Introduction to Acts

Course: New Testament Survey, Acts to Revelation

Lecture 1: Introduction to Acts

This is the 1st lecture in the online series of lectures on New Testament Survey by Dr Thomas Schreiner. Recommended Reading includes: Article on Divorce and Remarriage – Craig Blomberg, Trinity Journal, 1990; The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris; Are there Two Will in God by John Piper; Two views on Women in Ministry by James Beck and Craig Blomberg; Word Bible Commentary: Pastoral Epistles, Volume 46, by William D. Mounce and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood, by Wayne Gudem and John Piper (article by Vern Poythress entitled, ‘The Church as a Family’)

(Any slides, photos, notes or outlines that the lecturer refers to should be down loaded separately. If they are not available, you may be able to find something similar using the Google© search engine.)

Authorship, Structure and Purpose

Acts is a continuation of the gospel of Luke, which is a historical account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Acts begins with the 40 days that Jesus was on earth after his resurrection, and continues with his ascension and the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church.

In the notes, I pointed that Luke is the author of both books and I think it is the same author. Hopefully you have covered that in your Gospels class, so I don’t want to cover that again. You and structure the book by Peter and Paul, two of the major people of the Book. After Acts 15, Peter just drops out of the book altogether. We have no information about what happened with him. There are so many things that we would like to know, for example, what happened to Paul at the end of his trial. Was the book completed before the trial ended in Acts 28? It is hard to know and is Luke really interested in telling us what happened to Paul? It is hard to know whether he has a biographical interest or not. Another point would be geographical locations such as Jerusalem, Samaria and coastal Regions, Antioch and Anticoh Mission, Lands of Aegean and Jerusalem and Rome. I would prefer an outline of the summary statements from the verses 6:7; 9:31, 12:24, 16:4; 19:20; and 28:31. These are various points in the narrative that alert us to the structure of the book. Almost every one of these refers to the Word of God increasing and multiplying. In regards to purpose, I put Luke and Acts together as it was written by the same person to the same person Theophilus and they were meant to be read together. The purposes include things like expansive, theological, historical, evangelistic and political or apologetically in terms for Christianity. The Gospels relates to a different part of history than Acts so we can see why the books were arranged in the way it was. Acts included the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God, a very large theme in itself. This was a remarkable thing to the Jews in the early church as they were the chosen people and the way the gentiles ended up being a part of the people of God was surprising and astonishing to them.

Theology of Acts

Luke has a theological purpose to the salvation history and fulfillment of the Old Testament. He is interested in the fulfillment of prophecy and that comes out in the very first verse of Luke. He writes about the things that were fulfilled among us and that idea continued in the Book of Acts. Part of that theology includes seeing the power of the Holy Spirit in the church, along with Stephen’s speech, Pauls’ conversion and significance of Cornelius in Acts 10. There is the Apostolic Council and the basis of salvation for the Gentiles and of course salvation history in fulfillment of the Old Testament. We don’t have a detailed organization of the church in Luke and Acts as we are simply not told how churches should be ordered specifically. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from Acts regarding this. There is a historical interest in the book yet it is not comprehensive. We have some of the activities in the early church recorded for us. The Acts of the Apostles may not be the best title for the book because the only Apostles that do anything are Peter and Paul. John appears with Peter in the early chapters but he never says a word as Peter does all the talking. James appears in chapter 12 and we are told that his head was removed from his body and nothing else. We are told nothing of the other Apostles. We are not to interpret that the other Apostles were failures. We just don’t know. Some think it should be the Acts of the Holy Spirit but it isn’t and we now just accept it as the Acts of the Apostles.

