The Acts of Jesus Christ
The book of Acts is one of the most well known books of the Bible. It seems to be full of exciting stories about the experiences of the apostles. They raise people from the dead, escape from prisons, travel the world and stand trial before kings. Acts, however, is not so much about the apostles as it is about Jesus Christ, who after His ascension works even more powerfully in this world. In this article we will give a short outline of Acts and think about what we can learn from the book.
Author, addressees and aim of the book
Acts was written by Luke, the same physician who also wrote the gospel named after him. Both the Gospel of Luke and Acts are dedicated to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Theophilus means “lover of God” and it is not entirely clear whether he actually existed or this is a symbolic name. In Acts, Luke wants to make clear that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were not without consequences. On the contrary, Jesus’ followers received the Holy Spirit and eventually proclaimed the Gospel of God’s great deeds throughout the world. How exactly did that happen?
Structure of the book
Acts can be characterized by a circular motion that becomes ever wider in scope. The circular movement is evident in the recurring sequence of events:
- Christian leaders arrive in a new place and proclaim the Gospel
- Hearers come to faith
- Opponents begin to persecute the Christian leaders
- God intervenes to save the leaders and protects His church.
The widening movement starts in Jerusalem, goes through Judea and Samaria, to Rome, the end of the then known world. In this way, Jesus’ promise, made at His farewell, is fulfilled: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
In addition to a travel journal, a third of Acts consists of sermons. Of the ten most important sermons, three are from Peter, one from Stephen, and six from Paul. Paul’s last three speeches were in defense of his actions in Jerusalem. The first three sermons are missionary in focus, each time to a different audience. First Paul addressed Jews (Acts 13:16-47), then Gentiles (Acts 17:22-31), and finally Christians (Acts 20:18-35). We will now discuss the content of the book of Acts in more detail.
The first main section of Acts deals with the testimony of the apostles in Jerusalem. Because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles were given great boldness to testify that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Holy Spirit added 3,000 people to the Christian church on that day (Acts 2:41). Like Jesus, the apostles also faced much opposition from the Jewish elite. They had to answer to the Council (Acts 4), were thrown into prison (Acts 5), or even stoned to death (Acts 7). However, God worked right through these attacks. The church only grew more significantly.
The second part of Acts focuses on the witness of the apostles in Judea and Samaria. Deacons were appointed to care for the maintenance of the poor. The most famous of them, Stephen, was stoned to death by the Jewish leaders. A fanatical young man, Saul, participated in the stoning (Acts 8:1) and persecuted the church vigorously. However, he met Jesus and had to acknowledge that he was on the wrong path. His life changed dramatically and he became an apostle. The second part of Acts focuses on the missionary journeys of this Saul, also called Paul.
As more and more Gentiles joined the church, the question arose whether they should also observe the Jewish laws or not. Slowly the realization dawned that a new era had begun, in which God was working in a different way from previously. Old Testament promises about the influx of the nations, now began to be fulfilled. After Peter’s divine revelation (Acts 10), the experiences of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13), and the first council (Acts 15), it was concluded that believing Gentiles did not need to be burdened with detailed ceremonial regulations as long as they refrained from idolatry and sexual uncleanness.
Now we have arrived at the third main section of Acts. Starting in Acts 13, the focus shifts to the whole world. God’s kingdom now takes on international stature. Paul is sent out by the church of Antioch, first to Cyprus and Galatia (modern-day Turkey) (Acts 13-14). On his second trip, he enters Asia Minor, from where he crosses to Macedonia and Greece. On the third trip, he goes to the same cities as before, where he visits all the congregations. Finally, he returns to Jerusalem.
The last seven chapters of Acts are devoted to Paul’s trial. The problems between the Jews and Christians come to a boiling point. Paul has to defend his views by the power of God. He takes that opportunity to testify to God’s mighty deeds in his life. Paul stands before the governor and the king and even comes to Rome because he must appear before the emperor (Acts 27-28, compare Acts 9:15). Thus, the Gospel reaches the whole world unexpectedly and the promise of Acts 1:8 is fulfilled.
Luke gives a brief summary about the growth of the church in several places, such as Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 19:10; 28:30-31. These texts show in particularly what God’s plan was all about. They also show what our focus should be. For after all, we live with the same commission as the apostles: testify to the Gospel! “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:32-33).