The book of Acts is the second volume of the Gospel of Luke. To understand Luke it is necessary to understand Acts and vice-versa. The structure of each individually and the pair together can be imagined through the geography of the story. The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in Jerusalem; the Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem but ends in Rome. Acts is more than a biography of Paul or even a record of the early church. It is a romantic history of the coming of God’s grace to all people, Jew or Gentile, a universalist message symbolized by the arrival of Paul in the great polyglot capital of the empire, Rome.
Geography is Theology
The Gospel of Luke ends with the disciples blessing God in Jerusalem. It is significant that Luke ends in Jerusalem. The entire gospel of Luke is structured around geography. Luke begins with the annunciation of John the Baptist and the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is tried and crucified in Jerusalem. Above all, Jesus is resurrected in Jerusalem. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem in chapter 9, and he is traveling towards Jerusalem for nearly half the gospel. For the rest of the gospel, Jerusalem functions as the looming destination which holds a fate known to Jesus alone. The arrival of Christ in Jerusalem is important because it means that the message of Christ has arrived in the capital and center of the Jewish world. The geography of Luke’s story highlights the coherence of his overall message. This is apparent when we consider Acts, the sequel to Luke.
The Acts of the Apostles
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, though separated in the Bible, were two parts of a single continuous work by the same author. He tells us this himself: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven.” (Acts 1:1)
Acts begins where Luke ends: in Jerusalem with the ascension of Jesus. Before Jesus’ ascension, he commands his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This command sets the tone for the book of Acts. In Luke, the gospel of Jesus Christ reaches Jerusalem. In Acts the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the gospel reaches Rome. Acts is a history of the church, and the message of Acts is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will reach the ends of the earth.
Acts has four major themes:
1. Its geographic frame. In Acts, geography is theology. Place reveals the meaning of history.
2. Acts is the story of the apostles and the apostolic church.
3. Acts is the second volume of Luke-Acts. The themes and events in Luke reverberate in Acts. The two works enrich and amplify each other.
4. Paul’s Roman citizenship.
Acts has 28 chapters. The first seven take place in Jerusalem. Acts is about the apostles, but the book focuses on two of the apostles: Peter and Paul. The first half of Acts focuses on Peter, and the second half focuses on Paul. The two halves are connected by the Conference of Jerusalem in the middle of the book.
Acts is a romantic history. Acts describes the history of the early church, including its early theological history, but it also presents this history as a romanticized account. Romance is a broader genre of prose writing that includes adventure stories. Acts is an adventurous history. It is about the trials, adventures, speeches, and journeys of the early apostles.
Luke begins with the birth of Jesus. Acts begins with the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem.
“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:2-4)
An audience gathers around the disciples, and Peter makes a great speech, urging the people to listen and repent of their sins. The events of the day convert three thousand, marking the birth of the church.
The early chapters of Acts describe the community at Jerusalem. It was characterized by communal living and the sharing of property, with much of the surplus wealth given to the poor. The episode of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 (wherein two members lie about how much wealth they give and are consequently stricken dead) shows both the seriousness of the communal property sharing and the punishment for lying to God.
Acts chapters 7 and 8 describe the trial and martyrdom of Stephen, an articulate and learned evangelist. Stephen makes a great speech defending himself and the early church, but he is still martyred for preaching a doctrine contrary to Judaism.
Martyr is a Greek term meaning “witness.” It will come to mean someone who is willing to witness for Christ by suffering death at the hands of persecutors. Stephen was the first martyr, and he set the example of how Christians should testify for their faith (Acts 6:8-8:1). He was executed by stoning. Among those approving of his death was a man named Saul, later to be known as Paul. Paul is subtly introduced in Acts 8, but he was not yet an apostle. In fact, at this time, he was one of the fiercest persecutors of the church.