When we say historical, it is hardly comprehensive, but it is evangelistic, proclaiming God’s Word to his readers. Some have wondered whether or not Theophilus is an unbeliever himself. It is impossible to know but anyone reading Luke-Acts together would learn about salvation. It is an apologetic stand for Christianity. In reading the two books, Luke emphasizes in case of Paul, Peter and Jesus, they were prosecuted by the authorities and yet they are innocent. There were no grounds for the political persecution. If you are in a country where Christianity is considered to be a subversive activity, well this becomes important. The grounds leveled against Christianity were not persuasive at that particular time; however, this may become more relevant for the future in our country. In regards to the theology of the book, Acts 1:8 with the mission and expansion of the church through the message of the Gospel is the theme. Luke also has a particular interest in the power of the Holy Spirit in both Luke and in Acts. The church progresses not because they were noble, great or spiritual but because of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is an interest for us because we are not great, noble, or strong in our selves but we have the same Spirit that was given to the church. The early apostles and leaders were not glorified? They are ordinary people that God used in remarkable ways.

We have the charismatic speeches in Acts proclaiming the Gospel as the Kerygma, the preached Word of the Gospel. In this, perhaps Luke summarizes these speeches into main points. We don’t know but perhaps Peter spoke for an hour; again, we don’t know. He probably spoke a long time. We are getting a short version of the Gospel that was proclaimed. Luke and Acts together represent twenty eight percent of the New Testament which is a lot of the New Testament. If you think about Stephen’s speech, why is it important in Acts? As you study the Books of the New Testament, you need to ask yourself questions that trouble you. About the things you wonder about will help in your learning. I have questions that remain unanswered but a good way to learn is to question these things and think through the idea of faith seeking and understanding. Some people feel hindered from asking any question at all; this is one reason they don’t learn as much. They somehow think it is not pious to ask.

We have the inclusion of the Samaritans in Acts 8, a very fascinating passage given the cultural division between Jews and Samaritans. We read in John’s Gospel in 116 BC one of the Maccabean rulers, John Kannon, burned down the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, hundred and fifty years before Jesus came on the scene. So obviously the Samaritans had ill will toward the Jews because they burnt their temple down. Another interesting point, Paul’s conversion is recounted three times. Apparently Luke saw that Paul’s conversion was very important. So important that he gives it to us from three different angles and emphasizes different things in each of the accounts. I don’t think they contradict but there are different details emphasized. There is also significance in the conversion of Cornelius. Again, that story is told twice. It seems that any story told twice, Luke wants us to see how important the account is.

The Apostolic Council in Acts 15 provides us with a question on what basis do the gentiles become part of the people of God. The Old Testament says that you must be circumcised to be part of the people of God. Genesis 17 says that if you are not circumcised you are cut off from the covenant and not part of the people of God. So the Judaizers said, ‘how can we ignore what the Old Testament clearly teaches.’ So this is a very important passage. The early church decided that circumcision was not required. This point is problematic for the rest of the book as well. We see Paul’s journeys in the book, ending up in Rome, the center of the Ancient World. I think it is symbolic that Luke ends the Book at Rome, the center of the Empire as the Gospel has gone to the ends of the earth. But of course, Luke knows it is not the ends of the earth. They know that there is work to be done, they know about India and early tradition says that Thomas even travelled to India but this isn’t in the Book of Acts. Another theme in the book is the progress of the persecution of Christians. The Lord used persecution to advance his church and of course in the 21st century, this is still happening today. We see what the Lord is doing in China with significant persecution yet the church is growing by leaps and bounds. Many times, the Lord has used persecution to purify and strengthen the church. Persecution shows how precious Christ is for those who are persecuted. People see that and they are attracted to people who believe in the midst of difficulties and struggles. We have to be balanced in that the church never prays for persecution. Sometimes, people stay and sometimes they run, even in the Book of Acts. Sometimes they run to the next city so I don’t think there are any simple answers. Sometimes people become very dogmatic about these things.

