Key Themes of Acts
If you’ve ever watched a real courtroom trial or are a fan of courtroom dramas, you know that the best lawyers build their case by accumulating evidence. Connecting one fact with another, they build an airtight case for their side. Luke may be a doctor, but he writes like a lawyer, building a case for the truth of the gospel through the story he tells. If the overall purpose in Luke-Acts is the confirmation of the gospel, the sub-themes in Acts serve as evidence confirming that message. As you read Acts, keep your eyes open for the following themes.
The Purpose of God and the Fulfillment of Scripture
Luke seeks to show that Christianity (called “the Way”) is not a new religion. It is “Judaism-fulfilled”—the fulfillment of promises made to Israel and the climax of God’s plan of salvation. Luke stresses the continuity between the old and the new in God’s plan of salvation.
The themes of promise and fulfillment permeate the narrative of Luke-Acts. From the start, Luke emphasizes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes. As prophesied, he is a descendant of King David born in Bethlehem, who will reign forever on David’s throne (luke 1:32–35, 69–70; 2:1–20; acts 2:30; 13:23). Prophecy is fulfilled not only in Jesus’s birth but in a multitude of ways:
Jesus’s rejection and death might seem like a tragedy, but all along it was God’s purpose and plan to bring salvation to the world. In his speech on the day of Pentecost, Peter tells his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (acts 2:23, emphasis added). Similarly, in Acts 4:27–28 we learn of the conspiracy to kill Jesus that, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” The seemingly tragic events of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion were in fact all according to God’s plan.
Further evidence of this theme is Luke’s fondness for the Greek verb dei (“it is necessary”) to describe God’s sovereign purpose. The suffering of the Messiah was no tragedy; it was God’s plan and a divine necessity (dei) to accomplish salvation for the world (see luke 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7; 24:44; acts 1:16; 17:3).
The Unstoppable Progress of the Gospel
The remarkable success in the spread of the gospel provides overwhelming evidence that this movement is the work of God—that church of God, by the Holy Spirit, will be unstoppable. Whenever the followers of Jesus face opposition, a supernatural breakthrough occurs. In the early chapters of Acts, the apostles are repeatedly arrested, jailed, and beaten, yet the church continues to grow. Stephen is martyred for his witness and the church is scattered; but wherever they go they proclaim the gospel. The apostle James is executed by Herod Agrippa and Peter is put in prison awaiting execution. But Peter is released by an angel and Herod dies a gruesome death as judgment from God. The same theme appears throughout Paul’s ministry. He is repeatedly beaten and imprisoned. He suffers stoning, shipwreck, and even snakebite! Yet the gospel advances. The simple message: the gospel is unstoppable because it is the work of God.
The Holy Spirit
The agent behind the unstoppable gospel is the Holy Spirit, who, as noted earlier, plays a leading role in Acts. Like the conductor of a symphony, the Spirit directs the gospel as it moves forward.
(1) Jesus pours out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, confirming that he has been vindicated as Messiah and Lord at the right hand of God (acts 2:33), fulfilling Scripture (acts 2:16–21; joel 2:28–32) and heralding the arrival of God’s end-time salvation. In Joel 2:28–32 and elsewhere in the prophets, the pouring out of the Spirit confirms the dawning of the new age of salvation (isaiah 32:15; 44:3; ezekiel 36:27; 37:14; 39:29). Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 highlights this fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
(2) As the sign of salvation, reception of the Spirit by individuals and groups marks entrance into the
new covenant people of God (acts 2:38; 8:15–17; 19:1–7). Though Jewish believers are shocked when the Spirit is poured out even on uncircumcised Gentiles, they cannot deny that this is the work of God (10:44–48; 11:15–17; 15:8).
(3) The Spirit fills and empowers believers to speak boldly and to perform miracles (acts 1:8; 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24, 28, etc.).
(4) The Spirit judges sin, maintaining purity in the church (acts 5:1–11; 12:19–24).
(5) Finally, the Spirit guides and directs the progress of the gospel. We see this carried out as:
- The Spirit instructs Philip to approach the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29) and whisks him away afterwards (8:39).
- The Spirit tells Peter that Cornelius’s men are looking for him (10:19; 11:12).
- The Spirit warns of famine through the prophet Agabus (11:28) and directs the church in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (13:2).
- Particularly significant is Acts 16:6–7, where Luke notes that Paul was “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (emphasis added).
