Since the beginning of this year I have been looking forward to the sixteen days we will spend in the book of Acts, my favorite book of the Bible. I find it helpful to think of Acts in terms of its two purposes. It has a historical purpose as the essential link between the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Imagine how confused you would be if you were reading your Bible and turned the last page of the gospel of John and discovered Romans. You would wonder, “How did the gospel get to Rome?” The answer is found in the book of Acts.
The second purpose is practical: the book of Acts teaches us how to be the church of Jesus Christ and how to “do” church. Acts shows us the blueprints for church as it should be. In this book we find the DNA of the local church; through the miracle of His inerrant Word, God has mapped the ecclesiastical genome. Our challenge is to have the courage to compare ourselves to the original church in Acts and to strive to be as much like the original as possible.
Acts is “Vol. 2” of Luke’s two-volume work, and it picks up where the gospel of Luke leaves off. In verse 1, Luke refers to his gospel account, which he says was just the beginning. The gospel of Luke records what Jesus began to do and teach in His human body; the book of Acts tells us what Jesus continued to do and teach through His spiritual body, the church. Verse 8 gives the strategy for the mission of the original church, and it serves as an outline for the book: chapters 1-7 tell of the witness of the church in Jerusalem; chapters 8-11 the witness in Judea and Samaria; and chapters 12-28 the witness to the ends of the earth.
In verses 4-8 we find Jesus teaching His disciples and turning His followers into leaders. We find Jesus directing their activity, giving commands that they should follow. We find Jesus setting the agenda for the church, turning them from an inward focus to an outward focus; from “What about Israel?” (v.6) to “What about the ends of the earth?” (v.8).
Jesus gave these final instructions on the Mount of Olives, lifted His nail-scarred hands to bless them — and suddenly, they saw space between His nail-scarred feet and the ground! Jesus was levitating, rising higher and higher until he was over their heads! Then a bright cloud, a visible manifestation of the glory of God, enveloped Jesus and He simply disappeared.
After Jesus’ ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem. The group was led by the eleven apostles (v.13) and included “the women” (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others) and Jesus’ family, who had all become believers after His resurrection (v.14). They began to pray and to wait for the promised power of the Holy Spirit to come upon them.
As they waited in the upper room, Peter brought up an issue that needed to be settled. Verses 15-26 records the minutes of the first church business meeting. Peter believed that Jesus had called twelve apostles because He wanted twelve apostles, and so it would be right to replace Judas to raise the number back to twelve. There were two requirements for this open position of apostleship: out of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples, he must have followed Jesus through His entire ministry, from His baptism to His ascension; and he must be chosen by the Lord. Two men fit the bill, Joseph Justus and Matthias.
When they prayed in verse 24, “Show which one of these two You have chosen,” the grammar implies that they believed the Lord had already chosen one. So they did what the Old Testament Scriptures taught them to do: they cast lots according to Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” This is the last instance in Scripture of casting lots – the sending of the Holy Spirit would make that practice unnecessary. But the lesson for the church here is that these people were confident of God’s leadership. They just trusted Him to guide them, and you can trust Him to guide you, too.