This past Thursday our small group began a study on the book of Acts. Derek Stone, Parris Payden, and myself (PJ Wenzel) will be teaching through the book verse by verse over the course of the next 10-12 months. I’m thrilled to be starting this study, and look forward to many wonderful months of in-depth learning and growth for everyone.
In that spirit, I wanted to post my introductory notes for week one. Enjoy!
Introduction to Acts
Very few people contend that Luke was not the author of this book. His detailed account of things, and his reference to Theophilus early on in the both books are just two of the internal evidences that show he was the author Acts.
One of the internal evidences that Luke wrote this book and was actually a traveling companion of Paul can be found in the “we” passages of the book (16:10-17; 20:2-21:18; 27:1-28:16) where MacArthur notes that “the writer switches to the first person plural, showing he was present.”
In addition to being a follower of Christ, and one of Paul’s travel companions, Luke was also a doctor, and a man of education. His Greek is some of the most eloquent that we find in the New Testament, and his precision when it comes to details has earned this book praise – even among critical secular scholars.
Both MacArthur and Sproul tell of the account of British Archeologist William Ramsay, who was a doubter of Christianity and decided to retrace the accounts of Luke step by step to show his inaccuracies. What started as a de-bunking mission, ended up being a verification process of all that Luke had written. Here’s what Ramsay said, “It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth” (cf. MacArthur’s commentary, pg. 5).
MacArthur notes further, “…he was a remarkably accurate historian. Acts shows familiarity with Roman law and the privileges of Roman citizens, gives the correct titles of various provincial rulers, and accurately describes various geographical locations.”
Luke also was very thorough in his research. “According to tradition, Luke personally interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, to get her perspective on all the events surrounding the annunciation and the Nativity” (Sproul, pg. 20).
The first thing we must realize from a contextual perspective, is that Acts is really the second volume of a two-volume set written by Luke.
F.F. Bruce explains, “The Acts of the Apostles is the name given since the second century A.D. to the second volume of a History of Christian Origins composed by a first century Christian and dedicated to a certain Theophilus. The earlier volume of this History is also extant as one of the 27 documents ultimately included in the New Testament canon: it is the work ordinarily known to us as the Gospel according to Luke.”
Because of this, we need to realize that the introduction to the Gospel of Luke is really the introduction to both books (such was the custom in the ancient world). John Stott comments, “it was the custom in antiquity, whenever it work was divided into more than one volume, to prefix to the first a preface for the whole.” Therefore, it is important to first examine the beginning of Luke’s Gospel which states the following:
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. (Luke 1:1-4)
Sproul and MacArthur say much the same thing. Sproul comments, “In antiquity, that standard length of a book written in this manner (scrolls) was about 35 feet long. The scrolls were then rolled up and carefully preserved as they were read and passed from church to church. Initially Luke penned two volumes on separate scolls, on, the gospel account of Christ, and the second, which was carried along with the first, the book of Acts.
There are basically two schools of thought on when this book was written. Some say that it was written during the end of Paul’s lifetime, while others say that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70AD). John MacArthur lays out some great reasons to believe this book was written before Paul died, and before 70AD:
- It best explains the abrupt ending for the book of acts. The book ends by saying, “He lived there (Rome) 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.” Luke doesn’t talk about Paul’s death, something that I think would have been important to note.
- The Roman officials in Acts were friendly, if not favorable, to Christians. This wasn’t the case later on.
- Luke doesn’t talk about the violent persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero. Given the other persecution that Luke mentions (like the stoning of Stephen), it would not have made sense to leave such an important thing out.
- There’s not mention of the fall of Jerusalem. Given all the disputes about Judaizers, and the way Luke documented the Council of Jerusalem, surely he would have written about a momentous event like the fall of the temple, and the city. The temple was central in the life of Jews until 70AD, and Christ’s coming signaled the end of its physical significance.
- The subject mater of Acts is really more focused on early church disputes about the new covenant, and how to deal with the law, and the dietary elements of the law etc. Whereas later in the first century, most of the debate turned to more theological matters.
