Luke the Physician wrote a two-volume work. Volume I is the Gospel of Luke, Volume II is the book of Acts. Taken together, these books give us a careful and compelling account of what happened in the Roman Empire during the first century AD.
In this post, I want to explore the obvious: Luke comes before Acts.
In the church today, we rightly understand that we have a mission. So we get busy evangelizing, church planting, sending out missionaries, caring for the needy, counseling, etc. Our mission as the church continues what was begun in the book of Acts. Of course, we don’t do this perfectly, and the church needs strong and frequent calls to recover what we are actually supposed to be. But the point is, the biblically sensitive among us read the book of Acts and get inspired to continue on with the life of the early church.
But Luke comes first. If we’re not careful, we can become attracted to the life of the early church without considering the motivation of this community. It’s so appealing to see Christians sacrificing for one another, boldly speaking about Jesus, and literally changing the world. We read that and want to get in the game. We may even try to directly imitate the things the early church did.
Now, none of this is bad. But when we consider why the early church did what it did, our fascination with Acts gets a bit more refined.
Luke’s gospel records the strangest events in the history of the world. Here was a man—clearly more than a man but clearly human—walking around speaking words of wisdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, challenging those who claimed authority, speaking gently to the oppressed, and generally transforming everything he touched. Luke leaves us no doubt that this man was the most unusual the world has ever hosted.
This man was about to be made a king, but then his supporters decided to kill him instead. If you were reading Luke for the first time, you’d reach Jesus’ death and think—well, that was a weird end to a weird story. But then it gets even weirder. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. He comes back to life, sends out his followers, promises to empower them for the mission he is leaving with them, and then ascends to heaven.
And then Acts happens. Do you see why it’s important that Luke comes before Acts? It’s not enough to rally around a common mission. It’s not enough to have a sense of goodwill towards mankind and to set out to change the world. The reality is, a group of twelve (or 120 when Acts begins) doesn’t just change the world. It can’t be done. At least, not unless Luke comes before Acts.
The amazing truth is that twelve hearts transformed by the risen Lord can change the world. They did it. This is why Acts is so compelling. Actually, the unbelievable events recorded in Luke’s Gospel changed the world, though the change was largely imperceptible until Jesus’ followers went about proclaiming the kingship of the man who raised from the dead.
So when you read Acts, be careful to understand that Acts is not giving us a manual for church planting, nor is it giving us a program for “Changing the World in Thirty Tumultuous Years.” Acts gives us an inspiring account of what happens when human beings are transformed by Jesus and devote their lives to carrying on his mission together. We probably shouldn’t be trying to recreate the events of Acts in our modern setting, but the reality of a transformed community on a common mission is something we should devote ourselves to—not as an end in itself, but as the outflow of hearts transformed by the Man described in Luke’s gospel.