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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART ONE

SERMON DELIVERED ON 10-28-17

       Having completed our nearly two year journey through the book of Proverbs, today I am going to begin another journey.  This journey is going to be a historical one. It is going to cover a very eventful period of history, a 40 year period of history that tracks the development of Christianity as a religious system.  Today we are going to begin a journey through the book of Acts or what is sometimes referred to as the “Acts of the Apostles.”   

       The book of Acts is a history book.  It reports on a number of dynamics that all came together to facilitate the founding of Christianity and the Christian Church.   It begins with reporting the ascension of Jesus and quickly moves to describing the events associated with the Feast of Pentecost in AD 31.  It proceeds to chronicle the ministry of Peter and John and other of the Apostles and shows how persecutions began early leading to the martyrdom of Stephen.  

       It goes on to report the activities of a man named Saul who had his named changed to Paul after being converted to Christianity.  Subsequent to Paul’s conversion we see the Gospel massage going to the Gentiles beginning with the Cornelius event. We see the development of much controversy regarding doctrine as New Covenant dynamics were replacing Old Covenant dynamics.  We see the first church council held where doctrinal differences were addressed. Much of the rest of Acts covers the ministry of Paul as he takes the gospel to the Gentiles, builds churches and suffers much persecution for his efforts. 

       The book of Acts provides insights into the covenantal transition that came with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It reports on the conflict that arose between Jews and Jews and Jews and Gentiles over the changes that were taking place.  It deals with doctrinal issues.  The book of Acts takes us back to our roots as a church.  It provides us with a record of the ground floor events that led to the past 2000 years of Christian development.  The book of Acts is a history of the birth and the birth pains of the Christian Church.  

       In this series we will take a systemic look at all that is recorded in this document called Acts.  We will take our time and carefully examine the events and issues recorded and presented in this book.  This will not be just a cursory review but an in-depth comprehensive examination and investigation of the things recorded in this document.  We will carefully consider side issues that pertain to our overall investigation.  In fact, we will begin this series with a side issue. 

Who authored the book of Acts?

       Who wrote the Acts?  That may sound like a strange question.  Everybody knows Luke wrote the Acts, right!  Well, how do we know that?  Nothing in the book itself says Luke wrote it. For that matter nothing in Matthew says Matthew wrote Matthew, nothing in Mark says Mark wrote Mark, nothing in Luke says Luke wrote Luke and nothing in John says John wrote John.  So why are these documents named after who they are named?

       In fact, when it comes to the four Gospel’s, only the Gospel of John gives indication as to who wrote it. This Gospel gives indication it was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

       John 21:20: Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them.

       John 21:24: This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

       For a variety of reasons most conclude John is that disciple.  However, the fourth Gospel does not definitively identify John as that disciple.  Instead, what we see in the fourth Gospel is Lazarus as the only disciple specifically singled out as being loved by Jesus.  Therefore, some scholars have concluded Lazarus wrote the fourth Gospel.  So, as you can see, the issue of authorship can be challenging.  

       So how can we know if it was Luke who wrote Acts and the Gospel called Luke?  How can we know that Matthew, Mark and John wrote the Gospels named after them?        

       Some New Testament scholars, such as Bart Ehrman believe the Gospels could not have been written by the named authors since they are thought to have been illiterate.  Ehrman, in his book, "How Jesus Became God," writes that the followers of Jesus were "uneducated lower class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine."  Ehrman alludes to Acts 4:13 where the writer says Peter and John were perceived to be unschooled, ordinary men.  Ehrman claims that only 10% of the population during the time of Christ could read or write. Is this true? 

       Acts 4:13: When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (NIV).

       When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus (NET).

       According to the Arndt Gingrich Greek Lexicon, The Greek word rendered unschooled/uneducated does mean being illiterate and unable to write. On the other hand, the Greek word rendered “ordinary” is defined in the Arndt Gingrich Lexicon as being a layman in contrast to an expert.  In a footnote to Acts 4:13, the NET Bible says this:

       Uneducated does not mean “illiterate,” that is, unable to read or write. Among Jews in NT times there was almost universal literacy, especially as the result of widespread synagogue schools. The term refers to the fact that Peter and John had no formal rabbinic training and thus, in the view of their accusers, were not qualified to expound the law or teach publicly. 

       This statement reflects well the meaning of the Greek word rendered “ordinary” which means a layman in contrast to an expert. Compared to the religious leaders, Peter and John would be considered uneducated.  However, It must also be pointed out Peter and John presented themselves in such manner that the religious leaders recognized these men had been with Jesus.  This was somewhat of an inadvertent admission that these men had become religiously educated because of their association with Jesus.

