The fifth book of the New Testament is a book of history. Acts is the earliest history of the church of Christ. (Not the denomination, but “The Body of Christ”) It has been called “the hub of the Bible.” Neither the Old Testament, nor the first four books of the New Testament, would be complete without the book of Acts. The Old Testament foretold the coming of the Christ and His kingdom. The first four books of the New Testament tell of Christ’s coming to earth and the wonderful life He lived. They tell of His marvelous miracles, His death for the sins of the world, and His mighty resurrection from the dead. They end with Jesus giving the Great Commission to His disciples and His ascension back to Heaven.
Acts tells of Christ sending the Holy Spirit upon the apostles to prepare them for their work (John 14:26; 15:26,27; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4,5; 2:1-21). It tells of their preaching the Gospel (good news of salvation). It records the answer to the most important question one can ever ask, “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30-34). Acts tells of the beginning of The Body of Christ when those who first heard the Gospel believed in Jesus Christ, repented of their sins, confessed Him before men, and were baptized for the remission of their sins. When they did this, they were added by the Lord to His church (Acts 2:36-47). Acts, chapter two, contains the fulfillment of the prophecies of the coming of the kingdom (Matthew 16:16-19; Joel 2:28-32; Isaiah 2:1-4; Daniel 2:36-45).
The Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke, “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). Luke was one of Paul’s companions on his second and third missionary journeys as well as on his trip to Rome. Luke addressed the book of Acts to Theophilus, the same person to whom he had addressed the book of Luke (Acts 1:1; Luke 1:1-4). The book of Acts is simply a continuation of the book of Luke.
The Acts of the Apostles does not contain all the acts of all the apostles. It would be more accurate to call it “some of the acts of some of the apostles.” Acts mostly records the work of only two of the apostles – Peter and Paul. Peter’s labors for the Lord are recorded in chapters 2 – 12. Paul’s work in the kingdom is recorded in chapters 13-28. Peter worked mainly among the Jews. He carried the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Paul preached among the Gentiles and carried the Gospel to Rome and later to Spain (Acts 1:8; Romans 15:24, 28). While Peter and Paul were busy with their work, the other apostles were carrying the Gospel to other parts of the world.
The book of Acts was most likely written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. It ends with the mention of Paul under house arrest awaiting his hearing before Caesar (Acts 28: 30,31). During this time, he wrote the epistles of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. These four books are known as the “Prison Epistles.” The date of writing of Acts was probably 62 or 63 A.D.
The beloved physician Luke followed up his Gospel with an account of the exciting history of the early New Testament Church. The book of Acts demonstrates Jesus Christ’s promise and His commission to the Church being fulfilled. What can we learn and apply from the book of Acts today?
A major figure in the book of Acts and the New Testament is the apostle Paul. But he did not start off as a hero to the Church of God, (Again not the denomination, but “The Body of Christ,”) but rather a villain. Acts 9 tells the story of the dramatic conversion of the man formerly known as Saul, the persecutor.
“Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
“As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven.
“Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
“So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do'” (Acts 9:1-6).
Imagine what it would have been like to be in Saul’s shoes! Now imagine what it would have been like to be the Christian in Damascus who Jesus asked to go heal and baptize this notorious enemy of the Church!
“Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’
“And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’
“Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized…
“Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?'” (Acts 9:13-18, 20-21).
Why Four Gospels? Do They Contradict Each Other?
An Overview of Acts
Luke continues his accurate and exciting history, begun in the Gospel of Luke, with this book about the first 30 years or so of the New Testament Church. We can learn much from the zeal, mission and examples of the first Christians, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
How did Jesus Christ begin to fulfill His promises through the Church?
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus Christ promised to build His Church and empower it with the power of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:8 can serve as an outline of the spread of the good news of the Kingdom of God:
- Jerusalem and Judea received the message in Acts 1:1 through 6:7.
- Judea and Samaria are highlighted in 6:8 to 9:31.
- The message begins going to the ends of the earth in 9:32 through 28:31.
Did the disciples have absolute proof of the resurrection?
…to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
The four Gospels, Acts and passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 give details of the infallible proofs of Jesus’ resurrection. The zeal and fearlessness of the formerly fearful disciples also testify to their conviction that Jesus Christ was killed but was raised from the dead and was now backing up their efforts with power.
What message did two angels give the disciples when Christ was taken up to heaven?
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
This hope of Jesus Christ’s return was a key element of the gospel—the good news—the early New Testament Church taught.
What happened on Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s resurrection?
