Acts of the Apostles, the second part of the work that begins with the Gospel According to Luke, is the story of the early church after Jesus’s martyrdom. Like Luke, Acts is addressed to the unknown reader Theophilus, and in the introduction to Acts, it is made clear that it is a continuation of Luke: “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” (1:1–2). Second-century Christian tradition identifies the author of Luke and Acts as Luke, a traveling companion of the missionary Paul of Tarsus. Modern scholars agree that Acts and Luke should be credited to the same author, but have been more reluctant to identify him: the author most likely wrote between the years 80 and 90, and may indeed have been Paul’s companion.
One of the perplexing problems surrounding the authorship of Acts is the narrator’s changing voice and person. He generally speaks as an uninvolved third party, but sometimes lapses into the plural. Acts is certainly intended as a history of the early church, and it is the most complete and valuable history we have of the Christians in the first century. However, it is not necessarily historically reliable, either in terms of its depiction of the first-century development of Christian theology and religion, or in its description of the political history of the church. For instance, the author seems relatively shaky in his knowledge of Paul’s theology. Whether or not it was intended to be a historically accurate text, Acts can be read as a devotional and instructional history, whose religious purpose remains unaffected by its inaccuracies. It depicts the story of the spread of Christianity, the growing distance between Christianity and Judaism, the move toward earthly concerns rather than apocalyptic expectations, and the triumph of the Christian message despite persecutions.
Acts begins with Jesus’s charge to the Twelve Apostles to spread the Gospel throughout the world. Peter serves as the leader of the apostles and the small congregation of the faithful in Jerusalem. Their first order of business is to elect Matthias as the twelfth apostle, replacing the traitor Judas Iscariot. During the year of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples are gathered for Pentecost, a religious holiday celebrating the grain harvest. The Holy Spirit descends upon them. As a result of the Holy Spirit’s presence, they begin speaking other languages.
Peter delivers a sermon explaining the miracle. He says that the gift of tongues is given to prophets. Peter summarizes the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. He gives scriptural proof that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior whom God promises in the Old Testament to send to save Jews from their adversity. Responding to Peter’s sermon, 3,000 people are baptized into the Christian community—an idealized, thriving community characterized by prayer, brotherhood, common ownership, and sharing. A man named Barnabas is particularly praised for his generosity, and a couple that defrauds the church is stricken dead. Going to the temple to pray, Peter and John cure a crippled beggar. Peter tells a crowd the story of Jesus’s persecution and his eventual resurrection, concluding with a reminder that the Jews are favored by God and a call to repentance. The Sadducee high priests of the temple, who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, bring Peter and John before the Jewish high court, where Peter preaches the Gospel fearlessly. The court, which is called the Sanhedrin, recognizes that public opinion is in favor of the apostles and releases them with only a warning.
The high priest imprisons the apostles, but they are miraculously freed by an angel, and they continue their preaching. Brought again before the court, Peter leads the apostles in their defense, saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Influenced by the great sage Gamaliel, who warns, “[Y]ou will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God,” the court declines to execute the apostles, who continue preaching throughout Jerusalem (5:39).
The church divides into two groups. One group is the Hellenists, Christians who were born Jewish but who have a Greek cultural background. The other group is the Hebrews, the Christians who, like the apostles, were born into Jewish cultural backgrounds. The Hellenists feel discriminated against, so in response, the community of disciples elects seven leaders to account for the needs of the Hellenists. Foremost among these Christian Hellenist leaders is Stephen. A controversy ensues between Stephen and some Jews, who accuse him of heresy before the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s accusers testify that “[t]his man never stops saying things against the holy place and the law” (7:13). In front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen delivers a long speech detailing the history of Jewish leadership in the Bible, concluding with a damning accusation: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands. . . . You stiff-necked people . . . you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (7:48–51).
Stephen is stoned to death, with the approval of a young man named Saul of Damascus, a vigorous persecutor of the Christians. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, a person who is killed as a result of defending the church. Saul is a Jewish leader who has been trying to wipe out the new community of Christians because he believes that they are trying to dismantle Jewish law. While traveling to persecute Christians, Saul is blinded by a light and hears the voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul then sets out to become the most relentless, brilliant, and bold missionary of Christianity that the church has ever known. He travels to the coast, performs miracles, preaches the Gospel, and converts Gentiles.
