Movie sequels often fail to live up to the original movie. Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, but the impact, if anything increases in Part 2. Acts 1:1-5 introduces Luke’s second volume, calling you to: listen to what Jesus continues to do and teach, learn about the kingdom, and live as one who has been baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Luke, who authored the Gospel that bears his name, has told you what Jesus began to do and teach (Luke 1:1-4). The clear implication is that this second volume is the continuation of that story. The continuing work of Christ in Acts is the work of the Spirit, more specifically, the Spirit working in and through the church. Very early church history identifies Luke as the author. He was Paul’s companion and was a physician. He was a careful researcher and historian. He not only knew his Old Testament well (was he a “God-fearer”?) but the Old Testament Scriptures influenced how he wrote this book. The book contains theology, but it’s there tucked into the history that Luke records.
Having mentioned the suffering of Christ and his resurrection, Luke here focuses on the 40 days between the resurrection and ascension, 40 days of Jesus teaching the disciples who would be the apostles of the church. The time is a crash course in understanding how the Old Testament tells you about Jesus, the Messiah. The content of that 40 days of teaching, according to Luke, was “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom was a theme of the parables and other teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. But the word is mentioned only eight times in the entire book of Acts. However, don’t conclude that Acts fails to emphasize the kingdom, or worse, that it describes a post-kingdom period. Rather, the kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke, the kingdom that he established by his suffering, death, and resurrection, in Acts takes the form of the church. Jesus teaches about the kingdom, but then, as the ascending King, appoints his disciples to continue his work, establishing the church. Where is the kingdom of God today? Look for the church (and the church, not only when she is assembled for worship, but also as she is busy serving her Lord throughout the week). Dennis Johnson comments: “Whatever our condition as the church of Jesus Christ may be, and wherever we may be scattered among the nations, Luke’s second volume, which we call ‘Acts’ or ‘The Acts of the Apostles,’ is God’s call to remember and to reflect on his design for his church, and reconsider how our fellowship fits—or fails to fit—the blueprint.” (The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, p. 2). How do we understand our mission in the world? How are we as a congregation fulfilling it? The book of Acts can help answer those questions.
Absolutely crucial to the work of the church is the gift that Jesus had promised would come from the Father (see John 14:16-17), the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke 3:16-17 quotes John the Baptist contrasting his preparatory work with that of the coming Messiah. He framed the contrast in terms of baptism. John baptized with water; Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations and promises, would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The blessing of the good news of the presence of the kingdom of God and the coming judgment with fire would characterize the ministry of the One coming after John. Now, in a few days, what John had prophesied, and what Jesus had promised, would come about. The fledgling church would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (appreciate the fully triune emphasis of the book of Acts).
Richard Gaffin emphasizes the close connection between the work of the Spirit and the Lord establishing his church: “If, as is too often the case, Acts is read primarily as more or less random samplings of earliest Christian piety and practice, as a compilation of illustrations taken from the early history and experience of the church—a more or less loose collection of edifying and inspiring episodes, usually with the nuance that they are from the ‘good old days, when Christians were really Christians’—then we will tend to become preoccupied with the experience of particular individuals and groups recorded there, to idealize that experience, and to try to recapture it for ourselves. But if, as ought to be the case, Acts is read with an eye for its careful overall composition and what we will presently see is one of Luke’s central purposes in writing, then these passages and the experiences they record come into proper focus. Specifically, one of Luke’s purposes is to document the foundational (i.e., apostolic) spread of the gospel from Israel to the nations. He is intent on recording the initial, once-for-all establishment of the new covenant church as made up of both Jew and Gentile, through the ministry of the apostles and those associated with them.” (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 23).
As Christ had received the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism (Luke 3), so he now baptizes his church so that it can go about the continuation of his work as he ascends to the right hand of his Father. That gift continues to equip you, individually and as a corporate body, to serve your Savior.
That is why Part 2 of the good news is not merely a faint imitation of Part 1. Part 2 is where you live and serve today.
[In preparation for a sermon on Acts 1:1-5, beginning a series on the Book of Acts]