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Introduction to the Book of Acts

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General Info

The book of Acts provides a selective history of the establishment and growth of the Christian church and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the NT canon, the book is placed between the Gospels and Paul’s epistles.  This is the ideal location since it provides a natural bridge connecting the life of Jesus in the Gospels with the results of His life being played out in the emerging Christian community.  The Gospels ended with Jesus’ Great Commission to spread the message to all nations (Mt 28:19, re-emphasized in Acts 1:8) and we see the commencement of these efforts in Acts with the establishment of the Christian church and the beginning of her mission.

In Acts, Luke expands and completes many of the themes which he began in his gospel.  Paul then further explains the theological significance and the practical applications of these themes within his epistles.  In turn, the Book of Acts helps us place the epistles geographically and chronologically.

The book is commonly called "The Acts of the Apostles", although it is simply titled "Acts" in some of the oldest extant manuscripts.  Actually, only four of the Apostles are mentioned and it focuses primarily on the deeds of Peter and Paul.  Perhaps the most appropriate title might be "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" since His presence (referred to over fifty times) is active throughout the book.

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Brief Survey

Luke opens the book of Acts with the same event that closed his Gospel, the ascension of Christ.  Jesus’ last words before physically leaving earth provide us with the outline for the book, "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" (1:8).  Luke then records the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, giving birth to the NT church, along with Peter’s accompanying sermon in chapter 2.

We see the first phase of the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem chronicled through chapter 8, verse 3.  This period focuses primarily on Peter and John, who preach and perform miracles which lead to their arrest by the Jewish religious leaders.  We also see the initial growth of the church and witness Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen being stoned by the Jewish leaders (ch 7), which results in the Apostles leaving Jerusalem.

This scattering of the Apostles throughout Judea and Samaria initiates the next phase of the commission 8:4-12:25).  After a brief glimpse of Phillip’s ministry in Samaria, we come to a major turning point in the history of the early church, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (ch 9).  Luke then re-focuses on Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles and Herod’s persecution of the church (ch 10-12), before turning his attention to Paul’s ministry for the remainder of the book.

The final phase of the commission, taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth, begins in chapter 13 as Paul and Barnabas sets off from Antioch to plant churches in what is now the Middle East on the first of three missionary journeys.  After the first journey, we encounter a very important event in chapter 15, which became known as the Council at Jerusalem (~49-50 AD).  A conference, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, was held to discuss conditions for Gentile membership in the church.  The hard-line Jewish wing argued that Gentiles should follow all the Mosaic laws and traditions, including circumcision.  Peter argued that the Gentiles, like the Jews, should be included based upon their faith and God’s grace.  James then proposed (and the church adopted) a solution to establish fellowship between the Jewish and Gentile Christians which primarily agreed with Peter’s position (15:19-21) and drafted a letter to the Gentile believers, which was joyously received (15:22-35).

The second and third missionary journeys took Paul, accompanied at various times by Silas, Luke and others to the Middle East and Eastern Europe (15:36-20:38), spending eighteen months at Corinth and three years at Ephesus, among the many places visited along the way.  Luke then chronicles Paul’s arrests and trails in Jerusalem and Caesarea (ch 21-26), culminating with Paul’s appeal to the Roman Caesar.

In the last two chapters (27-28), Luke records Paul’s journey to Rome (~60 AD), including the shipwreck on Malta.  The book ends with Paul’s two year house arrest in Rome, in which he preaches and witnesses while awaiting trial.  Tradition states that Paul was then released, possibly made a fourth missionary trip to Spain, then returned to Rome and was martyred under the Emperor Nero about 66-67 AD.

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Key Verses

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. (1:8)

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (2:1-4)

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (4:12)

But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." (4:19-20)

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (7:55-56)

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (9:3-6)

"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen--by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (10:39-43)

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household." (16:29-31)

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (17:24-27)

But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." (18:6)

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." (23:11)

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (28:30-31)

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Author, Date and Recipients

The author of the Acts does not identify himself by name, but the early church attributes both Acts and the third gospel to Luke (see Gospel of Luke – Author).  The strongest internal evidence comes from the "we" sections in Acts (chapters 16, 20, 21 and 27) which indicates that the author was with the Apostle Paul during the events described in these passages.  Most of Paul’s other traveling companions can be eliminated, leaving Luke as the most likely candidate.  His authorship is also externally supported by the unanimous testimony of early Christian writings, the earliest being the Muratorian Canon (~ 170 AD), which explicitly states that Luke was the author of the third gospel and the "Acts of All the Apostles".  Luke’s authorship is also confirmed from the writings of Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons during this same time period.  About 325 AD, the early church historian Eusebius listed information from numerous sources identifying Luke as the author of the two books (Ecclesiastical History, 3.4).

