In Acts 1:1, the writer addresses the account to Theophilus. The title “most excellent” in the Gospel according to Luke indicates that Theophilus was a man of high social standing. He was probably a Gentile convert who had been taught the gospel (Luke 1:4). Aside from this inference, not much is known about the recipient.
Acts was completed after the end of Paul’s two-year imprisonment in Rome (A.D. 61-63) because Luke ended his account with Paul awaiting trial in Rome. The fact that Acts makes no mention of Nero’s persecution of Christians (beginning A.D. 65) and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) suggests that Acts was completed before these events. Therefore, A.D. 64 is a reasonable date for the composition of Acts.
The author stresses in his opening statement in the Gospel according to Luke that his purpose is to compose an orderly account for Theophilus so that he may know the certainty of the things in which he was instructed (Luke 1:1-4). The Gospel records all that Jesus began to do and teach until His ascension (Acts 1:1-2). Acts, a sequel to the Gospel, focuses on what the Lord Jesus continued to do after His ascension. It details the apostles’ ministry through the power of the risen Lord—how they received the promised Holy Spirit and carried out Jesus’ command by preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and finally to the rest of the world.
1. Acts is the only book in the New Testament recording the history of the church. Without Acts, the link between the gospels and epistles would be lost.
2. Acts is a pivotal book of transitions: from Judaism to Christianity, from the law to the gospel, from the Jews to the Gentiles, from a small group of believers to the universal church.
3. Acts records many sermons and speeches, including those of Peter, Stephen, Paul, Gamaliel, the city clerk of Ephesus, and Tertullus.
“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 end of the earth.” (1:8).
The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus Christ instructing His apostles to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, who would empower them to preach the gospel. The Lord then told them that they would be His witnesses starting from Jerusalem and progressing to all Judea and Samaria and finally to the ends of the world. After this, Jesus ascended to heaven. As prophesied by Jesus, the apostles did receive the promised Holy Spirit a few days later, and they were immediately filled with power and began testifying for the Lord. The work of spreading the gospel developed exactly according to what Jesus had said:
Witnessing in Jerusalem (1:1-8:4)
After the believers received the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up with the other apostles and preached a powerful sermon to all the Jews and devout men who were present and converted 3,000 that day. As a result the church in Jerusalem was established (2:1-47). What followed is a record of how the infant church developed, including all the trials and tribulations she encountered (3:1–5:42). All the believers in this initial phase of preaching were Jews. Stephen, one of the seven deacons chosen to sort out the problem of food distribution to the Hellenistic Jewish widows, did great wonders and signs among the people. He was falsely accused and brought to trial. His speech incurred the wrath of the Jews and he was stoned to death (6:1–7:60). The death of Stephen sparked a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, forcing the believers to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1-3). But their dispersion led the expansion of the gospel to its second phase.
Witnessing in Judea and Samaria (8:5-12:25)
From chapter 8 onwards, Philip went to Samaria and successfully proclaimed the new message to a people despised by the Jews. Peter and John went there and helped the believers receive the Holy Spirit (8:5-25). This fulfilled the second part of Jesus’ prophesy. The Lord also sent Philip to preach to the Ethiopian eunuch as well as all the cities in Samaria (8:26-40). While the church was undergoing severe tribulation, the Lord Jesus transformed Saul, a violent leading persecutor of the church, into a believer and prepared him for the church’s missionary endeavors ahead. Saul, also named Paul, became an apostle and the Lord’s instrument in carrying the gospel to the Gentiles (9:1-31). Meanwhile, the church continued to thrive throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Luke recounts Peter’s preaching and how Peter healed Aeneas in Lydda and Dorcus in Joppa (9:32-43). While in Joppa, Peter was directed by God through a vision to preach to Cornelius, a Gentile centurion at Caesarea. The believers realized that it was the will of
God to accept the Gentiles because Cornelius and his family had received the Holy Spirit just as they had (10:1–18). This breakthrough pushed the church into even wider circles as the message was also preached to Greeks in Antioch. During his pastoral visit, Barnabas went to Tarsus to seek Paul and brought him to Antioch. When the church in Antioch learned from the Holy Spirit that there would be a great famine, she assigned Barnabas and Paul to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea (11:19-30). Back in Judea, persecutions continued. To please the Jewish leaders, Herod joined in the persecution of the Jerusalem church, killing James (John’s brother) and imprisoning Peter. But the Lord answered the church’s prayer for Peter and sent an angel to release him. Herod, on the other hand, was struck by an angel of the Lord and died. The word of God grew and multiplied (12:1-25).
