Sermon delivered by Howard Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on September 20 2009.
Acts 1: 1-8
Luke is our writer. The first volume is his gospel. The second volume is the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a book about the beginning of the church. About the empowerment of the Spirit. It’s about the inclusion of all people into God’s people. It’s a book about fulfilling Jesus’ command to go and tell the whole world the story of God’s grace.
Luke begins – look at verse 1.
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach.
The first book, the Gospel of Luke, is about the actions of the Christ. About the words of the Christ. In the gospel he tells about the teaching of Jesus and the miracles of Jesus. He tells the story of the ministry and the daily activities of our earthly Lord. Volume One is about Jesus.
Volume Two is about the church.
Theophilus is also mentioned in the first book. It was common in those days to dedicate your book to someone. Theophilus. Theos – God. Philos – love. Loved by God or friend of God. In the first volume, in Luke 1:3, he calls him “most excellent Theophilus.” Theophilus was an ordinary personal name which began to be used in the 3rd century B.C. In the first book, Theophilus has learned something about the story of Jesus, the movement of Christ. And now he wanted to give him even more information than he already had.
In Josephus’s books (Josephus was a 1st century writer) – his Autobiography, his Jewish Antiquities, and his Against Apion – he makes a dedication to a patron by the name of Epaphroditus. At the beginning of the first volume, Against Apion, he addresses him as “Epaphroditus, most excellent of men.” And then when he writes the second volume dedicated to Epaphroditus, he writes, “By means of the former volume, my most honored Epaphroditus….” These words are remarkably similar to those that Luke uses. So he is using an ancient custom of writing a book and dedicating it to a person he chooses to honor.
I. Jesus continues His work through the church.
It stood out to me this time upon my reading of Acts in a way that it hadn’t before. The implication of “all the things that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when He was received up.” He is going to tell us in verse 9 and following (which we won’t cover today) that Jesus ascends to heaven. But the implication is that Jesus continues to do and teach through His followers.
Do you understand the implication of this? The Acts of the Apostles is an account of things that Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension through His Spirit which is found within His followers.
He gives the parting words to His apostles, commanding them now to be the bearers of His kingdom’s cause. These are powerful words in this book that tells us about the beginnings, the birth of the church.
“Boy, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.” Those are words we hear a lot. The implication is, “You have taken on a task that was so well done by your predecessor that I would hate to try to do it as well as he did.” How would you like to coach the Dallas Cowboys after the reign of Tom Landry?
Can you imagine being the next coach to fill the shoes of the current coach, Joe Paterno. Joseph Vincent Paterno, head of the Penn State Nitney Lions since 1966. I was three years old when he started as head coach at PennState. “Joe Pa” they call him – sometimes with affection and sometimes with disdain. He holds the record for the most victories by any college football coach and has coached more bowl game wins and accomplished more undefeated seasons than any other coach in college football history. He now has 385 wins compared to only 127 losses and – oh yeah – three ties.
•1982 NCAA national champs.
•1986, national champs again.
•1994 Big X Conference championship.
•2005 Big X Conference championship.
•2008 Bix X Conference championship.
•Five undefeated seasons
In 2005, they were ready to get rid of him after a 3-9 record in 2003 and a 4-7 record in 2004. “Just too old,” they were whispering behind his back. And wouldn’t you know, the next year he won the Big X Conference championship again, going 11-1.
Papa Joe grew up during the Great Depression and nearly had to leave high school because of tuition. Twenty dollars a month was too big a burden for his family. He played both quarterback and cornerback at BrownUniversity. He has been coaching PennState for – are you ready – sixty seasons. That’s the most seasons for any football coach at any university. It’s his 44th year as head coach, but his 60th year overall. Through the years, he’s been offered coaching jobs at Yale, Michigan, with the Pittsburg Steelers, and the New England Patriots. (And, by the way, he works for pennies on the dollar compared to Nick Sabin, who made $4 million in the 2006 season.)
