Chapter 1

Introducing Acts

one

Introducing Acts

The word revolution can refer to a radical change in the way people think, act, and view the world. Consider the Copernican Revolution, when Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) showed that the earth was not the center of the universe but actually circled the sun. This heliocentric (sun-centered) model radically transformed the way people thought about the cosmos. Then there was the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when an essentially animal-powered society was transformed into a machine-powered one. To see its effect, try to count the number of machines and electrical devices you use every day. In the latter part of the twentieth century, we experienced the Computer Revolution. Practically everything we own now—from our phones to our cars to our coffeemakers—is controlled by tiny silicon chips, which perform tasks a million times faster than we could ever do before.

Most recently is the Internet Revolution, where we have instant access to almost any information on Earth. I can Google (which is now a verb) the name of any historical figure and get an instant biography on Wikipedia. I can Skype or FaceTime my friend in the Middle East and talk to him face-to-face for an hour. I can share a paper I’ve written with a colleague online in South Africa and invite her to give me feedback. I can set up a virtual video classroom with a group of students scattered throughout the world, hosting a lively discussion while lecturing through a PowerPoint slideshow. This is all possible because of the World Wide Web, millions of computers around the world linked together and sharing information. This reality would have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago. This is truly a revolution!

While all these revolutions are remarkable and life-changing, the New Testament book of Acts describes the greatest revolution of all time. This revolution began with a single man in the tiny backwater province of Judea in the Roman Empire. When Jesus of Nazareth left this earth, he had little more than a hundred followers. Yet the revolution he launched ended up transforming the world and changing forever the course of human history. The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts tell the story of this revolution.

The Acts of Jesus, Part Two

The traditional title of this book, “The Acts of the Apostles,” is not the best description of its contents. The book doesn’t tell us much about the actions of Jesus’s twelve apostles. Though they appear in the early chapters of Acts, the twelve soon fade out of the story. A better title might be “The Acts of Jesus Part 2,” since the author introduces his book by referring to his previous volume as Part 1 of the Jesus story:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. (acts 1:1–2, emphasis added)

Only Luke among the four gospel authors wrote a sequel. Keep in mind, however, that Luke and Acts are not just two volumes by the same author. It isn’t that Luke had a bestseller with his first volume and decided to write a sequel to earn more royalties. Rather, the two books together form a single two-volume work. While the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the salvation achieved through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Acts describes how, after Jesus’s ascension, the church spread the good news of salvation from its Jewish roots in Jerusalem outward to the Gentile world. The story that starts in Jerusalem at the beginning of Luke’s gospel does not reach its narrative conclusion until the end of Acts, when the gospel comes to Rome (acts 28). Scholars refer to this two-volume work as “Luke-Acts.”

As you read Acts keep this unity in mind. How have events in the Gospel of Luke prepared for those in Acts? What parallels do you see between the actions of Jesus in the Gospel and the apostles in Acts?

The Acts of the Holy Spirit

While “The Acts of Jesus, Part 2” is a good title for this book, another one might be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since God’s Spirit is the driving force behind the mission of the church. The theme verse of Acts is often identified as Acts 1:8, which says that after his resurrection and before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples:

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 1:8)

Jesus says the Holy Spirit will be his presence—empowering, guiding, and directing his disciples as they take this message of salvation across the globe. How could a lowly band of Galilean fishermen and common peasants turn the whole world upside down? (acts 17:6). How could so few accomplish so much—without phones or satellite TV or cars or planes? The answer Acts gives us is that this revolution was not accomplished by any human power. The church of Jesus Christ would thrive because it is the work of God. The church has something far more revolutionary than the World Wide Web. We have the guiding and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who links all believers together, making them a powerful force for God.

The Plan of Acts

This theme verse (acts 1:8) also gives us the structure and plan of Acts. Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” A simple geographical outline of the book is:

  1. The Gospel to Jerusalem (acts 1–7)
  2. The Gospel to Judea and Samaria (8–12)
  3. The Gospel to the Ends of the Earth (13–28)

 

Two great movements must be kept in view. The first is a geographical movement, as the good news moves from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The second is an ethnic, or people movement, as the message moves from Jews to Gentiles. The two movements are closely linked:

(1) Jerusalem represents Judaism and God’s Old Testament promises to bring salvation to the world through the Jewish nation. This promise goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham (genesis 12:1–3). God promised Abraham that he would create a great nation (Israel) through him and through that nation bless all the people of the world. This promise was fulfilled through the salvation accomplished by Jesus the Messiah (luke 1:55, 73; 3:34; 19:9; acts 3:25; 7:17).
(2) The book of Acts culminates in Rome, the capital of the vast Roman Empire. Rome represents the world of lost people Jesus came to save. The good news that began in Judaism was all along meant to fulfill God’s promise of salvation for the whole world. While the Gospel of Luke recounts salvation accomplished through Jesus the Messiah, the book of Acts describes salvation announced to the ends of the earth.

