INTRODUCING THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
This is Luke’s sequel to his gospel account. Again he dedicates the writing to his Gentile patron “Theophilus” (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Luke, the traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, appears several times in the first person “we” (e.g. 16:10).
Date -- Sometime soon after AD 70
In a nutshell -- Acts is the story of how God, through his Holy Spirit, empowered the apostles, to take the good news from Jerusalem to the ends of the known world. It explains how the church transitioned from small Jewish sect to world-wide transnational and multi-ethnic movement.
Summary verses --
The flow: -- “Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The message: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” (Acts 16:31)
It’s already evident on the first page of the Jesus story that his impact will be uncontainable -- a firehose filling an ordinary Jewish jar.
Tomorrow is Epiphany -- one of my favorite days in the church calendar.
Actually, in the early church they combined the celebration of the Nativity (Christmas) with the arrival of the magi (Epiphany) and did both of them on January 6th. But eventually those commemorations were separated -- wisely so, I think.
He emphasis is important. Christmas celebrates God becoming human. Epiphany celebrates the fact that with the arrival of the Christ child God is revealing himself to the world. Jesus will not just be the Jewish Messiah but he will be the Savior of the world.
And so some of the first to pay homage are Gentiles -- magi from Persia -- probably scholars in the Zoroastrian tradition. They somehow connect the dots and see a sign in an unusual star that something universal and cosmic is shaking over in Judea. They mount their camel steeds to make the trek and find and worship Jesus.
While the Jewish establishment is pushing back from the very beginning, the foreigners are INEXPLICABLY expressing wild enthusiasm for Jesus.
It’s obvious from the get-go that the Jesus story will not be contained by the borders or the traditions of Judaism -- as wonderful and helpful as they are.
And that leads us right into our passage in Acts 1 this morning. As we are starting our own pilgrimage into the story of the emerging church we’ve read vss 1-11. However, I’d really like us to hone in on vs 8 -- which is not only a summary of all the action to come in the whole book of Acts but it is a reprise of the Epiphany theme. The Jesus story can’t be contained and it spreads to the ends of the earth -- infecting both Jews and NON-JEWS/Gentiles alike.
Now, at this point in the story the apostles still don’t get it. They expect that the resurrected Jesus, with whom they had been hanging out, is going to pull off a coup d'état -- that he is going to lead a political revolt.
Vs 6 -- “...those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
That is, are you going to rally the troops, claim your Davidic throne, and give the Roman oppressors the boot?
They’d asked him this before in the gospel narratives and each time Jesus skirted the issue and redirected the conversation. And if you were there with him in Acts 1 you might think that he was doing the same thing again.
But the way that he answers in vss 7- 8 suggests otherwise. It is still an indirect answer -- but it is perhaps more direct than anything he has already said.
Vs 7 -- Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, (and he is speaking prophetically here in vs 8) you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
This is probably the most important verse in the book of Acts -- not just because it summarizes the flow of the entire book -- but also because it is so instructive in regard to our own mission. You see, we are followers of Jesus in the apostolic tradition. That is, we consider the teaching of the apostles to be authoritative and their experiences to be instructive.
We can learn from what they say and what they went through to hear God say it through them. In a very real sense Acts 1:8 is not only predictive of flow of the story. But it is also establishes a pattern that the church and all followers of Jesus would be wise to embrace.
So, this morning I want to focus on three instructive components in Acts 1:8.
The first thing I’d like us to note is that GOD PROVIDES THE JUICE. If you’re learning English with us, the word “juice” is often used as an expression for “power” or “electricity.”
And in vs 8 Jesus says, “...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”
So often we end up convincing ourselves that we’ve got to come up with the juice or power ourselves. We think this as individual Christians and as the church. If we would only whip up enough enthusiasm or energy then God would meet us halfway and fill in what we need to make it to the finish line.
But following Jesus is like salvation itself. It’s not at all something we do for God but something God does through us.
I know that I’m probably pushing the car against the flow of traffic right now. Every January we all make these resolutions that we’re going to change -- that we’re going to be more committed to this that or the other. We’re going to dig deep inside to find the energy to exercise daily. We’re going to become more disciplined in how we eat. Those are our New Year’s themes. But they’re all out the window -- long gone by February 1st.
