First of all, the title of the book as we have it, is unfortunate. The actual Greek title is “Acts of Apostles” or “some acts of some apostles.”
We recognize also that the book of Acts is by no means a full history of the period from A.D. 29 to A.D. 60, the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. In fact, between the ministry of the Lord Jesus and the church as it emerged in the epistles there is a tremendous gap.
How did it happen that a movement that began among Jews, that centered in a Jewish Messiah and that was founded on the Jewish Scriptures became a religion accepted largely by Gentiles, as it is even today? How did preachers who were “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13) make such an impact on the world? What changed the fear that drove these men to denial and flight at the crucifixion into a boldness that made them stalwarts for a new faith?
These, and other similar questions are answered by the book of Acts, which is the only existing link between the ministry and teaching of Christ and the Christianity that appears full grown in the epistles of Paul and the other writers.
The book of Acts, again, does not pretend to be an exhaustive account of all the events that took place in the growth of the early church but Luke selects those portions that serve his purpose. This purpose is readily identified if we look at the prologue to the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4) and then join it to the first verse of Acts 1. The continuity is apparent on the surface. We can with assurance say: We have the same writer, Luke; the same reader, Theophilus; the same subject, Jesus. So as the Gospel of Luke is written to provide certainty of the gospel to the reader, the book of Acts continues that theme. The things that “Jesus began both to do and to teach” as the Son of Man are extended through His witnesses, the sons of men.
To achieve this purpose of instructing the reader in the certainty of the Gospel, Luke selects that expanding development of the church, His body, and northward through Antioch to Asia Minor, Macedonia, Achaia and to Rome.
He does not mention that expansion southward or eastward from Palestine, although there must have been Christians in Egypt and Syria from a very early date. There were believers in Damascus before Paul’s conversion but no account is given of the progress of the church there. The probable reason for this restriction is twofold.
First, the writer himself was best acquainted with this aspect of the expansion of Christianity and so could use it to best advantage as illustrative of his main theme. That theme was the growth of the church, particularly the transition from Judaism to Gentile Christianity. In this transition he took an active part as his use of the word “we” indicates and so he was well qualified to deal with the theme of which he wrote.
Second, as his main purpose was to instruct the reader of the certainty of the Gospel, he demonstrates that continuity from Jesus through the disciples to the time at which he wrote. Since Paul was the leader of the Gentile mission, he deserved primary attention and the explanation of the transition from Jew to Gentile, from law to grace, from Palestine to the Empire did not require a comprehensive survey of all that took place in the missionary growth of the Christian church. For Luke’s purpose the presentation of this one phase is sufficient.
“Acts” can be divided into 5 main sections:
I. Introduction 1:1-11
II. Origin of the church—Jerusalem 1:12-8:3
III. The period of transition—Samaria 8:4-11:8
IV. The expansion to the Gentiles: 11:9=21:16
The Pauline mission—Antioch and the Empire.
V. The imprisonment and defense of Paul. 21:17-28:31. Rome.
Notice how, like the waves of the sea rising higher and higher on the beach, this logically follows the outline of geographical development given in Chapter 1:8 “Ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” The first section after the introduction deals with the beginnings in Jerusalem. The second gives glimpses of the work in Samaria and in the coastal plain. The last two sections take the message to the cities of the Mediterranean world, ending with Rome, the capital.
In review, then, “The Acts of the Apostles” is a collection of some of the acts of some Apostles, selected by the Apostle-Historian, Luke. His purpose—to reinforce the certainty of the Gospel to his friend Theophilus.
By its inclusion in the canon of Holy Scripture, all the readers of ‘Acts’ can be reassured of the continuity, now in the power of the Holy Spirit, of “all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.”
At the time the book of Acts was written the entire civilized world, with the exception of the little known kingdoms of the Far East, was under the domination of Rome. From the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Euphrates River and the Red Sea on the east, and from the Rhone, the Danube, the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains on the north to the Sahara on the south, there stretched one vast empire under the dictatorship of the emperor.
“Rome” took its name from the capital city in Italy, the original settlement from which the Roman state grew. It was founded in 753 B.C., comprising a union of small villages and ruled over by a king. By a long succession of wars, Rome had complete control of the Italian peninsula by 265 B.C. The conquered peoples were bound by treaty and were absorbed gradually into the Roman domain.
For the next two hundred years Rome was engaged in a great struggle with Carthage, a powerful and wealthy nation whose ships carried the commerce of the Mediterranean. In 146 B.C. however, the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus captured the city of Carthage and burned it to the ground. So Rome had control over Spain and North Africa. At the same time Macedonia was made a Roman province and with the burning of Corinth in the same year, (146 B.C.) Achaia also came under Roman control.
In 133 B.C. the king of Pergamum died, bequeathing his realm to the Romans who organized it into the province of Asia. Pompey completed the conquest of Pontus and the Caucasus and in 63 B.C. he organized Syria into a province and annexed Judea. From 58 B.C. to 57 B.C. Caesar campaigned in Gaul and made it a Roman country.
