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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12
By John MacArthur
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1994 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Resources for Finishing Our Lord's Unfinished Work
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, "Which," He said, "you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." (1:1–11)
The work of Jesus Christ is both finished and unfinished. His great work of providing redemption is finished, and nothing may be added to it (cf. John 17:4). His work of ministry and proclamation, however, is not finished. That work He only started. Along with the other gospels, the first account composed by Luke for Theophilus (the gospel of Luke), records all that Jesus began to do and teach during His life on earth. The rest of the New Testament describes the continuation of His work by the early church. We are still finishing it until He comes.
Christ's work of redemption is completed, and the church's work of evangelism begins. Acts chronicles the initial stages and features of that unfinished work, and sets the path the church is to follow until the end.
As the book of Acts begins, an important transition takes place. During His ministry on earth, the work of preaching and teaching was done primarily by our Lord Himself as He trained His disciples. Now it is time to pass that responsibility on to the apostles, before He ascends to the Father. The burden of proclaiming repentance and the good news of forgiveness to a lost world will rest squarely on their shoulders. The apostles will also be responsible for teaching the truths of the faith to the church.
From a purely human standpoint the apostles were in no way ready for such a task. There were things they still did not understand. Their faith was weak, as evidenced by our Lord's frequent reprimands of them (cf. Matt. 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 12:28). Nor had they acquitted themselves well during the traumatic events surrounding Christ's arrest and crucifixion. They had not only failed in public witness but also in private loyalty and in personal faith. Peter, their acknowledged leader, had vehemently and profanely denied even knowing Jesus. His faith and spiritual character were not strong enough to withstand the challenge of a lowly servant girl (Matt. 26:69–70). With the exception of John, all the disciples had fled in fear of their own lives and were nowhere to be found at the crucifixion site. Although Jesus had explicitly predicted His resurrection, the disciples scoffed at the initial reports that His tomb was empty (Luke 24:11). When Jesus appeared to them, He found them cowering behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish authorities (John 20:19). Thomas, not present at that first appearance, refused to believe even the testimony of the other ten apostles (John 20:24–28). Only a second appearance, and the Lord's invitation to touch His crucifixion wounds, cured Thomas of his skepticism.
The apostles themselves obviously lacked the understanding and spiritual power to complete Jesus' unfinished ministry of evangelism and edification. However, in these His last words to them before His ascension, the Lord Jesus Christ reiterates (cf. John 20:22) the promise of the Spirit. He will empower the apostles (and all subsequent believers) with those resources necessary to finish the Savior's unfinished work. They needed the correct message, manifestation, might, mystery, mission, and motive.
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. (1:1–2)
As already noted, the first account refers to Luke's gospel, which he composed for Theophilus (see the Introduction for further details). That account was largely concerned with the earthly life and ministry of our Lord, revealing all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up. From the inception of His earthly ministry until His ascension, Jesus had instructed His disciples by both deed and word. His miracles were to strengthen their faith; His parables were to clarify spiritual truth for them; His teaching was to formulate their theology. He revealed to them the truth they would need to carry on His work.
It is axiomatic that those who would carry the message of Christ to the world must know what that message is. There must be an accurate understanding of the content of Christian truth before any ministry can be effective. Such knowledge is foundational to spiritual power and to fulfilling the church's mission. The lack of it is insurmountable and devastating to the evangelistic purpose of God.
The apostle Paul was so concerned about this that it was central to his desire for all believers. In Ephesians 1:18–19a he wrote, "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe."
To the Philippians he wrote, "This I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:9–10).
Paul's prayer for the Colossians eloquently expresses his longing that all believers be mature in knowledge:
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience. (Col. 1:9–11)
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul charged Timothy, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth." Then he challenged his son in the faith to teach sound truth to others (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6, 11, 16; 6:2b, 3, 20, 21; 2 Tim. 1:13, 14; 2:2; 3:16, 17; 4:1–4).
The writer of Hebrews rebuked some of his readers' ignorance of the truth: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Heb. 5:12).
Mere factual knowledge, of course, was powerless to save those Hebrews, or anyone else, unless it was believed and appropriated. In Matthew 23:2–3, Jesus warned against imitating the hypocritical Pharisees: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them." Jesus set the pattern of consistency in behaving and proclaiming because, as Luke observed, He began both to do as well as to teach. He perfectly lived the truth He taught.
Paul admonished believers to "adorn the doctrine" they had been taught by how they lived their lives. He wrote, "Show yourself to be an example of good deeds ... sound in speech ... showing all good faith that [you] may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect" (Titus 2:7, 8, 10). Evangelism is telling people that God saves from sin. What adorns that message, or makes it believable, is a holy life that clearly demonstrates God can save from sin. It is self-defeating to proclaim the message of salvation from sin while living a sinful life. The messenger must manifest the power of the message he is proclaiming. Jesus preached righteousness and lived it perfectly. We have to preach the same message and strive to live it as perfectly as we can.
Two major factors contribute to the church's powerlessness today. First, many are ignorant of biblical truth. Second, those who may know biblical truth all too often fail to live by it. Proclaiming an erroneous message is tragic, yet so is proclaiming the truth but giving scant evidence that one's life has been transformed by it. Such people cannot expect others to be moved by their proclamation. The exemplary nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne gave the following words of advice to an aspiring young minister:
Do not forget the culture of the inner man—I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God's sword, His instrument—I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. (Andrew A. Bonar, Memoirs of McCheyne [Chicago: Moody, 1978], 95)
Those who would be effective in preaching, teaching, and evangelism must give heed to those words. Sound doctrine supported by holiness of life is essential for all who would minister the Word.
