The book of Acts forms a bridge that spans the gap between the four Gospels and the Epistles. The book’s purpose is to give an accurate account of the birth and growth of the Christian church.
Without the book of Acts many details of the life of the early church would be missing as would the background to most of Paul’s letters we read following the book of Acts. As a second volume to Luke’s Gospel, it joins what Jesus “began to do and teach” (1:1) as told in the Gospels, with what he continued to do through the apostles’ preaching and the establishment of the church. Geographically Acts’ story moves from Jerusalem, where the church began, to Rome, the political center of the empire.
Historically the Book of Acts chronicles the first 30 years of the church from the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Jerusalem c. AD 30-33 to the martyrdom of Paul in Rome in c. AD 64-67.
The main thing to remember is that Acts is volume two of Luke’s work. While each book does stand on its own, the stories of both are richer when viewed together. Luke is the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth, Acts is the story of Jesus’ ministry from heaven; Luke is concerned with the teachings of Jesus, Acts focuses on the teaching of the Apostles; Luke introduces the Gospel, Acts describes the progress of the Gospel; In Luke Jesus is revealed historically, in Acts we see Jesus revealed mystically; in Luke Jesus is for us, in Acts Jesus is in us. Luke begins with the events surrounding the coming of Christ to earth, Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Luke ends with the disciples in Jerusalem, Acts ends with the Apostle Paul in Rome. This chart is pretty helpful drawing those contrasts:
The Book of Acts does not specifically identify its author by name. From Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3, it is clear that the same author wrote both the third Gospel (Luke) and Acts. Tradition going back to the second century has held that Luke wrote both Luke and Acts. Luke was not one of the 12 disciples. He was a Greek and the only Gentile Christian writer of the New Testament. He was an educated man, and we learn in Colossians 4:14 that he was a physician and from the book of Acts that he worked and travelled with Paul. We base his companionship with Paul on the so-called “we verses” (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16). In these verses, the author used the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ or ‘he’, indicating that Luke was present and gave an eyewitness account of those times.
Two dates are proposed by scholars for the writing of this book: 1) it could have been written between AD 61-64. Arguments for this date include the way the book suddenly ends – including silence about the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome (he was likely beheaded there between 64 and 67 AD), and no reference to the Jewish Revolt of AD 66 nor to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. This, however is an argument from silence and is not determinative. Making mention of these events may not have furthered Luke’s purpose in the book so he could have chosen not to mention them. 2) A second proposed date for its composition is the mid-70’s to mid-80’s, about the same time as Luke’s Gospel. Some proponents of this date believe that Luke may have intended to write a third volume which was either never written, or was lost.
Determining the location where Luke wrote Acts is a more difficult task than determining when it was written. Some speculate the book was written in Antioch or Ephesus. Rome is probably a better guess though; if Luke was with Paul in Rome while Paul was under house arrest, Luke could have written it there and asked Paul to fill in the gaps in Paul’s missionary journeys for the times when Luke was not present (see Acts 28:16, Col 4:14, Philemon 1:24).
Acts, like the Gospel of Luke, is addressed to Theophilus, meaning "the one who loves God." Historians are not sure who this Theophilus (mentioned in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1) was, although most likely, he was a Roman of high standing who was a convert or who was otherwise interested in the newly forming Christian faith. Luke may also have been writing in general to all those who loved God.
The book of Acts gives the history of the early Christian church and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as the mounting opposition to it. Although many faithful servants were used to preach and teach the gospel, Saul, whose name was changed to Paul, was the most influential. Before he was converted, Paul took great pleasure in persecuting and killing Christians. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-31) is a highlight of the book of Acts. After his conversion he went to the opposite extreme of loving God and preaching His Word with power, fervency and the Spirit of the true and living God. The disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses in Jerusalem (chapters 1–8:3), Judea and Samaria (chapters 8:4–12:25), and to the ends of the earth (chapters 13:1–28). Included in the last section are Paul’s three missionary journeys (13:1–21:16), his trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea (21:17–26:32) and his final journey to Rome (27:1–28:31)
I found a great video on YouTube this week that gives a good overview of the book of Acts in only 3 minutes. If the video below does not play, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJIHgMR7LP0
Purpose of the Book
Three predominant motives are put forth as Luke’s purpose in writing this book.
The Historical Motive – This is the most obvious motive. Luke wanted to provide a detailed, orderly, eyewitness account of the birth and growth of the early church and the spread of the gospel immediately after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His intent was to build a bridge connecting the life and ministry of Jesus to the life of the church and the witness of the earliest believers.
The Theological Motive – Luke may have wanted to clarify and establish the doctrines and beliefs of the fledgling church in the face of competing stories. His chief doctrinal emphasis seems to focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit’s coming, widely differing groups such as Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles were mobilized and united into one great force – the Church – which took the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the alleyways of Jerusalem all the way to the household of Caesar in Rome.