In a brief interlude, Acts recounts the miracles and speeches of Peter. Traveling to the coast, Peter cures a paralytic at Lydda and revives a woman at Joppa. In Caesarea, he says that he has received a message from God telling him that he “should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). He deduces that he may associate with Gentiles, as “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34). He therefore dines with the family of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and they become the first Gentiles baptized by Peter. The church continues to shift its emphasis toward welcoming the Gentiles. Some of those who fled persecutions in Jerusalem arrive at the Syrian city of Antioch, where they begin to preach to the Greeks. Saul and Barnabas are among these people. Judea, meanwhile, is under the rule of King Herod Agrippa, who ruled from 41 to 44 a.d. Herod Agrippa introduces institutional persecution against the Christians and arrests Peter, who is miraculously freed from jail by an angel.
Barnabas and Saul, who is renamed Paul, depart on a missionary journey. In Cyprus, Paul blinds a magician, Elymas, who tries to prevent Paul from teaching. At Antioch in Pisidia, a central region in modern-day Turkey, Paul preaches to a Jewish congregation, telling his listeners about forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. Many listeners become converts, but many also contradict Paul, and the missionaries are expelled from the territory. At Iconium, too, they have some success until nonbelievers, including both Jews and Gentiles, drive them from town. At Lycaonia, Paul cures a cripple, and the local Gentiles take them for the pagan gods Zeus and Hermes before Paul is able to convince them otherwise. As usual, however, the missionaries are chased from town, and Paul is nearly stoned to death. The two make their way back to Antioch in Syria, preaching the whole way. A controversy arises as a result of their missionary activities among the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem for a debate of church leaders.
At the debate, traditional Jewish Christians argue that, to become a Christian, one must first convert to Judaism and become circumcised. Paul and Barnabas are strong supporters of expanding the church among Gentiles. Peter and James, leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, decide in favor of Paul’s perspective, arguing that they should preserve the community of believers and “not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). Only a minimal adherence to the law is required of Christian Gentiles. Paul separates from Barnabas and, together with another disciple, Silas, sets out in Macedonia. Local Gentiles are angry at their exorcism of a spirit from a soothsayer slave, which deprives her of the ability to tell the future. They imprison Paul and Silas. An earthquake shakes the prison cell, and the missionaries are quickly released.
In Greece, Paul meets with mixed success, converting some but meeting opposition from many Jews and some Gentiles. In Athens, Paul speaks at the public forum, the Areopagus, contextualizing Christianity within Greek beliefs. From Athens, Paul travels to Corinth, where he turns away from the Jews in despair and preaches almost entirely to the Gentiles with great success. He also attracts his faithful disciples Aquila and Priscilla. The Jews take Paul before the governor of the region to accuse him, but the governor refuses to adjudicate a matter of religious faith. Paul, after a brief return to Antioch, continues to work his way through Greece, establishing the church in Ephesus and working great miracles. He leaves Ephesus after a mass riot instigated by the silversmiths, who are concerned that Paul’s preaching against pagan idolatry will ruin their trade.
Paul travels onward and stops to revive a dead man in Troas. Paul sends for the Christian elders of Ephesus, and in an emotional speech he reminds them of his faithful service to them and warns them of the persecution that might begin. The Holy Spirit urges him to travel to Jerusalem, where he himself expects to be persecuted and possibly killed. In Jerusalem, Paul meets with James and the church leaders, who are concerned that Paul appears to have been urging Christians not to follow Jewish law. They plan for Paul to make a public show of worship at the temple, to indicate that he continues to adhere to Jewish law. In the temple, however, Jews seize him, accusing him of profaning the temple and preaching against the law. Paul tells the crowd his personal history. He relates the stories of his past persecution of Christians, his miraculous vision of Christ, and his conversion to Christianity and mission to preach to the Gentiles.
The crowd becomes outraged, and the Roman tribune seizes Paul and flogs him. The tribune then has him brought before the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, where Paul creates dissent by setting the two factions in the court, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, against each other. The tribune saves Paul from the ensuing riot, and, hearing of a Jewish plot against Paul’s life, sends him for his own protection to Felix, the governor of Palestine, in Caesarea. At the trial in Caesarea, Paul professes to worship God and adhere to Jewish law. He claims that it is only because of his belief in the resurrection of the dead—a belief not shared by the Sadducees—that he is on trial. Hearing that Paul collects and distributes alms, Felix holds him in jail for two years, hoping for a bribe. After Felix’s death, Paul is tried before the new governor, Festus. Paul appeals to Caesar’s judgment, and Festus—who does not believe Paul guilty, but who wants to appease the Jews calling for his execution—resolves to send him to Caesar, in Rome. First, however, Paul is brought before Herod Agrippa, the Jewish puppet-king of Palestine. Again, Paul recounts the story of his vision of Jesus and conversion to Christianity, and argues that his missionary activity is merely a fulfillment of Jewish hopes and Old Testament prophecies. King Herod Agrippa is impressed, but Paul is sent to Rome. On the way to Rome, Paul’s ship is wrecked, and through a series of sailing mishaps it takes months to arrive at Rome. Awaiting his hearing at Rome, Paul begins to spread the Gospel to the Roman Jews, who disbelieve him. He turns his emphasis again toward the Gentiles, and as Acts ends, Paul is in Rome, “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).
