What is the Acts of the Apostles?

Acts, also called Acts of the Apostles, was probably authored by Luke, “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14) and traveling companion of Paul (cf. the “we” passages in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16) [1]. 

It dates to around 80 CE and was written to gentile Christians throughout the Roman Empire. The author wants to narrate the story of the Church’s birth and growth which he presents as the second stage of the fulfillment of salvation history. Fulfillment is evident in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles. Acts spans around three decades during which the Church undergoes much change, growth, and development. Beginning in Jerusalem, it traces the establishment of the church around the Mediterranean world. Luke is selective in his content and represents only a small part of the early Christian movement. It does not intend to be an account of all that happened to the church in the first century.

The Disciples in Acts

Although titled “The Acts of the Apostles”, only the apostles Peter and John have a place in the narrative [2]. There is a mention of the names of the eleven in 1:13 and Peter disappears from the story in 12:17. There are other early Jesus followers mentioned, such as Stephen, Philip, Ananias, Barnabas, and James the brother of Jesus, but they are not apostles. After Peter’s disappearance, Paul comes to dominate the story.

There is a difference between how the gospels and Acts portray the disciples. In the gospels, the disciples are often portrayed as confused and ineffective. Peter is particularly vulnerable in depiction as a bad example for abandoning Jesus at the last moment (Mark 14:66-72; Matt. 26:69-75; Luke 22:56-62). 

In Acts the portrayal is quite different; one reads, for example, that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The disciples will witness in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). Towards the end of Luke’s gospel (of which Acts is a continuation), there is a new commission in which Jesus,

“opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.’” (24:45–49).

After receiving a blessing from Jesus who then ascends to heaven, Acts says that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (24:52).

One is told that the apostles are witnesses to Jesus and therefore custodians of the tradition (5:32; 10:39). The apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (2:32, cf. 3:15; 10:41; 13:31). “And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33).

The Holy Spirit in Acts 

Both the Gospel of Luke (24:49) and Acts (1:5, 8) have Jesus promising the apostles that they would experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit [3]. This will assist them in spreading the gospel and overcoming obstacles. This occurs on the day of Pentecost when the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (2:4). This is God pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh (2:17) and it is associated with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (2:33).

The gift of the Holy Spirit is offered to all who believe in Jesus. In his sermon Peter says: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (2:38-39).   

The Holy Spirit also empowers the ministry of the disciples. Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8) and led by the Spirit (10:19). Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29) and Barnabas is said to be “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). Elsewhere we read that the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4:31). Stephen, who is the first Christian martyr in history, is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit after his conversion (9:17) and both he and Barnabas are directed by the Holy Spirit in their missionary journeys (13:2, 4). The Holy Spirit is also poured out over the gentiles (10:44-47 and 11:15-18); in 15:8 “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”

Clearly, the Holy Spirit is a powerful actor in the early Church. It is said to direct the leadership of the church (20:28) and is, as the above suggests, active in people and the members of the Church.

Sermons and Speeches in Acts 

Acts features several sermons and speeches [4]. These include evangelistic, hortatory, and apologetic sermons. There are sermons given to Jews and pagans. Luke certainly summarizes the sermons and speeches, and they are not word-for-word recordings. For example, Acts 20:7 (where Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight”) indicates that the sermons and speeches were much longer than what Luke records for his readers. As an early Christian historian, it is natural to view Luke as selective of his material and that he abbreviated and emphasizes certain points. 

Peter and Paul give evangelistic sermons and they preached the same gospel (Gal. 2:9). In chapters 2-5, Peter delivers these sermons to the Jews and Cornelius, a God-fearer, in chapter 10. This sermon emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus and the offering of the forgiveness of sins. Paul gives sermons to Jews and God-fearers at Antioch of Pisidia (chap. 13), pagans at Lystra (14:15-17), and Athens (17:22-31). In his preaching to pagans, Paul adapted his message to non-Jewish listeners. For example, his preaching at Lystra contains only natural theology and an anti-idolatry note. In Athens, Paul’s preaching contains motifs of natural theology and Jewish anti-idolatry polemic, together with a climactic statement concerning the resurrection of Jesus (17:31).

