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Acts by Robert Dean
How did a small rag-tag crew of Jewish men, cowering in obscurity, become transformed into bold, dynamic pacesetters of Christianity? What enabled them to move beyond their fears and spread the good news to the ends of the earth? Listen to this compact sketch of the book of Acts and learn that God, the Holy Spirit, was the agent of change, empowering the apostles to perform their difficult mission. Accept the challenge to carry on the work begun in the early Church of witnessing and teaching Scripture as you realize that the same power of the Holy Spirit is available to us today.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:57 mins 45 secs

Genuine Church Growth by the Holy Spirit
The Book of Acts

We need to review and go over again what we have studied and focus on the key ideas and elements that are present in the book. Acts, written by Luke, is one of the great dramas in Scripture. It is really the second act. We have come back from the intermission, the intermission being the forty-day period of time between the resurrection and the ascension. Acts one was the Gospel of Luke. He picks up with that in Acts chapter one writing to Theophilus, a Gentile, for the purpose of giving him clear understanding of how the church expanded: that this was not something done through human means and effort, it was ultimately done through God the Holy Spirit. That doesn't mean that the disciples just sat there folding their hands waiting for the Holy Spirit to kick them. Jesus Christ controls history but you still have to cut your grass. Think about that. As human beings we are volitional agents and we still have to choose to obey or disobey. We have to get up off of our rumps and do what God says to do. Those two aspects work together in human history: God's sovereignty and human responsibility.

So what we see is how the church begins, from a small innocuous beginning where it is nothing more than an Jewish sect that is virtually unknown outside of Judea and Galilee. It was a sect that had gone into hiding for the most part because of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, and now because of the resurrection there is new hope and the disciples have learned of a new significant mission that they are given in reference to a coming age. But they are not clear on it. The very last thing we read about Jesus teaching them before He ascends is that during this forty-day period He taught them about the kingdom of God. The more that I study this topic it is one of the least understood in Scripture but it is one about which much can be said.

There was a Lutheran pastor who was rather impoverished because he wasn't paid well in the 19th century by the name of George N.H. Peters. He wrote a three-volume, two and a half-inch thick each volume, in small print entitled The Theocratic Kingdom. It is the most in-depth study on the kingdom of God in print. There is another book, The Greatness of the Kingdom, by Alva McLain who was the founder of Grace Theological Seminary, which says basically the same thing in a one-volume work. George N.H. Peters wrote most of his three volumes on scraps of paper. He was so poor he couldn't buy paper. He had napkins, tablets and blanks pieces of scrap paper that he wrote on. The point is, the kingdom of God is not a small subject. It is a doctrine as we have seen in our study of Matthew and Hebrews that is crucial for understanding and being able to interpret Scripture.

The kingdom was offered to Israel. The kingdom was postponed because Israel rejected the Messiah. There is a parenthesis now in terms of God's plan for Israel because Israel has temporarily been set aside as God's primary agent in the world, and during this intervening period there is a new entity called the church, which was born on the day of Pentecost. The end of the church age will be with the Rapture of the Church at some time in the future. At that instant you and I will be transported into the presence of our Lord and immediately we will be evaluated at what is called the judgment seat of Christ. At that time we are given rewards. Those rewards have to do with how well we have served the Lord in this life, how well we have walked by the Spirit, how much we have grown and matured; and on the basis of that evaluation it will be determined what our roles and responsibilities will be when we rule and reign with Jesus Christ in the kingdom when He comes in His kingdom: when the Ancient of Days, according to Daniel chapter seven, gives the kingdom to the Son of Man when He comes to the earth at the end of the Tribulation and establishes His kingdom. This is why This is such an important doctrine, because it gives us a framework on why we are living the Christian life today, why this is so important, and what the ultimate goal is. And it also shows that it can't be understood apart from all of the Old Testament promises, and it can't be understood apart from God's plan and purposes for Israel because the promise for Israel was this future literal kingdom ruled by a son of David on a literal throne in literal Jerusalem. All of these things fit together.

