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Introduction to Acts

INTRODUCTION TO

ACTS

The book of Acts provides a glimpse into the first three decades of the early church (ca AD 30-63) as it spread and multiplied after the ascension of Jesus Christ. It is not a detailed or comprehensive history. Rather, it focuses on the role played by apostles such as Peter, who ministered primarily to Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1600). Luke narrates this event three times in the Acts of the Apostles.

Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1600). Luke narrates this event three times in the Acts of the Apostles.

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: The book of Acts is formally anonymous. The traditional view is that the author was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke—Luke the physician and traveling companion of Paul (Col 4:14; 2Tm 4:11; Phm 24). As early as the second century AD, church leaders such as Irenaeus wrote that Luke was the author of Acts. Irenaeus based his view on the “we” passages in Acts, five sections where the author changes from the third person (“he/she” and “they”) to first-person plural (“we”) as he narrates the action (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-29; 28:1-16). Irenaeus and many scholars since his time have interpreted these passages to mean that the author of Acts was one of the eyewitness companions of Paul. Luke fits this description better than any other candidate, especially given the similar themes between the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.

BACKGROUND: The date of composition of the book of Acts is to a large extent directly tied to the issue of authorship. A number of scholars have argued that Acts should be dated to the early 60s (at the time of Paul’s imprisonment). Acts closes with Paul still in prison in Rome (28:30-31). Although it is possible that Luke wrote at a later date, a time when Paul had been released, it is more plausible to think that he completed this book while Paul was still in prison. Otherwise he would have ended the book by telling about Paul’s release.

MESSAGE AND PURPOSE

The book of Acts emphasizes the work of God through the Holy Spirit in the lives of people who devoted themselves to Jesus Christ, especially Paul as he led the Gentile missionary endeavor. It is no exaggeration to say that the Christian church was built through the dynamic power of the Spirit working through chosen vessels. Another important concept is the radial spread of the gospel from Jews to Gentiles, from Jerusalem to Judea, from Samaria and on to the rest of the world (1:8). Thus Christianity transformed from being a sect within Judaism to a world religion that eventually gained acceptance everywhere, even in the heart of the pagan Roman Empire: Rome itself.

At the heart of the Christian movement was the work of the apostle Paul, a former skeptic who became Christianity’s most vocal advocate. From his first appearance at the stoning of Stephen (where he concurred in the decision to stone Stephen for his Christian preaching) to his final appearance while under house arrest at Rome (where he was active in spreading the gospel as he awaited Caesar’s verdict to his appeal), Paul’s work on behalf of the gospel is evident at almost every turn as he proclaimed the good news before “Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” (9:15).

The book of Acts provides biographical glimpses of a few of the early apostles as they spread the gospel first in Jerusalem and then on to the rest of the world. Peter, Philip, and a few others were responsible for the spread of the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Paul was responsible for much of the rest of the Mediterranean world.

Paul’s typical missionary strategy was to go to a familiar place in each city he visited, usually a synagogue, and proclaim the gospel first to Jews. The speed with which he shifted his focus to Gentiles outside the synagogue depended on how Jews received him. Before leaving town, Paul united Jewish and Gentile converts alike to form a local church.

The early apostles are distinguished by their being filled by the Holy Spirit and empowered to proclaim the gospel under a variety of trying circumstances. These circumstances included theological, political, and physical oppression or a combination of these as they were marginalized, imprisoned, and stoned.

Nevertheless, through the power of the Holy Spirit they refused to stop proclaiming the message that the Old Testament prophecies of a coming Savior were fulfilled in the person and works of Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, many thousands of people in Jerusalem and abroad came to believe that the Lord Jesus was the Messiah, their one hope for salvation from their sins.

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

The book of Acts ties the other books of the New Testament together. It does so by first providing “the rest of the story” to the Gospels. The gospel and the message of the kingdom of God did not end with Jesus’s ascension to heaven forty days after his resurrection but continued on in the lives of his followers. Acts shows us how the words and promises of Jesus were carried out by the apostles and other believers through the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, the book of Acts gives us the context for much of the rest of the New Testament, especially the letters Paul wrote to the churches he had helped establish during his missionary journeys.

STRUCTURE

So far as literary form is concerned, the book of Acts is an ancient biography that focuses on several central characters, especially Peter and Paul. Ancient biography was not concerned simply with narrating events but with displaying the character of the people involved, especially their ethical behavior. Other features included genealogies and rhetorical elements such as speeches. Ancient biographies also commonly drew from both written and oral sources.

Acts 1:8 provides the introduction and outline for the book. Once empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples proclaimed the gospel boldly in Jerusalem. As the book progresses, the gospel spread further into Judea and Samaria, and then finally into the outer reaches of the known world through the missionary work of Paul.

OUTLINE

I.Empowerment for the Church (1:1-2:47)

A.Waiting for power (1:1-26)

B.The source of power (2:1-13)

C.Pentecostal witness to the dispersion (2:14-47)

II.Early Days of the Church (3:1-12:25)

A.In Jerusalem (3:1-7:60)

B.In Samaria: the Samaritan Pentecost (8:1-25)

C.To the ends of the earth: Philip’s witness (8:26-40)

D.Conversion and preparation of Paul (9:1-31)

E.In Judea: Peter in Caesarea (9:32-11:18)

F.To the ends of the earth (11:19-12:25)

III.Paul’s First Missionary Journey (13:1-14:28)

A.Cyprus (13:1-12)

B.Pisidian Antioch (13:13-52)

C.Iconium (14:1-7)

D.Lystra, Derbe; return to Antioch (14:8-28)

IV.The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)

V.Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)

A.Antioch to Troas (15:36-16:10)

B.Troas to Athens (16:11-17:34)

C.Corinth (18:1-22)

VI.Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (18:23-21:16)

A.The Ephesian Pentecost (18:23-19:41)

B.Macedonia to Troas, Athens, Corinth, and return (20:1-21:16)

VII.Paul en Route to and in Rome (21:17-28:31)

A.In Jerusalem (21:17-23:35)

B.In Caesarea (24:1-26:32)

C.Voyage to Rome (27:1-28:15)

D.Ministry at Rome (28:16-31)

AD 33-37

Tiberius Caesar 14-37

Jesus’s trials, death, resurrection, and ascension Nisan 14-16 or April 3-5, 33

Lunar eclipse; moon turns blood red. Nisan 15 or April 4, 33

Pentecost 33

Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road October 34

Paul’s years in Arabia 34-37

Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem following his conversion 37?

AD 37-41

Paul returns to his native Tarsus. Summer 37-40

Caligula, Emperor of Rome 37-41

Emperor Caligula removes Herod Antipas as Tetrarch of Galilee and replaces him with his nephew, Herod Agrippa, who had been a childhood companion of Caligula. 39

Barnabas travels from Antioch of Syria to find Paul. Summer 40

Conversion of Cornelius and his family 40

Barnabas and Saul serve together in Antioch. 41

AD 41-49

Claudius, Emperor of Rome 41-54

Believers respond to famine prophesied by Agabus. 44-47

Martyrdom of James, son of Zebedee 44

Death of Herod Agrippa 44

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark make first missionary journey. 47-49

AD 49-68

Paul and Silas take second missionary journey. 49-52

Paul’s third missionary journey 53-57

Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem (57) and imprisonment at Caesarea 58-59

Paul’s journey to Rome late 59

Paul’s house arrest in Rome 60-62

Martyrdom of James, half brother of Jesus 62

Martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome 67 or 68

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