The Acts of the Risen Jesus
Passage: Acts 1:1–1:11
Most of us have watched a thunderstorm approach over the horizon. The dark clouds mount, the sun’s light fades, the lightning flashes, and we begin to count…one, two, three, four, five, six…and then Boom! The sky shakes. The thunder rumbles by, leaving us awestruck by God’s power. We know that lightning makes thunder inevitable. The Gospel of Luke is like the lightning flash.
Luke reported the coming of God’s Son to earth, born of a virgin. He tells of Jesus’ perfect life, his atoning death, his resurrection on the third day, and then ends with Jesus’ ascension to heaven. But where there’s lightning, you’ll have thunder; and in this case the reverberations of Christ’s death and resurrection have not ceased to impact the world since they occurred. The events recorded in the book of Acts come like the thunderclap. They are the inevitable result of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It’s true that we find the book of Acts following the Gospel of John in our Bibles. It’s placement makes sense. Acts continues where all four Gospels end, with Jesus’ resurrection. It also provides the historical setting for understanding the Letters. The theology and pastoral guidance of the Letters in our New Testament should be read in the context of the mission we find in Acts.
But it’s also clear from the very beginning that Luke—the author of both Luke and Acts—wants us to read Acts as a continuation of what he began in his Gospel. Look with me at Luke 1:1-4. It reads,
1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
What do we gather from that introduction? Luke is writing a narrative. It’s about things God[i] was accomplishing in history. He builds the narrative on the testimony of eyewitnesses. It’s addressed to some fella in high places named Theophilus. And he wrote the narrative to give certainty to his readers.
Now flip to Acts 1:1. It begins this way: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” In other words, the book of Acts continues the same story. Luke is still writing about things God is accomplishing in history. It’s still eyewitness testimony. He’s still writing to this fella, Theophilus. He’s still writing to give certainty concerning the Christian faith. The key difference is this: the Gospel gives certainty about Jesus’ mission on earth; the book of Acts gives certainty about Jesus’ mission from heaven. You’ll see that as we continue reading verses 1-11…
1In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In these opening verses Luke provides an introduction to all he plans to develop. He’s giving us a framework to understand the rest of the book—how it fits within the Bible’s storyline, what it entails, what lens we should view the forthcoming events.
I’ve attempted to draw verses 1-11 to see if we can’t get a better idea for what’s going on. It’s on the screen. Luke tells us that he already dealt with “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). That’s Part 1: The Gospel of Luke, which traces Jesus’ incarnation, his life, special attention to his death and resurrection, and then ends with a briefer account of Jesus’ ascension. All along the way, however, Luke is careful to show how these things fulfilled the Old Testament promises of God.
Then we get Part 2: The Book of Acts. In verse 3, we see that the risen Jesus stuck around for a while, 40 days. And taught the apostles about the kingdom of God. Integral to the spread of Jesus’ kingdom would be the gift of the Holy Spirit—verses 5 and 8. The Spirit would then empower God’s people to be witnesses to the end of the earth, verses 7-8 say. And all this would occur until Jesus returned—verses 10-11.
I created the diagram to show you how the events in Acts fit within God’s greater story. These are not just reports of some new religious sect that sprung out of nowhere. Luke grounds everything in the sovereign work of God across history to bring his kingdom on earth through Jesus Christ. It’s linked with everything he promised in the Old Testament, and all that Jesus began to do in his earthly mission.
But I also created it to show you where you fit-in to God’s greater story. Right here. You belong to the new age of the Spirit where the risen Jesus is advancing his kingdom far and wide. You were made for this. God saved you for this greatness. It doesn’t matter if there’s ten of you in a mud hut huddled around a Bible with a candle or hundreds driving across a metroplex—God’s kingdom is on the move.
The book of Acts comes to us like Mr. Beaver’s words come to Lucy and her siblings in Narnia: “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps he has already landed.” Acts says Christ is on the move. He’s defeated sin and death. He’s the reigning King, and Acts gives us a vision of his unstoppable kingdom advancing on earth. So let’s go there together, shall we? All I want to do today is set before you the introductory framework for understanding Acts based on verses 1-11.