So what our Lord was doing during the forty-day period was teaching the disciples how things have changed, because the kingdom is postponed and it was an elucidation of what he taught in Matthew chapter thirteen in the parables of the kingdom in preparing them for the relationship of their future ministry in the church age in relation to the kingdom. Not all of these things sunk in because their last basic question to Him was: "Lord, is it at this time you will restore the kingdom?" Jesus response was basically, no it was not at that time, and it was not for them to know the times and the seasons; that wasn't the issue. This issue: Your role in the intervening age is in relationship to God the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:8 became the prime verse for Acts, as we have seen. Acts 1:8 NASB "but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."

The starting point and first part of the drama focuses Jerusalem; the primary player is Peter in the first seven chapters. John, and Stephen who was one of those appointed to help the apostles in Acts chapter seven are minor players. John never speaks. Then a major persecution arises after they have stoned Stephen and the church begins to scatter, and they go out into Judea and Samaria. That covers the middle part of this drama, and is covered in Acts 8-12 where we see the expansion of the church into Samaria through Philip who was one of those chosen in chapter six. There is also a return emphasis on Peter who takes the gospel to Simon the tanner, who was socially rejected because he worked with dead animals and was ceremonially unclean most of the time. Yet Peter is living with him. It is at that time that he gets directions to take the gospel to the Gentiles at Caesarea. Following this period in Acts 8-12 we see the third part of the book, which is the expansion of the church to the remote parts of the earth in chapters 13-28.

In chapters eight and nine we are introduced to the apostle Paul where we have his conversion, and then in chapter thirteen he and Barnabas head out on the first missionary journey. There are four basic missionary trips. The first is to southern Galatia, basically, as well as Cyprus. That is covered in chapters 13 & 14. There is a pause when he goes back to Jerusalem to give a report, then in chapter fifteen is the Jerusalem Council where they are dealing with the question: what do we do with these Gentiles now that we have them? On the first missionary journey he wrote one letter: the epistle to the Galatians.

On the second missionary journey he goes back and revisits the places he went to on the first missionary journey in south Galatia, but then the Holy Spirit prohibits him from going into either the province of Asia or into the areas of Bithynia and directs him across to Troas where eventually he has a vision to "come over to Macedonia". So the second missionary journey focuses on going to Macedonia and Greece, and during this journey when he is in Corinth he will write two epistles: 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The second journey is covered in Acts 16-18.

The third missionary journey is covered in chapters 18-21, and during this journey he writes 1 & 2 Corinthians and Romans.

After the third missionary journey he went to Rome. He was arrested in Jerusalem and spent two years in Caesarea before being taken by ship to Rome where he was a prisoner for another two years. While he was in Rome he wrote the four prison epistles: Philemon, Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians.

He was released and went on another journey. He probably sent to Spain. He went to areas in Illyricum (modern Yugoslavia), Macedonia, Ephesus. He eventually made his way back to Rome, was arrested for his final imprisonment. During the fifth journey he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus, and then in his final imprisonment 2 Timothy.

So much for the overview.

As we look at the first seven chapters, God the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and directs in the second chapter to expand their witness in Jerusalem. God then expands their witness from 6:8-9-31 through Judea and Samaria. Then, third, God expands the church to the ends of the earth.

Luke is focused on the basic theme that God the Holy Spirit is the real agent of church growth. It is not these obscure twelve leaders who are in Jerusalem. He starts off showing how small and almost irrelevant this group is. It is obscure, the twelve are just living in the upper room where they can gather together another 138 for a meeting in order to select a disciple to replace Judas. His focal point is on the fact that this is a small beginning. He is going to give progress reports all through Acts showing how it expands, and that this is beyond human capability. That is the theme of this book.

The power of the Holy Spirit that built the church in Acts is still the power of the Holy Spirit that builds the church today. The problem we have today is too few Christians want to walk by the Spirit. The expansion is based on the work of God the Holy Spirit.

After chapter one the disciples are staying in Jerusalem because Jesus told them to wait there until God the Holy Spirit came. On the day of Pentecost, a day that is a high holy day on the Jewish festival calendar, one of three days requiring all Jewish males who were local to Judea and Samaria or scattered in the diaspora to gather together to worship at the temple. And as the disciples came together in the upper room to prepare to go to the temple the Holy Spirit came upon them. It was an audio-visual scenario. They heard the sound from heaven like a rushing wind and then they could see tongues of fire over each one. That refers only to the twelve; it doesn't refer to the 150. The 150 would not have stayed for ten days in the upper room waiting for the day of Pentecost. This is the beginning of the ministry of God the Holy Spirit to each individual believer, the indwelling, baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit coming at one time on each of the twelve. As they are there they go on to the temple precinct and are speaking in languages they haven't learned. Luke makes it very clear that there are Jewish visitors there from all different areas of the empire listening to them and they would have heard the gospel and then returned back to their homes, taking the gospel with them. This would have been the first missionary outreach: the Jews returning to their homes.

