An Analysis of Acts
By common consent among conservative scholars, Luke was the human author of the gospel bearing his name and also of the Acts of the Apostles. The gospel recounts the deeds and the sayings of the Lord Jesus during His life. Acts of the Apostles has been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because in it is recorded the work which the Spirit did through the apostles after Jesus had returned to heaven.
Acts covers a period of approximately thirty-three years — the first generation of the Christian church. It does not give a full history of the early church but simply a cross section of it in order that we might see the working of the Spirit of God through consecrated men in the beginning of the era.
Let us remember that our Lord, humanly speaking, was a Jew. The apostles were Jews. The early church was purely Jewish. Finally, the church at Jerusalem was providentially scattered abroad and its members went everywhere preaching the Word. That which had appeared to be a calamity was in deed and in truth a blessing in disguise — the means employed by the Lord to get the truth out to others. The Book of Acts falls into three general divisions. The first one, consisting of 1:1-12:25, presents Jerusalem as the headquarters of Christian activity. Soon the center of spiritual gravity was shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria, from which the Word sounded forth into Europe (13:1-21:16). The third division consists of 21:17-28:31 and tells of Paul's imprisonments. We shall glance at this book, keeping the outline in mind, but shall call attention only to the high points, on account of limited space.
Acts connects with Luke by its being addressed to the same person, Theophilus. Here Luke took up the record where he left it off in the gospel account, telling of the ascension of Jesus. Though the Lord left the earth, Luke wished particularly to call attention to the fact that He is coming back again. Concerning the day or hour of that event, we do not know; therefore we should be ready at all times, being occupied with our Lord's business.
The apostles returned from the Mount of Olives in obedience to the Lord's command and awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. During this time an election was held to choose one to take the place of Judas. The lot, guided by the providence of God, fell upon Matthias who was numbered with the apostles.
The day of Pentecost was the natal day of the church of Jesus Christ. Prior to this time we read of it as being in the future. After Pentecost it is spoken of as being in existence. Since it was brought into existence and was welded together by the Holy Spirit, and since He, the Spirit, came on Pentecost, we may be certain that this was its beginning. On this day the Apostle Peter, Spirit-filled, delivered the first gospel sermon in the name of the risen Christ. Three thousand people responded and were brought together into an organic, spiritual union, called the church (Acts 2).
In the third chapter we have the second recorded sermon. The occasion of the message was the healing of the cripple man, which event brought a large crowd together into Solomon's Porch at the Temple. It was fitting, on this occasion and at this time, that the call should be issued for Israel as a race to repent of her national sin and to accept, the Lord Jesus (for a full analysis of this sermon, see the next study — God's Eight-Point Program).
Peter and John, the leading apostles, were arrested because they preached in the name of Jesus the resurrection from the dead. They were thrown into prison overnight and were placed on trial before the Sanhedrin the next morning. Finally, they were released; but, before being dismissed, they were commanded not to preach any more in the name of the Lord Jesus. With boldness, however, Peter refused to accede to the demands, asserting that they could not do otherwise than to speak what they had seen and heard. Upon being released they returned to their company where they held a prayer meeting. This account is found in the fourth chapter. Men need boldness to stand for their convictions. At the same time, being respectful, they should render tribute to whom tribute is due and custom to whom custom is due (Romans 13:1-7). One will be well repaid by reading Acts 3 and 4 in this connection.
The early company of disciples was very poor. It seems that they were ostracized by their Jewish brethren upon their accepting Christ. Thus a crisis arose immediately in the Jerusalem of church. Those to whom God had entrusted this world's goods arose to the occasion by selling their own possessions and throwing the proceeds into a common treasury for the support of the entire community. Let no one think that this is what is known as “socialism” or “communism.” On the contrary, it was a matter of life and fellowship among born-again, regenerated people. If a brother see another in need and shuts up his bowels of compassion from him, how doth the love of God dwell in him? (I John 3:17.) If there should arise today a similar situation, Christians should do likewise. Ananias and Sapphira wished to gain the reputation of being liberal and hospitable. They sold their property for a given sum. Keeping back a certain portion, they brought the balance, as if they were giving all. In doing this they lied to the Holy Spirit, who is none other than God. Because of their treacherous act, they were both smitten with death. God showed by this case that He wishes His church to be clean and pure, the members thereof leading exemplary lives (see Acts 5:1-16).
No sooner does the work of God begin to advance than Satan sees that trouble starts. If he cannot bring it about in one way, he will in another. Thus he caused a persecution to arise against the church. On this occasion Satan used the high priest and the sect of the Sadducees (the materialists of that day) by stirring up their jealousy. They then laid hands on the apostles and cast them into prison. But the Lord delivered them. When the report came to the authorities that the apostles were out of ward and were speaking the words of life to the people, they were cut to their hearts and were minded to slay them; but Gamaliel, a doctor of the Law, advised against such rash, ruthless action. His counsel prevailed. The apostles returned to their company and praised God for the deliverance (see Acts 5:17-42).
