Studies in Acts
Lesson One: Overview
The book of Acts is one of the most unusual books in all of scripture. It is so unusual that many people don’t even know it exists. I have a friend who, when he was a new Christian, the Pastor of his church announced that the next Sunday he would begin teaching through the book of Acts my friend thought, “is there actually a book of “Ax” in the Bible? One of the unique aspects of the book is that it is the only “unfinished” book in the Bible. The last verses of the book are Acts say,
“Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house and received all who came to him, (31) preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
Notice how it ends: with Paul still in action! And notice that the work of God was going on “with no one forbidding it.” But that is a significant statement about the book of Acts. And the reason it is significant is that the book of Acts is going to teach us that we continue to write the story of the book of Acts in our lives.
Now any time we begin a study of one of the books of the Bible, we should do what we do when we begin reading a secular book, whether it be a mystery or history or fiction and so forth. We want to know what we are going to find within the covers of the book. We want to know something about the author, his reason for writing, the time frame in which it was written, and so forth. So if we are interested in a book written by humans, shouldn’t we do it with a book written by God Himself? So when we undertake a study of this book we undertake more than just a study of Christian history; we are going to discover truths that are designed to alter our lives.
The book of Acts is the fifth book in the New Testament. It is the only history book in the New Testament. To begin with, we need to know a few things about the New Testament as a whole.
The first four books are “biographies” of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are four of them because each one was written by one of the disciples. And the life was so rich and powerful that no one biography could cover it. In fact, the Apostle John said that if everything that Jesus did and said the world itself could not contain them all. So, The Holy Spirit inspired these four disciples to give the details. Each of them gave a specific “aspect” of His life and ministry.
But there is only one real book of history in the New Testament, and that is the book of Acts. It is a “bridge” that extends the life of Christ into the life of the Christian. The study of the life of Christ into the life of the Christian. The study of the life of Christ is in the gospels. He models Christianity. But when you get to the book of Acts we become the models. We are supposed to personify the truths of Christ’s life. In the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we look at the story of Jesus as observers and we see Him and we are impressed with Him. But when you get to into the book of Acts you realize that this truth is livable. It is usable. It is designed for our lives as well. Here is another illustration of the way these books fit together:
At the end of the gospel of Matthew the last fact about Christ that is revealed is His resurrection. At the end of the gospel of Mark the last fact about the life of Christ is His ascension. At the end of the gospel of Luke the last fact about the life of Christ is the promise of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of the gospel of John the last fact is the second coming of Christ. Summary: Resurrection, ascension, promise of the Holy Spirit, second coming. But when you get into the book of Acts you are not even one chapter deep before all four are presented for you, and shown how they relate to the church; to the Christian life.
So, Acts is in a real sense, the continuation of the life and ministry putting the rubber to the road” of the gospels. It is a bridge that transfers us from the theory of one life that has deeply impressed us into the actuality of living that life in the book of Acts. And we will see that more and more as we move through the book. Now let me give you some contrasts between the gospels and the book of Acts. Here’s the first one: In the gospels, the Son of man offers His life; in Acts the Son of God offers His power. The Lord God gives His Son at Bethlehem, He lives His life and dies for sinners. That’s the gospel story. He is raised from the dead to complete the message. But when you get to Acts, the Son of God offers His power to His children.
In the gospels, Christ is the central figure in human form; in Acts He is the central figure in human form; in Acts He is the central figure in His Spirit. The first part of that statement is the gospel message, the last part of it is the book of Acts.
Really, the book of Acts is misnamed. A better name might be “The Acts of the of the Holy Spirit.” Or perhaps “the Acts of the Apostles in the lives of His people.” Actually, only four Apostles even appear in the book, and two of them just in passing, James and John. Aside from Peter and the Apostle Paul, you do not read of the work of the Apostles in this book, you read of the work of the church.
Now: as to who wrote the book? It nowhere says, “I, Luke,” who wrote the gospel, have determined to write a history of the church.” It starts with “the former account I made, O Theophilus.”
(By the way, Theophilus is an unknown individual; we don’t know anything about his background or his conversion. His name reveals that he was probably A Greek. Some have suggested that he was a Roman official who was a new convert who loved history, or perhaps he was treated by Luke the physician and wanted to know more about the history of Christianity. But this reference to “Theophilus” gives us a clue to Luke’s authorship, because the according to Luke 1:3 it is addressed to this same man.
Our information about Luke is just as sketchy as is our information about Theophilus. We don’t know anything about when or where he was born, or when he became a believer in Christ. But in Colossians 4:14 Paul refers to him as “Luke, the beloved physician,” So obviously, he was a medical doctor. His Greek name would imply that he was not a Jew, but a Greek. And in the latter half of he book he begins to travel with Paul as he reaches out to the Gentiles. But aside from these few facts we know very little about him.
From the style of writing we would assume that he was well educated, a lover of history, who wanted to present an accurate, elaborate, account of the growth and development of the church of Jesus Christ from a small almost “rag-tag” group of followers of Jesus into a movement that would eventually significantly affect the world of their day.
So, let’s take a look of the book shelf. The book of Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament. The first thing that we notice any book is its name. The name that was given to the writers gave to the book was “The Acts of the Apostles.” But that is a little misleading. It is the only history book of the New Testament. To be technical about it, the first four books could be labeled “biography,” because they give the history of the life of Christ from four different aspects. Matthew wrote about Jesus’ relationship to the His ancestors the Jews. Mark wrote to speak to the working class of people. Luke wrote about Him as a human being. John wrote about Jesus from the standpoint of the Romans. But Luke draws all of those groups together under the umbrella of how they combined to begin the earliest workings of the Church of Jesus Christ. Actually, it would probably be most accurate to refer to the book of Acts as the Holy Spirit. It is true that the Apostles were active in various ways throughout the book, but there were many other people whose stories are told in the book as well.
Perhaps because there are so many themes and stories in the book, Luke decided to give “a more orderly account” of the various oral accounts and to put everything in an organized form. And it is a good thing that he did. If he had not, we would have no record of the coming of the Holy Spirit, we would know nothing about the beginnings of world missions – spreading the gospel around the word. We would know nothing of the details and decisions of the beginnings of the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps most important, it is a book of the transitions between the Old Testament forms and rituals and the freedoms of a life of following the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This transitional nature of the book is extremely important to keep in mind. The Holy Spirit led people into various activities some of which would later be changed or even done away with.
Perhaps because of this transitional nature of the book Chuck Swindoll has suggested several ways of organizing the material. For example, we could outline it on the basis of personalities: – chapters 1 to 12 – Peter; then Chapters 13 through 28 – Paul. Or we could think of it in terms of the various “people groups” who were reached, one by one – the Jews, the Samaritans, the Gentiles, etc. But my Dad (and others) often found an outline of the various books of scripture within the books themselves. And that is true of the book of Acts. It is found in verse 8 of chapter 1.
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Now think carefully about that first sentence: “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” you will be witnesses for me: where? “in Jerusalem: (that’s part 1, chapters 1 to 7) and it deals with what we might call “neighborhood evangelism” and it involved mainly Jews in Jerusalem. Then verse 8 says they were to be involved in witnessing for Him in in all Judea and Samaria. That’s part 2, chapters 8 to 12. We could call that “home missions.” And so forth on throughout the New Testament world. In today’s terminology that would be the next county, then they were to move to the next region, and ultimately to the uttermost part of the world. That’s foreign missions That’s chapters 13. through 28. And you and I are still writing part of the book! Because that is what the book is all about.