Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Acts

Abrupt ending

We cannot know with certainty why the author elected to end the book of Acts without describing what happened to Paul in Rome. The author wrote a long time after Paul died there and was likely to have known that. That he ended Acts with the expression¬†without hindrance, even knowing that Paul died sometime after the two years in Rome, is an expression of his hope that the book will be a positive word about God’s irresistible purpose.

Acts as Luke’s “second volume”

The similarity of the prefaces in the Gospel according to Luke (1:1-4) and the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-2), and the continuities in the books’ themes and style of writing, have persuaded those who study them that Luke and Acts come from the same author. This means that Acts serves as an expansion of the story told in Luke’s Gospel, and it is a rich process to read these two volumes as mutually informative. Because the author is so interested in the fulfillment of God’s promises, including promises made by Jesus, some of what happens in Acts can be best understood by comparisons with similar episodes in Luke’s Gospel (and vice versa). Consider, for example, the story of the centurion in Luke 7:1-10 in light of the story of the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Think about Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross (Luke 23:34) when reading what Stephen says when he dies in Acts 7:60. Recall the promises Jesus makes about the witness his followers will give (Luke 21:12-18) as an interpretation of the apostles’ journeys, beginning in Jerusalem with Peter and John’s display of remarkable boldness and wisdom (Acts 4:13-14). The story of Jesus in Luke becomes a picture of God’s activity, prophesying realities that are ever before his followers in Acts.

Actual events and the book of Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is a patterned and repetitive portrayal of ancient events that seeks to tell a sacred history rather than only recount an accurate, verifiable human history. Our questions about “what really happened” are not the same as those asked or answered by the book’s author, for he assumes many events rather than seeking to provide evidence for them. The historical “accuracy” of the book’s descriptions needs to be considered in light of the author’s knowledge and goals. For example, the descriptions of the earliest community of believers in chapters 2 and 4 are likely to be highly stylized, weaving together ideas of a golden age or of perfect friendship expressed in first-century Jewish and non-Jewish ideals, to show what a perfect community in the power of the Spirit might look like. The descriptions of the rank-and-file Jews and the Jewish leaders who reject the gospel (note the similarities in their rejections) are also stylized as a way to explain why the church became primarily Gentile by the time Acts was written. Such descriptions also make the case that Christians were not troublemakers, but Jews were. While a kernel of truth may reside in these descriptions, to accept them as historically accurate in a modern sense can be dangerously naive about the author’s own purposes in writing.

Actual speeches and the book of Acts

As is the case for the events described in Acts, one cannot be sure either about the historical accuracy of the speeches in Acts. It seems likely, given the far-flung locations of speech-making in Acts and the lack of technology for recording and keeping speeches and given the common practice of ancient historians’ creating suitable speeches for their characters, that Acts does not offer verbatim reports of speeches. Instead, we read what the author deemed most likely or most appropriate for the occasion. This distinction helps us understand some of the differences between the way Paul writes in his letters and the way he speaks to audiences in Acts.

Baptism and the Holy Spirit

Acts offers no clear sequence of events in regard to baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit; it is not always the case that one is first baptized and then receives the Spirit, nor is it always the reverse. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household, making clear to Peter and the others that baptism should immediately follow. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus’ followers at Pentecost, and we are not told whether all of them have already been baptized. In Acts 16 both Lydia and the Philippian jailer’s household are baptized, but there is no description of the reception of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19 disciples in Ephesus who had been baptized into John’s baptism are baptized again in the name of Jesus and then receive the Holy Spirit. Two things are clear in these stories: (1) baptism in the name of Jesus is a great gift that believers find empowering as they become part of communities of worship and shared life; (2) the Holy Spirit is given by Jesus to believers, either before or after their baptism, but always in a way that is connected to baptism. The freedom of the Spirit and the Lord Jesus precludes attempts to systematize the relationship between Spirit and baptism, just as it also prevents us from predicting precisely how the gifts of the Spirit are manifested at the time of a unique individual’s baptism. In Acts, the Spirit gives to some the gift of speaking in tongues and prophesying (19:6), to others the gift of praising God in other human languages (2:4-11), and to others the gift of holy joy (8:39; 16:34).

