Acts 1

This second volume of the Luke-Acts set is entitled “The Acts of the Apostles.” However, some prefer to call it “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because, no matter how much recognition the apostles get, the Holy Spirit was the person and power behind them. In Acts alone, the Holy Spirit is referred to more than sixty times, at least twice the mentions he received in any other book of the Bible.
Acts is the story of the Church – what it is and how it began. Many favorite Sunday School stories appear in its pages as Luke introduced his reader, initially Theophilus, to both the good and the bad events the early Christians experienced. The book covers the first 30 years of Church history, from its inception in A.D. 33 through Paul’s first Roman imprisonment, ending in A.D. 62.

There are at least three different ways to outline the book into its natural, broad divisions. The shortest outline is the simple division between Peter’s work (chapters 1-12) and Paul’s (chapters 13-28). Secondly, Acts 1:8 gives a threefold outline. Jesus told the apostles they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem (chapters 1-8), Judea and Samaria (chapters 9-12), and the furthest parts of the earth (chapters 13-28). Another outline, less obvious, reveals six key divisions using Luke’s “progress reports” of the Church’s growth in Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:31.

The major key to interpreting Acts is understanding that it is transitional in nature. Much of the book is descriptive (what the early Christians experienced or did) rather than prescriptive (what all Christians should experience or do). In fact, there are many things Luke recorded that we should not expect to be normative today, and recognizing those differences is an important component of correct interpretation.

Chapter one picks up immediately where Luke’s gospel ended. It is obvious that Luke intended for this to be a second volume, as his introduction to Theophilus shows (Acts 1:1-2). 1 None of the gospels gives a full account of Jesus’ work following his resurrection, but Luke noted in verse three that Jesus spent 40 days with the apostles, teaching them “ABOUT MATTERS CONCERNING THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” One of these matters was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would occur shortly. Until that time (Jesus did not say how long), they were to wait in Jerusalem. However, after it happened, Jesus promised that they would “RECEIVE POWER,” with the result that they would “BE…WITNESSES” (Acts 1:8). “My witnesses” means they would preach about Jesus, which makes sense because he had already told them that they would receive “THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH WHO GOES OUT FROM THE FATHER – HE WILL TESTIFY ABOUT ME, AND YOU ALSO WILL TESTIFY” (John 15:26-27).

Although they wanted to know more about the Messianic kingdom and its timing, Jesus would tell them no more. In what was apparently a surprise to them, Jesus ascended into heaven, slowly disappearing until they could no longer see him (Acts 1:9-11). As they searched the skies, two angels told them to obey Jesus’ instructions to wait in Jerusalem. He would come back the same way he left – physically and visibly.

During the next ten days, they waited and prayed (Acts 1:12-14). At this time there were about 120 believers waiting for whatever was going to come next. Based on their interpretation of two psalms, they decided that Judas’ position needed to be filled with a twelfth apostle (Acts 1:15-26). Rather than putting it to a popular vote, they took two steps. First, they nominated only those with specific qualifications – a man, who had accompanied them everywhere, and who had been part of the group since Jesus’ baptism, which eliminated all but two candidates. Second, they placed these two men before God, praying and casting lots for direction. The lot fell to Matthias, “SO HE WAS COUNTED WITH THE ELEVEN APOSTLES.”

Notes:

  1. Based on the almost “hurried” ending in chapter 28, some people propose that Luke may have intended a third volume of Paul’s later travels and additional Church history.

1 Timothy 4

Chapter four is different from the other chapters around it because Paul broke from his instructions to groups in order to focus on Timothy himself again. In this chapter, he gave Timothy three sets of warnings or encouragements. First, Timothy was to pay close attention to false teaching that would arise within the congregation (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Even though elders and deacons should have godly character traits, Paul had already warned the original Ephesian elders that “wolves” would enter the congregation from within their own body (Acts 20:28-30), and as Paul’s representative there, it was Timothy’s job to help purge these false teachers from the congregation. The description Paul gave reveals men who had forsaken the truth of Scripture for sensational teachings that, ultimately, come from demons. As innocuous as they sound, they include teachings even about marriage and food, often focusing on what is forbidden in an ascetic way. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul wrote that we are not obligated to such unscriptural restrictions.

Second, Timothy was to guard himself and his teaching carefully, so that he did not get caught up in such heresies, even unintentionally (1 Timothy 4:6-10). Paul noted that even then there were those who focused on their physical health to the neglect of their spiritual health. While physical health does some good in this life, spiritual health is eternal and must be the priority. Paul’s comment that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of believers,” points to the fact that no one is outside of God’s ability to save. The concept that only a special group can or will be saved is contrary to Paul’s teaching.

