Acts: A Second Letter to Theophilus

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Berry Kercheville

Our Fall Theme: Living Today by the Patterns in Acts

There is a mistake we teachers make that is not uncommon: we refer to the writings of the New Testament as “books” instead of letters. Why is this significant? “Books” leave the impression that we are studying a textbook, dissecting and memorizing its information. But a letter is more personal. In a letter, the needs of the recipient must be taken into consideration in order to know the message.

For example, Acts is a letter, not a book. Acts was written to a real person, a man named Theophilus. And while we do not know much about this man, we can know why Luke wrote by the content of his letters. How many of us have studied Acts from the perspective of the needs and questions of Theophilus?

It is revealing to note that Luke first addresses Theophilus as “most excellent,” a title given to Roman officials, as we see Paul doing with Felix (Acts 24:2). That brings up the question of why Theophilus would need to know the historical detail recorded in Acts. The answer is found in the culture of that time. Rome misunderstood Christianity. At first, they saw it as another sect of the Jews, but soon the movement was seen as a threat to Rome. Further, there was the very real question of whether this movement was man-made. Did this happen based on a resurrection rumor circulated by a few of Jesus’ followers? Of course, Acts was not simply apologetic, it was also instructive, giving Theophilus an insight into the way God intended His disciples to live and act in a secular world.

Discovering the Message of Acts

As in most letters, the key to Acts is found in the introduction (1:1-11). Listen to the beginning words: The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach…” Therefore, Luke’s “Gospel” was about what Jesus began to do and teach. But Acts is about what Jesus, as reigning King, continued to do and teach. The most important message Theophilus could hear, is that Jesus continued his work from heaven as the enthroned King of his kingdom. At the close of Matthew’s account, in the Great Commission, Jesus reminded the apostles, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The proclamation of the kingdom message and growing disciples of the kingdom would not be accomplished by mere human effort, but by the continued work of King Jesus. That message must be heard by us as well.

The Resurrection

Luke records, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs…” Hundreds saw Jesus after his resurrection, but the twelve were the only ones Luke designated as appointed witnesses. These same men, on the evening of the third day, had hidden in a room with lock doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). Fifty days later, they would stand before multitudes in the temple and proclaim Jesus as the resurrected King. Each would go to his death without flinching from that eyewitness testimony. It is their testimony upon which every subsequent conversion stood. We should be no different. We are in error when we convert our children and others to the church instead of teaching the foundational evidence of the resurrection of Jesus.

The Work of the Spirit

Next, notice the phrase, “…after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (1:2). Again in 1:5, Jesus promised that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” In 1:8, Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” And when Peter began his sermon in 2:16, he proclaimed the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the “Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.” Therefore, this was not only a Spirit-directed movement, but every student of the OT scriptures would recognize this as the beginning of the restoration of God’s people.

Restoration of the Kingdom

In fact, that is exactly what the apostles ask: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). This is not another ill-informed physical-nation-question by the apostles. Jesus had been teaching them about the kingdom for 40 days. He had opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:45). In 3:19-21, Peter preached the beginning of the “restoration of all things.” With the emphasis on the pouring out of the Spirit, the apostles knew that this was the beginning of the pouring out of life upon Israel, of which all the prophets had spoken.

All Nations Will Be Blessed

The promise to Abraham was that all nations would be blessed through his offspring. Thus the words in 1:8, “You will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” By the time Luke concluded his second account, Paul would be in Rome winning souls out of Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). Throughout Acts, nothing stops the promise to bless all nations. When Saul led a great persecution, Christians “went everywhere preaching the word.” When the apostles were threatened by the council, “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” When Saul was “still breathing out threats and murder,” the Lord appeared to him and changed the persecutor into the persecuted. After every persecution, Luke reminds us, “But the word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24).

King Jesus Enthroned

The final scene of Luke’s introduction sets up the rest of the letter. The apostles watched in amazement as Jesus was lifted up “and a cloud took him out of their sight.” It is impossible to read those words without thinking of Daniel’s vision:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14 ESV)

The resurrection and enthronement of Jesus became the central message of Luke’s recorded sermons of Peter and Paul. In 2:34, Peter quoted Psalm 110 and David’s prophecy of the Messiah King in order to call for the house of Israel “to know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The King is on his throne and all “his enemies will be made his footstool.” It is time to repent, be cleansed through the waters of baptism, and serve the King! That is the call of the kingdom from the beginning of Luke’s letter to the end, and it is still the call today.

Patterns in Acts

Imagine Theophilus reading this letter. Every sermon, every event, every response to persecution, and every challenge within the churches, would be read as pictures of what Christ was creating in his people. It is unimaginable that we would discard it as irrelevant in our present culture. Paul told the Corinthian church, “That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17).

With that, I commend you to the articles that are coming your way in October. We say that we want to replicate 1st century Christianity. Let’s make certain we do so.