The Acts of the Apostles

A History of the rise of Christianity (or how they brought the good news from Jerusalem)

Acts is the second volume of a story that has no end - the story of the Christian church. It was written after Paul’s Roman captivity in 61-63 AD, and before 100 AD, but there are no conclusive indications in the book of a date later than 70 AD. It was written by Luke, a doctor and the only gentile New Testament author, who was a most valued helper and most loyal friend of Paul. Acts, like Luke’s gospel, is written to Theophilus, a lover of God (gk. Theos, and phiein - to love), and has a literary affinity with the gospel of Luke. Vocabulary, grammar and style are not only consistent throughout Acts, showing that is a literary unity, but they are also characteristic of Luke’s gospel.

Luke was an eyewitness of some of the events in chapters 16-28, where he moves from an earlier use of ‘they’ passages to ‘we’ did this or that (16:10-17, 20:5-16, 21:1-18, 27:1-28:16). There are also the stories from Paul when they were in prison together. In chapters 1-15, Luke’s sources were the local (Jerusalem, Caesarea and Antioch) churches, plus cycles of stories which were the Acts of Peter, of John, of Philip and of Stephen, for Luke’s friendship with Paul would have brought him into contact with all the great men of all the Churches.

Acts only mentions three apostles:

  • James, John’s brother, executed by Herod
  • John, who never speaks though he is mentioned in the narrative
  • Peter, who soon disappears from view.

In the Greek there is no ‘The’ before Acts. The correct title for the book is ‘Acts of Apostolic Men’, giving us a series of typical exploits and adventures of those great heroic figures of the early Church. The whole lesson of the book is that the life of Jesus goes on in the Church, which is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, Luke opens a series of windows giving us glimpses of the great moments and personalities of the early Church. His aim in writing Acts is threefold:

  1. To commend Christianity to the Roman Government. Luke goes out of his way to show how courteous Roman magistrates were to Paul at a time when Christians were disliked and persecuted. He points out that Christians were highly regarded as good and loyal citizens.
  2. To show that Christianity is a universal religion for everyone, everywhere, which the Jews (God’s chosen people) found hard to accept.
  3. The main aim, in the words of Christ: "to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (1:8)", though it is perhaps a shame that Luke does not describe how the Church had been founded in Rome before Paul arrived there, or in Alexandria. He does not even suggest that Peter had an apostolate outside Palestine, and the focus of attention shifts to Paul in Acts 13 as the faith is carried by Hellenists to gentiles, and so there is little about developments in Jerusalem. Luke wanted to show that Christianity had expanded in 30 years from a little corner of Palestine to as far as Rome, at that time the end of the known world top those who thought of Jerusalem as the centre.

C H Turner has divided Acts into 6 sections, each finishing with a progress report:

  1. 1:1–6:7 About the Church at Jerusalem, and the preaching of Peter. And the word of God increased; and the number the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
  2. 6:8–9:31 About the spread of Christianity throughout Palestine and the martydom of Stephen, followed by the preaching in Samaria, and including the conversion of Paul. So the Church throughout all Judea and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.
  3. 9:32 - 12:24 Includes the reception of the gentile, Cornelius into the Church by Peter, and the extension of the Church to Antioch. But the word of God grew and multiplied.
  4. 12:25 - 16:5 The extension of the Church through Asia Minor, and the preaching tour of Galatia. So the Churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
  5. 16:6 - 19:20 The extension of the Church to Europe, and the work of Paul in great gentile cities like Corinth and Ephesus. So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily.
  6. 19:21 - 28:31 The arrival of Paul in Rome and his imprisonment there, ending with him - preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus quite openly and unhindered.

So what are the main points that we can learn from the book of Acts?

The content of the earliest apostolic preaching is centred on faith in Christ, and in Acts we can see how this teaching develops. For example, the earliest Christians are shown as feeling no need to go beyond the stage of contemplating the triumph of the human Jesus who has become the Lord by his resurrection (2:22-36) - but later Paul is made to give him the title ‘Son of God’ (9:20).

The most urgent problem facing the new Church was the admission of gentiles, and Acts provides important details about this without, however, revealing the full extent of the difficulties and disagreements this must have caused among the Christian community and its leaders. The Jerusalem brotherhood, led by James, remains faithful to the Jewish Law (15:1,5 and 21:20), but the Hellenists, for whom Stephen acts as spokesman, want to break away from Temple worship. Peter, and even more Paul, get the principle of salvation through faith in Christ recognised at the Council of Jerusalem, and this dispenses the gentiles from the need to be circumcised and from obeying the whole Law of Moses. As it is still true however that this salvation comes from Israel, Luke records how Paul always preached to the Jews first (13:5), and turned to the gentiles only after his fellow Jews had rejected him.

Acts also provides important details about life in the earliest Christian communities, for example:

  • the way of prayer and sharing of goods
  • the administration of baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit (1:5)
  • celebration of the Eucharist (2:42)
  • early attempts at organisation (‘prophets’ and ‘teachers’ in 13:1a)
  • the separate hierarchy provided for the Hellenists in 6:5
  • the ‘elders’ who preside in the Jerusalem church in 11:30
  • those who are appointed by Paul as he founds, as in 14:23.

Perhaps it is the recognition of the guidance of the Holy Spirit that really sets Acts apart. All of those developments in community life are attributable to the Spirit’s irresistible guidance, and just as Luke 4:1 insists on the importance of the Holy Spirit, so Acts 1:8 attributes the spread of the developing Church to the continuous activity of the Holy Spirit. This is why the book is sometimes referred to as ‘the gospel of the Spirit’ or the ‘acts of the Holy Spirit’. And why it is so full of spiritual joy and of wonder at God’s works. Luke understands its story as the unfolding of the divine drama of redemption. The Lord has not yet returned, but in the meantime the word of God is being carried on by the Church.

To this wealth of theology can be added the detailed factual information which we should otherwise lack:

  • the psychological tact with which Luke presents his characters
  • the shrewdness and craftsmanship of passages like Paul’s speech in the presence of Agrippa (Ch 26)
  • the pathos of scenes like the farewell to the Ephesian elders (20:17-38).

The book of Acts, the only one of its kind in the New Testament, is full of treasures.

Wally Huckle
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 24th March 1998