Exploring the Book of Acts: Introduction


Michael Morrison

sailing ship. Artwork by Ken Tunell

What's in a name?

The traditional name for this book is “Acts of the Apostles,” but a more accurate name might be “A Few Acts of a Few of the Apostles.” Peter and Paul are particularly prominent; the other apostles play little or no role. The book describes some developments in detail, but sometimes skips several years at a time.

“Acts of the Risen Jesus” might also be an appropriate name for this book. Luke tells us that his first book (the Gospel of Luke) was “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). Acts is the second volume of Luke’s history-writing project; it is about what Jesus did after his ascension into heaven — he directed and taught the apostles through the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus had promised (John 16:7, 13), he sent the Spirit to guide the apostles after he returned to heaven. Since this book frequently reminds us that the actions of the apostles were inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, “Acts of the Holy Spirit” has also been suggested as a descriptive title.


The first part of this book is about Peter, and the second part is about Paul. This two-fold division is one of the simplest ways to divide the book of Acts, but its focus on two men tends to cover up some important aspects of Luke’s story. Peter’s ministry and Paul’s are not separate stories — they are related to each other, and they overlap in several chapters in the center of Acts.

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Some commentators have outlined the book geographically, using a formula Jesus gave his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Although Luke begins the story in Jerusalem, he does not stick to a precise geographical sequence. Philip’s work in Samaria (Acts 8:5-25) is described before Peter’s work in Judea (Acts 9:32-43). Later, the story moves back and forth from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Europe back to Asia, back to Jerusalem, etc. And the book ends with Paul in Rome, which was the center of the Empire, not “the ends of the earth.”

Geography is important to Luke, but it is not the only important framework for his story about the earliest years of Christianity. Luke also has ethnic interests — he especially wants to explain how Christianity moved from its Jewish foundations to spread to the Gentile world.

Acts can be divided into five major sections that combine some of Luke’s emphases, as shown in the table below.

part major personalities geographical regions ethnic groups
1 Peter and John Jerusalem Jews
2 Greek-speaking Jews: Philip and Stephen Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea Jews, Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch
3 Paul and Peter Damascus, Judea, Antioch, Jerusalem and Asia Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans
4 Paul the missionary Europe and Asia Minor Gentiles and Jews
5 Paul the prisoner Jerusalem, Caesarea and Rome Gentile rulers, Gentiles and Jews

How to read this book

Acts tells the story of how Christianity began and spread. No history book ever has enough space to tell all the facts. The historian must select the facts that are most important and the events that played critical roles in the development of later situations. The historian must interpret the facts and present them in an organized way. Luke does this well. With literary skill, he gives numerous details and interesting personality sketches that help us understand what happened.

Luke is probably writing in the manner of the Greek historians Xenophon and Plutarch. What this means is that a selection of the hero’s acts…, historical vignettes which set forth the hero’s character, are his major concern. The Book of Acts, then, is not a mere chronicle of events, but a portrayal of the kinds of people and kinds of things that were taking place in the early church. [Note: William H. Baker, “Acts,” Evangelical Commentary of the Bible, edited by Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 884.]

Luke tells us what happened, but he rarely indicates what should happen today. For example, he tells us that seven men were chosen to wait on tables (Acts 6:1-6), but he does not tell us whether churches should follow that example today. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive — it is history, not law.

Luke, in addition to being a historian, is also a Christian teacher writing about his own faith. In the introduction to his first volume of history, he says that one of his purposes is to help readers understand the truthfulness of the Christian faith (Luke 1:4). Similarly, Luke has selected events in church history that help show Christian doctrine and practice; he has quietly omitted facts that might confuse the reader. Regarding circumcision, for example, he says there was a heated debate (Acts 15:2), but he reports the arguments of only one side of the controversy. What Luke writes is true — it is historically accurate — but it is also theologically selective.

Ancient histories often included speeches. There are 18 speeches in Acts. Many of them record the basic message of the early church. Just as Acts 1:8 gives a rough geographical preview of the book of Acts, Luke 24 gives us a preview of the theological message: “This is what is written [in the Scriptures]: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised” [the Holy Spirit]” (Luke 24:46-49).

Several speeches or sermons in Acts contain similar concise descriptions of the gospel. They argue that Jesus is the Messiah, that he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, that God raised him from the dead and that he is the answer to Jewish and Gentile hopes. Speeches are better at communicating these ideas than a historical description could be. As we read these speeches, we can learn important truths, not just ancient history.

Learning about God

Unlike most history books, Acts is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The story simply wouldn’t have been possible without God. He started it, motivated it and gave it direction, energy, purpose, message and protection. Luke does not give us a systematic description of God, but he describes what God did with the church.

The word “God” appears more than 160 times in the book. He is the Creator, the God of the Old Testament, who speaks through the Scriptures. He is praised, worshiped, obeyed and prayed to. Luke tells us repeatedly that God sent Jesus Christ, raised him from the dead, glorified him and gave him authority. God is the One who calls people to repentance, who gives the Holy Spirit, who directs the mission. It is his work — the message is about “the kingdom of God,” “the word of God,” the gospel of “the grace of God.”

