Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Acts

Baptism. In Acts, baptism in the name of Jesus is an important event in the lives of new believers, connected to the gift of the Holy Spirit and experience of joy. Baptism functions as an initiation rite into the “saved” community of believers in Christ.

Boldness. Jesus’ disciples, even those who are untrained or poorly educated (4:13), receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak powerfully about God’s resurrection of the Messiah. In the Greco-Roman world, persuasive public speech was considered a fine art, the goal of a person’s education. In Luke 21:14-15, Jesus promises his disciples the ability to articulate persuasively their convictions about God’s in-breaking reign. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost (Acts 2) equips Jesus’ followers to become dynamic witnesses and interpreters of Scripture for mission in a new world.

Christians in society. Acts presents a tense relationship between adherents of Christ and the wider society. On the one hand, Christians seek to be law-abiding and peaceful neighbors with non-Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles. On the other hand, the charge that they are “turning the world upside down” (17:6), though extreme from a political perspective (they were not calling for Caesar’s death or dethronement), has some validity: proclaiming the crucified Christ as the risen Lord of all challenged the status quo. The kingdom of God in Christ, while transcending the present world order and envisioning “universal restoration” (3:21), was not anti-worldly. It aimed to transform the world in alignment with God’s righteousness, justice, and peace. Such a revolutionary (though not violent) vision inevitably threatened the current powers that be. 

Friendship and Christian community. It is definitive of Christ’s followers that they gather for meals, feed the poor, and have all things in common (2:44‒46; 4:32‒35). Such behavior characterized friendship in the ancient world, understood as a relationship among equals who cared about one another’s well-being. Friends were expected to speak the truth with one another and to provide material assistance when needed. This concept of a community of friends reflects Acts’  understanding of the practical outworking of God’s kingdom (rule, realm) in the world. Friendship and the Holy Spirit. Friendship in the ancient world was typically limited to a small number of people because of the intense obligations it entailed among social equals. In the Christ communities in Acts, the Holy Spirit empowers close friendship and fellowship across class lines and also strengthens the people to meet the obligations of friendship.

Future hope for all humankind. Peter’s words in Acts 3:18-25 express a vibrant hope for all persons who belong to the Lord. Jesus’ return will signal the “universal restoration” that God has long promised, not least to Israel as conveyed through the prophets.

God and other powers. The God of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are more powerful and beneficent than any other forces in the universe. The stories in Acts make the case that all so-called powers, spirits, and deities—seen and unseen—are subject to the sovereign rule of the one God, the God of the Jews and the Jewish Messiah Jesus.

God’s faithfulness. Acts is intent on showing continuity among Abraham, Moses, the prophets, David, and the work of Jesus and his followers. Acts thus continues the biblical story of God’s merciful and faithful calling of humankind. God does not abandon the people of Israel, but, instead, God in Christ and the Holy Spirit fulfills promises made long ago, not least that Israel should be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Acts 13:47; 26:17‒18) and that all the earth should honor God.

Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, present from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, is poured out by Jesus after his ascension in Acts 2. The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus and the Father connects the experiences of the earliest Christ communities with God’s life and power embodied in Jesus. The Spirit’s activities resemble Jesus in “doing good and healing all who were oppressed” (10:38). .

Inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. A major theme of Acts is the complex process of including Gentiles among the saved people of God. The Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39) may be the first Gentile baptized, but the main spotlight falls on the repeated story of the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household (10:1-11:18; 15:6-11). This story marks the developing community’s acceptance of Gentiles on the basis of faith in Christ, without requiring them to be circumcised and adhere to the whole Jewish law.

Mission and hospitality. The nature of Christ-centered mission in Acts is consistent with the commands that Jesus gives in Luke 9-10, where he instructs his followers to announce the nearness of God’s reign by entering a village or house and staying there, if welcomed.. Part of God’s good news in Jesus has to do with believers’ willingness to set aside their fears in order to minister to people different from themselves. In Acts, believers bear witness–as Jesus did, in word and deed–via “entering” and “staying” in people’s homes. They cross social boundaries, not to judge people but to honor their lives, customs, and social locations.

“Not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Acts emphasizes that Jesus and his followers have never been a secret cult with a sinister agenda. Faith in Christ is a public commitment with public consequences, consistent with God who openly created and redeemed the world and encourages love and care for neighbors and strangers alike.

The prevailing word of the Lord. Acts’ final statement emphasizes  that Paul continues to preach “without hindrance” in spite of all the difficulties that have beset him and brought him finally to Rome (28:30‒31). From beginning to end, Acts  reflects confidence that, no matter how things look, human history belongs to God. God will not be overcome by any other power, and the promise of “universal restoration” will be kept.

Reorienting the center of the world. The expectation that Jerusalem would be the center of God’s renewed reign was embedded in the hopes of Israel and its prophetic texts. Jesus expands this expectation in Acts 1:6-8 when he declares that the Spirit of God will send Jesus’ followers  from Jerusalem to the very “ends of the earth” to witness to God’s power. Acts begins in Jerusalem, but, by the end of the book, extends to Rome, where Paul continues bearing witness to Christ even while under house arrest.

