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
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.
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, 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.
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. 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, 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.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.