Death of Jesus Christ

The Gospels set the stage for the rest of the New Testament. They present a man named Jesus Christ who was unlike all other men. No one else has taught with such wisdom or performed such miracles. But instead of using His power for self, He used it for others. He healed the sick, gave food to the hungry, and raised the dead. In all that He did and said, He expressed a love so great that it must be divine.

But though the life of Jesus is fascinating and inspiring, the Gospels pass over it quickly to give us a lengthy account of His death. Despite Jesus' goodness to all men, most of the Jewish nation rejected Him. The leaders hated him so vehemently that they pressured the Roman authorities to condemn and crucify Him. Crucifixion was one of the cruelest ways of killing a man that was ever invented. In the hours before He died, Jesus went through great agony of both soul and body.

Jesus' death is the central event in the Bible—indeed, in all of human history. It was immensely important because by His death, Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of every person who has ever lived. God is a righteous, holy God who will not let sins go unpunished. Yet no man can pay for his sins except by suffering forever in hell. To save us from hell, God chose Jesus to suffer in our place. God's motive was an immeasurable love for us all, including you. But Jesus' sufferings will not count for you unless you believe in Him. In other words, you must admit that you are a sinner and accept Jesus as your Savior.

Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Verse 3

Jesus' death did not bring His life to a final end. After three days in the tomb, He rose to life again and showed Himself to His disciples. They saw Him repeatedly over a period of forty days. He gave them many proofs that He was a living man, not a ghost, nor a product of their imagination. He spoke with them at length, ate in their presence, and allowed them to touch Him.

During these forty days, Jesus gave His disciples the mission of carrying the gospel to the whole world. The gospel is the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet He had warned them throughout His ministry that they would not be popular. Many would hate them and seek to stop their preaching.

Founding of the Church

In every city where people were converted under the preaching of the gospel, the believers met regularly for prayer, study of God's Word, and fellowship. The first local assembly of believers, the one in Jerusalem, was known from the beginning as a church, and the same term was used for the assemblies that sprang up in other cities. The entire body of believers everywhere was known as "the church." For example, Paul said, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25).

The term "church" was first used by Christ when He told Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). The rock He meant was Himself. As Paul taught, "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). "The church" is an appropriate term for all believers because it means "those called out." Believers have been called out of the world into the kingdom of God.

Delving Deeper

Some Baptists deny the existence of a universal church, in the sense of a mystical entity that is more than the sum of all local churches. They take this position in defense of a Baptist distinctive—the belief in the autonomy of the local church. They say that the doctrine of the universal church compromises this distinctive by legitimizing ecclesiastical hierarchies and denominations. How? Supposedly because if there is a universal church, such structures can say in self-justification that they merely make the ties visible that already exist between churches and believers.

This rejection of a universal church illustrates how a party spirit in theology often leads to doctrinal extremes. The Bible teaches that the church is the same as the body of Christ (Col. 1:18). There is only one body (Eph. 4:4). Thus, the church equivalent to the body must be singular as well. It is entirely appropriate to consider this a universal church, because it embraces all believers. Yet it is not merely the sum of local churches, because there are believers who belong to no local church (especially under persecution, believers tend to become scattered and isolated); also, because the singular church contains believers only, whereas most local churches include some members who are not truly born again. The point of Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) is that the visible church, including all members of local churches, is a mixture of God's children and the devil's children, and that there is no practical way of rooting out the devil's children without eliminating some of God's children as well.

Equivalence between the universal church and the body of Christ is not just a metaphor, but a mysterious and mystical reality.

Background of the Book of Acts

Verses 1-2

One of the most effective preachers of the gospel was the apostle Paul. After a long career of witnessing for Christ throughout much of the Mediterranean world, the Jews arrested him and sought to kill him. But their hands were tied because he was a Roman citizen protected by Roman law. When they handed him over to the Roman authorities and laid false charges against him, he appealed to Caesar. He then journeyed to Rome for trial, and the physician Luke, his traveling companion in several earlier journeys, accompanied him. Many scholars believe that in Rome, Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, to assist in Paul's defense. Theophilus was probably a Roman official who was hearing the case.

Luke's purpose in writing Acts explains his choice of themes. Throughout the book he makes three points: 1) that Paul and other preachers of Christianity have never encouraged rebellion against the Romans; 2) that their preaching has often started riots only because the Jews hate the new religion; and 3) that the followers of the new religion are model citizens, devoted to good works, worship of God, and loving fellowship with each other.

