After the Pentecost we read in the book of Acts about the beginning of the apostles’ ministry which takes place in Jerusalem, to the Jews. In this post we’ll look at four key elements or themes that are important for the whole book and at the same time we’ll look at the fulfillment of the first stage of Jesus’ programmatic statement in Acts 1:8. Remember, in this verse Luke set up our expectations for the plot of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples, then they will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. That’s what has to happen for the book of Acts to come to a satisfactory conclusion. In the last post I talked about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Now we move on to the next step – the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem.
The Gospel in Jerusalem, to the Jews
Right after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost in Acts 2 we find that Peter stands up and witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, arguing that Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for. In fact his speech finishes with these words,
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Since this is the Pentecost holiday, there are a lot of Jews in Jerusalem from all over the world (Acts 2:5). As a result of Peter’s speech the text says that about 3,000 received Peter’s words and were baptized. Over the course of the next few chapters we see that the disciples continue to minister in Jerusalem, to the Jews. In these chapters we see more of what looks like the continuation of the ministry of Jesus as the apostles perform signs and wonders (Acts 2:43, 3:1-10, 5:12-16) in the name of Jesus. Even some of the confrontations with the Jewish leaders remind us of Jesus’ confrontations. Throughout these early chapters the apostles continue to bear witness to Jesus in Jerusalem at the temple (3:11-26), and before the leaders (4:5-12). As a result of this witnessing we read that people (Jews) are coming to the Lord (e.g. Acts 4:4, 5:14, 6:7).
Many who heard the Word believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Four Important Themes
In the midst of all this activity there are several themes or motifs that emerge that become important for the rest of the book. The four themes or motifs that I’ll be talking about here all build on each other and I’ll start to show how that happens in the discussion below. Here are the four themes:
- Continuity with the Old Testament
- The Plan of God
- Opposition to God’s Plan
- The Word of the Lord
Continuity with the Old Testament
I’ve talked already about the emphasis on the ministry of the apostles being a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. The first theme I’ll be pointing out here is the idea that Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus’ ministry is in continuity with the Old Testament. To the Jews, some of Jesus’ teaching seemed foreign to them. Even the idea that the Messiah would die on a cross was inconsistent with their view of who the Messiah would be and what he would do.
But the apostles are continuously emphasizing that everything that Jesus did and everything that happened to him, was consistent with what was looked forward to in the Old Testament. You see them emphasizing that for example, when they say, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13, also 5:30). The idea of continuity with the Old Testament especially comes out, however, when they refer back to the prophets.
This is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.
This is quite important. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the Jews is the one true God. If some group (Jesus and the apostles) comes along and starts talking about a radically different God and a radically different plan, then the Jews are right to reject it. But Luke is emphasizing that Jesus and everything he did, and everything the apostles are doing now is in perfect conformity with what the Old Testament has been pointing to all along.
The Plan of God
This next theme is related to the first and it’s especially important in the book of Acts. If Jesus and his program for taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth is in perfect continuity with the Old Testament, then we can be sure that it is God’s plan. Here’s one of the clearest statements asserting that Jesus died according to God’s plan:
This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose [plan] and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead…
That’s a very clear statement (see also 4:28) but John T. Squires writes about five ways we can see in the book of Acts that God is active to carry out his plan.
- Providence (God is the one who performs the action)
- Portents (signs and wonders)
- Prophecy (God reveals his plan and it is carried out)
- Epiphany (A vision in which God’s plan is revealed)
- Fate (indication through the use of the Greek word δει that “it is necessary” for something to happen because it is in accordance with God’s plan)
We’ve seen some of these features in the text already. For example we saw providence in the quote above where it says that “God raised [Jesus] from the dead.” We saw portents (signs and wonders) when Peter and John healed the beggar at the gate called beautiful (3:1-10). Of course in 1:8 Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit and that was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, so we’ve already seen prophecy as well. We’ll run into epiphanies later (e.g. 16:9) but we’ve already seen fate in the election of Matthias, (see Acts 1:16 and 21 where it says “the Scripture had to be fulfilled” and “it is necessary to choose one of the men…”).
It’s actually a pretty interesting exercise to go through the text and look at where each of these turns up, and then think about how they contribute to the plot – the movement of the story toward resolution.
All of these things contribute to the idea that God has a plan that he started to work out in Old Testament times and everything we see happening now, no matter how unexpected, is a part of that plan.