“Lord” appears about 110 times, usually referring to Jesus. (“Jesus” appears 68 times, often in the combination “Lord Jesus”). Luke rarely uses the term “Son” (four times), just as he only rarely uses “Father” (three times). His choice of words probably reflects the needs of his Gentile readers. We are told that “the Lord” did the works of the apostles, that they preached his name, that he appeared in visions to direct the work, and that he was prayed to. Just as the gospel was called the word of God, it is also called “the word of the Lord.” Those who repented and believed were “added to the Lord.”

Luke uses “Christ” only 31 times. In Paul’s letters, and in modern Christianity, “Christ” is often treated as part of Jesus’ name: “Jesus Christ.” Luke, however, often uses “Christ” in its original meaning, Messiah: “Jesus is the Christ.” (The Greek word Christos means “anointed,” just as the Hebrew word Mashiyach [Messiah] does). Luke sometimes uses “Christ” as a name, too, as in the combination “the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Luke tells us much about the Holy Spirit. Although Acts contains only 13 percent of the words of the New Testament, it contains 23 percent of the occurrences of the word “Spirit.” In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is active — speaking and directing the work; the Spirit is the power by which the apostles testified that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 1:8).

Other topics

While Luke tells the story of the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, he is also able to achieve some additional purposes. A major theological goal is to explain why Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Luke stresses the connection that Christianity has with Jews and with the Old Testament, and explains how God and the risen Jesus directed that the message extend to all nations, as the Old Testament had predicted. Jesus fulfills the hopes and needs of Gentiles as well as of Jews.

Luke seems to have a political objective, too — to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman government. Although riots sometimes broke out when the gospel was preached, Luke notes that the problems were caused by Jews or Gentiles, not the Christian preachers. Christianity was rooted in Judaism, which was a legal religion. Roman officials repeatedly find Paul innocent of wrong-doing, and they allow the gospel to continue to be preached.

Luke also defends Paul against accusations that he was preaching against Judaism. Although Gentile believers did not have to “must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), Paul did not teach Jews to abandon their traditions. He participated in Jewish rituals both in Ephesus and in Jerusalem. Luke shows us that Paul had been forced to preach to Gentiles — Jesus miraculously called him and commissioned him; the Antioch church sent him out; the apostle Peter preached to Gentiles before Paul did; Paul preached to Jews first and to Gentiles only after Jews rejected the gospel.

In practical matters of Christian life, Luke emphasizes repentance, faith, baptism and forgiveness of sins. He emphasizes that the Holy Spirit gives believers courage to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ in the face of persecution. He also stresses prayer — asking God for help, and thanking him for his deliverance.

What this book means for you

Acts has both history and faith. Historically, the book serves as a vital link between the Gospels and the epistles. It bridges the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In the Gospels, Jesus is preaching; in the epistles, Jesus is being preached. The book of Acts explains how the messenger became the center of the message.

This is particularly important when we read the epistles of Paul, because, without the book of Acts, we would not know who Paul was or how he entered the picture or what motivated him to preach to Gentiles or why he wrote to such far-flung regions.

Luke’s picture of Paul is not in perfect agreement with Paul’s self-description. Luke describes Paul as a bold orator; Paul sometimes describes himself as a poor speaker. Both writers have more important purposes than merely to focus on a personal description. Both writers can be correct. Although some scholars emphasize the differences and claim that Luke’s account is wrong, other scholars explain differences as literary matters without rejecting the accuracy of either writer.

Luke gives us glimpses into the personalities of Peter, John and James, who wrote other New Testament books. He shows us the remarkable transformation that the Holy Spirit produced in Peter, who went from denying Jesus three times to boldly defying the Jewish leaders and telling them to their faces that he would continue to preach about Jesus. The sudden boldness of the apostles is testimony that God raised Jesus from the dead and gave these fishermen dramatic conviction and power.

Luke also records the persecutions of Peter, the martyrdoms of Stephen and James, the stonings and beatings and imprisonments of Paul. Whether they lived or died, captive or free, these Christians were led by the Holy Spirit to testify that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

The book of Acts may be read for history, and it may also be read to strengthen our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. As we read, we can put ourselves in the apostles’ sandals, to feel their boldness in preaching the gospel and their fears when facing persecution. We can marvel that the apostles, right after being flogged, were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]” (Acts 5:41). And by reading about their faith and perseverance, we can be a little more emboldened to face our own crises with the help of the same Holy Spirit.

The Church Begins in Jerusalem

Introductory Events

Promise of the Holy Spirit (1:1-5)

Luke begins this part of his history by reminding readers of his previous book, the Gospel of Luke, and the situation he had described at the end of that book. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead. He appeared to the disciples and gave them a dramatic new understanding of the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, 45). The Old Testament had not only predicted the Messiah and his suffering, but it also predicted that "repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations" (verse 47).

