The book of Acts is not only the first book written about Church history, but is also the continuation of the ministry of Christ through his followers empowered by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the book could very well be named The Acts of the Holy Spirit, since this historical book records how the Spirit moved though the Apostles and early believers to grow and expand the Church. Acts is the story of ordinary people taking the gospel flame and sharing it with others. It also records how early Christians lived out Christ’s teachings.
Most of the early Church believed that Luke authored the book, in spite of the fact that his name only appears three times in the New Testament (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24). All of these Scriptures indicate that Luke was not only present with Paul on his missionary journeys, but also was with Paul in the latter days of his life.
The historical evidence supports Lukan authorship. Most commentators believe that the author of Luke and Acts is the same. The anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke (c. 160-180) and the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200) both agree to Lukan authorship (MacDonald 391). In addition, many church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertulian and others also agree that Luke penned this historical book. Robert Grant states that Irenaeus
“not only used it but also provided that classical proof that it was written by Luke: the detailed information given in the ‘we-passages’ (Acts 16:9-18; 20:5-22:18; 27:1-28:16) proves that it was written by a companion of Paul who went with him to Rome; this companion must have been Luke, in prison with Paul at Rome (Colossians 4:14) and later (II Timothy 4:11)” (141-142).
Even though the textual evidence is not as concrete as the historical, it is still solid. The text discloses two reasons for Lukan authorship. In 1:1-3 the author not only writes to Theophilus, but also refers back to a previous book. The author is referring to the book of Luke, as Luke 1:1-4 clearly indicates. The grammatical style and vocabulary are very similar. As Robert Grant mentioned earlier, the text also refers to several “we” passages. Thus, the author of the book was a traveling companion of Paul. The text lists all of Paul’s traveling companions. The only companion who is not mentioned is Luke (see Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11). Throughout the Pauline epistles Paul makes mention of his traveling companions. The only two whom Paul mentioned in his epistles, which are not found in the book of Acts, are Titus and Luke. Due to the logical and scientific examination of the events of the text, Luke, being a physician, clearly was the best choice between the two.
The medical language used in the text also supports Lucan authorship (i.e. 3:7; 8:7; 9:18, 33-34, etc). For example, W. K. Hobart, in his book The Medical Language of St. Luke, stated that there is enough medical evidence in the Gospel of Luke and Acts to demonstrate that a physician wrote both books. “The evidence is of overwhelming force; so that it seems to me that no doubt can exist that the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were composed by a physician” (Harnack 198). Many well-known expositors, such as A.B. Bruce and James Moffatt, are in complete agreement with Hobart’s position.
See the Gospel of Luke for a biography of the author.
Many commentators have disagreed on when the book was written. Since this is a historical book, the date is very crucial. There are four views concerning the date. The first view is that the book was written in the second century. According to Ralph Earle, John Knox, in his work Marcion and the New Testament, writes that this work was actually published in the middle of the second century (121). However, if this were the case, then Luke could not be the author. While few people support this theory, some commentators feel that it was written around the end of the first century (Moffatt 312). Nevertheless, since Luke records in Acts major events concerning both Israel and the church, it is strange that he would not mention the destruction of Jerusalem if he did indeed write the book toward the end of the century.
Another view is that Luke wrote both the Gospel and this book between A.D. 70-80. This would have given him time to examine the Gospel of Mark (written between 65-70 A.D.). However, there is not enough contextual evidence between the Gospel and Acts to support this view. The final view can be derived from the text. Chapter 28 mentions Paul’s house arrest and witness to the Jews in Rome. It is likely that this book was written shortly after Paul’s first imprisonment. This would imply that the book was written before A.D. 70. In addition, in the book Luke mentions persecution against the church as well as a famine in Israel. Since this book is historical, he mentions many important historical events, which affected the church as well as the world. However, he did not mention the following events: Nero’s persecution of Christians after the burning of Rome (A.D 64), the death of both Peter and Paul (66-70), and finally the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Therefore, the book was written circa A.D. 60-63.
The author writes “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (1:1). This book was written to Theophilus, the same person to whom the Gospel of Luke was written.
Much like an action movie, this historical book is filled with drama and action. In this book, we see the Holy Spirit indwelling the early believers and then empowering them to be bold witness. As this body of believers (the “Church”) was persecuted, the Spirit used some of the most unlikely individuals to help expand the Church. Throughout this book the Spirit weaves the most ordinary people, common events and obstacles to build Christ’s church so that even “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
The narrative flows smoothly from the Gospels into this book. Luke writes about the birth of the Church and its infancy during the early years. It also makes the transition from Judaism to a new “sect”, where both Jews and Gentiles are one body through faith in the Messiah of Israel. The action picks up though this work as the Church expands through persecution. The more Satan opposes the Church, the stronger the Church becomes. The result of this opposition led to the growth of the church just as a wildfire spreads because of strong winds.
This book not only provides a smooth transition from the gospels to this book, the book of Acts also forms a logical link between the Gospels and the Epistles. One would find it more difficult to read the Epistles of Peter and Paul understandably without the background furnished in Acts. Matthew Henry gives a succinct comment concerning this transition: “As looking forward to the following epistles, which are an explication of the gospels, which open the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, the history of which we had in the gospels. This book introduces them and is a key to them, as the history of David is to David’s psalms” (1).
