The book of Acts is in the style of the gospels, a book that primarily narrates events, although teaching is recorded in it as well. On the other hand, the subject is the life and growth of the earliest church, which links it more closely with the letters rather than the gospels. Its location in modern bibles between the gospels and letters is therefore appropriate.
Acts is the next installment
The first few verses of the book of Acts make reference to the author’s ‘former book’, which is the gospel of Luke. Ancient works were divided into ‘books’ as well as into ‘chapters’, and in all likelihood, the two parts were meant to comprise a single work in two parts. We cannot look at general questions about the book of Acts without also considering the gospel of Luke and especially the first four verses of that book, which are probably meant as a ‘Preface’ for the whole two-volume work.
Concerning the authorship of the work, see the Introduction to Luke’s gospel. As indicated there, Paul’s travelling companion, Luke (Col. 4:14), seems to the author. In the later chapters of Acts, the story is occasionally related in the first person plural: ‘Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days’ (21:4; see 16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16). The most natural explanation of this is that the book was written by someone who took part in some of the events himself. Objections have been raised to this theory, but they primarily concern questions about the author’s historical accuracy. If the author can be shown to present a false picture of Paul, for instance, it may be judged less likely that he actually was a travelling companion of that apostle. In fact, these objections will not stand up to scrutiny.
The date of writing is more difficult to place. Again, as indicated in the Introduction to Luke, there are two major theories: that it was written in the 60s, while Paul was in prison in Rome, or in the 80s, after Paul’s death. Several features in the final chapters of Acts suggest the earlier date. For one thing, the book ends with Paul (and the readers) left waiting for the result of the trial in Rome. After the lengthy description of the appeal to Caesar and the journey to that trial, it seems odd that the writer should leave off there, unless he was in fact bringing the reader ‘up to date’. There is also a ‘vividness’ or ‘immediacy’ in the final chapters of the book which suggests that the author was relying on fresh memories. While these details suggest the earlier date, they can easily be explained in other ways as well, and we are forced to conclude that either date is possible.
The description of the book as ‘history’, and the author therefore as an ‘historian’, seemed self-evident for centuries until modern students of the Bible recognized that in many senses Acts and all four gospels can just as correctly be classified as ‘theology’. Rather than being primarily concerned with an unbiased and simple statement of the facts and events, the authors clearly had a purpose that involved sharing the good news and convincing or teaching their readers. Recently, increased attention has been paid to the skill these authors display in the way that they ‘tell the story’, and students of the NT have been trying to focus on Acts as a well crafted piece of literature rather than as ‘objective and dry history’ on the one hand or ‘theology’ on the other. All these approaches should be affirmed, but in such a way that they support each other rather than cancel each other out. In Luke–Acts, and in the other books that make up the Bible, the theology is based upon the historical truth.
Acts is history
The historical accuracy of the book of Acts has frequently been questioned in modern times, largely on the basis of misinterpretations of the book. At one point in the twentieth century it was commonly believed among scholars that Acts was written much later in the history of the church and that it was a propaganda-like attempt to cover up and smooth over the divisions that had existed between the Petrine Jewish church and the Pauline pro-Gentile church. This, it was argued, was an unpleasant memory that had to be whitewashed over. While there were some problems caused by the inclusion of Gentiles in what began as a movement within Judaism, it is now recognized that Acts deals with these problems in a more straightforward way and that the author was not shy about reporting divisions and difficulties in the church (see e.g. 15:36–41).
Another misreading concerns the portrait of Paul found in Acts. We cannot expect the book of Acts to reproduce every aspect of Paul’s thinking as we find it in the letters; an incomplete picture of Paul is only to be expected. But is the picture Luke presents different from the real Paul? The speech in Athens (ch. 17) is commonly used in an attempt to demonstrate how different Luke’s picture is from ‘reality’. Paul, who in 1 Corinthians writes about his lack of eloquence, is, it is claimed, portrayed as a splendid orator and philosopher in Athens, the city of culture and learning. Furthermore, it is claimed, the speech excuses and almost endorses pagan idol worship, something which the real Paul would never have done. Neither of these points stands up under closer scrutiny. Far from being an ideal and convincing speaker, Paul was ridiculed by the Athenians who heard his message, and Luke records that only a handful of people were convinced—hardly the way to compose a story intended to impress the readers of Acts. In another passage, Paul is pictured as having spoken at such length that even a listener who was in agreement with him fell asleep (20:7–12)! As for the ‘sympathetic’ attitude towards idol worship in Athens, this aspect of the speech is actually a veiled attack on all idol worship, rather than true agreement. It is consistent with Paul’s attitude on arriving in the city (see 17:16 and the commentary on 17:16–35) as well as his attitude as expressed in the letters.
What we might call the ‘broad strokes’ of Luke’s work tend to confirm rather than deny the belief that Acts contains genuine history. So, too, do the fine points. There are many historical details in the book, unnecessary to the main thrusts of the work, the inclusion of which strongly suggests a reliable source of information. For example, geographical details and the use of the appropriate personal names and titles in Acts have come increasingly to light as archaeologists and historians discover and publish more of the ancient evidence. An extensive listing may be found in C. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Mohr, 1989), chs. 4 and 5. Acts is not totally without historical puzzles (see the commentary below on 5:33–39 and the difficulties surrounding ch. 15 and Galatians), but on the whole it comes to us as a reliable source for the times and events it covers.
