As we start this study of Acts, I encourage you to take this week to read the entire book here or using your Bible of choice. It will only take a couple of hours, but it will be a perfect way to start things off.
Don’t forget to sound off in the comments below with your discussion of the questions!
Acts is one of the most important books in the New Testament (but you could say that about them all). Acts gives us the working of the Holy Spirit through the lives of the apostles and the early church, a topic that every Christian should devote themselves to understanding.
In fact, without a thorough knowledge of the book of Acts, a Christian will be uneducated on the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. There is no other source of information in scripture so concise and clearly laid out as Acts when it comes to relying on God’s power in our daily lives.
Many have tried to make less of Acts than it is. Some say that doctrine cannot be formed from a book of history, of which Acts is. But this goes strictly against Paul’s definition of scripture itself in 2 Timothy 2:16:
All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.
If we consider Acts scripture, then we must acknowledge its usefulness to address, with the same authority, every concern of theology afforded other books of the Bible. In fact, I’ve never heard of anyone disputing the book of Luke’s ability to be used as doctrine-invoking scripture, and it was written in the same style, by the same person and to the same person. Acts could, in fact, be viewed much the same as 1st and 2nd Samuel: two volumes of the same work. There are differences in the two, but for our purposes, it is the same concept. While written separately, Luke shows no change in the intention of what he was writing.
Author & Reader
First thing’s first. Who on earth is Theophilus?
What we know: 1) he was whom the book of Luke and Acts were addressed, 2) he was an important man and 3) Luke knew him. What we don’t know: 1) who he was and 2) where he lived. There is much speculation about who Theophilus was based on his name (it means “Love of God”). Some say the name is just a metaphor for the body of Christ, or those who would “love God.” Others say he was a Jewish chief priest, while still others prefer to think of him as a Roman official of some kind. The reason for Theophilus’ ambiguity is because the name is a Greek name, but one that could have easily been taken on by a Jew.
Paul, for instance, is a Greek version of the name Saul. When traveling in the ancient Greco-Roman world, it was common for foreigners to take on Greek-sounding names, the same way people from predominately Asian countries adopt English names while living in the United States today.
While we can’t know for sure who Theophilus was, there is an equally intriguing topic for consideration. Who was Luke? We actually know very little about him as well. Some say he was Greek and others say he was Jewish, as Paul was. All we know for sure is that Paul and Luke first began traveling together in Troas (Acts 16) and that he was a physician (Colossians 4:14). What we don’t know is if Luke was a Greek or Jew. There was a medical school in Tarsus, the city where Paul was from. Luke could have studied there and have known Paul earlier in life, but we have know way of knowing. Luke is, for our purpose, a mystery.
But that is not a bad thing. We find out in Acts what we do not know in the Gospel of Luke. He was an eye-witness to Paul’s ministry. They travelled together. He had access to the apostles in Jerusalem and abroad to interview to compile his testimony of Jesus and the record of the book of Acts. Whoever he was, we know Luke is a credible source of the information he is giving us.
The apostle Paul is normally thought of as the greatest apostle and Christian who lived in the early church days. This is commonly thought because he is the focus of the book of Acts and the writer of so much of the New Testament. It is definitely a clearly held belief that Paul was a chief apostle by the church in the first few centuries, and rightly so, but to suggest that he was the greatest, or that there even was a “greatest” apostle, is an improper deduction from scripture.
The Acts of the Apostles, the book’s name, does focus primarily on Paul. The reason? Luke, it’s writer, traveled with Paul for several years and ended up with him in Rome. He began traveling with him in Troas in Acts 16 and stayed with him through the end of the book. To conclude, however, that Luke focused on Paul because he was the most important apostle, is an improper understanding of scripture. Luke told Paul’s story because he was with Paul. Had he traveled with John, or Peter, we may have a much different looking book of Acts. The lack of any widely-accepted written accounts of the other apostles does not make Paul’s journeys or life superior, only that his were stories and epistles the Lord chose to use throughout the ages.
