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"The Continuing Ministry of Jesus."

MESSAGE for Sunday, October 25, 2009, Acts 1:1-5

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          This week, we begin the second part of our series of messages on a truth-driven vision for our church.  This part will be a series of messages from the book of Acts.  I thought about preaching this series of “vision messages” topically.  That is, preach a message or two on Biblical community and a related message on the necessity of church membership.  Add another few messages on being a more effective witness for Christ.  Another message or two could be given on the need for prayer and the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church.  Another on planting churches and another message or two on worship might be preached.  As I thought about that, it seemed better to preach through Acts because all those themes are found in this book multiple times.  Preaching through the book of Acts enables us to see these elements of our vision repeatedly and from different angles as we again and again see the God-centered, truth-driven, gospel saturated content of these 28 chapters of inspired Scripture.  It’s my prayer as we go through Acts, that we will not only take in “head knowledge” of what God’s plan is for our church, but also from these pages of Scripture would emanate the fragrance of Christ as he ministers through his church in Acts and that we would deeply breathe in that aroma and be changed more into his likeness.

          First, let me make some very brief introductory comments about this book.  First, what is the purpose of this book?  I agree with those who say that Acts is “a testimony about the early church’s witness and God’s role in bringing it to pass.”[1]  As we will see today, it was written by Luke, a doctor who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys.  He wrote Acts to the same man to whom he addressed his gospel as a sequel to that gospel.  We don’t know much about this man named Theophilus, other than he had read Luke’s gospel and was probably a Gentile who was familiar with the Old Testament.  Luke addresses him in his gospel with the title “most excellent” which may indicate that he was a person of some prominence in society.  Luke probably wrote Acts sometime between 62 AD, when Paul was imprisoned in Rome—(that account is recorded by Luke in chapter 28) and AD 70 before Jerusalem was destroyed.  There is nothing in Acts about that event and it probably would have been included if it had happened before Luke’s writing. 

Acts is a history book and although Luke’s account of these events has at times been challenged by historians, time has repeatedly vindicated Luke as a historian of the first rank.  Like the rest of Scripture, Acts is an anvil that has worn out the many hammers of its critics.  We must read Acts as a history book.  Although Acts is the source of much rich doctrine, many people in church history have misused this book by trying to turn this history book into a Systematic Theology.  It’s far better to get our theology of (for instance) the baptism of the Holy Spirit from Paul when he is specifically teaching on that topic in First Corinthians, than by getting it from the historical events Luke records in Acts.  

Jesus Christ is the dominant character in the book of Acts and we seldom see that more clearly than in the opening verses of this book.  Let’s read the first five verses of the book of Acts.  Luke is the author and he says, “1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The main truth I see in these opening verses could be stated like this:  Jesus Christ, though ascended to the Father, continues his earthly ministry through his apostles by the Holy Spirit.  We see this beginning in verse one, where Luke connects Acts with his gospel.  He says, “In the first book, (the gospel of Luke) O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach…”  That’s a very curious way to word this reference to the gospel of Luke—an account of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach.”  In Luke’s gospel, which Theophilus has read, we see in chapter 24 that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God—not to return to earth until his second coming.  When Luke wrote Acts, Jesus had left this earth in bodily form and was abiding at the Father’s right hand.  His earthly ministry here was presumably completed.  Yet, Luke says here in verse one that the first 33-odd years of Jesus’ life, culminating in his death, resurrection and ascension were just the beginning of his earthly ministry.  Luke summarizes his gospel as his account of what Jesus BEGAN to do and BEGAN to teach.  Jesus initiated his earthly ministry in Luke’s gospel and doubtless did his most important work of redemption, but the clear implication is that Jesus Christ continues his earthly ministry in the book of Acts, though he is in fact in heaven. Our first point is to dwell on the FACT of Christ’s continuing ministry within the church.

The fact that Luke sees Jesus as continuing his earthly ministry tells us something of immense importance about first, how Luke sees the events of this book and second, about our theology of the church.  That is—we must know that there is far more continuity between Jesus’ earthly ministry up to his ascension and his ministry in Acts and even today.  We could say it this way:  In the gospels, Christ ministers through the Spirit by means of his own physical body.  Luke speaks of Jesus giving commands to his apostles through the Holy Spirit, but he says in verse one that this was part of the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  That means:  In the book of Acts, Christ ministers through his Spirit by means of his spiritual body the church, especially the apostles.  Don’t miss the amazing continuity Luke wants us to see between Jesus’ earthly ministry in the gospels through the Spirit and his earthly ministry from heaven through the Spirit in the book of Acts.  In the gospels, Christ ministers through the Spirit by means of his physical body.  In Acts, Christ minister through the Spirit by means of his spiritual body the church, especially the apostles. 

