The Power of God in the Book of Acts
This is a message I preached a few weeks back in my local setting. May you find something here that blesses you in your desire to walk out the mission of Jesus in your own context.
Good morning church! We are in the midst of a sermon series we launched in the fall (God is an Open Book) where we are surveying the New Testament, one document/book at a time, highlighting what each of these books emphasizes about the character of God. This morning we are going to spend our time in the book of Acts focusing on the Power of God.
When you think of the phrase, “The Power of God” what comes to mind? “Power” often has a negative connotation in our minds. “He’s on a power trip. She’s on a power trip.” This describes someone with the personality of a bulldozer, running over people because he or she knows best and is eager to impose their solution upon the problem. Someone who gives no heed to counsel; someone whose habit it is to enforce things from a very top-down approach. This can be amusing to watch… if you’re not in their sphere of influence – like watching a child throw a fit in the sandbox. But if it’s your kid in the sandbox with them, it’s not so amusing. Not if it’s your boss, or your wife, or your husband on a power trip. Worse yet, God on a power trip! The big bully in the sky acting like a two-year-old, smashing stuff that doesn’t cooperate with him, throwing fits of rage when things don’t go his way.
Some, people when they think of the God of the Bible, think of exactly that. And so, to imagine a scene where the power of God is on full display is not a scene that you would ever draw near to, but that you would flee from in horror. The earth violently shaking, buildings collapsing, fire raging, people screaming in the streets. Perhaps that’s your image of the power of God, or your neighbor’s.
But that’s not the picture of the power of God we find in the book of Acts. Listen to how the apostle Peter describes the power of God in Acts chapter 10.
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
That, according to the book of Acts, is what it looks like when the power of God hits the ground. It doesn’t look like people running for cover, buildings collapsing, and women wailing in the streets. It looks like Jesus of Nazareth.
“How he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.”
This is a beautiful little summary of the enduring picture of Jesus.
And this is what draws us to him isn’t it? Isn’t this what we all got a glimpse of when Jesus called us to leave everything and follow him? Not only is this what draws us to Jesus, it describes for us what we want in on. We long for this statement to somehow be true of us. We know how to get it wrong. We’ve seen the church on a power trip. We’ve been the church on a power trip. What we long for in our bones is to be infused with the power of God, Jesus’ style. And that’s precisely the dream we find fulfilled in the book of Acts.
It’s common to see the book of Acts as the story of the church somehow taking over where Jesus left off. But that picture doesn’t come from Acts itself. Acts is not about Jesus ascending into heaven and leaving us in charge. Acts is about what Jesus continued to do. Remember how the gospels end, church. He’s not dead! He’s alive, and he still very much in charge. The first line in the book insists on this.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…
There are two very important things that we need to notice as soon as we start to read Acts. The first is that Acts is a sequel to Luke’s first volume, what we know as the gospel according to Luke. “In my former book.” What former book? Luke’s gospel!
We cannot expect to gain a full appreciation for Acts if we don’t start with Luke. That would be like watching “The Return of the King” having never seen “The Fellowship of the Ring” or “The Two Towers”. You might enjoy the final episode, but you won’t get the full picture.
The second thing that’s very important to note is that Luke is telling us that his second volume is about what Jesus continued to do. And the glorious thing about Acts is that what Jesus continued to do involves us. Acts is about us participating in the ministry of Jesus, but it's not at all about us charging out under our own steam. Acts is about the church infused with the power of heaven, continuing on in the work of Christ. But you won’t see the full picture without having spent time in Luke’s gospel.
Acts begins with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascends into heaven and gives his disciples a job to do. They are to be his witnesses, but he insists that they wait for power from on high before they take on the task he has given them.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
As Acts continues this posture of waiting is the posture of prayer.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
And it’s while they’re praying that the glorious scene of Acts 2 arrives. A mighty rushing wind and they are all filled with the Holy Spirit.
This resonates profoundly with the launch of Jesus’ mission as it is described in Luke’s gospel. In Luke 3 when he describes Jesus’ baptism Luke does something unique. He depicts Jesus as praying when the Holy Spirit descends upon him.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This scene in Luke of Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Spirit descending on him is designed to resonate with the scene in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit descends on the believers. Jesus is depicted in Luke as praying when the Holy Spirit descends. In Acts this is the posture of the believers who are waiting for power from on high.
And it’s immediately after this moment in Luke’s gospel that Jesus is described as “full of the Holy Spirit”.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert,
This same terminology is used repeatedly in Acts to speak of the church equipped for mission. And it begins with Acts 2 when they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is what equips him to face his trials in the wilderness. And when he emerges from the wilderness, Luke does it again.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.
And then we have the climax of this emphasis Luke wishes to make of Jesus equipped for his mission by the Spirit of God. He enters the synagogue in Nazareth. He’s handed the scroll of Isaiah and he begins to read it.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is the mission of Jesus; this is what he’s all about. And this is how Peter sums up Jesus’ entire ministry in Acts 10.
You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
When we know this story and then read the opening chapters in Acts the point is inescapable. Just as Jesus was equipped for mission, so is the church. But it’s not like the mission of the church is somehow bolted onto the end of the mission of Jesus. The church is the continuation of the mission of Jesus. Peter insists in his Pentecost sermon that it was Jesus who poured out the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.