The main subject of Acts depends on our perspective. If we focus on the human instruments that God used to accomplish His will, the book is the story of the apostles. But if we focus on what God accomplished through them, the book is the story of how the church began and grew.

The full title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles. The book has been so named since ancient times because it tells how the chief apostles, especially Peter and Paul, worked to spread the gospel. Many have argued that the book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit was the real power behind everything the apostles did.

Acts has much the same place in the New Testament as Joshua has in the Old Testament. Both come after the foundational books at the beginning, Joshua after the five books of Moses and Acts after the four gospels. Both show the people of God successfully carrying out the mission that God laid upon them when He set them apart for Himself. For the people of Israel, the mission was conquest and occupation of Canaan. For the church, the mission was to begin evangelizing the world.

Acts also resembles Genesis. Like Genesis, it is a book of beginnings.

Pondering a Question

How is Acts a book of beginnings?

Genesis relates the beginning of sin and shows how rapidly it corrupts human society. Acts relates the beginning of God's working to make salvation from sin available to the whole world.

There are other beginnings in Acts also. It records the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers, the first preaching of the gospel, and the founding of the church. The historical period beginning with events in the Book of Acts is known as the Church Age.

Promise of the Spirit

Verses 4-5

During His last days with His disciples, Jesus instructed them that they were not yet ready to preach the gospel.

They were to stay in Jerusalem for a short time until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (also called the Holy Ghost). The word "baptize" means to dip or immerse. Jesus' promise meant that they would be saturated with the Holy Spirit, much as a cloth dipped in water becomes soaked. The idea is that the Holy Spirit would possess them fully. Why was it essential for them to receive the Holy Spirit before they embarked on their mission to the world? Because He would supply them with power and guidance. If they relied on mere human ability, they would fail. It is impossible to accomplish any work for God without God's help.

Getting Practical

Here is a lesson for us today. A Christian is a servant of God. He must do good works in every sphere of life. At home he helps with the chores and strives to make his loved ones happy. On the job or at school he performs to the best of his ability. At church he looks for a ministry and faithfully carries it out. Wherever he goes, he shares his faith with the lost and shines with the goodness of Christ. Yet how is it possible to live up to this high standard? It is impossible except with God's help. Only by depending on the Holy Spirit can we succeed in our good works "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts" (Zech. 4:6).

Pondering a Question

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

We need the Holy Spirit for three reasons.

1) He energizes us. Every way of serving God runs into obstacles. Without the Holy Spirit we may soon tire of trying to overcome them and choose rather to please ourselves. We may quit when we should press on.

2) He empowers us. We may recognize our need for the power of the Spirit when we have a hard task to carry out, like witnessing to hostile people or speaking in church to a large audience. But we need His power even for tasks that seem easy. When we are cutting grass or sweeping floors, the Holy Spirit gives our bodies strength and keeps our minds in an attitude of joy rather than grumbling.

3) He assures eternal results. When we witness for Christ, we cannot bring a man to salvation just by being eloquent and persuasive. We need the Spirit's help, because only the Spirit can change a man's heart. Likewise in everything else we do for Christ, there is no gain for eternity apart from a work of the Spirit.

The Time of Christ's Return

Verses 6-7

After meeting with His disciples repeatedly over a period of forty days, Jesus came to them for the last time. He led them out of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, directly east of the city. From the beginning of His ministry, they had expected Him to overthrow the Romans and set Himself up as king. They had even quarreled among themselves about who would become His chief minister. With His death, all their ambitions crumbled. But His resurrection, showing that He was more powerful than any earthly foe, revived their hopes that the Kingdom was near. Thus, as they stood with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, they asked Him whether He was ready to restore the kingdom to Israel. We too would like to know the answer to that question, for He will restore the kingdom to Israel when He returns.

Pondering a Question

Is it possible to predict when Christ will return?

Jesus told the disciples that they had no right to the information they sought. They were prying into a secret known only to the Father. They should have anticipated the answer, for Jesus had taught, "Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only" (Matt. 24:36).

Down through the centuries many have tried to predict when Christ would come back. Still today there are date-setters. But if you ever hear a date for Christ's return, you can be sure that it is wrong, because Jesus said that it is not for us "to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power" (Acts 1:7).

