Many of us enjoy missionary stories. We are gripped as we follow the exploits of missionaries like William Carey, John Paton or Jim Elliot who did heroic deeds in exotic places and saw the gospel spread into the dark corners of this world.
Acts is the greatest missionary story of all time. Its title – The Acts of the Apostles – encourages us to think of the apostles as the heroes of this book. Their labours were indeed heroic as they preached the gospel and planted churches in the face of bitter opposition.
Yet Acts is much more than a story of heroic men and women who strove to build a new Jerusalem amidst the dark satanic cities of the Roman Empire. It is the story of how God accomplished His eternal plan of salvation for the world.
This becomes especially evident when we remember that Acts was a companion volume to Luke’s Gospel. Luke makes that clear in the opening words of Acts. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). He reminds us that his goal was to write an orderly account “of the things that had been fulfilled among us.” (Luke 1:1) Others preceded him, but Luke saw the need for a fresh account that would be well-researched and focused on the big picture of God’s plan of salvation.
That plan was first revealed to the nation of Israel. So the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel read like a continuation of the story of Israel as Luke takes his readers back to the Old Testament roots of Israel’s faith. He shows how God’s promises were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:32-33, 54-55, 70). Thus it was because God has a plan that Luke was able to write about things that must happen. Jesus must suffer (9:22, 17:25), then rise from the dead and enter His glory (24:26, 46). Then the gospel must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. (24:47). So Acts 1 takes up where Luke 24 left off.
Space does not permit this article to list all the “things that have been fulfilled” that Luke describes in Acts, but here are a few.
Luke describes the rejection and the resurrection of Israel’s Messiah as the fulfilment of God’s plan. In his first sermon in Acts, Peter told the crowds who gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). Even this fell within God’s plan! Peter and other apostles returned to this theme repeatedly (Acts 3:15, 4:10-11, 7:52, 10:39-40, 13:27). They knew that God’s plan would prevail, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was its centrepiece.
Luke describes the outpouring of the Spirit as the fulfilment of God’s plan. John the Baptist had anticipated the fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16-7, Acts 1:5). When that baptism came on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1- 4) Peter pointed out that the preaching of the apostles “in other tongues” (2:3) was the fulfilment of what had been spoken by the prophet Joel (2:16-21). This same Spirit continued to guide the apostles (7:55, 8:29, 16:6-7, 20:22).
Luke describes the restoration of Israel as the fulfilment of God’s plan. When the apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), he did not rebuke them. But he did counsel patience (1:7). God would restore Israel when she received her Messiah. That is why the apostles preached with such vigour to Jews (2:38-9, 3:24-26, 4:10-11, 9:20,23, 13:16f.). Yet the first half of Acts (chapters 1-12) ends with an anticlimax. The head of the Jewish nation, Herod Agrippa I, sought to kill the Messiah’s messengers and died an ignominious death. Is this to be typical of Israel’s response?
At first sight that seems to be the case. When the Church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey, many Gentiles believed and were added to the Church. On two emotionally charged occasions Paul rebuked his Jewish hearers for their unbelief and turned to the Gentiles (13:46, 18:6). Yet when Paul went to a new city he went straight to the synagogue and proclaimed that God was restoring the kingdom to Israel (19:8).
Paul’s itinerant ministry came to an end with his arrest in Jerusalem (21:33). In the chapters which follow (22-26), Paul had the opportunity to defend his ministry in a series of trial speeches. The climax of Acts is found in chapter 26 where Paul addressed Herod Agrippa II. Although the surroundings were decidedly Roman, Agrippa was the head of the Jewish nation, the guardian of the Temple and versed in the Jewish Scriptures (26:2-3, 26-7).
Paul insisted that his message was nothing less than the hope of Israel (26:4-8). When Festus interrupted Paul, he deflected his question and pressed home his challenge to Agrippa with a disarming combination of humour and earnestness (26:28-9). Paul yearned for the salvation of this man and the people he represented.
This yearning revealed itself even in Rome. On the face of it Paul went to Rome to plead his case before Caesar (25:12, 25). Yet Luke tells us nothing about that. Instead he tells us that Paul gathered the Jews of Rome to declare to them “the kingdom of God” (28:24).
In spite of the mixed response to Paul’s message which prompted him to quote the ominous warning of Isaiah 6:9-10, and a further resolve to preach to the Gentiles, Luke leaves the question of Israel’s destiny open, yet hopeful. For the next two years Paul welcomed “all who came to see him”, Jew and Gentile alike. His message was “the kingdom of God”, that is the kingdom which God would restore when Israel received her Messiah. The door is still open! This is the passion which gripped Paul the converted Pharisee in Romans 9-11. Significantly, it also gripped the attention of Luke the Gentile historian. Why, we might ask?
Luke describes the gathering of the Gentiles into the Church as the fulfilment of God’s plan. Hence the urgency of preaching the gospel of Israel’s Messiah to Gentiles as well as to Jews (Acts 9:15, 10:45, 11:18, 14:27). Their salvation was God’s way of rebuilding the ruined kingdom of Israel. James made that point at the council in Jerusalem (15:15-18). This was how God would “restore David’s fallen tent”.
Yet the Gentiles would receive the blessings of salvation, not by becoming Jews (15:19) but through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (13:38-39).
The stumbling block before many Gentiles who heard this message was the problem of Jewish unbelief. What if they were right and Jesus is not the real Messiah? What if God had abandoned His ancient people? Luke addressed these questions by showing that the God of Israel holds fast to His sovereign plan. The risen Jesus stands at the centre of that plan. He is the Saviour of all nations because He is the promised Messiah of Israel. We can have confidence in His promises. We are to preach him boldly to all nations. As we do that, we are to remember that God still yearns for the salvation of His ancient people and we can take heart from His perseverance with them.
Originally published in Australian Presbyterian Magazine, August 2015