In both of these phases of Christ’s ministry, Luke wants us to see that it is CHRIST who is doing the ministry—doing and teaching.  We must never believe that when Jesus ascended to God that his ministry was over.  His work of redemption was finished once and for all, but not his ministry in and through his church—that ministry of Jesus continues.  That’s why we have said that the church is commissioned by Christ to carry on the ministry of Christ and show forth the character of Christ.  F.F. Bruce says this is one of the differences separating Christianity from every other religion.  All other religions regard “their founder as having completed his ministry during his lifetime; Luke says Jesus only began his.”[2]  That’s because, unlike Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha, Joseph Smith and all the rest, Jesus alone is still alive. 

This is not the first time we have seen this truth about Jesus continuing his ministry after he physically departs this earth.  Jesus spoke of this often as he reassured his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In John 14:16, Jesus says, “16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. “  After Jesus speaks about the Helper as the Spirit of truth who will dwell with them and be with them he concludes by saying that, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Although there is a clear distinction between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Jesus says that when the Spirit comes to you, HE, Jesus will be coming to you.  He will continue to do and to teach within his church.

Listen to how closely Christ identifies himself with the church in Acts nine.  When Jesus meets Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road in a great light, as Paul falls to the ground in terror Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”  And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  Jesus so closely identifies with his church that when Saul was terrorizing the church, dragging men, women and children off to prison and to their death, Jesus accuses Saul of not simply persecuting his people, but persecuting himself. 

In First Corinthians chapter 12, Paul is speaking of spiritual gifts within the church and he says in verse 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with the church.”  Is that what it says?  Does it say that the church, though being one body has many members?  No.  What it really says is, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  CHRIST has one body and many members!  Again, hear the profound level of identification Christ has with his church. The local church’s ministry is not simply the ministry of a pastor or leadership team or a group of people.  As it is done through the Holy Spirit, the ministry of the church is the ministry of Jesus Christ. 

We must see this truth that Christ ministers within the church for many reasons but let’s focus on one this morning.  That is—when Luke says that Jesus continues to minister within the church—when he so profoundly identifies himself and his personal ministry with the ministry of the church, that should cause us to have a very high view of the local church.  If this truth doesn’t elevate our understanding of the local church, then we have missed it.  Today, an increasing number of evangelicals think that they can have a healthy relationship with God without any local church involvement.  They don’t realize that when they leave the church, they are, according to Jesus, leaving Him!  They aren’t simply leaving a group of people or a pastor; they are turning their backs on Jesus and his ongoing ministry within the church.  Likewise, a person who is indifferent to the local church—can take it or leave it—that person is indifferent to Christ because Christ identifies himself so powerfully with his church.

People who are down on the church—make no mistake—are down on Christ—you can’t separate the head from the body.  When someone undermines the local church, they are they are undermining Jesus--just as much as if they had undermined his ministry 2000 years ago.  We know from Acts chapter nine that Jesus takes that kind of thing very personally!  We must not develop bad attitudes toward the church—not fundamentally because we must be personally loyal to the people in church, but because in the eyes of Jesus, we are against HIM!  We must carefully monitor what we say and the attitudes we have toward any gospel-preaching church because we can be throwing darts at our Savior! 

We see in verse four that Jesus gave a command to his apostles that would ensure his ministry would continue through his church.  It says, “…he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  Jesus knew that the church must be baptized—the church must be immersed in the Holy Spirit if he were to continue his ministry through his church.  Just as Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit to be faithful in his earthly ministry, so must the church minister through the Spirit if Jesus’ ministry is to be manifest in the church.  Without the Spirit, the mission of the church to continue the ministry of Christ and manifest the character of Christ could never be accomplished.  Jesus said in John 14:26 that the Spirit will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  Later in 16:14 Jesus says of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit is the One who will make Jesus real to you.  Jesus commanded the apostles and the other believers to wait for the Spirit at least in part out of his desire to minister within the church by the Spirit and for the church to accurately manifest him as his church.

A second point related to Christ’s continuing ministry in the church is found in verse three.  Luke writes of Jesus appearing to the apostles after his resurrection and says, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  We have seen the fact of Jesus’ continuing ministry.  Here we see the plausibility of Christ’s continuing ministry within the church.   Without the resurrection of Christ, the continuing ministry of Christ simply would not be plausible.  You cannot continue ministry if you are dead.  Luke says that Jesus “by many proofs” presented himself alive.  That word translated “proof” means “convincing, decisive proof.” The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is convincing and decisive.  Luke tells us here that the proof of the resurrection of Jesus was not simply witnessed one-time.  Jesus did not rise from the dead and immediately ascend into heaven.  The gospels tell us that he made intermittent resurrection appearances and at various times even ate with his friends. 