So through 500 years of almost uninterrupted war Rome grew from an obscure village on the banks of the Tiber to become the ruling empire of the world. This rapid expansion brought great changes in the life of the Roman people. The military leaders began to use their armies to show their influence at home as well as for war. The century between the conquest of Carthage and the death of Julius Caesar was marked by a constant succession of civil wars. Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Antony, and Octavian—one after the other strove to make himself master of the Roman state, until finally Octavian, or Augustus as he was called by the Senate, succeeded in destroying his rivals in 30 B.C. and in 27 B.C. to A.D. 14 and effected many reforms. The people were tired of war and longed for peace. Augustus discharged a large part of the army and veterans were settled in colonies in the provinces where they could make a good living and also be community leaders loyal to Rome. He purged the Senate of unworthy members and sought to improve the morale of the people. He revived the state religion and rebuilt many temples. He organized the police and fire departments in Rome and appointed a supervisor for the grain supply. During his administration confidence was restored in government, peace and prosperity were promoted and the treasury was replenished. This is the Caesar mentioned by Luke in his Gospel (2:1). After Augustus the Imperial succession was as follows:
Tiberias—A.D. 14 to 37
Caligula—A.D. 37 to 41
Claudius—A.D. 41 to 54
Nero—A.D. 54 to 68
The first five years of Nero’s reign were very much under the unwanted control of his mother, Agrippina, whom he resented. In A.D. 64 he had her murdered and took full charge of the government himself. (This would be the ‘Caesar’ to whom Paul appealed). In A.D. 64 a great fire broke out in Rome which destroyed a large part of the city. The Christians were blamed and many were tried and tortured to death. It is generally agreed to by commentators that Acts was written during the reign of Nero, probably about A.D. 60.
Except for Italy itself, most of the Roman world consisted of territory under provincial government. This local government was of two kinds. The provinces that were relatively peaceful and loyal to Rome were under proconsuls (Acts 13:7) who were responsible to the Roman Senate. The more unruly provinces were governed by prefects, procurators, or proprietors who were appointed by the emperor and were answerable to him. For example: Achaia was ruled by the proconsul Gallio at the time of Paul’s visit (Acts 18:12). Palestine in the time of Christ was governed by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:11—translated “governor”). Proconsuls held office for one year terms. Procurators held office as long as the emperor saw fit.
Governorship of the provinces was sought by public officials as it was a good source of income. Most of them ruled well and made use of the taxes to build roads and harbors, so that commerce was thriving and the economic level of life improved.
Ancient writers did not date events by a calendar but by the accession or by the reign of officials. For example, the chronology of Acts is identified by names of officials:
1. The death of Herod Agrippa I. Acts 12:20 (A.D. 44)
2. The famine under Claudius. Acts 11:28 (A.D. 44-48)
3. The proconsulship of Sergius Paulis. Acts 13:7 (before A.D. 51)
4. The expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Acts 18:2 (A.D. 49)
5. The proconsulship of Gallio. Acts 18:2 (A.D. 52-53)
6. The proconsulship of Felix. Acts 23:26, 24:27 (A.D. 52-56)
7. Accession of Festus, Felix’ successor. Acts 24:27 (A.D. 58).
This review of the politics of the period of Acts should help in our understanding of conditions at that time.
We readily recognize that the principal person whose activities are recorded throughout the book of Acts is none other than the Holy Spirit Himself, that power, that infusion, sent down by the risen Christ. However, for the purpose of this overview, we will briefly identify those human personalities through whom the Holy Spirit continued to show the things that “Jesus began both to do and to teach.”
The book of Acts could be outlined by the personalities that appear in it. Chapters 1 to 5 centre in Peter; chapters 6 and 7, in Stephen; chapter 8 through 12 introduce several, chief of whom are Barnabas, Philip, and Saul of Tarsus; and from chapter 13 to the end Paul is the dominant figure.
The leaders of the early period were Peter, John and Stephen. Of the three, John was least prominent, being mentioned only in company with Peter. Peter was the preacher who dominated the scene. He made the opening address on the day of Pentecost, and he defended the position of the Christian believers before the Sanhedrin when he and John were accused (4:5-8). Peter’s boldness and spiritual power stand out in amazing contrast to his weakness at the time of his denial of Jesus.
Stephen, who was one of the seven appointed for relief work, and who became the outstanding defender of the early church, was not one of the original twelve disciples. If his name has any bearing on his background, he was a Hellenistic Jew who probably came to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, and after his conversion stayed with the church. As a debater in the foreign synagogues he was without a peer (6:9-10). He did not confine his activities to social work but became an apologist and an evangelist as well as the church’s first martyr.
A comparison between Peter and Paul is drawn in several instances:
Both were leaders, one to the Jews, the other to the Gentiles.
Peter labored largely in Jerusalem, Paul, in the Gentile world.
Each had at least one discourse recorded in full, which gives a summary of his preaching. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, (2:14-40); Paul, at Antioch of Pisidia (13:16-42).
Both performed miracles: Peter healed a lame man (3:1-10), and so did Paul (14:8-10).
Peter was freed from prison in Jerusalem (5:19-21, 12:1-11), Paul was released from jail at Philippi by divine intervention (16:19-30).
Both stressed the work of the Holy Spirit (2:38, 19:2-6).
Both made the resurrection a primary doctrine of their preaching (Peter 2:24-36, Paul 13:30-37).
One was the champion of the early church in Jerusalem, the other was the founder of the first Gentile churches.
There is, however, no suggestion of antagonism between the two, nor was the work of either confined to one class of hearers. Peter brought the gospel to the house of the Gentile, Cornelius, and Paul spoke to the Jews on every occasion he could find.
These then are the principal characters through whom the Holy Spirit demonstrated His power in the book of Acts.
In summary then of this overview:
PURPOSE: To reinforce and confirm the certainty and continuity of all “that Jesus began to do and to preach”;
POLITICS: The church in transition, in a world in transition;
PERSONALITIES: The Holy Spirit, indwelling all believers and especially equipping those who were committed to the cause of the risen Christ so that they could become “witnesses unto Him…to the uttermost parts of the earth.”