The Book of the Acts should need no commendation to Christian preachers. The minister who wants to be sure that he stands in the true apostolic succession will turn to this book time and again. What was the message that the apostles preached, and how did they preach it? How did they adapt their presentation of the message to their varying congregations—Jewish, God-fearing and Gentile? What part did their personal experience of Christ play in their preaching? The preacher who looks for the answers to such questions as these in this book will certainly find it, and if he tests his own preaching in the light of that answer, he will know how far he falls short of the apostolic example.

The Book of the Acts was clearly written as the sequel to the Third Gospel, which is the “former treatise” referred to in Acts 1:1. This conclusion is not based simply on the fact that both works are dedicated to Theophilus, but on wider considerations of style, language and outlook. They were intended to circulate as two parts of one historical work, tracing the beginnings of Christianity from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. It has been suggested that the author projected a third part, in which the story would be carried on possibly to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; but this cannot be proved.

When the four Gospels began to be bound up together and to circulate as one collection, early in the second century, the two parts of this historical work were separated from each other. Part I was henceforth part of the fourfold Gospel, and Part II had to pursue a career of its own, under the title The Acts of the Apostles, which it acquired soon after the middle of the second century.

Pivot Book Of New Testament

But the necessity of pursuing a career of its own did not reduce its importance. On the contrary, it occupied an influential position as the pivot book of the New Testament (to use Harnack’s term). It provided the link between the two chief collections of canonical Christian literature—the fourfold Gospel and the Pauline epistles. It supplied at once the sequel to the fourfold Gospel and the historical background to the Pauline epistles. Nor did it only supply the historical background; it supplied most cogent evidence of the reality of Paul’s apostolic commission. A reader of the Pauline letters might conclude that they were written by a man who was anxious to assert his independent apostleship in the face of others who denied it; but how could he assess the validity of the arguments on the one side and on the other? If his only other source of information was the fourfold Gospel, he would find not the slightest reference to Paul there; and he might well believe that the weight of the evidence favored the arguments for the superior authority of those who were companions and apostles of our Lord in the days of His flesh. But no one could read the Acts without realizing that Paul was a genuine apostle of Christ, independently commissioned by Him, and proving by the “signs of an apostle” which accompanied his ministry the truth of his claim that he came in no way behind “the very chiefest apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11).

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On the other hand, the Acts served another useful purpose in the second century by showing that Peter and the rest of the twelve were as truly apostles as Paul. When Marcion issued his challenge to the apostolic churches and maintained that all the apostles had corrupted the pure gospel of Christ except Paul, and that even his letters had to be purified from judaizing interpolations, this further value of the Acts came to be appreciated as it could not have been before.

First Century Work

Yet the Book of the Acts is no second-century production, reflecting an age when the antitheses of Paulinism and Judaizing Christianity had been reconciled in a more comprehensive unity. This was the view of the Tubingen theologians of last century, and it has found some advocates in more recent years; but to the historian and archeologist Acts has all the marks of a first-century work. Sir William Ramsay’s studies in this field may have gone out of fashion in many quarters (but not in all, as their recent reissue by a well-known publishing house indicates); but the solid basis which he provided for the first-century dating and high historical value of Acts can hardly be overthrown.

The traditional account is that this book, along with the “former treatise” was not only the work of a first-century author, but of a friend and companion of Paul’s. This account is well founded. It is supported by the most natural explanation of the three “we” sections of Acts—the sections which begin at Chs. 16:10; 20:5, and 27:1, three points where the narrative suddenly changes from the third person “they” and “them” to the first person “we” and “us”. For the most natural explanation of the threefold transition is that the narrator is adopting this unobtrusive means of informing his readers: “At this point I joined the party and was present at the incidents which follow.”

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The traditional account goes further, and names the author: he was Luke, referred to on a few occasions by Paul as one of his companions (cf.Philem. 24; 2 Tim. 4:11), and described by him once as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). A careful examination of Col. 4:10–14 indicates that Luke was a Gentile Christian; and the general outlook of the narrative of Acts suggests a Greek author rather than a Jewish one. A document from the later part of the second century makes Luke a native of Antioch in Syria—a highly probable statement. Luke plays such an insignificant part by name in the New Testament that the ascription to him of the Third Gospel and Acts is not likely to have been invented. If the medical element in the vocabulary of the two books can no longer be used to prove that they were written by a physician, it certainly retains considerable illustrative value.

Major And Minor Themes

The author is specially interested in tracing the rise of Gentile Christianity: he tells first how the good news was brought from Jerusalem to Antioch, and then how the chief apostle to the Gentiles carried it throughout the chief provinces of the eastern Roman Empire; at last he brings him to Rome, and ends his narrative with the picture of Paul in the imperial city, a prisoner indeed, but carrying on his apostolic witness to all his visitors under the very eyes of the praetorian guard, without let or hindrance. This picture is the climax of his insistence throughout that Christianity is no threat to imperial law and order—that, in fact, responsible officials in various provinces of the Empire had acknowledged the legality of the Gospel itself and of its messengers. Acts was surely written at a time when this apologetic emphasis was necessary, and Theophilus was probably typical of the more thoughtful members of the Roman upper middle-class who could be trusted to give an unprejudiced hearing to an informed account of the rise and progress of Christianity, instead of accepting the popular misrepresentations.