Even after His resurrection, Jesus continued to teach the essential realities of His kingdom until the day when He was taken up, a reference to His ascension. (Luke uses this term four times in this chapter, vv. 2, 9, 11, 22.) That day, marking the end of our Lord's earthly ministry, had arrived. As He had predicted, Jesus was about to ascend to the Father (cf. John 6:62; 13:1, 3; 16:28; 17:13; 20:17). During His ministry, He had given orders to the apostles by the Holy Spirit, who was both the source and the power of His ministry (cf. Matt. 4:1; 12:18, 28; Mark 1:12; Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18). Jesus' ministry in the Spirit's power demonstrated the pattern for believers. They, like the apostles, also are to obey Him (cf. Matt. 28:19–20). The Holy Spirit is the source of power for believers' ministry and enables them to obey their Lord's teaching.
The verb entello(given orders) signals a command (cf. Matt. 17:9), emphasizing the force of the truth. It encompasses a series of commands to obey God, as well as threats in light of the consequences of disobedience.
While Jesus instructed thousands of people in His days on earth, His primary and constant learners were the apostles whom He had chosen. Equipping them for their foundational ministry was a critical goal of His teaching. Their qualification was simply that the Lord had chosen them for salvation and unique service (cf. John 15:16). He saved, commissioned, equipped, gifted and taught them so that they could be eyewitnesses to the truth and recipients of the revelation of God. They established the message believers are to proclaim.
The importance of this instruction in preparing these men for finishing the Lord's work cannot be overemphasized. Our Lord was building into them the teaching that is later called "the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42)—the organized body of truth that established the church.
The effectiveness of every believer's ministry in large measure depends on a clear and deep knowledge of the Word. No wonder Spurgeon said,
We might preach 'til our tongue rotted, 'til we exhaust our lungs and die—but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit uses the Word to convert that soul. So it is blessed to eat into the very heart of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in scriptural language and your spirit is flavoured with the words of the Lord, so that your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows from you. (Partly cited in Richard Ellsworth Day, The Shadow of the Broad Brim [Philadelphia: Judson, 1943], 131)
To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. (1:3)
The apostles needed not only the proper message but also the confidence to proclaim that message even if it cost their lives. They could hardly have been enthusiastic about proclaiming and facing martyrdom for a dead Christ. They needed to know that He was alive and would fulfill His promise of the kingdom. To secure that necessary confidence, Jesus presented Himself alive, after His suffering, to them. He offered them many convincing proofs (cf. John 20:30), such as entering a room where the doors were locked (John 20:19), showing them His crucifixion wounds (Luke 24:39), and eating and drinking with them (Luke 24:41–43). Most convincing, though, was His appearing to them over a period of forty days, beginning with the day of His resurrection. The Greek text actually reads "through forty days." That affirms that though He was not with them continuously, He did appear in their presence at intervals. Although it is by no means exhaustive, the most extensive summary of those appearances is found in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8.
The end result of these appearances was that the apostles became absolutely convinced of the reality of their Lord's physical resurrection. That assurance gave them the boldness to preach the gospel to the very people who crucified Christ. The transformation of the apostles from fearful, cowering skeptics to bold, powerful witnesses is a potent proof of the resurrection.
There have been many suggestions as to the content of the Lord's teaching during the forty days. The mystical religionists held that He imparted to the apostles the secret knowledge that characterized gnosticism. Many in the early church believed He taught them concerning church order (F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 33–34). Luke, however, shuts down all such speculations when he reveals that during this time the Lord was speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. He taught them more truth related to the domain of divine rule over the hearts of believers. That theme, a frequent one during the Lord Jesus Christ's earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:7; 13:1ff.; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43; 9:2; 17:20ff.; John 3:3ff.), offered further proof to the disciples that it was really He.
The Lord wanted them to know that the crucifixion did not nullify the promised millennial kingdom (cf. Isa. 2:2; 11:6–12; Dan. 2:44; Zech. 14:9). The apostles no doubt had difficulty believing in that kingdom after the death of the King. The resurrection changed all that, and from that time on they proclaimed Jesus Christ as the King over an invisible, spiritual kingdom (cf. Acts 17:7; Col. 1:13; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Peter 1:11; Rev. 11:15; 12:10; 17:14; 19:16). The kingdom will be manifested in its fullness at the second coming. At that point our Lord will personally reign on earth for a thousand years.
The kingdom of God (the realm where God rules, or the sphere of salvation) encompasses much more than the millennial kingdom, however. It has two basic aspects: the universal kingdom, and the mediatorial kingdom (for a detailed discussion of those two aspects see Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959]; for a more detailed discussion of the kingdom, see Matthew 8–15, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1987], 348–51).
The universal kingdom refers to God's sovereign rule over all of His creation. Psalm 103:19 reads, "The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all." Other passages that describe the universal kingdom include 1 Chronicles 29:11–12; Psalm 10:16; 29:10; 45:6; 59:13; 145:13; Daniel 4:34; 6:26 (cf. Rom. 13:1–7). creation. Psalm 103:19 reads, "The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all." Other passages that describe the universal kingdom include 1 Chronicles 29:11–12; Psalm 10:16; 29:10; 45:6; 59:13; 145:13; Daniel 4:34; 6:26 (cf. Rom. 13:1–7).
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12 by John MacArthur. Copyright © 1994 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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