The Lord leads people in different ways where sometimes a person runs and then sometimes the same person stays. In Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are Roman citizens and they are flogged, but as Roman citizens they could have avoided that. Some argue that it happens so quickly that they didn’t have time to tell them, but I don’t believe that is the case here; it takes so little time to tell someone whether you are a citizen or not. It just didn’t happen that quickly. Byrne Rapsee argues that the reason Paul at that time didn’t say anything, they didn’t want to communicate at that time at Philippi to the new converts that they could get out of the persecution while the new converts couldn’t. They wanted to identify with the people and not use their privileges. Yet, later in to book when he was about to be fogged in Jerusalem, what does he say? How can you flog me, I am a Roman citizen. By the way, the Philippian account is very interesting because at the end of the chapter before they leave the prison, Paul demands a public apology from the political official before he leaves. Why? He does it for strategic reasons; he wants a public apology from the political official because he doesn’t want a precedence set; yes, it is okay to mistreat these Christians. The precedence says what they did was illegal so that he has freedom in the other cities to continue to preach the Gospel. Paul thought out what was happening; he didn’t want revenge or anything like that but thought about what was best for the Gospel. There are levels of persecution in this country but it is not intense. As our culture becomes increasingly secular, it may change its mind in its attitude toward Christians.

Final Points

Remember Acts is the second volume of Luke-Acts. It wasn’t meant to be studied alone. In Luke 11:4 we see that this is intended to be history. It is interesting that the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts touch on many of the same things. We see that Luke 24:36-53 is a transition between the two books, Luke and Acts. This is a bridge between the two books. If you read the end of Luke, it looks as if the ascension took place the first time Jesus appeared to them but we know from Acts that it was 40 days later. In Acts we are told a little more. Another point is to be careful of absolutizing the historical narrative of Acts. The description doesn’t equal prescription that is of the laying on of hands and communal living. On the other hand, be careful of denying theological character of Acts as well. Some have taken these points as almost law and gone off on a tangent with them. For example, the laying on hands; it is great to lay hands on people and pray for them but it is not dogma or a sacramental act as such. The passage on communal living; I think Luke is saying that our churches should be marked by generosity and care in regards to the material needs for others. I don’t think he is prescribing a certain social experiment that churches should follow.

Some consider Acts to be historical inaccuracy. I’m not going to spend much time on this except for few points. For example, people have trouble with some of the things that Paul does in Acts such as circumcising Timothy. Some scholars would say that Paul would never have done that because he refused to circumcise Titus. He pays for a sacrifice in Acts 21 and presumably offered a sacrifice himself. Some people say that this is impossible as he would have never done this. He was just too observant of the law to do this in the Book of Acts. They argue that this is an invention by Luke. He did this to show more unity in the church bringing them together in an early form of Catholic Christianity; where we have everything reconciled and the real Paul is muted and that sort of thing. My response to that, I think that there are indications in the Pauline letters that these things don’t contradict the real Paul. Paul in 1st Corinthians 9 when he is with the Jews, he behaves as a Jew and when he is with the Greeks, he behaves as a Greek. When he is with those who observe the law, he observes the law and when he is with those who don’t, he doesn’t. I think that accounts for the offering of sacrifices. After the temple was destroyed there were no more sacrifices offered, of course. There was a time of flexibility; Peter and John in Acts 3 were going up in the hour of the burnt offerings to presumably to be part of that. They just didn’t immediately withdraw from the Temple. Paul wasn’t against food laws but he didn’t see the need for gentiles to observe them.

But why would he circumcise Timothy but not Titus that really troubles some people. The possible answer is that Timothy was considered Jewish but not Titus. Timothy had a Jewish mother and so Paul did this obviously for cultural reasons so that he could bring Timothy into the Synagogue with him in order to evangelize. It wasn’t required for Timothy’s salvation as it was a cultural matter unlike those who said that Titus needed circumcised for the purpose of salvation. Paul disagreed with anyone who said that circumcision was required for salvation. I think that this is a mark of Paul’s breath of the Spirit! Sometimes, if you are in a great controversy where people are saying that everyone needs to be circumcised for salvation and you say no. Then you say, no matter what, I am against circumcision. But shows that he is not that way; he sees that there are circumstances by which things can be different. This is why Paul says that circumcision is nothing and un-circumcision is nothing. God doesn’t care about these things; what does matter is faith expressing itself through love or as he says in Galatians 6:15, what matters is the new creation or in 1st Corinthians 7:19 what matters is keeping the commandments of God.

