Death of Jesus Christ


The Gospels set the stage for the rest of the New Testament. They present a man named Jesus who was unlike all other men. No one else in this world has attained the wisdom we find in Jesus' words, or exercised the supernatural power we see in Jesus' miracles, or demonstrated the moral perfection we observe in Jesus' daily life. The reason all other men fall short of Jesus is that He was not merely a man. He was God in the flesh. But instead of using His surpassing abilities to glorify or please Himself, He used them for others. He taught the simple, healed the sick, gave food to the hungry, and raised the dead. In all that He did and said, He displayed a love so great that it could only be divine.

But though the life of Jesus is fascinating and inspiring, the Gospels give a more detailed account of His death. How did this man die who brought the dead back to life? We must look at the circumstances. Jesus came to this earth as the son of a Jewish woman living in Palestine during the Roman era. At about age thirty He began ministering to His fellow Jews. But despite His goodness to all men, most of the Jewish nation rejected Him. They could not accept His call to genuine righteousness, pleasing to God. 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 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. Why did a divine person allow Himself to be killed? Because His death fulfilled the purpose in His coming. By His death, He paid the penalty for all past and future sins of the human race. God is a righteous, holy God who will not let sins go unpunished. Yet no man can pay for his own sins except by suffering forever in hell. To save us from that place devoid of everything proceeding from God’s presence, including hope and love, God chose Jesus to suffer in our place. God’s motive was an immeasurable love for us all, including you and me. But Jesus’ suffering will not count for us unless we believe in Him. In other words, we must first admit that we are sinners. Then we must accept Jesus as our Savior from sin.


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, who saw Him repeatedly over a period of forty days. He gave them many proofs that He was neither a ghost nor a product of their imaginations, but a living man. He spoke with them at length, ate in their presence, and allowed them to touch Him. From this time forward, Jesus was known to His followers as the Lord Jesus Christ: as "Lord" because He is God, as "Christ" because He is the Savior prophesied in the Old Testament.

During these forty days, Jesus gave His disciples the mission of telling the whole world that pardon for sin was now available as a result of His death and resurrection. The good news of salvation through Jesus Christ is known as the gospel. Yet He had warned them throughout His ministry that as witnesses to the truth, they would not be popular. Many would hate them and try to silence them.


Founding of the Church


In the years following, the disciples faithfully carried the gospel as far abroad as they could. Wherever people received the gospel, the new 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, an early Christian writing preserved in the New Testament says, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25).


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, he returned to Jerusalem, where he had once been a prominent Jewish leader opposed to the church, but now was seen as a traitor to his religious heritage. A mob of Jews seized him in the Temple with the intent of dragging him out and stoning him to death. He would have died except a troop of Roman guards intervened and took him into custody. The Romans dealt with him as an ordinary troublemaker until they found out that he was a Roman citizen protected by Roman law. Then the Jewish leaders brought false charges against him, hoping to convince the Romans that he was an enemy of the Roman state. After long delays, the case was finally brought before a new governor, who appeared to side with Paul’s accusers. In self-defense, Paul exercised his right to appeal to Caesar, and soon afterward he was taken to Rome for trial.

He was accompanied by the physician Luke, his traveling companion in several earlier journeys. Many scholars believe that in Rome, Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts to assist in Paul's defense. Theophilus, addressed at the beginning of each book, was probably a Roman official who was hearing the case.


Delving Deeper


In his Gospel, Luke’s concluding words to Theophilus are not quite what we would expect if he was truly a Roman official. Luke says that he has previously been "instructed" (Luke 1:4), a term suggesting that he has received instruction as a believer. Yet the term can also be translated "informed." Paul is merely saying that he is offering additional evidence to supplement what he has already provided.

Many have supposed that Theophilus was a believer, because his name means "lover of God." Yet if he were, it is doubtful that Luke would address him in such a highly respectful manner, calling him "most excellent." A mere learner at the apostles’ feet would need to hear words fostering a humble spirit. But it was entirely appropriate for Luke to pay honor to an important figure of government.

Besides including his name for the sake of respectful address, Luke had another reason. He wanted us to understand that his writings were not just for this Roman official, but also for anyone the name truly describes—any lover of God seeking to know more about Christ.

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 achieved.

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 his assigned work 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 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. Without His help, we cannot obey Paul’s command to "rejoice in the Lord alway" (Phil. 4:4) regardless of our circumstances or feelings.

2) He gives us endurance. 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.

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. Then 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, for two reasons: (1) the answer did not require that He reveal the time of His final descent to overcome His enemies; (2) the answer pictured their coming task in larger dimensions so that they might move forward with greater dedication and energy. 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).

The basic answer to their question was, no. The time had not yet come to establish the Kingdom. Why? The disciples had a job to do first. He wanted them to carry the gospel to the whole world. 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, which 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. He also declares that God would verify their message by blessing their ministry with supernatural signs. They would cast out demons, speak in tongues, heal the sick, and enjoy immunity to serpents and poison. He was referring to signs that would accompany the work of the apostles themselves. As we will see, all these signs except immunity to poison are recorded in the Book of Acts. Yet the Christian writer Papias, living in the early second century AD, affirms that Justus, one of the disciples who heard these promises (Acts 1:23), drank poison without harm.

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 acquire the power and authority needed for their work. Jesus said their authority would extend to forgiving and retaining sins. He chiefly 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, the Gospel-writer 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, indeed pushing the gospel 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.

  • Radio with evangelical programming reaches 99% of the world's population in a language they can understand.
  • About 94% of the world's population lives in a culture with an indigenous witnessing church, and another 4% has 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, however. Although the gospel today is available to nearly everyone in the world, personal evangelism has confronted only a small minority, and still a large percentage of the world's population has never actually 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. The worldwide embrace of the church is a major sign that the end is near.


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 are not conscientious in meeting an obligation to our Creator and Master, the consequences will be much worse than we ever face in this life because we fail to please a mere man.