Because of the difficult situation in which the church found itself, public tables had to be provided for the support of the poor. There immediately arose a discrimination against the widows of the Grecian Jews in the daily ministration. This matter was brought to the apostles, who refused to serve tables, preferring to give themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer. Then seven men, called deacons, who were filled with the Spirit and were men of faith, were appointed to serve these tables. One of them, Stephen, became a minister of the Word (for a full account see Acts 6).
This same deacon was brought before the Sanhedrin. The marvelous speech which he delivered to that august body is found in Acts 7. Some have called it “Stephen's defense.” That is a misnomer. It should be “Stephen's indictment of the Jewish people.” Here is a masterpiece of oratory, which will thrill the heart of any person who reads it (Acts 7).
As a result of the stoning of Stephen, as we read in the latter part of chapter 7, there arose a persecution against the church at Jerusalem, which was scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles, which went everywhere preaching the Word. Thus the gospel was taken into Samaria. Many Samaritans were converted. Philip, one of the deacons of the Jerusalem church, was ministering the Word in Samaria and was called by the Holy Spirit to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch, who, on his homeward journey, was seeking the truth. Philip preached the gospel to him and baptized him. He went on his way rejoicing, but Philip was transferred by the Spirit to Azotus (see Acts 8).
In Acts 9:1-31 we read of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, which was a turning point in the early church. This is Luke's account (Paul related his conversion in chapters 22 and 26). Christianity's greatest opponent became a convert and an ardent advocate of the Christian faith. Paul, who was “least among the apostles” soon became the outstanding exponent of the truth and labored more than all the apostles combined (II Corinthians 11:23). The conversion of Paul is one of the strongest arguments proving the truthfulness of Christianity.
In Acts 9:32-43 we have the ministry of the apostle Peter in the plain of Sharon. The conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, likewise constitutes an epoch in the development of the early church. This man was the first Gentile to come into the church, unless we consider the Ethiopian eunuch as one. It is, however, more likely that he was a proselyte to the Jewish religion, since he went up to Jerusalem to worship. God opened the door to the Gentiles when He sent Peter to preach the gospel to Cornelius (Acts 10).
Prejudice is very ruthless and cruel and will often lead good men to act in an evil manner. In Jerusalem the leaders called Peter to task for preaching the gospel to Gentiles and baptizing the household of Cornelius. Confronted by them, he presented all the facts and thus justified himself in their eyes (Acts 11:1-18).
The next step in the historical development of Christianity was its being preached in Phoenicia on the Syrian coast north of Palestine and in Cyprus. Some went as far as Antioch in Syria proclaiming the Word to the Grecian Jews. There the gospel was also preached to the Gentiles, and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). In chapter 12 Luke takes us from Antioch back to Jerusalem and relates the persecution of Herod against the mother church, who, when he came up into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, made a speech, accepted the praise of the people acclaiming him as God, and was smitten with death (Acts 12).
As stated before, beginning with chapter 13, we see that the center of Christian activity was then shifted to Antioch in Syria, from which place the Apostle Paul went forth with Barnabas on his first missionary tour into the very heart of Asia Minor (Acts 13:1-14:28).
While Paul was away on this journey, trouble began to brew at Jerusalem, being caused by the strict Pharisaic party in the church. These brethren insisted that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and submit to the law of Moses in order to be saved. Their formula for Christianity was Christ plus the observance of the Law. This development was the occasion of the calling of the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:1-35). There Gentile liberty was upheld. This council was held about 50 A.D. The letter sent by it is the first written portion of the New Testament (Acts 15:23-29).
On this second missionary tour Paul took Silas, Luke, and Timothy. This time they went over into Macedonia and Greece and did a marvelous work. The account of their labors is found in Acts 15:36-18:22.
Paul's third missionary journey is found in Acts 18:23-21:16. He had to battle with the Judaizers and maintain a close touch with the congregations which he had established. On this tour much wonderful work was accomplished. Finally, he returned from this tour to Jerusalem in the spring of 58 A.D. There he was arrested at this time.
In Acts 21:17-28:31 we read of the Apostle's imprisonment first in Jerusalem, next in Caesarea, and, finally, after his perilous journey across the Mediterranean, in Rome for two years. This review brings us to 63 A.D. and the close of the history of the Apostolic church.
Acts of the Apostles is one of the most important books of the New Testament from the standpoint of determining the dates of the establishing of the churches concerning which we read in the New Testament.
We might compare this book to a brooch and the epistles to gems set in that mounting. In order to appreciate the value of a gem, we must see it in its proper setting. Thus it is with Acts in its relation to the epistles. May God stir in us a desire to master this portion of His precious Word.