Introduction to Acts
An Introduction to Acts
Introduction: Sequels – sometimes a movie is great and they make a equal and it is terrible. Other times the second movie is better than the first. If a movie is very popular, that is usually good for two or three sequels, which decline in quality as a general rule. The book of Acts, however, is not a sequel but rather an continuation of the project Luke began in his Gospel. The “whole story” is Luke-Acts, and if possible, they ought to be read as a single work. There are themes which run through both books and there are elements in Acts which are anticipated by the gospel of Luke. Rather than seeing Acts as a second thought (or worse, a sequel), Acts should be read as the second half of Luke’s explanation of how the Gospel went from Galilee, through Jerusalem, and then to the whole world, including Rome.
1. Acts is the second part of Luke’s story of the spread of the gospel throughout the whole world.
A. The tradition title of the book is The Acts of the Apostles.
1. This title is not accurate, since the book only records stories of Peter and Paul, with Peter’s ministry covered in chapters 1-6, 10-12, and disappearing entirely after Acts 15. After Acts 13, the story revolves around the missionary activities of Paul.
2. Several writers have suggested that the book ought to be titled “Acts of the Holy Spirit” since the book describes the movement of the Holy Spirit out from Jerusalem to the whole world, ending in Rome.
3. In antiquity, a “gospel” was a book which focused on Jesus (i.e., the Gospel of Thomas) and an “Acts” was a book which focused on one or more apostles (i.e., the Acts of Peter).
B. Luke and Acts are clearly related works.
1. They are of about the same length, both are about the maximum size to be written on a single scroll. They are also cover approximately the same lengths of time (about 30 years each.)1
2. In Luke 3 John the Baptist says that the one who will come after him will baptize with “fire and the Holy Spirit,” just as Acts begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit as “tongues of fire” (ch. 2).
C Luke intends to describe the growth and expansion of Christianity, beginning with the Jewish mission in Jerusalem which centered around Peter, then moving to the Gentile mission of Paul. There are two trajectories for this history.
1. Geographically2, the history moves from Jerusalem to Judea, Asia Minor, then to the whole Roman Empire by ending with the gospel presentation in Rome. This geographical theme is hinted at in Acts 1:8, the final words of Jesus in Luke-Acts.
Acts 1:7-8 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 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.”
2. Theologically, the history also moves with the Holy Spirit.
A. Luke is careful to make note of the activity of the Holy Spirit in increasingly distant cultural contexts.
B. That the Holy Spirit would come to Jews in Jerusalem when the New Covenant was established is not a surprise, but in Acts 8 the Spirit is active in the life of a Hellenistic Jew (Philip) and a convert to Judaism, the Ethiopian Eunuch, then in Acts 10 the Spirit comes upon a Gentile God-fearer.
C. By Acts 14 Paul does miracles among Gentiles who have no connection whatsoever to the people of Israel and he begins to establish churches in Asia Minor and Europe, including both Jews and converted pagans.
D. It is important to remember that while Luke is a historian, he is also a theologian and has crafted his presentation of Luke-Acts to suit his theological agenda.
2. With respect to the movement of salvation history, there is a movement from Israel as the people of God to Jews and Gentiles as the people of God.
A. In Acts 2-3 it appears that God is offering to establish the kingdom at that time if the Jews will accept the teaching of the Apostles at Pentecost. In Acts 2 Peter refers to the promises made to David, including Psalm 110, a clear Messianic passage. More significantly, in Acts 3:17ff, Peter says that by repenting of the killing of Jesus, the Jews would experience the “times of refreshing,” and the sending of the Christ.
Acts 3:17-23 “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21 He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. 22 For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. 23 Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’
B. The Jewish leadership begin to harass the apostles, treating them as they had Jesus. This is a rejection of the offer of the kingdom made at Pentecost.
1. As early as Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and questioned concerning their preaching of Jesus as raised from the dead.
2. In Acts 6 the Jewish leadership begin to systematically persecute the apostles, resulting in the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen in chapter 7. Reading the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 it seems clear that there is a judgment upon the Jews for their unbelief. Somewhat dramatically, the one giving approval for the death of Stephen is a young Pharisee named Saul
3. By Acts 8 the work of the Apostles being done by another, the deacon Philip. Philip takes the gospel to two Jewish men, although outside of Jerusalem. (Simon and the Ethiopian Eunuch)
4. In Acts 9 we read of the dramatic conversion of Saul/Paul and his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul does begin ministry immediately, although he spends at least three years in Arabia, most likely “training” with the Lord. (Gal. 1)
5. Acts 10 and 11 show the gospel going to some unusual places, specifically Peter going to a Gentile. This gentile is not exactly free from Jewish connections, Cornelius was a “God-fearer,” a Gentile semi-convert to Judaism. The fact that Peter is told to go there is an indication that something major has shifted in God’s plan.
6. By Acts 12, one apostle dead, and Peter is in prison awaiting execution. This is an indication that the “kingdom program” has completely failed, and the Jewish Church has been nearly destroyed. In the next chapter, God calls Paul to begin his first missionary journey, the ministry for which has been preparing him.
C. Luke uses the events on the island of Cyprus as a major shift in the book, from Jewish ministry to Gentile ministry. In chapter 13, “Barnabas and Saul” begin to preach the gospel, but the Holy Spirit comes on Saul and he teaches for the first time that the Jews have been set aside as the focus of God’s plan and that the Holy Spirit is going to the gentiles. After this story, Luke describes the activities of “Paul and Barnabas.”
