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INTRODUCTION TO ACTS

Acts 1:1-28:31
Key Verse: 1:8

Thank God for granting us to study the book of Acts. In this introduction we can think about the author Luke and what kind of book Acts is and the purpose of our study.

First, the author Luke. Who was Luke? He was not a Jew, but a Gentile (Col 4:11,14), and a doctor. Even in those far-off days doctors underwent quite a rigorous training. With his stylish Greek he wrote Luke and Acts. A doctor’s words came most naturally to his pen. The most interesting example is in Jesus’ parable about the camel and the eye of a needle. All three synoptic writers tell us the story (Mt 19:24; Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). For “needle” both Mark and Matthew use the Greek raphis, the ordinary word for a tailor’s or a household needle. Luke alone uses belone, the technical word for a surgeon’s needle. He is the only Gentile gospel writer, and the only Gentile author in the New Testament.

How could he write two volumes of his book, Luke and Acts, as a Gentile? The two form an obvious pair. Both are dedicated to Theophilus and both are written in the same literary Greek style. So it can be understandable when we can call the two volumes “Luke-Acts.” Thus, the introduction of the former book, Luke 1:1-4 is really a preface to Acts as well as to the Gospel. (It was the custom in antiquity to prefix to the first a preface for the whole.) Luke wrote in 1:1-4, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke was not an eyewitness from the beginning, although he was an eyewitness of the later part of the events in Acts. But he carefully investigated everything from the beginning. Here Luke presented himself as historian.

It is interesting to try to find out how he could do so. He was a traveling companion of Paul. When we read the Acts narrative, several times Luke changes from third person plural (‘they’) to first person plural (‘we’), meaning he himself was present in each case in the company of Paul. The first took them from Troas to Philippi, where the gospel was planted in European soil (16:10-17); the second from Philippi to Jerusalem after the conclusion of the last missionary journey (20:5-15 and 21:1-18); and the third from Jerusalem to Rome by sea (27:1-28:16). During these periods Luke must have had ample opportunity to hear and absorb Paul’s teaching, and to write a personal travelogue of his experience from which he could later draw. Luke arrived in Jerusalem with Paul (21:17) and left with him on their voyage to Rome (27:1). In between was a period of more than two years, during which Paul was held a prisoner in Caesarea (24:27), while Luke was a free man. How did he use those two years residing in Palestine? It would be reasonable to guess that he travelled the length and breadth of Palestine, gathering material for his Gospel and for the early Jerusalem-based chapters of the Acts. That’s why we see that in his book he was familiar with Jewish customs and geographical settings, such as Nazareth built on a hill, Capernaum, where a centurion built a Jewish synagogue and Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea.

He also surely had interviewed many eyewitnesses, including perhaps the now elderly Virgin Mary herself, John Mark and his mother, Philip, the apostles Peter and John, and James the Lord’s brother. We can imagine that they were able to give Luke firsthand information about the Annunciation and the birth and infancy of Jesus, the Ascension, the Day of Pentecost, the early preaching of the gospel, the opposition of the Sanhedrin, the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of Cornelius, the execution of the apostle James and the imprisonment and release of Peter.

In this way Luke wrote the certainty of the things that had happened in his time. He was a reliable and hardworking historian, who had carefully investigated everything from the beginning and wrote the two volumes of his book. Historians recognize the reliability of Luke and put him among the historians of the first rank. A historian, A. N. Sherwin-White (1911-1993) concluded in his writing about Acts, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”

Second, the book Acts. Look at verses 1,2. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” We can say that Luke’s gospel is the story of Jesus and Acts, the story of the church of Jesus by the acts of the apostles through the Holy Spirit. However, according to verse 1, the gospel story is just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and Acts is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus. The contrasting parallel he draws between his two volumes was not between Christ and his church, but between two stages of the ministry of the same Christ. Jesus’ ministry on earth, exercised personally and publicly, was followed by his ministry from heaven, exercised through his Holy Spirit by his apostles. We can say that the gospel is Jesus’ earthly ministry and Acts is Jesus’ heavenly ministry, and the heavenly ministry of Jesus goes on and on until he comes again. The book of Acts is “the Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles.” This, then, is the kind of Jesus Christ we believe in: he is both the historical Jesus who lived and the contemporary Jesus who lives. The Jesus of history began his ministry on earth; the Christ of glory has been active through his Spirit ever since, according to his promise to be with his people ‘always, to the very end of the age.’”

