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Introduction to The Acts of the Apostles

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Introduction to Luke's Gospel Interpreting the Book of Acts
Apostolic Messages in Acts Travel in the First Century
Virtual Missionary Journeys Paul's Collection for Jerusalem believers
Roman Emperors Roman Government Positions
City of Corinth Photographs from Corinth
City of Ephesus Photographs from Ephesus
Josephus: the Famine predicted by Agabus Josephus: Death of Agrippa I


Please see the introduction to Luke's Gospel for information about authorship of both Luke and Acts.

Date of writing

The book was almost certainly completed before the death of Paul. There is no mention of the result of Paul's appeal to Caesar, so Luke probably finished the book before his trial happened. The book ends on an optimistic note, which would make a better fit with a date before the beginning of Nero's persecution in AD 64.

Structure of the book

There are several ways of looking at the structure. One is to focus on the major character, in which chapters 1-12 focus on Peter and the church in the Jewish world, then chapters 13-28 focus on Paul and the church expanding into the Gentile world. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that Peter was the apostle to the circumcised (Jews), and Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9).

Another structure is based on the geographical expansion of the Gospel, from Jerusalem (ch 1-7), through Judea and Samaria (ch 8-10), to the ends of the earth (ch 11 or 13-28), which is summarised, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

Luke has also included a selection of brief summary statements, which divide the book into different sections (6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:4, 19:20, 28:30-31). The first section (1:1 - 6:7) describes the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter's sermon, the Jewish church in Jerusalem, the healing of the lame man, Peter's second sermon and defence before the Sanhedrin, and the arrest, imprisonment and release of apostles. It concludes: "And the word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." (6:7).

The second section (6:8 - 9:31) begins with Stephen's martyrdom, and the resulting scattering of church throughout Judea and Samaria, Philip's ministry to the Samaritans, the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, and finishes with Paul's conversion. It ends with, “So the church throughout all Judea and Samaria had peace and was built up, and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied." (9:31).

The third section (9:32 - 12:24) begins with Peter's miraculous ministry at Lydda, Sharon and Joppa, followed by the conversion of Cornelius and his household. It also describes the conversion of Greeks and Paul's ministry at Antioch, the martyrdom of James, the brother of John, and Peter's imprisonment and deliverance, concluding, "But the word of God grew and multiplied" (12:24).

The fourth section (12:25 - 16:5) describes the first missionary journey to Cyprus and Galatia, the Council of Jerusalem, the second missionary journey, and return to Galatia, ending with, "So the churches were strengthened in the faith and they increased in numbers daily" (16:5).

The fifth section (16:6 - 19:20) describes the extension of Paul's work to Macedonia, Athens and Corinth during the third missionary journey, ending with, "So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily." (19:20).

The sixth and final section (19:21 - 28:30) describes Paul's last visit to Macedonia and Greece, his return to Caesarea and arrest in Jerusalem. It also includes Paul's defence before the Sanhedrin, Felix, Festus and Agrippa, concluding with the sea journey, shipwreck in Malta, and arrival in Rome, ending with the climax, "And he lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered" (28:30-31).

Features of Luke's style

Luke seems to have a particular interest in geography (1:8). He mentions many places, even those which are insignificant to the events, particularly on sea voyages when Luke was present. The 'we' passages, when Luke was writing in the first person, indicate that he was accompanying Paul. The first is between Troas and Philippi on the second journey (16:10-17). Luke then probably stayed six years in Philippi, perhaps to oversee church there. Paul then meets him again at Philippi on the third journey, when they are together until Miletus (20:5-15), from Miletus to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and from Caesarea to Rome (27:1 - 28:16), when many details of the sea voyages are given. During the two years in Caesarea, Luke was probably collecting his material and writing his gospel. He uses repetition of particularly important events, recording at length Peter's vision of unclean animals twice (10:9, 11:5), and Paul's testimony three times (9, 22:6-16, 26:12-18).

Luke gives a contrast between characters such as honest Barnabas (4:36-37), followed by dishonest Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11), and the apostles resistance to being mistaken for gods, whether Peter (10:25), Paul and Barnabas in Lystra (14:14), and Paul in Malta (28:6), is contrasted with Herod Agrippa I, who seemed to enjoy it (12:23).

Luke gives an extended comparison between Peter and Paul, so much that some scholars have suggested that this is the purpose of Luke writing the book. Both heal a lame man (Peter - 3:2, Paul - 14:8), both cast out demons (Peter - 5:16, Paul - 16:18), both have victorious encounters with magicians (Peter - 8:18, Paul - 13:6), both raise people from the dead (Peter - 9:36, Paul - 20:9), and both have a miraculous escape from prison (Peter - 12:7, Paul - 16:25). Both show unique healing power: Peter heals with his shadow (5:15), and Paul uses his handkerchief (19:12).

