A Roadmap of Acts
I love maps. I always have. I have a poor sense of direction and so early on I learned to read maps well. And now that most of us have GPSs on our phones or in our cars, I have to say I really miss maps. A GPS tells you when and where to turn, but a map shows you the big picture. You can see where you are and where you need to go. It provides perspective and orientation in a disorienting world.
The book of Acts functions like a roadmap for the progress of the gospel. The spread of the good news begins in Jerusalem as the resurrected Jesus ascends to heaven and then pours out the Holy Spirit to guide and empower his followers. Though the disciples face persecution and stiff opposition in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews believe the message and respond. When persecution results in the scattering of the believers, they take the message wherever they go, first to Judea and Samaria, and then beyond to the Gentile world—the ends of the earth. Below we will summarize each stage in this great movement.
Geographical Movement 1
The Gospel to Jerusalem (acts 1–7)
In chapter one of this booklet we learned that Acts contains two distinct movements: a geographical movement and an ethnic (people) movement. Here we see how the geographical movement occurring in Acts 1–7 reinforces a few of the themes we just read about in chapter two. The growth and expansion of the church is unstoppable. It will be the work of the Holy Spirit, not any human power or plan.
Acts begins with an account of Jesus’s ascension (acts 1:1–11), already briefly described at the end of Luke’s gospel (luke 24:50–53). Here we learn that Jesus remained with the disciples for forty days before ascending to heaven, teaching them about the kingdom of God. He also instructed them to remain in Jerusalem until they were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
After the ascension, the apostles choose a replacement for Judas (1:12–26). The purpose here seems to be to restore the number of apostles to twelve, representing the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. luke 22:29–30). Their role as the restored people of Israel is to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles (see luke 2:32; acts 13:47).
The events on the day of Pentecost support Luke’s theological purposes in various ways: (1) As the fulfillment of Scripture (joel 2:28–30), the pouring out of the Spirit means that God’s final (eschatalogical) salvation has arrived and Jesus’s followers are its recipients. (2) That Jesus pours out the Spirit confirms that he has been vindicated at his resurrection and ascension and is now enthroned as Lord and Messiah at the right hand of the Father (acts 2:29–36). (3) Jesus’s resurrection also demonstrates God’s sovereignty over human history. Though wicked people put Jesus to death, this was all part of God’s plan to provide salvation for the world (2:23–24).
The episodes that follow Pentecost reveal four key characteristics of the Jerusalem church:
Remarkable Growth. Three thousand people respond to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (acts 2:47). This explosive growth continues in the episodes that follow. By Acts 4:4, there are more than five thousand believers! Several statements of numerical growth follow (5:14; 6:1, 7; 9:31). This extraordinary success in Jerusalem is part of Luke’s confirmation of the presence and power of God behind this movement. It also confirms that Luke does not view the mission to the Jews as a failure. A remnant of Israel is being saved even if the majority rejects the message.
Unity in Community. In several summaries, Luke points to the unity and generosity of Jerusalem church (acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). The community represents a new spiritual family, which cares deeply for its own. This is seen in the sharing of possessions (2:44; 4:32), the meeting of needs (2:45; 4:34–37), the generosity of Barnabas (4:36–37), and the selection of a committee of seven to meet the needs of the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish believers (6:1–7). This kind of unity is shockingly countercultural to the Greco-Roman world, where ethnic and socioeconomic differences are extreme. It is clear that the Holy Spirit is at work creating unity and fellowship.
Power and Authority. A third characteristic of the Jerusalem church is the supernatural authority demonstrated by the apostles in preaching and in miracles (acts 2:33; 2:43; 3:1–10; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12, 15–16; 6:8). This authority recalls Jesus’s ministry (luke 4:32, 36) and reminds the reader that the apostles are Christ’s representatives, continuing what “Jesus began to do and to teach” (acts 1:1). The authority of the apostles provokes awe among the Jerusalem populace (2:43) and astonishment from the religious leaders (4:13). Similar fear and awe are seen in the account of Ananias and Sapphira, who are judged by God for lying to the Holy Spirit (5:11–16). God radically judges sin to maintain purity in his church.
