In 1955 Flannery O’Conner published a short story called, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” If you’ve read Flannery O’Conner, you know that she can tell some strange stories, but this is a good one. story opens with this family getting ready to take a road trip from Georgia to Florida. There’s a mom and a dad, three kids, and grandmother — and as it begins, the grandmother doesn’t want to go to Florida because of these news reports about a serial killer called The Misfit. The Misfit had apparently broken out of jail, and reports are that he is somewhere on the loose in Florida, and that makes grandmother nervous, so she would rather not go to Florida. But they go anyway, and on the road grandmother convinces dad to take a detour and show the kids an old house that she visited when she was younger. So they take this detour down this long dirt road, and then, of course, they get into a car wreck. Everyone is okay, but the car is busted and they’re all stuck in the middle of nowhere in Florida, far off the main highway, waiting for the slim chances that another car is going come along and help. So they wait for a good while, and then, off in the distance, they see this car coming their way, down the dirt road. And the question begins to crest for the reader, as the car is approaching: “Who is in that car?”
As a reader, you begin to feel the suspense. It is something good story-tellers do, including Luke. Now, Luke is not like Flannery O’Conner. He is not a fictional story-teller. Instead, Luke is first a theologian and then a historian, and if he is a story-teller at all it is only because he has a good, true story to tell. That is what we find in the Book Acts. Luke is telling us a good, true story.
And it is full of suspense. In fact, I think that is mainly what chapter 1 is doing. It sets the stage and builds suspense, and we can start to see this is in the earliest verses of the book.
Acts As Part Two
The first thing that Luke would have us know about Acts is that it is Part Two of another story. Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Look at verse 1 where Luke starts Acts with the phrase “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” So Luke is clear that there is a first book, which is his Gospel, and knowing this is going to frame the way we read the second book, which is Acts. This matters right away because Luke in Acts is just picking up where he left off in his Gospel. If the first book is about what Jesus began to do, the second book is about what Jesus continues to do, through his church, by his Spirit. Luke in Acts chapter 1 is all about bringing us up to speed.
So back up to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24: it ends when Jesus ascends, and that is where he opens here in Acts, and the suspense builds by what Jesus tells his disciples. Before he ascends, he tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Jesus is literally about to walk out of this world, and before he does he tells the disciples, verse 8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” and that power, he tells us, is for “you to be my witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And here’s the suspense. Jesus says this in chapter 1, but it doesn’t actually happen until chapter 2 (which is what we will look at next week). But there’s this in-between time — when the question begins to grow, the suspense begins to build.
The disciples are wondering, and the readers are wondering too: What kind of power will this be? What will the Holy Spirit do? How will the disciples be different now than they were in the Gospel of Luke? Because they are different, and they will be different. See, Luke wants us to know that we are starting here with the same group of guys as in the Gospel, but things have changed now, and we are about to enter a whole new ballgame.
Luke wants us to see that. And I can’t think of a better way to start the Book of Acts than to see what Luke himself first wants us to see. It’s that the disciples are not the same. That’s made clear in two ways:
- What the Disciples Know
- Who Peter Has Become
Let’s take it from the top . . .
What the Disciples Know
One thing clear from the Gospel of Luke to the Book of Acts is the contrast between disciples’ past ignorance and present knowledge. These guys think differently than they used to. If we were to step back in the Gospel of Luke, we see two times where Luke tells us the disciples do not understand what Jesus tells them about this work. In Luke 9:44, Jesus says to them, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” And how do the disciples respond? Luke 9:45, “But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them.” It makes no sense to them that their Messiah would die. They don’t get it.
Then in Luke 18, Jesus tells them even more. He tells the disciples that they are going up to Jerusalem, and when they get there, that he, the Son of Man, is going to experience everything that is written of him in the prophets. So now Jesus is weaving in some Old Testament. He is brining in the Jewish Scriptures and he says that what it foretells about him is going to happen, that he is going to be delivered over to the Gentiles, that they’re going to kill him, and then on the third day he is going to rise again. How do the disciples respond? Luke 18:34, “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”
So the disciples all throughout the Gospel of Luke are baffled by any talk about Jesus dying. Jesus leaves them in the dark, at least for a while. Something happens in Luke 24, the last chapter of the Gospel. It starts with Jesus, after his resurrection, walking with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, and there is still confusion — they still don’t understand what has happened . . . until Jesus says, for them and the reader, Luke 24:25–27,
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
And he doesn’t stop there. In verse 36, Jesus appears to the twelve and he gives them a Bible study about himself. He says,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
And how do the disciples respond?
Luke 24:45, “Then he [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
And we need to know that this changed everything. For the first time, the disciples get the book, everything written in it, it makes sense — that Christ would suffer, that he’d rise on the third day, that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations. They get it. Jesus has taught them how to read the Bible. They now can see Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament, and I want us to see him there, too.