“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Infused by the power of the Holy Spirit the church is designed to continue the mission of Jesus. Our task is not to merely talk about it, but to enter into it!
And this is how the book of Acts reads. Jesus continues to do wonders and signs. The lame man in Acts 3 is healed by Jesus – through the hands of Peter and John. This is what we long for church! We want in on the mission of God. We want to be infused with the power of God.
We’re done with getting it wrong. We’ve had enough of doing it our own way, going out on our own strength, exerting our own authority and power. We want to operate in the power of Jesus. We want to be full partners in the glorious work of Jesus as he continues what he began in Luke’s gospel.
We don’t want to be the people who somehow attempt to cram the radical Jesus of Nazareth into a box of our own making – trimming off all the rough edges, tidying him up – and then taking him to the ends of the world. We want Jesus to tidy us up, shape us into the people he desires us to be and then take us to the ends of the earth where we can effectively bear witness to him!
This is what the book of Acts is all about! And Acts chapter 10, where we began, is one of the premier examples of this. In Acts chapter 10 Peter’s not in charge, Jesus is. We’ve tried hanging onto the reigns long enough, haven’t we? It hasn’t worked out that well for us. It’s time to give Jesus full authority in our lives. Acts 10 models for what it’s like when the church gives Jesus the reigns. We end up in places we never imagined with the message of Jesus on our lips.
So, let’s try to set the story of Acts 10 in its context.
Peter’s no light weight at this moment in Acts – not at all! He preached his explosive sermon in Acts 2, immediately after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church. It was he and John in Acts 3 who healed the lame man in Jesus’ name. And it was he who wound up with John in prison for refusing to back away from the claim that it was indeed the risen Jesus who healed the lame man.
In Acts 9 Peter is still at it. He’s in a place called Lydda where he says to a paralytic named Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you.” And the man takes up his mat. The power of Jesus was at work through Peter’s hands.
Then he’s in Joppa where a woman by the name of Tabitha has just died, and the church is in mourning. They heard Peter was close by, so they called for him and when he arrives, he gets down on his knees, prays, and says to her (the dead woman), “Tabitha, get up!” And she did. This man, our Peter, knows what it is firsthand, to have the power of Jesus flow through him.
So, Peter is in no way a novice, he is being used profoundly by Jesus who is continuing to do his astounding work in the world. Which is what makes Acts 10 all the more interesting. Jesus is about to broaden Peter’s horizon, just like he habitually did in the gospels. Jesus was always surprising his disciples, taking them places they would have never gone, and interacting with people they would have otherwise had nothing to do with. And he’s at it again here in Acts 10.
Peter’s still in Joppa. It’s noon and what’s Peter doing? He’s up on the rooftop praying. This is the posture in Acts that facilitates the work of the Spirit, by the way. He’s praying, and he’s hungry, and he sees a vision. A big sheet comes down out of the sky and it’s filled with all sorts of creatures. These are not Jewish friendly species like lambs and goats and cattle but all sorts of winged things and reptiles and the like. And then he hears a voice, “Arise Peter, kill and eat!” And Peter objects, “Never Lord! I’ve never eaten anything unclean! And the voice answers, “Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.” And it happened again… and then a third time.
And while he’s scratching his head about what all this means some men show up at the gate, sent there by a non-Jewish person – a Gentile by the name of Cornelius, who has had his own vision, where he was instructed by an angel to send for a man named Peter who was in Joppa. Peter’s still up on the roof confused about his vision and the Spirit says to him, “Three men are looking for you. Go with them without hesitation.”
This is how Peter ends up in the house of Cornelius, a place he would have never gone on his own. Peter knew the food laws of the Jewish people. He knew that to associate with a Gentile (a non-Jew) was against their law. But here he was on the cutting edge of the mission of Christ. The good news of Jesus about to cross into Gentile territory and a whole new world was opening up.
Peter being there was not his own doing. And it certainly wasn’t the doing of the church in Jerusalem. The next chapter tells us how the other apostles responded when they “heard about” this. They had not strategized how to take the gospel to the Gentiles and decided to send Peter to the house of Cornelius. This was Jesus’ doing. This was the Spirit of God, charging on out ahead and the church trying to keep up.
What might that look like in our context? How does Jesus want to expand our horizons? What would it look like for one of us to have such an experience and to end up somewhere we couldn’t have imagined ever going and eating with all the wrong people? How would we as a church process that when we “heard about it”?
When Peter preached his sermon there in the household of Cornelius the Holy Spirit beat him to the punch. While he was still preaching (he hadn’t given the invitation yet) the Holy Spirit fell on these unclean people and bore witness to Peter and his companions that God himself had endorsed this moment. And Peter does the only logical thing for him to do. “Who can withhold the water for baptizing these people.” And he baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ.
This is the power of God at work through the church. We don’t control it; we yield to it. Our task is not to decide who’s fit for the water but to supply it to all whom Jesus calls to himself.
This is Jesus at work through the church. This is what it looks like when we embrace the power of God through the Holy Spirit.
I know this is what we long for church. Are we up for it? Are you up for it?