Boldness amid Persecution. A fourth characteristic of the Jerusalem church is its joy and boldness despite increasing persecution. After healing a lame man, Peter and John are arrested and warned to stop preaching about Jesus (acts 3:1–4:22). Later, all twelve apostles are arrested, delivered from jail by an angel, rearrested, beaten, and released (5:17–42). Despite these trials, the apostles boldly challenge the religious leaders for rejecting their own Messiah (4:10; 5:30; cf. 2:23; 3:13–19) and assert, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (5:29; cf. 4:20). After being flogged, the apostles leave “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:41). The church grows stronger through suffering, confirming that God is empowering this movement.
Persecution intensifies until it results in the execution of Stephen (acts 6:8–8:1). Stephen, one of the committee of seven (6:1–7), begins preaching and performing miracles among the Hellenistic-Jewish synagogues in Jerusalem. He is seized and charged with blasphemy, accused of speaking against the temple and the Law of Moses (6:8–15). In making his defense, Stephen gives the longest speech in Acts, a summary of the history of Israel that demonstrates how the nation has continually rejected God’s messengers (7:1–53). In the climax of the speech, Stephen points out that Israel has always persecuted the prophets, even killing those who predicted the coming of “the Righteous One,” the Messiah. And “now you have betrayed and murdered him” (7:52). Furious at this accusation, the crowd drags Stephen out of the city and stones him to death (7:54–60).
Geographical Movement 2
The Gospel to Judea and Samaria (acts 8–12)
After the stoning of Stephen, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (acts 8:1). This dispersion marks the beginning of the second major geographical division of the book: the gospel to Judea and Samaria (and Syria). Though a tragic injustice, the stoning of Stephen and the scattering of the believers has a positive result, forcing the gospel out of its Jerusalem enclave.
Philip’s ministry to Samaria and to an Ethiopian (acts 8). One of those forced to flee Jerusalem is Philip, who heads north and preaches the gospel with great success in Samaria. The evangelism of the Samaritans can be viewed as a transitional step for the gospel’s advance from Jews to Gentiles. The Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles and were now practicing a corrupt version of Judaism (2 kings 17:24–41; ezra 4; nehemiah 6; john 4:9). Animosity and violence characterize the history between these two related people groups. This may explain the surprising fact that the Holy Spirit does not immediately come upon the Samaritans when they believe, delaying until Peter and John arrive from Jerusalem. The likely reason for this delay is to emphatically connect the Samaritan believers to the Jerusalem church. In light of the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, the Holy Spirit makes it clear to both the Samaritans and the Jerusalem believers that there is to be only one church—the unified body of Christ.
The conversion of an Ethiopian court official (acts 8:26–40) can also be seen as an intermediate step between Jews and Gentiles. He is evidently a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who believes in the one true God of Israel. Philip meets him in the desert as he is returning from a visit to Jerusalem and leads him to Christ by explaining the meaning of the text he is reading—Isaiah 53:7–8. This passage, which depicts the Messiah as the suffering servant, reinforces two of the themes we looked at in chapter two: that the Messiah’s suffering was good news, and that it was the purpose of God and the fulfillment of Scripture.
The Conversion of Saul/Paul (acts 9:1–31). Another key transition to the Gentile mission is the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Saul is first mentioned at the stoning of Stephen as one who supported the execution (7:58; 8:1). Saul subsequently launches his own crusade against the Christians, eventually heading to Damascus in Syria to arrest and imprison Christians there. On the way, however, he has a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, who calls him into his service. Saul’s life is turned upside down as the great persecutor of the church becomes its greatest advocate. Luke repeats the account three times in Acts—first the episode itself (9:1–19) and then twice as retold by Paul (22:1–21; 26:1–29). His intentional repetition is a strong indicator of the story’s importance.
Throughout the rest of Acts, Luke focuses on Paul and his missionary journeys (chs. 13–28). By using his story to defend the gospel’s expansion to the Gentiles he demonstrates that this apostle to the Gentiles is not a renegade Jew. God himself called and appointed him.
The Conversion of Cornelius (acts 10:1–11:18). The conversion of the God-fearing Roman centurion Cornelius is another key transition in Acts, as the Holy Spirit confirms that Gentiles and Jews alike are saved through faith in Jesus Christ. The emphasis throughout the story is that the mission to the Gentiles was initiated by God himself, not by any human initiative (acts 10:28, 44–47; 11:15–17; cf. 15:7–11). Again, repetition demonstrates this theme’s importance, as the event is narrated in detail (10:1–48) and then summarized in Peter’s report to the Jerusalem church (11:4–17).