Many people also argue that all the speeches come from Luke but not really from the Apostles. Luke actually invents the speeches and they are not really historical as such. Mark Nibellous argued this because in Acts 2 in Peter’s speech and in Acts 13, Paul speech, both are very similar. The argument that is made that Luke just made them up. It is true that they are really similar but yet there are some differences. One of the remarkable things about the speech in Acts 13 is that it mentions in verses 38 and 39 that you can’t be justified by observing the law but only by faith and you receive forgiveness of sins by believing. This is not in Peter’s speech not that Peter didn’t believe this. It is interesting that Paul’s teaching of justification is in this speech and not in Peter’s. I think that this is evidence that we are dealing with an authentic speech of Paul. But of course there is a lot of commonality as is in our culture today and in our community between how different people would preach the Gospel.

So I have hit some of the introductory features and that is what I will do with the outline summary. I will just touch on some things here. The outline is structured to fit with the summary statement I mentioned before. So if Act 1:8 is a main theme; the Gospel will be preached in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Gospel is first proclaimed in Jerusalem in Acts 1:1-6:7. Luke reminds us of some of the things seen at the end of the Book of Luke, particularly about the promise of the baptism of the Spirit of God that John proclaimed. Some say that the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is not the baptism of the Spirit because in chapter 2, there is no mention of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. But they are wrong because chapter 1:5 says, ’for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ But there is a wait, a distinctive period in salvation history; we don’t have to wait today. The Spirit has already been poured out because it says that the Spirit will not be poured out until Jesus has ascended and been glorified. That was the very next thing that happened, Jesus ascents into heaven, right before the eyes of the disciples. This is a very important event in the narrative because the apostles didn’t know as Jesus was appearing every few days during those forty days. During that time, he was at the beach, in the room and at different places. The ascension tells them that this appearing will no longer happen. The next time you see me will be at my second coming, when I come in the clouds of heaven. The Spirit will now come and he will give you power to bear witness to me. Meanwhile, what did the early Christian do; they prayed for the Spirit to come. We are to pray that the Spirit already within us will empower us. So this is a model for us, to pray for the empowerment of the Spirit on our lives.

The last thing they do before the Spirit came; they selected a 12th Apostle. And there is some controversy about this as some argues that they made a mistake and should have waited for Paul. They should have relied on the Holy Spirit instead of casting lots to choose Matthias. I don’t agreed with this view, I think that Luke is trying to teach us that what they did was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that they were doing God’s will. Luke tells us that they thought they were fulfilling Scripture and Luke doesn’t give any indication that he disagrees. Peter says what we are doing here is fulfilling the Scripture. Secondly and more important, I think it is theologically significant that the number 12 is fulfilled before the Spirit comes as the people of God is comprised of the twelve tribes of Israel and now we have twelve apostles signifying the new people of God. If you want to be part of true Israel, you have to belong to this group of twelve. So before the spirit comes the twelve are formed as whole and complete. We never hear of him again but that applies for lot of the other apostles. They cast lots in the Old Testament and they never did it again in the New Testament after this. There are some situations today where we are not sure and we mentally cast lots and choose to go a certain way. Should they have waited for Paul? Well, Barabbas was also called an apostle in Acts 14, so that makes 13 in any case, and then in Galatians 1 James, the brother of Jesus, was called an apostle where he clearly functions as an apostle in the Book of Acts. Wayne Grudel says that the Apostle circle expanded out to fifteen or sixteen. And the title twelve is used before the day of Pentecost as it became traditional. So everything is ready for the Spirit to come; everything is prepared. All these things that were written had to be in preparation of the coming of the Spirit. It all makes perfect sense.