The earliest followers of Jesus were, of course, Jews; they thought of Jesus’ messiahship in terms of God’s covenant with Israel. However, in Acts we see how quickly the movement attracted Gentile followers. In the very first decades after the crucifixion, two factions developed: one believed that the salvation through Jesus Christ was within the traditional terms of the Mosaic Law; the other believed that Jesus’ sacrifice meant that salvation could be granted to Gentiles outside the traditional terms of the Law. The tension between these two ideas dominated the first generation of Christianity; it is a principal thread in the book of Acts which reaches its climax at the Conference of Jerusalem.
Early signs of the tension appear in Acts 11. Peter goes to Jerusalem where “circumcised believers,” Jewish-Christians, criticize him for eating with uncircumcised men. Peter responds by reporting his dream at Joppa, where he had a vision which signified that Gentiles could be saved without observing traditional Jewish practices such as circumcision. Peter becomes an early supporter of the mission to the Gentiles.
The Gentile mission was largely associated with the work of one apostle in particular: Paul (who was known as Saul of Tarsus before he becomes a Christian). While on the road to Damascus to persecute more Christians, Saul has a dramatic conversion. Saul encounters the resurrected Christ, who asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) The episode leaves Saul blind, and he is led by hand into Damascus. After his sight is restored by a disciple named Ananias (not the Ananias who lied about sharing property), Saul becomes a devout follower of Christ (Acts 9:1-19). Saul begins preaching the word in Damascus. He returns to Jerusalem and becomes accepted by the community with the help of a man named Barnabas. Saul then goes to Tarsus.
Later, Barnabas and the renamed Paul visit the newly-established church in Antioch, where they teach for a year. According to Acts, it is in Antioch where the disciples are first called “Christians.”
Acts chapter 13 describes Paul’s missionary journey into Syria and Cilicia. Paul converts many Gentiles, leading to the confrontation that occurs at the Jerusalem Conference.
The Jerusalem Conference
The Conference of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is the pivot of Acts. After the conference, the focus of the book is on Paul. The book of Acts insists on the apostolic authority of Paul. It is fundamental for Luke that Paul is an apostle: one who is appointed by Christ. Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Conference serves to legitimize Paul’s authority. The conference at Jerusalem is contentious, but Peter speaks on behalf of the Gentiles and argues that Gentiles can be saved by faith alone. James, the brother of Jesus, also supports Paul; James reads a prophesy from the Hebrew scriptures which says the Gentiles will be saved.
The conference decides that the mission to the Gentiles can continue. Furthermore, the Gentiles will not have to follow Jewish religious laws, although there are a few compromises: the Gentiles should abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication. Paul sets out for Syria and Cilicia with the blessing of the Jerusalem church.
After the Conference of Jerusalem, Acts focuses on Paul and his missionary journeys. In Acts, there are a total of three missionary journeys. Paul establishes churches across Syria, Anatolia, and Greece. In chapter 18, Paul travels to Corinth, where local Jews make trouble for him and accuse him of sedition. The proconsul of Achaea, a man named Gallio, argues that Paul is committing no crime. This scene is important because Gallio’s governorship of Achaea is attested by an inscription that allows us to date Paul’s missionary journeys. Gallio was proconsul of Achaea in the year 52 AD, the first definite date we have for the events of Paul’s life. Earlier events in Paul’s life are estimated by working back from this date.
In chapter 19, Paul embarks on his third missionary journey. He travels through Ephesus, where local silversmiths instigate a riot and try to implicate Paul in a crime. In Acts, the pagans are the troublemakers and Paul is reserved, philosophical, and harmless. Once again, Paul is protected by the law.
The End of Acts
By chapter 21, Paul has returned to Jerusalem and finds himself in the most serious trouble yet. Paul is mobbed by a Jewish crowd, but a Roman military officer intervenes to save him. Paul speaks to the crowd in Hebrew, retelling his conversion experience, but the crowd rejects him and sends him away.