Acts of the Apostles demonstrates the importance of missionary work in the early church. The book begins with the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, who are anxious for the final redemption. The apostles demand of Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Jesus responds by charging them to concern themselves not with the Apocalypse, but with spreading the Gospel on Earth: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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 ends of the earth” (1:7–8). It is through Paul, the great early missionary of the church, that Acts dramatizes the fulfillment of Jesus’s command, the spreading of the Gospel across the known world. Paul dominates the second half of Acts and, more than any other figure, dictates the trajectory of the church’s rise. Acts begins with Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem; it ends, years later, with Paul in Rome. Paul’s final words are an apt summary of the direction in which he leads the missionary church in the vital first decades of its existence: “Let it be known to you then,” he says to the Jews of Rome, “that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (28:28).
The ending of Acts in Rome foreshadows the eventual transition of the church to that city. Acts is the story of the church’s turn away from Jerusalem and toward Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Acts is filled with stories and speeches, but the dramatic arc that connects all of Acts of the Apostles is the church’s move, driven by Paul, toward a split with Judaism and an emphasis on converting Gentiles. It is in that move that Christianity becomes its own distinct religion. Jesus and his followers consider themselves Jews, and Jesus’s message and teachings are the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies. It is evident from the first chapters of Acts that, in the first years after Jesus’s ascension, the apostles and their followers continued to consider themselves Jews, and to follow Jewish law. Peter and John, both of whom consider Jews the chosen people of God, are on their way to worship in the Jewish temple when they encounter the cripple. “You are the descendents of the prophets,” Peter tells a Jewish audience, “and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors. . . . When God raised up his servant [Jesus], he sent him first to you” (3:25–26).
The early church controversy between the Hellenists and the Hebrews introduces the first dissent within the church itself. The Hellenists are Jewish adherents to Jesus who were born into a Greek cultural background. They feel that the Hebrews, Jewish Christians who were born into a Jewish cultural background and who adhere strictly to Jewish law, are discriminating against them. The apostles and disciples decide that unity is more important than conformity, and they accept the position of the Hellenists, even appointing Stephen and six others to minister to the Hellenists in the church. When Stephen breaks with Jewish tradition, however, he shows how Christianity is becoming increasingly incompatible with Judaism. Although Stephen is stoned to death, the Hellenists continue to move away from the Jewish focus of the church, baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian. A turning point for the church occurs when Peter himself receives a message from God: “God has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). The message challenges one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism, the idea that Jews are a special population chosen by God. But God’s message to Peter indicates that Gentiles are no less clean than Jews, and therefore that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
The church in Antioch is founded immediately after the Jerusalem elders accept Peter’s rationale for baptizing a Gentile, thus laying the foundation for the Antioch church to become dominated by Gentile Christians. It also indicates the increasing degree to which followers of Jesus Christ are non-Jewish. The acceptance of Gentiles gives impetus to the move away from Jewish law and Judaism, and it signals the beginning of the move away from Jerusalem. In fact, at Antioch the disciples are first called Christians rather than Jews. Paul becomes the great Christian missionary to the Gentiles, traveling throughout Greece and Asia Minor and, while receiving little welcome from the Jews, recruiting many Gentiles to the church. Paul and Barnabus say, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (13:46).
The New Testament texts are not monolithic, or conveying only a single, objective perspective. The Book of Acts reveals that early Christianity was a highly dynamic movement, full of doctrinal and theological differences. Acts functions as a historical text in allowing us a unique insight into the transition of Christianity from a Jewish sect into its own religion. The controversies over adherence to Jewish law, the role of Gentiles within the church, and the relationship of the Diaspora communities to the Jerusalem community make it possible to understand Paul’s letters, which comprise a later part of the New Testament. Acts describes the beginning of the process by which the faith of a few followers grew into a church that dominated Europe for more than 1,000 years.
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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