The Church in Antioch (acts 11:19–30). Luke here describes the founding of the church in Antioch, a church that will become the launching point for Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles (acts 13:1–4; 15:40; 18:23). Much of this episode is a flashback, picking up from the dispersion of believers in 8:1 (11:19). We now learn that the first Gentile conversions occurred in Antioch, long before Peter’s visit to Cornelius, and that Barnabas and Saul played a key role in launching this church. Luke probably reversed the order chronologically to highlight Peter’s critical role in the mission to the Gentiles. As the spokesperson and leader among the twelve apostles, Peter’s testimony carried great weight, especially among conservative Jewish Christians.
Geographical Movement 3
The Gospel to the Ends of the Earth (acts 13–28):
The Journeys of Paul
The third major geographical section of Acts—and by far the longest—concerns the three missionary journeys of Paul and his arrest and journey to Rome. Luke’s primary purposes in spending so much time on Paul are to show that: (1) Paul is not a traitor to his Jewish religion, but is faithful to his Jewish heritage through his allegiance to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah; (2) the Gentile mission was all along part of God’s plan for Israel and was initiated by God himself, not by any human being; and (3) Christians are good citizens and are no threat to Roman authority.
First Journey: The Gospel to Cyprus and Galatia (acts 13:1–14:20). It is the Holy Spirit who calls for the first missionary journey (acts 13:2). This is God’s plan, not Paul’s! The missionaries—Paul and Barnabas (and their assistant John Mark, who shortly returns to Jerusalem)—first travel to the island of Cyprus, Barnabas’s home island (4:36), and then north into Galatia, where they establish churches in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (13:4–14:20). Paul’s message in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (13:13–52) is particularly important, illustrating the kind of message Paul brought to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue. He traces God’s covenants with Israel from the patriarchs to the coming of the Messiah. The passage also establishes a pattern of response by Jews and Gentiles. After an initial positive response, most of the Jews reject the message (13:44–45) and Paul turns to the Gentiles (13:46–48). This pattern will be repeated throughout Acts. While a remnant of Jews respond favorably, the majority reject the gospel, and many Gentiles accept it.
After returning to appoint elders in the churches they have established, Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch, reporting success: God has “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (acts 14:27).
The Council of Jerusalem (acts 15:1–35). After their return, a crisis occurs in the church at Antioch. Some Jewish Christians come from Jerusalem claiming, “Unless you are circumcised, according to custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (acts 15:1). This question of whether Gentiles need to become Jews in order to be saved was one of the most challenging issues facing the early church. In what has been called the “Council of Jerusalem,” the leaders conclude that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised or keep Israel’s ritual laws to be saved, since both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith alone. At the same time, they encourage Gentile Christians to abstain from certain practices highly offensive to Jews (15:19–21, 28–29).
Second Journey: The Gospel to Macedonia and Achaia (acts 15:36–18:22). The second missionary journey begins when Paul suggests that he and Barnabas return and encourage the churches started in Galatia. Yet a conflict arises over whether or not to take John Mark, who had deserted them on the first journey (acts 13:13). When they cannot resolve the issue, Barnabas and John Mark sail for Cyprus and Paul chooses a new partner, Silas, and heads back to Galatia.
While encouraging the churches in Galatia, Paul and Silas pick up a promising new disciple named Timothy in Lystra. Timothy will become one of Paul’s most faithful and trustworthy associates (see philippians 2:19–22). Paul’s plan is to head west into the Roman province of Asia, but through a vision God redirects them to cross the Aegean Sea into Macedonia (northern Greece). There they establish churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. From Macedonia, Paul heads south into Achaia (southern Greece). In Athens he delivers his famous Mars Hill address before the Greek philosophers of the Areopagus. While Paul’s sermon in Antioch Pisidia (acts 13:13–41) was a good example of his preaching to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, his address on Mars Hill illustrates how he shared the gospel in language the pagan Gentiles easily understood. Paul then moves on to Corinth, where he spends eighteen months establishing the church. Finally, he returns to Jerusalem and Antioch (18:22).
Third Journey: The Gospel to Asia Minor (acts 18:23–21:16). Paul had stopped briefly in Ephesus in Asia Minor while returning from his second journey, leaving his associates Priscilla and Aquila there to start the church (acts 18:18–21). Now he returns to Ephesus and ministers there for about three years, strategically using the city as a base of operations to evangelize the rest of Asia Minor (19:10). The seven churches of Revelation (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) and the churches at Hierapolis and Colossae (started by Epaphras, one of Paul’s disciples; colossians 1:7) were likely established during this period. Luke’s account of Paul’s time in Ephesus focuses especially on the theme of spiritual warfare and the gospel’s triumph over popular magic (see acts 19:11–20; cf. ephesians 6:12).