Luke’s chief source of information was probably the Apostle Paul, his frequent traveling companion.  Luke’s extensive travels would have brought him into personal contact with many of the church leaders throughout Judea and the Roman Empire.  Due to the quality of his sources and the careful method in which the data was compiled into an accurate and orderly account of his subject, Luke is still considered one of the most important historians of his day, even by many secular scholars.  Moreover, archaeological discoveries continue to confirm the historical accuracy of the author.  Christians, of course, realize that he also wrote under the divine inerrant guidance of the Holy Spirit, the most important factor in maintaining his accuracy.

The suggested date for the writing of the Acts varies from the early 60s to the mid 80s AD.  The omission of certain events such as the persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero (65 AD), the martyrdom of Paul (64-67 AD), and the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) argue for an earlier date.  The book ends with Paul under house arrest awaiting his first trial in Rome, probably about 62 AD.  It’s highly unlikely that, with Luke’s attention to detail, that he would not have disclosed the results of the trial, had it been known at the time of writing.  Therefore, the most likely time of writing is about 63 AD, probably from Rome.

The immediate recipient of Luke’s writing was Theophilus, probably a Roman official.  It is also obvious that the book was also intended to give a larger audience a better and more accurate understanding of the truth of the Christ Faith and its spread into the Mediterranean world.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background for the Gospels and Acts.

As the church spread beyond Jerusalem, the Roman Empire’s role becomes increasing significant.  Thus, for a better understanding of Acts (and many of the Epistles), it helps to understand certain aspects of this Empire, the largest and most advanced that the world had yet known.

Throughout the Roman Empire, government power was centered primarily in cities.  In fact, it was arguably the most urban of western civilizations up until modern times.  The culture was referred to as Greco-Roman, since many of the cities had been established by Alexander the Great.  Due to previous Israelite disbursements, the Jewish population in some of these cities was larger than that of Jerusalem.  Many cites and colonies that settled by Roman military veterans enjoyed special status such as full or partial immunity from taxation.  In Palestine, Rome left the government in the hands of native rulers (such as Herod), who were allowed to rule on internal affairs.  As long as they maintained order and paid taxes to Rome, the Empire took a hands-off approach, however, most were integrated into the main provincial structure by the end of the first century AD.

Roman citizenship had a number of privileges such as right to vote, exemption from certain punishments (such as flogging), and the right to appeal to the Roman Emperor in court cases.  During NT times, it was possible for people who were born or lived outside of Rome to obtain a Roman citizenship, usually by providing certain services such as serving in the military, or by bribing a government official (22:25-28).  descendants of those who had attained a citizenship were automatically born a Roman citizen, such as Paul (22:28).

The Roman structure of law was very advanced and complex, and ultimately became the basis for the modern law system of most Western countries.  One difference is that there was no prosecutor, so all cases were brought by the offended party, who could face the same punishment sought against the defendant if the charges were proven false.  Thus the Judaizers themselves had to bring various charges against Paul and meet him face to face (25:16).

Another aspect of Roman culture religion and society was closely interwoven and the emperor himself was worshiped as a god.  Each city or territory also had their own god or gods.  One could worship his own god as long as he also pronounced Caesar as god, which was also seen as a patriotic duty.  This caused problems for the Christians since, even though their worship of Jesus was acceptable to the Romans as long as they also worshipped the emperor, Christians held that Christ’s declaration as Lord and Savior was an exclusive claim.

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The book of Acts covers an approximately three decade time period from the end of the Gospels (30 or 33 AD) though Paul’s house arrest while waiting his first trial in Rome (~62 AD).

~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
~ 7-8 AD Jesus visits the Temple as a Boy
~ 28 Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem); 3000 Saved at Peter’s Sermon (Acts 2)
~ 31-34 Stephen martyred (Acts 7)
~ 31-34 Saul (Paul) persecutes the Christian Church
~ 35 Saul's (Paul) Conversion
37-44 (2) Herod Agrippa rules Palestine
~ 41-44 (2) The Apostle James (brother of the Apostle John) martyred
~ 44 (2) Peter’s miraculous rescue from prison; leaves Jerusalem
~ 46-48 (3) Paul’s first missionary journey (with Barnabas)
49 (4) Emperor Claudius expels Jews from Rome
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 49-52 (4) Paul’s second missionary journey (with Silas - joined by Luke)
52-59 (5) Felix as Governor of Judea (replaced by Festus in 59)
~ 53-56 (5) Paul’s ministry in Ephesus
~ 53-57 (5) Paul’s third missionary journey
54 Emperor Claudius dies; Jews allowed to return to Rome
54-68 Reign of Roman Emperor Nero
~ 55-60 Gospel of Mark written
~ 57-59 (5) Paul is imprisoned in Caesarea
~ 58-63 Gospel of Luke written
~ 58-68 Gospel of Matthew written
~ 59-60 (5) Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 (5) Paul under house arrest in Rome
~ 62 (6) James (the brother of Jesus) stoned to death in Jerusalem
~ 62-65 Book of the Acts written
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-65 Persecution of Christians under Nero
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
~ 64-67 Peter martyred in Rome
66-70 (7) Jewish uprising against Roman rule
70 (7) Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

