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Studies in the Book of Acts

Introduction to Acts

This book is commonly called “The Acts of the Apostles,” but it does not discuss most of the apostles – it focuses only on Peter, and then Paul. The book describes the spread of Christianity from its origins with Jews in Jerusalem, to eventually include all peoples, even in the capital city of the Roman Empire. The story is filled with drama, miracles, and speeches about the risen Christ.

What’s in a name?

The traditional name for this book is “Acts of the Apostles,” but a more accurate name might be “A Few Acts of a Few of the Apostles.” Peter and Paul are particularly prominent; the other apostles play little or no role. The book describes some developments in detail, but sometimes skips several years at a time.

sailing ship. Artwork by Ken Tunell“Acts of the Risen Jesus” might also be an appropriate name for this book. Luke tells us that his first book (the Gospel of Luke) was “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). Acts is the second volume of Luke’s history-writing project; it is about what Jesus did after his ascension into heaven — he directed and taught the apostles through the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus had promised (John 16:713), he sent the Spirit to guide the apostles after he returned to heaven. Since this book frequently reminds us that the actions of the apostles were inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, “Acts of the Holy Spirit” has also been suggested as a descriptive title.

Outline

The first part of this book is about Peter, and the second part is about Paul. This two-fold division is one of the simplest ways to divide the book of Acts, but its focus on two men tends to cover up some important aspects of Luke’s story. Peter’s ministry and Paul’s are not separate stories — they are related to each other, and they overlap in several chapters in the center of Acts.

Some commentators have outlined the book geographically, using a formula Jesus gave his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Although Luke begins the story in Jerusalem, he does not stick to a precise geographical sequence. Philip’s work in Samaria (Acts 8:5-25) is described before Peter’s work in Judea (Acts 9:32-43). Later, the story moves back and forth from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Europe back to Asia, back to Jerusalem, etc. And the book ends with Paul in Rome, which was the center of the Empire, not “the ends of the earth.”

Geography is important to Luke, but it is not the only important framework for his story about the earliest years of Christianity. Luke also has ethnic interests — he especially wants to explain how Christianity moved from its Jewish foundations to spread to the Gentile world.

Acts can be divided into five major sections that combine some of Luke’s emphases, as shown in the table below.

partmajor personalitiesgeographical regionsethnic groups
1Peter and JohnJerusalemJews
2Greek-speaking Jews: Philip and StephenJerusalem, Samaria and JudeaJews, Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch
3Paul and PeterDamascus, Judea, Antioch, Jerusalem and AsiaJews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans
4Paul the missionaryEurope and Asia MinorGentiles and Jews
5Paul the prisonerJerusalem, Caesarea and RomeGentile rulers, Gentiles and Jews

How to read this book

Acts tells the story of how Christianity began and spread. No history book ever has enough space to tell all the facts. The historian must select the facts that are most important and the events that played critical roles in the development of later situations. The historian must interpret the facts and present them in an organized way. Luke does this well. With literary skill, he gives numerous details and interesting personality sketches that help us understand what happened.

Luke is probably writing in the manner of the Greek historians Xenophon and Plutarch. What this means is that a selection of the hero’s acts…, historical vignettes which set forth the hero’s character, are his major concern. The Book of Acts, then, is not a mere chronicle of events, but a portrayal of the kinds of people and kinds of things that were taking place in the early church. [Note: William H. Baker, “Acts,” Evangelical Commentary of the Bible, edited by Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 884.]

Luke tells us what happened, but he rarely indicates what should happen today. For example, he tells us that seven men were chosen to wait on tables (Acts 6:1-6), but he does not tell us whether churches should follow that example today. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive — it is history, not law.

Luke, in addition to being a historian, is also a Christian teacher writing about his own faith. In the introduction to his first volume of history, he says that one of his purposes is to help readers understand the truthfulness of the Christian faith (Luke 1:4). Similarly, Luke has selected events in church history that help show Christian doctrine and practice; he has quietly omitted facts that might confuse the reader. Regarding circumcision, for example, he says there was a heated debate (Acts 15:2), but he reports the arguments of only one side of the controversy. What Luke writes is true — it is historically accurate — but it is also theologically selective.

Ancient histories often included speeches. There are 18 speeches in Acts. Many of them record the basic message of the early church. Just as Acts 1:8 gives a rough geographical preview of the book of Acts, Luke 24 gives us a preview of the theological message: “This is what is written [in the Scriptures]: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised” [the Holy Spirit]” (Luke 24:46-49).

Several speeches or sermons in Acts contain similar concise descriptions of the gospel. They argue that Jesus is the Messiah, that he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, that God raised him from the dead and that he is the answer to Jewish and Gentile hopes. Speeches are better at communicating these ideas than a historical description could be. As we read these speeches, we can learn important truths, not just ancient history.

Learning about God

Unlike most history books, Acts is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The story simply wouldn’t have been possible without God. He started it, motivated it and gave it direction, energy, purpose, message and protection. Luke does not give us a systematic description of God, but he describes what God did with the church.