Acts 2:1-4, 37-41
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance…
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.”
Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.
This annual festival marked the beginning of the New Testament Church and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the book of Acts radiates from this pivotal event.
What did Stephen say that led to his martyrdom? Who consented to his death?
Acts 7:52, 56-58
“Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers…”
[Stephen] said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Stephen’s sermon recounted events in biblical history, concluding with the point that God’s people of the past and present have disobeyed God. Instead of being cut to the heart and repenting, as the crowd did on Pentecost, this group chose the more natural response of anger. Instead of believing and accepting their own guilt, they accused Stephen of blasphemy.
This was the start of a great persecution that Saul was a part of. But eventually this Saul was converted and became known to us as the apostle Paul (see the introduction of this lesson).
How did Peter come to understand that God was now calling gentiles?
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.
“Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
“If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
For gentiles to convert to Judaism, they had to be circumcised. So naturally Jewish Christians thought that circumcision would be required for gentiles to convert to Christianity as well. But God showed Peter that He was also calling uncircumcised gentiles. To convince Peter, God first gave him a vision. Then when the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius’ household in the same way it was given on Pentecost, Peter was completely convinced.
Why was the Jerusalem conference called?
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.
Apparently Peter’s statements about the conversion of gentiles in Acts 11:15-17 had not been understood or accepted by the whole Church, so this question was brought to the conference in Jerusalem. During this conference, Peter repeated what God had shown him (Acts 15:7-11).
What was decided at the Jerusalem conference?
Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.
Some people seize on these words to argue that nothing more was required of early Christians—that they (and we) need not keep other laws found in the Old Testament.
But does this view really make sense? James said nothing about murder, stealing, lying, taking God’s name in vain or a host of other sins. By this rationale, should we conclude that Christians are now free to do these evil things? Of course not! So why, then, did James list only these four restrictions—to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood?
The link connecting each of these requirements is idolatry. Specifically, each was directly associated with the pagan forms of worship common in the areas from which God was calling gentiles into the Church. Each also violated specific biblical commands (Exodus 20:2-6; Leviticus 20:10-20; Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 7:26-27).
It is evident, however, that the apostles also had another reason for singling out these links to idolatry. They wanted to make sure that new non-Jewish converts would have immediate access to learning the teachings of God’s Word—the Holy Scriptures (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:15).
Notice the reason James expressed for listing those particular prohibitions: ‘For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath’ (Acts 15:21, NIV). The purpose for this somewhat puzzling concluding statement now becomes clear: The apostles wanted to ensure that every new gentile convert would be able to avail himself of that instruction as the words of Moses were ‘read…every Sabbath.’
Since no one could afford a personal copy of the Scriptures, the gentile converts would need to show that they had forsaken idolatry by following these rules to be allowed to learn the Scriptures in the synagogues, because at that time finding a local church to go to was difficult to find, to hear the word of the Lord. Also gentiles weren’t allowed in the innermost rooms of the temple, gentiles had to stay out in the outer courts as illustrated in the following picture:
So, you see that the Jewish women even had closer seats to hear the Scriptures being read than the gentiles. The Sabbath was the ONLY day the Scriptures were read, that was the day early Christians preached in the synagogues, and then met, prayed and did Bible study together on Sunday, or the Lord’s Resurrection day.
What was the typical way Paul spread the gospel message in the new cities he visited on his missionary journeys?
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath.
Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.”
Paul often preached on the seventh-day Sabbath in the synagogues until a local congregation was set up, which then met elsewhere to worship together. He preached to both Jews and gentiles on the Sabbath. There is no biblical evidence that the day of Sabbath was changed for the Jews. Now Sunday or the eighth day is also considered the Lord’s day when the church met elsewhere to worship together.
What message did the apostle Paul continue to preach after ending up imprisoned in Rome?
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
The Bible teaches one unified gospel—the message of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). This message includes the message about the King of that Kingdom, Jesus Christ, who is also our Savior (Romans 1:16). It includes the message of grace and of salvation, which make it possible for us to enter that Kingdom (Acts 20:24; Ephesians 1:13). It includes the message of peace that God’s Kingdom will bring (Romans 10:15).
It was this good news that the Church of God spread throughout the Roman world in the first century, and it is the same wonderful message that the Church of God teaches today.
Read Acts 17:10-12. The Bereans, like all the Jews, did not understand that their Scriptures prophesied two comings of the Messiah: first, as a suffering Servant and sacrifice for our sins and, second, as King in the Kingdom of God.