The fact is that when we are looking internally -- looking toward ourselves to juice things up -- we always run out of power. It is unsustainable.
So Jesus tells his disciples to relax. They aren’t going to bring about the kingdom through their efforts. But once God pours his Holy Spirit on you some pretty amazing things are going to happen. As a matter of fact there is going to a paradigm shift into a whole new way of getting things done.
Indeed, once Jesus ascends, the apostles retreat back into their room in Jerusalem and instead of taking to the streets to preach or heal the sick -- they hang out in the room devoting themselves to prayer -- and just chilling together for awhile -- waiting for the next thing that God is going to do.
When you think about it, Jesus probably would not have done very well on the motivational speaker circuit -- nor as a football coach. There is none of this “dig deep down -- you’re going to change the world -- if you do better than your best -- if you give 110%” kind’a stuff.
There is no “The Father and I are counting on you to go out there and turn the world upside down. We’ve invested in a lot in you and know that you’re the people for the job.”
It’s not about the disciples showing up to play. “Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”
So in spite of our discomfort with the idea that it doesn’t all rest on our shoulders and that God doesn’t depend on us -- GOD PROVIDES THE JUICE.
The second instructive component in our verse today is the idea that OUR ROLE IN THE OPERATION IS TO SERVE AS WITNESSES.
“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…”
This is an incredibly central idea in the book of Acts. The word “witness” in all of it’s various forms, appears 39 times in the book. Talk bout reinforcement!
The word for witnesses is mar'-toos -- from which we get the word “martyrs.” The word for martyr and witness is the same. And there is a sense in which this applies -- for almost all the Apostles died violently as martyrs because of their message.
The point is that they are so faithful in talking about what they’ve seen that they are willing to die for it.
Again, though, the thrust is back onto what God is doing -- rather than what we do. A witness isn’t the center of the action. It does not revolve around the witness. His or her role is simply to talk about what he or she has seen and experienced.
In this context it means that the witness explains through word and deed what GOD HAS DONE AND IS DOING. Your calling -- your vocation -- is to be a witness.
Of course, your credibility as a witness goes down if what you say contradicts how you live. So it is important for a witness to live it out. But to witness is primarily the action of speaking -- talking about what you have seen God do.
An example of witnessing is seen in 4:20 where Peter and JOhn are being questioned by the Jewish ruling council that wants to know why they can’t keep their mouths shut -- “As for us, we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Now, I know that some people freak out at the idea of witnessing. It’s not so much that they are embarrassed about being associated with Jesus. Usually, I believe it is because we take the responsibility seriously.
That is, we don’t want to botch it up. And we’ve seen so many people whose witness falls apart because they oversell -- and say too much at once. They pull the lever on the dump truck and bury people in their words. But that’s not really witnessing -- at least in a healthy sense.
Remember, the power -- the juice -- comes from God. So our call is not only to say something but even more fundamentally to be sensitive to what God is doing in the situation and to ask God to give you the right word or words for the moment.
So, I find that I’m constantly asking God, what is it that you want me to say in this conversation -- how much -- how little.
And then I don’t really worry about it. Often, I find that God doesn’t give me a particular word to say or an opening in the conversation to talk about Jesus.
So, I assume that he is not saying something to that person at that particular moment. That’s okay. And I’m not going to try to manipulate things and steer them in a certain direction so I can get my spiel in. Something to make me feel good about fulfilling some kind of religious duty.
That is the kind of witnessing that is counter productive.
People can sense if what you’re saying flows out of who you are and your experience with God. They know if it is something that flows with authenticity out of your own weakness and openness.
And then I don’t replay conversations anymore, thinking about what I should have said or how I should have said it. I just trust that God will use what I say in ways that are greater than the words I use. It’s his conversation -- his power. And as I consciously trust that God will give me a word, I find that he often does.
OUR ROLE IN THE OPERATION IS TO SERVE AS WITNESSES.