3. How Are We to Use the Book of Acts?
A. Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.
1. For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3. The recent writer Shane Claibourne has popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.3
2. Another example is the presence of sign gifts (tongues) and healings as a clear manifestation of the Spirit of God.
A. If you have been saved, some argue, then you will speak in tongues, since that is what the earliest form of the church did.4 Denominations which do not practice these gifts must explain why there are sign gifts in Acts but not in our churches today.
B. A frequent response of those who do not practice sign gifts is that Acts is not normative and that the experience of Acts 2 or 10 does not constitute the experience of all Christians everywhere. This would be true for communion at every church service, head coverings on women, and a host of other issues of practice which were current in the first century but are not today. (Oddly enough, if one includes the practice of baptism here they are told that yes, baptism is normative Acts!)
3. Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church.
A. This is not always the case, since it is also true that ideas develop over time. Sometimes the earliest form is the most simple, but that does not mean it is the best. If we look at inventions such as the car or the computer, few would say that the “best” car was the Model T!
B. Typically, the argument that Acts ought to be normative only involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine. Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and other Christian thinking about who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross.
C. Acts certainly demonstrates development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely gentile missionary movement later in Acts. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul founds in Corinth or Ephesus. No where does Paul suggest that people sell possessions and give the money to the common treasury of the church.
D. Certainly there are few people who consistently apply this sort of thinking to Acts (Ananias and Sapphira, for example!)
4. In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine.
∙ By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea.
∙ There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.
∙ We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.
∙ Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit!
∙ Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.
B. On the other hand, most Christians dispense with Acts as a guide for the church today.
1. This may take the form of a liberal Christianity which ignores many things as binding for the church today, but more often how we do church has little to do with Acts and we make no apology for this.
∙ It is almost impossible to know exactly how the earliest church services were designed, how they worshiped, when they took communion (or how they took communion), etc.
∙ In most denominations, how we practice these things are based on developing traditions since the reformation or even later! Few people make the effort to say “this is how they did it in Ephesus, and that is all we ought to do today.”
2. The book of Acts becomes the beginning point of a trajectory from the first moments of the church to present practice.
∙ For someone like Bultmann, Acts is the synthesis of the Christianities of Peter and Paul, the “winner” of the battle between law-oriented Christianity and libertine-Christianity. The actual practice described in the book is not necessary for the modern church.
∙ Other examples?
C. This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book.
1. Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ).
2. We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history! But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.
3. What is significant theologically is the experience of Paul and his reflection on the meaning of the cross for the present age.
A. Without the Pauline letters we would not have a fully developed view of the atonement, justification, sanctification, etc. Paul’s calling to be the light to the Gentiles was unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible. While it was clear that God’s work to redeem man from sin would include Gentiles, how that would happen is not particularly clear. After Paul’s calling on the road to Damascus, things begin to become more clear.
B. We can read the rest of the Bible and observe that there are a handful of points in history where God advances his plan to redeem the world (after the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses), and in each case there is a significant body of revelation given which in some ways breaks with the previous age, although there is often some continuity as well.
C. For the present era, it appears that this revelation was given to Paul, as the light to the Gentiles. Frequently it is observed that the full revelation of what the cross means was not made until Paul, both inside dispensational circles and without – often Jewish commentators say Paul “corrupted” the teaching of Jesus!
4. The “transitional nature” of Acts is often observed (by dispensationalists and non-), but it is usually only employed to argue against a particular practice (tongues as evidence of salvation, for example).
D. Perhaps an analogy may help here.
∙ When Leonardo Da Vinci painted the last supper, Jesus has fish on his plate. This is a problem since the meal was a Passover meal, so the food would have been lamb, not fish. The explanation is simple – Leonardo was a Catholic, and the last supper was on Friday. This means that Jesus would have eaten fish, like a good catholic! He read current practice back into the biblical period. We do the same thing, imagining that the early Christian practice of a “love feast” was like a potluck.
∙ When we are reading Acts, we know how the story turns out (the church of today), so we assume that everything that we do is somehow rooted in the foundational document of the church.
E. My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book. There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission.
1Witherington, Acts, 6-7, notes that Greco-Roman histories sought to keep volume lengths about the same. The structure of the two books is similar as well, with a bit less than a quarter of the gospel concerning the trial and crucifixion of Christ and a similar percentage for the arrest, trials and voyage to Rome of Paul.
2Moore, Thomas S. “‘'To The End Of The Earth:’ The Geographical And Ethnic Universalism of Acts 1:8 In Light Of Isaianic Influence On Luke” JETS 40/3 (September 1997) 389-399.
3For example, John H. Fish III, "Brethren Tradition or New Testament Church Truth" Emmaus Journal 2 (Winter 93), 111-153; dealing with the view of denominations among Plymouth Brethren, observes that there are some elements of the book which are not normative (communism in Acts 4), but there is a church polity taught by the book.
4“If Luke intended to teach evidential tongues as normative, why does he not consistently present tongues as the immediate result of Spirit-baptism (e.g., Acts 8:17; 9:1-19),” Robert P. Menzies, “Evidential Tongues: An Essay on Theological Method,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 2 (1998): 115. See also Douglas C. Bozung, “The Pentecostal Doctrine of Initial Evidence: A Study in Hermeneutical Method” Journal of Ministry and Theology 8:1 (Spring 2004), 89-107.