The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,…
Compare Acts 28:30, 31. So begins and so ends this Book. The reference to "the former treatise" implies that this Book is to be regarded as its sequel. Is not the natural inference that the latter treatise will tell us what Jesus continued "to do and teach" after He was taken up? I think so. And thus the writer sets forth at once, for those that have eyes to see, what he means to do, and what he thinks his Book is going to be about. So, then, the name "The Acts of the Apostles," which is not coeval with the Book itself, is somewhat of a misnomer. Most of the apostles are never heard of in it. But our first text supplies a deeper reason for regarding that title as inadequate. For, if the theme of the story be what Christ did, then the Book is, not the "Acts of the Apostles," but the Acts of Jesus Christ through His servants. He, and He alone, is the Actor; and the men that appear are but the instruments in His hands. It is the unfinished record of an incomplete work. The theme is the work of Christ through the ages, of which each successive depository of His energies can do but a small portion, and must leave that portion unfinished, the Book does not so much end as stop. It is a fragment because the work of which it tells of is not yet a whole. If, then, we put these two things — the beginning and the ending of this Book — together, I think we get some thoughts about what Christ began to do and teach on earth; what He continues to do and teach in heaven; and how small and fragmentary a share in that work each individual servant of His has. Let us look at these things briefly.
I. We have here THE SUGGESTION OF WHAT CHRIST BEGAN TO DO AND TEACH ON EARTH. Now, at first sight, the words of our text seem to be in startling contradiction to the solemn cry which rang out of the darkness upon Calvary. Jesus said, "It is finished! and gave up the ghost." Luke says He "began to do and teach." Is there any contradiction between the two? Certainly not. It is one thing to lay a foundation; it is another thing to build a house. And the work of laying the foundation must be finished before the work of building the structure upon it can be begun. It is one thing to create a force; it is another thing to apply it. It is one thing to compound a medicine; it is another thing to administer it. It is one thing to unveil a truth; it is another to unfold its successive applications, and to work it into a belief and practice in the world. The former is the work of Christ which was finished on earth; the latter is the work which is continuous throughout the ages. "He began to do and teach," not in the sense that any should come after Him and do, as the disciples of most great discoverers and thinkers have had to do: systematise, rectify, and complete the first glimpses of truth which the master had given. But whilst thus His work is complete His earthly work is also initial. And we must remember that whatever distinction my text may mean to draw between the work of Christ in the past and that in the present and the future, it does not mean to imply that when He ascended up on high, He had not completed the task for which He came. The revelation is complete, and He that professes to add anything to, or to substitute anything for, the finished teaching of Jesus Christ concerning God, and man's relation to God, and man's duty, destiny, and hopes, is a false teacher, and to follow him is fatal. In like manner that work of Christ, which in some sense is initial, is complete as redemption. "This Man has offered up one Sacrifice for sins for ever." And nothing more can He do than He has done; and nothing more can any man do than was accomplished on the Cross of Calvary as a revelation, as effecting a redemption, as lodging in the heart of humanity, and in the midst of human history, a purifying energy, sufficient to cleanse the whole black stream. Resurrection and Ascension needs no supplement, and can have no continuation, world without end.
II. But we have to notice WHAT CHRIST CONTINUES TO DO AND TO TEACH AFTER HIS ASCENSION. The theme of this Book of the Acts is the continuous work of the ascended Saviour. There is nothing more remarkable than the way in which, at every turn in the narrative, all is referred to Jesus Christ Himself. For instance, to cull one or two cases in order to bring the matter more plainly before you. When the apostles determined to select another apostle to fill Judas' place, they asked Jesus Christ to show which "of these two Thou hast chosen." When Peter is called upon to explain the tongues at Pentecost, he says, "Jesus hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear." When the writer would tell the reason of the large first increase to the Church, he says, "The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved." Peter and John go into the Temple to heal the lame man, and their words to him are, "Do not think that our power or holiness is any factor in your cure. The Name hath made this man whole." It is the Lord that appears to Paul and to Ananias, the one on the road to Damascus and the other the city. The same point of view is suggested by another of the characteristics of this Book, which it shares in common with all Scripture narratives, and that is the stolid indifference with which it picks up and drops men, according to the degree in which, for the moment, they are the instruments of Christ's power. As long as electricity streams on the carbon point it glows and is visible, but when the current is turned to another lamp we see no more of the bit of carbon. As long as God uses a man, the man is of interest to the writer of the Scripture. When God uses another one, they drop the first, and have no more care about him, because their theme is not men, and their doings but God's doings through men. On us, and in us, and by us, and for us, if we are His servants, Jesus Christ is working all through the ages. He is the Lord of Providence, He is the King of history. And thus He continues to teach and to work from His throne in the heavens. He continues to teach, not by the communication of new truth. That is done. But the application of the completed revelation is the work that is going on to-day and that will go on till the end of the world. Now these truths of our Lord's continuous activity in teaching and working from heaven may yield us some not unimportant lessons. What a depth and warmth and reality the thoughts give to the Christian's relation to Jesus Christ. We have to think, not only of a Christ who did something for us long ago in the past, and there an end, but of a Christ who to-day lives and reigns to do and to teach according to our necessities. What a sweetness and sacredness such thoughts impart to all external events, which we may regard as being the operation of His love, and moved by the hands that were nailed to the cross for us, and now hold the sceptre of the universe for the blessing of mankind! The forces of good and evil in the world seem very disproportionate, but we forget too often to take Christ into account. Great men die, good men die, Jesus Christ is not dead. He lives; He is the Anchor of our hope. What a lesson of lowliness and of diligence it gives us! "Be not wise in your own conceits." You are only a tool, only a pawn in the band of the great Player. If you have anything, it is because you get it from Him.
III. Lastly, we note THE INCOMPLETENESS OF EACH MAN'S SHARE IN THE GREAT WORK. As I said, the Book which is to tell the story of Christ's continuous work from heaven must stop abruptly. There is no help for it. If it was a history of Paul, it would need to be wound up to an end; but as it is the history of Christ's working, the web is not half finished, and the shuttle stops in the middle of a cast. The Book must be incomplete because the work of which it is the record does not end until He shall have delivered up the kingdom to the Father, and God shall be all in all. So the work of each man is but a fragment of that great work. Every man inherits unfinished tasks from his predecessors, and leaves unfinished tasks to his successors. It is, as it used to be in the Middle Ages, when the men that dug the foundations or laid the first courses of some great cathedral were dead long generations before the gilded cross was set on the apex of the needlespire, and the glowing glass filled in to the painted windows. Enough for us, if we lay a stone, though it be but one stone in one of the courses of the great building.
(A. Maclaren, D. D)
Parallel VersesKJV: The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,