Introduction

Have you ever asked yourself why the Acts of the Apostles was written? Nestled between the four gospels and the epistles is the last historical record of the Bible; the last deliberate account of things that happened, as they happened, to the fledgling first century ecclesia. Seen alongside records like Exodus and the books of Kings, we could make the mistake of seeing Acts as a mere log book. But as we’ll see, Acts offers more than history and deserves more analysis than a set of maps and a chart or picture book.

The author

Since Acts continues in the same writing style as the Gospel of Luke, is addressed to the same Theophilus and we know from Colossians 4:14 that Luke and Paul were travelling together, we are left in little doubt that Luke wrote the record. A doctor and skilled historian, the detail Luke captures from the day adds immense reading value and research interest for history buffs and, as a side benefit, lends the record historicity (that is, verifiable confirmation that it was written at the time, using correct terminology and titles for people, places and practices of the day).

Time of writing

As the timeline shows (roughly, because I wasn’t there) the Acts covers a range of about 32 years, notable for its parallel to our Lord’s lifetime before his ascension. With around 33 ecclesias established in this time period, it is clear the apostles had been working busily. However, as the timeline also shows, there are numerous gaps in the eventful record, doubtless for stabilisation and edification: these apostles were human after all. The end of Acts is perhaps more remarkable than its beginning; because of its abruptness, we’re left wondering what happened and so ask the question, why stop there? I believe that the answer comes down to the purpose of Acts.

The purpose

Luke begins his gospel by noting that, while others have written accounts, his will be definitive in order that Theophilus, the lover of God, will have certainty in what he has been taught. Acts takes up where Luke left off, with a prologue stating that our Lord Jesus Christ showed himself resurrected with infallible proofs to tie the two together. Thus it is in Acts 1:7–8 that Luke commences the story of the spread of the Gospel, which concludes with Paul’s preaching and imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30–31). Acts 1: 7–8 records our Lord’s last words before his ascension: a commission to his disciples that, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they should be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. This gives a three part view of Acts:

  1. Their witness in Jerusalem (Acts 1:1–6:7)
  2. Their witness in Judea and Samaria (Acts 6:8–12:24)
  3. Their witness to the ends of the earth (Acts 12:25–28:31)

When the Apostle Paul Finally reaches Rome at the end of his journey to appeal to Caesar, Luke signs off the book with a worthy conclusion: Paul dwelt at Rome two years and received all who came to him, preaching to them about the Kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence. If you consider Rome as the ‘ends of the earth’ for an Israelite, the commission was fulfilled and the narrative stops.

A set of lenses

If we are Theophilus, armed with a timeframe and a purpose, what then do we look for as we read the Acts of the Apostles? Perhaps the title is misleading as it continually tells us to look for works, when we should be looking for faith. By throwing a few alternate names into the ring we gain a few more lenses to see the events through. Try some of these:

The Story of the Apostles Preaching the Gospel – act it out with your children!

The Acts of God in Believers’ Lives – look for providence and inspiration.

The Miracles of the Apostles – marvel at things we will never see until our Lord returns.

The Preaching of the Apostles – what lessons did they give their audience?

The Ecclesias of the First Century – see the ecclesias created, growing and meeting the challenges of difiering backgrounds and ideas.

A Story of our Brothers and Sisters – working to be Christ’s witnesses and spread the Gospel despite fearsome obstacles.

At least one of those lenses helps us to see something in Acts we don’t normally look for, which is doctrine. Doctrine should not be a dry theory of words with dictionary meanings but a driver of action. In each chapter of the Acts we see the apostles and believers acting by unwritten rules that apply to us today, if we are conscious of them.

In few other books is the presence of God in believers’ lives seen so vividly. Consider how often the Holy Spirit guides directly or how many circumstances ‘just happen’ that lead to amazing demonstrations of God’s power and a powerful response from believers. Keep a count of the number of references to the Holy Spirit and be awed at the reality of God in their lives; then see the Spirit moving like the wind in your own.

The Acts of the Apostles

Acts begins with the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and, arguably, one of the most important prophecies in the Bible: that he is coming back, bodily (1: 11). Immediately after, the Apostles followed the commission given and replaced Judas. They were rewarded with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all present. Straightaway, we see the Apostle Peter taking the lead until around Acts 12. His speech in Acts 2 gives us a key insight into what the apostles might have continued to say as they travelled the world, witnessing to Christ. His message to repent and be baptised is something we still take to heart today in informed confession and adult baptism. His simple message to an audience familiar with Jewish teaching was that the prophesied Messiah had come. The multi-lingual gift of the Holy Spirit at Peter’s speech was the first unmistakeable sign that the gift of Christ must extend beyond the Jews; God is calling out of all races a people for His name. Acts 3 continued the miraculous events, where even a lame beggar learned that money was not his chief need: salvation from sin is the greatest goal.