       So what is the evidence for literacy in first century Israel?  While formal literacy statistics do not exist, there are some indicators. The Dead Sea Scrolls which date to the first century reveal a high level of literacy within the Qumran community. Many inscriptions on tombstones have been found dating to the first century. These inscriptions appear to be the work of commoners. 

       Potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) were used by commoners to write messages on. Many potsherds, with writing in both Hebrew and Greek, were discovered at Masada and found to be associated with the Jews who had fled there during the war with Rome. We know from Luke 4:17 that Jesus was able to read as He is seen reading from an Isaiah scroll.   

       Ehrman's assessment that the literacy rate among first century Jews was very low appears suspect. It should be noted that Matthew, being a tax collector, may well have needed to be literate to do his job. Luke is seen as being a physician (Colossians 4:14). If this is the same Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts, as a physician, it is very likely he was literate. We don't know much about Mark. We know John was a fisherman and apparently was in the fishing business with his brother James. What level of literacy may have been required to run a fishing business is unknown. 

       Since Ehrman believes the designated authors of the Gospels were illiterate Aramaic speaking peasants, he believes they would not have known the Greek language much less write with it.  Since the Gospels were written in Greek, Ehrman believes it to be highly improbable that the authors of record are the actual authors of these documents. 

       However, Greek was commonly spoken in first century Palestine as it was throughout the Roman Empire. Therefore, it is presumptuous to conclude that the designated authors of the Gospels could not speak or write Greek.  Furthermore, there is good evidence that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. 

       The oldest testimony to the authorship of the Gospels comes from a man named Papies who wrote around 125 A.D. Papies recorded that Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations.  Papies also records that Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.  The testimony of Papies gives reasonable credence to Matthew and Mark being the authors of their respective Gospels.

        The church historian Irenaeus, who wrote around 180 A.D., makes this statement: “Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself, handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching.  Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast, himself, produced his Gospel while he was living in Ephesus in Asia.”

       As a side note, it is interesting that Irenaeus believed Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. The writings of Papies also reflect this belief. Origen (A.D. 185-254) also believed Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.  The Catholic theologian Jerome, writing in the early fourth century stated that Matthew's Gospel was initially written in Hebrew, a copy of which was in the library at Caesarea. Jerome indicates he translated the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew into Greek and Latin.  Athanasius (A.D. 293-373) also writes of Matthew originally being written in Hebrew. 

       Papies wrote less than a hundred years after the death of Christ and only about thirty years after the death of John if John died sometime in the 90's A.D. as most Biblical scholars believe.  Irenaeus wrote about a hundred years after the death of John.  Both Papies and Irenaeus give witness to the Gospels being written by the named authors and being written at an early date as Mark is seen as an associate of Peter and Luke is seen as an associate of Paul.   The fact that Irenaeus could write in 180 A.D. that Mark, Matthew and John were the authors of their respective Gospels is a reasonable indicator of these men being the actual authors and therefore their work being accomplished in the first century before their deaths.

       Now let’s get back to Luke. The oldest Cannon of NT Scriptures that has been discovered is called the Muratorian Cannon and dates to between 170 and 180 AD. This Cannon shows Luke to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. 

       Irenaeus who wrote around AD 180 wrote that Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Irenaeus sees Luke as a follower of Paul who sits down to write in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher which we can safely assume is Paul. Was Irenaeus talking here about the Gospel attributed to Luke or was he alluding to Luke writing the Acts?  While it would appear it was Luke’s Gospel that is being referenced here, Irenaeus does say it was the Gospel preached by his teacher that was set down in a book.  Since Luke is seen as a follower of Paul and since much of Acts is about Paul’s ministry, it is possible Irenaeus is referring to the book of Acts.

       When considering the witness of Papies, Irenaeus and the Muratorian Cannon, it appears fairly evident the Gospels and the book of Acts were written by Luke.

Dating the book of Acts:

       When was the book of Acts written?  Some NT scholar’s date the writing of Acts to between 110 and 120 AD, some between 80 and 90 AD and others date it to the 60’s AD.  The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome.  We are not told what happens to Paul.  Luke provides details about Paul’s previous appearances before Government magistrates but writes nothing about Paul appearing before magistrates in Rome. Paul appears to have still been alive when Luke finished writing the Acts.  This would indicate Acts was written before Paul died which is thought to have occurred in the early sixties A.D.