Thirty-five bowl appearances. Twenty-three bowl victories. Five undefeated seasons. Four of his unbeaten teams (1968, 1969, 1973, and 1994) won major bowl games and still were not given the national championship. You could clearly argue he has deserved the national championship more than twice. He’s won the Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Aloha Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Citrus Bowl, Outback Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Alamo Bowl. He’s received every coaching award you could possibly get – The Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year, Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year, Paul “Bear” Bryant Award, Walter Camp Coach of the Year, just to name a few. And he won all those multiple times. He’s still coaching, but he’s already been elected into the College Football Hall of Fame.
By the way, he and his wife, Sue, have given $4 million back to PennState during his time there.
Now, do you want to follow Joe Paterno at PennState? There is no way you’ll beat his record. There is no way you’ll have the mystique. There is no way you’ll win all the coaching awards he did. And there is no way you’re going to work for the salary he’s received.
Whoever follows Joe Paterno one day – he is going to have some big shoes to fill. Or as they say on Broadway, he’s going to be a tough act to follow. No way to win that one. I’ll predict a short tenure for the next guy.
What about the early church? In some ways, we are called to follow the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus is saying, in essence, tag – you’re it. I’m no longer here. I’m going back to the Father. And you will continue to teach my words. You will continue to do the work of the kingdom.
Look at Act 1:8
You shall be My witnesses.
I’m leaving it in your hands. I’ll empower you by my Spirit, but you’ll be my hands and my feet.
God Has No Hands
God has no hands but our hands
to do his work today;
God has no feet but our feet
to lead others in his way;
God has no voice but our voice
to tell others how he died;
And, God has no help but our help
to lead them to his side.
(Annie Johnson Flint)
There are 40 days between His resurrection (in Luke) and His ascension (in Acts). And during those 40 days, He instructs and teaches the apostles concerning the kingdom of God. In Luke 4:43 (our author’s first book), He has Jesus saying, “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” The crowd didn’t want Jesus to leave, but He had to leave because He had to preach the kingdom of God in as many places as possible. So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
Jesus saw His purpose as preaching the kingdom of God to the cities. And we’re not surprised when, in Luke’s second volume, he opens by saying that Jesus had these 40 days to instruct the apostles – notice the end of verse 3 – concerning the kingdom of God. And in verse 8 Jesus tells them to tell all people everywhere the good news of the gospel, to go to all the cities – as He had started the pilgrimage. The mission of the kingdom of God.
During the forty days before His ascension, he appeared at intervals to His apostles. The many and varied appearances left no doubt in their minds: He was really alive again. Christ’s resurrection is what makes Christianity different from any other world religion. We have a crucified and resurrected Savior, and His resurrection is attested to by many witnesses. Paul gives us a list – an incomplete list – in 1 Corinthians 15.
When Jesus arrived He brought in the kingdom of God. His death and exaltation release the power of the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God is conceived as coming in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And the disciples are to proclaim these facts.
Turn to Act 28. Look at the last verses of this book. The book starts with Jesus preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God. Look how it ends. Speaking of Paul, “And he stayed for two full years in his own rented quarters, and was welcoming all who came to him preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”
We start and finish with God’s kingdom in the Acts of the Apostles.
II. We are empowered by His Spirit to continue His work.
“Don’t leave Jerusalem until you’ve been clothed with power from on high.” In his first book, Luke says it that way. In Luke 24:49 he says, “Behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Don’t leave. Don’t go on the mission yet. First you need the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was their source of power. John the Baptizer had said the same thing. “I baptize you in water; yes, but One who is coming after me shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
The Old Testament prophets had said that in the days of the fulfillment of God’s promises, there would be the widespread outpouring of the Spirit of God. The very Spirit which the prophets had proclaimed was about to be upon them and empower them to carry forth all that Jesus taught and did. They could continue His ministry for the kingdom, but only by the power of His Spirit.
