Wall Street investors often hunt for the next start-up company that might explode in growth and yield huge profits. In the tech world, for example, investors that bought shares of Microsoft, Apple, or Amazon when they were initial public offerings (IPOs) are wealthy today.
Imagine the church of Jesus Christ as an IPO two thousand years ago. Then, only a handful of people had any foresight that it would get off the ground, let alone achieve the worldwide impact envisioned by its Founder. Most of the “investors” were afraid, uneducated, and powerless against the mighty Roman Empire. The tangled religious politics in Jerusalem left them dismayed. But the church has a two-thousand-year growth history greater than the most coveted stocks listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P 500, and it still yields eternal profits.
What happened following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is truly an amazing story about a revolutionary Person and time. The next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible is the book of Acts, which is the inspired record of the Early Church IPO—the initial public outpouring of God’s Spirit that formed the church Jesus said He would build (Matthew 16:18).
The Acts of the Apostles is part of a two-volume anthology written by Luke, a medical doctor, historian, and traveling companion of the apostle Paul.[i] Although it follows the book of John in the New Testament, Acts was always intended to be read after Luke’s gospel. This is clear from the introduction of the book where Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (1:1-2). Luke also mentions the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that lasted for forty days and calls them “many proofs” (1:3).
The purpose and nature of Acts requires no guesswork. Luke says his first volume was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Circle the word “began” and consider this: The words and works of Jesus Christ written about in the Gospels were merely a beginning. Some, including the devil, thought the crucifixion had brought an end to Jesus’s life and ministry. How surprised they were when He walked out of that grave. Through His resurrection, Jesus said, in effect, “I’m just getting started!” Therefore, Luke’s second volume, called Acts, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach through His disciples.
Acts provides a unique bridge between the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles. Acts 1:8 is the key that unlocks our understanding of the book and how it flows through twenty-eight chapters. Before He ascended to the Father, Jesus said to His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus laid the responsibility for bearing witness to the Gospel squarely on His disciples. But He told them to wait for the Holy Spirit, who arrived on the day of Pentecost, exactly fifty days after the Feast of First Fruits. There is no mistaking the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts and His role in the success of the church.
Chapters 1-12 detail the Spirit-filled acts of Peter in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. In chapter 8, Phillip rises to the occasion by proclaiming Christ in Samaria. His bold witness is significant, given the ethnic rift between Jews and Samaritans. Chapters 13-28 record the Spirit-empowered acts of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. With grit and grace, Paul takes the gospel to the ends of the earth. Let’s take a closer.
The Spirit-filled Acts of Peter
After Jesus’s ascension, about one hundred and twenty of His disciples remained in Jerusalem and prayed, waiting for the Holy Spirit as Jesus told them to do. During that time, Peter led the effort to replace Judas with Matthias (1:12-26). When the day of Pentecost arrived ten days after Jesus ascended to the Father, something changed dramatically. It began with “a sound like a mighty rushing wind” (2:1). Tongues of fire landed upon Jesus’s followers, and they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” They also began speaking in languages not previously known to them, “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (2:3).
No scene in the Bible is more monumental than the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ. The drama in Jerusalem caused some to think the disciples were drunk. But Peter, filled with fresh boldness, refuted their accusation. He saw what was happening as the fulfillment of Joel’s Old Testament prophecy about the day when God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh (2:17; Joel 2:28-32). Then Peter preached the first sermon of the Church era, based on the resurrected Christ. Three thousand people professed faith in Jesus on that glorious day!
This was only the beginning. The new disciples enjoyed authentic biblical community, having everything in common (2:42-47, 4:32-37). “Many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. … And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
On his way to the temple with John to pray, Peter miraculously healed a lame beggar, telling him, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (3:1-10). Peter followed with his second stirring sermon about Jesus, proclaiming Him without equivocation, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (4:12).
The religious leaders objected, arresting the apostles for preaching the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After charging them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” they released them (4:18). Peter and John responded boldly, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20).
While surging in numbers, the Early Church experienced a brief setback when Ananias and Sapphira died for lying to the Holy Spirit about their financial giving, producing great fear among the people (5:1-11). However, God continued to work signs and wonders through the apostles, and the church grew in numbers.
Filled with jealousy, the religious leaders arrested the apostles again. Once more, Peter and the apostles replied boldly to their threats by saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). A respected Pharisee named Gamaliel helped cool hot heads, reminding his colleagues, “For if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (5:38-39). Chapter 5 concludes by saying, “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (5:42).
The Jerusalem church grew so large that the apostles needed help responding to the many requests for physical support. While devoting themselves to prayer and preaching, they chose seven men “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” to organize care for the congregation. Stephen was among the first deacons (6:1-7). After testifying boldly before the high priest about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Stephen was stoned to death, becoming the church’s first martyr (6:8-7:60). A Pharisee named Saul, who was full of rage, approved of his execution (8:1-3).
Stephen’s stoning unleashed a greater persecution against the church in Jerusalem, scattering believers throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. One of the seven deacons named Phillip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (8:4). Later, an angel of the Lord instructed Phillip to travel south toward Gaza, a desert place, where he met an Ethiopian who served as a court official to Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He was reading the scroll of Isaiah, and Phillip explained to him what it said about Christ Jesus (8:4-40). The Ethiopian believed, and Phillip baptized him immediately.
