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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

To the Ends of the Earth



 

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty)."

Acts 1:15


My plan is to focus on the book of ‘Acts’ for a while - to consider what happened, ‘in those days’ immediately following the resurrection of Jesus, and in the subsequent years. This book was authored by Luke, who also wrote one of the four gospel accounts. He refers to this at the very beginning of Acts. Luke says, ‘in my former book, Theophilus…’ This is the person which Luke was initially addressing these narratives to. In Luke 1:3, he refers to him as ‘most excellent Theophilus’. This suggests that Theophilus was probably a relatively high ranking Roman official. In Luke 1, we are told that Luke had ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ and ‘decided to write an orderly account for’ Theophilus. Luke wanted his friend to have the facts surrounding the life of Jesus and, now, in what we call ‘Acts’, he was relating what happened next.


So, who was Luke? He was a physician; a medical doctor. We know this from Colossians 4:14, where the apostle Paul also describes him as a ‘dear friend’. In Paul’s letter to Philemon (1:24), and his second letter to Timothy (4:10-11), we find additional details. Paul calls him a ‘fellow worker’; one who laboured with Paul to further Christ’s kingdom, and comments on his extreme faithfulness to Paul himself. When others ‘deserted’ Paul, Luke stayed ‘with’ him.


Luke travelled with Paul on his later missionary journeys. However, Luke is a bit like the gospel writer John. Both of them have made quite the effort to leave their own names out of their own accounts. In John’s gospel, he refers to himself several times, as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ (see John 21:20-24). John’s most important identity, it seems, was not his own name, but the fact that Jesus loved him. Likewise, the name ‘Luke’ is found nowhere in the Acts account, but Luke is definitely there. He joins Paul, in his mission, in the city of Troas, in Acts 16. This could be so easily missed. Up until that point, when Luke has described Paul’s travels, he has always used the word ‘they’ to describe that itinerant group. From chapter 16:10, he uses the word ‘we’. Luke just quietly, humbly, slips in to the service of Jesus Christ.


So, what is ‘Acts of the Apostles’ about? Now some of you may, at this point, be having a ‘Ronseal’ moment. You are thinking, ‘Come on Paul, seriously, “it does what it says on the tin!”’ Surely, this book is simply a record of the ‘acts’ or actions of the apostles, in the early days of the New Testament church? It is, indeed. But, in truth, it is much, much more than that. What do I mean?


Let’s assume that, after my death, someone decides to write a book about my life. This isn’t going to happen because it would be an incredibly boring book. It wouldn’t just be a free download for your Kindle but, in a world first, Amazon would actually pay you to read it! But, all the same, let’s just assume. So the book starts with the circumstances of my birth, has something about my youth, then talks about my adult life and work, and ends with my time of death, when I leave this earth. What if the author finished with the sentence, ‘and that is what Paul began to do’? You would object to such language, surely? You would think that this was not what I began to do, this is what I did; this is the whole of it. So, why does Luke refer to his gospel account at the beginning of ‘Acts’, so verses 1 & 2, and say, ‘I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…’? It suggests that Jesus has more still to do. In fact, it suggests that this second book is about the continuing work, not of the apostles, but of Jesus himself. Is this really possible? Has Jesus really left this earth, but is continuing his work upon it? I think it is possible, because I think Luke thinks it is.


‘Acts’ is about the continued ministry of Jesus on earth. Jesus continues ‘to do and to teach’ (v.1). How? He sends his Spirit. Through his Spirit, Jesus speaks. Through his Spirit he works through his people. Is this relevant to us here at Riverside? Yes. The only way in which we will realise gospel success is if Jesus works, through his Spirit, through us. Jesus deals with this in the record of Acts 1. We are told that during the forty day period between his rising from the dead and his departing to heaven, he ‘spoke’ to his ‘apostles’ ‘about the kingdom of God’ (v.2-3). The disciples ask him a question in verse 6, which I think shows how much they still had to learn about the reality of Christ’s kingdom. These were Jewish men, who still had what was essentially Jewish thinking. Jesus focuses their minds on the immediate future. In verse 8, he tells them, ‘but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’


This is something that Jesus had already promised. In that wonderful passage, found in John’s gospel, of the words of Jesus to his disciples before he died, he told them, in John 16:1-15, that he would be ‘going away’. He also told them this – ‘it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ In John 15:26-27, Jesus clarifies who this ‘Advocate’ is. Jesus says, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.’


