Luke had previously written to “Theophilus” regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet that was only the beginning of what Jesus had done and taught. The time had come to continue that story and set forth how the Lord Jesus, through the Apostles, made sure His Gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The Acts of the Apostles is the fifth book in modern editions of the New Testament. While Acts and its companion volume, the Gospel of Luke, are anonymous, the transitions from third person plural to first person plural in the latter part of Acts suggest the author was personally present during some of those events; through harmonization with Paul’s letters and through later witness it is agreed that this participant was Luke the physician (Acts 16:8-10, Colossians 4:11; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1, 3.14.1; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.15, Stromata 5.12.82; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2.2). Luke is believed to be a Gentile, a physician by trade, from Asia Minor (Troas? Acts 16:8-10, Colossians 4:11, 14); it is hard to believe he had not been a God-fearer and had not been previously acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. The events described in Acts take place about 30/33 to 62 CE; it is most likely that Luke wrote Luke and Acts between 57-64 in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome (Acts 21:17-28:31). Luke continues to consciously imitate the historical narrative style of the Hebrew Bible in the book of Acts, describing how the Apostles, specifically Peter and Paul, bore witness to Jesus’ resurrection and lordship to Jews and then Gentiles in the Mediterranean world.
One can divide up Luke’s narrative in Acts in different ways. “Acts of the Apostles” is really some of the acts of some of the Apostles, focusing first on Simon Peter (Acts 1-12) and then on Paul (Acts 13-28). One can perceive patterns of growth, persecution, and victory throughout the text. We will consider the book of Acts according to the pattern established by the Lord Jesus in Acts 1:18: apostolic witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), in all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 13-28).
Luke began Acts with an introduction and connection to the previous Gospel and another account of Jesus’ ascension (Luke 1:1-12). At Peter’s exhortation the disciples appointed another witness to take Judas’ place (Luke 1:13-26). On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell on the Apostles; they spoke in tongues; Peter proclaimed the Gospel; three thousand were baptized; the early church associated together and grew (Acts 2:1-47). Peter and John went up to the Temple, healed a man born lame in the name of Christ; Peter preached to the Jews in the Temple; Peter and John were arrested but the Sanhedrin could lay no charge against them; five thousand men believed; the Apostles prayed to Jesus for boldness (Acts 3:1-4:31). Early Christians had all things in common; Joseph called Barnabas sold a field and brought the proceeds to the Apostles; Ananias and Sapphira conspired against the Spirit and die for it (Acts 4:32-5:11). Peter’s standing was great with the people; the Sadducees rise up and have the Apostles arrested; they escaped serious harm through Gamaliel’s wisdom (Acts 5:12-42). Stephen is introduced; he made his defense before the Sanhedrin, and was executed (Acts 6:1-7:60).
Saul began persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, and they scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). Philip preached to the Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:5-40). Saul sees Jesus on the road to Damascus and is converted (Acts 9:1-31); Peter heals in Lydda and Joppa (Acts 9:32-41). The Lord then provides the way for Peter to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his men, Gentiles, and the report is accepted by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 10:1-11:18). The Gospel spreads to Antioch of Syria; the Apostle James was killed and Peter imprisoned by Herod Agrippa I; Peter escaped thanks to an angel; Herod Agrippa I was struck by God and killed (Acts 11:19-12:25).
Barnabas and Saul are called by the Holy Spirit to participate in what is often called Paul’s first missionary journey: to Cyprus; opposition, blinding of bar-Jesus (Elymas); Barnabas and Paul to Galatia, John Mark returned to Jerusalem; preaching in Antioch of Pisidia; conversions and persecutions there and in Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium; encouragement of saints and appointment of elders; return to Antioch of Syria (Acts 13:1-14:28). Jewish Christians from Jerusalem attempt to impose the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians in Antioch of Syria; conference in Jerusalem; decree that Law is not to be imposed on Gentiles; Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways (Acts 15:1-41). Paul and Silas embarked on the second missionary journey: through Galatia; Timothy circumcised, joined Paul; Macedonian call; conversion of Lydia and the Philippian jailer in Philippi in Greece; conversions and persecution in Thessalonica, to Berea; Paul in Athens, preaching on the Areopagus; ministry in Corinth for eighteen months; persecution; return to Antioch of Syria (Acts 16:1-18:23). Apollos was converted in Ephesus while Paul was away (Acts 18:24-28). Paul’s third missionary journey is then recounted: to Ephesus; great work there for two years; Ephesian riot; return to Macedonia and Achaia; headed to Jerusalem; conference with Ephesian elders in Miletus; to Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and Jerusalem (Acts 19:1-21:17). In Jerusalem Paul paid a vow in the Temple; accused of defiling the Temple by Jews of Asia; riot; Paul imprisoned; Paul gave his defense to the people, brought before Sanhedrin; plot hatched to kill Paul; Paul brought to Caesarea; Paul before Felix; Paul before Festus, appeals to Caesar; Paul makes defense before Festus and Herod Agrippa II (Acts 21:18-26:32). Paul’s fourth journey is recorded: to Crete; shipwreck in storm, washed up on Malta; to Three Taverns and to Rome; preaching to the Jewish Christians in Rome, proclamation of Gospel to all in Rome over two year period (Acts 27:1-28:31).
Luke ends his narrative with Paul preaching the Gospel of Christ in Rome. His narrative in Acts might have ended, but the story of the apostolic witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would continue. In Acts Luke set forth how the Kingdom of Christ was established on earth and how it spread around the Roman world. We do well to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Apostles did, imitate the means by which early Christians obtained salvation, and participate in the story of God’s work through His people in the church of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry