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Their hopes dashed by their Master’s death, two of Jesus’ friends trudge heavy-hearted toward Emmaus. Meeting a “stranger” along the way, they explain how Jesus’ crucifixion has shattered their dreams: “ ‘We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel’ ” (Luke 24:21). Hear their disillusionment: “We had hoped, but then He died.”

But now, weeks later, their hopes are alive again—emerging with Him from His grave. They have seen Jesus, mysteriously but tangibly alive again, over and over. The dream in their hearts reaches the tip of their tongues: “ ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). Surely a God who has rescued His Messiah from the grave can banish the infidel oppressors from His land, breaking their yoke from the neck of His people!

In Jesus’ eyes, however, His disciples’ wildest dreams for Israel’s comeback are not nearly grand enough. God has a greater kingdom agenda than they have guessed, one that dwarfs their puny preoccupation with Israel’s rank in the political pecking order. Jesus reminds them that God’s timing is none of their business (as He had told them before, Mark 13:32); then He expands their horizons concerning God’s kingdom: “ ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8). From this promise flows the rest of Luke’s account of “the Acts,” but not those of the apostles. In characterizing his Gospel as an account of “all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), Luke implies that Acts reports all that Jesus continued to do and teach after ascending to heaven. The difference is that He now reigns as Lord and Christ in heaven, extending His rule on earth through the Spirit’s power in His witnesses’ word.

The light moves out in waves, like ripples on a pond, radiating from the point where the pebble pierced the surface. Obedient to the Lord’s command, the church awaits the Spirit in Jerusalem and, when He comes in power, bears its first bold witness there. Though the venue is Israel’s capital, their listeners constitute the first fruits of a worldwide harvest (appropriately so, since the Law established Pentecost as a feast of firstfruits, Num. 28:26). Luke inserts a roster of nationalities (Acts 2:9–11) reminiscent of the table of nations leading up to Babel (Gen. 10) in order to underscore the geographical and demographic centrifugal movement of the kingdom. As the Gospel goes out, all sorts of people from everywhere flood in. The church grows from one hundred and twenty to more than three thousand in a single day, and the numbers soon surpass five thousand (Acts 4:4).

The increase brings opposition and administrative overload. The apostles spend nights locked behind bars and days arraigned before the jealous power brokers of Israel’s establishment, who threaten serious consequences unless Jesus’ witnesses stop proclaiming Him crucified and risen. But the witnesses are not free to desist; their risen Lord’s authority trumps that of Judaism’s leaders. Bound to obey God over man, they calmly explain, “ ‘We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’ ” (4:20; cf. 5:29).

The Gospel’s fruitfulness in sheer numbers, as well as language differences, disrupts the church’s care for Greek-speaking widows, threatening its unity (6:1). The remedy is a distribution of leadership authority, with seven wise and trusted men (all with Greek names, and one a Gentile proselyte!) appointed to oversee mercy ministries, freeing the apostles to serve people with God’s Word and prayer (Acts 6). The Word goes on growing (6:7), for the church grows by the Word (see 12:24; 19:20; Col. 1:6).

Through Stephen and his colleagues, the kingdom breaks like a wave over the walls of Jerusalem, spilling throughout Judea and Samaria, carried by Christians scattered by persecution like life-bearing seed (Acts 8:1). Stephen opens the floodgates by declaring that God (who is not locked in man-made temples) can be with His servants anywhere: with Abraham in Mesopotamia, with Joseph in Egypt, and with Moses in Sinai (7:2, 9, 30). Stephen seals his witness with his blood, and his peace in the face of death ignites the zeal of Saul, who will not rest until he has erased this threat to his treasured traditions (8:3).

Philip, Stephen’s fellow servant, is scattered north to Samaria (8:4–25) and then toward the coast (8:26–40). Through him God’s kingdom breaks through two more demographic barriers. The Samaritans are ethnic half-breeds and religious syncretists, adhering to the books of Moses but blending in pagan elements (2 Kings 17:24–41 opens a window on their background). Yet the Jesus Philip preaches breaks like daylight into hearts clouded with superstition and magic. Soon Peter and John follow Philip’s footsteps and enfold Samaritan believers into the Spirit-baptized church (Acts 8:14–25).