III. A clear purpose was placed upon the people of God.
We should never ponder, “What’s the church to do?” The disciples are gathered around the risen Lord in our passage today, and they ask the question, “Are you going, at this time, to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (verse 6). It was a question they had asked repeatedly, and it was a natural one for a Jew to ask a resurrected Messiah.
Centered in the Old Testament faith was a conviction that God would, in the end time, fully restore His people to their inheritance in the land. They would live securely without foreign interference. This call was sounded forward from the books of Jeremiah, Hosea, and Joel. The disciples wanted to know the time of the ushering in of God’s perfect reign.
Jesus says not to worry about the epochs, the times or dates. “You worry about the task I am going to give you to do.”
Earlier he had told them (Mark 13:32) that He, Himself, didn’t even know the day and the hour of the parousia (His return). That was reserved for the Father alone. “Don’t look for times of political power, ambition, place or position. Rather, you are to be My witnesses.” The Old Testament prophet had called Israel to be God’s witness to the world (Isaiah 43:10; 44:8). The task which Israel as a nation had not fulfilled was taken up by Jesus, as a perfect servant of the Lord, and passed on by him to His disciples. The close relation between God’s call to Israel contained in Isaiah, “”Ye are my witnesses,” and Christ’s words to His apostles, “you shall be my witnesses,” is seen very clearly.
They are called to be the light to the Gentiles, bearing God’s salvation to the uttermost part of the earth. In the Acts of the Apostles, the witness starts in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and ultimately all over the Roman Empire to the capital city itself.
The story circulates that Oliver Wendell Holmes found himself on a train when the conductor announced that he would be coming through to collect tickets from the passengers. Holmes reached into his pocket only to discover that the ticket was not there. He began patting himself down just as the conductor arrived. After explaining the situation, the conductor told him not to worry about it. Holmes kept apologizing as he frantically searched for his ticket. The conductor tried to reassure him. “Please do not worry. It’s okay.” Holmes desperately reached into his satchel, searching for the ticket. The conductor tried to reassure him a final time. “Mr. Holmes, please do not worry about finding your ticket. We trust you. We know who you are.” Holmes replied, Young man, it’s not a matter of trust, but direction. I do not know, myself, where I am going.”
That might have been true of Mr. Holmes on that particular train ride. But that should not be true of the church of the crucified and resurrected Christ. No church has to sit around and wonder why it is here or what she is called to do. Jesus has given us our mission statement. And Jesus has set us to the task of continuing His words and His work.
I want you to realize that a mission is a very fragile thing. We must constantly remind ourselves why we are here as the First Baptist Church of Amarillo. We must constantly test every ministry and every program that we do by this criteria: Will it make the kingdom of God broader and deeper? If not, let’s not waste time – our time – and our finances doing it. Everything that we do, from playing basketball to teaching computer skills, is all directed toward bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and expanding their knowledge of what it means to walk as His disciple. Everybody who sets foot on this property, for whatever program, for whatever cause, ought to, at some point, be confronted – however forthright or subtle – with the gospel of Christ Jesus. They ought to be invited to come and follow Him in whatever tone or manner is appropriate for the context.
Jesus is saying, in essence, to His disciples: “Tag – You’re it. I started going city to city preaching the kingdom, but I’m going to have you empowered by the Spirit to go and and finish the kingdom’s call.
We’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill. I’m pretty certain we don’t want to follow Joe Paterno at PennState. That would be a formidable task to undertake, to be sure. But we can’t skirt a larger task, for you and I work in the shadow of the Master. We are to share His words, and we are to do His work. We are to be His hands and His feet.
Congregation, church is very important. Very, very important. We are the only institution undergirded by Christ to carry forth His words and His work. We cannot shirk our responsibility. There is no one else to tag. Before He ascended, He made us it.
Are you devoted to church? Are you devoted to the kingdom of God? Are you devoted to the cause of Christ? Will you join us in our mission endeavors, as we try all nations and call them into the presence of the holy, into the kingdom of God.