How should Christians live in the world? Do the Republicans have it right? Should we follow the Democrats? Is American life the way to go? What about some other country, like England, that has a Christian heritage? What about Spain or France or Italy which are predominantly Catholic nations. Should we follow the Catholic way? Here in Lancaster, of course, we have the Amish. They are living out their unique form of Christianity in the world. Do they have it right? How should Christians live in the world? Do you and I have it figured out? And wouldn’t want to know if we didn’t?
Remember that we have a certain identity. Our recent Identity series had four parts to it. Put together, those four parts summarize our Christian identity. What were the four parts? The first three parts relate to the three persons of the Trinitarian expression of God. We are children of God, adopted into his family. We are given new life in Christ. Third, we are temples of the Holy Spirit. And then, fourth, we said that we live out this identity in the world as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This is partly why I wanted to start a current events series, the first of which was last week, so that we can try to think Christianly about issues occurring in our world.
It is also why we are beginning a study of the book of Acts. In this book we get to observe how the earliest followers of Jesus began to apply his teachings to their lives as they lived in their world. As we watch how the first Christians lived in their world, maybe we, too, can learn how to live in ours!
Let’s get started! If you’d like to follow along, please open a Bible to Acts 1:1 and read verses 1-3. There are some important introductory points we need to discuss.
First, ancient historians report that Acts was written by Luke, who was a traveling companion of the apostle Paul, as we will read about later in the book. Based on the info in verse 1 we also read that this was Luke’s second book. To see for yourselves, turn to Luke 1:1, and there you’ll see the writer talking about investigating and writing an orderly account of the life of Jesus. So the Gospel of Luke, we believe, was part 1 of a two-volume series. Part 1 was all about Jesus, and the book of Acts was book 2, all about the first Christians. Flip back to Acts 1, and notice that he says in verse 1 that in his former book he was writing about all that Jesus began to do. I like that detail of the word, “began.” Book 2 is all about what Jesus will continue to do! Why is that important? Because as we’ll see right here in this first chapter, Luke reviews the story of Jesus’ Ascension, when he returned to his father in heaven. How can Jesus continue to do anything if he is gone? We’re about to find out, but we’ll save that for next week, though Jesus will give his disciples a major hint in the passage today, which we’ll discuss in a later post this week.
Second, when was Luke writing this? It seems that Luke was writing 35 or so years after Jesus ascended, so likely soon before 70 AD.
Third, who was the book for? In the introduction to both books, did you notice that he mentioned a name, Theophilus? We don’t know for certain who Theophilus was, but it is possible that he was a wealthy Christian who was a patron, providing the finances for Luke to research, write and publish the book. Was the book just for Theophilus? No. The audience was much wider as the book would be copied and distributed, and it seems that Luke was writing to a potentially higher level audience because of the more educated Greek he uses.
Now let’s take a look at this introduction a bit further. In verses 1-3 Luke gives a really brief summary of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and the 40 days since. I want to expand on that a bit, because I think it is very important that we remember who Jesus is and what he did. You could read all of book 1, the entire Gospel of Luke, if you want to really remember who Jesus was and what he did, and I highly recommend that. But for now, let me summarize.
It is impossible for us to fully understand what it must have been like to be there in the final days of Jesus’ life on earth. Think about what his followers might have been feeling. I’m talking about the 12 disciples, for sure, but there were many other men and women who remained faithful to him. As the book of Acts begins, those followers have just experienced a wild month and a half. But really we need to go back further than that, because those followers had actually experienced an amazing three-year-long ride with Jesus. So let’s go back to when they first met.
To do that we need to travel back in time three years. Three years prior to Acts 1, in the nation of Israel, people across the land began hearing about a prophetic teacher who spoke with great authority and who was baptizing people in the Jordan River, calling the people to repentance. So they went to see the prophet, a guy named John the Baptist, and some became John’s followers. One day John had a powerful reaction when a particular man came to be baptized. John said this man was special, and that he was the lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world. That man was Jesus, and some of John’s disciples began following Jesus.