Luke was not interested in just writing historical events concerning Jesus. He was not only a historian but also a theologian and evangelist. He had a clear theme in his writing. Salvation (in Greek soterion) is the central motif in Lucan theology. Luke 2:30-31 says, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.” Luke 2:11 says, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 3:6 says, “All all mankind will see God’s salvation.” And Luke 19:9,10 says, “…salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 13:26 says, “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.” Acts 13:47, “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Acts 28:28 says, “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

Acts shows how the message of salvation or the gospel (good news) was brought from Jerusalem to the Gentile world up to Rome. We can divide Acts in several ways. Most simply according to Luke’s interest, chapters 1-12 is the gospel work by Peter, and chapters 13-28, by Paul. Among many apostles Luke focuses on these two apostles, two pillars of the early Christian church. They are quite different in human characters. It can be said that Peter was people-loving and Paul, goal oriented. However, their similarities between the two depicted in Acts are remarkable. Both Peter and Paul were filled with the Holy Spirit (4:8 and 9:17; 13:9); both preached the word of God with boldness (4:13, 31 and 9:27, 29); both bore witness before Jewish audience to Jesus crucified, risen and reigning, in fulfillment of Scripture, as the way of salvation (e.g. 2:22 and 13:16); both preached to Gentiles as well as Jews (10:34 and 13:46); both received visions which gave vital direction to the church’s developing mission (10:9; 16:9); both were imprisoned for their testimony to Jesus and then miraculously set free (12:7 and 16:25); both healed a congenital cripple, Peter in Jerusalem and Paul in Lystra (3:2 and 14:8); both exorcised evil spirits (5:16 and 16:18); both possessed extraordinary powers that people were healed by Peter’s shadow and by Paul’s hankerchiefs and aprons (5:15 and 19:12); both raised the dead, Tabitha in Joppa by Peter and Eutychus in Troas by Paul (9:36 and 20:17); both called down God’s judgment on a sorcerer/false teachers, Peter on Simon Magus in Samaria and Paul on Elymas in Paphos (8:20 and 13:6); and both refused the worship of their fellow human beings, Peter that of Cornelius and Paul that of Lystrans (10:25-26 and 14:11). According to Acts the two great men were not in conflict and in harmony for the work of God and God used each of them in a certain stage.

We can also divide Acts according to the geographical expansion based on 1:8, chapter 1-7 is the work done in Jerusalem, 8-10, Samaria and Judea, and 11-28, to the ends of the earth.

Although both of these divisions are recognizable in terms of actual content, there is another clue, given by Luke himself, that seems to tie everything together much better. As you read, notice the brief summary statements in 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:4; and 19:20. In each case the narrative seems to pause for a moment before it takes off in a new direction of some kind. On the basis of this clue, Acts can be seen to be composed of six sections or panels that give the narrative a continual forward movement from its Jewish setting based in Jerusalem, with Peter as its leading figure, toward a predominantly Gentile church, with Paul as the leading figure, and with Rome, the capital of the Gentile world, as the goal: 1:1-6:7 is a description of the primitive church in Jerusalem; 6:8-9:31, a description of the first geographical expansion, carried by the “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Jewish Christians), to Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora or “nearly Jews” (Samaritans and a proselyte); 9:32-12:24, a description of the first expansion to the Gentiles; 12:25-16:5, a description of the first geographical expansion into the Gentile world, with Paul in the leadership; 16:6-19:20, a description of the further, ever westward, expansion into the Gentile world, now into Europe.; 19:21-28:30, a description of the events that move Paul and the gospel on to Rome.

Amazingly this gospel expansion from Jerusalem to Rome was done in about 30 years (A.D. 30 – the ascension of Jesus and A.D. 60-62 – Paul’s imprisonment in Rome). In this expansion of the gospel, two things are significant. All of this forward movement did not happen by human design; it happened because God willed it. And the Holy Spirit is the invisible main agent. In Acts “the Holy Spirit” is mentioned 40 times, “the Spirit”, 10 times, “my Spirit”, 2 times (2:17, 2:18), “the Spirit of the Lord”, 2 times (5:9, 8:39), “the Spirit of Jesus”, 1 time, so all together 55 times. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father and the Spirit of Jesus. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak the word of God boldly. For examples, 4:31 says, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” 28:30, 31 says, “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.”

We are doing the work of God in this generation. First of all, we should know our church is a part of the ministry of Jesus from heaven. We believe that God’s plan and purpose for this generation and for us. Doing the gospel work requires much more than human power. Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit is with us. As we study Acts, in the acknowledgement of the continuous ministry of Jesus and God’s plan for us we may be filled with the Holy Spirit and become powerful witnesses of Jesus who can proclaim the word of God boldly without hindrance, especially to young people in our campuses so that we can contribute to the expansion of God’s kingdom in this generation.

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