Third, Timothy was to both “command and teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11-16). Apparently, there were some who had dismissed him as their local apostle because of his youth. Paul told him not to let that stop his work there. Instead, he was to be an example of all these things already mentioned, even to the elders of the local congregations. He was to make this his life’s focus, and it would be beneficial not only for him but everyone in his care.

1 Timothy 1

Introduction
In Lystra, during his second missionary tour, Paul found Timothy, already a well-known disciple in the area (Acts 16). He quickly became one of Paul’s closest friends and trusted companions. Timothy appears more than twice the times of anyone else in Paul’s letters, and he is mentioned in all of Paul’s letters except four, plus once in Hebrews and six times in Acts.

We know only a few things about Timothy’s personal life. He was born to a Greek father and Jewish mother (Acts 16:1). He was young, but how young is unknown (1 Timothy 4:12). He seemed to have been sick frequently (1 Timothy 5:23). He suffered a major period of spiritual depression at one point that left him nearly ready to quit the ministry (2 Timothy 1:6-8).

Contrary to popular opinion, Timothy was not a pastor or elder of a local church; rather, he was Paul’s personal representative and an apostle in every sense of the word. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus when he went on to Macedonia to continue the work there (1 Timothy 1:3), yet planned to rejoin Timothy back in Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:14; 4:13). Since this event does not line up with the timeline in Acts, it is probable that this took place after Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30-31), meaning that both of his letters to Timothy were written after the book of Acts, probably in A.D. 64-66, before Paul’s final imprisonment and death in Rome. The purpose of this letter was to clarify the instructions and task that he had left for Timothy to accomplish in his absence. It seems as if Timothy may have written Paul with some questions that Paul needed to answer as well.

Chapter one begins with a slight modification of Paul’s traditional greeting. With only the letters to Timothy as the exception, Paul always offered “grace and peace” to his readers, combining the normal Greek and Hebrew salutations, respectively. To Timothy, though, he offered “grace, mercy, and peace” (1 Timothy 1:2). It is possible that he included “mercy” because of the difficulty of the work in Ephesus and Timothy’s weaker tendencies. In fact, Timothy faced a situation that would become confrontational, as he had to stop false teachers in the church, about whom Paul warned the Ephesian elders a few years earlier (1 Timothy 1:3-7; Acts 20:28-30). Apparently, they wanted to place the Gentile church under the Mosaic Law, something Paul had fought from the beginning of his ministry (1 Timothy 1:8-11). 1

Paul connected back to the theme of mercy by reminding Timothy of Paul’s own past (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Even though he “was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man,” God treated him with mercy for one primary reason: so that he could be an example demonstrating “for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life” that God can save anyone.

Paul concluded this opening chapter by charging Timothy with his task: “fight the good fight,” a soldier theme that will permeate both letters (1 Timothy 1:18-20). This would require him to “hold firmly to faith and a good conscience.” There were those in the Ephesian church who had already shipwrecked their faith, and Paul did not want Timothy to suffer the same fate.

Notes:

  1. The entire letter of Galatians was written to combat this false teaching, and Paul had to fight it everywhere he went, as shown in several of his other letters as well.

2 Thessalonians 1

Introduction
Second Thessalonians seems to have been written shortly after 1 Thessalonians, in response to some follow-up questions the church had for Paul based on his former letter. Given the travel time between Thessalonica and Corinth, where Paul wrote the first letter (compare Acts 17:15; 18:5 with 1 Thessalonians 3:1-6), it is likely that Timothy could have delivered 1 Thessalonians and returned to Paul with their questions in just a couple of months, so A.D 51 or 52 is the probable timeframe.

As with the first letter, Paul included Silvanus and Timothy in his greeting, as they were instrumental in getting the Macedonian churches started (Thessalonica, Berea, and others). It seems the specific reason for their letter was that the Thessalonians had received information that pretended to come from Paul, contradicting what he had previously taught them about the end times, specifically the coming Great Tribulation and satanic world ruler. Paul wrote this letter to remind them of his former teachings and to clarify a few other matters.