Jesus began preaching, calling more disciples to follow him. He also did something that John didn’t do. He demonstrated power. Miracles, healings, exorcisms, control over the weather, multiplication of food, and even bringing dead people to life. John had been a national sensation; Jesus was even more so. The crowds clamoring to get near him ballooned into the tens of thousands as the months went by. He taught that the Kingdom of God was near, often illustrating this through parables. He railed against the hypocrisy of the religious elite. His message of God’s Kingdom was to believe in him, which people could demonstrate by full commitment to his way. What was his way? It was a way of a transformed heart, one that beats for justice and righteousness and mercy and love for all, and especially for the most vulnerable. It was a message of radical selflessness, trusting that God would provide. He taught that Kingdom way led not just to eternal life but equally importantly to abundant life for those who were his true disciples. The months went by, and Jesus gradually trained up his 12 disciples, sending them out on a mission trip, and then he gathered 70 around him, sending them out on a second round of mission work. He was preparing them for ministry, at the same as his ministry was growing. More and more people felt that he was the promised Messiah, the savior who was going to free the nation of Israel from its Roman occupiers and restore the Kingdom to Israel like it had been in the days of Israel’s history when great kings like David and Solomon ruled a powerful nation. But not everyone was thrilled about Jesus. Jesus increasingly made the religious elite nervous and jealous, and they often tried to confront and trap him, to no avail.
In year three of his ministry, he and his followers walked to Jerusalem in the days before the Jewish holiday of Passover, and as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, the crowds called out for him to become king. The leaders were seething, angry that Jesus wasn’t following their pathway. So they plotted to kill him, enlisting one of his followers, Judas, to spring a trap. In the city Jesus preached to the crowds, until Thursday night when he had one final meal with his disciples. Jesus’ tone was ominous and mysterious. He talked about being arrested, beaten and killed, but that he would rise again. He talked about leaving them, and giving them the Spirit to empower them, but they didn’t understand. In the cool of the night, they walked out to a nearby garden to pray, when suddenly Judas showed up, bringing with him a company of soldiers. Jesus, rather than fighting, gave himself up, and his disciples scattered in fear.
The next morning, Jesus was beaten, falsely tried by both the Jews and Romans, who sentenced him to carry a wooden cross outside the city, where the Romans nailed him to the wood, and hanged him on the cross. One of his disciples and a few of the women were his only followers who came to the cross to hear his last words. When he breathed his last, the hope of the previous three years seemed dead. Some followers collected and prepared his body, burying him a grave, and sealed it.
Try to put yourself in the place of those followers of Jesus. Imagine the profound confusion, loss, and disappointment you’d be feeling at this moment. Imagine feeling like you had just wasted three years of your life for what now seemed to be a lie. Imagine wracking your brain about this because you saw the miracles. There was no way they were just illusions or sleight of hand. He had actually given you power too on those mission trips, when you had the authority to cast our demons. What you saw was real. What you heard him teach was true. There was no one like him. He truly had a vision for the kingdom of God that was the epitome of love and kindness and joy and goodness.
There was no other conclusion than that he was actually the Messiah. He even said he was. And yet, now he was dead? How could this be? Perhaps some of his followers remembered his words. He had predicted this would happen. He talked about rising again. He talked about sending his Spirit. What should his followers do now? It was Saturday, the Sabbath, so there was nothing to do. Maybe they talked about returning to Galilee, their home area, and get away from the Jewish and Romans leaders who might want to kill them too. Maybe they talked about hiding in Jerusalem, because he said after three days he would rise. But could he have been serious? Was he being literal? He was absolutely dead. They saw his body. They buried him. Sealed the body in a tomb. What should they do? That Saturday must have been long and awful.
Early Sunday morning, some of the women walked to the grave hoping to get in and place spices on the body, an ancient burial tradition. I wonder if any of them were curious, even if in the smallest degree, about this idea of him rising on the third day.
Their curiosity was answered, because the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive! Throughout the rest of the day, their deepest fears were turned to joy and elation as Jesus appeared to many of his followers, confirming that he was alive. What he had told them was true. All of it. He was God, the Messiah, and he was victorious!
Over the next 40 days, Luke tells us in Acts 1, verse 3, Jesus spent time showing himself to his followers, convincing them he was alive and speaking to them about the Kingdom of God. We have precious little information about those 40 days. Wouldn’t you love to know more about their time together after his resurrection? Luke does give us one brief story, and we read about that next in verses 4-5, which we’ll look at in tomorrow’s post.