Essentially, we can boil it down to one sentence with seven parts. The book of Acts is (1) a historical and theological account (2) of what the risen Jesus is still doing (3) to advance his kingdom (4) through the Holy Spirit (5) empowering his people (6) to spread the gospel to all nations (6) until he comes again. Let’s break it down…
Acts is a historical and theological account…
What is the book of Acts? First, the book of Acts is a historical and theological account. Luke is a historian. Notice the special attention to eyewitness testimony. Verse 3: “[Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” The apostles also witness his ascension in verse 9: “…as they were looking…a cloud took him out of their sight…And while they were gazing…” These are eyewitnesses.
Everybody knew in the first century that the most trustworthy historiography was based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. If you were really good, you’d write your account within living memory of those other eyewitnesses. That way others could go ask the eyewitnesses whether you were writing the truth. That’s precisely the sort of history we find in Acts. The apostles saw, heard, touched the risen Christ; they saw him ascend.[ii]
This plays a crucial role in their gospel preaching and our gospel preaching. The gospel isn’t just an announcement of religious ideas, of personal spiritual discovery, of something we believe to make life easier. Jesus’ exalted state isn’t just a philosophy to live by. It’s grounded in objective, historical reality. Things the apostles discerned by sense perception: hearing, seeing, touching.
This makes Christianity vastly different from the majority of other religions. All that matters to most religions is whether the experience holds true regardless of historical verification. Christianity is dependent on its historical claims (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). Acts is a key contributor to those historical claims. Luke is helping Theophilus follow Christianity not just because of subjective experience but because it’s objectively true.
But Luke is also a theologian. He’s not just recounting historical events; he also includes details on what those historical events mean in relation to what God is doing in Christ. That comes in various ways: sometimes we’ll see it on the lips of others as they interpret what’s going on in light of Old Testament promises.
Sometimes it comes with Luke’s own remarks like, “The Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47). Or later on, Paul sees a vision of someone telling him to come over to Macedonia, and Luke says, “immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
In other words, Luke isn’t just reporting the way the early church understood history playing out, but the early church’s testimony has become his own. He too has come to accept God’s involvement in history. He rejects the philosophical assumption that miracles just can’t happen. Rather, God is involved in history. Everything is playing out just like the Old Testament says. Just look at what Christ is doing in the church. That gives these events meaning, divine meaning.
Of what the risen Jesus is still doing…
One of the main thrusts of that divine meaning is what the risen Jesus is still doing. Look carefully at verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Meaning, Luke’s Gospel was just the beginning; Acts is what Jesus continues to do and teach.
I once had a professor ask me this question on the book of Acts: “Acts of the Apostles; Acts of the Holy Spirit; or Acts of Jesus Christ? Please explain.” It’s a great question. He was forcing us to deal with the star of the book, Jesus Christ. Sometimes we read the Bible as if Jesus did his thing and now the church is doing her thing; Jesus did his part and now we’re doing our part; Jesus is the main character in Luke but the church is the main character in Acts. No, Luke is saying Christ is the main character, period, whatever side of the resurrection you’re on.
So as we continue reading Acts, be watching for how the risen Jesus is still working. He pours out the Spirit from heaven (Acts 2:33); he adds people to the church (Acts 2:47); he grants repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:32); he’s the one who stops Paul in his tracks and converts him (Acts 9:5); he opens the heart of Lydia to believe the gospel (Acts 16:14). And guess what, brothers and sisters, nothing has changed.
Jesus is still risen and he’s still working his purposes in the world. He didn’t take a break after the apostles died. He’s just as active today as he was then. The problem is with our vision. The risen Jesus is central to everything that happens in Acts; and he’s central to everything that happens with us. He’s why we’re saved to begin with. He’s our life. He’s the foundation for our church. He’s why we meet together. He’s why we love each other. He makes the mission we have, not just possible but certain.
