Think for a moment of a memorable beginning of a book or film. How can an author or director claim our full attention within the first few pages of a book or the first few minutes of a movie? From Dickens's famous opening line ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") to the sudden introduction into Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, powerful beginnings so often set the tone for the rest of the work.
Such beginnings, however, are not just ways to entertain. They also create expectations on behalf of the reader or viewer. Imagine for a moment that a piece of writing begins with the words "Once upon a time..." What will come next?
We know to expect a fairy tale, a fictional story populated with fantastic creatures and incredible adventures. However, we also know that, although fictional, the fairy tale will contain an important element of truth. Fairy tales by definition are fantastic but moral tales. They will always end with a life lesson. We know all this because of four short words!
The First "Act"
The preface to Acts sets the tone for the next 28 chapters and, more important, creates expectations about how the story will communicate about the nature of the truth it puts forth.
These opening verses point back to Luke's "first book," his Gospel account. In verses 1--2, Luke (the author of Acts) recounts all the stories of Jesus' life and ascension. But also, these opening verses are a literary hinge. Luke here helps his readers turn a corner from an exclusive focus on Jesus' teachings and actions to the work Jesus empowers his chosen followers to do. Jesus may now reside in heaven, but his apostles are now carrying on the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.
Jesus has chosen these apostles, but their work cannot begin in earnest yet. Jesus made an additional promise that has not yet been fulfilled as Acts begins. These opening verses find the apostles waiting in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. As we will discover as we journey through the pages of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the driving force behind the proclamation and deeds of the apostles.
The preface reminds the reader what has come before but also previews what is to come. Moreover, it sets the expectation that this will be a story full of theological import. At the center of these tales of adventure, success, and persecution stand the foundational work of Jesus, the promise of the kingdom of God, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying* with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. This, he said, is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with* the Holy Spirit not many days from now.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org