The question asked was what in the world was going on because as Galileans they were pretty ignorant and yet they could speak in all of these different languages. Some accused them of being drunk. We have yet to see anybody being drunk who could speak their native language better, much less a foreign language that they had never learned before. But Peter reminds them by quoting from Joel 2:30ff that this was the kind of thing Jews should expect to happen because this is what God promised would happen at the time of the day of the Lord when the kingdom would be established. These are the same kinds of miraculous events. He is not saying that this is the fulfillment of the Joel passage; he is saying that this is similar to the kinds of things that Joel predicted. Nothing that Joel predicted occurred on the day of Pentecost. Speaking in unknown languages was not predicted in Joel chapter two. He is just saying this is like that and you should have expected this kind of thing.

He goes through quotes from the Joel 2 passage and then challenges them in relation to their belief in Jesus of Nazareth: that He was attested by many signs and wonders, and that He was delivered up by the plan of God and was raised up from the dead. This is another major theme that is seen all the way through the book of Acts. This is what really agitated the Sadducees in Acts chapter four as a result of Peter and John's preaching and their emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And this became a major problem later on in Paul's ministry. And he used that for his own purposes, causing a division among the Sanhedrin when he was being interviewed by them. We see this emphasis again and again and again on Jesus' resurrection. That has a number of significances but above all it is an attestation to the fact that God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead. His resurrection was attested to by numerous people. This is also in fulfillment of prophecy, which Peter mentions in terms of his quotations in Acts 2:25ff.

We also get a report here that as a result of this that there is an expansion of the church. Three thousand believed. Later on in chapter four 5000 males are added to the church. There was a distinction made during this time, that instead of continuing to meet in synagogues they would begin to meet together in order to study the Word and to encourage one another. Acts 2:44 NASB "And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; [45] and they {began} selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need." This wasn't a socialist type of experiment; it shows there was an intimacy and that they were depending upon one another for their physical and material sustenance.

In chapter three Peter and John come back at a later time and they heal the lame man, and that give occasion for Peter to give another sermon where he promises that if the Jews would repent and accept Christ as Messiah that the times of refreshing would come. So they could have technically responded, as I have said, but they still would have had to go through the judgments of AD 70. There wouldn't have been a lengthy church age period because once Israel repents then that is going to domino into the coming of the Messiah. But they did not and the church age has lasted now for almost 2000 years. As a result of that message Peter and John are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin and Peter uses resurrection as an issue when he addresses them. They try to prohibit them from preaching the gospel, commanding them not to speak at all or to teach in the name of Jesus. Acts 4:12 is a great verse that we should memorize. NASB "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." They are told not to preach the gospel but they continue to do so anyway. They are eventually released and they go back to the other disciples who had been praying for them.

In chapter five we have the episode of Ananias and Sapphira who lie against the Holy Spirit. Everybody else is selling their assets and converting them into cash so that that can be used for the benefit of others in the body of Christ. Ananias and Sapphira sold some of their land but they kept back some of the money for themselves. There is nothing wrong with that, but they lied about it. They wanted everybody to think they were a lot more generous than they actually were and at this stage of the church in its infancy God the Holy Spirit enacts a miraculous discipline upon them and they both instantly are executed. It was the sin unto death because that is designed to protect the church from this kind of corruption at this early stage of infancy.

From this point on there is an emphasis on the expansion through many signs and wonders, mentioned in Acts 5:12. It started with Peter and John healing the lame man in chapter three, and all of these miracles are designed to attest to their credentials: that they were indeed who they claimed to be. In this period we see also a number of attacks against the church, both external attacks from the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as internal corruption represented by Ananias and Sapphira. Peter and John are imprisoned and are released in a miraculous way by an angel who orders them to go and proclaim the words of this life to the people. This again shows that God is working to protect the church and to expand the church. They are put on trial again and when they do that Peter makes the famous statement: "We ought to obey God rather than men". This is when Gamaliel says to the rest of the Sanhedrin: "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing." Those are the words that Luke chose to quote because in the words of an unbeliever this carried weight because God was indeed at work building and expanding the church.