Salvation and the end of time. Acts declares that God’s promises of salvation and blessing have been and will be kept in Jesus Christ, who generates “times of refreshing” (3:20) for those who repent and share in Christ’s gracious community  (2:43-47; 4:32-37). A time of “universal restoration” (3:21) remains to come, when Jesus will return and all families of the earth will be blessed.

• Friendship and Christian community. It is definitive of the Christian community that its members gather for meals, feed those who have no way to provide for themselves, and have all things in common. Such behavior also characterizes friendship as it was understood in the ancient world, as a relationship among equals who cared deeply and mutually about one another’s well-being. Friends were expected to speak the truth with one another and to provide material assistance to one another if necessary. This concept of human community as a community of friends in the deepest sense fills the pages of Acts, reflecting the book’s understanding of the reign of God as it happens among us.

• Friendship and the Holy Spirit. For ancient people, friendship had to be limited to a relatively small number of people in one’s life, because of the intense obligations it entailed and because usually one’s friends were social equals. In the Christian communities, the Holy Spirit empowers persons to become one another’s equals no matter what their social status, thus creating a large number of friends. That same Spirit also strengthens and empowers people to meet the obligations of friendship.

• Future hope for all humankind. Peter’s words in Acts 3:18-25 express hope for the future of all persons who belong to the Lord. Jesus’ return will signal the “universal restoration” that God has long promised, not least to Israel through the holy prophets.

• God and other powers. The God of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are more powerful and beneficent than any other forces in the universe. The stories in Acts make the case that all invisible powers, such as other spirits and deities, are under the rule of the one God, the God of the Jews and of Jesus Christ.

• God’s faithfulness. Acts is intent on showing continuity among Abraham, Moses, the prophets, David, and the work of Jesus and his followers. In this and other ways, the book continues the biblical story of God’s merciful and faithful calling of humankind. God does not abandon the people of Israel, but, instead, God in Christ and the Holy Spirit fulfills promises made long ago, not least the promise that Israel itself should be a light to the Gentiles and that all the earth should honor God.

• Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, present from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, is poured out by Jesus after his ascension in Acts 2. The connection of the Spirit to Jesus and the Father connects the experiences of the earliest Christian communities with the life and power of God as it worked in Jesus. The activities of the Spirit resemble those of Jesus in working for good (for example, healing) and for inclusion among God’s people (baptism).

• Inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. A major theme of Acts is the complex process of including Gentiles among the saved people of God. The Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39) may be the first Gentile baptized, but the focus in Acts is on the repeated story of the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household (10:1-11:18; 15:6-11). This story marks the developing community’s refusal to hold Gentiles to the purity laws of Israel, a significant change for the early believers who clung to the Jewish Scriptures.

Mission and hospitality. The nature of Christian mission in Acts is consistent with the commands that Jesus gives in Luke 9-10, where he instructs his followers to announce the nearness of God’s reign by entering a village or house and staying there, if welcomed by the inhabitants. Part of God’s good news in Jesus has to do with believers’ willingness to set aside their fears of other persons and their desires to remain in their own comfort zones, in order to enter into the lives of people quite different from themselves. In Acts, Christians bear witness–as Jesus did, in deed and in word–by “entering” and “staying.” They cross social boundaries, not to judge someone who welcomes them, but to honor that person’s place, life, custom, and being.
• Networks of Christian community. From the beginning of the book (2:43-47) through Paul’s determination to face great personal risk on behalf of the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem (chapters 20-21), Acts presents the Christian community caring for its people locally and farther away. This care includes provision for evangelists who move about with one another as they anchor new communities of believers in networks of hospitality and friendship.

• “Not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Acts emphasizes that Jesus and his followers have never been a secret cult and that there is no surreptitious or shameful quality to the Christian message that would endanger the well-being of persons, households, or governments. Christian faith is a public faith with public consequences, because it is faith in the God who openly created and redeemed all that is, and because this God is served by loving and caring for the neighbor, which is also public activity.

• The prevailing word of the Lord. The final statement in the entire book of Acts, as Paul preaches “without hindrance” in spite of all the difficulties that have beset him and brought him finally to Rome, is that the word of the Lord prevails. From beginning to end, Acts is a confident assertion that, no matter how things look, human history belongs to God. God will not be overcome by any other power, and the promise of “universal restoration” will be kept.

• Reorienting the center of the world. The expectation that Jerusalem would be the center of God’s renewed reign was embedded in the hopes of Israel and its prophetic texts. Jesus changes this expectation in Acts 1:6-8 when he declares that the Spirit of God will send Jesus’ followers out from Jerusalem to the very “ends of the earth” to witness to God’s power. Acts begins in Jerusalem, but, by the end of the book, extends to an apartment in Rome.

 Salvation and the end of time. Acts declares that God’s promises of salvation and blessing have been and will be kept in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus enables “times of refreshing” (3:20) to come to those who repent as they live on earth, as seen in the gathering of the community of faith (2:43-47; 4:32-37) and in the healings that abound in Acts. A time of “universal restoration” (3:21) remains to come, when Jesus will return and all families of the earth will be blessed.