Introducing our new series in Acts (part 2)

22 August 2016

The Structure of Acts

Acts has a clear structure and shape. At base level, as we have already seen, Luke has explicitly set out to give us a true, reliable, orderly account of what Jesus continued to do after He ascended. The structure of how he gives us this account is previewed in 1.8, when Jesus says this to His apostles:

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.

What follows is the account of the gospel reaching Jerusalem and Judea (chapters 1-7); the gospel reaching Samaria (chapters 8-12), and the gospel reaching the Gentile world, through Asia and Europe, and finally ending in Rome (chapters 13-28); exactly as 1.8 had said. God used Luke, who was well-educated and well-travelled, to compile this account of the gospel spreading out to the ends of the earth. ‘He has the broad horizons of the Graeco-Roman world, its history as well as its geography. So he sets his story of Jesus and of the early church against the background of contemporary secular events. And he uses the word oikoumenē, ‘the inhabited earth’, more often (eight times) than all the other New Testament writers together.’[1]

In addition, as the narrative progresses along this trajectory to the ends of the earth, Luke places ‘growth markers’ along the way, which indicate key points of growth or transition. Here is a summary of these growth markers:

  • 2.41,47 [the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost] – So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls…And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
  • 4.4 [Peter and John imprisoned after preaching, but many converted] – But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
  • 6.7 [the apostles focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word] – And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
  • 9.31 [after the conversion of Saul] – So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
  • 11.21 [the gospel takes root in Antioch] – And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
  • 12.24 [after Herod’s persecution and death, and preceding Paul and Barnabus’ first missionary journey] – But the word of God increased and multiplied.
  • 13.43-44,49 [Paul and Barnabus in Pisidian Antioch] – And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord… And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.
  • 14.21 [Paul and Barnabus in Derbe] – When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch…
  • 16.5 [as the decisions of the Jerusalem Council are communicated to the churches] – So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
  • 19.20 [in Ephesus, the last of Paul’s pioneering church-plants] – So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
  • 28.23,30 [the end of the book] – When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets… He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

When did all this happen?

Here is a summary of dates (although some of these dates are still being debated by scholars), given by year AD, with the related chapters in Acts given in brackets:

c. 33 Pentecost (2.1-11)

33-34 Stephen’s murder and the dispersion (8.1); Paul’s conversion (9.1-19)

35 Paul’s first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem (9.26-28); Antioch church established (11.19-21)

43/44 James executed (12.1-2)

46/47 Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem (11.27-30)

48 Paul’s first missionary journey (chapters 13-14)

49 Council of Jerusalem (15.1-35)

49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey (including staying in Corinth 50-52) (15.36-18.22)

52-57 Paul’s third missionary journey (including staying in Ephesus 52-55) (18.23-20.38)

57 Paul visits Jerusalem (chapters 21-23)

57-59 Paul imprisoned in Caesarea (chapters 24-26)

59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome (chapters 27-28)

65 Death of Paul in Rome

Where did all this happen?

A comprehensive map, including all of Paul’s missionary journeys and his journey to Rome, can be viewed at https://bibleatlas.org/isv/paul.jpg

What are some of the repeated themes of Acts?

That God saves people from all nations of the earth, through His Son Jesus. Peter says this in Acts 4.12; there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Jesus promises this in 1.8. The clear manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles in chapters 2, 8, and 10 respectively underlines this point, that Gentiles are included in the church, God’s true Israel. The centrality of the Jerusalem Council, and the repetition of Paul’s conversion testimony and commissioning as apostle to the Gentiles, underline this theme in the book.

That God uses the seeming obscurity and insignificance of individuals and families to work His purposes out. Note, for example, how the gospel first came to Europe in Acts 16. A lady called Lydia (and her household), and an unnamed jailer and his family were the first converts to Christianity. The subsequent enormous European Christian heritage lies ‘downstream’ from their faith. Similarly, the first church plant (Antioch) came about through unnamed, everyday disciples moving and taking the gospel with them.