Acts is theology
Luke may not, however, be an historian in the modern sense of the term. He clearly had strong feelings about his subject, and although this is not unexpected in the ancient idea of what writing history entailed, Luke may properly be called a theologian as well as an historian. His theology is seen through the sweep of the whole of his two volumes. Theological themes that seem especially important in a study of Acts are the work of the church and the universal spread of the offer of salvation. The Holy Spirit plays a particularly important role in Acts, and the author was at pains to show that the church’s expansion to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles did not happen at the initiative of the Christians themselves, but was initiated, and then dramatically authorized and approved, by the Holy Spirit.
It is important, however, to recognize that Luke was not writing a book about the Holy Spirit. He was writing a book about the spread of the gospel, and he describes the Holy Spirit’s central role in that work. So, for example, he might have told us a great deal more about what actually happened to the disciples at Pentecost. We would dearly love to have had some statement about the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, whether it was permanent, what changes it makes in the lives of believers and so on. But he makes no such statements because this was not the kind of book he was writing. His focus was not primarily upon how the Holy Spirit’s coming affects believers but on how the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival were reached that day.
Luke knew and expressed theological truths about the Holy Spirit, the role of Jesus, the fulfilment of OT prophecies and the acceptability of the Gentile believers apart from the law. But although he was a theologian, we must not assume that his book is a systematic theology, and we must try to temper our disappointment if he leaves our twentieth-century curiosity unsatisfied. The presence of theological ideas and interests does not mean we cannot trust the history that is present. (For a further discussion of this see I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian [Paternoster Press, 1988].)
Acts is a literary work
The literary nature of Luke-Acts can be seen from its form. While it would be difficult to find two commentators who agree completely about the outline of the book of Acts, all will agree it is effectively, even artistically, structured. Throughout both volumes, the city of Jerusalem functions as a ‘touchstone’ to which the narrative keeps returning. There is also a clear movement of the whole narrative from the backwaters of the Roman Empire in Galilee to Judea and the provincial capital Caesarea, and from there through Samaria and step by step through the rest of the Roman world until, at the end of Acts, the word has spread all the way to the imperial capital itself, Rome. The progression is an historical one, but Luke has chosen stories, even shifted focus from one set of characters to another, in order to emphasize this movement.
Luke portrays Paul as having preached to Jews and to Gentiles as well as having encouraged many Christian communities. There is recorded, however, only one major speech in a synagogue (13:14–43), one before a Gentile assembly (17:16–34; the one in 14:14–17, which while similar, does not really compare in scale) and one before a gathering of Christians (20:17–38). There is thus in the book a representative speech before each type of audience.
Such deliberate selection and arrangement forces us to ask the question: what was the author’s purpose in writing? Given the shape and complexity of the book, it is unlikely to be as simple as ‘he wanted to record what happened’. Luke and Acts are not mere chronological accounts and certainly not complete ones. Too much is left out for such to be Luke’s purpose.
Instead, Acts may be seen to be answering a complex question about Christianity. What is Christianity? If it is a Jewish sect, then why are all the Jews apparently against it and so many Gentiles in it? If Christianity is a religious rather than a political matter, why is Jesus called a ‘king’ and his movement a ‘kingdom’—and why does it seem to cause riots and trouble?
Perhaps these questions came about as a direct result of Paul’s trial in Rome, which features so prominently in the last third of Acts. The book is probably too long and too much of it only tangentially related for it to be considered as part of the defence’s case, but it may have been written to answer questions that arose because of the trial.
This kind of purpose for Luke–Acts makes sense of many features of Acts: the sweep from the church’s Jerusalem beginnings to the mission in Rome, the focus on various apostles and the spread of the word as well as the opposition it encountered. It also makes sense of the statement by Luke in the first chapter of the gospel—that he was writing in order to clarify and explain the things that Theophilus had already heard concerning Jesus Christ and the movement that he had caused to come into being.
Acts is for today
Luke was writing with a particular contemporary purpose and that might make us pessimistic about finding anything in Acts that is relevant for our own modern situations. A moderate amount of caution is a good thing. Acts is no more a blueprint for how to do missions or how to set up a church than it is for how to act when you are threatened with shipwreck. Acts is relevant for people in all situations and cultures insofar as it provides godly examples and the assurance that however things look, God is at work behind the scenes, as he has been with his people in the past. We may learn a great deal from Acts about how to live our own lives in a Christian way, but we should do so by taking the book and its author’s intentions seriously—and learning to appreciate the story it tells for its own sake in the first instance.
Acts does not mean to teach us that every Christian should expect to do the things that the heroes of the book do. Even Paul, whose power to heal within the scope of Acts seems so great and unstoppable (see 19:11–12), had to learn that such ‘power’ was not something that he ‘had’ or could direct or control at all (see 2 Cor. 12:1–10). But Acts does tell us not to despise such power. God can use and has used believers to accomplish amazing things.
Acts also shows us not to think that because we are Christians we can escape such human limitations as disagreements within our fellowship (see e.g. 15:2 and the conference that followed, or the disagreement between Barnabas and Paul over John Mark in 15:37–41). Nor are we completely immune from outright sin and hypocrisy (see Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 5:1–11) and the very real threat of judgment.
Acts teaches us about ourselves and our situations by examples of other people in other situations. It is not a book that only focuses on the ideal lives and communities; it is very ‘realistic’ in that sense. But the type of realism that it encourages us to is a reality in which so-called supernatural events are, while not everyday events, not at all unlikely either, especially where God’s people are on the frontiers of the work to which they are called.
J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts, BST (IVP, 1990).
D. Gooding, True to the Faith, A Fresh Approach to the Acts of the Apostles (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).
I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1980).
F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1988).
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Hch 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.