~ Dates are approximated.

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

(2)  Peter’s imprisonment and James’ martyrdom (12) occurred during the reign of Herod Agrippa I.  Roman Sources indicate that Herod Agrippa died in 44, so these events must be dated in or before that year.

(3)  A great famine befell the Roman world during the reign of Claudius, and the Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver relief money (11:28-30) prior to their first missionary journey.  The Jewish Historian Josephus dates this famine between 46 and 48.

(4)  From Acts 18:12-17, we know Paul was at Corinth during the second missionary journey when Gallio became governor of Achaia.  An inscription has been found nearby at Delphi that indicates An inscription discovered at Delphi signifies Gallio’s tenures as 51-52.  Since Paul spent 18 months in Corinth (18:11), he probably arrived in 50.  This is consistent with the arrival of Priscilla and Aquila after being recently expelled from Rome (18:2) since the Jews were expelled by Claudius in 49.

(5)  The probable dates of many events in Acts 21-28 can be established from the record of Festus replacing Felix as Governor of Judea in 59 (probably about mid-year).  At this time, Paul had been imprisoned in Caesarea about two years (24:27) so his arrest (21:33) must have occurred in 57, shortly after returning from his third missionary journey.  We can thus establish probably dates for events during this journey such as the three months in Greece during the winter of 56-57, his return to Macedonia and Passover in Philippi in the spring of 57  (20:1-6), and his three year stay in Ephesus (20:31) from 53-56.  Going forward from mid-59, Paul promptly went to trial and appealed to Caesar (25:1-12), then left for Rome (27:1-2) in the fall of 59 and arrived (28:11-16) in the spring of 60.  He then spent two years under house arrest (28:30-31) before being released (according to tradition).

(6)  per Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1.

(7)  Josephus records that the Jerusalem church relocated to Pella, one of the Decapolis cities located east of the Jordan River shortly after the death of James.  Thus, most Christians escaped the brunt of the war between Rome and the Jews, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Luke’s ultimate purpose in writing his Gospel was to provide an orderly narrative of the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Acts, he seeks to do the same for the early church as witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8).  In this second volume, Jesus’ disciples, under the divine authority and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, carry on the work that He began to do and teach (1:1).  We are charged to continue this work until His second coming.

The next major purpose of the Book of Acts is to provide a defense.  The exact nature and subject of this defense depends somewhat upon the identity of the recipient Theophilus, about whom many theories have been advanced.  He was probably a Roman official, possibly of very high ranking.  Some have theorized that he could have been in charge of overseeing Paul’s trial before Caesar.  In this case, Acts could have been written to help him understand certain facts about Jesus and the Christian faith, including Paul’s role in the early church.  Another speculation is that Luke may have written the book as a court brief in defense of Paul since it does contain several legal terms and arguments.  That Luke wrote Acts as a general explanation and defense of the Christian faith in general is a more likely scenario.  Under Roman rule, only certain religions were approved as legal by the state, of which Judaism was one.  Luke argued that Christianity should be permitted since it was an extension (or fulfillment) of Judaism rather than a completely new religion, and that it represented no threat to the Roman state.

Finally, Luke wanted to provide a guide for the church by leaving some basic principles which could be applied to various situations which Christians would face in the future.

The main theme of Acts is evangelism, or witnessing.  Luke presents many examples of the Gospel being proclaimed to a diverse set of worldwide audiences such as Jews, Gentiles, Jewish converts, philosophers, high government officials, and even to women.  The witness is accomplished under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who in turn, indwells all new believers, empowering them for further spreading of the good news.  A related theme is the growth of the Church, a natural consequence to the main theme.