That God’s gospel is unstoppable, despite opposition or apparent failure. The book of Acts charts the growth of the ‘Word of the Lord’ through sometimes staggering opposition. Is it not profoundly encouraging to remember that, within the first few decades of the church, the gospel had already prevailed, despite[2]:

  • External religious opposition (4.1ffl 5.17ff; 6.8ff)
  • Economic opposition (16.16ff; 19.23ff)
  • Internal hypocrisy (5.1ff)
  • Church friction (6.1-7; 15.36-41)
  • Persecution (5.17ff; 8.1ff; 12.1ff; 13.49-52; 14.19-20; 17.1ff; 21.27ff)
  • Martyrdom (7.54-8.4; 12.1-4)
  • Storms and shipwrecks (27.13ff)
  • Courts (4.5ff; 18.12-17; 24.1ff; 25.1ff)
  • Imprisonment (12.5ff; 16.16ff)
  • Orthodox religious tradition (15.1ff)

Do any of these obstacles seem familiar today? Let us take heart. Related to this theme, in Acts, we can’t miss the fact that the church – since its very earliest days – has existed within a melting pot of different cultures, languages, and religions. As we read through the book we come across followers of the Greek gods Artemis, Zeus, and Hermes; sorcerers, fortune tellers, and exorcists; the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and adherents to the Greek philosophical schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism. As we follow the narrative, we see the gospel – God’s ‘Word of Grace’ – cross boundary after boundary as it spreads out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Time and again, we are thrilled to see God’s grace reach the most unlikely converts. The UK today is a melting-pot of numerous different worldviews, including communities which seem impossibly opposed to the gospel. Let us remember that this is familiar territory for the gospel, and our Lord Jesus continues to be mighty to save. Numerous verses tell us explicitly that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation:

  • God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’ (11.18)
  • ‘all who were appointed for eternal life believed’ (13.48)
  • The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’ (16.14)
  • ‘I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’ (18.10)

That God desires our prime focus to be on Jesus . Above all, Jesus is the absolute centre in Acts. David Cook comments,

‘We would love to go home with the Ethiopian treasurer, to see how differently he now administers the treasury. We want to see how the families of Cornelius, or the Philippian jailer, develop after their conversions. We are intrigued as to how Sergius Paulus will operate as a Christian proconsul. But…Luke is relentlessly focused on the gospel. It comes via human messenger, touches people profoundly, and then moves on to its next encounter…Luke’s purpose is to show the gospel reaching out, carried by Spirit-empowered messengers, under God’s superintendence, to Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile. This is the melody of Acts: the fulfilment of God’s plan to gather in His people from the far reaches of the earth. Christ is ascended, but He continues to direct His church and empower it through His Spirit. This is why the book of Acts has been a great encouragement to gospel-bearers through the centuries.’[3]

Acts gives us a superb guide to how to read our whole Bible, since in the book of Acts we see the church, sent by Jesus and empowered by His Spirit, proclaim the Word of God across different cultural boundaries, in all kinds of different settings. And time and again we see that Luke uses ‘Kingdom of God’ as a kind of shorthand for proclaiming all of God’s plans and purposes, fulfilled and now available in Jesus[4]. So the gospel – the good news that is being announced to all the world, beginning at Jerusalem – is all about Jesus; it’s the announcement of God’s reign in Christ. To every set of people, the same Jesus is proclaimed:

  • At Pentecost, Peter preaches about Jesus to people from all nations (2.14-39)
  • When the lame man is healed, Peter preaches about Jesus (3.6)
  • Peter preaches Jesus to the God-fearing gentile Cornelius and his family (10.34-48)
  • The apostles preach Jesus to conservative Jews (14.3)
  • Paul preaches Jesus to sophisticated Greek philosophers (17.31)
  • Paul preaches Jesus to disciples of John the Baptist (19.4)

Above all, Luke wants our prime focus to be on Jesus[5].


[1] Stott, John R. W. 1994. The Message of Acts : The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester  England;Downers Grove  Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, p31.

[2] This list is found in David Cook’s introduction in his helpful book, Teaching Acts: Unlocking the Book of Acts for the Bible Teacher.

[3] Cook, David. 2007. Teaching Acts : Unlocking the Book of Acts for the Bible Teacher. London: PTMEDIA, p24.

[4] Note how Luke mentions the Kingdom of God in 1.3, 8.12, 14.22, 19.8, 28.23, 28.31.

[5] Further references to emphasise this point in Acts: 1.1; 2.36, 38; 4.8-12; 5.42; 8.12,35; 10.36; 11.20-21; 13.38-39; 15.11; 16.31; 18.5, 28; 19.4; 20.24; 24.24; 28.31

This blog post was written by Dan Martin.