Paul worked very hard over the course of his life, and he was a prolific writer because he was educated and trained to do so. We know he was well-read, because of his deep understanding of scripture and culture. We must not elevate him, however, over others in the New Testament. Doing so would lead us to err in the same way now, by elevating men beyond their true stature–fellow bondservants of God.
The first five chapters are the preamble to Paul’s life–what happened in the early days of the church. Starting in chapter 6, we see a drastic change in the church. The apostles became overwhelmed and appointed men to lead aspects of ministry in their stead. This began a multiplying effect. Luke includes the story because it changed the speed at which the church began to grow. It led to the martyrdom of Stephen and subsequently the fulfilling of Jesus’ command to go to Samaria, then the ends of the earth. By the time Paul was converted, there were already many believers in the regions of modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, but not many beyond. There were a few missionaries who went out into the Greco/Roman world even before Jesus’ death and resurrection, as evidenced by Apollos, but not many people had been converted to “The Way” as it was called early on.
So what we have is an account of how the gospel spread through the Roman world through the lens of Paul’s efforts. There were clearly many others at work alongside Paul, who we have no record of. Luke, as any writer would, makes no apology for those people’s efforts he leaves out of his work. He is interested in making a clear and concise record of what God did through his first-hand knowledge in Paul’s life.
What we must conclude from Acts, then, is not that Paul was God’s chosen “super-apostle,” as a phrase Paul himself coins tongue-in-cheek in 2 Corinthians, but that Paul was God’s chosen vessel to penetrate the darkness of the pagan world.
As a book of scripture, Acts is acceptable for all correction, doctrine, etc. It is a book of history, but it is definitely scripture. We can learn much from Acts about how the gospel spread, and spread rapidly, before Christianity was en vogue. Many liberal commentators have tried to say that the edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine and the subsequent “Christianization” of the Roman world was how the gospel spread quickly. We know that almost two hundred years before Constantine the entire Roman world had been saturated with the gospel, as evidenced by Acts and Paul’s statement in Romans 15; that from modern-day Croatia to eastern Turkey, there was no place for Paul to go where the gospel hadn’t been preached.
Acts is a powerful manual for us on how to reach the lost with the gospel. If we will choose to discern them, there are clear strategies laid out on how to reach the lost with the gospel. Paul’s life, as recorded in Acts, is not so much a testimony of how good an evangelist Paul was, but at how good a church planter he was. He started churches that went out and reached thousands and millions of people who never even met Paul. Sometimes he planted self-sustaining churches among non-Jewish believers with only a few weeks of teaching.
So, for every believer called to make disciples of non-believers (and that’s every believer) Acts is our training manual on how it was done well.
Here is the outline for Acts that is helpful to understand how the book is broken down:
Part 1: Introduction to the Church 1:1-5:42
- Purpose 1:1-3
- Jesus’ command and replacing Judas 1:4-26
- Day of Pentecost 2:1-47
- Establishment of the Church 3:1-5:42
Part 2: Transition to Paul’s Story: Moving Beyond Jerusalem 6:1-8:40
- The Seven 6:1-7
- Steven 6:8-7:60
- Beginnings of Mission 8:1-40
Part 3: Paul’s Story: Reaching the Gentiles 9:1-28:31
- Conversion 9:1-30
- Obedience and Miracles 9:31-43
- First Gentiles 10:1-11:18
- Return of Saul 11:19-30
- God Sustains the Church 12:1-25
- Missionary Journey One 13:1-14:28
- Gentiles Accepted 15:1-35
- Missionary Journey Two 15:36-18:22
- Missionary Journey Three 18:23-21:14
- Jerusalem and Jail 21:15-26:32
- Missionary in Chains 27:1-28:31
- Who do you think Theophilus was?
- Why did Luke follow Paul’s life? Why not Peter? James? John?
- Was Paul the greatest apostle? Who was the greatest?
- Can Acts be used to form doctrine?
- Why would Acts be a great tool for learning strategies to reach the lost?