A Look at the Book of Acts

Written By Victor Stanley Jr.* 

Acts is a book that serves as a history of the beginnings of the Church. It was written by Luke, and serves as “Part II” of what we will call his “History of Christianity.” By Part II I mean that it is the continuation of the book that bears its authors name, that is The Gospel According to Luke. Acts provides what Dr. Chris Gnanakan (Dr. G) calls a theological-literary framework for missional living. There are four elements that are present in the composition of Acts:

  1. Progress Report: The development of the Church Jesus is building. It is a record of how the Gospel spreads, the Spirit works, Christian witness, and Church expansion.
  2. Apologia: It serves as a defense of the ministry and mission of Jesus and His Apostles. It seeks to legitimize Christianity to demonstrate that Christians are ‘radical,’ but not revolutionaries. Meaning they are definitely different and counter to the culture, but they do not seek to overthrow rulers and governments.
  3. Theological Treaty: Christ is Lord! The Gospel is unstoppable. Christ continues to work through His body, the Spirit-filled Church, whose unfinished task is to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; John 15:26-27)

    1. Jesus words in John 15:26-27 foretell what we see take place in Acts. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
  4. Mission & Martyrdom: The sending out of Jesus’ disciples, and their willingness to suffer or die for Christ is shown to be central (Acts 14:22). From this we can extrapolate three features of, or provisions provided by, unjust suffering:
    1. An Engine: that primes and propels the Gospel toward uncharted territories of Jerusalem (Acts 3:18), Samaria (Acts 8:4-24), and Rome (Acts 20:17-28:31). Sufferings normally follow ministry and often create opportunities for more ministry.[2]
    2. A Compass: that guides the Church’s missionary enterprise through difficulties into all nations. In Acts, it becomes obvious that wherever they went there was a definite pattern of growing opposition driving them out, yet directing their paths.[3]
    3. A Thermostat: a thermometer within that measures the condition of a place (the heart) against a set standard. It is designed to regulate or correct it to the desired standard. Persecutions reveal and, if allowed, can restore the Christian’s and Church’s commitment to compassionate ministry and the fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission. God’s greater purposes will ultimately be accomplished despite problems.[4] (my emphasis)

Let’s look at these three things to understand how they provide a foundation for our own lives in the present day as we seek to live missionally.

Suffering and martyrdom are key themes throughout the book of Acts. The two major figures, Peter and Paul, experience much persecution and both are eventually martyred. Minor figures, such as James and Stephen, are also persecuted and martyred. Dr. Gnanakan (Dr. G) says that the Church developed and ethic of martyrdom, that “suffering as a witness is a pervasive influence upon the Church’s worship, work, and way of life.[5] A key thing that needs to be understood is that the word martyr comes from the Greek word μαρτυρια which means witness or testimony.[6]

So to be a martyr is to be a witness, to live a life that serves as a testimony about Christ. When Dr. G says that the Church’s worship, work, and way of life was defined by an ethic of martyrdom it becomes clear that the Apostles internalized Jesus’ words in John 15:26 and the people did the same with Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8. On both occasions Jesus emphasizes that the Church will be His witness, and not only that, but He makes clear that they will only do this by the power of the Holy Spirit. This idea of being a martyr, a witness, permeates every part of their lives and being, it guides and directs everything they do and think. Their lives become living testimonies that proclaim the Gospel even as they preach the Gospel, their words line up with their actions and the Spirit propels them forward.

With this we see how this ethic of martyrdom becomes and engine powered by the Spirit that carries the Gospel forth starting in Jerusalem moving out into Judea, expanding into Samaria, and reaching the ends of the earth. The Church starts in Jerusalem, right in their hometown, but then they spread out and minister to their countrymen throughout Judea. From their they go to those whom many Jews considered unclean and worthless as the Gospel ventures into Samaria. And finally, the Gospel reaches all of Asia Minor, Rome, and even Spain, via Paul, according to several Church Fathers. However, lest we be naïve, we must take note that suffering followed them, and will follow us, wherever we carry the Gospel, yet we can leverage this to create more opportunities for ministry. We’ll see how several people throughout the book of Acts had their sufferings turn into opportunities to spread the Gospel.

