identity matters. Does Luke’s reference to Theophilus help us understand why Luke wrote the way that he did?

2) Why It Matters (The Rest of Acts)

The identity of Theophilus matters because Luke goes out of his way to write an orderly, accurate account so that Theophilus could have certainty concerning Christianity. I think the search for certainty is extremely relevant in our day where many people wonder whether what they hear is “fake news.” Is Christianity fraudulent? 

Luke is trying to dispel those concerns and question marks. He wants Theophilus to have certainty regarding what Christianity is. Luke clears the air of any suspicion that the good news of Christianity is fake news in at least four ways. I was greatly helped here by John Stott’s introduction to the book of Acts in his commentary.1

These four ways are like four lenses to help us see. Think of the difference between bifocals, trifocals, or multifocals. Bifocals have two prescriptions in one lens (near/far), while trifocals have three (far, intermediate, near). Multifocals have multiple points of focus in one lens for advanced vision. Think of this as multiple points of focus in one book for greater vision.

A) Luke as Historian

In this sense, the book of Acts is definitely history and Luke is a historian. In fact, professional historians and archaeologists have been some of the biggest defenders of the book of Acts. Archaeologist William Ramsay started his study of Acts wanting to disprove it as history and he ended up becoming a convinced believer.

A.N. Sherwin-White at Oxford University is a professional Graeco-Roman historian who looked thoroughly into the historicity of Acts. Here is his assessment:

The historical framework is exact. In terms of time and place the details are precise and correct. One walks the streets and marketplaces, the theatres and assemblies of first-century Ephesus or Thessalonica, Corinth or Philippi, with the author of Acts. The great men of the cities, the magistrates, the mob and the mob-leader are all there. … For Acts the confirmation of its historicity is overwhelming. ... Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted. 2

Remember how God’s providence was at work here. Luke could not do research by going to the library to learn about the early church. It was a living thing happening right then! Luke writes as such a great historian because he was a witness as he travelled with the apostle Paul. He writes with such exactness because he was there. And when Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem, what do you think Luke was doing? He was able to interview the witnesses. Most people believe that Luke can tell us not only what happened to Mary the mother of Jesus, but what she was thinking and feeling because he interviewed her. Behold the providence of God at work in Luke the historian.

B) Luke as Diplomat

Luke’s purpose in writing to Theophilus was much more than history because the history in Acts is so tellingly selective. It is selective in terms of both people and places. In the early part of Acts, we hear a lot about Peter, John, and James (the brother of the Lord), but nothing about the other apostles (except that James the brother of John was beheaded). In the later part of Acts, we really do not hear of the original apostles at all. The focus shifts to the apostle Paul and his traveling companions. 

And as a result, it is also very selective in terms of places. Luke describes the spread of the gospel to the north and west of Jerusalem, but we hear almost nothing of the spread of the gospel south and east of Jerusalem (except for one story about Philip and a eunuch from Ethiopia). And since the focus shifts to Paul about halfway through Acts, the Gentile mission in the Roman world gets most of the emphasis. Why?

Answer: Luke is more than a historian; he is also a Christian diplomat. Luke is concerned with the relationship between the church and the governing authorities. He goes out of his way to show that the state has nothing to fear from Christians. They are not seditious rabble-rousers. They are legally innocent and morally blameless, and they have a good effect on society.

He defends the reputation of Christianity with respect to the government in three main ways. First, he shows the winsome quality of Christianity. The centurion in Luke believed in Jesus and his servant was healed (Luke 7:9–10). Jesus exclaims that he has not seen such faith even in Israel. The centurion at the cross believed in Jesus and declared him to be innocent (Luke 23:47). The centurion Cornelius became a believer in Acts 10. And the proconsul of Cyprus, named Sergius Paulus, became a believer in Acts 13:12.

Second, Luke defends the reputation of Christianity by showing that when Christians were accused, the Roman authorities could find no guilt in Jesus or his apostles.

