The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction

The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

We are going on a journey this term.[1] A journey back to the first few years of the life of the early church, from its small beginnings in Jerusalem to the day the gospel finally reached the centre of the known world, Rome. We will be discovering how the Holy Spirit inspired and energised the followers of Jesus to fulfil the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. Standing between the Gospels and the Epistles, the Book of Acts is a bridge between the life of Jesus and the ministry of the Apostles. As such, it provides invaluable insights into the Missionary strategy and methodology of the early Church. In this introduction we want to consider the authorship, the purpose, the themes, and an outline of the Book of Acts.

The Title of Acts

The title of Acts is somewhat misleading, for only a few of the apostles of Jesus are mentioned in the book. In reality, Acts relates primarily to the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul, and involves a time-span of about 32 years– from the Ascension of Jesus (about A. D. 30) to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (about A. D. 62).

It could however just as easily be titled “The Acts of the Lord Jesus” or more accurately “The Continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus” for Acts 1:1 reads,

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)

Acts therefore records the continuing Acts of Jesus (notably in the conversion of Saul in Acts 9:4-5).

The Author of Acts

Acts is part 2 of Dr Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. Both books begin with a greeting to Theophilus (“friend of God”); Indeed as we saw, Acts 1:1 refers to a previous book. And the author’s writing style, vocabulary, and attention to historical detail is the same in both books. In Luke 1:2, the writer states he was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus but accurately carefully records the eyewitness testimony of those who were.

The “we” passages in Acts also offer a major, internal clue to the identity of the book’s author. During the account of Paul’s missionary journeys, the author occasionally changes his style from that of a third person observer to a first person participant. In Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16, the author speaks of “we” and “us”.

These sections include the time when Paul was imprisoned at Rome. Scholars have determined Paul wrote Philemon, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles during his house arrest in Rome. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul says, “Only Luke is with me,” making him the most likely person to have written Luke-Acts.

Luke is a reliable historian, in part because of the sources he used. Luke mentions 95 different persons from 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 Mediterranean islands.

The Date of Acts

It is possible Acts was written around 63AD soon after the last events recorded occurred in Rome. Paul is under house arrest but relatively free to continue his ministry. The book does not, for example, mention the great fire that consumed much of Rome in 64AD and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero, or the martyrdom of Peter and Paul around 67AD or indeed the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. These would have been significant events theologically but are not mentioned.

The Purpose of Acts

Acts 1:8 provides a summary of the whole book.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”(Acts 1:8)

Its possible Theophilus was a Roman dignitary sympathetic to the Christian faith and Luke was writing a defence of Christianity for this official during a time of persecution to show him there was nothing subversive or sinister about the followers of Jesus. The geographical framework of Acts, the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, lends credibility to this idea. Luke sees himself as providing a record of God’s saving work. In 1:3 of his Gospel, Luke states he is writing “an orderly account” of the events surrounding Jesus’ ministry. As we observed, in Acts 1:1, Luke writes, “In my former book … I wrote about all Jesus began to do and teach…”

A careful reading of Acts makes it clear that Jesus remained the active, living, focus of Luke’s story. In Acts 9:4, Jesus speaks directly to Saul and asks, “Why do you persecute me?” Later, in the same chapter, Peter says directly to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34). In Acts 10, Christ makes His will known to Peter concerning a ministry to the Gentiles. These are but three examples of Jesus’ vital involvement in the spread of the gospel in Acts.

Therefore, despite the fact Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus, there is no evidence anyone in the early church perceived Him as “gone” from their midst. He healed, spoke, and directed the work of His disciples. Even when they preached, the disciples thought of Jesus as literally present in their preaching. They asked the listeners of those first sermons, not merely to believe facts about Jesus, but to encounter through their words the One who died, rose again, and lives forever. The ascension marked not Christ’s departure, but a change in the way Christ performs His ministry of saving grace. Consequently, Acts is the continuing story of Jesus’ work. It simply begins at the point where He is no longer bound by the limitations of time and space. Following the ascension of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles records the work of Jesus through His new body, the church.

