Introducing our new series in Acts (part 1)

21 August 2016

An Introduction to Acts

Acts was written by Luke, who was a Christian in the early church, a companion of Paul for some of his journeys, a medical doctor, and the author of the gospel of Luke. He probably wrote Acts around AD 62-64. Although Luke and Acts are separate books in our Bibles, and were written as separate books by Luke, they are fundamentally linked. Here is how Luke begins Acts:

In my first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach… (v1)

Luke clearly sees his second book, Acts, as a direct continuation of what began in Luke, his first book. This is why we have called our series, Acts: what Jesus continued to do by His Spirit. The original book was written without a title. ‘Acts of the Apostles’ is a name it was given by the later church, although Luke’s clear emphasis is that it is the risen Lord Jesus acting, by His Spirit, through His church and apostles. The beginning of Acts, with the ascension of Jesus in chapter 1 and the giving of the Spirit in chapter 2, make this the unmistakable foundation.

Moreover, this explicit connection to Luke’s gospel means that we can assume Luke had the same intentions in volume II as he did in volume I. Here is his introduction to volume I (his gospel):

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

In volume II, Acts, we have a continuation of this ‘orderly account’, which serves to give us ‘certainty’ about this gospel of Jesus Christ. Can we trust Acts to be historically reliable? Yes! Luke spent more than two years in Palestine, during which time he researched his accounts and gathered eyewitness testimony. John Stott wrote,

‘Luke arrived in Jerusalem with Paul (21.17) and left with him on their voyage to Rome (27.1). In between was a period of more than two years, during which Paul was held a prisoner in Caesarea (24.27), while Luke was a free man. How did he use this time? It would be reasonable to guess that he travelled the length and breadth of Palestine, gathering material for his Gospel and for the early Jerusalem-based chapters of the Acts. He will have familiarised himself as a Gentile with Jewish history, customs and festivals, and he will have visited the places made sacred by the ministry of Jesus and the birth of the Christian community…he will surely also have interviewed many eyewitnesses. Some of them will have known Jesus, including perhaps the now elderly Virgin Mary herself, since Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, including the intimacies of the Annunciation, is told from her viewpoint and must go back ultimately to her. Others will have been associated with the beginnings of the Jerusalem church like John Mark and his mother, Philip, the apostles Peter and John, and James the Lord’s brother; they will have been able to give Luke firsthand information about the Ascension, the Day of Pentecost, the early preaching of the gospel, the opposition of the Sanhedrin, the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of Cornelius, the execution of the apostle James and the imprisonment and release of Peter…we have good reasons, then, to have confidence in Luke’s claim to be writing history…’[1]

This is what A.N. Sherwin-White, Reader in Ancient History at Oxford University, concluded about Acts:

‘The historical framework is exact. In terms of time and place the details are precise and correct. One walks the streets and market-places, the theatres and assemblies of first-century Ephesus or Thessalonica, Corinth, or Philippi, with the author of Acts. The great men of the cities, the magistrates, the mob and the mob-leader are all there…It is similar with the narrative of Paul’s judicial experiences before the tribunals of Gallio, Felix and Festus. As documents these narratives belong to the same historical series as the record of provincial and imperial trials in epigraphical and literary sources of the first and early second centuries AD…for Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail  must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.’[2]

The Link Between Luke and Acts

Consider these verses from the end of Luke’s gospel:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24.44-49)

It is often – and quite rightly – pointed out that verse 46 is a good summary of Luke’s gospel, while verse 47 is a good summary of Acts. When we read this passage alongside Acts 1.8 we see that there is a clear bridge or seam between the two. Luke recorded what Jesus began in his gospel – in particular, His suffering, death and resurrection, and he recorded what the risen Jesus continued in the book of Acts – in particular, the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name to all nations. There are numerous other parallels between Luke and Acts; for instance, both begin with a period of prayer and waiting, before the coming of the Spirit (at Jesus’ baptism in Luke and at Pentecost in Acts). In Luke the flow is towards Jerusalem; in Acts, the flow is away from Jerusalem. Here is how John Stott put it,

‘[Luke] does not regard volume one as the story of Jesus Christ from His birth through His sufferings and death to His triumphant resurrection and ascension, and volume two as the story of the church of Jesus Christ from its birth in Jerusalem through its sufferings by persecution to its triumphant conquest of Rome some thirty years later. For the contrasting parallel he draws between his two volumes was not between Christ and His church, but between two stages of the ministry of the same Christ. In His former book he has written about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day He was taken up to heaven, since He was ‘powerful in word and deed before God and all the people’; in this his second book (he implies) he will write about what Jesus continued to do and to teach after His ascension, especially through the apostles whose sermons and authenticating ‘signs and wonders’ Luke will faithfully record. Thus Jesus’ ministry on earth, exercised personally and publicly, was followed by His ministry from heaven, exercised through His Holy Spirit by His apostles. Moreover, the watershed between the two was the ascension. Not only did it conclude Luke’s first book and introduce his second (Acts 1.9), but it terminated Jesus’ earthly ministry and inaugurated His heavenly ministry.’[3]

[1] Stott, John R. W. 1994. The Message of Acts : The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester  England;Downers Grove  Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, p24-25

[2] Sherwin-White, A. 1963. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[3] Stott, John R. W. 1994. The Message of Acts : The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester  England;Downers Grove  Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, p32.


This blog post was written by Dan Martin.