Home » Acts of the Apostles » Acts: Introduction and Overview

Acts: Introduction and Overview

Author:

Luke is generally considered to be the author of the combined volumes of the Gospel of Luke and Acts.

Luke is mentioned briefly a few times in the Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11). He was a Gentile and a physician who lived in Antioch in Ancient Syria.  He is thought to have been a disciple of Paul, following him until the apostle was martyred, and according to tradition Luke died at the age of 84 years. (Wikipedia)

Scholars think that the composition of the writings, as well as the range of vocabulary used, confirm that the author was an educated man.

Luke is thought to have been an eyewitness to several of the incidents in Acts based on the pronoun changes from the first to the third person (the “we” passages) in Acts 16:10; 20:5; 21:1.

Audience:

Luke addresses both his gospel and the book of Acts to “most excellent Theophilus.” There are several theories about who this person, or persons, may be:

An Un-Identified Prominent Official or Person of High Standing in Rome

The phrase can be translated as “your excellency, Friend of God (or Loved of God)” and may refer to a prominent official in the government. In Acts, Luke uses the same title (“most excellent”) to refer to the Roman governors Felix and Festus (23:26; 24:3; 26:25).

Some think he was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public in Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity. Theophilus may have already learned something about the rise and progress of Christianity, and Luke’s aim was to put him in possession of more accurate information than he already had. (F.F. Bruce)

Other’s think that Theophilus may have been Paul’s lawyer during his trial period in Rome.

Theophilus ben Ananus

Some think that Luke was writing to Theophilus ben Ananus, High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem from 37-41. This Theophilus would have been a Sadducee and brother-in-law of Caiaphas, the High Priest who condemned Jesus. (Wikipedia)

Scholars point to internal evidence to support this claim:

  • Account of Zacharias – a priest who had a vision of an angel in the Temple
  • Mary’s purification (niddah – separation due to ritual impurity)
  • Jesus’ firstborn redemption rituals (pidyon haben)
  • Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Temple when he was twelve, implying his bar mitzvah
  • There’s no mention of Caiaphas’ role in Jesus’ crucifixion
  • An emphasizes Jesus’ literal resurrection, including an ascension into heaven as a realm of spiritual existence

Titus Flavius Sabinus II

Some think that Theophilus was the converted Roman official Titus Flavius Sabinus II, a former Prefect of Rome and older brother of future Roman Emperor Vespasian. His wife, Pomponia Graecina, is presumed to have converted to Christianity, and possibly used her son-in-law’s status as Lord Mayor of Rome to try to protect Paul while he was under house arrest during his first stay in Rome. (Wikipedia)

 A General Audience

Some think that Theophilus was not a person. The word in Greek means “Friend of God” and so Luke was writing to anyone who fits that description.

Date:

The book concludes during the second year of the residence of Paul at Rome (c. 62 AD), and makes not mention of any further dealings with Paul, or of any other event of history. Considering Luke’s apparent admiration for Paul, it would seem that the book was written around this time, with Paul still in prison, still alive. Thus, many conclude it was competed by 63 AD, and was most likely written in Rome. (Barnes)

Tradition holds that Paul was freed from Roman prison in the mid 60’s, only to be later re-imprisoned and ultimately martyred (c. 68 AD). Why Luke would’ve intentionally left out these significant events about someone he spent the entire second half of Acts focused on seems unusual, but still, many scholars believe that Luke-Acts was written much later (80-110 AD).

Purpose:

To Strengthen Theophilus’ Faith

Luke tells us himself that he personally researched and gathered material for his gospel and Acts – he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” so he could “write an orderly account” of what he knew about the Christian movement. Though Luke surely edited the material he had, and structured it to make sense to his reader, he states that he tried not to base it on his personal opinion. Luke wrote down the information “handed down” to him from “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” so that Theophilus would “know the certainty of the things [he had] been taught.” (GCI)

Note that Luke didn’t write his gospel or Acts to provide justification as to whether or not any of the events actually happened, but rather to encourage Theophilus’ faith–to explain what happened and what it all meant. (Wikipedia)

To Legitimize Christianity Politically

During the time in which Luke wrote, Christians were seen by the Roman government as subversives to the Imperial Cult, and to the Jews they were perverters of their religion. It is of little doubt that the majority of the first century public saw Christianity as a dangerous sect, an illegitimate religion, and definitely not the one true “Way.”

