This commentary on the book of Acts explores the history of the early church, examining the spread of Christianity in the years following Christ’s death and resurrection.
About the Author
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
"You Will Be My Witnesses"
ONE REASON I LOVE TO STUDY the book of Acts is its uniqueness. It is the sourcebook for the spread of early Christianity. Without it we would know little about the apostolic church except what could be gleaned from Paul's epistles. It is the chronicle of the spreading flame of the Holy Spirit.
It is also a book with a splendid theme, tracing the work of the Holy Spirit through the birth, infancy, and adolescence of the Church. Its title could well be "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" or "The Acts of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit Working through the Church." Acts forms the perfect counterpart and contrast to the Gospels. In the Gospels the Son of Man offered his life; in Acts the Son of God offered his power. In the Gospels we see the original seeds of Christianity; in Acts we see the continual growth of the Church. The Gospels tell us of Christ crucified and risen; Acts speaks of Christ ascended and exalted. The Gospels model the Christian life as lived by the perfect Man; Acts models it as lived out by imperfect men.
The study of Acts is particularly important to us because it teaches us how to experience a stimulating, exciting life — how to make our lives count. One man said, "I have been a deacon in my church for years; built a church building, raised money, served on committees. But one thing my church never gave me was a relationship with Christ that would make my life exciting." Rather than having an effervescent, relevant faith, this man found his life about as stimulating as a stale glass of ginger ale. He did not know the secret of Acts.
In our day one of the nicer things said about the institutional church is that it is "irrelevant." The book of Acts carries the remedy. Whether you are young and virile with Superman-like energy, or restless with what you have seen of a dull, ho-hum, business-as-usual Christianity, or at the age where you are receiving birthday cards that say things like "When it's time for a dental checkup, do you send out your teeth?" the message of Acts is for you!
The author of Acts was Luke the physician, and he begins with a reference to his already completed work on the life of Christ, which we know as the Gospel of Luke:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (vv. 1, 2)
Naturally Theophilus remembered, and his thoughts turned to Luke's great scroll and its remarkable account of Christ's life. He was thereby primed for what was to follow.
Then in verses 3–5 Luke continues with some new information as he tells Theophilus something more of the time after Christ's resurrection:
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (v. 3)
Luke is the only Scriptural writer who tells us that Christ's post-resurrection ministry covered forty days. Evidently Jesus appeared at intervals, coming and going from Heaven at will, showing miraculous signs and instructing his disciples "about the kingdom of God."
Luke's record of the stunning encounter on the road to Emmaus is a typical example. Christ met the two followers in an altered physical form and "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27), so that they later said (Luke 24:32), "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" The picture of those forty days is one of enraptured excitement, unfolding mystery, suspense, and anticipation.
Luke goes on in verses 4, 5:
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
Christ's conversation with the apostles must have been awesome! It may have even led to all-night rap sessions. What was this baptism "with the Holy Spirit"? Would Jesus take them to the Jordan and rebaptize them? Would they hear a voice from Heaven like Jesus did? Rabbis had said the restoration of Israel's political fortunes would be marked by the revived activity of God's Spirit. So now some of the disciples burned with the hope of a political theocracy. Would they themselves be given supernatural powers? Peter probably wanted to go through walls just like the Master had done. What would be their duties? Certainly each one would have a special mission marked with incredible power and great success. They were forbidden to leave Jerusalem for now, but then ... How long before this would happen? Jesus said, "Not many days from now." They could not wait!
In the midst of this ongoing, frenzied speculation, Jesus called the eleven together at the crest of the Mount of Olives. The apostolic band was aflame with expectancy.
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (vv. 6–8)
These were Jesus' final earthly words. It has been more than 2,000 years, and Jesus has not during that time planted his feet on terra firma and audibly addressed his followers. Perhaps that silence is intended to prevent anything from obscuring Jesus' last words, so they will continue to reverberate in the Church's ears.
Our Lord has laid down in the clearest terms the mission for those who are to follow him. This is the mission of the church that would dare to call itself New Testament — the mandate of apostolic Christianity.
Verse 8 is the key verse of the entire book of Acts. Chapters 1 — 7 tell of the witness "in Jerusalem," chapters 8 — 11 the witness "in all Judea and Samaria," and chapters 12 — 28 the witness "to the end of the earth." This is the foundation on which to build an effervescent, exciting faith.
