Whether you’re the captain who chooses or the neglected last person, we all know the importance of choosing the right team for victory. In a world of credentials and qualifications, the team that Jesus picked seemed like unlikely candidates to build His church and change the world. But they did. God used nobodies to tell everybody about Somebody. And we’ve seen this in our New Testament reading plan in Acts, which tells the story of the “men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:7).
Written by Luke, Acts provides a glimpse into the life of the early church and the ministry of the Apostles. In his gospel, Luke wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach, and in Acts, he continues his thought and writes about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach through the Spirit-filled Apostles.
Acts provides an accurate historical record of early Christianity. It gives us a clear picture regarding the growth and persecution of the church, the content and model of apostolic preaching and leadership, and the life of fellowship among Christians in the church. Acts records the spread of early Christianity from AD 30-62. Acts 1:8 is a theme verse and provides an outline for the entire book:
“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.”
- Ministry in Jerusalem: chapters 1-7 (AD 30-33)
- Ministry in Judea and Samaria: chapters 8-12 (AD 33-44)
- Ministry to the end of the earth: chapters 13-28 (AD 44-62)
With this outline we are able to see that the gospel spread through promise, persecution, and passion.
In one of His post-resurrection appearances to the apostles, Jesus gave his disciples a promise:
“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45-49).
This promise is repeated in Acts 1 and fulfilled in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. They received power (the Greek is Dunamis, from which the English word “dynamite” derives) to testify as eye-witnesses of their resurrected Lord and to testify of the gospel, just as Jesus promised. Jesus declared that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18), and we see how this began with the 120 believers (Acts 1:15) and quickly spread to thousands through the preaching of the apostles and the care of the church (Acts 2:41; 4:4). The rise and spread of the church was promised and fulfilled by the head of the church, Jesus Christ. We can be confident in His promises.
Persecution: Judea and Samaria
Just as the gospel spread quickly, persecution arose strongly. Like a swarm of bees that come buzzing out of a knocked-down beehive, the church and the gospel were propelled by persecution. This was expected by the church, considering their Lord had recently been beaten and crucified, and that He previously warned them about the persecution that was to come. This persecution was of the enemy, Satan and his demons, and came mostly through the Jewish religious leaders. However, God amazingly used the enemy’s plans of persecution for His greater purposes.
“And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
The persecution in Jerusalem from the Jews propelled the gospel to be spread to the Gentiles. The church scattered after the death of Stephen, and so did the gospel message. The Samaritans (half-Jews) heard the gospel (Acts 8); Saul the Pharisee was converted and became the apostle Paul, and took the gospel to both Israel and the Gentiles (Acts 9); the Gentiles heard the gospel as Peter preached to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (Acts 10); “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” in the region of Antioch, where the believers were first called “Christians” (Acts 11), and the church continued to grow through the martyrdom of James and the imprisonment of Peter (Acts 12). Israel was to be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:1-3), and they ironically did through the persecution of their own Messiah and His message. The gospel expanded from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, from the Jews to the Gentiles.
Passion: The Ends of the Earth
If anyone has a “radical” testimony, it’s the Apostle Paul. His hatred for Christians and reputation for killing them changed to his love for all people and desire for them to be saved by the gospel. Through his leadership and missionary work, the gospel was taken to the ends of the earth.
“For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:47)
- 1st missionary journey spreads gospel to Asia (13-14).
- Jerusalem council confirms and defends the salvation and inclusion of Gentiles (15).
- 2nd missionary journey spreads gospel to Europe (16-18).
- 3rd missionary journey and beyond spreads the gospel to Rome (19-28).
Not only was Paul passionate about spreading the gospel and planting churches, but he would revisit churches and write letters to them to encourage them in their faith. This resulted in many New Testament epistles that were written to churches and leaders, for which Acts provides valuable background information. Paul responded to God’s call on his life, and the world has never been the same.
As you read the book of Acts, remember that God can use you to spread the message of the gospel. In Acts, it spread through a promise, persecution and passion, and it can do the same through your life. Pastor Greg Laurie provides great application from the book of Acts:
“As we look at the people God used in Scripture and in contemporary history, we see that God has always gone out of His way to find individuals who didn’t look as though they would amount to much. This is great news because it gives you and me assurance that God can use us just as surely and as powerfully as He used those men and women.”[i]
[i] Laurie, Greg. The Upside Down Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999). 27.