It would have been really great to have been with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and heard what he taught his disciples. But even though we weren’t there, we still have our own stories of how the Bible came alive to us. I remember one night in college, years ago, when a brother in seminary, a few years older than me, was hanging out and discipling some friends and me, and over coffee, he opened up his Bible, unplanned, and he showed us Jesus in the Old Testament like I had never seen Jesus before. And I remember sitting there and my heart burning, not too different maybe than how the disciples’ hearts burned in Luke 24. And I remember knowing then that I wanted to see more of Jesus like this in the Old Testament, and that I wanted to show people Jesus like this in the Old Testament. And so you need to know that at Cities Church, we are going to read the whole Bible, and when we do, God willing, we’re going to see Jesus every step along the way.
See, what the disciples know in Acts was different. Here in chapter 1, first in verses 12–13, Luke reminds us that we are starting with the same group of disciples that we remember in Luke’s Gospel. You see he just gives the list of names? He saying, “Hey, same guys.” And these same guys, these disciples, have some logistics to do. They have to find an apostle to take the place of Judas, and so what do they do? They go to the Bible and they say, “The Scripture had to be fulfilled” (verse 16). They see their present situation in the light of what the Bible says.
Can you imagine this? From how aloof they were to the Scriptures in the Gospel of Luke to how competent they are in Acts, and we’re just getting started. Just wait and see how these men read the Old Testament. The disciples are not the same.
But not just the disciples, there is Peter specifically.
2. Who Peter Has Become
Look at this guy. Let’s just see what he does at the end of Luke’s Gospel and now what he is doing at the beginning of Acts.
Does anyone remember what Peter does towards the end of the Gospel of Luke?
Peter, when he was questioned about his allegiance to Jesus, denied that he even knew him. Not once. Not twice. But three times. And Jesus told him in advance that this would happen. And what we see, which is fascinating in Luke 22, is how Luke juxtaposes Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and then Peter’s denial of Jesus. They come right after one another in Luke 22, beginning at verse 47. So these two events are put right beside each other, both are terrible, both are forms of betrayal, and we do not see Peter mentioned again in the gospel of Luke except for one time.
And yet, when Acts opens up and starts talking about the disciples, ironically, what do we see? Well, we see Peter and Judas mentioned again, except this time, Peter is opening the Scriptures and leading the apostles in choosing a replacement for Judas. So we see both of these men betray Jesus, and now we see both of these men, but one is leading the apostles and replacing the other. Peter has become the head apostle, and see this throughout Acts as over and over again it is Peter standing, and Peter being the spokesman. And so what has happened to this man?
Well, there is that one last mention of Peter in the Gospel of Luke after he denies Jesus. It’s Luke 24, beginning in verse 10. For context, the angels have appeared to the women and told them about the resurrection of Jesus. And then, of course, they come back and tell the apostles. Luke 24:10,
Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles,  but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter rose [the original word here is anistemi, and it means to stand or to rise, so Peter rises, he stands] and [he] ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
And the next time we see Peter’s name, is in Acts 1:15, and what is he doing? The text begins, Acts 1:15, “In those days, Peter stood up.” It is anistemi — the same word as in Luke 24:12, and what Luke is saying is that Peter who had fallen is now Peter who is standing. And the reason why — the difference in Peter — is that he ran and stooped and looked into a tomb that was empty. Jesus is raised from the dead. This has made all the difference, you see. The first thing we need to know about the Book of Acts is that there would be no Book of Acts if there were not a risen Jesus. Peter knew that. He saw the empty tomb, he saw the risen Christ, and now he is going to replace Judas with someone else who, as verse 22 tells us, has also witnessed the resurrected Christ. Jesus is raised from the dead. That makes all the difference.
What about for you?
So this family, the mom and dad, three kids, and grandmother, are stranded down this long dirt road in the middle of nowhere in Florida. And this car is approaching them. The comes to them, stops, a few men get out, and the grandmother immediately recognizes one of them. It’s the Misfit. It is this serial killer who has been on the loose in Florida, and now he is there, standing in front of them, and this is not good. He kills them, the whole family, and the grandmother is last. And what’s fascinating is her dialogue with him. She tries to talk this bad guy out of doing this evil thing. She keeps telling him that he’s really a good man and that he should pray to Jesus, that Jesus would help him, and then there is this discussion that the grandmother and the criminal have about Jesus. The Misfit says, as O’Conner puts it,
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He [has] thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. . . .
And then he goes on to say that because he doesn’t actually believe Jesus is raised from the dead, he does what he does. See, this bad guy in Flannery O’Conner’s story knows something that we need to know. It’s that when we get down to the basics, when we get down to the main thing, the way your life is right now and the way your life is going to be has to do with whether you know that Jesus was raised from the dead.
And the good news for us is that he is raised. Jesus is alive. Jesus is real. And it doesn’t matter how low you have fallen, because Jesus is raised, we can stand. Do you see that? Do you see Peter? He ruined everything. He turned his back on Jesus. He was done. | But then he ran and he stooped and he looked, and his life was never the same.
Jesus, full of grace, Jesus risen from the dead, took Peter, and said, I’ve got a job for you. Feed my sheep. I’ve got plans for you, Peter.
And I want you to know, that in the same way, Jesus, full of grace, is saying this to us. That no matter how bad we may have messed things up, no matter where we are right now, Jesus is alive and he wants you. He wants you.
And he has laid before us a meal. And he says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).