Acts is often called The Acts of the Apostles. It records the Apostles’ work in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and establishing churches throughout the world. It begins with Christ’s ascension and goes on to show the disciples fulfilling the Great Commission in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
To call it The Acts of the Apostles, however, is to limit the book’s scope. It actually records the actions of more than just the twelve men Jesus commissioned to spread His good news. Acts is really a record of the second part of Jesus’ ministry – what He did in the first years after His ascension working through His followers by the power of His Spirit. The book starts with Jesus instructing His apostles to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit who will enable them to fulfill the mission He gives them. The remaining chapters document the results of that gift as the Spirit works through the apostles to change the world.
That means the ascension does not end Jesus’ ministry on earth; it merely ends His physical presence here. The ascension marks the continuation of Jesus’ ministry in a different form – working through His followers spiritually rather than leading them physically. The book of Acts – like every other book in the Bible – is meant to lead us to Christ, and it does so by showing His work in spreading the gospel and starting churches throughout the world.
Thus a better title for Acts could be The Acts of Jesus by His Spirit through His Apostles (John Stott uses the title “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by His Spirit through His Apostles” (The Message of Acts, pg. 34) – our title looks much less cumbersome by comparison). This better captures the essence of the book. Acts is not an account of the apostles alone, nor is it simply an account of the Holy Spirit’s actions. It is an account of Jesus’ ministry continuing by the Holy Spirit through His apostles.
From that standpoint it’s not a stretch to say that a key verse of Acts is really Matt 28:20b – “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That’s really the promise we see lived out in the book. Christ goes with and works through His apostles to spread the good news and make disciples throughout the world.
The author of Acts is Luke – a gentile (Col 4:10-14 – the only known gentile author in the New Testament). He writes Acts as the second half of his earlier book – the gospel of Luke – and makes it clear in the first verses of Acts that he intends it as a continuation of the earlier account. It roughly begins where the gospel ends – with the ascension. It is the ascension that divides the two types of Jesus’ ministry – physical and spiritual. Jesus ascends to the Father and is replaced by the Holy Spirit, and it is this transfer that marks the dividing line between Luke and Acts.
Acts begins with the ascension, moves to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, then follows the ministries of Peter and John, then Peter alone (culminating with his being the first to preach the gospel to the gentiles), and finally to Paul. Over half of the book – the final 16 chapters – is devoted to Paul’s ministry to the gentiles. Unlike his gospel, Luke writes as an eyewitness to much of what he describes – especially the missionary journeys of Paul. That he writes as a gentile about the gospel going to the gentiles adds weight and perspective to his account.
Some of the well-known stories Acts covers are Pentecost, two different angelic jail-breaks by Peter, the deceit and deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the trial and stoning of Stephen, Peter taking the gospel to Cornelius, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul’s three missionary journeys with their preaching and miraculous works, the separate trials of Paul before several Roman authorities, and his voyage to and imprisonment in Rome where the book ends.
The book covers roughly 30-35 years – from the ascension 40 days after the resurrection to Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around 62 AD. Interestingly, it really does not have an ending. The last verses of Chapter 28 tell of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and that he continues preaching the gospel to friends and guards alike. But there is no final event or final statement summarizing the story. Luke seems to purposefully end with the thought that Christ’s ministry continues. Paul and all Christians after him will continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and establish disciples in all the world – to the remotest parts of the earth.
Acts is similar to the gospels in that it contains both narrative and doctrine. It tells many stories about several characters, but it also has numerous speeches that declare the doctrine of Christ and His gospel. It is meant to document the history of the early church as well as instruct the reader about the message Christ charged His followers to teach.
Its doctrine is really summarized in both the first and last chapters. While Luke does not seem to care about having a set ending or summation, he does take pains to make sure the reader understands the mission does not change from beginning to end. In the third verse of the first chapter He records that Jesus spends His last 40 days on earth appearing to His followers and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. In the last two verses of the book he says that Paul stayed two full years in his own rented quarters, and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered (28:30-31). Jesus begins the book by preaching the kingdom of God and Paul ends it preaching the same message. Acts is all about Christ and His gospel and taking that gospel to all people everywhere.
In its narrative of the early church movement Acts presents numerous controversial issues for the reader to grapple with. Was speaking in tongues something only for the apostles and early converts or does it continue throughout the church age? Was speaking in tongues merely a way to communicate in different languages or was it also a worship experience? Are we to follow the early church example of sharing all things in common and does Acts teach against private ownership of property? Was apostleship limited to the 12 men Jesus commissioned or are there apostles with us today? What does it mean that people believed the gospel but did not receive the Holy Spirit until someone bestowed it on them? By rejecting the gospel, did Israel reject its place as God’s chosen nation? Did the apostles teach that baptism was a requirement for salvation? All of these questions and more will require thought and debate as we make our way through the book.
Luke states the purpose for his writing at the beginning of his gospel – Luke 1:1-4 (the fact that he does not bother to state a purpose at the beginning of Acts is one of the proofs that he means it as a continuation of the gospel story – not a new book). He tells Theophilus – the man both books are written to – that he writes so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. No one really knows who Theophilus is – but the stated purpose applies perfectly to the 21st century believer. This is why Acts exists and why we study it – so that we may know the exact truth about what we have been taught. Luke and Acts show us the foundations of our belief – the reason behind why we must base our lives on the gospel. Without the accounts Luke writes we would not understand the basis behind the rest of the New Testament. Jesus really lived, He really died and rose again, and He continues to minister through His followers by the Holy Spirit. And because these things are true we can believe what we have been taught and make it our life.
WE are Theophilus (not most excellent Theophilus – just low-key, ordinary Theophilus). And we should thank God that He inspired Luke to write his two books to us so that we may know the exact truth about the things we have been taught.
Live in that book, I exhort you: it is a tonic, the greatest tonic I know of in the realm of the Spirit. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones [speaking of Acts], The Christian Warfare, p. 274.)