The book of Acts is the story of early Christianity. This book gives us a great many principles that should guide us in Christian effort at the present time. One is reminded of the Lord’s word to Moses when He commanded him to build the tabernacle: “Look that thou make them after their pattern which was showed thee in the mount” (Exodus 25:40). God has given us in the book of Acts a pattern of Christian testimony, missionary effort, world evangelism, and building of Christian churches—a pattern which we would do well to follow. Certainly we can be assured of this: the closer we come to following this holy pattern, the greater blessing will attend our efforts.
The title of this book as given in our English Bibles is of course not inspired. These titles have been added to the books by editors. Sometimes they seem to have been given with great exactness; in other cases we may question their appropriateness. Actually this book does not contain the acts of the apostles as a whole. The fact of the matter is, very few of the apostles are even mentioned in it. The book is largely limited to the ministry of two of them—Peter, who was one of the twelve, and Paul, who was an apostle of a different order altogether and not one of the twelve. He did not know our Lord on earth, but received his commission directly from Heaven. Actually the book might be called, as others have suggested, The Acts of the Holy Spirit; or, if you will, The Acts of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit Working in the Church on Earth. In this book we have brought before us in a wonderful way the work of that promised Comforter who came to earth to witness to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ and to convince men of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.
It is always well, in beginning the study of any book, to have an outline of it in mind. The Acts divides readily into two main parts. In chapters 1-12 we have the activity of the apostle Peter; in chapters 13-28 the activity of the apostle Paul. The first division is readily subdivided. In chapters 1-7 we have the transitional period in which God was still largely occupied with His earthly people Israel before the Word began to go out to the Gentiles. When I use the term transitional period I always like to explain what I mean. There was no transitional period in the mind of God. At the moment the work of Christ was accomplished, salvation was ready to be offered to all men everywhere. On the cross the heart of God was seen as going out to the whole world. In this portion we see our Lord, before His ascension, instructing His disciples to go to the uttermost part of the earth with the gospel. When the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost He empowered the twelve to speak many tongues that the miracle of Babel (which divided the original tongue into many different languages) might be undone and the gospel go out to all the world, But God is very gracious. He takes into account how slowly we apprehend things and so He bore patiently with His disciples and the early Christians for years while they confined their ministry exclusively to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and Samaria.
The second subdivision includes Acts 9-12, in which we have the ministry going out to the Gentiles. Chapter 9 records the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and his commission as the apostle to the Gentiles. In chapters 10 and 11 we have the apostle Peter going to the house of Cornelius and thus bringing the gospel to the first Gentile family. We also read of the mighty work of grace that began in Syrian Antioch. It was not at Jerusalem that the vision of world conquest was manifested, but in Antioch of Syria, a Gentile city north of Palestine, where certain traveling Jewish Christians ventured to preach the gospel to the Greek-speaking population of that idolatrous city. As a result, many of these heathen Gentiles were brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the first Gentile church was established. The church was further nurtured by the teaching of Saul and Barnabas.
Later, when a famine broke out in Judea, Saul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem, to bring alms to the Christians there. This act of kindness showed the bond that now had been forged between the believing Jews and the believing Antiochians.
The twelfth chapter of the book of Acts concludes the first division of the story of the early days of Christianity. In the records of these first twelve chapters the work was centered in Jerusalem and Judea, and the ministry was largely to the Jewish people, the people of Israel.
Chapter 13 begins the second division of the book of Acts, which deals with the great work of world evangelization. In this chapter we find ourselves in an altogether different atmosphere. Antioch in Syria is the center, and the work spreads in large measure among the Gentiles, though the Jews are not neglected. The river of grace was overflowing the artificial boundary that even good men were seeking to throw about it. Some of the godliest men could not understand that the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile was broken down in the cross and they were still confining their message to God’s ancient people (Ephesians 2:14). Finally the crisis came in regard to world missions, and we read in the earlier verses of Acts 13 how God placed on His servants’ hearts the responsibility of sending out the gospel to the whole world. In chapters 13 through 21 we read of Paul’s three missionary journeys.
In Chapters 22-28 we follow Paul step by step as he answers the charge of sedition, first on the temple stairs in Jerusalem, then before the chief captain himself, and later before Felix, Festus, and King Agrippa. As the book of Acts closes Paul is in prison in Rome still sharing the gospel message with the unsaved. Wherever Paul went he preached to unregenerate men the kingdom of God. He lifted up the Lord Jesus Christ as the One who died and rose again and has been exalted to God’s right hand, there to be a Prince and Savior. This is the gospel, and we are to carry it to the world today.