- Acts doesn’t reflect any theological familiarity with Paul’s epistles.
- There’s not one mention of Paul’s travels after his second imprisonment, even though Luke was with him during this time. If the book was written later, it would have made no sense to leave out those other great ministry stories from Paul’s travels.
The Purpose of the Book
I think we find this laid out in Luke’s preface to his gospel, which states, “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.” So I think we see here that first of all, Luke wanted to put together an “orderly account” of what had happened.
The second, and more central purpose is what he says to Theophilus “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
MacArthur comments, “…Luke’s primary purpose is to show the spread of Christianity empowered and energized by the Holy Spirit, throughout the Roman world (1:8).”
Sproul comments, “Luke’s agenda was not only to verify that Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision but to remind his readers of the commandments that Jesus gave just before he ascended. What follows is the rest of Acts is a drama of the highest magnitude – the drama of the obedience of the early church to the mission that Christ had given to it.”
The Meta-Narrative – The Kingdom of God has “come upon you”
R.C. Sproul ends the first chapter of his commentary on Acts this way:
A whole new chapter of world history began with the ministry of Christ and with his ascension to the right hand of the father, where He is enthroned as the King. One of the worst distortions of theology that plagues the Evangelical world is the idea that the kingdom of God is something completely future. That view completely destroys the biblical testimony of the breakthrough of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, especially in his ascension. Yes, the consummation of the kingdom is still in the future, but the reality of the kingdom is now. The mission of the early church was to bear witness to the reality of that kingdom in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth.
The grand scope of redemptive history has seen an ushering in of a new chapter – an entirely new epic is birthed in the book of Acts. This book was written to remind us to, and bear witness to itself, the fact that Jesus had ushered in the Kingdom of God.
For thousands of years mankind had been living in darkness. We had gone astray, we had failed to keep the law of God. We had failed to live in love toward each other, and we had failed to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds.
The time for a rescuer had come. The long-appointed time for the recue plan had finally arrived, and Jesus had been victorious over even death itself. Now, as He was wrapping up His earthly ministry, He wanted to ensure that we had closely understood all that He had come to teach us. We were to be His witnesses to the entire world. What were we bearing witness to? Answer: To the reality of His kingdom.
Jesus is reigning in glory now, and has left us to carry on the work of expanding His kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are to be obedient to that calling as Paul was – and the book of Acts tells us how this began. That is why Acts is an important book. It is showing us how the early church took on the mission that we carry out to this day.
In order to understand the importance of this book, we need to understand the historical importance of the time in which it was written. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is like a mile marker that divides all of human history. By His birth we even measure time to this day. So when we read through the book of Acts, keep in mind that reality, and the fact that this was really the beginning of an entirely new epoch in history, as well as an entirely new spiritual reality in that Jesus had ushered in His spiritual kingdom.
Lastly, we need to remember as we read this book that so much of what is written in here emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Both Sproul and MacArthur rightly comment that the book of Acts could rightly be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit through His Apostles.” The Spirit is mentioned over 50 times in this book, and its clear that the events in this book were guided by Him. Also, since He is the writer of all sacred scripture, we must realize that as we study this book, what is included in these pages is not a comprehensive history, but rather what God wanted us to know about this time. It is quite literally God’s own commentary on the events as they unfolded in the early days of the church.
Overview of Each Chapter
Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, remains with the disciples for 40 days, and ascends into heaven. Then the apostles chose Matthias to replace Judas as the 12th apostle.
The Holy Spirit is given by God at the first Pentecost (there are four in the book of Acts), Peter gives a bold sermon that leads thousands to give their lives to Christ, and Luke details for us the harmony of the early church.
Peter and John heal a lame man in the temple and give a rousing testament to the live and death of Jesus Christ, boldly sharing the gospel in the middle of the temple in Solomon’s Portico.
Peter and John go before the council and speak with such bold clarity that the Sanhedrin are completely stumped and decided to chide them and release them. Once released the church prayed for even more boldness and the entire building was shaken. Luke tells us that they had “all things in common.”