The Historical Setting of Acts

As in the Gospel of Luke, Luke writes to Gentiles. He wants his audience to know the truthful and triumphant course of the gospel, beginning in Jesus and continuing in the church. This is his primary motive for writing the Book of Acts. In addition, however, Luke defends, where possible, the Christian faith from suspicion of sedition or superstition. The “Way” (Acts 9:2) is not a secret, subversive cult (26:26). On the contrary, it is proclaimed in the city squares for all to hear and judge. This is one reason the many public speeches were included in Acts. Neither is Christianity politically dangerous. If Christians are suspected of sedition against Rome, Luke shows that in each instance where they are brought before Roman authorities they are acquitted (Acts 16:39; 17:6; 18:12; 19:37; 23:29; 25:25; 26:31). Luke devotes nearly one third of Acts (Acts 21-28) to Paul’s imprisonment. He does this not only to show how the gospel reached Rome in spite of insurmountable obstacles, but also to show that Paul and his message were not politically subversive.

The Theology of Acts

The Acts of the Apostles could be entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” for the Spirit is mentioned nearly 60 times in the book. In His parting words, Jesus reminds the disciples of the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4-8); ten days later the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Persons “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) are enabled by the Holy Spirit to hear “the wonderful works of God” in their own languages (2:11). Pentecost was clearly the reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel where language became confused and nations were separated (Genesis 11:1-9).

However, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can also be compared and contrasted with the giving of the law on Mount Sinia.

“There are many compelling similarities between the expressions of God’s presence on Mount Sinai and his presence among the disciples during Pentecost. On Mount Sinai, God’s presence was accompanied by fire, smoke, and the sound of thunder (Ex. 19:16-19). God’s presence during Pentecost was accompanied by the sound of wind, tongues of fire, and the gift of different languages (Acts 2:1-3).
 When God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, the people were worshiping the golden calf. About 3,000 people died as punishment for their sins. When Jesus’ Spirit was given during Pentecost, the people repented, and about 3,000 people believed and found spiritual life.
 God’s presence was symbolized by a cloud and fire, which led the Israelites out of Egypt. Later, God moved his presence into the temple (2 Chron. 5:7-8, 13-14). During Pentecost, God’s presence moved from the temple into a “new temple,” the followers of Jesus (Rom. 8:9).
 Finally, The Torah provided God’s teachings for the Old Testament community of people. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit became the Teacher of believers (John 14:26).”[2]

Acts also contains portraits of the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of Christian leaders. Barnabas exemplifies generosity (Acts 4:36-37), Stephen forgiveness (Acts 7:60), Philip and Paul obedience (Acts 8:26; 26:19), Cornelius piety (Acts 10:2), and the witness of the early church vibrates with boldness (Acts 2:29; 4:13,29,31; 28:31). Ordinary people were empowered to perform extraordinary feats. A faltering apostle is empowered to address multitudes (Acts 2:14) or make a defence before rulers (Acts 4:8). A prayer fellowship is shaken (Acts 4:31); a deacon defends his faith by martyrdom (Acts 7:58). The despised Samaritans receive the Spirit (Acts 8:4-8), as does a Gentile soldier (Acts 10:1-48). A staunch persecutor of the gospel is converted (Acts 9:1-19), and through him the gospel reaches the capital of the world, even in chains as a prisoner. Circumstances, too, may be adverse: Acts records persecutions (Acts 8:3-4; 11:19), martyrdoms (Acts 7:54-60), famines (Acts 11:27-30), opposition (Acts 13:45), or violent storms (Acts 27:1-44). Through them all, however, the Holy Spirit directs the drama so that “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) because nothing can stand in the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts is the written testimony that confirms the promises God makes through Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long;
 we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

This is what connects us to our sisters and brothers in the Acts of the Apostles, for we share the same calling – to know Jesus and make Jesus known, we share the same Holy Spirit and we share the same confidence in the promises and purposes of God. The Acts of the Apostles is indeed an unfinished book.

This Autumn, may we add another page or two as we serve the Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] This presentation was prepared for Community Bible Study International (CBSI) in Virginia Water.