In this post we will begin looking at the book of Acts, specifically three areas: Acts as a sequel to the gospel of Luke, the kind of writing that Acts is, and why it was written.
While we have four versions of the life and ministry of Jesus, we only have one account of the birth and growth of the early church. That makes Acts—our one story of the spread of Christianity across the New Testament world—unique and indispensable!
It is commonly called the “Acts of the Apostles,” but a more fitting description would probably be “The Continuing Acts of Jesus by His Spirit Through the Apostles and Other Early Christian Leaders.” It is the book of Acts that shows us and tells us how God worked through the early church to change the world.
But Acts comes with its own interpretive challenges. How does Acts relate to the Gospel of Luke? Is Acts merely a record of what happened (history) or does it also promote the Christian belief about God (theology)? Why did Luke write Acts, and how does its message relate to us? How did Luke organize Acts? And most important, how do we grasp the message of Acts?
That last question leads to probably the biggest question about Acts for the church today. Should we take Acts as giving us things that the church in every age should imitate (i.e., the experiences and practices of the early church)? Or should we read Acts as merely describing what was valuable and inspiring in the early church, but not necessarily binding on us today?
Acts: A Sequel to Luke
Luke wrote the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, most likely in a single volume. The fact that they are closely linked is seen in three ways:
1) The opening verses of both books
Acts 1:1 refers to a “former book” in which Luke “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” Acts, then, continues the works of Christ through His Spirit in the church. Also, both volumes are dedicated to Theophilus.
2) Parallels between the themes and structure of both books
Prominent themes from both books include: prayer, the work of the Spirit, the gospel for all people. There are parallels in miracles that took place: the healing of Aeneas in Acts 9:32-35 with the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26 and the raising of Tabitha from the dead in Acts 9:36-43 with the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8:40-42, 49-56. There is also a journey structure to the books. In the gospel, Jesus is constantly moving toward Jerusalem and the cross, and in Acts, the gospel is constantly moving to the uttermost parts of the earth.
3) The overlap between the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts
Luke 24:49 says, “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothes with power on high.” This was definitely fulfilled in Acts 1-2. Luke 24:47 says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” That makes you think about Acts 1:8 where Jesus says that their witness would start in Jerusalem. Also, Luke briefly mentions the ascension in Luke 24:51, but expands on that in Acts 1:9-11.
Therefore, we should always remember to read Acts as a continuation of the story that started in Luke’s Gospel.
What Kind of Book Is Acts?
A. Acts is a story
Like the Gospels, Acts is a narrative. So it will have a lot in common when it comes to the type literature that we are dealing with. Therefore, much of what we said about how to read the Gospels applies to Acts as well.
B. Acts is theological history
Luke is a historian, who composes a reliable record of what happened in the outreach of the gospel. Understanding that, we need to realize that Luke might not have approved of everything that he wrote (i.e., how Paul and Barnabas handled their disagreement). In other words, just because Luke recorded it does not mean that it is God’s approved plan.
As well as being a historian, Luke is also a theologian, who tells his story for the purpose of advancing the Christian faith. Historians are not neutral observers without any belief system, so their viewpoint influences the way they interpret events, select what to include, and shape their story. In Acts, Luke gives us accurate, reliable history, but he has selected and arranged his material for theological purposes.
How do we grasp these theological purposes within the story? The most helpful guideline is to look for repeated themes and patterns. So let’s look at some of those major themes in Acts.
Why Did Luke Write Acts?
First of all, Luke wants to encourage and establish Theophilus and others like him more fully in their new faith. The way he does this is by showing that the Holy Spirit empowers the church (both Jewish and Gentile believers) to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world (Acts 1:8). This overarching purpose can be broken down further in subpurposes:
A. The Holy Spirit
The whole operation starts with the Spirit. Jesus promises the Spirit. The Spirit comes. Then the Spirit works through the church. The Spirit empowers believers for witness (4:8, 31), guides them (8:29, 39; 10:19; 16:6-7; 20:22), breaks down barriers (10:44-46), sets believers apart for mission (13:2), and so on.
B. God’s Sovereignty
When you read Acts, you are left with a strong sense that God is in control. He overrules imprisonment (4:23-31), human travel plans (16:6-10), the Jewish Sanhedrin (23:11), and even violent storms at sea (27:13-44). The apostles perform signs and wonders by the power of God.
C. The Church
The Spirit works chiefly through the church to accomplish His will. The Spirit creates a healthy, thriving community where people worship God, care for each other, grow spiritually, and join in the mission (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35).
The early Christians were marked as people of prayer, and you will find them praying in almost every chapter of Acts. The church is born out of a prayer meeting (1:14). They pray when facing opposition and danger (4:24; 12:5; 16:25; 18:9-10). They pray for God’s guidance (1:24; 9:11; 22:17-18). They pray for each other’s spiritual needs (8:15; 19:6). They minister to the sick and hopeless through prayer (9:40; 16:16; 28:8). They pray when they commission people for special service (6:6; 13:3; 14:23). They pray when saying good-bye (20:36; 21:5). They pray when facing death (7:59-60). Prayer is central to the life of the early church.
The early Christians suffer imprisonment, beatings, and rejection; they face angry mobs, violent storms, persecution, and even death. As Paul said in Acts 20:23-24, “…except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
In Acts, the gospel comes first to the Jews, but spreads quickly to the “ends of the earth”—to the Gentiles. The movement in Acts is from Jerusalem to Rome, from Peter to Paul, from Jew only to Jew and Gentile.
The apostles are faithful witnesses. Stephen and Philip are witnesses. Paul is charged with being the witness to the Gentiles. So the message is clear: To be a follower of Jesus Christ means to be a faithful witness.