Acts is the second part of a two part work by Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels. It is clearly by Luke, who was a medical doctor in that day, and the only non-Jew to write a Gospel, and probably the only non-Jew to write any of the New Testament books. Luke had never met Jesus, but was a close associate of Paul who often travelled with him (16:10-15, 20:6-21:26).
The book is known by the full name of The Acts of the Apostles as it tells some of the history of the start and continuation of the Christian church, as the apostles leave Jerusalem and take the message of the good news of Jesus across the Roman world. It focuses on some of the stories of Peter and Paul, but also mentions a few incidents involving other key leaders: James, who was one of the apostles, Stephen, Philip, and James, the half-brother of Jesus who was a key leader in the Jerusalem church. It explains how the good news was preached, miracles were seen, and churches come to be planted. It also shows how the Gospel was opposed by both Jews and Gentiles, and how some, notably Stephen, lost their lives. It covers a period of around 28 years, though unevenly. The first 20 chapters cover 24 years; the last eight cover just four.
There are many ways of dividing the book. Luke uses a marker sentence to sum up how the church was spreading at different parts of the book: 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31.
Some see the verse in Acts 1:8 as key. Jesus says that His followers would be His ‘witnesses’ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth and the book can be roughly divided into how the church grew in those areas: Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), Judea and Samaria (8-10), and to the ends of the earth (11-28), including Rome itself.
More simply, you can see the book as largely focusing on two of the apostles, Peter (chapters 1-12) and Paul (chapters 13-28).
The date when Acts is written is likely to be in the early 60s AD for reasons we will look at when we consider the purpose.
At the start of the book, Luke says he is writing to Theophilus, probably a Roman official. Its content has led many to believe that it would serve as a brief for a lawyer, maybe Theophilus himself. The brief could represent the Apostle Paul, who was awaiting trial in Rome and is under house arrest for two years. This would account for the lengthy amount of space given to Paul’s journey to Rome to stand trial. Luke is emphasising that Paul was a worthy man who was happy to go to Rome, and didn’t escape from his guards even when he had opportunity. He is explaining that the Christian faith is not essentially a threat to Rome. It is also interesting that Paul parallels the story of Peter (a known and valued apostle, perhaps by Theophilus?). Peter’s last mention is of his release from prison (chapter 12). Could Luke be asking Theophilus to ensure the same treatment for Paul?
This might explain the date. We know that Paul is executed at the hands of Nero around 65-67AD. When Luke finishes Acts, the Gospel was continuing to spread ‘unhindered’. It would make sense that Luke finished the book, prior to Paul’s trial. This also, of course suggests that Luke’s Gospel was penned around the same time, or just earlier.
Luke clearly has other purposes for his narrative, suggested by the structure already mentioned. He wants to show how the work of Jesus (begun in Luke’s Gospel) continues by His Spirit in Acts, with the Gospel preached, churches planted and similar miracles such as healing and the dead raised. The sermons of Acts give us an insight into how the message of Jesus was preached, with the apostles keen to include material that served the audience, with Acts 17 notably talking about God in more general terms, but with no mention of the Old Testament, which wouldn’t be known by the Gentile people of Athens.
Why read it?
The birth of the church is amazing. Some of the things that happen were special for that time, but many are not. When you share the good news of Jesus you too can find that people respond. When you pray for people, God acts.
The church's work had opposition. You may find the same. That's no excuse for giving up, or thinking that you must be doing it wrong. The apostles faced opposition and you will too. In some cases, God intervened as with Peter and Paul. In other cases, he didn't as with James and Stephen.
Christians are sometimes slow to catch on. Jesus told the apostles to take the good news to all peoples but many stayed in Jerusalem. It was persecution that eventually led them to leave and interesting that one of the persecutors was Paul who later became a convert who helped the church to spread even further.
The church trusts the Holy Spirit to guide them. Jesus told them to go into all the world and yet we read that the Spirit stopped them entering a certain area (16:6-10). You need to be open to sharing the good news with everyone but look for what God is doing and make sure you join with Him.
The message of the Gospel focuses on the good news that Jesus is risen and welcomes all people everywhere to know Him. But the apostles make sure that their audience can understand the message by explaining it in language they can understand. You are wise to do the same.
|1-7||The church established in Jerusalem|
|8-12||The church enlarged to Judea and Samaria|
|13-28||The church expanded to the ends of the earth|