ISSUE: 2013, Volume 10, Issue 3
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Acts is a thoroughly exciting Bible book, with a fast-moving narrative as it documents the first years of the church. J. B. PHILLIPS refers to Acts as ‘The Young Church in Action’. This article gives a short introduction to the book, with the aims of (1) motivating you to read it, and (2) providing background for future YPS articles studying specific sections in the book over the next few issues.
When we begin looking at any Bible book, there are generally three key points to address:
author, purpose, and structure.
Luke, the ‘beloved doctor’, Col. 4. 14 NLT, is the writer of Acts. This is his second volume in the New Testament, following on from his Gospel record. In Luke’s Gospel, he describes ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach,’ Acts 1. 1 NASB. In the Acts, he describes what Jesus did next, as the Holy Spirit empowered the Christians to serve their Lord. Luke interviews eyewitnesses, and collates their accounts, Luke 1. 2-3. In fact, he travels with Paul on some of the missionary journeys; note the seamless transition to first person narrative, e.g., in chapter 16. Throughout, we notice Luke’s careful attention to detail, which is a good lesson for us to learn in any spiritual service.
Why did Luke compile his historical accounts? He gives the answer at the start of his writings - it is so that Theophilus (and by implication, all Luke’s readers) may have confidence in the things they have heard, Luke 1. 4. Given Luke’s meticulous accounts, we can historically correlate many of the places, people, and events he describes. This gives us a firm and defensible foundation for our faith and practice. Christianity is firmly anchored in history, we can be sure of that.
In a key structural verse, the Lord Jesus describes the geographical progress of the Gospel, ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth,’ Acts 1. 8 NASB. We see this relentless advance happening in the book. Jerusalem is the focus for chapters 1-12, with occasional mentions of Judea and Samaria. Then, we travel further afield in chapters 13-28, from Antioch, a commercial centre, via Athens, an intellectual centre, to Rome, an imperial centre. In each city, and in each culture, the gospel takes a foothold. This is a challenge to us in our multicultural, globalized society. The same primitive gospel message, that ‘Jesus died and rose again’, 1 Thess. 4. 14, is just as necessary and effective today.
When we read Acts, we are essentially scrolling back to the start of the church timeline. As with any life story, it is helpful to see how early events and decisions shape future direction and development. Since we are members of the church, we should have an awareness of what the church is and how it began. It is vital to recognize the distinction in Acts between one-off special events (e.g., the Spirit’s arrival on the Day of Pentecost, 2. 1-4) and enduring principles (e.g., Christian fellowship, 2. 42).
Another useful line of study is the consideration of characters in the book. For instance, the two main characters are Peter, in chapters 1-12, and Paul, in chapters 13-28. Peter had failed Christ, and subsequently experienced His forgiveness. This is an encouragement to us, to seek restoration after failure, and to resume service for our Master. On the other hand, Paul had hated Christ, but subsequently had experienced His love. This is also a fantastic incentive for evangelism - even the most unlikely people can be saved by God’s grace.
Please take time to read through the Acts, and enjoy seeing God at work in and through His people. Below are some helpful study books, which should all be available from good Christian bookshops or online.
JOHN M. RIDDLE. The Acts of the Apostles. John Ritchie, 2012.
A useful book, recently published. It is fairly detailed but not too technical.
WARREN W. WIERSBE. Be Dynamic Acts 1-12, and Be Daring Acts 13-28.
David C. Cook, 2009 and 2010 (reprints).
As usual with the ‘Be’ series, these volumes are highly readable and eminently practical.
F. F. BRUCE. The Book of the Acts. New London Commentary version, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1954.
Modern reprints are available. This is a more detailed technical work, not for the faint-hearted.