Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Acts

rev. by F. Scott Spencer (04/2023)

Abrupt ending

Why the author elected to end the Book of Acts without describing Paul’s martyrdom in Rome remains a mystery. One clue comes with the very last word of Acts, akōlytōs, “unhinderedly” (“without hindrance” in the NRSV). Though knowing that Paul died in Rome soon after the two-year house imprisonment reported in Acts, the author views God’s purpose revealed in Paul’s dynamic witness to Christ as irrepressible—a source of continuing hope for God’s people in hard times.

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 styles of writing, have persuaded scholars that Luke and Acts come from the same author. Acts thus extends the story of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel through the words and actions of Jesus’ followers after his death, resurrection, and ascension. The two volumes richly inform each other. Because the author is so interested in the fulfillment of God’s promises, including promises made by Jesus, many incidents  in Acts can be profitably compared with similar episodes in Luke’s Gospel. Consider, for example, the related stories of the centurion in Luke 7:1-10 and the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Think about Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross (Luke 23:34) when reading  Stephen’s  last words in Acts 7:60. Recall the promises Jesus makes about the witness his followers will give (Luke 21:12-18) when interpreting the apostles’ journeys, beginning in Jerusalem with Peter and John’s display of remarkable boldness and wisdom (Acts 4:13-14). Luke’s Jesus embodies  God’s mission and paves the way for his followers’ extending this mission in his name through the Spirit’s guidance and energy.

Actual events and the Book of Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is an interpretive account of ancient events that seeks to tell a sacred story rather than provide a mundane chronicle. 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 believing community 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 ideals to show what a utopian Spirit-formed fellowship might look like. The similar descriptions of rank-and-file Jews and Jewish leaders who reject the gospel are also stylized to help explain why the Jesus movement became primarily Gentile by the time Acts was written. These descriptions also naturally tend to make the followers of Christ look good in contrast to various opposing troublemakers, both Jewish and Gentile.

Actual speeches and the Book of Acts

It seems likely, given the far-flung locations of speech-making in Acts and the lack of technology for recording and keeping speeches, along with 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 Paul’s writings in his letters and Paul’s narrated speeches in Acts.

Baptism and the Holy Spirit

In Acts, initiation into Christ’s community typically involves repentance and faith, baptism in Jesus’ name, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and speaking in “tongues”—but in no set order. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem at Pentecost, accompanied by speaking in other (known) languages/tongues. We do not know whether they had all been previously baptized in Jesus’ name, as Peter now requires of new believers (2:38). In Acts 8, Samaritan believers in Christ are baptized under Philip the evangelist’s ministry but only receive the Spirit later through the hands of apostles Peter and John. In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household, prompting their “speaking in tongues and now extolling God” before being 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 re-baptized in the name of Jesus and then receive the Holy Spirit, accompanied by speaking in tongues and prophesying. 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 to believers, either before or after their baptism. The Holy Spirit is first and foremost the gift of God and Christ (8:19‒20).The freedom of the Spirit precludes attempts to limit and control the dynamic saving mission of God in the world. 

Geographical structure

As Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem with the worship of God (Luke 1:5‒23; 24:52‒53), so the location of events in Acts has geographic importance. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his followers to bear witness to his resurrection from Jerusalem to the outlying regions of Judea and Samaria and beyond, to the ends of the earth. The narrative of Acts follows this basic geographical track.

As first orders of business, the early Jerusalem community, numbering about 120 people (1:15)  adds a twelfth apostle to replace Judas and awaits the Spirit’s empowerment of their mission, promised by Jesus (1:5, 8). The beginning Jerusalem phase lasts until Acts 8, which opens with  “severe persecution” of believers, forcing many to scatter to the “countryside of Judea and Samaria.” As a happy consequence of this dispersion, however, many new conversions occur and new Christ communities are established. Acts 11:19 reports that some who had fled Jerusalem ended 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 increasingly move out further 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 unhinderedly, even under house arrest in Rome, hope abounds that the gospel of Christ will indeed reach the whole world.

Hostility and the Jewish people

Acts portrays the Jews in Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Diaspora in a variety of ways. Many Jews share interest and belief in Jesus, which causes conflicts with some non-believing Jews. For example, the core belief in Jesus’ resurrection rankled the Sadducean priestly leaders who denied any hope of bodily resurrection. Pharisee Jewish teachers believed in a general resurrection at the end of the age, but some Pharisees (not all, see 15:5; 23:6‒7) and other Jews rejected the particular message concerning the crucified-resurrected Jesus Messiah.

When Paul travels in Asia Minor, some Jews resort to rabble-rousing and violence to stop him. In these and other stories, Acts  aims to demonstrate that adherents of Christ 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, what accounts for the different versions of Jesus’ post-resurrection experiences with his disciples in the two books? The opening of Acts and the 40 days Jesus spends with the disciples (1:3) can be understood as filling out Luke 24:45, where Jesus “opens the scriptures” to his disciples before his ascension.

Literary genre

Scholars disagree about what type of literature Acts represents. 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 chronological history for its own sake but an interpretive theological history of the divine forces at work from the foundational era of the Christ movement to the present time of the writing of Acts. All historical writing involves choosing incidents to report, adopting a point of view, and adapting one’s sources. Of particular concern in Acts is understanding why fewer Jews than Gentiles believe Jesus to be God’s Messiah, how Christians can be faithful people of God and not keep certain Jewish laws, and how  those who call the crucified-risen Jesus “Lord” navigate the challenges of being a controversial religious “sect” in the dominant Roman empire

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, though it began with skepticism over the genuineness of Saul/Paul’s conversion to Christ (9:26‒27). 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 seeks to show how the church spread in accordance with God’s will through the power of the Spirit. Acts does reveal conflicts within the church (5:1-11; 6:1; 15:1-5; 21:17-22) but does not portray sharp divisions among the leaders, except for a surprising rift that develops between Paul and Barnabas (15:36‒41; cf. Galatians 2:13). 

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-making in the ancient world in relation to distinctive audiences and contexts. Rhetorical details take shape from Paul’s aim to persuade specific audiences of the truth that Jesus was the crucified-risen Messiah of God, who had commissioned Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.

Women in Acts

Numerous interesting women emerge in the story of the development of early Christ communities in Acts. Although the stories are brief and provide limited information about these women, they hint at the importance of women as members and leaders of house-based congregations. 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 (with her husband, Aquila)  instructing the bright and eager Apollos in the faith (18:24-26), Acts presents women in various roles. Tabitha (also called Dorcas), widely known and respected 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 household leader  and businesswoman, trading in expensive purple goods, meets Paul in Philippi, believes what he says, and becomes the head of the congregation in her own house (16:11-15). Believers gather in the home of John Mark’s mother to pray for the imprisoned Peter. When Peter escapes from jail, he heads directly to this supportive prayer group (12:12-17).B Acts reports women’s ministries as a matter of fact, not fanfare. It was accepted from the beginning that the Holy Spirit had equally equipped women and men for leadership and service. However, the particular expectation of women’s Spirit-inspired preaching/prophetic work (2:17‒18) is not realized in the Acts narrative. All the main “sermons” and speaking parts go to men, such as Stephen, Peter, and Paul.