The church expanded so much and so rapidly that there was a division that came up within the church. There were those who were living in Judea or Galilee who were local and there were the Hellenized Jews who were from out of town.  Some of the Hellenized Jews had reached an age where they had to go back to Judea and so there was a need to help distribute financial aid to the widows. The widows of the Hellenized Jewish community felt that they were overlooked and so it was necessary to organize an administrative work to make sure that they were getting the financial aid that they needed. They appointed seven men in chapter six who showed spiritual maturity. These included Stephen and Philip.

Acts chapters 1-7, which is basically the first part of the book which deals with the church in Jerusalem, concludes with the death of Stephen. He is arrested and put on trial (somewhat illegally) and he gives a magnificent address where he rebukes his Jewish audience and demonstrates historically that they fit the pattern that has been established since the beginning of the Jewish race that there had been a trend toward rejection of God and His messengers. He begins with Abraham. Abraham had partial obedience when he left Ur of the Chaldeans. He was to leave all of his relatives and he took his father and his nephew with him; he didn't separate completely. Stephen emphasized that Israel had a pattern of initial rejections of God and he covers this whole pattern from vv. 6-38. He illustrates it with people such as Joseph and Moses and the rejection by the others of Joseph and Moses. He notes the rebellion against Moses by the people. Forty days after Moses went up on Mount Sinai he is met with a rebellion of all the people. It doesn't take them long to turn against God. He shows how the people, once they got into the land, turned to idolatry; they weren't faithful to Moses' teaching. Even when the tabernacle and later the temple were built this was simply a place of worship and not intended to be a permanent manifestation of God, but they did not keep the Law fully in relationship to the worship of the tabernacle and the temple. And during this period of time, because they were turned back to idolatry, God would send prophets and they resisted the Holy Spirit, killed the prophets and broke God's Law. The Sanhedrin became so incensed at what he said and they became convicted of its truth that they began to pick up stones and began to stone him. It is at that point that we are introduced to Saul of Tarsus who is standing at the edge of the crowd holding their garments.

Stephen's speech is brought in to give us insight into the ultimate reason why God has set aside Israel temporarily during the present age: they not only rejected the prophets but they have rejected "the prophet" as Deuteronomy said was like Moses, which is the Lord Jesus Christ who was greater than Moses. And this also serves as a transition away from Peter and to the beginning of a focus on Saul who will be the apostle Paul.

In chapter eight we get into the expansion into Judea and Samaria. We see the expansion through Philip who goes to Samaria where there is a huge response to the gospel and to Philip's preaching of the gospel, and he brings John and Peter up from Jerusalem in order to baptize these recent converts. That shows the unity of the church. Following the conversion of the Samaritans he is whisked away by God the Holy Spirit to meet with the Ethiopian eunuch, and there he communicates the gospel to him, who is not the first Gentile because he was considered a proselyte. He is reading through Isaiah and is confused about the Scripture. Philip explains it to him and he believes in Jesus as the Messiah, and then Philip baptizes him.

This is the prelude to chapter nine where the focus is on Saul. Saul is saved as a result of the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to him on the road to Damascus. This is significant because it gives us an understanding of the apostle Paul's background and how he was saved. Three times in the book Paul is going to retell the story. That shows us that the conversion of Paul is crucial to understanding the growth of the church in the first century. At this point they are expanding out from Judea and Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth.

The third section begins about Acts 9:32. Peter is going to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This shows the expansion of the church to Antioch because of the confusion that broke out after the death of Stephen. Most of the Christians had to leave Jerusalem; some of the apostles were able to stay. They scattered, not only to Judea and Samaria but also to places up in Syria such as Antioch. The church is established in Antioch that will become the mother church for the missionary activities of the apostle Paul.

