Reading the New Testament Acts

It is clear from what we said in a previous article on the third Gospel that Acts was written by Luke, the beloved doctor. Acts or more fully Acts of the Apostles could be called, it has been suggested, Acts of the Holy Spirit. There is certainly an emphasis on the Spirit, beginning with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. However, the book’s opening gives us a clue to a better title. Acts is clearly the second part of a two-part work. The opening verse refers to a former account of all that Jesus began to do and teach. The implication is that Acts tells us what Jesus continued to do and teach to the early church by the Spirit through the Apostles.

Acts begins where the Gospel leaves off, and continues the account of God revealing himself in mercy and grace, not just to Jews but to the whole world. We can divide the book into sections:
1. Introduction 1:1-11
2. Origin of the church: Jerusalem 1:12-8:3
3. Transition period: Samaria 8:4-11:18
4. Expansion to Gentiles, Paul’s mission: Antioch and the Empire 11:19-21:16
5. Imprisonment and defence of Paul: Caesarea and Rome 21:17-28:31
Acts is constructed logically around the geographical development given in Acts 1:8. The Lord says to the Apostles You shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After the introduction Luke deals with events concerning the Jerusalem church and its growth. Then we get a glimpse into the expansion into Samaria and the coastal plain of Palestine to Caesarea. Further sections show the gospel spreading throughout the empire, into the cities of the Mediterranean world and on to the capital, Rome. As he records the expansion, Luke notes the churches’ spiritual and numerical growth - 2:47, 5:14, 6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, 19:20.

Characters and preaching
Acts can also be looked at from the point of view of the characters the Lord used.
1-5 Peter
6, 7 Stephen
8-12 Barnabas, Philip, Saul of Tarsus
13-28 Paul
Another characteristic is the record of the preaching of the early church. Acts could be called The Preaching of the Apostles as it records a number of sermons or speeches mostly by Peter and Paul. 

Peter’s speeches
Pentecost 2:14-39
In the Temple precincts 3:12-26
Defence to Sanhedrin 4:8-12,   5:29-32
To Cornelius and household 10:34-43

Paul’s speeches
Synagogue, Pisidian Antioch 13:16-41
Lystra 14:15-17
Thessalonica 17:2-3
Athens 17:22-31
Defence, Jerusalem 22:1-21
Defence before Felix 24:10-21
Defence before Festus and Agrippa 26:2-23

Comparisons have been drawn between Peter and Paul

They were both Apostles; Peter to Jews, Paul to Gentiles
As noted, preachers, whose sermons are recorded
Able to miraculously heal. Both healed lame men (Peter, 3:1-10; Paul, 14:8-10)
Instrumental in bringing miraculous personal judgement (Peter, Ananias and Sapphira struck dead, 5:1-11; Paul, Elymas struck blind, 13:6-11)
Freed from prison by divine intervention (Peter - Jerusalem, 12:1-11; Paul - Philippi, 16:19-30)
Men who stressed the Spirit’s work and Christ’s resurrection

Though Paul went to Gentiles and Peter to Jews, they were not exclusivist. Peter pioneered the gospel to the Gentiles as he spoke to Cornelius. Paul was willing to preach to his fellow-countrymen and had a great burden for them (see Romans 10). 

Historicity and aim
Acts’ historical reliability has been challenged at times, but never successfully. There are difficulties in fitting its chronology with that of the epistles, and some of Luke’s historical detail cannot be confirmed from outside sources. Many details have been confirmed, however, by the findings of archaeology and palaeography.
Acts is not an exhaustive account of the church’s spread. Luke, a careful historian, does not give us a comprehensive account of all that happened. His interest is in the spread from Jews to Gentiles, events that he himself witnessed firsthand, as we see from the we sections. He records nothing of the gospel’s spread southward or eastward but deals with its spread northward and westward into Greece and Rome. There were Christians in Egypt and Syria from early days. How this happened is not recorded. There were believers in Damascus before Paul’s conversion, but no account of this is given. When we consider that we hear nothing of the activities of most Apostles, we realise that much early church history remains hidden. The reasons for this limitation of the scope of Acts probably include the fact that Luke was writing mainly about events he knew personally or could find out from Paul, with whom he was closely associated. He could use these events more fully to illustrate his theme of the gospel’s expansion and its relevance to all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike. He was also instructing an individual, Theophilus, in the certainty of the gospel. The fact that this man was probably a Roman official led him to centre his interest on the spread of the gospel toward Rome, rather than dealing with the church’s growth in other geographical directions.

Period and interest
The chronological period covered by Acts is 30-60 AD, from the Ascension to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. There are certain events that Luke records whose dates can be fixed independently.

Famine under Claudius 11:28 44-48 AD
Death Herod Agrippa I 12:20-23 44 AD (Spring)
Proconsulship Sergius Paulus 13:7 Before 51 AD
Expulsion of Jews from Rome 18:2 49 AD (probably)
Proconsulship Gallio 18:12 52, 53 AD
Proconsulship Felix 23:26, 24:27 52-56 AD
Accession Festus 24:27 57-60 AD

Luke’s interest was not primarily in a chronology of the period, though he paid more attention to these matters than most New Testament writers. Rather he charts for us the gradual decline in prominence of Jewish Christianity and the growth of faith among the Gentiles. At the book’s opening the atmosphere is very Jewish. The Apostles ask the Lord about the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. The crowd who hear Peter’s Pentecost sermon is mainly Jewish. Peter speaks to the men of Israel (2:22). The church at Jerusalem was mainly Jewish, although there were two groups in the church, natives of Palestine and Hellenistic Jews of the Dispersion - which caused tensions over the distribution of food (see Acts 6).
At first, the church was seen as a sect within Judaism, The Way (9:2) or the sect of the Nazarenes (24:5). It was Stephen’s preaching that stirred up a violent reaction from the Jewish authorities and led to the church being scattered and the evangelisation of Samaria, Antioch and the Gentile world. The transition period (8:4-11:18) is not covered in detail, but it is clear that the gospel began to make inroads among the Gentiles. Here is the conversion of the Ethiopian and of Cornelius, both probably Gentile proselytes. We also have the positive Samaritan response to Philip’s preaching. These events mark a move away from the expectation of a Messianic Kingdom toward the establishment of the church as we know it.
The latter part, dealing with the mission to the Gentiles, begins with the establishment of a church in Antioch, where the break with Judaism seems to have first become evident. Believers were no longer seen as a sect within Judaism but were called Christians, a separate and distinct group with a different faith. It has been suggested that Acts was written with an apologetic intention. The relationship between the gospel, the Christian church it produced and the Roman government is traced from its origin to Paul’s Roman imprisonment.
The author was a close friend of Paul and may have intended to show that Paul’s gospel was no threat to the Empire. It was a spiritual not a political movement. One writer (J Ironside Still) advanced the theory that Acts was written to help Paul’s defence before Caesar. Perhaps Theophilus still had suspicions about the new movement, in view of the attitude of both Jews and Gentile, so Luke writes to give him certainty about what he had heard. Obviously that certainty was needed. Whatever is behind the book’s writing, Luke demonstrates that God’s supernatural revelation has come to all mankind, not just to the Jews.

This article originally appeared in Grace Magazine