Paul gives us even more insight into the resurrection appearances of Jesus in First Corinthians 15:5.  There he says Jesus, 5” …appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles  It’s clear that most of Jesus’ resurrection appearances were for the benefit of the apostles and those in their circle, but at least once, Jesus appeared to a large group of  more than 500 people who served as witnesses to the resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a religious myth.  It is not a gigantic fraud perpetrated by his apostles.  One of the truths the gospel writers so clearly reveal is that the apostles, in spite of all the times Jesus told them he would rise from the dead—they were in fact, NOT expecting the resurrection.  It took them completely by surprise.  It was no hoax for which these 12 men and countless others gave their lives.  It was a very well attested historical event witnessed over 40 days by more than 500 people.  Throughout the preaching in the book of Acts, the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role.  Paul says that if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.  His resurrection authenticates and makes possible his continuing ministry in his church.  It also gives us hope of our future bodily resurrection if we are in Christ.

In verse two we see truth that points to the nature of Christ’s continuing ministry within the church. What does this ministry look like?  Luke says that before Christ ascended—“was taken up” “he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  In order for us to understand what Luke means here by “commands,” we must remember that he wrote Acts as a sequel to his gospel.  When we turn to the final commands of Jesus in Luke’s gospel just before his ascension, we see what he means.  In Luke 24:45 he writes about Jesus, “45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

The nature of Christ’s ministry after his ascension is similar to his ministry on earth.  He came out of Nazareth preaching a gospel of repentance.  After he went to the cross, he preached not only repentance—turning away from sin, but also the forgiveness of sins.  This must be done in Christ’s name because it is his message and it is to radiate out from Jerusalem to all the nations.  Those within evangelicalism that teach that repentance is a work and therefore we should not call to repentance those to whom we preach the gospel need to read Luke’s gospel and Acts.  We will see in Acts that repentance looms very large in Luke’s understanding of the gospel.  When Peter preaches his first sermon at Pentecost, his hearers are cut to the heart with conviction and ask the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” …Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  As we’ll see as in Acts, conversion for Luke in the early church involved five elements--baptism, forgiveness, repentance, faith in Jesus Christ and the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.[3]  At different times, Luke equates each of those with being saved because in the early church, unlike today, those all happened pretty much on the same day.  That’s why in Luke’s mind, all of them could be used as synonyms for salvation.  When did you repent?—when were you baptized?—when did you believe?—when did you confess Christ?—when were you baptized?  Believers in the early church would have heard those questions all asking the same thing—when were you saved?  Part of the nature of Christ’s continuing ministry was this call to repentance.  If you are here today and claim to be a Christian, but your life hasn’t changed, if you haven’t turned from your sin, you need to know that repentance is part of what Christ calls us to in the church. 

Repentance is possible through the Holy Spirit.  In Ezekiel 36, the prophet looks forward to this ministry of the Spirit and says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will removed the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  Those are some of those wonderful promises we can claim that we spoke of last week.  As we struggle with the idols of this world and our desire to elevate them above Christ, we can claim the truth that in the gospel through the Spirit we have been cleansed from all our idols.  We have a new heart through the Holy Spirit that loves Jesus more than anything in this world.  Do we believe that?  Are we with faith battling against the idols of this world in those kinds of promises?

Another aspect of Jesus’ continuing ministry in the church is implied in this word “apostles” to whom he gave this commission to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  Christ continued to minister in the early church by the Spirit primarily through the apostles.  The twelve minus Judas, plus Matthias and Paul were the main conduits through which he worked.  Other men and women are clearly used—Stephen, Philip and others, but most of the heavy lifting of continuing Christ’s ministry was done through these men chosen by Jesus, Peter and Paul in particular. An apostle was a “commissioned, sent agent” and that is what these men were.[4]  Jesus continues his ministry through the Spirit in the church in the book of Acts through the apostles as they lead the church in the ministry of the word and it’s the same today in Christ’s church.  Apostolic ministry is how Jesus continues to minister in his church today primarily through his apostolic word.  That’s the most important way Jesus continues to minister within the church by the Spirit—through his apostolic word.

As his apostolic word is read and preached and taught and prayed over, Christ works in his church through the Spirit.   As we close—where are we today?  Do we have a high view of the church that is consistent with the truth that Jesus continues his ministry through the church?  More and more evangelicals are sadly believing that they can have Christ without the church.  More and more believe the lie that they can have a healthy relationship with Christ while having a superficial or even unhealthy relationship with his church.  May God give us the grace to prize the church because Christ is in the church and may the risen Christ be seen in this church as we through the Spirit seek after that for his glory.

[1] Bock, Acts BECNT, p.24.

[2] Bruce, Acts NICNT, p.34.

[3] Bob Stein in his chapter on “Baptism in Luke-Acts” in “Believer’s Baptism,”  Edited by Shreiner and Wright, p. 64

[4] Bock, Acts, BECNT, p.53.


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