Opposition encountered

It wasn’t long before resistance came, and Acts 4 records the arrest of Peter and John. The Sanhedrin did their best to shut down the representatives of Christ but the apostles deferred to the authority of God: they could not stop speaking about the things they had seen and heard. The end of Acts 4 tells us of the love and charity of the Ecclesia in sharing all things. Such a spirit is a lofty ideal to attain to today. Acts 5 gives us a taste of the judgment seat in the sorry tale of Ananias and Sapphira: God cannot be deceived and our actions are judged by their motives, not their appearances. Also in this chapter, the High Priest and Sadducees showed their truly callous hearts when they arrested Peter, a man whose shadow caused miracles, and cast him in prison. An angel of the Lord was sent to free them and bid them continue their work. Acts 6 gives us the beautiful example of Stephen, a powerhouse brother who could not be constrained and whose speech teaches us much about faith instead of the works, rituals and history that the religious leaders of today still cling to.

Saul and then Paul

An introduction to Saul, the Pharisee, brings a new ‘villain’ to the book of Acts and a level of persecution we will surely never experience today (7:58; 8:1–4). In Acts 8 we also learn from Simon the Sorcerer that we cannot earn or buy the grace of God, and from the Ethiopian Eunuch that, no matter who we are or what our limitations, God will call whoever He wills and ensure they have opportunity to find Him. Acts 9 shows us the conversion of Saul, an event he retells a number of times: surely an example to us that our own conversion is a powerful witness to God’s power to change lives. The brethren and sisters’ acceptance of Saul, despite his history, is a sober lesson for all of us who have at one time or another judged without being able to see the heart. The miracle of Dorcas/Tabitha lends substance to the apostles’ promise that one rose from the dead and that our hope is the same.

Acts 10 gives us the story of Cornelius and the unclean animals: it is God who cleanses the heart with His Word. We should not withhold it from any person with a mind to learn. Acts 11 shows us an intraecclesial dispute handled with care and order: lessons abound about how we ought to behave towards each other. Further miracles are shown in Peter’s release from prison and Herod’s violent death after daring to oppress God’s family. Without fail, the gospel of Christ continued to spread; his commission would be fulfilled. Despite any idolatry or opposition, the apostles gave their message and here and there some turned to Christ. Little stories of love and the conversion of one or a household fill us with hope that God has His eye on all who turn to Him; none goes unnoticed.

Paul’s mission

Like the life of Christ, we see Paul’s mission coming to an explosive head. When Paul’s journey to Rome begins, we see the Lord’s commissioned result draw closer with each miraculous and providential event. Paul speaks before governors and kings but his message rarely wavers from the simple truth of his life, his conversion, the certainty of Jesus Christ as Messiah and the hope of the world. Despite countless near-death events, our Father shows that His purpose will not be frustrated and so Paul arrives in Rome and there the narrative stops, mission complete.

Status updates from Luke

Luke gives us a number of progress reports on the commission of the Acts to witness and to spread the gospel. Visualise these updates on a map and imagine the encouragement each would have given the reader at the time: the good news was going out to the entire world!

6:7 – Jerusalem

9:31 – Judea and Samaria

12:24 – Syria

16:5 – Asia Minor

19:20 – Europe

28:31 – Rome

To the Gentiles

It is in Acts 13:46 that we, as Gentiles, get our true invitation to partake in the Hope of Israel. Those of us with not a skerrick of Jewish heritage can be grateful beyond words that our Lord gave the Apostle Paul as a light to the Gentiles, for salvation unto the ends of the earth: surely a reference that includes Australia. Perhaps we can imagine what a dificult time it must have been for the Gentile converts before the Acts: proselytes had a dificult path to follow and rarely rose above second-rate citizen status in the synagogues. To now be considered equals in the faith, grafted into the stock of Israel, is a beautiful thing to see growing: that’s the green gardening lens to view the Acts through.

Conclusion

Often we remark that we live in a difficult age and that never before has the world tried to exert its influence so intimately in our homes and psyches. While certainly there is truth in that, personally I believe in the words in 1 Corinthians 10:13. The Apostle Paul teaches us that none of us are tested beyond what we can bear and we all suffer in common from corruptible bodies. We should not reflect on Acts as a book of its time but as a book of today, which we can rely on for encouragement in times of testing. The superstition and idolatry in the time of the apostles has never since been more celebrated and widespread than it is today. All around us are people who have itching ears to hear easy words that bear no responsibility. The Judaisers, who so violently opposed Paul’s teaching, are best paralleled in Atheists today, who have moved beyond declaring us wrong and now throw words like sticks and stones, accusing us of ignorance and lies. Never before have we had such cause to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to find how to respond, how to teach and how to take encouragement from their success as witnesses to Christ. How will we Act?