Mission of the Church

Verse 8

Although the disciples had asked an improper question, Jesus answered it anyway, showing that He is always kind and helpful. He said, "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

He said basically that no, the time had not come for the Kingdom. The disciples had a job to do first. He wanted them to carry the gospel to the whole world—to proclaim everywhere the message that Jesus had purchased salvation for all men and that anyone who believed in Jesus would be saved. The work of spreading the gospel is called evangelism.

During the days after His resurrection Jesus spoke often to His disciples about their future work. Each Gospel writer gives a different portion of His instructions. We must put all the portions together to get a full picture of what Jesus said.

1. The program (Matt. 28:18-20). Matthew records the portion known as the Great Commission. This describes the disciples' task. They were to go everywhere, teach (literally, "make disciples of") all nations, baptize new believers, and teach them Jesus' commandments.

2. The promises (Mark 16:15-18). In Mark's portion, Jesus assures the disciples that their message would have an importance worthy of their hard labors. Those who believed it would be saved. Those who did not would be damned. In the same portion, Jesus declares that God would verify their message by enabling them to perform supernatural signs. They would cast out demons, speak in tongues, and enjoy immunity to serpents and poison.

3. The power (John 20:22-23). John remembers when Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." This was not the moment when the Holy Spirit actually came upon them. Rather, Jesus was teaching them what would happen later, on the day of Pentecost. Through the Spirit they would have the power and authority needed for their work. Jesus said their authority would extend to forgiving and retaining sins. He probably meant that men everywhere could obtain forgiveness of sins only by heeding what the disciples preached.

4. The places (Acts 1:8). In the Book of Acts, Luke records Jesus' last words to His disciples. These were a warning not to be satisfied with a half-hearted effort to reach the world. He commanded them to carry the gospel to every place where they could find people: first to their home city, Jerusalem, then to the neighboring regions of Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the "uttermost" ("most distant") parts of the earth.

Delving Deeper

In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), Jesus said (in a literal translation), "Going therefore teach [or, disciple] all the nations." The verb "teach" is imperative. So, on this occasion when He spoke of the church carrying the gospel to the whole world, He viewed this work as something we are commanded to do. But in Acts 1:8, He views it as something that we will actually accomplish. In His words, "Ye shall be witnesses," He used the future tense in the indicative mood, treating the evangelization of the uttermost part of the earth as a fact eventually coming to pass. Thus, He was clearly saying that before He returns, the whole world would hear the gospel.

This prophecy is especially relevant to the church in our day for two reasons. First, it gives us a remarkable prophecy that has been fulfilled within recent history. Second, it gives us a major sign that the return of Christ is drawing near.

The modern era since 1800 has been the age of great missionary enterprise. The gospel has indeed gone to every nation and tribe under the sun. Statistics compiled in 2001 show that the church's goal of reaching the whole world has been substantially attained.

  • At that time, 94% of the world's population had a New Testament in their own language, and Wycliffe Bible Translators planned to initiate translation work in all remaining languages by 2020.
  • Radio with evangelical programming reached 99% of the world's population in a language they could understand.
  • About 94% of the world's population lived in a culture with an indigenous witnessing church, and another 4% had a resident witness provided by outsiders.
  • In the 1990s, a broad-based initiative by American evangelicals to reach groups who had not yet heard the gospel was dramatically successful. This initiative, called The Joshua Project I, put church-planting teams in a thousand unreached cultures, about two thirds of those identified, and started churches of at least one hundred members in about half of the cultures where the teams had penetrated.

We should not overstate the progress. Although the gospel today is available to nearly everyone in the world, personal evangelism has confronted only a small minority, and perhaps 15-25% of the world's population has never heard the gospel.

Yet what has been accomplished so far seems in itself a fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that the gospel would go to the uttermost part before He returned. Within my lifetime, virtually all the last places deprived of the gospel have finally heard it. The rapid spread of a global culture held together by mass communications has probably absorbed or will soon absorb any remote tribes overlooked by missionaries. Thus, no uncompleted task prevents Christ from returning now.

Getting Practical

We might compare the Great Commission to an order from a military commander, or an assignment from a teacher, or a directive from a boss. We have all had the experience of complying with two of these, some of us with all three. We take commandments from human authority very seriously. We may suffer considerable anxiety about whether we will be able to satisfy the demand. Are we just as serious about the Great Commission? Indeed, we should be far more serious about it. If we fail to be conscientious about an obligation to our Creator and Master, the consequences will be much worse than we ever face in this life because we fall short of pleasing a mere man.