How Is Acts Organized?
Acts 1:8 holds the key to understanding the organization of Acts:
Jerusalem: Acts 1-6
Judea and Samaria: Acts 6-12
Ends of the earth: Acts 13-28
Specifically, Luke mostly follows the Spirit’s work in the lives of two men: Peter and Paul. But notice the parallels in what the Spirit does through them:
Sermon at Pentecost (2:22-29)
Healing of a lame man (3:1-10)
Shaking of a building by prayer (4:31)
Rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11)
Healing by his shadow (5:15-16)
Laying on of hands (8:17)
Rebuke of Simon the sorcerer (8:18-24)
Resuscitation of Tabitha (9:36-42)
Removal of chains in prison (12:5-7)
Sermon at Pisidian Antioch (13:26-41)
Healing of a lame man (14:8-11)
Shaking of a building by praise (16:25-26)
Rebuke of Elymas (13:8-12)
Healing by the handkerchiefs of Paul (19:11-12)
Laying on of hands (19:6)
Rebuke of Jewish sorcerer (13:6-11)
Resuscitation of Eutychus (20:7-12)
Removal of chains in prison (16:25-28)
Luke also pauses throughout his story to summarize the progress of the gospel and the growth of the Christian community.
Grasping the Message of Acts
Due to the similarities with the Gospels, our interpretive questions are actually the same: 1) What is the central message of each story? 2) What is Luke telling his readers by the way he arranges the individual stories to make up the larger narrative?
Therefore, some of our questions stay the same or are similar. We ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? We look for connections between the stories. How are the stories positioned? What does the length of each episode tell us about what Luke thinks is important? Above all, what themes and patterns are repeated throughout Acts?
But remember, we are the church! So that leads us to the biggest question: Are we supposed to imitate the experiences and practices of the early church or are they not binding on us today? When reading Acts, it is best to adopt a both-and approach. We are going to need to take some parts of Acts as thing that we need to imitate, while other things are merely describing what was done. So how do we determine what we need to imitate?
1. Look for what Luke intended to communicate to his readers.
When we look at Acts 8, for instance, we are going to ask several questions: What was the nature of sorcery? Why didn’t the Spirit come on the Samaritans are the time that they believed? Did Simon lose his salvation or was he never really saved in the first place? How did the angel of the Lord speak to Philip? How much water is necessary for a proper baptism? When the text says, “the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away,” what does that mean exactly?
Those are good questions, but they are not at the heart of what Luke intends to communicate.
“This passage occurs in the section of his outline that concentrates on how the gospel began to leave exclusively Jewish territory. Thus, the two most striking features of Acts 8 become the reception of Philip’s message first by Samaritans and then by a eunuch, both considered ritually unclean by Jews. The main application of Acts 8 for Christians living today, therefore, should not center on the timing of the arrival of the Holy Spirit and its effects, nor on debates about how much water one needs for baptism, or how quickly it should follow on conversion. Rather, this passage should call all Christians today to determine who the Samaritans and eunuchs are in our world. Christian ministry must not neglect today’s ‘untouchables’ or outcasts.”
So Luke’s message for us is that the gospel of Christ destroys human barriers that are used to keep people from God. The intent of the author is crucial in our understanding of the passage.
2. Look for positive and negative examples in the characters of the story.
Most of what is done by the Christians in the story of Acts should be taken as something we should imitate as Christians today. This is not always the case, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
3. Read individual passages in light of the overall story of Acts and the rest of the NT.
For instance, in Acts 19:2 Paul asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They said, “No.” But in light of the larger story and the rest of the NT, we should not interpret a two-stage conversion as something that happens today. The Spirit came on people in national and racial stages: Jews, then Samaritans, and then Gentiles. After Acts 10, believing in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit are part of a single experience.
So what about this passage in Acts 19? Upon further reading and understanding, we see that this question is Paul proving that they were not yet disciples of Jesus but disciples of John the Baptist. Once they believe on Jesus, they received the Holy Spirit.
4. Look to other parts of Acts to clarify what we are to imitate today.
For instance, when we read Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35, we may have the idea that the church members need to just toss all their resources in a pot and then let the church dispense it as needed. But when we get to Acts 5, we see Peter telling Ananias that he could have kept some or all of his money if he wanted to. It wasn’t that he kept money back that killed him; it was that he lied about it.
So throwing all of our resources into one pot is not something that we need to imitate. But what we do need to imitate is the radical generosity that led to meeting physical needs of other members of the Christian community.
5. Look for repeated patterns and themes.
Perhaps the most important principle for identifying what the church today is supposed to imitate is to look for themes and patterns that remain constant throughout the changing story of Acts.
For instance, let’s look at how God’s will is made known in Acts. When the disciples replace Judas with Matthias, they cast lots to determine. So does that mean that we are to cast lots when choosing leaders in the church? Well the only time that this is mentioned in Acts is Acts 1:23-26.
So how does God reveal His will to the church? He uses angels, His Spirit, visions, the Scriptures, circumstances, prayer, discussion, and other believers just to name a few. So we should determine from this realization that it is not so much how God reveals His will to His people, but that God reveals His will to His people.
Another theme we could see is found in the spread of the gospel.
1) The message is constantly spreading.
2) The gospel of Jesus Christ remains constant.
3) The message is shaped to specific audiences.