Fourth Journey: The Gospel to Rome (acts 21:17–28:31). After three years in Ephesus Paul returns to Jerusalem, despite various prophecies about the dangers that await him there (acts 20:23; 21:10–11). From his letters written about this time, we know Paul was also carrying a collection of money from his Gentile churches for the poor and persecuted Jerusalem Christians (romans 15:25–31; 1 corinthians 16:1–3; 2 corinthians 8–9; cf. acts 24:17). Seeking to mend fences with some Jewish Christians who are skeptical of his Gentile ministry, Paul follows James’s counsel and financially supports several men fulfilling a Jewish vow. Yet while Paul is in the temple finishing this task, some of his Jewish opponents from Ephesus recognize him and falsely accuse him of bringing Gentiles into the inner temple courts, a violation punishable by death. A riot ensues and Roman troops move in, seizing Paul and putting him under protective custody (acts 21:17–22:29).
After appearing before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Paul is transferred by the Romans to Caesarea Maritima, the Roman headquarters on the Mediterranean coast (acts 22:30–23:35). He remains in custody there for two years, appearing before two Roman governors, Felix and Festus, and before the Jewish king Agrippa I (24:1–26:32). In all three cases, Paul’s defense becomes an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus (cf. 9:15). Finally, hoping to please the Jewish leaders, Festus decides to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial. Knowing that he would likely be executed there, Paul appeals to Caesar in Rome, the right of every Roman citizen (25:10–11). Paul had hoped to go to Rome years earlier to preach the gospel (romans 1:10–13; 15:23–24). Now he will get his chance.
Luke’s dramatic description of Paul’s sea voyage to Rome is a remarkably detailed nautical account, including a harrowing storm, shipwreck, and even snakebite (acts 27:1–28:16). Luke clearly loved the drama of sea travel. The main theological theme of the account is God’s providence. Despite fierce opposition and danger, God is in charge and the gospel moves relentlessly toward its goal of reaching the ends of the earth.
Acts concludes with a description of Paul’s arrival in Rome and his two-year house arrest there (acts 28:11–31). As the capital of the Roman empire, Rome is a key symbolic goal for the church’s mission to reach the “ends of the earth” (1:8). Luke ends with three of his central themes: (1) Israel is divided. When Paul meets with the Jews in Rome, some accept the gospel but the majority reject it (28:17–27). (2) The Gentiles accept the message. In response, Paul says, “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (28:28). (3) The gospel relentlessly advances. Luke concludes that Paul, under house arrest, “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (28:30–31). The gospel messenger may be in chains, but the gospel message is not. God’s work rolls forward.
Acts includes a great deal of specific detail in its account of the gospel’s unfolding. How does this point to the significance of God at work in each of the “mundane” details of each day?
How does the narrative of Acts illustrate the “now/not yet” paradox of the gospel—that Christ’s finished and complete victory breaks in through a process?
How does Acts’ focus on individual conversions illustrate the dignity and value of each human being?
Strauss describes the question of whether Gentiles need to follow OT law to be included in the community of faith as “one of the most challenging issues” the early church faced. What are similar challenges facing the church today? How might the example of the early church inform our own approach?
Strauss describes Rome as a key symbolic victory for the church’s mission to the “ends of the earth.” What might similar symbolic strongholds be today? How might God’s victory be “breaking in”?
Acts is sometimes interpreted as a blueprint for the church today to copy. How does a focus on depending on the leading of the Spirit counter the idea that we should merely imitate first-century Christianity?
Acts portrays a pattern in which the majority of Israel rejects the gospel while a minority accept, and many from outside (Gentiles). Does this pattern ever appear within institutional forms of Christianity still today? How can years of well-intentioned religious tradition harden hearts to receptivity to a fresh movement of God? How can we counter this tendency?
What strongholds is God at work in defeating in your life? How might the promise of Christ’s final victory give you patience in your journey?
How does Acts describe the Spirit at work uniting believers into a new community? How can we find our sense of identity and belonging within the community of the Spirit rather than mere family or group loyalty?