Acts tells the story of a group who travel from a familiar starting point to a very unfamiliar destination. They make the journey with hope and expectancy, but with uncertainty too since the route is not obvious to them. However, the trip is, by God’s grace, a wonderful success.
The author doesn’t name himself in the book, but it’s understood from history to have been Luke, the doctor friend of Paul (Co 4:14). What is clear from v1 is that this is the follow-on volume to Luke’s gospel, which also links itself to Theophilus (Lk 1:1-4). So how do the two books relate? Luke’s gospel is all about Jesus and the Jews, barely mentioning interactions with Gentiles. It shows us Jesus as God’s anointed king of the Jews, Israel’s Messiah, and how they react to him. But Acts is the story of how that expands, as Jesus’ apostles travel the world to bring Gentiles under his rule too. It’s a journey which takes their lives to places they never anticipated visiting.
This sense of confusion and uncertainty as a disciple of Jesus continues to be the experience of Christians. Following the Lord requires real trust in him because God’s ways are not what we assume or, often, want. How do they challenge us? By getting us to face up to our sins, when we’d rather hide. By testing our faith, when we’d prefer an easy life. By driving us to pray with perseverance when we’d prefer quick answers. By taking us into dark places when we’d prefer to see clearly by a bright light. As Jesus warned, it’s not easy to follow him (Lk 14:25-33).
Which is why, with the Spirit’s help (v2), Jesus prepares the apostles carefully for the journey ahead. What is an apostle? The word means a representative with authority to act on another’s behalf. A number of apostles are mentioned in the New Testament: people close to Jesus who met him after his resurrection (1Co 15:3-7). Their role was to help lay the foundations of the Christian church (Ep 2:19-22). Twelve were the key apostles: Jesus’ closest companions (Lk 6:13). Why 12? Because Jesus came to set up a renewed Israel of people faithful to the Lord, as Jeremiah prophesied (Je 31:31-34). So his 12 were like the tribal leaders (cf Gn 49:28) of the reborn nation. But how does Jesus prepare them? By showing them himself (v3). He suffered, yet came safely through – they can too! So over 40 days they are prepared for kingdom-building work, just as the Spirit used 40 days to prepare Jesus at the start of his ministry for the hard road ahead (Lk 4:1-14).
Jesus, then, gives hope to his apostles; he also gives them fellowship for the way ahead. Spending time with them, he tells them to wait for the gift they’ve long been promised by his Father (v4; Lk 11:1-13). John created the renewed Israel by baptising all who came to him repenting (Lk 3:3). But that symbolism will now be fulfilled in reality as the new community is enlivened by divine power, as the believers are immersed together in the Holy Spirit (v5). However, the apostles are unsure what this will look like: will Israel will be blessed again as an earthly nation at this time (v6)? Well, Jesus has already told them Israel’s future (Lk 21) so he bypasses the question by telling them timings are the Father’s business (v7)! Their task is to witness to the world, first in Jerusalem, then Judah, the half-Jews of Samaria and then everywhere (v8)! And so Jesus leaves them for glory (v9) to sit by his Father and send the Spirit. The apostles are stunned but heavenly beings assure them of his return (v10,11). So they need, together, to get on with the task he gave!