The Story of the Unfinished Work of Jesus – Acts 1:1
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 1 of a study of Acts 1.)
The book we call The Acts of the Apostles may be the most misnamed book in the New Testament because the author was never writing about the work of the first Christians. Instead, the writer, Luke, was describing the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the story of the church, not about what men or women were able to achieve but what God was able to do through them. These early Christians had strengths but also weaknesses, and it was God’s power which made remarkable things happen in good times and bad times.
Here is where it all begins.
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…
We are reading the book of Acts today. That was inconceivable for its writer. People debate the exact meaning of the opening words of Acts 1, but the most straightforward meaning is that Acts was written by one writer for one reader. If so, this great work certainly did not stay that way. Here we are looking at it two thousand years later.
There are two important lessons to learn right at the start of Acts.
First, we never know how significant God will make our work.
The writer may have imagined his account would be seen by a few, but he certainly had no idea his work would go around the world and be read for century after century. But that is what happened. Global communication began long before the internet!
The writer was Luke, the same person who wrote the gospel. Some argue about that, but the balance of evidence points to Luke as the author. There are two main reasons for that conclusion:
1) Both books are written for the same person. Acts is written for Theophilus and right at the start the writer reminds him of his “former book” which described the earlier work of Jesus. Which book could that be? Well, Luke’s gospel begins: “…since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
So, like Acts, Luke’s gospel is addressed to Theophilus and its contents are exactly as Luke describes them, a description of what Jesus did and taught.
2) The other obvious reason to believe Luke wrote Acts is because he was there when many of the things described in the book actually happened, such as being with Paul while he travelled and evangelized. In several passages in Acts the writer says “we went there” or “we did that”. He was present and saw what took place. Also, in his letters to the Colossians, to Timothy, and to Philemon, Paul refers to Luke as a companion or a fellow worker. If, then, Luke was an eye witness as the church spread, he was well qualified to write down an account of that.
It makes good sense to conclude that Luke wrote Acts. In other words, in Luke’s writing his gospel was part one and Acts is part two.
Given the length of the gospel and the length of Acts, that is a lot of writing by one person. No word processor or any of the technological wizardry of these days was available to him. Luke’s writing materials were slow and awkward to use, but he persevered. All for one reader. Certainly no more than a few. There were no printed books, no photocopiers, and no email attachments to send on the work to dozens, hundreds, thousands. It was one document going to one person. So he thought.
But God had a significance for Luke’s work well beyond his imagining. The gospel and Acts have been read by billions. Literally by billions. About one third of the world today is at least nominally Christian. Even if we cut that number down to those who have a deep heart faith in God, we’re still well over a billion. Almost all these people know the Bible. Then try to project back through time. Populations were smaller but it’s not exaggerating to add several more billions to get near the number who have read Luke’s work at some time during the last two thousand years. He wrote his gospel for Theophilus and he wrote Acts for Theophilus, but each has been read by billions in most of the nations on the earth. God took what he did and made so much more from it than he thought.
There is a loaves and fishes aspect to anything we offer to the Lord. He takes what seems so small and so inadequate, but in his hands it becomes important and maybe life-changing for many, many people. We never anticipated it, but God did it anyway.
Luke had no idea what God would do with his record of the early church. Most times we have no idea what God will do with the work he gives us, but it will be much more than we think.
Second, Jesus is far from finished with his work.
The second half of Luke’s opening sentence seems strange. Luke says that in his first book – the gospel – he wrote about all Jesus “began to do and to teach.” He began to do? Didn’t Jesus finish it?
When I was at high school, the principal of the school, the president, retired. There were countless speeches, all full of tributes listing the principal’s accomplishments – all the things he had done during his years in charge. Now he was leaving because his work was over.
Surely Luke would write about Jesus in the same way: all he had done on earth because it was now over. His gospel has described Jesus’ birth, his boyhood, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and Luke rounds it all off by describing his ascension back to heaven. So he’s covered it – beginning to end. But he begins Acts by saying it was not the end? He was describing only what Jesus began to do?
He was. It wasn’t finished.
Luke does not mean that Jesus failed in anything or that any part of Jesus’ work was inadequate. Everything that was purposed by Jesus coming into this world – his life, his work, his death, his resurrection and his return to heaven – it was all done and it was all perfect. But Jesus’ agenda still had more on it.
The ascension described in the last words of Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:50-53) was not the final chapter of Jesus’ ministry. One major part of his work was over but not the whole of his work. The work had begun but was not finished. In Luke’s second book, Acts, comes the story of how the good news of Jesus went out to people in Jerusalem and to the rest of the known world. Jesus had died and risen, but that wasn’t enough. People had to know. Their lives had to be transformed by that gospel or they would go on living separate from God.
After World War II there was an additional tragedy in the Pacific theater of war. Surrender had taken place, the war was over, but in several locations Japanese soldiers hid in dense jungles on sparsely populated islands. Some had never heard the war was over, and others did not believe the war had ended. These Japanese soldiers are known today as “holdouts” or “stragglers.” They lived in caves or holes in the ground and ate what they could catch. Mostly they stayed out of sight, but a few continued to fight and, sadly, several died in battles with police or farmers. One of the last to emerge was Second Lieutenant Onoda Hiroo who would not surrender in 1945 because he believed the leaflets dropped from the sky announcing the end of the war were a trick by the Allied forces. He hid and fought off intruders on Lubang Island in the Philippines from the end of the war until 1974 – almost thirty years – and he emerged then only because his former commanding officer was flown to Lubang to relieve him of his duties.
A story like that is fascinating. But it is also very sad. War was over. There was no need to keep fighting, and every chance of a better life rather than being holed up in the jungle. But he didn’t know, and didn’t believe. For him the war went on. Ignorance was not bliss.
The gospel is good news. No-one need be at war with God any more. But the good news must be told if people are to find peace.
In that sense, then, Jesus’ work is not yet complete. Not then and still not now. This world is still populated by the lost, the sick, the hurting, and the rejected. God loves them and gave his Son to die for them. Many don’t know or don’t understand and therefore don’t believe. God’s love is there for them, but as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 10, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14).
How can people believe in the one of whom they have not heard? The Book of Acts has the answer to that – the story of the unfinished work of Jesus. Luke will soon write about Jesus’ promise of the Spirit and how his people will be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Then Luke will describe the pouring out of the Spirit on the first Christians on the Day of Pentecost, and how from that day they will go out with power to share the good news.
It will be the story of how Jesus’ work was not all over with his death, resurrection, and ascension, but how Jesus continued to bring good news to the world through his people, his body on earth, his church. It is still happening. It is his mission and we are caught up in it because the gospel we know, the love of God we experience, is not private knowledge and not a private entitlement. It’s for all people.
Acts is about what Jesus continued to do by the Holy Spirit through very ordinary people. They were not special but God used them to bring his love to their world. We are also ordinary people but with power from the same Holy Spirit, and God will use us so his love is known in our neighborhoods, our land, and to all the nations of this earth. All those years ago Jesus “began to do and teach” wonderful things, and through each generation including this one he is still doing marvelous things and teaching life-giving truth to the world.
 Theophilus means ‘loved by God’ or ‘friend of God.’