This was the time of the first three missionary journeys. The first two are covered in Acts 12:25 through 19:20. The first journey began from Antioch and went to Cyprus and up the southern coast of modern Turkey, to Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derby. Then he retraces and goes back to Antioch. This is a short journey, they have numerous converts; also they meet a lot of opposition and hostility from the Jews in the synagogues. One of the most significant converts is going to be Timothy who will become his traveling companion on his second journey.

Following the first journey he went back down to Jerusalem in order to give a progress report to the apostles as to what has taken place during the first missionary journey. What has happened in the meantime the word has gotten out that the church was now going to the Gentiles because, of course, Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles in chapters ten and eleven and reported on that. Now by Acts chapter fifteen this becomes a problem. What were they going to do with the Gentiles? Do they become Jewish? Do we become Gentiles? What is the deal? So the Jerusalem Council met and this is covered in chapter fifteen. This is sandwiched between the first and second journeys.

On the second journey Paul retraces his steps. He does follow-up in Lystra, Iconium and Derbe. As they go to Antioch the question is: where do we go from here? Instead of going into the province of Asia the Holy Spirit prevents it. They will eventually get there but not now. It was a matter of the Lord's timing. They are prevented from going to Bithynia and Pontus in the north so they end up at Troas on the Agean Sea. This is where he has his vision of the man calling to Macedonia, and so they catch the boat to go across to Neapolis. They visit and establish churches in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. They meet opposition from the Jews and Paul is thrown into jail in Philippi, he is beaten, whipped, against Roman law. It is not until later that he tells them he is a Roman citizen, so they kick him out of town. He heads down to Thessalonica and is only there for a short time—maybe two or three months at the most—and then the Jews cause an uproar. He goes to Berea and then down to Athens and Corinth. He is in Corinth for a longer period than the other places and this is where he establishes another church, eventually leaving and going to Ephesus. That is the second missionary journey.

He goes back to Jerusalem to give a report and heads back to Antioch. Then we go to the third missionary journey which is similar to the second. He revisits the church from the first journey but this time he goes into Asia, he goes to Ephesus and establishes himself there and teaches for two years. He also travels up to Macedonia, to Greece and visits all of the previous locations, and eventually comes back on his return, goes to Ephesus and meets the church leaders in Miletus, then back to Jerusalem. He tries to make it there by Pentecost. When he gets to Jerusalem the rumor is spread about the fact he has come with a Gentile. They assume that he has brought an uncircumcised Gentile on to the temple precinct. This causes a huge riot. He is rescued by the Romans and this leads to his imprisonment. They discover a plot against him so the Romans move him to Caesarea where he is kept in prison for two years before he leaves on a ship and eventually comes to Rome. This is the fourth journey I mentioned. It is not usually called a missionary journey. Of course, everywhere Paul went it was a missionary journey. He was there for two years and this is where the book of Acts ends.

So the focal point of the book is on the expansion of the church. At the very beginning it is Jewish. At the end it is beginning to be primarily Gentile. At the beginning it is obscure and unknown. There were probably thirty or forty thousand but they are not really identified and mentioned and the focus is on the fact that there is just the twelve that is the key leadership and then there is the expansion throughout the world as the result of what they did. And it was not because of them; it was because they were willing to be used by God the Holy Spirit in this expansion throughout the world. It was from this base that we come to understand all the background for all of the New Testament epistles. We can fit that into this framework so that we have an understanding of how God the Holy Spirit worked and we can have an understanding to interpret those books in light of the chronology of the life of the apostle Paul.

When we come out of this we understand that our role is to carry this on. That is the challenge for us. It is to be like these early Christians. We see that the apostles were transferring that responsibility to others. Paul is training other pastors as his entourage who goes with him—Timothy, Epaphras, Epaphroditus. Others who went with him went out from him, were taught by him, and prepared to go pastor the churches. This is to be a pattern that is repeated down through the centuries, down through the generations, from pastor to pastor. And it is part of the responsibility of every local church to send out missionaries in the pattern of the church at Antioch, but also to train future leaders and to provide for them. Because once we lost sight of training for the future then we lose the next generation. And there are a lot of challenges before us right now because of the way our culture is operating and the way the transition is being made to the next generation. There is so much pressure for the next generation to conform to the world because of what has happened in the educations system. There are some wonderful exceptions in different places but the pressures continue, especially at the high school and college level in ways much greater and much more overt than in times past.