Luke seems to have a political objective, too — to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman government. Although riots sometimes broke out when the gospel was preached, Luke notes that the problems were caused by Jews or Gentiles, not the Christian preachers. Throughout Acts, Roman officials repeatedly find Paul innocent of wrong-doing, and they allow the gospel to continue to be preached. (GCI)

To Defend Paul

Luke frequently defends Paul against accusations that he was preaching against Judaism. Luke communicates to us that Paul did not teach Jews to abandon their traditions, nor did he abandon them himself–Paul participated in Jewish rituals both in Ephesus and in Jerusalem. According to Luke, Paul only preached to Gentiles when the Jews didn’t listen. Also, Luke reiterates three times that Jesus miraculously called Paul and commissioned him as an apostle.

To Show Jesus as Still Alive And Active

“Luke’s thesis is this: Jesus remains active, though the manner of his working has changed. Now, no longer in the flesh, he continues ‘to do and to teach’ through his ‘body’ the church….This is the story of Acts.”(David J. Williams)

To Explain The Cultural Shift in Christianity Towards Gentiles

During Luke’s lifetime, Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Luke faced the theological problem of explaining how the Messiah, promised to the Jews, came to have an overwhelmingly non-Jewish church. Luke seems to answer this by constantly reiterating how the message of Christ went to the Gentiles only after the Jews rejected it. (Wikipedia)

How to Read Acts:

History With a Purpose

Acts is a selective history. Luke does not attempt to chronicle all the actions and events of the early church. In fact, he focuses in on a narrow number of people and highlights only key events in their ministry. Of the twelve disciples, Luke spends the most time on Peter, and the majority of the second half of the book features Paul almost exclusively.  God was most likely doing a great number of other things through other believers at this time that did not fit the purposes of Luke’s narrative.

History, Not Law

Though it’s tempting to treat Acts as a template for how the church should work, Luke did not write his book to be a guide for how the church should operate, nor for how the church should conduct evangelistic endeavors. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive. (GCI)

Structure:

Geographic Spread of Christianity 

Some commentators have outlined the book geographically, using a formula Jesus gave his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). (GCI) Thus, Luke shows the migration of Christianity outwardly from Jerusalem in a similar pattern.

At the highest level, the book traces the geographic movement of Christianity from Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish nation, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world.

Ethnic Spread of Christianity

Luke also wants to explain how Christianity moved from its Jewish foundations to spread to the Gentile world. (GCI) He starts with the church as only having Jewish members, then shows how believers branch out to include Hellenistic Jews, Samaritans, and eventually Gentiles. Acts 15, the very middle of the book, highlights the pivot of the church towards a primarily Gentile population as Luke outlines the Council of Jerusalem’s decision to include Gentiles into Christianity without requiring them to follow traditional Jewish rites and practices.

Continuity of Christ’s Work Continuing Through Peter Then Paul

Luke draws several parallels between Jesus, Peter, Paul throughout Acts.

Jesus Peter Paul
Raises a young girl from the dead by saying, “Little girl, rise.” (Aramaic: talitha, kum) (Luke 8:40) Raises an old widow, named Tabitha, back from the dead (Aramaic: Tabitha, kum) (Acts 9:36) Brings a young man back from the dead. (Acts 20:9)
Determined to visit Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) – 7 mentions of his journey to Jerusalem Determined to visit Jerusalem (Acts 19:21) – 7 mentions of his journey to Jerusalem
Told Sanhedrin that he was the ‘cornerstone the builders rejected” (Luke 20:17)  Tells the Sanhedrin that Jesus was the “cornerstone the builders rejected” (Acts 4:11)
 Jesus is slapped by the priest’s assistants (Luke 22:63) Paul is slapped at the high priest’s command (Acts 23:2)
 Four trials in which Jesus is declared innocent three times (Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, Pilate) Four trials in which Paul is declared innocent three times (Sanhedrin, Lysias, Festus, Agrippa)
Inaugural sermon focused on the Davidic covenant (2:22) Inaugural sermon focused on the Davidic covenant (13:26)
Use of Psalm 16 to show that Jesus was to rise from the dead (Acts 2:27) Use of Psalm 16 to show that Jesus was to rise from the dead (Acts 13:35)
 Healing of other though indirect contact – Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:14) Healing of other though indirect contact – Paul’s garments (Acts 19:11)
Rebuked a Jewish magician – Simon (Acts 8:18) Rebuked a Jewish magician – Elymas (Acts 13:6)
Declined divine worship (Acts 10:25) Declined divine worship (Acts 14:11)
Miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:6) Miraculously released from prison (Acts 16:25)

