“The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:39
When we look at the Acts of the Apostles, it is important that we understand that Saint Luke intends his account of the Gospel and his story of the first years of the church to be read and as a whole; Luke and Acts are two volumes of a single work. So when we think about the Acts of the Apostles, we know from Luke’s own words what he wishes to do. Here is what he wrote at the beginning of his Gospel account about his intention:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”. Luke Chapter 1, Verses 1-4
The Gospel is the first part of the orderly account; the Acts of the Apostles is the second. Luke begins Acts with the words:
“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen”. Acts Chapter 1, Verses 1-2
‘All that Jesus began to do and teach’, Luke is stressing that the Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of what has gone before.
Both the Gospel and Acts are addressed to this man ‘Theophilus’. We don’t know who Theophilus was; his name literally means ‘friend of God’. Perhaps he is an actual person, perhaps Luke is writing for the many inquirers who had learned something of Jesus and who wanted to know the full story.
The title of the book ‘Acts of the Apostles’ was not used by Luke himself; it was a title used by Irenaeus in the Second Century. When we read Acts, we find little or nothing about most of the Apostles. The book divides roughly into two parts, the first part Chapters 1-12 focussing on the ministry of Peter, and the second part, Chapters 13-28, focussing on that of Paul. It has been suggested that ‘Acts of the Spirit’ might be a better title for the book, because from the Day of Pentecost in Acts Chapter2 onwards, it is the Holy Spirit who gives life to the church and empowers it to exercise it ministry. Without the Spirit, there would be no church
We are not certain about the identity of Luke. Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth century Christian writer, stated in his book the ‘Panarion’ that Luke was one of the seventy-two from Saint Luke Chapter 10 whom Jesus sent out to proclaim the Good News. Epiphanius’ view would fit in with Luke’s description of himself as not one of the eye-witnesses of the events, but someone with close enough contact with those who were there to be able to set down his orderly account.
Luke appears in the writings of Saint Paul. The earliest mention is from the closing lines of Paul’s short letter to Philemon. In verse 23-24 of the letter, we read, ‘Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers’.
We know from Luke’s own account of events and from two of the later epistles that he is a companion of Paul during much of Paul’s ministry. Colossians 4:14 says, ‘Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings’ and 2 Timothy 4:11, reflecting the closing period of Paul’s ministry, says ‘Only Luke is with me’.
Any reader of Saint Luke will know of the importance he places on the Old Testament Scriptures. There was a document from the early church called the ‘Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke’. It was written to oppose the views of Marcion, a church leader had who rejected the Jewish Scriptures. The ‘Prologue’ speaks of Luke:
Luke, a native of Antioch, by profession a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul’s] martyrdom. Having served the Lord continuously, unmarried and without children, filled with the Holy Spirit he died at the age of 84 years’.
One other clue to his biographical details are verses from Acts Chapter 16. Luke has written the book in the third person up until Chapter 16 Verse 8, ‘So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas’. Then the telling of the story changes, if we read Verse 9-11, we see Luke becomes part of the story, ‘During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days’.
These verses from Acts would suggest that Luke was living in Troas when Paul arrived there and left home and work to join Paul on his journeys. The change of the way in which the story is told is an important and obvious change, but Luke draws no attention to it.
Seeing the Gospel and Acts as a single work helps to see the way Luke has structured his writing. The Gospel begins with a global perspective, dating the birth of Jesus to the reign of the Roman emperors in Luke Chapter 2 Verse 1 and Chapter 3 Verse 1. From there Jesus’ ministry moves from Galilee (Chapters 4–9), through Samaria and Judea (Chapters 10–19), to Jerusalem where he is crucified, raised and ascended into heaven (Chapters 19–24). Acts reverses that journey. Beginning in Jerusalem (Chapters 1–5), it moves to Judea and Samaria (Chapters 6–9), then goes through Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe towards Rome (Chapters 9–28). This is not a coincidence, it is deliberate. Luke is emphasising that the resurrection and ascension are the central moments and that the Good News is for the whole world.
There are themes in the Acts of the Apostles as important to the church today as to the church of the First Century.
The Council of Jerusalem in Acts Chapter 15 concludes with a decision that the Christians should agree on things that were central to the faith, but be allowed diversity on things that were not critical. Had Acts Chapter 15 been constantly before church leaders down through the centuries, countless deaths, not to say endless years of sectarianism, hatred and prejudice, might have been avoided. The Council came from the days when the church was directed by the Spirit; sectarianism and religious wars come from times when the church is under the control of human ambition.
In the closing verses of Acts of the Apostles, Paul declares, “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts Chapter 28 Verse 28) Salvation does not belong to any group of people; it belongs to those who will listen to God. In a country where salvation has been assumed to come through belonging to a church, even if one rarely or ever attends, Paul’s words should be a wake up call. Being a church member by name, is not being a Christian—it demands making a commitment and being prepared, in daily life, to follow up that commitment.
Personal prayer is stressed by Luke in the Gospel and that stress is reinforced in Acts. The prayer of the believers in Acts Chapter 4 Verses 23-31 shows a church which does not need the old structures in order to survive. At a time when institutional Christianity is crumbling, Luke’s emphasis on the importance of prayer helps us think about how we develop personal spirituality, how we can be confident about continuing to be Christians in an age when the church as we know it might disappear.
The world in which we now live has a gap between rich and poor far greater than anything in New Testament times. The faith of the believers leads to a radical response to poverty. Luke is very explicit in his descriptions of how people responded to the poor, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” he says (in Chapter 2 Verse 45) Lest anyone missed the first comment upon this, it is repeated, “From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Chapter 4 Verse 34-35). Church members who ignore the poor are not believers by the standards of Acts of the Apostles.
Acts offers us an insight into the church as it was—it offers also an insight into the church as it might be.