Acts in 2,500 Words
Acts tells the story of Spirit Empowered Mission – the first 30 years of the history of the church. Dr Luke’s account opens, sometime around the years 30-33AD, with Jesus promising the disciples that they will be baptised in the Holy Spirit and receive power. They are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
When the Spirit falls on the disciples on the day of Pentecost they are transformed. As they are empowered to speak in other languages God begins to fulfil His plan to reach all nations! Empowered by the Spirit Peter stands up to preach. There is a great response to his message. Because of the experienced reality of the transforming action of the Holy Spirit these disciples became devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Lord was doing extraordinary things through the apostles – a man in his 40s, lame since birth, is healed when Peter commands him to stand up. This is great news for the man and draws a crowd. It also draws opposition and the religious leaders have Peter and John arrested. They threaten the apostles but don’t know what to do with them as no one can deny the miracle that has taken place.
The first church in Jerusalem find their sense of identity in who they are as the people of God. While everyone in Jerusalem had united in their determination to overthrow God’s rule by crucifying Jesus, the believers had been brought into relationship with God and with one another.
This is a company of people who know how to pray because they know who God is and so who they are. God is sovereign, the creator, the one who speaks, and who is working out his plan. Knowing this about God puts all other challenges into perspective. This is a company of people who look to God for boldness – not escape! And empowered by the Spirit they are able to witness to the truth boldly.
The Spirit-empowered community not only speak boldly but live boldly – everything is affected, even how they handle their money and possessions. Barnabas (“Mr Encouragement”) stands out as a particularly impressive example of generosity.
But not everything is perfect in this community. Ananias and Saphira want all the kudos of being known as extravagantly generous but without the cost. They knowingly seek to deceive – not only the apostles but God himself. Their deceit threatened the integrity of the entire community and has to be stopped in its tracks.
This is a community transformed by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit; that is growing rapidly numerically; that is characterised by signs and wonders; that grows deep rapidly too; and it is a church that is experiencing favour and opposition. The apostles continue to be threatened by the authorities and at one point are put in jail, only for an angel to set them free! The authorities keep threatening and the apostles keep preaching.
It is a model community for us, but not a perfect community. As they grew their pastoral administration was creaking and some in need were being overlooked.
They didn’t respond to this by easing back on mission but were honest in recognising the problems and put a system in place to help fix the issues. This meant increasing the number of leaders serving the church as deacons were appointed: faithful, Spirit-empowered men who were able to help pastor the people and release the apostles to the ministry of the word.
At this point the story takes a sudden twist as Stephen, one of those appointed as a deacon, is arrested. Just like all the rebels of the past the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem who claim to represent God are actually hardened in rebellion against him and they murder Stephen.
As Stephen is stoned for his bold proclamation of the truth another character emerges on the scene: Saul.
At this point of persecution the gospel begins to spill out beyond Jerusalem as Philip goes first to the Samaritans and then to an Ethiopian official. And the story then jinks back to Saul…
On his way to Damascus to persecute the believers Saul has an encounter with Jesus. Everything changes for Saul when Ananias goes to him in Damascus. Ananias is afraid of Saul but is obedient to God and full of faith. As a result of Ananias’ visit Saul receives his sight; receives the Holy Spirit; and receives baptism to wash away his sins. These changes are costly for Saul and he needs a friend. Barnabas becomes that friend and an advocate for Saul with those who have every reason to be sceptical about him.
With the story of Saul beginning to run, Peter makes a reappearance in what is a crucial moment of gospel advance. Peter is acting in great power, performing extraordinary miracles including the raising of the dead. In response to a vision he goes to the home of the Roman soldier Cornelius. As Peter begins to speak Cornelius and his household are filled with the Spirit. They are then baptised in water and welcomed as full members of the household of God.
The action then shifts to a city called Antioch. Here there is another gospel advance as Jewish believers start to speak to non-Jews about Jesus. In response to the news of this the church in Jerusalem send Barnabas to Antioch to help in the mission. In turn, Barnabas searches out Paul and gets him to come along and help too.
It is in Antioch that the believers are first called ‘Christians’.
As well as Barnabas and Paul, some prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem to help strengthen the church. But then the church in Antioch reciprocates by helping the church in Jerusalem financially.
The story than switches back to Jerusalem and ongoing persecution of the church. Herod has James, brother of John, executed, and puts Peter in jail. But once more Peter is sprung from jail by an angel. While Peter is set free God judges Herod and he drops down dead.
Back in Antioch there are many gifted prophets and teachers in the church and in response to the Spirit’s lead, the church sends Barnabas and Saul off on mission.
On reaching Cyprus, Saul – who is now known as Paul – blinds a sorcerer and leads a high official to faith. This double-sided account of people rejecting the gospel and others gladly receiving it is retold as Barnabas and Paul continue on their journey. In fact, the greater the joyful response of some the greater the hostile response of others.
In Iconium they discover a plot to stone them and get away but in the next town of Lystra Paul is stoned. Paul’s response to getting knocked down is to get right back up again, because, we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
As well as a change in name there is also a change in team shape at this point as ‘Barnabas and Paul’ become ‘Paul and Barnabas’.
Having appointed elders in the churches they had started Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch and report on all that the Lord has done. The mission to the gentiles is going brilliantly but then some people come from Judea to Antioch and say that to be true Christians they need to live like Jews. In response Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others are sent to Jerusalem to work things out. Here they meet with Peter, James, and the other leaders and the verdict is that the gospel can never be ‘Jesus Plus’.