Chapter one begins with a similar theme as in 1 Thessalonians – Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for the believers’ continued growth and public faith (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4). In 1 Thessalonians Paul did not find it necessary to tell others about the Thessalonian believers, because their reputation preceded him wherever he went (1 Thessalonians 1:7-10). In this letter he said that he was able to “boast” about them “in the churches of God” because of how they were persevering “in all the persecutions and afflictions” that they had to endure. Similar to other passages in his later writings, Paul noted that present suffering prepares believers for the coming kingdom, where someday we will find our “rest” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-7). 1 He also reminded them that God will “repay with affliction those who afflict” them. One wonders if Paul often thought of the many psalms in which David called to the Lord to deliver him from his enemies and encouraged his readers, “Do not fret when wicked men seem to succeed!” (Psalm 37:1)

Paul greatly looked forward to the day when Jesus would finally return as judge. Paul had already noted that those who afflict Christians “are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people…[and] constantly fill up their measure of sins” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16). These, he wrote again, “will undergo eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Specifically, and most importantly to Paul, they would forever be “away from the presence of the Lord,” the presence he so greatly anticipated (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:17; 5:23). Paul’s greatest prayer for his Thessalonian friends was that they would be worthy of the Savior at his coming, something Paul was convinced God himself would make sure of (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

Notes:

  1. The Millennial / Messianic Kingdom described in terms of rest is a major aspect of the book of Hebrews.

1 Thessalonians 5

Chapter five concludes with two final teachings. Regarding the Day of the Lord, Paul noted that the Thessalonians did not need any more teaching (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2), because it is a frequent topic in the Hebrew Scriptures, which they studied in the synagogue (both the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles). The Day of the Lord will consist of the Tribulation wrath and judgments followed by the Messianic Kingdom. Because of this, Paul instructed the believers to live properly now, so that they would not become spiritually lethargic (“sleep” is not the same Greek word as in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and be caught off guard by the Rapture, which will occur before the Day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:3-8). It is important to note the distinct shift in emphasis between “we/us” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 to “they” in this section. If “we” are living according to the apostle’s instructions in chapter four, we will not be caught off guard like “they” will in chapter five.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 provide the explanation that pulls this section together. Why can we stand in faith, act in love, and expectantly look forward to our future? Because believers are not destined for the coming wrath. We are destined for opposition in this world (1 Thessalonians 3:4), but we will not go through the wrath of the Day of the Lord, because Jesus is “our deliverer from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). This is an obstacle for those who believe that the Church will go through the Tribulation period.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 ends this section ends like 1 Thessalonians 4:18 did the last one. The Rapture is a wonderful truth that we should use to encourage one another. The teaching about the Day of the Lord should also encourage us, because we will not go through it, but it should also cause us to “sober up” about what is important in this life and drive us to grow in our spiritual lives, even pushing one another so we don’t become lethargic.

In the final section of his letter (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22) Paul focused on the congregational life of the church, and he gave four sets of commands. First, they were to highly respect the elders of the church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Some writers see the lack of specificity in the phrase “those who labor among you and preside over you” to mean that there was no formal structure to the congregations yet. However, Paul had already begun appointing local church elders during his first missionary tour (Acts 14:23), so the structure was established. It is more likely that he did not know exactly who those elders were, because he had left so quickly. Silas and Timothy probably appointed them in his absence. Additionally, the concept of “presiding over” and “admonishing” clearly indicates a leadership structure within the congregation. Second, they were to maintain a balance of unity, discipline, and mutual care for one another within the congregation (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15). Third, they were to intentionally hold attitudes of joy and gratefulness, which was important because of their ongoing afflictions (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Finally, they were to keep themselves open to prophecy from the Holy Spirit, not extinguishing his work in their meetings, yet practicing discernment in what they accepted as truth (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Paul concluded his letter with a benediction, praying that they would be ready for Jesus’ return (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24), his constant focus.

1 Thessalonians 1

Introduction
Thessalonica was “the largest and most important city in Macedonia and the capital of the province” 1, so, after receiving his vision of the Macedonian man during his second missions tour, Paul probably intended to go there immediately after arriving in Europe (Acts 16:6-10). Since they landed at Philippi, they decided to minister there for a while (maybe a couple of months) before Paul and Silas were arrested and put into jail. Once released, it seems that they left Luke there to help the infant believers, while the rest of the team kept going. Over a period of only a couple of months, “Some of [the Jews] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). This became the foundation of the church in Thessalonica.

Paul wrote this first letter from Corinth about A.D. 51 after he had been run out of both Thessalonica and Berea and had tried to minister in Athens (Acts 17). While ministering in Corinth, about 6-8 months after having left Thessalonica, Paul finally heard from Timothy again, whom Paul had sent back to Thessalonica to check on the physical and spiritual well-being of the believers there. Timothy brought back a good report, and 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s response to the church. It is full of love and encouragement for them, along with some additional teaching and instructions. For being nearly 2,000 years old, this letter contains some incredibly relevant and practical examples of how Christian ministry and fellowship should look even today.