       There are a number of places in the Acts narrative where the writer uses the first person plural pronoun “we”.  This implies the author of Acts was present with Paul on a number of occasions and thus wrote an eye-witness account of various events associated with Paul.  This would indicate this document was written at an earlier date.

       It should also be noted when trying to date the book of Acts that there is no mention of the war with Rome which resulted in the temple being destroyed along with much of the city of Jerusalem and other cities of Israel. The war began in AD 66 with the temple being destroyed in AD 70.  In reading the works of the Jewish historian Josephus, this was a most traumatic time for the nation of Israel with over one million being killed and 100,000 Jews taken into captivity.  This event certainly would have had an impact on the developing church.  Yet this disaster is not mentioned in the book of Acts. This gives further indication the Acts were written during the early 60’s AD, prior to the war with Rome. 

The writing style of Luke:

       Let’s now take a look at the writing style of Luke.  The Gospel attributed to Luke appears to have been written not so much as a result of Luke being a follower of Paul but as a result of Luke carefully examining the history of the Christ event and writing accordingly.  Luke is seen as a historian and begins his Gospel by informing us how he went about writing his Gospel.

       Luke 1:1-4: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

       This is a very informative passage of Scripture. It tells us a lot.  Let’s carefully unpack this passage.  Luke writes that “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.”  The Greek word rendered “undertaken” means “set ones hand to.”  As some commentaries point out, this indicates these were written accounts.  This statement by Luke in and of itself indicates widespread literacy.  If many had undertaken to write an account of things associated with the Christ event, then they must have been able to read and write.

       Luke goes on to say “they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  The implication is that the information Luke was about to write was obtained from those who walked with Jesus during His ministry.  There is no indication that Luke personally knew Jesus but the information he was about to put into print came from those who did personally know Jesus.   

       It is instructive that Luke says that many had undertaken to draw up an account of what had taken place.  This indicates there were numerous documents written by numerous authors chronicling the events associated with Christ’s time here on planet earth.  We no longer have those documents.  We only have the four Gospels.  However, it is apparent Luke used these documents to write his own document.  He probably also used information handed down orally.  

       Luke writes that he had “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.”  The Greek word rendered “investigated” in the NIV has the general meaning of to follow a thing, to understand and to investigate. Luke appears to be telling us he did his homework. He carefully investigated the information that had been handed down from those who were witnesses to events associated with Christ.  Having been convinced of the truthfulness of this information, he proceeded to write his own account which he addresses to a person named Theophilus.  As we will see, Luke addresses his document called Acts to Theophilus as well.

       Neither the Biblical Scriptures nor sources outside the Scriptures identify who this Theophilus is.  He is mentioned only in Luke 1:4 and Acts 1:1. His name is made up of two Greek words theos which means God and phileo which means love.  This combination can be rendered “lover of God.”  Our only real clue as to who this man may have been is that Luke addresses him his as “most excellent Theophilus” in the Luke passage.  This same Greek word is used by Paul in addressing Governor’s Felix and Festus as seen in Acts 23, 24 and 26. This indicates Theophilus may have been a high ranking official of some kind.

Acts, chapter one:

       Acts 1:1-3: In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

       As we have seen, Luke was a very cautious writer who carefully examined the evidence for the events he wrote about, including the event of the resurrection. Luke did his homework. Luke was contemporary with the Apostles and had opportunity to speak to them and pick their brains as to all aspects of the Christ event. In addition to written material Luke may have had access to; he very likely had opportunity to speak to Mary, the mother of Jesus and to Mary Magdalene and others who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after having seen him die on the cross.

       Therefore, Luke could report with confidence that Jesus was truly alive after having been dead and did indeed appear to the Apostles a number of times.  Since Luke is believed to have been an associate of Paul's, he could have picked Paul’s brain and spoke to any number of the 500 that Paul claims had seen the risen Christ. 

       I Corinthians 15:3-7:  For what I have received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that He was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.  After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of them are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as one abnormally born.

       Luke, as was the case with Paul, was not living in a cocoon. These men very likely had interaction with Mary and the brothers of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus did have blood brothers contrary to the teachings of one major branch of Christianity which claims Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. I will address this matter in greater detail next week when we discuss Acts 1:14. 

       Luke relates that Jesus had given instructions to the apostles before His ascension and spoke to them about the kingdom of God.  We know what those instructions were.  Luke writes of them in his Gospel and repeats them in his Acts narrative.

       Luke 24:49-51: I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.