The Mission Itself
The core commission is seen in the heart of verse 8: "... and you will be my witnesses." We are to be "witnesses" for Christ! This is the recurring message of Acts. For example:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (2:32)
You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (3:15)
We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. (10:39)
You will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. (22:15)
This witness about Christ is often counterfeited but never duplicated. Perhaps you have had the experience of having some neatly dressed young men come to your door and, after some friendly conversation, invited them in, only to have them set up a flannelgraph while saying something like, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had prophets today?" They then present an incredible religious maze: the Aaronic priesthood, the priesthood of Melchizedek, a modern prophet from upstate New York (who was heralded by an angel with an Italian name), the Urim and Thummim (i.e., a pair of giant spectacles through which their prophet translated their sacred book), a "plan" that can promote you to the Terrestrial, Celestial, and finally Telestial Heavens, etc. An amazingly complex religious system given under the guise of being a witness for Christ's latter-day church, their gospel is in reality a complete reversal of the good news of Christ's grace.
The true witness to which Christ referred is not like that. To be a witness for Christ is to bring a message that is a marvel of simplicity: Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh; he died to pay for our sins; he was resurrected; now he is exalted in Heaven; he calls us to believe in him and so receive forgiveness of sins. This is good news. There is nothing to join, no system to climb — just a person to receive and, in him, eternal life.
Though this witness is simple, it requires costly commitment from its carriers. It radically touches our inner complexities — who we are deep inside. Not only must we have the message, the logos, the Word, but we must also attract the magnificent compliment that Sir Henry Stanley gave David Livingstone after discovering and spending time with him in Central Africa: "If I had been with him any longer, I would have been compelled to be a Christian, and he never spoke to me about it at all." Livingstone's witness went far beyond mere words.
If we are to be effective witnesses for our Savior, we cannot be water boys in the game of life. We have to roll up our sleeves and pitch in. Our lives must display the inner reality of what we externally proclaim. That is why gospel flames raced across Asia. The apostles walked their talk. That is why Paul was able to reach the Praetorian guards while under arrest in Philippi (see Philippians 1:13). Are we witnesses like that?
This matter of ethos — who we are — demands absolute, soul-searching honesty because it is so easy to deceive ourselves. Those of us with a Bible-believing heritage who constantly hear and talk about spiritual things can by the sheer weight of discussion come to believe that we live up to what we talk about, even if we do not. Being an authentic witness demands an open, tender heart that is always growing in the experience it proclaims.
To be a witness we must have logos — the Word of Christ, ethos — the inner reality of what we proclaim, and pathos — passion. The apostles were passionate for Christ. Observe Peter at Pentecost, Stephen at his stoning, Paul before Felix. They fervently promoted their faith. They were a band of zealous believers who turned their world upside-down.
When George Whitefield was getting the people of Edinburgh out of their beds at five o'clock in the morning to hear his preaching, a man on his way to the church met David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic. Surprised at seeing him on his way to hear Whitefield, the man said, "I thought you did not believe in the gospel." Hume replied, "I do not, but he does."
The message is simple, but the demand on the messengers is serious. For effective witness, there must be the Word, the inner reality, the passion.
The command to be Christ's witnesses is for all true believers in him. There are no loopholes. No one can say, "This does not apply to me." Our honor exceeds that of any worldly ambassador, whether it be mainland China, France, or the private offices of the Prime Minister of England. Christ's last word to us is, "You will be my witnesses."
The Mission's Extent
How far is this witness to spread? "In Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (v. 8). We have heard these words so many times that it is difficult to feel their impact. But what a shock these geographical designations must have been to the disciples. Jerusalem? The Lord was crucified there. Judea? They had been rejected there. Samaria? Minister to those half-breeds? The end of the earth? Gentiles too? The words were not only spiritually revolutionary, but socially and ethnically unheard of.
We all know the story. The Lord's outline was carried out to the letter. Jerusalem was filled with the preaching of the gospel, and 3,000 were saved in one day. Later Philip broke the taboos of Judea and crossed over into Samaria. Social revolution!
Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant, clasped hands and sat down at one table, and felt themselves all one in Christ Jesus. They were ready to break all other bonds, and to yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from His Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies, and complicity in unnameable vices.
The good news of Jesus was even being whispered in Caesar's own kitchen (see, for example, Philippians 4:22).
How impressive is the scope of the missionary heart. Followers of Christ yearn for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth and into their own community. There can be no burden for distant unreached peoples without a burden for unreached neighbors. Christian believers see that it is their duty to cross over ethnic divisions. Christ demands a world heart! A heart that prays for those at home just as much as for those being touched by overseas missionaries. Jesus' final words to his Church demand expansive hearts.
Christ's words taken seriously are nothing less than the declaration of a benevolent war. They are a call for every believer — every forgiven sinner now following Christ — to spend and be spent. Nechayev, a nineteenth-century disciple of Karl Marx, was thrown into prison for his role in the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Prior to his death he wrote:
The revolutionary man is a consecrated man. He has neither his own interests nor concerns nor feelings, no attachment nor property, not even a name. All for him is absorbed in the single exclusive interest in the one thought, in one passion — REVOLUTION.