How would this prophecy be fulfilled? Jesus reminded the disciples that they had seen the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies (verse 48) — and in this Jesus implied that the disciples would be involved in fulfilling the biblical prediction about preaching.

How could the disciples preach to all nations? The Gospel of Luke does not tell us. But it tells us that Jesus told the disciples to "stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (verse 49). What is this power, and what is it for? This is where Acts picks up the story. Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom of God and told them to wait in Jerusalem for a special gift from God (Acts 1:4). "In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (verse 5). Luke, the inspired story-teller, is setting the stage for the dramatic events that will soon be narrated.

Jesus ascends to heaven (1:6-11)

The disciples had much to learn! Although Jesus had taught them about God's kingdom, their final question to Jesus was about the kingdom — but they asked from a Jewish perspective, leaving the Gentiles out of the picture (verse 6). The disciples' choice of words indicates that they had forgotten about preaching forgiveness to all nations. Instead, they wanted the Messiah to bring glory and power to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. This had been the Jewish hope for centuries. But the Jewish nation was not yet ready for the leader God had chosen. They rejected him and killed him, and, as Acts shows, most Jews continued to reject him even after his resurrection.

Moreover, a national kingdom was not the kind of kingdom that Jesus wanted his disciples to preach about. So Jesus did not answer their question. Instead, Jesus reminded them of the promise and the prophecy (verse 8), and told them to wait. He states it clearly: The power from God is the Holy Spirit, and the disciples, who were witnesses of Jesus' ministry, were to carry the message throughout the world.

Jesus had given them a mission, just as he had done twice before (Luke 9:1; 10:1). They were to be a witness for Jesus — to preach about him, his resurrection, and the fact that repentance and forgiveness can be obtained through him.

But the gospel could not go to all the world while Jesus was physically on earth. As long as he remained, he would be the primary preacher and he would be a geographical focus. Jesus wanted to delegate more responsibility to the disciples. He wanted to enable them to be the teachers. He wanted not just for God to be with them, but in them. After God began to live in the disciples, they would be able to go into all the world with the knowledge that God would always be with them, helping them understand the Scriptures and the mission, helping them through physical difficulties, energizing them in their work.

And, to the astonishment of the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven. Two angels appeared and informed the disciples that Jesus would return. The angels did not say when he would return. The disciples were simply left with the command to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit.

The disciples' question and Jesus' answer continue to be relevant today. Many Christians want physical blessings from God's kingdom. They eagerly pray for Christ to return in their lifetime so he will solve their problems. However, the spiritual blessings that Christ will bring are much more important than the physical blessings. Despite that, it is easy for us physical beings to focus on our physical needs.

Christ's answer focuses our thoughts on other people. Instead of dwelling on the physical things we want, we should focus on the spiritual blessings we have already been given, and we should share them with others. We who have been given the Holy Spirit should share the good news of salvation — that people of all nations can become part of the people of God through faith, repentance, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. We do not need to worry about when Christ will return. We simply need to be doing the mission he has given his people in the meantime.

Another apostle is chosen (1:12-26)

The apostles returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer. The disciples numbered about 120, including Jesus' mother and brothers. Peter, acting as leader of the group, said that someone should be chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who was dead. Peter acted as an authoritative interpreter of Scripture, observing that Psalm 69:25 had predicted Judas' death, and Psalm 109:8 predicted that someone else would be chosen for his position of leadership.

Why was it important that there be 12 apostles rather than 11? The number 12 symbolically represents the people of God. The 12 apostles were leaders of the "nation" God was forming from those who had faith in Jesus.

What were the essential qualities of an apostle? He had to have been a disciple of Jesus throughout his ministry — from the beginning to the end (verses 21-22). Two men matched that description, so the group prayed and cast lots to see which man should be numbered with the apostles and become an appointed witness of Jesus' resurrection. (Although many people had seen the resurrected Jesus and could be witnesses to his resurrection, it seems that the group of 12 apostles formed a group of official witnesses.)

Choosing a twelfth member of this core group of witnesses implies acceptance of Jesus' commission to be his witnesses in the new situation following his death and resurrection. This is an act of faith in Jesus and a first step in obedience to his new call. (Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, part 2: Acts, page 21)

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 1994 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

Matthias was chosen — but Luke tells us nothing more about him. He simply disappears from the story as suddenly as he appeared. So why did Luke tell us the story? It was not for Matthias' sake. Rather, it emphasizes the number 12 and the disciples' responsibility to witness.

The story also forms an interesting contrast in how to select leaders. In Acts 6, leaders are chosen who are "full of the Spirit and wisdom" and "full of faith" (6:3, 5). But in Acts 1, the apostles look to external characteristics and are unable to make a final decision. They resort to the Old Testament practice of casting lots and asking God to make the decision for them. It is only after they receive the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in them, that they are able to discern who is "full of the Spirit." Intentionally or not, life in the old covenant is contrasted with life in the Spirit.

Click here for a longer study of chapter 1.

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