       Acts 1:4-5: On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

       As we get into chapter 2 of Acts we will read of the disciples following these instructions and staying in Jerusalem and receiving that power from on high that Jesus spoke of.  You will notice that Jesus said it would be in a few days they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

       The general consensus is that it was ten days after the ascension that this occurred.  This is based on the knowledge that the Feast of Pentecost occurs 50 days after the offering up of the first fruits of the harvest which occurred the day after the Sabbath that followed the Passover.  It is believed Jesus was resurrected on the day the first fruits were offered up and in so doing became the first fruits of those resurrected from the dead to eternal life.  Paul alludes to this in his letter to the Corinthians.

       1 Corinthians 15:20: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

       Since Jesus is reported to have spent 40 days with the disciples after His resurrection, adding an additional 10 days after the ascension to make 50 days takes us to Pentecost.   This, of course is all based on certain assumptions as to when the crucifixion and resurrection took place relative to the Passover, the weekly Sabbath and the High Day Sabbath in the year these events took place.  That is a whole different discussion which I won’ get into here.  Suffice it to say, the disciples didn’t have to wait too long to receive the gift of the Spirit promised by Jesus after His ascension to the Father.

       Jesus speaks of being baptized with the Holy Spirit.  He said “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."  When we see John baptizing in the NT, it always appears he is dunking people under the water.  What is Jesus saying when He speaks of being baptized with the Holy Spirit.

       The English word “baptism” is a translation of the Greek neuter noun baptisma.  The English word “baptize” or “baptized” is a translation of the Greek baptizo which is the verb form of baptisma.  There is also a masculine noun form of this word pronounced baptismos which is used in Scripture to designate ritual washing.  Another form of this word is bapto and is used to describe dipping into water or some other liquid. 

       The basic meaning of these Greek words is to dip or immerse into something. It is the verb baptizo that is most often used by Scriptural writers when speaking of someone being baptized following their acceptance of Christ. While water is the primary agent referred to in Scripture relative to how the word baptizo is used, it should be noted that baptisma and baptizo are also used to signify other agents of dipping or immersing. The Scriptures speak of baptism by trial and fire and by the Holy Spirit.  The Scriptural writers also use baptizo to signify being plunged or immersed into Christ and into Moses. 

       For example, Mark 10:35-36 records James and John asking that they be allowed to sit on the right and left of Christ in His glory.  Jesus questioned whether they were prepared to be baptized with the baptism He would be baptized with.  Here baptizo is not referring to being immersed in water or the use of water at all but being immersed into a trial. It is apparent Jesus is referring to the trial of His crucifixion      

       The Greek baptizo is also used to show immersion by the Holy Spirit and fire.  John preached that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 

       Matthew 3:11: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

       We know that the disciple’s baptism by the Holy Spirit was not so much of an immersion as it was a being poured upon by the power of God which was witnessed to by them speaking in a variety of languages when the Spirit of God rested on them.  We will be discussing this event in detail as we proceed with this series.  Peter actually describes the Pentecost event as the Spirit being poured out upon them. In speaking of Jesus, Peter said this:

       Acts 2:33: Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

       So here we find what was to be baptism by the Holy Spirit analogized to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  The Greek rendered “poured out” means to pour,   shed or spill and is used in this manner both literally and figuratively in the NT.  This is what we see happening at Pentecost.  The giving of the Holy Spirit is seen as a pouring out but is also described as a baptism by both John and Jesus.  

       The Greek baptizo is also used to signify being baptized into another person.   The Israelites are said to have been baptized into Moses.

       1 Corinthians 1: 1-2: For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

       We know that God, through Moses, parted the sea and the Israelite’s walked through the sea on dry land.  A cloud followed Israel by day.  Paul sees this as symbolic of the people being baptized into Moses who was their appointed leader.  Here people were not literally immersed into water as appears to be the case with John’s baptism but water is seen as providing protection.        

       One additional use of baptizo in a non water sense is found in chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Here Paul speaks of being baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that is seen as the agent of baptism whereby we are thrust into the body of Christ which elsewhere in Scripture is seen as the church.

       I Corinthians 12:13: For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

       So while it is true that we frequently see the various Greek words for baptism used in the NT to show an immersion into water, it is apparent baptism can also be used to signify being given the Holy Spirit and to designate immersion into the body of Christ.  It appears when Jesus speaks of his disciples receiving the Holy Spirit, it is in this manner He is using the word baptism.  

       In the next sermon in this series we will continue to look at the issue of baptism and what it meant for the disciples to be baptized by the Holy Spirit.

PART TWO