By Tom Roberts
The gospel records that Jesus, while at Caeserea Philippi, promised to “build my church” (Matt. 16:18). In Matthew’s account of the Great Commission, Jesus told the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” (28:18-20). Mark added that these disciples will be made as the apostles preach the gospel to “every creature,” from which (the disciples) would be those who “believe and are baptized” (16:15, 16). Luke recorded in his gospel account that all this would begin in Jerusalem and result in “repentance and remission of sins” being preached in the name of Jesus (24:46-49). John recorded that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to the apostles to guide them in the declaration of that message so as to insure God’s truth being given and preserved (John 14:26; 16:13). Clearly, the preaching of faith, repentance and baptism so as to make disciples and bring about forgiveness was to accompany the beginning of the church of Christ. Just as clearly, it was obedience to that gospel message that resulted in the establishment of the church. One can no more separate the full gospel message from the church than one can separate the church from the full gospel message. Preaching the gospel builds the church; but the church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Those who would amputate part of the Great Commission would do violence to the message of grace.
As we say, in the gospels, the church is promised. In the epistles of the New Testament, we find the church a reality. The church existed in Jerusalem and is mentioned in letters to Corinth and Rome. Likewise, letters are addressed to churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and, in the Revelation, to seven churches of Asia.
How did these churches come into being? What were the conditions under which they originated? Was the same gospel preached to all? How were the Gentiles brought in? In the epistles themselves, we have some clues but nothing is related about the spread of the gospel to Gentiles and to places other than Jerusalem, the city which was to be the place of its origin. The gospels reveal the promise, the epistles assume that it was so. But there is an interval between the gospels and the epistles that form a void and vacuum that is filled by no other book in the Bible than the Book of Acts. We are indebted to the inspired historian, Luke, that he determined to add to his “former treatise” (Acts 1:1), the gospel that bears his name, by providing information of historical events that transpired after the resurrection. This is found nowhere else as Luke gave it. Without the Acts of the Apostles, we would forever wonder about so many things. One of the great themes of Acts is the bridge of understanding that it provides between Jesus’ promise to build the church and the growth of that church into a world-wide body, from concept to reality.
The Beginning of the Church of Christ
After Jesus promised to build the church, he finished his earthly course, was delivered into the hands of “lawless men” (Acts 2:23), was crucified, raised from the dead and ascended to heaven (1:9-11). He renewed his intent to begin the church at Jerusalem by instructing the apostles to wait there for the “promise of the Father” (1:4; Jn. 14:26; 16:13). True to that command, they were in Jerusalem when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, baptizing them therein as earlier promised (1:5). As they received the Holy Spirit, they began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance (2:4).
What did they speak? Can anyone doubt that it was the message of the Great Commission? Not only must this be necessarily inferred from the previous promises, but it can be demonstrated from the message itself. Please remember that it was by the Great Commission that “repentance and remission of sins” was to be given. Remember that this was to take place in Jerusalem. Remember also that it was to be accompanied by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In every instance, the apostles are true to their calling and all these prerequisites are now in place. This was the day spoken of by the prophets and, to leave no doubt, Peter proclaimed, “This is that spoken by the prophet Joel” (2:16). The message they preached was “repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). This is Great Commission preaching! These commands were predicated upon the truth that “God hath made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (2:36). In the “name of Jesus” (or, by his authority), the apostles offered the promise of salvation recorded since Genesis 3:15, through the seed of woman, the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3), and the seed of David (Acts 2:29-36): Jesus the Christ.
To this gracious offer, three thousand “gladly received his word and were baptized” (2:41). The Lord “added to the church daily those who were being saved” (2:47). In this simple but eloquent fashion, Luke recorded the beginning of the church of Christ. No, it didn’t begin in the days of John the Baptist. (Note that he was “the” Baptist and not “a” Baptist. John should have been the only Baptist since he was sent to baptize and not to start a denomination.) John was a great prophet but he never saw the beginning of the church (Matt. 11:11). No, it did not begin six hundred years later, 1200 years later, or 1900 years later. All the denominations that came later have the wrong birth date and the wrong birth place and the wrong founder. The church of Jesus Christ began on the first Pentecost after his resurrection in the city of Jerusalem. It is the “church” since its members were “called out from the world into Christ.” It is the “kingdom” since Christ is on the throne of David since the resurrection (2:30, 31). Luke left no doubt about this matter and no one should attempt to change the inspired record. No one should be content to be a member of any other church whose origin is different from this one. None should wait for a kingdom at some future date. The kingdom (church) is here, now, and has been since Acts 2. The terms of admission are clear: “Repent and be baptized everyone of you.” Have you done this? Yes, God requires that we “do” something. When believers asked, “What shall we do?” (2:37), they were told to “repent and be baptized” (v. 38). The doctrine of “faith only” did not originate at Pentecost. No one who heard the apostles preach could have believed that “baptism is not essential to salvation.” Lost people need to believe, repent and be baptized. When you do, the Lord will add you to his church and to none other. No one can vote to keep you out. You can get in no other way (John 14:6).
The Gospel Spreads to Other Places
Jesus had told the apostles: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). This promise of Jesus, coincidentally, provided the basis for a solid outline by Luke of the book of Acts. He recorded the growth of the gospel in Jerusalem and its spread as persecution began (Acts 4: l ff; 7: l ff; 8:1-4).
Through Peter, who along with the twelve apostles, had been given the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19), the kingdom was opened, as in Acts 2 to the Jews, now to Gentiles in Acts 10, 11, and 15. Cornelius, a devout man, was told to send for Peter who would “tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14), or “things commanded” (10:33) by God. Again, this is the Great Commission at work, going among “the nations” or “every creature.” The same message was preached to Cornelius as to the Jews for Peter asked, “Can anyone forbid water that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” (10:48) The baptism of the Great Commission is baptism in water for the remission of sins. The fact that Cornelius received the Holy Spirit was recorded so that reluctant Jews would know clearly that “God shows no partiality” (10:34) and that “God hath also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (11:18).
The Work of Paul
Luke recorded the conversion of Saul of Tarsus who had previously persecuted the saints (Acts 9:4). He, too, was baptized by the Great Commission baptism as Ananias told him to “arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16). Without the record of Saul’s conversion into Paul the apostle, much of the history of the church in Asia Minor and Europe would be shrouded in mystery. But Paul became the great missionary to distant lands, being personally involved in three preaching tours and an enforced journey to Rome as a prisoner for the gospel. Paul is responsible for writing much of the epistles which make up the Scripture we have today. It is rather easy to follow the narrative of Luke as he traveled with Paul in most of his journeys, preaching, starting congregations, writing letters to the fledgling churches and combating error both within and without the church. It is with Luke’s record in hand that we can know where Paul was when many of the churches were founded and to which church the letters were addressed. Luke’s record ends with Paul a prisoner in Rome, teaching all that come in contact with him and awaiting trial before Caesar.
A Complete Story
The gospels, the book of Acts, the epistles, the Revelation: a complete and final revelation of the redemption of man through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Luke was chosen by God to play an important part in the narrative by not only giving us one of the accounts of the life of Jesus, but also by bridging the gulf between the story of Jesus and the church Jesus built.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 18, p. 20-21
September 16, 1993