To advance his kingdom on earth…
Which leads us to a third observation: the risen Jesus is advancing God’s kingdom on earth. Verse 3 says that Jesus taught his apostles about the kingdom of God for forty days. Now, since Acts is part two of Luke’s Gospel, we’d expect he said something about it there; and sure enough we find plenty. The kingdom of God is an Old Testament hope. It has to do with God establishing his rule on earth, bringing peace to the chaos, healing for all that’s broken, good wherever there’s evil. But that hope was tied to a person, the King, who would reign on David’s throne, a throne that was forever.[iii]
Well, Jesus enters the picture in Luke’s Gospel, and the angel tells Mary that Jesus would be the one to take David’s throne (Luke 1:32-33). When he starts his ministry, he comes preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:38; 8:1; 9:11). He starts healing people and casting out demons to prove that his kingdom restores all that sin ruined. The kingdom has in fact come near because the King has come near in Christ (Luke 10:9, 11; 11:20; 17:20-21).
The way he takes his kingdom, though, isn’t through military power, but by giving up his life on the cross and rising from the dead. The cross is where he defeats the power of sin and death that has such a stronghold on those he loves.
The book of Acts develops this storyline from Luke a bit further by pointing us to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The apostles watch this happen in verse 9: “He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Where did he go? Turn to Acts 2:32—“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God…” Now look at Acts 7:56, right as Stephen is to be martyred: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Where did Jesus go? To sit at God’s right hand. The King has taken his throne to rule forever over the kingdom of God. The King is in the place of authority to establish his final rule on earth without fail. Death always terminates the reign of earthly rulers. Name one earthly ruler death has not conquered? Jesus is the sole ruler who conquered death itself; and that qualifies him to sit on God’s throne as King and nobody can stop his kingdom from advancing. No matter who is in power—Trump, Putin, Kim Jung Un—all of them are under the sovereign reign of Jesus Christ and can do nothing without his permission. They will die; their policies will fade; Jesus’ kingdom won’t.
Through the Holy Spirit…
But how does his kingdom advance if he’s in heaven? That brings us to the fourth part of our summary sentence: the kingdom advances through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom and the gift of the Spirit leads the disciples to ask him a question about the kingdom. We see it in verse 6:
So[iv] when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It’s not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Now, some have said that Jesus’ answer is a rebuke for their nationalistic interests when they should be thinking about the Gentile nations. Another view is that his answer postpones Israel’s national restoration, and instead focuses their attention on a church age. Jesus is either postponing Israel’s blessing until some future time, or rejecting their restoration in the present. But both interpretations seem to miss the point.
The disciples are asking a legitimate question based on what Jesus said about the Spirit and the kingdom in verses 3-5. Jesus then refers to Israel in his answer by pointing out the Spirit’s work in Jerusalem and Judea in verse 8. And we mustn’t forget: the Old Testament hope for Israel’s restoration in the kingdom was the outpouring of God’s Spirit (esp. Joel 2:28-32). Jesus’ isn’t eluding their question or rejecting it. He’s answering it: Israel’s restoration begins when the Spirit of Christ comes and makes them new and makes them witnesses to Christ.[v]
Empowering his people…
Which brings up, fifthly, the disciples’ role in the advance of Christ’s kingdom. Christ advances his kingdom through the Spirit empowering his people. His point in verse 7 is not to worry about the times or seasons that God has fixed by his own authority. The chronological development of end-time events are in God’s hands. Here’s where your focus needs to be: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.”
