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Jan 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

Introduction to The Book of Acts

A Satellite View of Acts

My intention here is not to provide background information or a structured outline of Acts like you could easily obtain from a study Bible, commentary or find online. Instead, I want us to enter Acts with a general idea of where it will take us. In my first talk I suggest a reasonable plot for the story that Acts tells. The ongoing tension that recurs in almost every episode carries the narrative from beginning to end.

Dear Theophilus (Acts 1:1, The Message Bible)
The Book of Acts is the second installment of a two volume work (the Gospel of Luke being Volume I). The opening chapters of Luke and Acts share certain similarities. The obvious one is that both are addressed to Theophilus. Others similarities include:

  • Predictions regarding what is soon to occur and specific instructions.
  • The ministry of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus Christ.
  • Someone is or will be “filled with the Spirit.”
  • The presence of Mary (at the birth of Jesus and the birth of the church).
  • A period of forty days preparation before Jesus began his ministry and again following the conclusion his ministry (Lk. 4:1-13; Acts 1:3).

Although Acts is the only New Testament book to report events after the life of Jesus, what Luke recorded was not strictly history.

Biblical scholars have tried to identify the class of literature that would best describe Acts (including one suggestion that compared it to a “television documentary like 60 Minutes”). Why is this important? Because genre affects how we read a book (fiction, biography, poetry, etc.).

For our purposes, we will treat Acts as a sacred text. Perhaps Luke knew it would be read as scripture–in the same way he and his contemporaries heard God’s Spirit speaking “through the mouth of David” (Acts 1:16; 4:25). This is consistent with Paul’s view, that God granted apostles and prophets new revelations to make known his inclusion of Gentiles in the promise of Jesus Christ (Ep. 3:3-7). Luke may have been called to such a role.

Acts may employ a number of well-known literary conventions, but it was not bound to any one formula.

Key Words and Ideas
There is a great deal of activity and far-reaching movement in Acts. Nevertheless, the action tends to swirl around specific themes. Typically, two or more themes will overlap as the stories unfold.

  • Jesus Christ–and the “name” of Jesus.
  • The “witness” that Jesus’ disciples both became and gave (to his ongoing life and work through resurrection).
  • The Holy Spirit, who empowers the disciples to be witnesses.
  • The gospel and the word that is proclaimed everywhere.
  • The kingdom of God–an important piece of the gospel message.
  • Rejoicing and joy as a frequent response when the word of God takes root in a community, family or individual life.
  • Old Testament quotations, which inform decisions made by the apostles and that are used to explain the person of Jesus as well as to understand the phenomena they experience.

Acts is a book of stories, usually told in clusters, in which one event leads to the next. However, Luke does not always create a link between clusters or even between one story and the next, yet he is able to do this without breaking the book’s forward momentum.

Like Acts, Luke’s gospel also created a sense of events being driven forward (in that case, by the emphasis Jesus placed on getting to Jerusalem (e.g., Lk. 9:51; 13:32-35). In fact, the book of Luke begins and ends in Jerusalem (in the temple). Acts, however, begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome.

We can identify in Acts critical stages of change and spiritual development in the communal life of Jesus’ followers:

  • A shift from Jerusalem as the center to churches in Gentile cities. This is especially evident in the way Antioch becomes a hub for Gentile ministry and mission. In Acts as well as his letters, Paul seems intent on decentralizing Christianity by creating independent churches over which elders were appointed (Acts 14:23) and that operated under the guidance and authority of itinerant apostles and prophets. We may notice that in Acts Paul’s encounters with leadership in Jerusalem did not always go well.
  • A shift from Peter as the movement’s leader in Jerusalem to James being in charge. Perhaps this is the price Peter paid for his ministry to Gentiles.
  • A shift from the church as a Jewish sect to a religion with a Gentile majority. Interestingly, the radical communal life of Jerusalem believers in the early chapters of Acts was not duplicated in Gentile churches.
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