A related theme occurring as a result of evangelism is the growth of the Church, which in turn brought about the theme of the relationship between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians.  Many Jewish Christians believed that God’s favor was available only to the Jews.  Others held that the Gentiles could be accepted into the church, but only if they agreed to keep the Mosaic laws and traditions.  On the other hand, Paul argued that Jesus came to seek and save the Gentiles based on faith in Jesus alone.  God had to send a vision to Peter (ch 10) in order to convince him that salvation was also available to all people and nations.  This controversy finally climaxed with the Council at Jerusalem (see the Brief Survey chapter above).

The primary theological significance of Acts is the emphasis on the aforementioned work of the Holy Spirit in carrying out these purposes and themes.  Luke was not only recording the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth, but the message that God caused the gospel to spread.  We are thus encouraged that this same Triune God is still at work empowering our efforts today.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The Book of Acts should be also be read and interpreted as a second volume to Luke’s Gospel.  Luke and Acts were both written by the same author to the same immediate recipient.  When Luke wrote his Gospel, he almost certainly had already begun formulating the writing of Acts in his mind, so the books function as having a literary and theological unity.  Many themes introduced in his Gospel, such as the offer of salvation to the Gentiles, are concluded or greatly expanded in the book of Acts.  Scholars commonly refer to this single two-volume work as “Luke–Acts".

The books of Luke and Acts were too long to fit on the same original papyrus, but Luke clearly intended them to function as two parts of the same story.  In forming the Canon, the early church placed the Gospel of John between them.  This was probably to link Luke’s Gospel with Matthew and Mark, the other two synoptics, and with the Gospel of John, even though John was written much later than Acts.  Luke's second volume was probably placed after John not only to group the four gospels together, but because Acts serves as a bridge between the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles.

All events and themes in Acts should be interpreted within the context of its key verseBut 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 (1:8).  After recording this charge from Jesus just before His ascension, Luke then proceeds to document the specifics of the spread and triumph of Christianity in the face of hostile opposition over the next thirty years.

Genre-wise, the Acts should primarily be interpreted per the rules of Historical Narratives.  Of the dozens of stories in Acts, most follow a cyclic pattern of Christian leaders preaching the gospel, listeners being converted and added to the Church, persecution by various opponents and finally, God intervening according to his divine purpose.  This opposition was often due to the tension that existed between early Christianity and Judaism during the time of the events and their writing.  See Interpretation Hints for the Gospels and Acts for more information.

In reading Acts, notice how God uses various individuals such as Peter, Philip, Stephen and Paul to advance His Kingdom by means of prayer and the equipping by the Holy Spirit, demonstrating that He can do extraordinary things through ordinary people.  God could supernaturally reach out to the lost without our help today, but He chooses to work through us instead.  The Church must continue to act as the hands and feet of Jesus.

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The book of Acts may be divided into three sections based on it’s key verse (1:8).  Under the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian message was spread in Jerusalem (1:1–8:3), Judea and Samaria (8:4-12:25) and to the ends of the earth (chapters 13-28).  The last section includes Paul’s three missionary journeys, his trials, imprisonments and journey to Rome.

1:1 – 1:26 The Ascension of Christ; Waiting on the Holy Spirit
2:1 – 2:13 The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
2:14 – 2:47 Peter Preaches at Pentecost; Fellowship of the Believers
3:1 – 4:22 Peter heals a Lame man; John and Peter Arrested
5:17 – 5:42 The Christians Pray and Share Together
6:1 – 8:3 Stephen’s Commission, Arrest, Speech before the Council, and Martyrdom; The Apostles scatter throughout Judea and Samaria
8:4 – 8:40 Philip’s Ministry
9:1 – 9:31 Paul’s Conversion and Witness in Damascus and Jerusalem
9:32 – 11:18 Peter’s Ministry to the Gentiles
11:19 – 11:30 The Church at Antioch
12:1 – 12:25 Herod’s Persecution of the Church; Death of James (brother of the Apostle John); Peter’s Escape; The subsequent Death of Herod (Agrippa I)
13:1 – 14:28 Paul’s First Missionary Journey (with Barnabas) to Cyprus and Southern Galatia
15:1 – 15:35 The Jerusalem Conference
15:36 – 18:22 Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (with Silas and Luke) to Macedonia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth
18:23 – 20:38 Paul’s Third Missionary Journey to Ephesus, Macedonia and Greece
21:1 – 23:35 Paul Returns to Jerusalem and is Arrested and Imprisoned
24:1 – 26:32 Paul’s Imprisonment in Caesarea; Hearings before Felix, Festus and King Agrippa; Paul Appeals to Rome
27:1 – 28:10 Paul begins Journey to Rome by Sea; Shipwrecked on Isle of Malta
28:11 – 28:31 Paul Arrives in Rome and Preaches while under House Arrest awaiting Trial

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