Later, Peter learned that the gospel was for both Jews and Gentiles through a dream that led to a divine encounter with a centurion named Cornelius at Caesarea (10:1-48). Initially, Peter, forced to confront his pride and prejudice, objected to the idea. But after the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles, it became clear that the apostles should make disciples of all nations, baptizing even uncircumcised Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter returned to Jerusalem and reported his experience to the church, and they glorified God (11:1-18).
Chapter 12 begins with sobering words, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:1-2). When it pleased the Jews, Herod also arrested Peter, “delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him.” The church prayed earnestly for Peter. That night, an angel of the Lord miraculously rescued him, to the surprise of those who were praying (12:4-19).
The Spirit-empowered Acts of Paul
Acts 9 records the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a religious extremist and violent persecutor of the church. Before his conversion, Saul was a Pharisee of great esteem, having been trained by Gamaliel, also a Pharisee greatly respected by the Jews. Naturally, it took time for church leaders to accept Saul’s turn to Christ, given the way he terrorized Christians. In time, Saul became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.[ii] At this time, church administration shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch, the place where “the disciples were first called Christians” (11:19-30).
Chapters 13-28 record Paul’s three missionary journeys, each departing from Antioch. Barnabas and John Mark (Barnabas’s nephew) join Paul on his first missionary journey (13-14) and travel with him to Cyprus, Pamphylia, Phrygia, and Lycaonia. On the island of Cyprus, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus opposed their efforts to speak the word of God to Sergius Paulus, the proconsul who had summoned the missionaries. Filled with the Holy Spirit, gritty Paul called Bar-Jesus a “son of the devil” and blinded him. When Sergius saw what happened, he believed in Christ Jesus (13:4-12).
At Iconium, “a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (14:1-2). At Lystra, after Paul heals a crippled man, the crowd mistook Paul and Barnabas for Hermes and Zeus. Later, Paul is stoned by some angry Jews who came from Antioch and Iconium. Gritty Paul got up the next day, entered the city, and departed with Barnabas (14:8-28).
Before Paul departed for his second missionary journey, a theological council met in Jerusalem to discuss whether Gentiles should live under the Law of Moses (15:1-35). Furthermore, Paul and Barnabas parted ways over a strong disagreement about John Mark, who had left the missionary team in Pamphylia for unknown reasons (15:36-41). Barnabas took John Mark and returned to Cyprus, while Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (15:41). In Lystra, a disciple named Timothy joined them.
During his second missionary journey (16:1-18:17), Paul returned to the churches he planted in Asia Minor to encourage the believers, responding also to a “Macedonian call” that he received by the Holy Spirit in a vision (16:1-10).[iii] In Thyatira, a businesswoman named Lydia and her household believed and were baptized (16:11-15). Soon after, city rulers threw Paul and Silas into prison after Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl “who brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling” (16:16-24). A Philippian jailer converted after hearing Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns at midnight (16:25-40).
Other highlights of Paul’s second journey include his visit to Athens, where “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (17:16). There, he also stood in the public marketplace, known as the Areopagus, and addressed the men of Athens about “the unknown god” (17:22-33).
From Athens, Paul made his way to Corinth and met Jewish tentmakers named Aquila and Priscilla, who joined Paul’s ministry team and mentored Apollos, an eloquent man who was competent in the Scriptures (18:24-28). Paul stayed for eighteen months in Corinth, “testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus” (18:5).
On his third missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul traveled to the Asian city of Ephesus, where he planted a church and stayed for three years before revisiting Macedonia and Greece (19-20). While in Ephesus, “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul” (19:11). At the same time, Paul took aim at idol worshippers, resulting in “no little disturbance concerning the Way” (19:23-41).
Acts 21-28 describe Paul’s final days, including his last witness in Jerusalem, where an angry Jewish mob wanted him arrested for allegedly bringing Gentiles into the temple. When the tribune of the Roman cohort learned of a plot to assassinate Paul, he sent his prisoner to Felix, the governor in Caesarea, where Paul remained for two years. During that time, he defended the Christian faith before Felix, Festus, and King Agrippa, who sarcastically said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:28).
Using his Roman citizenship, Paul appealed to Caesar. Agrippa granted the appeal and sent Paul to Rome, fulfilling the apostle’s long desire to witness for Christ in the Eternal City. Upon Paul’s arrival, Roman authorities placed him under house arrest, where he awaited his trial.
Much more could be said about the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, including how he suffered for the sake of Christ and His mission (9:16; 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). Through it all, Paul realized that nothing else mattered compared to fulfilling the ministry he received from Christ (20:24).
If the growth of the church depended on your witness, how much would it grow? The initial public outpouring of the Holy Spirit was for all believers at the moment of salvation, giving the church the power we need to witness for Christ. Thus, embrace the words of Jesus to His disciples, “You shall be my witnesses.” Follow the examples of Peter and Paul. Believe. Be bold. Be brave.
[i] The book of Acts covers thirty years of transitional history, bridging the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles.
[ii] Saul was his Jewish name; Paul was his Roman or Gentile name. Both were given to the apostle at birth. As he carries the gospel to the Gentiles, he uses his Gentile name.
[iii] In Acts 16;10, Luke inserts himself into the story for the first time by using a plural pronoun: “We sought to go to Macedonia.”