- Just after this, the missionary group tries to enter Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (emphasis added). Remarkably, the “Holy Spirit” and the “Spirit of Jesus” are equated, an implicit affirmation of Christ’s divine nature.
Miracles, Signs, and Wonders
Another important theme in Acts is the recurrence of miracles that validate the church’s message (acts 2:43; 3:1–10; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:13; 9:40; 14:3; 15:12; 19:11; 20:9–10). Jesus is identified by Peter as “a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (2:22; cf. 10:38), and the apostles replicate these signs: healing the sick (5:15–16; 9:34; 19:12; 28:8) and the lame (3:1–10; 8:7; 14:9), casting out demons (5:16; 8:7; 19:12), and raising the dead (9:40; 20:9–10). Spiritual counterfeits like the sons of Sceva fail when they try to reproduce these miracles (19:13–16).
The Good News of the Suffering Messiah
One question raised against Christianity by its opponents was, “How can Jesus be the Messiah if he was crucified?” The Messiah was meant to be a conquering king, not an executed criminal. In response Luke repeatedly shows that Jesus’s suffering and death did not negate his claim to be Messiah. All along it was prophesied that the Messiah must suffer and die (luke 24:26, 46; acts 3:18; 4:25–26; 8:32–35; 17:3; 26:23). Nor did Jesus die as a criminal. He was the innocent and righteous Servant of the Lord (acts 3:14–15; isaiah 53:11). During his trial and crucifixion, Jesus is repeatedly declared “innocent” (or “righteous”): three times by Pilate (luke 23:4, 14–15, 22), by Herod (23:15), by the criminal on the cross (23:41), and by the centurion overseeing the crucifixion (23:47).
The Rejection of the Gospel by Many in Israel
Another challenge Luke’s readers faced is how God’s promises can be fulfilled if so many in Israel have rejected the message. Luke responds by showing that the Jewish rejection of the gospel is not surprising, since throughout history Israel has been a stubborn and resistant people. This theme is perhaps best captured in the response to Stephen’s speech to the religious leaders:
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.” (acts 7:51–52)
Yet not all Israel rejects the message. Indeed, many Jews respond positively, especially in the early chapters of Acts (2:41; 4:4; 6:7; and also 21:20). These are the righteous remnant of Israel, who are faithful to God’s promises and welcome the arrival of God’s salvation. Throughout Israel’s history, there has always been a righteous remnant and an unfaithful majority.
Salvation for All People
Another theme to look for while reading Acts is that salvation is for all people. The flip side of Israel’s rejection is the influx of Gentiles into the church. Many Jews reject the message while many Gentiles are receiving it. The challenge from opponents in this case is: “How can Christianity be the fulfillment of Israel’s promises if the church is made up mostly of Gentiles?” Luke’s narrative response is that the salvation of the Gentiles is not an anomaly, since it was prophesied beforehand in Scripture (luke 2:32; 3:6; acts 10:34–35; 13:46–47; 15:16–18). Furthermore, God himself initiated the Gentile mission (acts 10:15, 34–35, 45–47; 11:12, 15–17; 15:7–11). For this reason Gentiles should be accepted into the people of God by faith alone, without being required to adopt Jewish practices (15:11–19). Luke also spends much of his narrative defending the apostle Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul is not a renegade Jew, as some have claimed, seeking to undermine the traditions of Judaism. Rather, he is faithful to the traditions of his ancestors (13:32–33; 22:3, 14; 24:14; 26:6; 28:17), fulfilling God’s call to Israel to be a light for the Gentiles (13:47).
Strauss explains that Acts includes a new understanding of Israel’s Scripture in response to the Spirit’s movement in the Gentiles. As you read Acts, look up some examples of Old Testament texts. How does Luke interpret these texts in new and surprising ways?
In what ways does Luke’s portrayal of God’s faithfulness to Israel amidst their rejection uphold both human freedom and God’s sovereign goodness?
Acts describes a paradoxical relationship between persecution and spiritual growth—in which opposition to the gospel is met with “supernatural breakthrough.” How can security and high social status be a danger to dependence on God’s power?
Strauss points out that Acts depicts the Spirit moving in unexpected and challenging ways, such as re-interpreting OT law to allow for Gentiles’ inclusion. What other times in history has the Spirit brought unexpected change in the church’s convictions? Do you see any such movements today?
Strauss shows that Acts recounts the church’s early history to confirm the truth and power of the gospel. How does Christianity today continue the ups and downs of this story? In what way does your story fit into the ongoing story of the power and grace of God?