Then the third instructive component in our verse today is the idea that GOD’S MISSION TRANSCENDS BORDERS -- GEOGRAPHIC AND ETHNIC.
Remember the conversation in vs 6. The apostles are still thinking that Jesus and his mission is about Jews and Israel. So hear how radical vs 8 is in that context --
“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”Think of this statement as concentric circles -- moving from the inside out -- like ripples in a pond after the rock lands on the water.
When Jesus says, “Jerusalem” you can hear the cheering in the hearts of the apostles. Jerusalem was the Jewish capital. And if you wanted to impact the Jewish world and usher in the kingdom of God you’d certainly want to take a stand in Jerusalem.
And then he says, “Judea…” Again, everyone cheers.
That was an important area, too. Judea consisted of the towns and countryside that surrounded Jerusalem. It was occupied by faithful Jews who could live out their religious obligations through regular commutes into Jerusalem. They were commuter Jews.
But then, the conversation stopper comes when Jesus says “Samaria.”
That was the next ring out of Jerusalem and Judea. And Samaria was occupied by heretics who had rejected Jewish orthodoxy and intermarried with pagans and were practicing a quirky form of worship that involved weird sacrifices to the Hebrew God. At least that’s how the Jews saw it.
Culturally they were a different beast. They did not see eye to eye with Jews on much of anything. So they were not good candidates for participation in God’s kingdom.
It’s as though Jesus were to say to us -- “And you will be my witnesses in Laveen, Phoenix, and Colorado City…” You may recall that Colorado City, Arizona is the hub of activity for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
And then to take the scandal even further, Jesus adds, “and to the end of the earth.”
That would most certainly include people who don’t recognize Yahweh, the Jewish God, at all. It would include the strangely white Europeans; Greeks and their bizarre philosophical outlook with a pantheon of deities; and Rome -- the capital of the cruel, oppressive, and ungodly empire.
These would have all been considered enemies of God.
Yet, Jesus says that you’ll be witnesses in all of these distant places and to all of these god-forsaken people. That would have been a truly revolutionary idea for the apostles. It involved transcending geographical, cultural, and ethnic boundaries with the gospel message.
The Holy Spirit empowers us to transcend barriers to communicate the good news of Jesus to people otherwise out of reach. This is the keypoint this morning.
Now, 2,000 years later we’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that the church is a global movement that transcends borders and cultures. Afterall we send out missionaries to unreached people groups.
So we know that this is an important part of the mission.
But at the same time it often makes us a bit uncomfortable to be devoting resources and energy toward people who are so far away and so unlike us.
And then if some of those people start to drift our way -- and their presence becomes disruptive of the way that we think things should be done...
There is still serious push back in regard to Acts 1:8 -- even 2000 years later. And this isn’t just an American issue. Everywhere in the world I’ve been and with each of the people groups I’ve worked -- I’ve seen some version of the pushback. It is natural to want to protect your own culture and your own way of doing things -- to focus your energy on creating stability and strength at home where we can see immediate benefits -- and we are at least somewhat the beneficiaries.
That’s the problem with all this cross-cultural ministry stuff. Most people can see that there isn’t much of a chance that they themselves or even their children will benefit from it. It’s pure service -- kind of like God sending his one and only Son into the world to save self-focused and ungrateful people -- really, when you think about it, what does God get out of the deal?
That’s a barrier to overcome in our own hearts and minds -- and if we’d all just buckle down and give it 110% we could really go to town with this worldwide dimension to the mission.
Oh, wait… I guess I said that it doesn’t really have to do with us -- with our own power or juice. I guess that we’re going to have to trust that God will send his Holy Spirit to empower us not only to be witnesses -- but also witnesses all the way to the ends of the earth.
I’m trusting that will be the case. And I’m wondering -- hoping that some of the juice will flow uncontrollably through our study of the book of Acts this year.
So, as we prepare to receive that juice I think it would be good if we each memorized Acts 1:8 as our compass to help us keep our bearings throughout the book.
It seems like an appropriate thing to do for Epiphany.
So, let’s practice it a few times together.
“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”_ _ _
All scripture quoted is from the Common English Bible, © 2011.