The Apologetic Motive – In still another sense, Acts forms an early defense, or apologetic in defense of Christianity. Acts contains a defense to both Jews (4:8-12) and Gentiles (25:8-11). This defense functioned both as a clarifier and as a tool of conversion, especially the sermons and speeches of Peter and Paul. Many of those who favor the early date of composition for Acts believe that Luke wrote this as Paul awaited trial in Rome so it could be used in Paul’s defense when his case was heard.
The emphasis of the book is the importance of the day of Pentecost and being empowered to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ. Acts records the apostles being Christ's witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the rest of the surrounding world. The book sheds light on the gift of the Holy Spirit, who empowers, guides, teaches, and serves as our Counselor. Reading the book of Acts, we are amazed at the Spirit’s power by witnessing miracles that were being performed during this time by the disciples. We discover what true Christian fellowship looks like (2:44; 4:32), we witness the early church’s triumphs and its tragedies. The church gets its first officers – the “seven” (6:3) and its first martyr, Stephen (7:60) The church receives its most notable convert, Saul of Tarsus (9:1-19). The church proves the power of prayer (12:5) and it holds its first conference where Gentile liberty is safeguarded (12:5). The book of Acts emphasizes the importance of obedience to God’s Word and the transformation that occurs as a result of knowing Christ. There are also many references to those that rejected the truth that the disciples preached about the Lord Jesus Christ. The results of the lust for power, greed, and many other vices are graphically demonstrated in the book (e.g. Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead 5:1-10, and the death of Herod by worms eating him up 12:20-23).
Key Words / Themes
Holy Spirit – The church did not start or grow by its own power or enthusiasm. The disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit, a name found some 45 times in the book of Acts. The word for power, dunamis, appears 11 times in Acts. It’s where we get the English word for dynamite. Acts teaches that the power we need to do God’s will comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. The first followers of Jesus are pictured as cowering in an upper room before the coming of the Spirit and then going out boldly to proclaim the name of Jesus regardless of the consequences. Acts is also where the church goes from casting lots (1:26) to listening to the Holy Spirit in making their decisions.
Witness – Not to harp on “the Greek” but the word for witness is martus, which is where the English word martyr comes from. Acts is all about witnessing to the world and sharing the Good News of Jesus. Take a look sometimes at how much of the book of Acts takes place in a courtroom setting. The book is a presentation of legal witnesses in a courtroom drama who bear testimony of the resurrection of Jesus.
Opposition – Through imprisonment, beatings, plots and riots, Christians were persecuted by both Jews and Gentiles. But as our video showed us, the opposition the early believers faced became a catalyst for the spread of Christianity. This demonstrated again that Christianity was not the work of man, but of God.
Structure and Content
There are two fairly prominent ways to think about the structure of the book of Acts. The first involves personalities and involves two movements:
- Peter’s Ministry (Chapters 1-12) – Which details the establishment of the church. After the resurrection of Jesus, Peter preached boldly gathering thousands of converts and he performed many miracles. These serve to validate the message and show the Holy Spirit’s power.
- Paul’s Ministry (Chapters 13-28) – Which details the expansion of the church through Paul’s missionary journeys narrate the progress of Christianity and that the Gospel of Christ could not be confined to one little corner of the world.
The second way to think about the structure of the book of Acts involves geographical divisions and comes from one of the most powerful verses in the book, 1:8 which says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This involves three movements:
- The Mission in Jerusalem (2:14-8:3)
- The Mission in Judea and Samaria (8:4-9:43
- The Mission to the Ends of the Earth (15:36-28:31)
God can do amazing things through ordinary people when He empowers them through His Spirit. God essentially took a group of fisherman and used them to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). God took a Christian-hating murderer and changed him into the greatest Christian evangelist and the author of almost half the books of the New Testament. God used persecution to cause the quickest expansion of a "new faith" in the history of the world. God can and does do the same through us—changing our hearts, empowering us by the Holy Spirit, and giving us a passion to spread the good news of salvation through Christ. If we try to accomplish these things in our own power, we will fail – believe me, I have tried and it doesn’t work. Like the disciples in Acts 1:8, we are to wait for the empowering of the Spirit, then go in His power to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
Acts 1:8: "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."
Acts 2:4: "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them."
Acts 4:12: "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 4:19-20: “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.’"
Acts 9:3-6: "As he [Saul] 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.’"
Acts 16:31: "So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.’"
Compact Survey of the Bible John Balchin General Editor 1985 Bethany House Publishers
The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Press
The Life Application Bible, Tyndale House Publishers
The ESV Study Bible, Crossway Bibles
Introducing the New Testament, Mark Allan Powell, Baker Academic
Exploring the New Testament Walter M. Dunnett, Crossway Books