Ananias and Saphira die for lying to the Holy Spirit, Peter and John are arrested and speak before the council, but the council decides to let them go again because, under the Gamaliel, they thought it better to let the political situation play out…and they didn’t want to be “caught” on the wrong side of what God might be doing…they never thought about testing what the disciples of Christ were actually saying against what Scripture attested to.
The apostles and early church members were getting overrun with work, and some were being neglected, so 7 men were chosen to lead a special service effort – similar to what our church deacons do today. One of the seven men was a man named Stephen. Stephen was especially bold in his preaching and was a man “full of the Holy Spirit.” Because of this, the Pharisees brought him before the council under arrest.
Stephen details the historical meta-narrative of Scripture leading up to Jesus Christ. The end of his testimony concludes with a stinging rebuke against the Pharisees for putting the “Lord of Glory” to death. This is one of the richest historical narratives in Acts. The chapter ends with Stephen being stoned to death and Saul standing by approving of the execution.
Saul ravages the church and drags many to jail. Meanwhile, Phillip is evangelizing from city to city and having great success. Here we learn about a false convert named Simon, and the end of the chapter details how Phillip shared the gospel with an important officer from Ethiopia. So the gospel is now going to go south to Africa!
Chapter 9 details the dramatic Damascus road conversion of Paul where he is struck blind from a light from heaven. Later we learn that Paul immediately proclaims the name of Jesus and is baptized, and even has to escape from Damascus in a basket. After a period of about 3 years, Luke tells us that Paul went back to Jerusalem to meet up with the apostles. Meanwhile, amazing miracles were still going on. Peter healed a blind man and even raised a lady, Dorcus, to life again. Amazing stuff.
Then Luke goes back to focusing on Peter and details how Peter was given a vision from God that related to the kinds of food that Jews were used to eating – specifically God was explaining the end of the ceremonial law to Peter. The famous line from this section is that “what God has made clean, do not call common.” At the end of this important chapter, the Holy Spirit falls on the gentiles in an amazing show of grace from God to those outside of the physical Jewish heritage.
Peter describes everything that happened in chapter ten to the Christians in Jerusalem, and Luke details how the church has been spreading abroad because of the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen. Luke also tells us of a thriving early church in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”
Then Luke turns to the dramatic rescue of Peter, and the death of James. Peter was imprisoned and freed by an angel. God is glorified by this amazing rescue, and counter to what most would think Peter would do after this, he obeys God and goes right back to the temple the next day and begins to preach the gospel. At the end of the chapter we learn of the death of Herod. So time is moving right along here.
A major shift occurs in chapter 13. Luke is now going to focus mostly on the mission of Paul, who, along with Barnabas, is sent off on his first missionary journey by the Holy Spirit. This chapter also details for us Paul’s first preaching in public, and like Stephen, he makes an appeal to history, and to Scripture and shares the gospel with boldness.
Paul then moves on to Iconium and Lystra and ends up facing many hurdles – the end of the chapter concludes with Paul nearly dying by getting stoned by the people in Lystra! After that they returned to Antioch and shared about how God had opened a door to the gentile world for the gospel.
This chapter is details the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem where the issue of the Judaizers needed to be dealt with – men who said that the gentile believers needed to adhere to the dietary restrictions of the OT and also be circumcised. The council finds this to be incorrect, and sends a letter of clarification to the gentile churches. Unfortunately the chapter also ends with a dispute between Barnabas and Paul, which leads them to separate and go different paths.
In chapter 16 Timothy joins Paul and Paul receives the call to the people in Macedonia. Whereupon he sails immediately to that region and begins to preach the gospel. But they encounter resistance and are jailed. During their stay in jail they began singing hymns and songs of praise to God and the entire jail is shaken by an earthquake that unleashes their bonds. But they don’t leave, instead witnessing to the Jailer in charge of their protection. This man is saved and the leaders of the city let them go (once they learn of Paul’s roman citizenship).