The prophet Isaiah not only looked to a day when Israel would be restored by the Spirit—that’s Isaiah 32:15, “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high.” That’s the way Jesus says it in Luke 24:49, “until you are clothed with power from on high.” But Isaiah also looked to a day when Israel would become his witnesses to the nations. Isaiah 43:12, “and you are my witnesses.” Or Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Both of these promises—the Spirit and becoming witnesses—are coming together in Jesus’ words to the apostles. When the Spirit comes, he will transform them into witnesses. Everything good that happens to the church and in the church and through the church in Acts is the result of Jesus’ Spirit indwelling his people. Acts will mention unity, joy, comfort, generosity (Acts 2:38, 42-47; 9:31; 13:52). But one of the primary focuses in Acts is how the Spirit empowers the church to speak boldly on Christ’s behalf. Every time he comes upon people, they start blessing God and opening their mouths about Jesus and celebrating their salvation.
Some of us confess fears in personal evangelism, fears in stepping into a new ministry, apathy in reaching out to neighbors. The Spirit is able, brothers and sisters. Plead with God to fill you. The same Spirit hovered over the surface of the deep before creating the world; the same Spirit helped Moses lead God’s people through the wilderness; the same Spirit inspired prophets to speak God’s word; the same Spirit raised Jesus from the dead; the same Spirit regenerated your heart. He indwells you, if you’re in Christ. The crucial question is, are we depending on him? David Platt writes,
It’s dangerously possible to carry on with means and programs of our church and to do them all smoothly…and not realize that the Holy Spirit was absent from the process. We have made a deadly mistake…I am convinced the greatest hindrance to the advancement of the gospel to the nations may be the attempt of the church of God to do the work of God apart from the Spirit of God…Are we as the church…dependent on ourselves or are we desperate for His Spirit?[vi]
The kingdom spreads through the Spirit. Without him, our programs and ministry structures and care groups and fellowships mean nothing. But with him, the church will spread the gospel to the end of the earth.
To spread the gospel to all nations
That’s our sixth point: we spread the gospel to all nations. That’s plain from verse 8: “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The Holy Spirit has a missionary character. He fills his people and they bear witness to Christ. God doesn’t send his people without going with them; and when he fills them, they go and tell. Verse 8 tells us the extent of his mission: to the end of the earth. This is programmatic. Miss this and you miss the major thrust of Acts.
In chapter 2, at Pentecost, the Spirit comes upon the people in Jerusalem, the apostles start witnessing in Jerusalem, and the Lord starts adding to the church. Then you get over to Acts 8:1 and it says, “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of [get this] Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” And what did they end up doing? 8:4 says, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
Then out from Judea and Samaria in chapters 13-28, we get Paul’s missionary journeys from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum (cf. Rom 15:19); till we’re left hanging at the end of Acts with these words: “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28). Point being, this is where the Spirit leads you and me to pick up where the early church left off.
Some of you are familiar with the church planting network called Acts 29. It’s a fantastic reminder of where we all live as Christians. We’re all continuing the mission to the end of the earth. That means to the very end of the inhabited world. That has a geographical dimension—pay attention to the place names in the book of Acts. Luke’s geography has a theological point—in the Gospel everything climaxed in Jerusalem; in Acts everything explodes from Jerusalem.
“To the end of the earth” also has an ethnic dimension to it. He mentions Samaria, and he pairs it with Judea.[vii] That didn’t compute with Jews. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). To a Jew, a Samaritan was a racial half-breed and political rebel to put it nicely. But the Spirit takes the gospel across ethnic boundaries. All people would hear, because all people need to be saved through Christ.
Jesus also said in Luke 13:29 that “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” People from Jordan, people from Syria and Saudi Arabia and Egypt—reclining at table in the kingdom of God. The gospel had to go out from Jerusalem, the city of the King, to the rest of the world; and that gospel rescues people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, gives them forgiveness, and brings them under the rule of the risen Christ. That was the plan all along. Look also at Jesus’ words in Luke 24:45-47.
45Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Do you hear what he’s saying? We cannot read our Bibles apart from Jesus being the center and missions being the overflow. Risen Christ, global missions—inseparable. There’s no such thing as a risen Christ who doesn’t win the nations he died to save.