The second barrier is even higher: the seemingly inviolable wall separating Jews from uncircumcised Gentiles (Eph. 2:14–15). The treasurer from Ethiopia has made a pilgrimage to God’s temple in Jerusalem, and as he returns he is puzzling over a precious parchment containing Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant (Acts 8:26–39). This dignitary cannot be a proselyte to Judaism. He is a eunuch, and his disability as well as his Gentile lineage doubly exclude him from the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:1). But now a new day has dawned. God now welcomes both eunuchs and foreigners into His new temple, embracing “outsiders” in his grace (Isa. 56:3–8).

Peter follows Philip westward to the coast, reaching Joppa in time for his divine appointment with emissaries of a Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10–11). In Jewish eyes, Cornelius is a pious Gentile, yet still uncircumcised and thus outside God’s people (10:1–2; 11:3). More seriously, Cornelius needs the forgiveness that is found only in Jesus’ name (10:43). This forgiveness he and his friends receive by faith as Peter preaches and the Spirit floods their hearts and fills their mouths with praise (10:44–46). The tidal wave of grace has burst the wall between Jew and Gentile once for all. Soon a vibrant multiethnic church is growing in cosmopolitan Antioch in Syria (11:19–30).

Meanwhile, Saul’s sights have been on destroying the church (Acts 9:1–2). But Jesus has other plans. Though carrying arrest warrants for Christians, Saul finds himself arrested as he nears Damascus, overthrown by the blinding glory of the Lord he is persecuting, seized by sovereign grace to carry Jesus’ name “ ‘before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel’ ” (9:15). In Acts 13–28 we hear Saul (Paul) address each of these audiences, carrying the Gospel from Israel’s coastline to Caesar’s capital.

From Antioch, the Holy Spirit sends Barnabas and Saul to coastlands across the sea (see Isa. 42:4; 49:1), beginning with Cyprus and south-central Asia Minor (Acts 13–14). After the apostolic council that decisively confirms that God gathers the Gentiles by faith in Jesus, not circumcision in the flesh (Acts 15), Paul sets off with a new companion, Silas the prophet. Like a divine sheepdog, the Spirit of Jesus heads off their attempts to enter the provinces of Asia and Bithynia, herding them west to the coast of the Aegean (16:6–8). In response to a vision, they cross the sea and enter Macedonia, bringing the Gospel to Europe.

Through Paul, once the violent persecutor but now the impassioned advocate, the Word impacts Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, steeped in Scripture and synagogue tradition (Acts 13:13–49). It also shines into the darkness of superstitious polytheists (14:8–18) and of sophisticated intellectuals (17:16–34). Jesus the Lord shares His role as Servant with His servants: “ ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth’ ” (13:47).

Paul eventually reaches Rome at the earth’s ends (from Israel’s viewpoint), though the Gospel already has taken root there by the time he arrives (28:15; see Rom. 1:8) and has impacted even the household of Caesar (Phil. 4:22). Luke fittingly closes his account with a paradoxical affirmation that Paul, though chained “24/7” to Roman guards, preaches Jesus and His kingdom without hindrance (28:31). Though Paul is chained, God’s Word is not (2 Tim. 2:9).

The heroic sweep of the Gospel across the ancient world’s mightiest empire takes our breath away. Our predictable, pedestrian life makes those thrilling days of yesteryear seem almost mythic in their grandeur: the agony of beatings borne gladly “for His name” (Acts 5:41) and the ecstasy of enslaved hearts set free. But the Spirit of God who moved Luke to write this holy history (not myth!) did not give Acts to stir up nostalgia for the “good old days.” God’s kingdom agenda is still advancing. The Spirit who empowers Jesus’ witnesses is given not only to apostles who eyewitnessed His resurrection, but also to all who obey God’s Gospel call (5:32). The Word that grew men is still growing, and by its light blind eyes see the Lord’s glory and the ends of the earth witness the salvation of our God.

As Lightning Comes from the East

Life’s Blood

Keep Reading The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Acts of Christ in the First Century

From the December 2001 Issue
Dec 2001 Issue