Consider the ministry of the apostle Paul. Paul was thrown into prison in Philippi. The Philippian jailer and his household became believers. Then the magistrates apologized to him that he was thrown into prison without a trial (Acts 16:39). In Corinth, the proconsul Gallio refused to render a verdict because Paul had done nothing unlawful in the Roman sense. It was a mere debate about interpretation of Jewish law (Acts 18:12–17). In Ephesus, the town clerk declared Paul and his friends to be innocent and warned that the crowds could be declared guilty of causing a riot without cause (Acts 19:40). After Paul was arrested, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa all failed to find any guilt in Paul. These three acquittals correspond to the three times that Pilate had declared Jesus innocent in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 23:4, 14, 22).

Third, the Roman authorities granted Christianity legal status as a lawful or licensed religion (religio licita). They deemed that Christianity was not a new religion, but a continuation or “sect” of Judaism. A new religion would need to be approved and licensed by the state. Judaism had enjoyed religious freedom under the Romans since the 2nd century B.C.

This is one of the reasons why Luke keeps emphasizing the “fulfillment” theme. Christianity is the fulfillment of all that was promised in Judaism and the Old Testament hope. The Christian community is the purest fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.

C) Luke as Witness to the Unity of the Church (Peacemaker)

Luke demonstrates that the early church overcame all of its early divisions to become a united church. When divisions arose over the injustice of Hebrew-speaking widows receiving more attention than Greek-speaking widows, the early church addressed the injustice and unity was achieved. When divisions arose over Jewish and Samaritan Christians, the church found that the gospel balm was able to heal the divide. When debates and potential divisions arose between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the early church met at the Jerusalem Council and unity was achieved once again. Peter, James, and Paul were in fundamental agreement about the gospel. They worked through every challenge to their fundamental unity in Christ and peace and harmony were restored again and again in the face of every fresh challenge.

The church has a fresh challenge today when it comes to the increasing polarization of our day—especially political polarization. I will say more on this point in a moment, but first we have to see the fourth lens.

D) Luke as Evangelist 

All three of those reasons for writing are important, but one rises above the rest in importance. Luke is an evangelist. Salvation is the theme that ties both Luke and Acts together. Salvation is accomplished in Luke and proclaimed in Acts.

Promised, Planned, Accomplished (Luke)

The salvation that Jesus brings has been prepared in the sight of all the peoples (Luke 2:30–31)—it is not an afterthought, but has been promised in many times and places and planned before time began. When Jesus came into the world, we hear that a Savior has been born (Luke 2:11). Jesus himself said that he came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus accomplishes salvation through his perfect life and substitutionary death and victorious resurrection (Luke 23–24).

Salvation Proclaimed and Received (Acts)

Then in Acts the apostles proclaim that forgiveness of sins is available to all who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus (Acts 2:38–39). Three thousand people believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and were saved on the day of Pentecost in response to Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:41). And the Lord kept adding to the number of those saved every day (Acts 2:47). 

The preaching of the apostles was crystal clear. God has brought salvation to all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Salvation is found in no one else; there is no other name given under heaven among men by which we must be saved than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12). The apostles filled Jerusalem with the gospel, and even many of the priests among the Jews were saved.

God scattered the church and they preached Christ wherever they went. Samaritans were saved (Acts 8). A eunuch from Ethiopia was saved (Acts 8). Gentiles were saved in response to Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 just like the Jews were in response to his sermon in Acts 2. The chief persecutor of Christians was saved and became the chief preacher for Christianity in the chapters that follow as people all throughout the Roman world hear the word of the gospel and are saved. 

Conclusion: How the Church Turned the World Upside Down

The opponents of Christianity in Acts 17:6 declared that the church had turned the world upside down. In city after city, Christ had been proclaimed, people believed, and churches were planted, and the song of salvation grew louder and louder throughout the world.

How did the church turn the world upside down? They were not the wealthy, the educated elite, or the group with the best political connections. They did not lobby to get the right people in the major cultural centers of power—like politics or education. They preached the gospel in the power of the Spirit. People were saved only in the name of Jesus.

It is natural to look to people in power to address the problems that are here in this fallen world. I fear that politics has become a secular message of salvation for many people.