Witnessing to the ends of the earth (13-28)
Beginning with chapter 13, Antioch in Syria became Luke’s focus instead of Jerusalem. All three of Paul’s missionary journeys originated from that city. The first missionary journey concentrates on the Galatian cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (13:1–14:28). Because some men from Judea had come down to teach the Gentile believers the necessity of circumcision, Paul and Barnabas engaged in a sharp controversy with them. So a council met in Jerusalem to resolve this serious issue. The leaders in Jerusalem concurred with the decision of the Holy Spirit and agreed that Gentiles needed not be circumcised. The church in Jerusalem then sent the decision to all the churches, bringing great encouragement to the believers (15:1-31). In the second missionary journey, Paul parted from Barnabas and
rev sited the Galatian churches before going into Macedonia and Greece for the first time. He spent much time in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth before returning to Jerusalem and Antioch (15:36–18:22). In his third missionary journey, Paul went over the region of Galatia and Phrygia to strengthen the disciples there (18:23). He then went to Ephesus and spent almost three years there before revisiting Macedonian and Greece (19:1 14). During this time, Paul felt compelled to go to Jerusalem. Although he was warned by Agabus and others of impending imprisonment, he did not waver in his decision. Shortly after Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he was falsely accused of defiling the temple (19:15–22:29). The Sanhedrin brought serious charges against him and Paul defended himself three times before governor Felix, Festus and King Agrippa before he appealed to Caesar (22:30–26:32). As a prisoner, Paul went on a long voyage to Rome, where he was put under house arrest until his trial (27:1–28:31). Acts closes with the encouraging scene of Paul receiving guests to his house prison, preaching the kingdom of God with all confidence and without hindrance.
The power and the work of the Holy Spirit
From the onset of Acts the Lord Jesus told His apostles that they would receive power to preach the gospel when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8-9). Indeed, after receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples were transformed totally. Whereas they were weak, timid, and had a poor understanding of God’s words and will, now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they had extraordinary courage to preach to the masses. The Holy Spirit also enabled them to preach effectively by giving them eloquence and by inspiring the listeners, as can be seen by Peter’s conversion of the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1- 41). Not only that, they also received power to perform great miracles of healing and exorcism as well as other signs and wonders. They had a clear goal and vision that they did not have before, and the Holy Spirit guided them every step of the way through direct revelation or visions. Throughout the whole narrative, the power and work of the Holy Spirit were evident.
The Growth of the Church
The church grew from a small group of 120 believers in Jerusalem to a widespread and mighty church, extending her boundaries to the whole of Palestine and, eventually, to Gentile territories. Acts goes into details of what the church in the apostolic times did to create this remarkable growth. For instance, the growth of the church in Jerusalem was attributed to the disciples’ focus on the teachings of the apostles, fellowship, prayers and practice of love (Acts 2:40-47). The church in Antioch grew because they had the services of a good worker, Barnabas, who was full of the Holy Spirit and faith (Acts 11:23- 24). By studying the passages that describe church growth, we are able to learn many invaluable lessons.
If there is one theme that could sum up the whole of Acts, it would be witnessing. Acts started off by describing the origin of the commission for evangelism, its overall plan (Acts 1:1-8), and the initial group of people chosen by God to undertake this task. It then narrates how they received the power to witness for the Lord and their efforts from Jerusalem to Gentile lands. Acts also goes into the message of their witnessing—repentance and belief in Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour and who had resurrected from the dead; baptism into Christ for the remission of sins and receiving the promised Holy Spirit. The strategies the apostles employed in their witnessing were also evident. For example, Paul always approached the Jews in the synagogue first, usually on the Sabbath Day. Then he would reach out to the Gentiles (Acts 13:5, 14, 42, 14:1, 2, 17:1-3).
The Acts of the Apostles is one of the most practical books in the Bible. It describes all the factors involved in church growth and progress of the gospel. If we can apply all the principles outlined in Acts, then church growth will be assured and the gospel will be propagated as speedily as in the time of the apostles. The teachings and practices of the early church form the basis for the present-day church. The spirit of service of the apostles also serves as an excellent example for divine workers today. Their love, their submission to the Holy Spirit, their humility and endurance are all worthy of our emulation. Furthermore, the schemes of the devil to disrupt and stop the work of God are also seen clearly. If we are aware of the work of the evil spirit then, we can see through his tactics and take preventative measures. We will be able to guard ourselves from falling into his traps. More importantly, we must learn from the apostles and be filled and led by the Holy Spirit. It is not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God that we can accomplish anything. Finally, the command of our Lord Jesus continues to apply to all believers today. We are all witnesses of the Lord who have been entrusted with a commission. We must continue the work of the apostles and complete the final phase of sending the gospel message to the ends of the earth.
Map & Chart
Map A: Geography of Acts
Map B: Paul’s First Missionary Journey (A.D. 46-48)
Map C: Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (A.D. 49-52)
Map D: Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (A.D. 53-57)
Map E: Paul’s Journey to Rome (A.D. 59-60)