INTRODUCTION TO ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Irvine L. Jensen
The Moody Bible Institution of Chicago
copyright © 1969
Used by permission.
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Before analyzing the text of any book of the Bible, it is well to learn the historical background.
Also, it is best to make a "skyscraper" view of its general contents. Accordingly, this first lesson is divided into two parts: background and survey
At the very outset of our study these are some of the questions that come to mind: Who wrote the book? When did he write it? What was his main object? What is the historical setting? How does the book serve a particular function in the entire Bible? The answers to these and other questions are given briefly below.
- Name. The short name usually assigned the book is "Acts." The full name "Acts of the Apostles" is traceable back to the second century. When the book was originally written, its author, Luke, probably combined it with his earlier writing, the gospel of Luke. Then when his gospel was joined to the other three Gospels, Acts stood alone. Here are some observations:
- The key word in the longer title is Acts. These are not the dreams, theories or speculations of the apostles, but their acts, their deeds, things they actually accomplished. Anyone who denies the divine power manifested in the early church must deny the factuality of the acts of this book.
- The phrase "of the apostles" probably refers to the main apostles of the years of the book's record. Of these apostles, Peter and Paul were the key leaders.
- It is recognized that the book records the acts of the Holy Spirit as He worked through the apostles. In that sense the book could be called The Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit's name appears about seventy times in the book.
- Author. Luke is the author (d. Acts 1:1 with Luke 1:1-4). He was a Gentile about the same age as Paul and was his constant companion for about the last twenty years of Paul's life. Paul probably led Luke to the Lord. Luke was a gifted scholar and physician, and from his Christian life shined forth such admirable traits as kindness, loyalty, faith and exuberance. New Testament references to him (outside of Acts) are Colossians 4: 14; Philemon 24; II Timothy 4:11. Read these.
- Date Written. Luke apparently finished writing Acts around A.D. 61 while Paul was still imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28). The Holy Spirit's design was not to include any more of Paul's life nor of the church's experience in this book, and so He inspired Luke to write at this time.
- Period Covered. The time span of Acts is about thirty-one years. The narrative begins with Jesus' ascension (A.D. 30), and closes with Paul in prison (A.D. 61). It would be interesting to compare the church's succeeding generations with the one of Acts, as to the advance made in the propagation of the gospel. Some of the later Epistles and Revelation 2-3 furnish descriptions for such a comparison.
- Geographical Centers. The mission assigned to the early church, spelled out in Acts 1: 8, was universal. The performance of that mission in the years of Acts retained the universal quality, for the home base of the missionaries kept moving. The advance was generally from east to west: Jerusalem to Antioch (Syria) to Ephesus to Rome. Of the four cities, Acts records most details in connection with Jerusalem and Antioch.
"Image the whole, then execute the parts." This is the correct order in Bible study. We should first get an overview of the book in its large scope, and then study the smaller parts in detail. For the purposes of this short study guide, the following descriptions bring out the highlights of a survey of Acts
- The Principal Subject of Acts. Acts is basically a history of the beginnings of Christianity. How significant were those beginnings! The active role of the three Persons of the Godhead at this great period of world history, is indicated in the chart below.
When a generalization is made concerning the prominent functions of the three Persons of the Godhead during the years of Bible history, it may be said that the Father is most prominent in the Old Testament, the Son in the Gospels, and the Holy Spirit in Acts.
The principal subject of Acts may be identified in other ways. Some of the various titles which could be assigned the book are:
- The witness of the gospel.
- The living Lord in action. (In Acts Christ continues to do what He began to do in the Gospels. cf. Acts 1:1.)
- The advent and activity of the Holy Spirit.
- The early church in action.
- Keep the above mentioned principal subjects in mind as you proceed from chapter to chapter in Acts.
- Place in the Bible Acts is the sequel to the Gospels that precede it, and the background to the Epistles that follow it. It is the historical record that attests the success of Jesus' earthly ministry by showing how the risen Lord works in the present age in the hearts of men. The explanations and interpretations of the tremendous events of Acts are given in the Epistles. Thus it is obvious how important a place Acts fills in the New Testament.
- A Key Verse. The verse most frequently recognized as the key verse of Acts is 1:8: "But you will be filled with power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Good News for Modern Man).
The words in the middle of this verse "You will be witnesses for me" are both a command and a prophecy. It will be seen in connection with survey of the chart below how the church extended its witness in the geographical directions of 1:8.
- A Key Word. A key word of Acts is "witness," appearing in its various forms about twenty times.
- Structure. Survey readings of Acts reveal, among other things, the large movements of the book and the major emphases. When all this data is in and worked over, the structure of the book begins to take shape. One way to show this organization is by means of a survey chart. Before you study survey the chart below you should make at least one cursory reading of Acts, observing the highlights and recording a chapter title for each segment shown. Try to choose your chapter titles from the text itself (see examples for chaps. 1 and 2). This will help you develop an awareness of key words and phrases, which are vital tools in Bible study. (Note: While most of the chapters of Acts are study units beginning with the first verse of those chapters, some segments begin at verses other than the first verse, depending on the narrative. Follow the divisions shown on the chart below.
You may choose to make your own survey chart before referring to the one below.
Observations on the above chart:
- The twenty-eight chapters of Acts fall into three main divisions, with dividing points at 8:1b and 13:1. Note the three outlines (1, 2 and 3 on the left side of the chart) which demonstrate this threefold organization. The geographical outline is a natural unfolding of 1:8. The outline on the church shows a progression of the church in Acts' narrative. Read 8:1b and 13:1-4 to see how the new divisions begin at those points.
- Acts can also be divided into two main parts from the standpoint of main characters (see top of chart). In chapters 1-12, Peter plays the leading role, while in chapters 13-28 everything centers on Paul's activities.
- Note the divisions related to Jew and Gentile. In the early chapters of Acts, the Jews comprise most of the audience of the gospel. In chapters 10-12 the church sees its responsibility to extend the invitation of the gospel to Gentiles as well. From chapter 13 on, the field is the world. The prominent note of Peter's message, delivered to Jews, was "repent" (see 2:36-38). Paul, whose ministry enlarged to include Gentiles (cf. 18:6), emphasized more the positive aspect of conversion, "believe" (see 16:30-31).
- Paul as a missionary served well when at liberty (13:1-21:17), and remained loyal when in bonds (21:18 -28:31). In both situations God's word multiplied, and souls were saved.
As you conclude your overview of Acts, ponder over the key verse 1:8: "You will be witnesses for me." In that one word "witness" is condensed the whole wisdom of God as to the worldwide work which He would have His people accomplish in this age. We are to be witnesses unto Him; we are to bring the gospel ("glad tidings") to every creature.
Think of the need of witnessing. Someone has said, "Christ alone can save the world, but Christ cannot save the world alone." That is, Christ cannot do this unless He abandons His plan, for His plan is that every believer should be a witness.
Ask yourself the following questions: Am I a living witness for Christ? If not, why not? If I have no witness for Christ, what am I witness unto? "Of the abundance of the heart ... [the] mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:45). "He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38). If I have no witness, have I any experience? If there be no stream, is there any spring? If no ray, is there any light?
These are serious and searching questions which every believer should ponder. "He who has no passion to convert, needs conversion." "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10, Good News for Modern Man).
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