The word ‘advocate’ literally means to ‘add’ ‘vocals’, or to ‘add a voice’. That is why Jesus says, about the Spirit, ‘he will testify about me.’ The Spirit adds a voice, in our hearts and in our lives, which always speaks up for Jesus. Jesus says this in John 16:13-14, ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.’


So, what is this unfolding ‘kingdom’? There are Christians who believe that the kingdom is something that is only to be realised in the future. I believe that the Bible teaches us more than that. In the words of Jesus, and in the words of the apostle Paul, there are definitely promises about this kingdom that have a full and complete realisation in the future; at the end of this last earthly age. But there are also references to it, which speak about the present. Christ’s kingdom is experienced now, by his people. It began with the coming of Jesus.


This kingdom is promised throughout the Old Testament scriptures. The very last prophet to come to Israel was John the Baptist. His message was simple. Matthew 3:1-2, tells us that, ‘John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’ Matthew is the only one of the four gospel writers to use the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven’, probably out of sensitivity to his predominantly Jewish audience. The others use only the expression, ‘the kingdom of God’. What is the difference? Well, it’s the difference between icing sugar and powdered sugar - there is no difference. If I was writing a recipe and I wanted people to use two tablespoons of icing sugar, I would probably write something like this – ‘Use two tablespoons of icing sugar’! Simples! But if my recipe was to be published in North America (again, if you have tasted my food – pretty unlikely!) I would modify the language, out of sensitivity to that particular audience. I would probably tell them to use an eighth of a cup of powdered sugar. Would my recipe be altered? In reality, no, it would not.


John the Baptist taught about the imminent arrival of Christ’s ministry and the imminent arrival of his kingdom. In the ministry of Jesus, he replied to a question asked by certain members of a Jewish religious group called the Pharisees. Jesus said, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’ (Luke 17:20).


Tim is currently doing a series on the book of Colossians. I feel like I’m stealing money from Tim’s wallet by referring you to Colossians 1:12-14, but the temptation is too great! Tim spoke recently about the way in which the believers at Colossae, and likewise all believers, have been ‘qualified’ by God the Father, through his Son. The apostle Paul, in that letter, instructs the believers to give ‘joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ He has ‘brought us into the kingdom of his Son.’ It should be a present, experienced, reality for the followers of Jesus.


Jesus tells us something very profound about this kingdom. He mentions the final herald of his coming ministry, John the Baptist, in Luke 7. Jesus said that ‘among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist’ (Luke 7:28 (AV)). John is given a lofty position. But, there is more. A more elevated position is given to God’s New Covenant people. Because Jesus continued his sentence about John with these words, ‘but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John].’ Wow! How can this be? John had the best job ever, when compared to the other Old Testament prophets. They were given the role of saying that Jesus was coming, but John was given the role of telling people that Jesus was now here. But Christians are called to a greater role. We see this throughout the book of Acts, as soon as the Spirit baptism of Acts 1:5 takes place. That verse says this, ‘For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ And look what happened. A message was then carried out into the world. Not a message that the Son of God was coming or, even, that he was here. But a message that the Son of God has come, and lived and died for sin, and risen in triumph over sin, and its deathly consequence and, as 1 Peter 3:22 tells us, ‘has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand’.