Next Paul goes to Thessalonica and his teaching persuades some but other form a mob against them uttering the famous words, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” They escape to Berea, and find a lot more willingness among these people to learn and seach out what the Scriptures have to say about the Christ. Then they go to Athens where Paul addresses the city in the Areopagus and gives his gospel message using the reasoning style and citations of the Greeks.
Next Paul went to Corinth and where we meet Pricilla and Aquila who were Jews scattered by the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion). The local Jews in Corinth were so reviling in their reception of Paul that he said “from now on I will go to the Gentiles”, signifying a significant shift in his strategy for sharing the gospel. The local Jews are so violent that they bring Paul before the roman proconsul who dismisses their charges out of pettiness. So Paul returns to Antioch and Luke concludes the chapter by introducing us to a man named Apollos who was a great speaker and a great witness for Christ.
Paul then goes to Ephesus and finds disciples who have not yet received the Spirit, and Luke details yet another Pentecost for these god fearing men and women who received the Spirit and were believers. Luke also takes time to tell us of the amazing miracles that Paul was working – even allowing people to take his handkerchief to the sick to be cured. The amazing chapter ends with Luke telling of a riot in Ephesus over the preaching of the gospel. The entire town – led by the silversmiths who made gods for a living – was in an uproar and a mob formed to deal with these Christians. Fortunately, the town leaders dismissed the gathering and no one was hurt ad Paul was able to leave in safety.
Paul then leaves Ephesus for Macedonia again, but the Jews plot his demise, so he sailed to Troas and preached there for 7 days during which he raised a young man from the dead who had fallen out of a window during his preaching. Then Luke tells us that Paul sent for the Ephesian church elders and had them meet him so he could give them some last instructions before he went down to Jerusalem again.
Luke details Paul’s trip to Jerusalem and his meeting with James where he gave a report of all that had been accomplished among the gentiles. Then Paul went to the temple but was mobbed and for his own safety was detained by the roman tribune who allowed him to give his defense to the people – which they rejected. The Tribune wasn’t going to keep a roman citizen bound in detention so he called for the Jewish Sanhedrin council to meet and hear Paul’s matter from there.
Paul gives his testimony before the Jewish council and because of their dissension the Romans keep him in custody for his own safety. During this time some Jews hatch a plot to kill Paul but its found out and they end up moving him to the care and protection of Felix the Governor of the area until a safe court date can be set with Paul’s Jewish accusers coming before Felix as well.
Paul’s accusers arrive and lay their case before Felix who Luke tells us has a “Rather accurate knowledge/understanding of the Way” – probably because his wife was Jewish – and so Felix put them off and said he’d decide the case later. But eventually two years passed and he did nothing until Festus succeeded him. Festus left Paul in prison for the meantime to do the Jews a political favor.
In chapter 25 we see more court maneuvering by the Romans. Now Paul is sent to Caesarea and appears before Festus and the Jewish leaders as well as before Agrippa the king and his wife Bernice. They heart initial statements and concluded that Paul couldn’t have done anything to deserve death. But Paul had made an appeal to the Caesar – which he was lawfully allowed to do due to his Roman citizenship, so the leadership locally couldn’t simply dismiss him now.
In chapter 26 Paul gives his defense and testimony before Agrippa and it’s an amazing recounting of what we heard about in Acts 9. Paul’s testimony is so powerful that Agrippa asked Paul if “in such a short time” he would have him become a Christian. Paul’s answer is great: “And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.’” At the end of the defense all the authorities agreed that Paul seemed innocent enough to them, but they were forced to send him to Rome.
So Paul is put with a bunch of other prisoners and sets sail for Rome. In the middle of the trip they encounter a storm at sea and are shipwrecked but swim to safety on the Island of Malta where Paul is bitten by a snake with no affect on him, and then goes on to heal many of sickness and disease.
After three months of sailing and being shipwrecked, they finally arrive in Rome where Paul is greeted by other believers and placed under house arrest. Paul preached the gospel to the Jewish leaders in Rome right after he arrived. Luke ends the book by saying that “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.”