The word “God” appears more than 160 times in the book. He is the Creator, the God of the Old Testament, who speaks through the Scriptures. He is praised, worshiped, obeyed and prayed to. Luke tells us repeatedly that God sent Jesus Christ, raised him from the dead, glorified him and gave him authority. God is the One who calls people to repentance, who gives the Holy Spirit, who directs the mission. It is his work — the message is about “the kingdom of God,” “the word of God,” the gospel of “the grace of God.”

“Lord” appears about 110 times, usually referring to Jesus. (“Jesus” appears 68 times, often in the combination “Lord Jesus”). Luke rarely uses the term “Son” (four times), just as he only rarely uses “Father” (three times). His choice of words probably reflects the needs of his Gentile readers. We are told that “the Lord” did the works of the apostles, that they preached his name, that he appeared in visions to direct the work, and that he was prayed to. Just as the gospel was called the word of God, it is also called “the word of the Lord.” Those who repented and believed were “added to the Lord.”

Luke uses “Christ” only 31 times. In Paul’s letters, and in modern Christianity, “Christ” is often treated as part of Jesus’ name: “Jesus Christ.” Luke, however, often uses “Christ” in its original meaning, Messiah: “Jesus is the Christ.” (The Greek word Christos means “anointed,” just as the Hebrew word Mashiyach [Messiah] does). Luke sometimes uses “Christ” as a name, too, as in the combination “the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Luke tells us much about the Holy Spirit. Although Acts contains only 13 percent of the words of the New Testament, it contains 23 percent of the occurrences of the word “Spirit.” In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is active — speaking and directing the work; the Spirit is the power by which the apostles testified that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 1:8).

Other topics

While Luke tells the story of the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, he is also able to achieve some additional purposes. A major theological goal is to explain why Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Luke stresses the connection that Christianity has with Jews and with the Old Testament, and explains how God and the risen Jesus directed that the message extend to all nations, as the Old Testament had predicted. Jesus fulfills the hopes and needs of Gentiles as well as of Jews.

Luke seems to have a political objective, too — to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman government. Although riots sometimes broke out when the gospel was preached, Luke notes that the problems were caused by Jews or Gentiles, not the Christian preachers. Christianity was rooted in Judaism, which was a legal religion. Roman officials repeatedly find Paul innocent of wrong-doing, and they allow the gospel to continue to be preached.

Luke also defends Paul against accusations that he was preaching against Judaism. Although Gentile believers did not have to “must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), Paul did not teach Jews to abandon their traditions. He participated in Jewish rituals both in Ephesus and in Jerusalem. Luke shows us that Paul had been forced to preach to Gentiles — Jesus miraculously called him and commissioned him; the Antioch church sent him out; the apostle Peter preached to Gentiles before Paul did; Paul preached to Jews first and to Gentiles only after Jews rejected the gospel.

In practical matters of Christian life, Luke emphasizes repentance, faith, baptism and forgiveness of sins. He emphasizes that the Holy Spirit gives believers courage to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ in the face of persecution. He also stresses prayer — asking God for help, and thanking him for his deliverance.

What this book means for you

Acts has both history and faith. Historically, the book serves as a vital link between the Gospels and the epistles. It bridges the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In the Gospels, Jesus is preaching; in the epistles, Jesus is being preached. The book of Acts explains how the messenger became the center of the message.

This is particularly important when we read the epistles of Paul, because, without the book of Acts, we would not know who Paul was or how he entered the picture or what motivated him to preach to Gentiles or why he wrote to such far-flung regions.

Luke’s picture of Paul is not in perfect agreement with Paul’s self-description. Luke describes Paul as a bold orator; Paul sometimes describes himself as a poor speaker. Both writers have more important purposes than merely to focus on a personal description. Both writers can be correct. Although some scholars emphasize the differences and claim that Luke’s account is wrong, other scholars explain differences as literary matters without rejecting the accuracy of either writer.

Luke gives us glimpses into the personalities of Peter, John and James, who wrote other New Testament books. He shows us the remarkable transformation that the Holy Spirit produced in Peter, who went from denying Jesus three times to boldly defying the Jewish leaders and telling them to their faces that he would continue to preach about Jesus. The sudden boldness of the apostles is testimony that God raised Jesus from the dead and gave these fishermen dramatic conviction and power.

Luke also records the persecutions of Peter, the martyrdoms of Stephen and James, the stonings and beatings and imprisonments of Paul. Whether they lived or died, captive or free, these Christians were led by the Holy Spirit to testify that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

The book of Acts may be read for history, and it may also be read to strengthen our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. As we read, we can put ourselves in the apostles’ sandals, to feel their boldness in preaching the gospel and their fears when facing persecution. We can marvel that the apostles, right after being flogged, were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]” (Acts 5:41). And by reading about their faith and perseverance, we can be a little more emboldened to face our own crises with the help of the same Holy Spirit.