Jonah Goldberg said it well in The Dispatch:

Organized religion is receding as a binding force in our culture, and for many people, politics—in the form of nationalism or socialism or some other ism—is filling the void. Even for the religious, the animosity toward religion arouses a response that infects religion with political partisanship. Social media tricks our brains in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Whole business models have been constructed to make money by constantly making people angry at other people.3 

Whole business models are set up this way to make money, but there is something even more sinister than the love of money going on. There is something Satanic going on. C.S. Lewis said the exact same thing in Great Britain during World War II. He writes The Screwtape Letters to describe how one demon would advise a more inexperienced demon to tempt someone away from Christ. And in one letter, he tells him how to use politics.

Let [him] begin by treating ... Patriotism or Pacifism as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of the partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the cause, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or Pacifism. 

Do you see the progression? First, make politics part of religion. Second, then make politics the most important part of religion. Finally, let politics grow so big that religion fades into the background so that religion becomes part of politics.

If you simply replace two words, this is as relevant as ever. Today it is not Patriotism or Pacifism, but Patriotism or Socialism. Not only will politics become a religion in its own right, political polarization will infect relationships with family members and fellow church members.

But the Bible warns us about politics becoming religion and it focuses on one word in Psalm 146:3–4.

Put not your trust in princes,
     in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
     on that very day his plans perish.

We must resist conflating Christianity and politics by rejecting political trick-or-treat. Christians know that our allegiance is not to the Elephant or the Donkey, but to the Lamb. So we also ought to reject every time the Elephant or the Donkey tries to dress up in a costume to look like the Lamb. He alone is worthy of worship and trust and allegiance.

Kids, I want to speak to you for a moment. Do you remember any nursery rhymes? A lot of them do not make any sense to me.

Hey Diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

To this day, I still have no idea what that means.

But there is one nursery rhyme that has always made sense to me. Think about the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.” You know the story. He sat on a wall and he had a great fall. And then the nursery rhyme looks to the rulers: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

I think we can recognize that our world is broken. There is so much that our President and Senate and judges and elected officials cannot put together again. We are broken. They are broken. But Jesus was sinless, perfect in every way. He never said anything that was broken. He never did anything that was broken. He went around healing broken people, casting out demons, doing what no one could do. Then came the shocking moment. The only person to ever live who was not broken became broken for us. By his brokenness, our brokenness can be healed. By his wounds, we are healed. The one who was rich became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. The only one who did not deserve to die died in our place so that we can live. He defeated death. He paid the debt we owe. Only Jesus! One King can put you back together again. One King takes away all the things that cause the tears and one King will wipe away all our tears.

Pastor Bud once shared a story with me that he read about dogs raised to hunt cougars. Now there’s something you should know about me. I love cougars. I read the book Charlie the Lonesome Cougar about a boy who had a cougar for a pet and I have wanted one for a pet ever since!

Back to the story: These dogs bark as they chase the cougar. You can hear them bark for miles as they are on the chase. And then the barking becomes distinct and adamant. When the cougar is in the tree, they are barking for all they are worth. They give their lives and all their voice to say, “There he is! There he is!”

That is what we do together when we gather. I give my life and my voice to point to Jesus and say, “There he is! There he is!” That is why we are going to sing for all eternity: He is worthy. He is better. No one compares to Jesus.
__________

1 The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990)

2Ibid, p. 25

3 https://thedispatch.com/p/lets-take-a-deep-breath-and-a-step

The Screwtape Letters, New York: Harper One, 1942, p. 34

Sermon Discussion Questions

Outline

  1. Who Theophilus Is (Acts 1:1)
  2. Why It Matters (the rest of Acts)

Discussion Questions

  1. Who was Theophilus? Why would someone like Theophilus need to know about Christianity?
  2. How did Luke write as a historian?
  3. How did Luke write as a diplomat?
  4. How did Luke write as a witness to the unity of the church?
  5. How did Luke write as an evangelist?

Application Questions

  1. How did the early church turn the world upside down? How does that impact the strategy of the church today? How does it shape the way you view your personal calling as a disciple of Christ and witness for Christ?
  2. Assess the state of your heart after election day and the cycle of watching the news and waiting for the results. How has it impacted you? How does the book of Acts help speak into our current political context?
  3. What adjustments do you need to make as you seek to live out the overall message of Acts?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to see the risen Lord Jesus work in the church today so that the church would turn the world upside down once more.

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