Who Was Luke and Why Did He Write?

Early church tradition tells us that the author of this two-volume work was Luke, a physician by occupation (colossians 4:14) and one of the apostle Paul’s missionary companions (philemon 24; 2 timothy 4:11). Colossians 4:10–15 implies he was a Gentile (a non-Jew), since he is not listed among Paul’s Jewish associates (colossians 4:11). Luke was also a devoted and meticulous historian. In the prologue to his gospel, he identifies his overall purpose when he says he is writing “an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke points out how he has interviewed eyewitnesses and carefully investigated everything (luke 1:3–4). As a historian, Luke seeks to accurately record the facts about Jesus and the growth of the church. As a Gentile, he is intensely interested in how a message that had such deep roots in Judaism was good news for the whole world. These credentials prepared him well for writing this history of the early church.

So why did Luke write? He likely had a variety of purposes: (1) to preserve the stories of Jesus and the growth of the church for future generations; (2) to defend the Christian faith against its Jewish and Gentile opponents; (3) to train up new believers in the foundations of their faith; and (4) to call unbelievers to faith in Jesus.

Ultimately, Luke’s purpose is the confirmation of the gospel: He writes to confirm that God’s great plan of salvation, predicted in the Old Testament, has now come to fulfillment in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension and continues to unfold in the growth and expansion of the early church. In the gospel of Luke, this purpose is achieved by demonstrating that Jesus is the mighty Messiah and Son of God who has fulfilled the promises made to Israel. In the book of Acts, it is achieved by showing that the growth and expansion of the church—and particularly the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God—is the work of God and the fulfillment of prophecy. Since this movement is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God, it is unstoppable. Let’s take a closer look at how it played out in Luke’s historical account.

Luke’s Audience

To whom was Luke-Acts written? Both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are addressed to a man named Theophilus (luke 1:3; acts 1:1). Luke refers to him as “most excellent” Theophilus, which indicates a high social status. We don’t know for sure who Theophilus was, but he was likely the patron who sponsored Luke’s writing (a very expensive endeavor). Perhaps he was also a new believer, since Luke says he is writing so that Theophilus can know the certainty of “the things he has been taught” (luke 1:3). This may mean he has been taught the basics, but needs more training. In any case, these volumes are clearly addressed not just to Theophilus but to a larger audience. This audience was likely Christian communities facing challenges and opposition from their Jewish and Gentile neighbors. In the face of growing opposition, Luke writes to provide encouragement, confidence and a firm foundation for their Christian faith.

Questions

Study

If you were writing a sequel to Luke describing the spread of the gospel, what kind of details and ideas would you want to include? As you read Acts, keep a lookout for how Luke aligns with or differs from your expectations for such a sequel.

 

Reflect

Strauss suggests that an appropriate title for Acts could be “Acts of the Spirit.” How is it transformative to keep the Spirit as our only source of power and authority? What happens when faith communities rely merely on our own goals and efforts rather than the Spirit’s leading?

Strauss explains that the book of Acts is structured around God’s promise to bless “the ends of the earth” through His people. How might remembering the church’s mission is to bless those outside its walls affect our lives as believers?

In what ways has the gospel “revolutionized” your life?

Apply

How is it humbling to reflect on the Spirit as our only source of power and wisdom? How can you grow in pointing away from yourself to the Spirit?

Strauss describes Acts as the recounting of the “revolution” begun by Christ’s death and resurrection. Are you ever prone to forget the “revolutionary” nature of the gospel? How does it challenge you to consider the dramatic contrast between our cultural norms and the gospel’s?

Strauss argues that Acts portrays the community of believers as an “unstoppable force of God” because of the Spirit’s power. What seemingly “impossible” barriers in your heart or life have been shattered by God’s power? How can your story point others to the power and goodness of God?

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