Second, we have said that this ethic of martyrdom serves as a compass to guide the Church’s missionary enterprise through difficulties into all nations. We will see that the Church faces opposition at every turn, yet the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians reveal the attitude cultivated within the Church:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor. 4:8-12, ESV)

They did not let persecution thwart their efforts, they continued on in the mission. We will learn that we must press forward while allowing the road blocks and detours to move us in different directions that cause the Gospel to spread out according to God’s plan, not ours; We may be called, but God does the choosing (Matt. 22:1-14). To live life as a martyr means to submit one’s life to God’s will so that we will continue to be witnesses/living testimonies to His power and glory (Matt. 5:16). Peter, Paul, and others often ended up where they were not headed. From fleeing death to natural disasters, we will see how suffering and hardship will cause a change in course and place people in new and unexpected places where the Gospel will go forth and shine light into darkness.

This leads to the third point; this ethic of martyrdom serves as a thermometer that measures the condition of a place (the heart of a place) against a set standard. What this means is that, as we will see, the Apostles do not simply go into a town or city and proclaim the Gospel. Rather, they gauge their audience, the socio-political climate, and the religious beliefs and practices of a place in order to tailor the message to those people. Acts 17:22-34 demonstrates an instance of this with Paul on Mars Hill. Paul’s spirit is disturbed, or provoked, by the idolatry in Athens. Thus, because he is Christ’s witness, or martyr, he is attuned to the standard set by the Holy Spirit, and instantly recognizes that Athens is off by several degrees. Yet, Paul utilizes the religious and philosophical culture of the Greeks as a stepping off point to engage with the Areopagus, while also setting their beliefs against the Christian standard to show where the one is inadequate and the other sufficient.

Not only does this ethic of martyrdom serve as a thermometer to measure the condition of a place, but it is also a thermostat that regulates and corrects it to the desired standard. Peter and Paul’s letters to the Churches throughout the world at the time give us an inside look at how they were constantly allowing their lives and the lives of other serve as examples that called those Churches to the holiness required by God for those who profess Christ as Lord. In their letters, they correct wrong practice and thinking while also setting regulations for right practice and thinking. To state it more clearly, because they lived lives that testified about Christ their witness set a standard to which others could aspire; Paul famously says, follow me, or imitate as I follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

Let me conclude with this, the Book of Acts is not simply a history of the Early Church or a manual for missions. It serves as a picture of the composition and content of the Christian life teaching us how to be disciples and how to make disciples. Take note, Peter, Paul, and the others went around preaching the Gospel, yes, but this was not their disciple-making methodology. Timothy, Titus, Mark, Luke, Apollos, Lydia, Priscilla, Aquila, later on guys like Polycarp, Clement, and Ignatius all followed along with the Apostles, they traveled with them, planted churches with them, lived day-to-day life with them, and as a result of this became powerful and committed men and women of God who found themselves leading and teaching others.

We will see that for the Apostles missions goes beyond simply preaching the Gospel or “doing life together,” it requires taking an arduous journey alongside those to whom you have preached, it means rigorous and in-depth study of the Word of God, it requires deep commitment to the rule of faith, and it means being guided by an ethic of martyrdom. An ‘ethic’ is a guiding set of principles or philosophy. Missions requires those who live by biblical principles that shape their lives into living testimonies of the Gospel of Christ.


 

* This teaching is adapted, with permission, from Dr. Chris Gnanakan’s Acts of the Apostles: God, Jesus’ Church, the Holy Spirit! 2016. As large sections of this teaching borrow from or are paraphrased from Dr. Gnanakan’s original manuscript, only direct quotes will be cited in the footnotes.

[2] Chris Gnanakan, “Acts of the Apostles: God, Jesus’ Church, The Holy Spirit!” (Outreach to Asia Nationals, 2016) 4.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 3.

[6] H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996) .

 

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