The next post comes from Straight to the Heart of Acts:
ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY GOD
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
In 30AD, Jesus of Nazareth looked to have been an utter failure. If you don’t understand that, then you will miss the message of the book of Acts. It is a record of survival through adversity, triumph against all odds, and victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. It is the story of a group of ordinary people who turned the tide of history through the power of their extraordinary God.
Jesus had failed to spread his message beyond the borders of Palestine. He had failed to convince the Jewish leaders that he was their long-awaited Messiah. He had even failed to keep the support of the rank-and-file people of Israel. He had been abandoned by the crowds, by his disciples, and even by God himself, and had died a shameful criminal’s death on a lonely hill outside Jerusalem. For all his early promise, by May 30AD he had lost all but a hundred and twenty of his followers, and Luke goes out of his way in the opening verses of Acts to tell us what an unimpressive bunch they were.
He stresses in verse eleven that they were “men of Galilee” – a group of uneducated barbarians from a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. The gospel-writers Matthew, Mark and John were among the hundred and twenty, and their gospels betray their provincial mindset. They refer to the hub of their little world as the Sea of Galilee, whilst Luke, the sophisticated Christian doctor from Antioch, knew enough about the wider world to call it simply a Lake. Jesus’ vision for his Church to take the Gospel “to the ends of the earth” was not just stretching, but laughably over-sized.
As for their leader, Peter, and his fishing-partner John, Luke tells us plainly that they were “unschooled, ordinary men.” Their courage had failed them six weeks earlier on the night that Jesus was arrested, and verse six shows us that they still didn’t fully understand his mission. With generals like Peter and John presiding over the shattered remnants of his Kingdom army, Jesus’ mission looked to have been a colossal failure.
Yet the Christian faith didn’t die. Instead it grew, massively. The Gospel-message ran from house to house across Jerusalem, then exploded through the cities of Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. It spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire, until its enemies complained that it had shaken the whole earth. Incredibly and inexplicably, the Christian Church refused to roll over and die. Instead it conquered the world.
It was this success which brought the believers to the attention of Theophilus, the man to whom Luke dedicates his gospel and the book of Acts. We do not know his exact identity – his name means Friend-of-God, so it could even be a poetic name for Christians in general – but there is strong evidence that he was the judge for Paul’s trial at Caesar’s court in Rome.
For a start, Luke ignores the activity of nine of the twelve apostles, and in the second half of Acts he ignores the other three as well. Although his book has become known as ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, its real focus is on the relative latecomer Paul, with detailed accounts of his missionary journeys, his arrest, his trials and his journey to Rome. It isn’t a biography, since it tells us neither the outcome of his trial nor how he eventually died, but it builds towards a cliff-hanger ending which leaves Paul awaiting judgment under house-arrest in Rome. This only makes sense if Luke was writing to provide background for Paul’s test-case trial of the Christian faith, and Luke confirms this by addressing his reader as “most excellent Theophilus,” which was the customary way for any Roman to address a judge in court.
This is much more convincing than the view that Acts is a history of the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to “the ends of the earth,” in fulfilment of Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8. Rome wasn’t the ends of the earth, but the centre of it! She ruled the world from the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, which was Latin for the Middle-of-the-Earth Sea. The entire world revolved around her, even places at the true ends of the earth, such as Armenia and Britannia. Romans heard the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost itself, and Paul wrote to a strong church in Rome in 57AD, five years before he arrived there in person. Therefore Luke didn’t write Acts in 62AD to describe the Gospel’s arrival in Rome, but to guide a judge’s verdict at the palace which dominated the earth. The prisoner Paul was about to stand before Caesar’s court, and Judge Theophilus was about to pass his official imperial verdict over Paul and the Christian faith which had brought him there.
Luke gives Theophilus an outline of the Christian story so far. He tells him about the effect of the Gospel in Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), its spread to nearby Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-9), its acceptance by the Gentiles (chapters 10-12), its success in Asia Minor (chapters 13-15), its advance into Europe (chapters 16-20), and finally – with long speeches and careful attention to detail – the arrival of its leading exponent, Paul, in Rome (chapters 21-28). He does so using the best Greek in the New Testament, structuring his brief like the great Greek historians Herodotus, Xenophon and Thucydides, on the basis of painstaking interviews with eye-witnesses. As a result, the book of Acts was extremely successful: Theophilus ruled that Paul was innocent, and released him to continue his church-planting ministry.
Luke wrote this book for Theophilus, but he also filled it with essential, foundational teaching for any Christian who reads it today. We live in a world where the Church’s mission can still feel as overwhelming and unattainable as ever. In the West, the Gospel has been sidelined, church attendance has haemorrhaged, and society at large views Christianity as the outdated and irrelevant creed of a foolish die-hard few. In parts of the world where church attendance is still strong, Christians have largely failed to transform the nations in which they live. Ours is still a world where Jesus’ vision looks completely mismatched to his ragged bunch of followers. Yet Acts gives ordinary Christians his blueprint for success – a much-needed manual from their extraordinary God.
If you feel like a very ordinary Christian, then this should strike you as very good news indeed. Luke wrote Acts as far more than a legal brief for one of Caesar’s judges in Rome. He wrote it as the story of ordinary Christians in the past, to encourage and equip ordinary Christians in the present. He wrote it to inform you, amaze you, excite you and enthral you, but most of all he wrote it to enlist you. The Church’s great mission is by no means over, and you have a role which is uniquely yours to play.
So hold on to your seat and get ready for the breathtaking message of the book of Acts. If you are an ordinary person, then this book is for you: it is a call to ride to victory on the shoulders of your extraordinary God.