Paul and Barnabas then decide to head out from Antioch and revisit all the churches they had previously started. But this leads to a breakdown in their relationship as Barnabas wants to take his cousin Mark with him. Paul – with good reason – doesn’t trust Mark. Instead of going out together they head in opposite directions.
Having parted from Barnabas, Paul needs another friend and Timothy appears on the scene. In order not to hinder the mission to the Jews Timothy – whose mother is Jewish – is circumcised before setting out with Paul. Timothy is committed to the mission!
Paul and his companions Luke, Timothy and Silas keep pushing into new territory but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going where they thought they might. Instead Paul has a vision of a ‘man of Macedonia’ in response to which they get into a boat and cross from Asia to Europe. This is the next great phase of gospel advance.
In Philippi the Lord works through the apostles to reach some very different people. Businesswoman Lydia becomes the first convert to Christ in the continent of Europe. Then a demon-oppressed slave girl is set free at a word of command from Paul. This provokes a backlash as the owners of the girl lose her moneymaking fortune telling ability. As a result Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown in jail but during the night an earthquake sets them free. As a consequence of this their jailer, and all his household, turn in faith to Jesus. The tables are then turned on the city authorities as Paul and Silas reveal they are Roman citizens who should never have been treated in this shameful way. And the apostles walk out of the city with a humble swagger.
From Philippi Paul goes to Thessalonica and Berea, meeting with a mixed reception, and then on to Athens. In Athens Paul debates with the philosophers and demonstrates how to both contextualise and contend for the gospel. He is gracious, but clear.
Paul then comes to Corinth, the largest city in Greece. Aquila and Priscilla get added to the team here and Timothy and Silas muck in to free Paul up for the ministry. Paul is intimidated by Corinth but the Lord encourages him to be confident that he has ‘many people in this city’. Despite some real difficulties and opposition in Corinth the gospel bears fruit as Paul labours there.
After 18 months, along with Aquila & Priscilla, Paul leaves Corinth and heads to Ephesus, before travelling on to Caesarea, Jerusalem and back to Antioch.
While Paul is travelling, Priscilla & Aquila remain in Ephesus where they meet Apollos who becomes the next key member of the team. Apollos then goes to Corinth while Paul travels back to Ephesus.
In Ephesus Paul meets some disciples who are very confused about the basics of the faith. He instructs them, baptises them, and they are filled with the Spirit.
Once the Jews decide they no longer want Paul to teach about Jesus in the synagogue he carries on ministry at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Through this ministry the whole of the province of Asia is intensively evangelised, with team members starting other churches in the region in cities like Colossae.
There is an upping of the spiritual temperature in Ephesus and extraordinary miracles take place. As a result of this the new believers burn all their old magical paraphernalia – worth a huge amount of money.
In the end the extent of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus is so profound it threatens all the religious and economic foundations of the city. As a result there is a near riot in the city stadium; and after three years of incredible ministry it is time for Paul once more to get on the road.
In the summer of AD55 Paul heads off, revisiting the churches he has previously founded, accompanied by friends who are the fruit of his ministry. He travels around, speaking many words of encouragement. After two years of this ministry Paul moves on again, setting sail from Philippi to Troas.
While in Troas Paul is on a tight schedule and preaches late into the night. A young man named Eutychus falls asleep as Paul preaches, drops out of the window, falls a couple of floors, and dies. Paul prays for him and Eutychus is raised to life.
Paul then travels on and arranges a meeting with the Ephesian elders in the port town of Miletus. When they join him he describes the sense of urgency he feels to get to Jerusalem and, while he does not know what will happen to him there, the dangers he anticipates. Come what may, Paul is determined to finish the race and urges the Ephesian elders to be similarly faithful.
Continuing on his journey Paul is warned of the dangers that face him by the prophet Agabus but despite the pleadings of his friends he is determined to continue to Jerusalem. Once he gets to Jerusalem Paul is advised by James and the other leaders to publicly demonstrate his Jewishness by taking part in certain rites at the temple. But even as he does so, Paul is spotted by some trouble makers who stir up a riot which leads to his arrest.
The commander who arrests Paul assumes he is an Egyptian terrorist but Paul then reveals his credentials: he is both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. But over and above who he is by ethnicity, birth and training, Paul is a Christian! When he testifies before the Jewish council he provokes an uproar but the Lord draws near and tells Paul that he must testify in Rome.
Paul then stands trial before the Roman governor Felix, and spends two years as a captive until a new governor, Festus, is appointed. Paul then makes an appeal to Caesar and Festus determines he will be sent to Rome to have his case heard there. In the meantime King Agrippa wants to hear what Paul has to say and Paul proclaims to him the truth and reasonableness of the gospel.
Paul then begins his journey to Rome, but the ship he is being transported on is caught in a storm and then shipwrecked. Paul had foreseen this but the centurion guarding him, the ships pilot, and its owner had all refused to listen. As disaster overtakes the vessel Paul’s spiritual authority asserts itself and he takes command of the situation, ensuring everyone is looked after and encouraging all on board. Once washed up on shore, Paul is bitten by a viper but suffers no ill effects. Instead he sets about healing the sick on the island before another ship is found and they continue on their way.
Once in Rome Paul is held as a prisoner but is free to preach: for two years the gospel is proclaimed at the heart of empire, with all boldness and without hindrance!