This book, practically speaking, is the only unfinished book of the Bible. The book closes with Paul “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:31 NIV). While this book records the beginnings of the Church of Christ, by no means does it end at 28:31. Luke reminds his readers that nothing can hinder the gospel and the church. Nether persecution, prison, suffering nor death can thwart the spreading of God’s plan of salvation. The message will endure forever. The Church is continuing to grow and expand today. In fact, Jesus said, “…upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). The Church will continue to grow and thrive until the Rapture (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Luke wrote the book of Acts to preserve a record of the earliest history of the Church, from its inception through its infancy. There is no other written document concerning the early history of the Church that even compares to the reliability of this book.
To the Romans, Luke presented Christianity as a true religion that posed no threat against their government. Due to the recorded events in this book, the readers observe that all public disturbances were not caused by the Church itself, but in fact were caused by the opponents of Christianity.
Luke also wrote to defend the Way. This movement was truly of God. He wrote to demonstrate that no matter how intense the persecution may be, the Church of Jesus Christ will always survive and flourish. Thus, he wrote this book to strengthen the faith of believers so that they may continue to boldly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The good news of Jesus Christ is not limited to the teaching of Jesus and his small band of followers; but instead, is spread throughout the earth. We see that Jesus is not only the savior of the Jews and the Samaritans, but he is also the savior of the Gentiles as well. Acts reminds us that there are no social, economic or racial barriers to salvation. After all, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah, but is also the Savior of all.
The first twelve chapters of this book describe the ministry of Peter as he fulfills Christ’s command to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). It is during his ministry that believers are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. In the beginning of the book the believers worshipped God in the synagogues on Sabbath. During his ministry the gospel is presented primarily to the Jews. Peter and John boldly proclaim the gospel not only to the nation of Israel, but also prepare the way for the Gentiles to be saved.
From chapter thirteen thought the rest of the book the emphasis shifts from Peter’s ministry to the Jews to Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. He travels from city to city boldly preaching the gospel of Jesus to all who would hear. While Paul always first presented the gospel to the Jews, the gospel is also offered to the Gentiles as well. During this time the believers shifted their place of worship from the synagogues on Sabbath to house churches that gathered on the Lord’s Day (20:7-8). The Church remained unified throughout these changes and new doctrines.
Like Genesis, this book is a book about beginnings. It presents the coming of the Holy Spirit (2:2-4), the first local church (2:41-47), the first use of spiritual gifts (3:2-8), the first persecution (4:5-22), the first deacons (6:1-6), the first martyr (7:57-60), the first Gentile disciples (8:5-8), the first elders (11:30), and the first united effort in world evangelism (13:1-3).
This book also mirrors the spiritual development of a disciple. Just as Christ established His people and His church, He is also developing new believers today. When a person becomes a Christian, they are protected and held close to God. They are looked after closely like a mother with her newborn child. It is during this phase that the Christian puts down roots and begins to grow closer to Christ. As we get stronger spiritually God brings us into the next phase of our walk with Him.
As persecution scattered the Church and caused it to enlarge and grow, Christ allows persecution and pain into the lives of his followers. This causes the believer to grow and move spiritually in the direction that the Lord wants them to. Many times our Heavenly Father uses suffering to produce change in the believer’s life.
Just as Christ expanded his Church by moving and relocating people, God may move us from one place to another. Disciples have to be willing to make difficult decisions and be prepared to be used by God. The Christian needs to be ready to go where God directs or to simply wait on God as He molds and shapes each person for use in His kingdom. Thus, at this point the believer is able to stretch out and serve the Lord in new areas, which in their spiritual infancy seemed impossible.
Jesus himself gives us the structure of this historical book. In Acts 1:8 he said, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Italics added). Chapters 1-7 describe the beginning and growth of the Church in Jerusalem. The Church grew in Jerusalem for about two years. The apostle’s ministry focused on fellow Jews. It was during this time that the Church began to experience persecution amid their growth.
The local Church would have been content to stay in Jerusalem; however, God’s heart is bigger than a city. The Lord chose to spread the gospel to Judea and Samaria. He accomplished this through “a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and [the disciples] were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1). The Holy Spirit went with these disciples and the Church began to grow in numbers with the Gentiles. In chapters 8-12 the gospel was being spread to the Gentiles. This period lasted about thirteen years.
Not content to have followers in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, Christ decided to spread the flame to the remotest part of the earth. Luke records that
“Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
For fifteen years the church was involved in foreign missions, preaching the gospel. As a matter of fact, the book of Acts is essentially the only unfinished book of the Bible since the Church is “Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (28:31).
Earle, Ralph. Acts. Vol. 7 of Beacons Bible Commentary. 10 vols. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1964.
Grant, Robert M. A Historical Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 6 of Matthew Henry’s Commentary. 6 vols. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1992.
Hobart, W.K. The Medical Language of St. Luke. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Matlack, Gary, and Bryce Klabunde. Matthew through 1 Thessalonians. Vol. 4 of God’s Masterwork: A concerto in Sixty-Six Movements. 5 vols. Anaheim: Sinclair Printing Company, 1997.
Moffatt, James. An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1918.
Swindoll, Charles R., and Bryce Klabunde. The Birth of an Exciting Vision. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992.
Swindoll, Charles R., ed. The Living Insights Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
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