A particular characteristic of Luke’s writing is the use of litotes, or understatement. This is the opposite of hyperbole, and used to make a powerful point. These are a few examples: There was no small stir among the soldiers after Peter's miraculous release from prison (12:18). Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with the Judaisers (15:2). There was no small stir (19:23), but actually a riot in the Ephesus theatre. No small tempest lay on (us) (27:20) - a shipwreck!

Luke is rather selective, giving great emphasis on particular events, and skipping over, or very briefly summarising other events. This literary technique is known as principality. There is emphasis on Pentecost (ch 2), Cornelius (ch 10-11), Paul’s sermon at Antioch in Pisidia (ch 13), the uprising at Ephesus (ch 19), and Paul’s trials and journey to Rome (ch 21-28). However other events are omitted, like the beginning of the second Missionary Journey (15:36-41), the time between the second and third journeys (18:23), and Paul’s time in Macdeonia and Greece on the third journey (20:3), a time when he probably wrote the Book of Romans.

Luke includes several long speeches given by the apostles: Peter on the Day of Pentecost (2:14-38, 3:12-26), Stephen before he was stoned (7:2-53), Peter in house of Cornelius (10:32-48), and to the Jewish Christians (11:18). Several long messages from Paul are also included: to Jews in Antioch (13:13-43), in the Areopagus at Athens (17:22-33), to the Ephesus elders (20:18-35), in defence before the people in the temple (22:1-21), before Felix (24:10-21), and before Agrippa (26:2-22).

When he preaches the Gospel to Jews, he gives extensive use of quotations from the OT showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah, who was predicted in the OT. When he preached to the Greeks in Athens, he did not use the OT, but spoke about the God of creation, and quoted from Greek poets.

Luke’s sources of information

Luke made careful research and probably used several sources of information. These included his own eye-witness accounts indicated in the 'we' passages, which probably came from his own travel diary. He would also have received much biographical information from Paul, including his former life in Judaism (ch 5 and 7) and his conversion (ch 9) and other travels made without Luke. Luke could also have received information about the early days of the church (ch 1-5) from John Mark, who was also with Paul in Rome (Col 4:10,14). It is likely that the early Christians met in the house belong to the mother of John Mark (12:12). He could also have learned about events from Philip, when he stayed in his house on the way to Jerusalem (21:8-10). He could have told Luke about the Ethiopian eunuch (ch 8) and Stephen (ch 6-8).

Purpose of the book

The Book of Acts was not written as a text book on church government. It recounts the events of the early church, but is not intended to set a precedent for all time. For more information about how to interpret and apply the Book of Acts into church life today, please see Understanding Acts in the Inductive Bible Study pages.

Luke gives a only very selective history of the early church, focussing on Peter and Paul, and the spread of the Gospel from its Jewish base in Jerusalem to Rome, the centre of the Gentile world. He makes no mention of the spread of the Gospel east to Persia and India and south to Egypt. Over half of the book is about Paul. After chapter eleven, nothing more is heard about Peter apart from chapter 15, and after chapter three, nothing more is heard about John. The other nine apostles are named at the beginning (1:3) and are not mentioned again, except for James, the brother of John, being martyred by Agrippa I (ch 12). Of the seven 'deacons' (6:5), Stephen is martyred in chapter seven, and Philip evangelises Samaria and the Ethiopian (ch 8). None of the other five are ever mentioned again. The book has been described as 'Some of the Acts of some of the Apostles'.

Various suggestions have been given to describe Luke’s purpose in writing. These include a defence of Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles through the comparison with Peter. The dedication to Theophilus, together with the Gospel, could mean that his purpose was evangelistic, proclaiming salvation to educated Romans. Otherwise he could be showing that the Gospel was meant for Gentiles as well as Jews.

It is more likely that the book was intended as an apologetic, either generally into Roman society, or specifically as a defence in Paul’s trial. Luke may have wanted to show that Christians are innocent of charges against them, showing how the Roman officials who examined such cases were agreed that the Christians were innocent. In both the Gospel and in Acts there is a regular pattern of Jews bringing charges and the Romans declaring Jesus or the apostles innocent. Luke also carefully shows the close connection and roots that Christianity has with Judaism. It may even have been written for Paul's defence before Nero, an explanation for Theophilus, who was perhaps a high official in the Roman court, who could influence the emperor, of the rise and character of Christianity, to correct any misunderstanding he may have.

Acts could also be a theological statement, showing that the geographical movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome has great theological significance, revealing the triumph of the Gospel over the pagan Hellenistic world. The arrival of Paul in Rome would be a good climax to the history.

In his prologue Luke shows that it is a continuation of his gospel (1:1), describing what Jesus continued to do and teach through his Holy Spirit. Luke has great emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, showing that God’s hand was behind all the events he described. Some have said the book should really be called, 'The Acts of the Holy Spirit'.

