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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 9 - THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, selected pp.231-318; R.H.Gundry, pp.295-338. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.181-213.

1. AUTHORSHIP, SOURCES AND DATE OF ACTS

M.C.Tenney states: "Acts itself is not a unit, for it is obviously designed as a sequel to Luke".  So, Luke and Acts may be viewed as two parts of one work, with Lk.1:1-4 forming a general introduction to them.  Quite often textbooks refer to Luke-Acts.

Authorship [1]
"The book of the Acts is the sequel to the third Gospel, and written traditionally by the same author, Luke the beloved physician and companion of Paul.  The external evidence from the second century onwards, which is unanimous on this point, is corroborated by the internal evidence of the styles outlook and subject-matter of the two books". [2]

Luke's sources
Luke indicates in Lk.1:1-4 he is dependent on different sources for his writings. What were these as far as Acts is concerned? Note:

  1. Luke himself was present at some of the events recorded in the Acts. These are indicated by the use of the first person plural (16:10-17; 20.5-21:18; 27:1-28:16). These are referred to as the 'we' sections. In these passages Luke may have been using his own travel-diary. [3]

  2. The apostle Paul.  As a companion of Paul, Luke had access to first-hand information about events which concerned the apostle.

  3. Other sources.  Peter, Mark, Mnason and James could have shared details about the life and people of the Jerusalem church.  Luke could have gleaned first-hand details about the riot in the Ephesian theatre from Gaius and Aristarchus (Acts 19:23-41). Barnabas would have information to share with him in Antioch. Luke had time to collect material while he was with Paul at Caesarea, during the apostle's two year custody (Acts 24:27).

Date of Luke-Acts
The date of Luke-Acts is often disputed.  A.M.Hunter says that the Acts must have been written after the Gospel, though not long after.  He writes:

"And early date (say, about A.D. 64) is excluded by the fact that Luke used Mark's Gospel (A.D. 65-67) when composing his own.  On the other hand, those who would date the book of Acts late - say, about A.D. 95 - assume that Luke had read, or rather misread the Antiquities of Josephus the Jewish historian, which appeared about A.D. 93... On the whole a date about A.D. 80 seems likely". [4]

But a number of factors demand consideration here, for example:

  1. The dating of Acts relates to the dating of the third Gospel - and the way that the book ends, with Paul witnessing in Rome.

  2. The fact that the destruction of the temple is not mentioned (A.D. 70).

  3. The theological outlook of the book.

  4. There may have been an earlier draft of Acts.

2. THE PURPOSE OF ACTS

Luke, in selecting his material is not seeking to write a history of the NT church.  He has objectives which may be classed as primary and secondary. 

First, Luke is seeking to provide Theophilus (and those associated with him) with a trustworthy account of the origin of the gospel and its spread throughout the Roman Empire (Lk.1:1-4; Acts 1:8). 

Secondly, Luke is obviously concerned, in both parts of his work, "to demonstrate that the Christian movement was not a menace to imperial law and order" (F.F.Bruce). [5] This makes the work a political apologetic.

Further purposes are suggested, e.g., to show that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews; to refute certain heresies; to defend Paul's ministry; to show Christianity's continuity with Judaism; to explain the delay of the Parousia.

3. CONTENTS AND OUTLINE

M.C.Tenney notes that the contents of Acts suggests a number outlines, the first is based on the outline of geographical development given in Acts 1:8:

  • Acts: An outline based on Acts 1:8

  • Introduction (1:1-11)

  • The origin of the church: Jerusalem (1:12-8:3)

  • The Period of transition: Samaria (8:4-11:18)

  • The expansion to the Gentiles: the Pauline mission: Antioch and the Empire (11:19-21:16)

  • The imprisonment and defence of Paul. Note: Caesarea and Rome (21:17-28:31).



An outline based on the record of church growth
"In 2:47; 5:14, 6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, and 19:20 notations of increase in numbers or in quality of spiritual life show that Acts is concerned with the progressive development of the group. In the last part of the book from 19:20 to the end the emphasis is more personal than general. It stresses the events in the life of Paul as an individual rather than the church as an institution" (M.C.Tenney). [6]

An outline based on personalities
The Acts of the Apostles is mainly about two apostles - Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.  But notice Stephen (6-7), Barnabas, Philip and Paul (8-12), and Paul and his companions (13-28).  Interestingly, it can be demonstrated that Luke-Acts compares the ministries of Peter and Paul with that of the Lord Jesus.  For example, each had a time of preparation, were anointed by the Spirit, proclaimed the word, performed miracles, and experienced a miraculous deliverance from opposition (cf., 5:15-16 with 19:12).

A major theme - mission
Acts 1:8 is the key verse to the book.  It anticipates the church witnessing in the power of the Spirit to the four corners of the Roman world.  The verse answers a number of questions concerning witnessing: Who was to witness? How were they to witness? Of whom were they to witness? Where were they to witness? Acts records the fulfilment of the mission given by Jesus, as the gospel reaches Rome.  Acts 28 leaves the book open-ended. Perhaps Luke planned to add material later - alternatively the ending is planned.  It could be his way of anticipating the continuation of the Christian mission. Note the models for mission in Acts that involve people and churches.

4. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ACTS

Note these characteristics of Acts and add to them if you can:

Luke the historian
"Luke's sources of information were second to none in value, and he well knew how to use them. The resultant work is a masterpiece of historical accuracy" (F.F.Bruce). [7] The research of Sir William Ramsay vindicates Luke as a 'historian of the first rank'. The inclusion of miracles in Acts is sometimes held to mitigate against the historical credibility of the work. However, as miracles are messianic signs in the ministry of Jesus, so miracles indicate the presence and continued ministry of the Lord in and through his church. Luke, however, was not writing a history of the Christian church.  Notice how he represents the mission and ministry of the church as he provides examples of ministers, churches, sermons, miracles, angelic ministry, and the work of the Spirit. [8]

Luke the theologian
Modern scholarship recognises Luke as a theologian.  The dominating theological motif of Acts is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.  The book is sometimes called 'The Acts of the Holy Spirit'.  The promise of Jesus in Acts 1:8 is seen as fulfilled in the Spirit being outpoured on Jew and Gentile (in Acts chapters 2 and 10).  Luke shows a marked interest in the outward manifestation of the Spirit.  The theme of the Lord's saviourship continues from the Gospel, 'the name' being of importance (see 2:21, 3:6,16; 4:12, etc.).

ENDNOTES

1. See the study notes on Luke's Gospel on the subject of Lucan authorship.

2. F.F.Bruce, "Acts" in D.Guthrie & J.A.Motyer (eds.), The New Bible Commentary - Revised, Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 1970, p.968.

3. Some scholars suggest that a different author used Luke's diary as a source for Acts.

4. A.M.Hunter, Introducing the New Testament, p.75.

5. F.F.Bruce, "Acts", p.971.

6. M.C.Tenney, p.232.

7. F.F.Bruce, "Acts", p.970.

8. You may sense other topics or motifs in Acts for yourself.



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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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