Opposition to God’s Plan
In these early chapters of the book of Acts we already find ways that God’s plan is facing opposition – plenty of it. Right now the disciples are sharing the gospel in Jerusalem, to the Jews, so it’s not surprise that one of the major forces of opposition here is the Jewish leadership. The Jewish leadership opposes the spread of the gospel after Peter and John speak to the crowd in chapter 3, and then again in chapter 5.
Let’s take a moment and relate these to the plot of the book of Acts. In the beginning Luke laid out the plan of God when he quotes Jesus:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jeruslam, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
We have a very clear expectation from the book of Acts. God’s salvation has to go out to the Jews in Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. This expectation is what sets the plot in motion. As we read we track the success of this plan. So far, so good. The Holy Spirit has come. Now the apostles are witnessing in Jerusalem. Will they be successful? Well, they’re facing opposition and the fact that there’s opposition puts God’s plan at risk. Will it really succeed or will it be thwarted by the opposition? If we’re reading for plot we recognize that these stories of opposition are not just things that happen next in time – they are things that put Luke’s idea of God’s plan at risk.
We can think about it this way. In the book of Acts, Luke is making a claim as to what he thinks God’s plan for history is. He expresses it in Acts 1:8. He’s writing the book of Acts as a way of proving that his idea of God’s plan is the right one. What he wants to show is that the spread of the gospel (especially the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles) is not just the happenstance of history, nor is it masterminded by man, but it is the very plan of God. It’s not the apostles who are doing this, it’s God. The opposition faced by this plan actually helps him make his point. If he can show that the plan succeeds only because God himself intervenes to make it happen, he can then show that his idea of God’s plan really is God’s plan.
We can see this being played out when we look at the disciples’ response to the opposition.
In chapter 4 the priests and the Sadducees put Peter and John in jail. The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law question them about what they were doing. Peter and John make it clear that they are on a mission from God. The leaders command them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Please note, if they were to obey the leaders, this would put an end to the plan of God as expressed by Luke in 1:8. This increases the tension. What will they do?
We find out right away. Luke puts this opposition right smack in the context of opposition against God and against his Messiah. We have a quote from Psalm 2 (the nations raging against God’s anointed one), and then the disciples pray
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.
And what happens?
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
In other words, they don’t speak of their own, but empowered by God. This is not their plan that they can bring about by their own will and effort – it is the very plan of God.
We see something else interesting happen after the second episode of opposition in Acts 5. This time the leaders aren’t sure what to do with Peter and the apostles so Gamiliel stand up and gives his advice. It comes down to this:
Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
This is where Luke lays it on the line. If what he says is the plan of God really is the plan of God, it cannot fail. If he can show, in the book of Acts, that the plan as he has laid it out succeeds in the face of every kind of opposition, then he can show that it is not the happenstance of history, it is not the mastermind of man, it is the very plan of God.
The Word of God
So far it’s easy to see how each of these themes relates to and builds on the others. Of course this next theme does too, but it’s not quite so obvious.
David Pao wrote a book in which he suggests it’s really important to follow the “word of the Lord” in the book of Acts. He says that the book of Acts pictures the word of the Lord like a conquering general. By following everywhere in the text where it speaks of the word of the Lord, we can trace the success of God’s plan for the apostles to be his witnesses. Just like a conquering general, once it conquers a place it moves on and never comes back. This marks the success of the campaign in that area. Do you see how this relates to our other themes? The word of the Lord theme actually traces the success of God’s plan in the face of opposition.
What do we find in these early chapters of Acts? The word of God is in Jerusalem and it is finding success against opposition (Acts 4:4, 29, 31, 6:2, 4 and 6). In the final statement we find the last time in the book of Acts when “the word of the Lord” appears in Jerusalem.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
This finishes up the word of God in Jerusalem. The campaign has been a success. Opposition has been faced and thwarted. The word is victorious. Now let’s take a look at where that leaves us with the plot.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you (check);
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (check),
Other posts in the series: The Story of Acts
- The Story of Acts
- How to Read a Story
- The Beginning of Acts
- The Middle of Acts: Continuing the Ministry of Jesus
- Mount Sinai and the Pentecost: Recreating the People of God
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Jerusalem
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Judea and Samaria
- You Will be My Witnesses: To the Ends of the Earth
- We’ve Only Just Begun: The Emergence of Paul
- A Work that You Will Not Beleive
- I Must See Rome!