This message is described in the final chapter of Luke’s gospel. There we have a slight overlap between Luke’s two books. He finishes his gospel account with Christ’s ascension. He starts ‘Acts’ with the same thing. At the end of Luke 24:45-49, we are told about one of the final acts of Jesus before this ascension takes place. The disciples needed to learn quickly and Jesus helped them do just that. ‘Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


Acts 1:8, also speaks of his followers now being called to witness to him, and it speaks of that same ‘power’ by which they will be enabled to do just that. It’s some power! And, it is so relevant to the verse of our text today. It reminds us of the tiny beginnings of the New Testament church. We may consider our church gathering, here at Riverside as being small. It is. But we know that there are other gatherings of the Lord’s people today. Some are close by; in Wakefield and in Dewsbury, and there are many others throughout the world. But when Peter addressed that small group of 120 believers, there were no other gatherings. Not close by. Not further afield. Nowhere – that was it.


What was the visible ‘power’ at that time? Well, in the same way that we might consider the USA or China as superpowers today, the Roman Empire was huge, in its reach and its control of people’s lives. Let’s say you were present at that time. Someone asked you to consider both the Roman Empire and that small group of 120 believers. They told you that one of the groups, either the Roman Empire, or that small group, had such enormous power behind them, that they would prove to be unstoppable. Which would you, which would I, have chosen?


The book of Acts covers a period of around 30 years. In that time, the message of the gospel had spread, it seems, as Jesus predicted, ‘to the ends of the earth.’ That small group in Jerusalem had become many, many more groups, in towns and cities throughout the known world – people who believed that Jesus had died for their sins.


Imagine that I this week, decided to take the message that we have in our hands here at Riverside, and telephone the White House to tell it to Joe Biden or that I rang Beijing to reach President Xi Jinping. Do you think I would get through, that I would get an audience with those men? But that is what happens in the book of Acts. 30 years after the church begins, one of its leaders, called Paul, is in Rome, expectantly awaiting his audience with the infamous Emperor Nero. How? Power.


Jesus spoke about this kingdom expansion in the parable of the mustard seed found in Matthew 13. In two verses (31 & 32), we have a summary of the book of Acts! Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’


We aren’t told about Paul’s meeting with Nero in Acts. It finishes with Paul, waiting in Rome. It finishes as it starts – with the kingdom. Paul wasn’t just sat waiting, twiddling his thumbs. The last verse of chapter 28 tells us this. ‘He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance!’ Then, Acts ends abruptly. It is a lively account that should capture our attention, but then, suddenly, it stops. I’ve watched films like that. The question I always ask is ‘why would a film-maker do that to me?’ The answer is this – they want me to be invested in what is coming. They want my money, when the sequel comes out in 18 months’ time.


I think that is also why Acts ends so abruptly. The great heavenly director of the affairs of humankind, wants us to invest in what is coming. A couple of weeks ago, our brother Dave told me about a church group with the most wonderful name. They call themselves ‘Acts 29’. Why? Because Acts finishes at chapter 28. The church now is the next chapter of that book. The message of safety in Jesus Christ the Lord must still spread out into the world. Does the Lord have people in Horbury and Ossett that must hear that message, and believe it and, so, be saved. You bet he does.


Nero, with all his cruel power has gone. Despite his awesome influence over people, he was overthrown by something simple – his own insecurity. The power of the Roman Empire has gone the way that all human empires always go – consigned to history. But the apparently, inherently, weak message of a Christ crucified, still goes forward. How? Divine power. 1 Corinthians 1:18 tells us, ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ It is all down to the continued work of Jesus Christ our Lord.


Matthew finishes his gospel account before the ascension of Jesus. He chooses to finish with some of our Lord’s final words. Jesus commands his disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ Then we have these final words, of extraordinary promise – ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). We may be tempted, at times, by the troubles of the Christian life, to give up on our Lord. But the truth is, Jesus isn’t going to give up on us.


Just over a month ago we had Christmas. We may have heard Roy Wood of Wizzard singing on the radio, ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’. Well, at Riverside Baptist Church it can be! I want to go back to that first Christmas, as recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 1:32-33, when an angel called Gabriel appeared to a young lady called Mary, to tell her about God’s Son, who would be coming into the world through her womb. I will finish with Gabriel’s words this morning.


He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.’

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