The Pauline hortatory speech in chapter 20 is the only Pauline speech addressed to Christians. We find apologetic speeches (apologetics means the giving of a defense for a position or view) by Stephen (chap. 7) and Peter in the house of Cornelius (11:4–17). Paul gives several apologetic speeches in front of a Jewish crowd (22:1-21), the Sanhedrin (23:1-6), Felix (24:10-21), Festus (25:8-11), Herod Agrippa II (26:1-29), and Jews in Rome (28:17-20). There is one hortatory speech given by Paul before the Ephesian elders (20:18–35). Part of Paul’s apologetic is to show that he was not regarded as guilty by the Roman authorities. 

It has been argued that Luke’s shaping of his material should give one reason for doubt that he accurately records the sermons and speeches of these various individuals. As noted, Luke provides an account that is indeed constructed and interpreted history, and he has theological and apologetic motives. However, it is not necessarily the case that this means his account is inaccurate. Luke is both a historian and theologian. As a theologian, Luke wants to show how Jesus is the means to understanding the true meaning of the Scriptures and how Jesus’ death on the cross is the fulfillment of the plan and purpose of God. As a historian, Luke is still interested in presenting a historical narrative, historical details, and events that happened [5]. 

The Samaritans and Gentiles

According to Acts, the gospel is taken by PhiliptotheSamaritans (8:5) and “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John” (8:14). When Peter and John laid their hands upon the Samaritans, “they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17). That the gospel is taken to the Samaritans symbolizes a significant barrier being broken down [6]. There was a general hostility from the Jews toward Samaritans because they were regarded as being outside Jewish orthodoxy and even apostates. This hostility is often reflected in the gospels: in the Gospel of John, the Samaritan woman says, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (4:9) and in Matthew’s gospel the disciples are to “enter no town of the Samaritans” (10:5). In Luke’s gospel, James and John want to call down fire on a Samaritan village for not receiving Jesus (9:52-56). Jesus is insulted by the Jews who call him “a Samaritan” and demon-possessed (John 8:48). Interestingly, Luke’s gospel also presents the Samaritans in a positive light; for example, when Jesus cleanses the ten lepers it is only a Samaritan who returns to thank him (17:11-19). There is also the parable of the good Samaritan, who is contrasted favorably with a priest and a Levite (9:29–37). 

Acts speaks of Peter bringing the gospel to the gentiles [7]. This begins with the God-fearer Cornelius who receives instruction through an angelic vision given to summon Peter (10:1-8). When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house, he remarks that “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation”, yet God “has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (10:24-29). Peter then says: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34). 

Then the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and his household: “And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). However, some Jews criticize Peter for associating with gentiles asking “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (11:2-3). But Peter retorts that “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (11:17).

References

1. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 403. (Scribd ebook format)  

2. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 531.

3. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 540.

4. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 544.

5. Gasque, W. W. 1974. “The Speeches of Acts: Dibelius Reconsidered.” In New Dimensions in New Testament Study, edited by R. Longenecker and M. Tenney, 232-250. Grand Rapids: Zondervan; Fyvie Bruce, Frederick. 2016. “The Speeches in the Acts of the Apostles”. In The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, edited by Wolfgang Haase, 2591-2600. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 2600. 

6. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 569.

7. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 570.

One comment

  1. One question I have always had without adequate response is if “Luke” really was the traveling companion of Paul why is it that his gospel makes no reference or mention of Paul at all. In fact, none of the canonical gospels make any reference to Paul which I find curious. Yet he is not only the “hero” of Acts, which is also written by Luke the Physician, but he is quoted by evangelicals and other preachers more often that Christ himself! This leads me to believe that Luke the Physician is NOT the same author as the eponymous gospel OR Paul’s traveling companion.

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