A Roman tribune ties him up and prepares to interrogate him under torture. Before the torture begins, Paul explains that he is a Roman citizen. The tribune is surprised; he states, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” (Acts 9:28) Paul says that he was born a citizen. It is startling that Paul has citizenship; in the first century, citizenship was exclusive to Romans and hard to obtain for provincial inhabitants of the empire. Paul is Jewish, a former Pharisee; for him to have citizenship, much less to have been born a citizen, is striking indeed. Paul’s citizenship means that he is entitled to certain procedural rights, such as not being tortured. The tribune sends Paul under guard to Caesarea.
In Caesarea, the procurator Felix hears Paul’s case. Paul defends himself, and the temple authorities send an advocate to accuse him. Roman trials like this were private arguments. Paul is accused of sedition (like Jesus was in the Gospel of Luke). Paul makes an eloquent argument and wins his case, but Felix holds him for two years under arrest. Felix’s tenure ends, and a new procurator, Festus, arrives in Judea.
Festus seeks to ingratiate himself with the Jews whom he must govern in this tumultuous province. He decides to use Paul as a means to this end; he sends Paul back to Jerusalem where Paul will surely be convicted. However, Paul uses his citizenship to appeal to Caesar. Festus responds, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” (Acts 25:12)
The “Caesar” at this time is Nero. Paul’s appeal is sadly ironic because, according to Christian tradition, Paul died at the hands of Nero. Naturally, Paul could not have known his fate, although Luke knew of Paul’s death at the time of his writing.
Agrippa II, the last Herodian king ruling from Galilee, comes with his sister Bernice to visit Paul before the apostle is sent off to Rome. Paul makes a speech before Festus, Agrippa II, and Bernice, who want to hear his story. When they hear his speech, they say they would have set him free if he had not appealed to Caesar.
The last two chapters of Acts recount Paul’s dramatic trip to Rome. He sets sail for Rome in a ship, and there is a storm and a shipwreck. Paul intervenes to save the crew. In turn, he is saved by a centurion when the soldiers threaten to kill all of the prisoners to prevent them from escaping.
They survive and make it to Malta. After a brief stay, Paul is put on another ship and sent to Rome. Once in Rome, Paul is allowed to live alone with a guard. He finds believers already in Rome, and one of his first deeds is to address the Jewish community there. Paul is afraid that the community in Judea has sent antagonistic letters ahead of him. He pleads with the Jews in Rome not to listen to the rumors about him. Fortunately for Paul, the Jewish community has not heard anything about him. They are willing to listen to him speak about Christianity. Some Jews convert, but many refuse to believe.
Luke ends his work in powerful fashion:
“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen. He [Paul] lived there [in Rome] two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28: 28-31)
The ending of Acts reasserts two claims made by the whole of Luke-Acts. First, salvation has been brought to the Gentiles. Second, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has reached the ends of the earth. Rome is not the end of the earth, but it is the capital of the world’s greatest power in the time of the apostles. Acts continues the work of Luke. In Luke, the Gospel is brought to Jerusalem: the center of the Jewish World. In Acts, the Gospel is brought to Rome: the center of the Gentile World.
Luke chooses not to end Acts with the death of Paul in Rome, even though Luke knew that Paul had been martyred. Instead, Acts ends with Paul teaching boldly in Rome. Acts is a story of the church, so it ends with Paul alive in Rome, having spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Acts versus the Epistles
Acts is a story where contention ends with harmony. In Acts, Paul works with the blessing of the Jerusalem church and converts the Gentiles with their approval.
But we have another source for the life of Paul: his own letters. Paul’s letters are the earliest writings in the New Testament. These letters provide a different perspective on Paul’s ministry. For instance, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he went into Arabia after his conversion experience. If we only had Acts, we would have never known that Paul had first traveled to Arabia.
Remember that Luke was probably written between 85 and 90 AD. Acts was also written in this time period. These dates are much later than Paul’s latest letters. In Acts, Luke looks back at the history of the church long after the conflicts between Paul and the Church have been resolved in favor of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Paul’s letters preserve something of the original heat of the battle.