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
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
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.
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.
Promise of the Spirit
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.
The Time of Christ's Return
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.
Mission of the Church
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.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.