The Acts (Banner)

I.  Introduction

The book of The Acts (PRAXEIS APOSTOLOI = the acts or deeds of the apostles) is the second of two volumes by the writer, Luke. The first volume is the Gospel which bears Luke’s name.

The scheme of the two works was to provide information about God’s plan of redemption through Jesus of Nazareth: a plan which begins in ancient history, leads through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and continues in the community which Jesus founded and commissioned to carry on his work, namely, the Church. The Gospel deals with the life of Jesus, up to his resurrection; the Acts picks up from the resurrection through the life of the community.

St. Luke IconFor most of the period covered by these two volumes, Luke must rely on second- or even third-hand reports. From the point where Luke actually joins the work of St. Paul, he is able to draw from his own “notes” (Acts 16.10 ff.).

Although dependent for the most part on secondary information, Luke is a very accurate reporter: where possible, he seeks out exact dates and place names, and is concerned to provide the best chronology possible. (Completely detailed information was not, however, possible in all cases.)

Despite his accuracy in many matters, we must remember that Luke was a historian of his own times, and we should not expect from him the same kind of reporting which we would expect of modern historians. Where modern historians put exact chronology and sources first in their order of priorities, ancient historians were satisfied to describe what was “typical” for a given state of affairs. Thus, e.g., Luke feels free to compose speeches (usually from sources) typical to this or that preacher in a given context, rather than reporting the exact words spoken on an occasion.

Whether owing to the limits of his knowledge, or to the methods which were employed in the writing of ancient histories (or both), Luke does not manage to spell out events with precision-like clarity. Instead, he seems interested in presenting significant trends with more or less continuity rather than presenting a detailed chronology. We find him describing, e.g., a series of events, then going back to pick up a different series of events that may have occurred simultaneously. This back and forth method is sometimes confusing to modern readers. The pattern can usually be picked out, however, by careful attention to the text. (Remember, too, he did not have the luxury of editing equipment in order to get things down straight, as he might well have wished to do.)

Overall, Luke gives a fairly reliable picture of the significant trends in the early Church, and is the only source we have for many of the details of the early Church’s history.

The structure of the Book:

Luke is not concerned with every detail of the early Church’s history. Indeed, this is frustrating to modem scholars because Luke seems to be completely uninterested in the very kinds of issues which moderns are most interested in.

The key to understanding Luke’s theme is this: The Acts relates the significant events and persons who caused the Church to grow and to carry out its mission in the world.

With this theme in mind, the book is loosely organized around three foci:

The Church in Jerusalem ( covered in Chapter One); here we see the apostolic community forming, and extending itself.

The Church in Judea and Samaria, and beyond ( - 15.41 covered in Chapters Two and Three); here we see the Christian community taking its first faltering steps outside of Jerusalem and having to respond to new demands and new opportunities; we also find Saul (Paul) being “converted” and being formed as a capable missionary with special interest for the Gentiles.

The Church is brought to the Gentiles (15.36-28.31 covered in Chapter 4); here we see only the work of Paul (for the most part) as a missionary strategist planting churches all over the Greek speaking Mediterranean. The book ends with Paul making his witness in Rome.

The book ends on an open note: Paul, still technically under arrest, continues his teaching and preaching relatively unhindered in Rome (despite his own and others’ expectations that he might be put to death). It may be that Luke intended to write a third volume, though there is no indication -- apart from the unfinished character of the Acts -- that this was so. If in fact he did intend to write another volume, his plans may have been thwarted by Paul’s death, or his own, or both. We cannot say. We can say that Luke’s volume presupposes further development.

Luke’s contribution can hardly be overestimated. He is the first Christian, perhaps apart from Paul himself, to have seen an intrinsic value to having a history of the church. Many Christians of his time expected the rapid conclusion of history and the arrival of the judgment day. Like some Christians today, they may have interpreted contemporary events as simply a prelude to the REAL story, and so discounted the value of those events. Luke seems to have seen a theological value precisely in the sequence of events that transpired from the coming of Jesus to the end (and beyond?) of Paul’s ministry: namely, that God was acting then, much as he had acted in the whole history of Israel, to bring blessing to all human beings. (Gen 12.2-3; 18.8.) For Luke, the Kingdom of God was not just a future hope -- it involved real human life even NOW. The Church -- the community of grace and love which Jesus founded -- was to be the instrument of God in proclaiming and living out the Kingdom in advance of its final consummation. Through the words and the works, not only of Jesus, but of those whom he formed into his community, the presence and glory of God could be seen and appropriated as a redemptive reality.