The Jews didn’t understand the first coming. Today, many do not fully understand the second. The Bereans were willing to check these things out in the Bible. We pray you will be willing to check out what the Scriptures say about Jesus Christ’s second coming and the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Now I mentioned a quote from Jesus earlier “Kicking against the goads” that Jesus said to Saul, but have you ever asked yourself what did Jesus mean by that saying? After all these lessons are for your benefit and Bible study.
The meaning and message:
“It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” What exactly does that phrase mean? “Kicking against the goads” is not something we hear often in our day-to-day conversation! And yet, in Acts 26:14, the master Teacher delivers a powerful life lesson in His exquisite, parabolic style, which is simple, straightforward, self-explanatory, and is designed to sanctify every blood-bought saint. Let’s examine this verse with the goal of gleaning two powerful truths: the meaning and the message of the oxgoad.
Truth #1 – The meaning of the oxgoad
First, the oxgoad is a long pole or stick with a pointed piece of iron fastened to one end. In the strong hands of a loving master, the ox is gently prodded, guided, steered and driven in the desired direction when plowing the fields. When a stubborn ox attempts to kick back against the goad that is causing it discomfort, the ox will actually inflict more pain, driving the pointed end deeper into its flesh.
Second, the oxgoad is designed for an ox, and for no other beast. When Jesus likened the proud Pharisee Saul (and every child of God) to a brute beast, Saul’s heart likely pounded with incredible indignation. By birth a Jew, by citizenship a Roman, by education a Greek, “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:6 NASB), Saul was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He sat at the top of the spiritual ladder in Jerusalem, and now Jesus of Nazareth was comparing him to a bovine!
However, when you consider this for a moment, you realize that the comparison to an ox was actually a greater insult to the beast! Oxen did exactly what God created them to do – serve and glorify the One who created them. Oxen bend their necks to the yoke and to the one true God, who has placed man over them as ruler and lord. Man is the only creature who refuses to submit to the revealed will of his Creator.
King David, possessing much greater self-awareness than Saul of Tarsus, freely confessed, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (Psalm 73:21-22).
Here are just a few examples of oxgoads God uses in the lives of His people: sermons, suffering, doctrine, difficulty, adversity, affliction, godly counsel, holy confrontation, conviction of the Holy Spirit, financial reversal, business failure and academic probation.
You might like to take some time to identify other oxgoads you have kicked against in the past. What was the result of your rebellion? Did you find that your pain actually increased as you resisted? What would you do differently today? Remember, all Scripture, rightly understood, is an oxgoad – both to the sinner and the saint.
Truth #2 – The message of the oxgoad
When Jesus rebuked Saul (who would soon become the apostle Paul) for kicking against the goads, He was telling the proud Pharisee that he was only hurting himself in resisting the truth and teaching of Christ. The more he resisted the more he suffered. The harder he kicked the deeper the goad drove into his flesh. A modern equivalent to this timeless message is, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!”
How about it? Is there an area in your life where you’ve been biting the nail-scarred hand that feeds you? How foolish and prideful for us to rebel against omnipotence! But look with me at the great tenderness in Jesus’ words. He does not say, “It is hard for My people” or “It is hard for Me,” but rather Jesus says, “It is hard for you, Saul!” It is startling when we realize that our Savior is always thinking about the sinner, even when we are busily sowing seeds of our own sorrow! I’m sure we would all agree from personal experience that it is, indeed, hard for us when we kick against the goads. It was almost as if Jesus was saying sorrowfully to Saul what we parents say to our children when applying some stern discipline: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”
Who but the Savior could think such compassionate thoughts of a man who was intent on persecuting His church? When we see cruel men persecuting Christians, what do we think – compassionate thoughts or condemning thoughts? How quickly we would write off a man like Saul but not our Savior. No one is beyond the redemptive reach of our Lord! No one has wandered too far, failed too often or sinned too deeply to place himself or herself beyond the reach of Jesus’ promise: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus provides great comfort for us because He has great compassion for us.
So where has God been applying His oxgoad to your life? Where have you increased your suffering because you continue to kick against the goads? And when will you yield to the truth and teaching of Christ? When Saul finally reached that point, nothing could stop him. He poured out his life to bring the Gospel to the nations, and no earthly obstacles would deter him – not the whip, not false witness, not trials or tribulations, not even an excruciating thorn. Paul, by God’s grace, ran his course and was able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
I pray that everyone will be able to say that in the end! This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. Never forget that. Amen!