Although his motives and goals were wrong, Nechayev stated well the heartbeat of true commitment — the kind needed to accomplish the objectives of the Church, God's missile of salt and light hurled into the world to proclaim the triumphant message of sins forgiven and lives transformed. Too often we are overly concerned about personal comfort. If the Christian faith is worth believing at all, it is worth believing heroically!
Jesus' words are a call to zeal, and zeal — fervor, passion, urgent and loving service — is the medium by which the spiritual war is waged. Whether we are at home or bridging society's barriers or making our way to the ends of the earth, we are to be people of one thing — seeing one thing, caring for one thing, living for one thing — to please God. Whether we live, whether we have health, whether we have sickness, whether we are rich, whether we are poor, whether we get honor, whether we get slain, our deepest desire is to please him. And what does he want? "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The apostles did this, and we are to do likewise. What a call — to be personal witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ! That is too much — it is too hard! And to demand that it be to the ends of the earth — impossible! That is why our Lord prefaced the statement with a promised provision of power.
The Mission's Power
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you." There was a brief interlude of about ten days, and then the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, there were tongues of fire, they spoke in other languages, and spiritual power rolled through them. It was thus no surprise when Peter later walked by the Beautiful Gate, saw a lame man, and said, "I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!" (3:6). And suddenly there was a high-jumping cripple in front of the temple. And again, John and Peter stood before the entire Sanhedrin and said, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (4:19, 20). Consider also the first gospel concert — in Philippi after Paul and Silas were beat up and tossed into the slammer. Power!
When the Holy Spirit comes upon followers of Christ, the most unlikely people become fountains of power. This spiritual power is always available, and he displays it according to his sovereign plans. God imparts his power when and how he wants to. Years ago when I was a youth pastor I noticed that a lot of young people would show up on Sunday morning, but when it came to Wednesday night Bible study I could hardly get a baker's dozen. I would have eight, then fifteen, then eight ... I almost quit. I was so discouraged that I had to depend on the Lord. I remember finally just giving it all to the Lord, and one night when there were only eight a young man came to know Christ. He brought another young man to the group, and he came to know Christ. In two months my group went from fifteen to ninety, and then to 120! I only remember four Wednesday nights out of a year and a half that someone did not trust Christ!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Acts"
Copyright © 1996 R. Kent Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word 11
1 "You Will Be My Witnesses" (1:1-11) 13
2 Expectant Prayer (1:12-26) 23
3 Pentecost (2:1-13) 29
4 Peter's Greatest Sermon (2:14-37) 37
5 The Church Where the Spirit Reigned (2:38-47) 45
6 When Life Is Jumping (3:1-26) 53
7 The Bliss of Persecution (4:1-22) 59
8 When the Church Is Great (4:32-37) 67
9 Keeping Things on the Up-and-Up (5:1-16) 75
10 The Liberty of God's Children (5:17-42) 83
11 Maintaining the Ministry (6:1-7) 93
12 Standing Tall (6:8-7:60) 101
13 God's Way (8:1-25) 109
14 Philip: The Touch of God (8:26-40) 117
15 Saul: The Hunter Hunted (9:1-18) 125
16 Saul's Preparation for Ministry (9:19-30) 133
17 Peter's Preparation for Greater Ministry (9:32-10:23) 141
18 Opening the Church's Arms (10:23-11:18) 149
19 The First Christians (11:19-30) 157
20 Getting Acquainted with Our Power (12:1-24) 163
21 Realities of the Church Militant (13:1-13) 173
22 Sticking to the Task, Regardless (14:1-28) 181
23 Grace Alone (15:1-35) 191
24 God's Guidance (15:36-16:10) 201
25 Beachhead in Europe (16:11-40) 211
26 God's Nobles (17:1-15) 221
27 Paul versus Athens (17:16-34) 229
28 Rejuvenating God's Servants (18:1-17) 237
29 The Missing Ingredient (18:22-19:7) 245
30 Assaulting the Castle Dark (19:8-20) 253
31 When the Leaves Fall Away (19:21-41) 261
32 Falling Asleep in Church (20:1-16) 269
33 Paul's Approach to Ministry (20:17-38) 275
34 Man's Word or God's Word? (21:1-16) 281
35 A Dangerous Heart (21:17-40) 289
36 Encouraged in the Night (22:30-23:24) 299
37 On Giving and Receiving God's Word (24:1-27) 309
38 The Accused (25:1-12) 315
39 Blessed Madness (26:1-32) 323
40 Anchors in the Storm (27:1-44) 331
41 Building an Indomitable Spirit (28:1-30) 339
42 The Twenty-Ninth Chapter of Acts 347
Scripture Index 362
General Index 371
Index of Sermon Illustrations 376