Background of Acts
Author and Date
Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physician who traveled with the apostle Paul. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, c. AD 62. Many scholars assume Acts was written then because it does not record Paul’s defense, release, and further gospel preaching.
The Holy Spirit empowers believers to declare the gospel among both Jews and Gentiles. In doing so they establish the church. The church is the fulfillment of God’s promises from the beginning of time.
Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. Dedicating the two-volume work to Theophilus, Luke wanted him to have “certainty” about what he had been taught.
Acts tells of the witness of the early church to the truth of the gospel—a theme first introduced in Acts 1:8:
1. The witness is worldwide—Judea, Samaria, the “end of the earth” (Acts 1:8)
2. The witness includes all kinds of people (Acts 2–5; 10:1–11:18; 14:8–18; 16:11–15, 25–34; 17:22–31).
3. God guides the church’s witness (Acts 4:5–22; 23:12–22; 24:1–23; 27:21–26).
4. Faithful witnesses must be prepared to suffer and even die because of their testimony to Christ (Acts 5:41–42; 7:54–60).
5. The Holy Spirit empowers the witness (Acts 1:8; 2:1–13; 8:17; 13:2–12; 19:6).
6. Effective witness demands unity in the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37; 5:12–14).
7. Jesus’ resurrection is a key part of the witness (Acts 1:22; 2:22–36; 17:30–31).
8. Acceptance of the message depends both on human response and on God’s sovereign will (Acts 2:47; 11:18; 13:48).
9. The witness to the gospel calls for a response (Acts 26:27–29). It requires repenting of one’s sins in the name of Christ. This brings forgiveness of sins (e.g., Acts 2:38).
10. Witnesses must always maintain integrity before the world (Acts 18:12–15; 23:29; 25:18; 26:31–32).
11. Christian witnesses continue the ministry that Christ “began” (Acts 1:1).
12. Faithful witness can bring great results (Acts 4:4; 13:48–49; 17:4; 28:30–31).
I. Preparation for Witness (1:1–2:13)
II. The Witness in Jerusalem (2:14–5:42)
III. The Witness beyond Jerusalem (6:1–12:25)
IV. The Witness in Cyprus and Southern Galatia (13:1–14:28)
V. The Jerusalem Council (15:1–35)
VI. The Witness in Greece (15:36–18:22)
VII. The Witness in Ephesus (18:23–21:16)
VIII. The Arrest in Jerusalem (21:17–23:35)
IX. The Witness in Caesarea (24:1–26:32)
X. The Witness in Rome (27:1–28:31)
The Setting of Acts
The Global Message of Acts
Acts and Redemptive History
The book of Acts begins in Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, but ends in Rome, the capital city of the Gentiles. It begins with the ministry of Peter, apostle to the Jews, but ends with the ministry of Paul, apostle to the Gentiles (see Galatians 2:7–8; 1 Timothy 2:7). The direction of Acts is one of ever-expanding global reach.
Acts 1:8 sums up the global significance of the book of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Reversing the Curse of Babel
In Genesis 11 the pride of mankind led to the building of the tower of Babel. But God brought low mankind’s arrogance. He scattered the human race throughout the earth and gave different languages to different people groups, preventing a second attempt at a unified monument to human pride like Babel.
In Acts 2, the curse of Babel is reversed. Instead of one language becoming many, many languages become one. As travelers from distant lands descend on Jerusalem at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples and they speak in tongues, “and at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). With the pouring out of the Spirit right after Christ’s ascension, God was beginning to undo the effects of sin. Indeed, Peter said that Pentecost was the beginning of the “last days” predicted by Joel (Acts 2:16–21). The gospel’s global reach is thus beautifully depicted in the events of Acts 2.
To the End of the Earth
The rest of Acts then describes the ongoing spread of the gospel outward from Jerusalem. This is in fulfillment of the ancient promises to Abraham (soon after Babel) that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3). The first seven chapters of Acts show the gospel spreading in Jerusalem. Chapters 8–9 describe its spread to the surrounding regions. Chapters 10–28 show the gospel going to the end of the earth, to Rome itself. In this way Acts 1:8 becomes an outline of the whole book of Acts. Even the final verse of Acts records the unstoppable spread of the gospel: Paul was “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
The end of the Bible completes the global explosion of the gospel that begins in Acts. In Revelation 5 John sees twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb and sing,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10; compare 7:9)
Universal Themes in Acts
The Global Reach of the Gospel
In Acts God calls his people, led by the apostles, to be witnesses of Jesus “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In chapter 2, Luke makes a deliberate point of recording the various nations represented at Pentecost in Jerusalem—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9–11). This is a remarkably comprehensive list of nations that covers virtually the entire Roman Empire and thus the whole known world of the time. Acts shows us God’s determination to bring his blessings to every corner of the cosmos.
The Welcome of All Kinds of People into the Family of God
Not only does the gospel reach to all the corners of the earth in Acts, it also reaches to all kinds of people—an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40), a Roman centurion (Acts 10:1–48), lame men (Acts 3:1–10; 14:8–10), a merchant woman (Acts 16:11–15), a Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25–34), members of the religious elite in Athens (Acts 17:34), and magicians and sorcerers (Acts 19:18–19). In his great grace, God welcomes all kinds of people into his family.
The Sovereignty of God in All Things
As much as any book in the Bible, Acts lifts up the sovereign rule of God over everything in both life and salvation. This sovereignty extends to every square inch of the globe and is a deep comfort for Christians everywhere. Acts shows us God’s sovereignty in appointing men and women to eternal life (Acts 2:39, 41, 47; 5:14; 11:24; 13:48), in granting faith and repentance (Acts 3:16; 5:31; 11:18; 15:8–9; 16:14; 18:27), and even in the cruel cross of Christ (Acts 2:23–24; 3:18; 4:27–28). All things, even acts of great evil, are ultimately governed by the wise hand of God, yet never in such a way that he himself could be accused of wrongdoing (see James 1:13–14, 17).
The Global Message of Acts for Today
Word and Deed
Throughout Acts, ministry involves both word and deed, both speaking and doing, both preaching and serving. Miraculous acts of healing, for example, were “signs and wonders” that pointed to the life-changing power of the gospel. In Acts 14:3, we are told that Paul and Barnabas were “speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” Christians sometimes emphasize either word or deed to the neglect of the other. The New Testament teaches us to make God’s Word our first priority in ministry (1 Corinthians 1:22–23), yet the gospel must be clothed in love and good deeds, lest we “unsay” with our actions what we say with our lips (1 John 3:18).
Christian Generosity with One Another
The church is called to be kind and generous to all those made in God’s image. Yet believers are to show special kindness to one another (Galatians 6:10). We see this beautifully in Acts, as believers share possessions in common with one another in a bold sacrifice of love (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). As Christ poured his life out in self-giving compassion for us when we were in need, so we give of ourselves to others who are in need.
The Power of the Holy Spirit
The worldwide mission of the church began only when the Holy Spirit came upon God’s people (Acts 1:8; compare Luke 24:49). In a day when the Spirit is often the most neglected person of the Trinity, especially in the Christian West, the global church must learn from Acts to treasure the Spirit and his presence and power. Acts declares to the church today that it is by the power of the Spirit that the gospel will go forth to the end of the earth. This is humbling to human pride, yet it is also our great hope. Evangelistic effectiveness does not depend ultimately on human cleverness and sophisticated strategies. Global fruitfulness comes as weak Christians depend on the Spirit and look to him for strength.