But many would ask why the advance of Christianity had so regularly been attended by serious disorders, if it was such a law-abiding movement. Luke has his answer to this question: sometimes the Gospel threatened vested property interests, and therefore aroused the hostility of people like the owners of the fortune telling slave-girl at Philippi and the silversmiths of Ephesus; but more often the disorders were stirred up by the leaders of Jewish communities in the various places to which the Gospel came. They were unwilling to accept it themselves, and stirred up riots to try to prevent others from accepting too. So, alongside the major theme of the book, the progressive acceptance of the Gospel by Gentiles, there runs a minor theme, its progressive rejection by the bulk of the Jewish people. And if the major theme reaches its climax in Acts 28:30–31, the minor theme reaches its climax in the verses immediately preceding, where a prolonged disputation between Paul and the Roman Jews is concluded with his quotation of Isaiah 6:9–10 and his announcement that the Gentiles will receive the salvation which the Jews refuse.

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The transition from the early days of the Jerusalem church to the Gospel’s forward movement is provided in Chs. 6 and 7 by the story of Stephen. Not only does this story introduce us for the first time to the young man Saul (Acts 7:58); not only did the persecution which followed Stephen’s death drive out many Christians from Jerusalem to carry the Gospel as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19); but the very character of Stephen’s distinctive ministry and the terms of his defence foreshadow the church’s Gentile mission. It is remarkable how many of the dominant themes of the New Testament find incipient expression in Stephen’s speech.

Dr. A. T. Pierson wrote a series of studies in Acts which he entitled The Acts of the Holy Spirit. This might well have been the title of the book itself. For the emphasis on the person and activity of the Holy Spirit is even more basic to the book than its apologetic insistence. Right at the beginning of the book, the risen Lord promises the baptism of the Spirit to His followers (Ch. 1:5, 8), and this promise is fulfilled for Jewish believers in Ch. 2, and for Gentile believers in Ch. 10. The apostles and other Christian leaders (like Stephen and Philip) not only preach in the power of the Spirit, but their movements are under His direction; they are witnesses to Christ, but the Spirit is the primary Witness, whose testimony confirms theirs (Acts 5:32).

Thus, in the ministry of Paul in particular, we find a noteworthy combination of the Spirit’s guidance with long-range strategic planning. And there is no suggestion that the two are incompatible. Even if Paul was making for Ephesus when the Spirit diverted him in Acts 16:6–7, the route which he was obliged to take was vindicated from the standpoint of long-term Christian strategy, for it meant that he evangelized the circumference of a circle running through the lands east and west of the Aegean Sea before he settled down for nearly three years in Ephesus, at the centre of that circle, and carried on a more effective campaign of evangelization than would have been possible at the earlier date.

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The book may be divided into six sections: (1) The Birth of the Church (Chs. 1–5); (2) Persecution leads to Expansion (Chs. 6:1–9:31); (3) The Acts of Peter and the Beginnings of the Gentile Mission (Chs. 9:32–12:25); (4) Antioch becomes a Missionary Church (Chs. 13:1–16:5); (5) The Evangelization of the Aegean Shores (Chs. 16:6–19:41); (6) How Paul realized his Hope of seeing Rome (Chs. 20:1–28:31).

Tool For Exposition

As I write this, I survey a lengthy array of commentaries on my shelves, many of which I have found of great use in my own attempts to expound the Book of the Acts. The five encyclopaedic volumes entitled The Beginnings of Christianity, edited by Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (Macmillan, 1920–33), are indispensable to the student, though the preacher who reads CHRISTIANITY TODAY will wish to replace its general liberal emphasis by something more positive. R. B. Rackham’s commentary, The Acts of the Apostles, published in the “Westminster Commentaries” in 1902, is still one of the best expositions of the English text. R. J. Knowling’s commentary on the Greek text in the “Expositor’s Greek Testament” (1900) remains a work of high value. A more homiletic treatment is provided in such works as The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary: Acts, by Thomas Whitelaw (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1896), C. J. Vaughan, The Church of the First Days Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles (Macmillan, 1890), and G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (recently reprinted). From another angle, the recent Lowell Lectures by Dr. Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (Harper, 1955), throw the light of the latest research on the historical worth of Acts, providing a worthy sequel to Sir William Ramsay’s St. Paul the Traveller (14th edition, London, 1920).


The Editors commend in addition to the commentaries mentioned above The Book of the Acts, by F. F. Bruce in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (1954). Not without cause the statement has been made: “The best major commentary on Acts that has appeared in the last fifty years.—EDS.

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