How does he do it? The Spirit empowering you to take the gospel to the end of the earth. The Spirit empowering you to lay hold of every opportunity to promote the gospel’s advance to the end of the earth—whether that’s at a grocery store check-out line or in a refugee camp, whether at a nearby school or an orphanage in Haiti, whether it’s tucking your child to bed at night, reading a Psalm over them when they’re afraid, or sending a child off to North Africa someday. Every opportunity.
The bloody cross and the empty tomb mean there’s a multitude of people from all nations who will repent and follow Jesus when they hear Jesus proclaimed. The death and resurrection of Christ means anyone from anywhere, no matter what they’ve done, can have their sins forgiven. God has not only been faithful to send his Son to die in your place. He’s not only been faithful to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead. He has been faithful to spread the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations—that’s what he started with the apostles; that’s what he’s doing right now through you and me.
From Afghanistan, Lybia, Sudan, and the Congo to your workplaces, playgrounds, grocery stores, family functions, people on your street, refugees in this city—don’t miss the risen King advancing the gospel by the Holy Spirit through you…through us.[viii] God doesn’t need us, but he chooses to use us for the mission.
How are you involved? Or perhaps we should ask a more fundamental question: if we’re not involved, how filled with the Spirit can we say we really are? The Spirit’s role is to magnify Jesus among all peoples through your words. Do we have this urge like we see in Paul in Romans 11:14—“I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Somehow, I’ve got to act and work and think and pray and strategize and give—to save some of them. That’s the kind of thinking the Spirit compels. Not fear-mongering. Not self-preservation. Not how can I be safe. But how can I go, how can I get them the gospel, how can I win them to Christ. We must pray for the Spirit to change us and compel us to carry the gospel far and wide, beginning where we live.
Until he comes again.
And we do so until Jesus comes again. What do the angels say in verse 11? “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” They’re left with the expectation of Jesus’ return.
Jesus’ return gives the mission a context of pending judgment. If the King is returning, then it’s imperative to respond to his message of salvation now. Why should you respond? Why should your non-believing friends respond? Acts 17:31, “[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising [Jesus] from the dead.”
Judgment motivates us to have compassion on those who don’t yet know Christ. They have no way to escape judgment without him. More importantly, they will not get to enjoy his glory, but be cut off from it. Unless they hear. Unless they believe the gospel we have. Then they’ll get to enjoy the light of his countenance.
Our role is to build our witness on the apostles’ objective witness to Jesus; and then to keep rescuing people until the King returns. That’s what the book of Acts is about. It’s a historical and theological account of what the risen Jesus is still doing to advance his kingdom through the Holy Spirit empowering his people to spread the gospel to all nations until he comes again. This is where we live, and may it shape who we’ll become as a church. A church who patterns our life around the risen Jesus’ agenda to advance his kingdom on earth.
[i]The passive participle behind “have been accomplished” seems best understood as a divine passive. That is, God is the one accomplishing the events spelled out in Luke’s Gospel.
[ii]Cf. also Luke 24:34, 39-43; 1 Cor 15:3-7; 1 John 1:1-3.
[iii]E.g., Exod 19:6; 2 Sam 7:12-14; Pss 45:6; 145:13; Isa 9:7; Dan 4:34; Dan 7:14-27.
[iv]Or “therefore” (Greek: oun). Luke is showing how the disciples’ question in verse 6 stems from what Jesus just mentioned about the “kingdom and…waiting for the promise of the Father.”
[v]See the careful analysis in Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, NSBT 27 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 103-09.
[vi]From a sermon by David Platt titled, “The Presence of Christ in the Great Commission,” accessed online at http://saidatsouthern.com/dr-david-platts-great-commission-lectures/.
[vii]Literally, “in the Judea and Samaria,” with the definite article governing both regions.
[viii]It’s true that Jesus addresses the apostles in particular in vv. 6-8. But Scripture clarifies elsewhere that the church carries on the mission Jesus began through the apostles. E.g., see my sermon titled “Evangelism: Speaking the Gospel of the Kingdom Makes Disciples” where I lay out six reasons the whole church evangelizes and not just a select few.