Chapter one contains a brief picture of the power of the gospel at work in a person’s life, moving him from faith to full sanctification. In verse three, Paul used the powerful triad of faith, love, and hope as he celebrated the spiritual growth his friends were displaying. It seems that he reversed the last two from the normal pattern, because the Christian’s “hope” (Jesus’ return) would be a major emphasis in the letter. (He did the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 5:8.) Specifically, he was encouraged to hear of three things: their “work produced by faith… labor prompted by love… endurance inspired by hope” (NIV).

Upon hearing the gospel message, Paul noted that four changes had taken place in the months since he had seen them. First, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Because Jews would never engage in idolatry 2, this likely points to a predominantly Gentile congregation. Second, they began “to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:10), something that Paul would elaborate on later. Third, they “became imitators of [Paul] and of the Lord…despite great affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). We should note that this is the normal pattern for new believers; they imitate their disciplers as they learn to imitate Jesus himself. Finally, because of their growing obedience, they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7), with the result that “the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). It is no wonder that Paul’s mind and heart were put at ease when he heard Timothy’s report (3:6-8; Acts 18:5).

Notes:

  1. Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 2.
  2. This was one lesson they learned well after their captivities by Assyria and Babylon and never nationally repeated that sin again.

1 Corinthians 1

Introduction
Of all the people to whom Paul ministered in his 30-year service as the apostle to the Gentiles, the church at Corinth is set down as the one that caused him the most personal heartache. Paul founded the Corinthian church during his second missionary tour in the early A.D. 50s (Acts 18:1-17). Luke recorded that Paul had a fruitful ministry there, staying for almost two years.

However, the letters paint a darker picture. Once the church was established and Paul had moved on, it did not flourish quite like others did (Thessalonica, Ephesus, etc.). In its early years, Corinth was a debased city, full of debauchery. How bad it was during Paul’s time is debated, but if the kind of lifestyles these believers had before their salvation is any indication (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), then the city’s pagan history seems to have stay in force.

Over the course of a couple of years (A.D. 55-56), it seems that several communications traveled back and forth between the apostle and the church, but God preserved only the two we call “1 and 2 Corinthians.” In these letters we discover a congregation with deep factions (ch. 3), worse-than-pagan practices (ch. 5), abuse of the ordinances (ch. 11), and general spiritual apathy. In fact, Paul was so concerned about their spiritual well-being, it was not only letters that he sent to Corinth but personal representatives, as well. Between these two letters we discover that at least Apollos, Titus, Timothy all served there at different times at Paul’s request.

Yet, because of all this, 1 Corinthians is a treasure for the modern church and always relevant. In it, Paul not only addressed corrections that needed to be made, but he also answered several questions it seems they had asked him, providing us with teaching on a wide variety of topics in more detail than any other place in Scripture, including marriage and divorce, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. This letter is invaluable for sound doctrine and practice.

Chapter one begins with a traditional greeting and prayer of thanksgiving for the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-9). Given the topics that Paul would address in this letter, it is important to remember that he was convinced that most in his original audience were genuine believers, even if they were still spiritually immature. No matter their current condition, Paul admitted that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus…called be saints…[and] called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In his greeting Paul also mentioned Sosthenes, who, according to Acts 18:17, was “the president of the synagogue” in Corinth and one of the Jewish converts to Christianity.

Verses 5-7 (along with the lengthy discussion in chapters 12-14) indicates that the use of spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, tongues, and supernatural knowledge, were unusually high compared to other congregations. Unfortunately, these gifts that were meant to build up the church and point to Jesus built only pride and were used to create factions around personalities other than Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Paul, Apollos, and Peter had their devoted followers, while the “super spiritual” claimed their dedication to Christ alone. Verse 17 includes one of Paul’s rare mentions of water baptism. 1 It seems that, although he acknowledged the importance of water baptism, it was not something he found necessary to do himself. His primary mission was to preach the gospel of the cross. Others could baptize those who believed his message.

The chapter concludes with a lengthy monologue on the message of the cross and how it is received by unbelievers in this world. Six times in verses 18-31 Paul described the gospel and God’s ways as “foolish” or “foolishness” – “to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), the method of preaching (1 Corinthians 1:21), “to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). (The search for wisdom was a major activity in the cultured Greek world; see Acts 17:16-34.) To the Jews the “crucified Christ” is not just foolish but a “stumbling block” – the obstacle that (still) keeps them from God. Paul asked his readers to remember when they believed. It was not because there was something special about them, but because God graciously saved them, exactly the opposite that Greek wisdom suggested. Before, in their weakness and lowliness, they had nothing to boast about to their countrymen, but now, because of God’s grace, they could “boast in the Lord.”

Notes:

  1. Most of the time Paul refers to “baptism” in his letters, refers to Spirit baptism at salvation, not water baptism afterward. Proper identification of this difference often clears up a lot of confusion in interpreting his writings.