Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
~ Acts 26:19
Much debate has taken place about the central theme of the book of Acts. Some have argued that it’s a record of the acts of the apostles. Others have argued that it’s a record of the acts of the Holy Spirit. Still others have argued that it’s a defense of Paul’s ministry.
Each argument can be cleverly supported. But rather than being broken on this stone of stumbling, I wish to point out that Luke himself tells us what the book of Acts is all about. The theme appears in his opening words:
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach. (Acts 1:1 nasb)
In order to understand the above sentence, we need to compare it with the opening statement of the gospel of Luke.
Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:3–4)
Luke was the hand behind the gospel that bears his name as well as the book of Acts. Both books were addressed to a prominent man named Theophilus. The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are twin volumes. They are two parts of the same story.
The gospel of Luke is a record of what Jesus Christ “began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). It’s a record of the beginning of Christ’s life and ministry on earth.
The book of Acts is a record of the continuation of Christ’s life and ministry on earth through His body. As John the apostle said, as Jesus was in this world, so now is the church (1 John 4:17).
Throughout Acts, we see Jesus Christ preaching the gospel, reaching out to the Gentiles, and raising up corporate expressions of Himself throughout the Roman Empire. Let’s look at some specific examples and let Scripture speak for itself.
The Birth of the New Creation
A little-known fact is that Luke deliberately crafted both his gospel and Acts around the same story line. Notice how both books open. The beginning of Luke opens with the birth of Jesus. Pay attention to the language:
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
Acts opens with the birth of the body of Christ. Strikingly, Luke uses the same language and the same Greek words to narrate the birth of the Lord’s spiritual body as he does in narrating the birth of the Lord’s physical body:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.… And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8; 2:4 nasb)
The gospel of Luke opens with Christ being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. Acts opens with Christ being conceived in His people by the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, the entire book of Acts is a duplication of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ through His church.
Lessons from Saul of Tarsus
If he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:2–5 nasb)
This is perhaps one of the most remarkable texts in all of holy writ. Saul is persecuting the church in Jerusalem. And Jesus Christ takes it personally!
The Lord appears to Saul, but He doesn’t say what we would expect. The words “Why are you persecuting My church?” never come out of His mouth. Instead, He makes this incredible statement:
“Why are you persecuting Me!?”
How does Jesus Christ view His church? He views it as inseparable from Himself. What an incredible thought. The body of Christ, therefore, is not a nifty metaphor. Neither is it a bloodless doctrine or an abstract theology. It’s a reality.
We are part of His body.
This event marked a monumental crisis in the life of Paul. It was accompanied by a blinding vision of Christ, which wrecked his religious life. Paul later referred to it as “the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19 nasb).
What was that vision? It was that Jesus Christ, the Head in heaven, was vitally united to His body on earth. In other words, Paul saw the “whole Christ,” or what Augustine called the totus Christus; the total Christ.
Since His ascension, Jesus Christ has never been a private citizen. Instead, He is vitally and inseparably joined to His church. He is both Head and body. He is both mind and members. That initial revelation would be an ever-expanding vision within Paul. It would later become his flagship message. And he would give his life for it.
From Persecutor to Brother
Acts 9 shows us something else worth noting. When Paul received Christ, something changed within the texture of his own being. This unregenerate Pharisee received the very life of God within him. As a result, Paul was added to the body of Christ and the family of God. For this reason, when Ananias (a member of the church in Damascus) met Paul (then called “Saul”), he greeted him with these surprising words: “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17). Paul was now part of the divine family.
Paul’s unique revelation and apostleship was founded on the profound revelation of the resurrected Christ. Not the individual Christ; but Christ as the very embodiment of the Christian community. Christ the Head, and Christ the body—the total Christ.
The book of Acts beats a drum that resounds throughout the rest of the New Testament. And here is that sound: In the eyes of God, the church is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus Christ on earth. It’s a new species (creation) that’s kin to divinity; a body to the Son and a family to the Father. Kind of His own kind.
This revelation is at the heart of God’s ageless purpose.
The church was not a divine afterthought. God didn’t plan to have the church after the fall. From eternity past, God wanted a family for His pleasure and a vessel to give His Son visible expression in His creation. This is God’s grand mission. Properly conceived, the family and the visible expression (the body) is the church. The conversion of lost souls is the means toward that end; it is not the goal.
But that’s not all.…
This post is an excerpt from Chapter 23 of From Eternity to Here.