Geographical structure

As Luke’s Gospel begins in Jerusalem with the worship of God and ends in the same way, so the location of events in Acts has geographic importance. In Acts 1:8, those who believe that Jerusalem will be the center of God’s restoration learn from Jesus that they will witness to that coming restoration in Jerusalem, then in the larger area of Judea and Samaria, and finally to the very ends of the earth. This journey begins in Jerusalem, where the Eleven (the twelve apostles without Judas) add a twelfth to their number and–along with others, including Mary the mother of Jesus–wait for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The beginning in Jerusalem lasts until Acts 8, which opens with a “severe persecution” of the church and the departure of many believers to the “countryside of Judea and Samaria,” a scattering that leads to many new conversions and the creation of new communities. In Acts 11:19, readers see that some of those who had fled Jerusalem end up as far away as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, cities north and west of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. As Acts focuses more on the story of Paul’s travels, the trajectories move out farther and farther from Jerusalem, all around the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Acts ends in Rome, not the ends of the earth as we know it, but nearing the western end of the Mediterranean. As Paul continues to preach the word of God unhindered, even as he is under house arrest in faraway Rome, it is clear that the ends of the earth–wherever they were and are understood to be–will be reached.

Hostility and the Jewish people

Acts portrays the Jews in Jerusalem and Asia Minor in a variety of ways. Many Jews share interest and belief in Jesus. There are conflicts between Jewish communities and the Jews who believe in Jesus. Theological divisions arise among Jews (for instance, in the argument about resurrection in 23:8). According to Acts, when Paul travels in Asia Minor some Jews resort to rabble-rousing and violence to stop him. In these and other stories the author shows his late first-century audience two important things: (1) Christians are not the cause of social discord, but it is only the people who harass them; (2) Christians are really God’s people in continuity with the past, while some Jews foolishly reject their own tradition.

Jesus’ resurrection appearances

If Acts and Luke were written by the same person, why is the story of Jesus’ postresurrection time with his disciples different in each book? The opening of Acts and the forty days Jesus spends with the disciples can be understood as filling out Luke 24:45, where Jesus “opens Scripture” to his disciples before his ascension.

Literary genre

Scholars disagree about what kind of book Acts is. Some argue that it should be read as a biography; others regard it as something closer to an ancient novel full of adventure and entertainment as well as teaching. It is more likely, however, that Acts was written as history in an ancient sense. It is not primarily investigative history, but the author’s efforts to gather information include also his taking into account the divine forces at work within human history. All historical writing involves choosing incidents to report, adopting a point of view, and the limitation of one’s sources. As historical writing, Acts tells the stories of an earlier time to explain how the present time came to be. Of particular concern in Acts is understanding why fewer Jews than Gentiles believe Jesus to be God’s Messiah, how Christians can be people of God and not keep certain laws decreed by God, and how Christians themselves are good neighbors and not troublemakers for the Roman government.

Paul and the Twelve

According to Acts, Paul’s relationship with the Twelve and the Jerusalem community was more trusting, close, and harmonious than we might imagine from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Both Acts and Galatians speak of contact and mutual respect between Paul and other church leaders. Galatians emphasizes Paul’s independence on behalf of the letter’s recipients, while Acts has a very different agenda, seeking to show how the church spread in accord with God’s will through the power of the Spirit. Acts does reveal conflicts within the church (for example, 5:1-11; 6:1; 15:1-5; 21:17-22) but does not portray sharp divisions among the leaders. We do not know what the relationships were, given our reliance on two sources with quite different agendas. One might think that both Acts and Galatians portray Paul’s relationships accurately and that the relationship was basically one of respect, but that Paul (and perhaps others) did not hesitate to raise difficult issues concerning gospel-based living.

Paul’s calling

Why do the three descriptions of Paul’s calling to faith in Christ (9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18) differ from each other? The differences point out the importance of understanding speech-writing and speech-making in the ancient world. In each case, both audience and context are slightly different. The details of a speech take shape from Paul’s calling to persuade each audience of the truth that Jesus was the Messiah of God, had been raised from the dead, and had called Paul to mission to the Gentiles.

Women in Acts

The names and stories of a number of interesting women emerge in the story of the development of early Christian communities in Acts. Although the stories are brief and tell us little about these women, they hint at the importance of the women as members and leaders in Christian communities. Acts tells the stories of women in a matter-of-fact way, as if the early Christians simply took the work of women for granted. From the beginning of Acts (1:14), where Mary the mother of Jesus is with the apostles and others and receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to the account of Priscilla (Prisca) and her husband instructing the bright and eager young Apollos in the faith (18:24-26), Acts puts before us women in a variety of roles. Tabitha (also called Dorcas), who is widely known and respected by men and women because of her devotion to good works and charity, is so mourned at her death that Peter comes to Joppa to raise her from death (9:36-41). Lydia, a leader of a household involved in the work of selling and perhaps producing expensive purple goods, meets Paul in Philippi, believes what he says, and becomes the leader of a gathering in her own house (16:12-15). The mother of John Mark has a group of believers in her house for prayer, a dangerous act that must be hidden from authorities, yet her household is known to believers, for Peter stops there briefly after he escapes from jail (12:12-17). It is precisely because Acts nowhere underlines the work of these women as special or unusual that we assume it was not unusual to find women in this wide variety of roles and publicly known for the parts they played in early Christian communities.