 

Summary: Major Personalities, Regions and People

Personalities Regions People
Peter and John Jerusalem Jews
Greek-speaking Jews: Philip and Stephen Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea Jews, Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch
Paul and Peter Damascus, Judea, Antioch, Jerusalem and Asia Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans
Paul the missionary Europe and Asia Minor Gentiles and Jews
Paul the prisoner Jerusalem, Caesarea and Rome Gentile rulers, Gentiles and Jews

(GCI)

Main Themes

Universality of Salvation

the message of the universality of salvation is that salvation is not limited to a particular culture and is not to be earned by observing ethno-cultural religious rights and laws, even Jewish ones. Restrictions of place, ritual cleanness, race, and commandments such as circumcision are not required by God for salvation.Thus, the good news, the gospel, of salvation reaches the very capital of the human kingdoms of the then-known world. (Barnes)

Luke is reiterating that salvation wasn’t just for pious Jews, rather it was for the everyman (publican, tax collector), and even the Gentiles.

A general outline of the various sermons in Acts:

  • The age of fulfillment predicted in the Old Testament has dawned, the promises have been fulfilled, the Messiah has come.
  • This has taken place in Jesus of Nazareth.
  • He was descended from the seed of David and went about teaching, doing good, and executing mighty works by the power of God through which God indicated his approval of him
  • Jesus was crucified in accordance with the purpose of God and raised by the power of God
  • The church is witness to these things.
  • Jesus has been exalted into heaven at the right hand of God, where he reigns as the messianic head of the New Israel with the title “Lord.”
  • The Holy Spirit in the church is now the seal of Christ’s present power and glory.
  • Jesus will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things.
  • Therefore, all who hear should repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.

(Barnes)

Political Innocence of Christians

The bulk of the speeches and sermons in Acts are addressed to Jewish audiences, with the Romans featuring as external arbiters on disputes concerning Jewish customs and law. The Romans never move against Jesus or his followers unless provoked by the Jews, in the trial scenes the Christian missionaries are always cleared of charges of violating Roman laws. (Wikipedia)

The Kingdom of God 

A common Jewish view of history divided it into two “ages.” The first was a time of proclamation and preparation in which God often worked indirectly and figuratively. The second age was the “age of fulfillment, ” when God would work personally and directly to deal with human sin and resultant problems; at that time he would reestablish his sovereign control (the kingdom of God). This second period would last until the “world (or age) to come, ” the consummation of God’s work and of world history. The point of passage from the former to the latter age was expected to be marked by the direct intervention of God, either personally or through his agent (the Messiah). At that point the kingdom of God, the age of fulfillment, the messianic age, the age of salvation, would become a present reality. (Barnes)

Acts begins with Peter announcing the arrival of the age of fulfillment at Pentecost. Jesus is the turning point in time; he and his ministry are not the middle period, but the central, decisive moment, the “Day” in God’s saving history. The teachings of Jesus, the preaching and actions of the apostles, assume that what was future to Old Testament writers is now present. (Barnes)

God’s work had entered a new phase; things would never be the same again. Old patterns, law, practices, and the rest could and must be reevaluated.

General Observations:

  •  There are 18 speeches in Acts. (GCI)
  • Acts contains a nearly a quarter (23%) of the occurrences of the word “Spirit” in the New Testament. (GCI)
  • The title “Acts of the Apostles” was first used by Irenaeus in the late 2nd century (Wikipedia)
  • Luke-Acts together account for nearly a third (27.5%) of the New Testament.

Discussion:

  • Why do you think Luke narrowed his history to primarily focus on Peter and Paul’s efforts to build the kingdom? Who else would you have liked Luke to write about?
  • Whose acts does this book really record? What title would you have given it?
  • How can we read this to determine what should be normative for the church and what was unique for that place and time?

References:

 

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