I am constantly surprised that there is enough interest in movies like Transformers and the Fast and the Furious, that they keep churning out sequels. Occasionally though, sequels like The Empire Strikes Back or the Godfather II come along and capture and progress the whole sweep of the original perfectly. The Book of Acts is the perfect sequel to the Gospels. More specifically, the Book of Acts is the perfect sequel to the Gospel of Luke.
The physician Luke wrote both the Gospel which bears his name and the Book of Acts. The Gospel of Luke opens with Luke’s explanation to Theophilus as to why he wrote a gospel. Acts picks right up where Luke left off. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). Now, Luke endeavors to tell the rest of the story. What happened after Jesus ascended into the heaven and the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church?
Just as Luke undertook to compile an orderly account of the life of Jesus, he does so with the events following Jesus’ resurrection. He includes a perfect outline for the book of Acts in the first chapter. “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” (Acts 1:8). Acts will focus initially on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the growth of the gospel in Jerusalem and Judea in chapters 1-7. Then it will document the expansion of the gospel primarily into Samaria but with a few episodes reaching beyond (e.g. The Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius) in chapters 8-12. Then the apostle Paul takes center stage as he takes the gospel to the end of the earth in chapters 13-28. The draw of God’s redemption for the nations seems to have a centripetal force (drawing inward like a funnel) prior to the Holy Spirit’s outpouring in Acts 2. But after that explosive act of God’s grace, His redemptive force is centrifugal (pushing outwards) to the end of the earth.
Luke’s narrative of the expansion of the Church is a story of great opposition and greater power. As the Holy Spirit moves in the lives of the disciples, they see tremendous fruit in their ministry. But this success is frequently met with conflict. And each conflict is met with a stronger still Spirit. Peter preaches a sermon at Pentecost and “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Peter preaches again and, “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). But Peter and John are arrested for their preaching. They are instructed to not speak or teach about Jesus. They reply, “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” (Acts 4:19, 20). Success in the growth of the Church is met with opposition, which is then met with added strength from the Holy Spirit. And the Church grew in the face of opposition (Acts 6:7, 9:31, 11:21, 12:24, 13:49, 14:21, 16:5, 19:20, 28:23).
We see in the Book of Acts that God is faithful to supply our every need. Where God wills, he provides. But God will often provide in unexpected times and ways. The martyrdom of Stephen is an example. Stephen is ordained as a deacon in the church and soon after is seized by the authorities. He is wrongly accused of speaking blasphemous words against God (Acts 6:11). But God does not deliver Stephen from the hands of his oppressors. They kill him (Acts 7:60). God does, however, give Stephen a spirit of peace throughout the melee. He gives Stephen a boldness to declare the gospel while being attacked. He gives Stephen courage to stand faithful. And God gives the Church an unexpected gift through Stephen’s death. In the midst of the crowd, stoking the flames of rage, stood Saul. “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1). God would give Saul the gift of Christ.
Saul is converted in a remarkable encounter on the road to Damascus. Now Saul, who was also called Paul, is trained in the gospel. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. And with all the passion and gusto with which he had persecuted the Church, he now preaches Christ. And Paul’s preaching will take this Good News to the end of the earth. Luke is presenting the narrative of Acts as if it is a bridge connecting God’s promise in Genesis 12:2-3, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” with God’s faithful fulfillment in Revelation 7:9, “…and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. God’s plan will succeed over this present evil age. “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28).