Notes on the history and chronology

Luke is now recognised as a very accurate historian, the book of Acts fits like a glove into secular history. All his names and titles of Roman government officials, whether magistrates, politarchs, or asiarchs, have been shown to be correct. In the first century the leaders of Thessalonica had the title of 'politarch', which is not found in any other city. This is the title Luke gives them (17:6). There are several events described in the book, which give a close connection into secular history, and enable some dates to be fixed with reasonable certainty. This gives a framework for calculating approximate dates for many other events.

The first is the mention of King Aretas (9:25). In Damascus, there was a Jewish plot to kill Paul, they guarded the gates, but the disciples lowered him down the wall in a basket at night. He is also mentioned in Second Corinthians, when Paul recalls that the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize him, but he was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped (2 Cor 11:32).

King Aretas IV Philopatris (9 BC - AD 40), was king of Nabatea, while it was subject to Rome. It later became a Roman province. His daughter married Herod Antipas, who divorced her to marry his brother Philip's wife, Herodias. John the Baptist objected to this, was imprisoned and later executed (Mk 6:17). Aretas declared war on Antipas for this insult in AD 36. Damascus was originally the capital city of Syria, and was governed as a colony of Nabatea, by an ethnarch or governor representing Aretas. Damascus was probably given to Aretas by the emperor Gaius (AD 37-41). The plot of Jews and the Nabatean governor to seize Paul was probably the response to his preaching the gospel. Nabatea is the same area as Arabia, where Paul visited after his conversion (Gal 1:17), where he must have preached, drawing a hostile response.

The famine in Jerusalem (11:28), predicted by Agabus and took place in the days of Claudius (AD 41-54). Josephus writes that Helena, the Jewish queen mother of Adiabene, east of the Tigris brought corn from Egypt and figs from Cyprus and distributed them in Jerusalem (Antiquities 20:2:5). Barnabus and Saul visited Jerusalem bringing supplies to relieve their suffering. The famine is dated by Josephus during the days of the procurators Crispus Fadus (44-46) and Tiberius Julius Alexander (46-48), which would place the famine in AD 46. The famine was also dated in AD 46 by Bede in his History of the English Church and People (1:3), and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The death of Herod Agrippa I (12:23) is also described by Josephus, as happening while Agrippa I was putting on a show in Caesarea in honour of the emperor (Ant 19:8:2). Agrippa had shows in honour of Caesar, a festival for the emperor's welfare. He invited provincial officials and other distinguished people. On the second day he put on a robe of silver, and entered the room at daybreak. The sun shone on the silver, causing fear and trembling in the audience. His flatterers called out using language which was no good for him, addressing him as a god. "Be gracious to us, until now we reverenced you as a man, but now we see you be more than of mortal character". He did not rebuke them for their impious flattery, looking up he saw an owl above him. Earlier, Agrippa had been imprisoned by emperor Tiberius, and leaned against a tree where an owl sat. A German fellow-prisoner said that the owl was a sign of an early release, but if he saw it again, it would be a sign that he had only five days to live. Agrippa was struck down with severe pains in his abdomen, dying five days later.

In AD 49 the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome (18:2), excluding Jewish Roman citizens. Suetonius, in the 'Life of Claudius' wrote: "As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he banished them from Rome". This indicates Jewish disorder, probably in reaction to Christ being preached in the Roman synagogues. This edict was reversed by Nero in AD 54, when most Jews returned.

Luke also mentions the proconsul Gallio of Achaia (18:12). He was the son of the older Seneca (50 BC - AD 40), and brother of the younger Seneca, the philosopher and adviser to Nero (3 BC - AD 65). Gallio was appointed proconsul of Achaia in July of AD 51. He left because of a fever and went on a cruise in AD 52. This gives a date for Paul’s trial before Gallio sometime in the summer of AD 51.

Paul was brought before two different proconsuls in Jerusalem, Felix and Festus (25:1). Felix was replaced by Festus as proconsul of Judea in AD 59. There had been an outbreak of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and fighting in Caesarea. Felix intervened causing much bloodshed among the Jewish leadership and was recalled to Rome.

From these everts an approximate chronology of the events in the book can be calculated

Pentecost to Paul’s conversion (ch 1-9) AD 30 - 32
Cornelius to death of Agrippa I (ch 10 - 12) AD 35 - 44
First Missionary Journey (ch 13 - 14) AD 47 - 48
Council of Jerusalem (ch 15) AD 49
Second Missionary Journey (ch 16-18) AD 50 - 52
Third Missionary Journey (ch 19 - 20) AD 54 - 57
Trials in Jerusalem (ch 21 - 26) AD 58 - 59
Prison in Rome (ch 28) AD 60 - 62

Related articles

Introduction to Luke's Gospel Interpreting the Book of Acts
Apostolic Messages in Acts Travel in the First Century
Virtual Missionary Journeys Paul's Collection for Jerusalem believers
Roman Emperors Roman Government Positions
City of Corinth Photographs from Corinth
City of Ephesus Photographs from Ephesus
Josephus: the Famine predicted by Agabus Josephus: Death of Agrippa I

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