This summer as we begin worship at Grace Presbyterian Worcester I’m going to be preaching through sections of the Acts of the Apostles which is one of New Testament documents contained in the Bible. As I’m reading through background materials I thought I’d pass along some of the essentials for two reasons. First, knowing the context of a document helps you understand it better. Second, knowing some of the details behind the bible buttresses faith.
Approach: Does the book of Acts give us a straightforward historical narrative describing the emergence of the Christian church or is it simply a recreation of events, loosely tied to what actually happened, that is written to encourage the church? These two perspectives are held by scholars today and while writing a historical narrative and writing to encourage the church are not mutually exclusive I believe that if you lose historicity you loose the encouragement this text brings. The place to begin answering this question is with the text, which gives the author’s intuition of relaying events with a purpose in mind. At this moment skeptical scholars will jump in and argue that pre-modern authors were not concerned with recording history as we know it today, but felt free to adjust the facts according to their purpose in writing. This position has significant challenges from such ancient historians as Poybius and Thucydides and tends toward historical pride. Just as there are good and poor sources of information today, so there have been through history. Yes, Acts is written with a clear theological and pastoral purpose but the author clearly roots these purposes in actual events. Furthermore these events are embedded in a story in which accurate descriptions of political, social, and geographic details push us to take the author seriously and not merely dismiss him as a novelist.
Author: While there is no name attached to the Gospel of Luke or the Acts of the Apostles, which form a two volume work, Luke the companion of the Apostle Paul is the best candidate. What we learn about the author of Acts fits our best reconstruction of Luke (education, gentile background, and Apostolic connections for example), is confirmed by evidence from the 2nd Century, and goes unchallenged for the next 1600 years. Furthermore, there is no other likely candidate for the author.
Significance: If Luke, the companion of Paul who takes part in the book, truly is the author (and a reliable one at that) then in the book of Acts we have access to the key figures and events from the origins of the Christian faith. The book of Acts is not a picture with a hidden image underneath the surface which we must unveil by pulling apart the seams and seeing what the clothes hide. Rather, Acts is a window to another time and place. Yes, there is a certain direction the window faces through which part of the landscape is visible and part is hidden but we are truly looking at a events and people of incredible importance. There should even be a sense of awe that suffuses our interaction with the Acts of the Apostles.
Date: Acts tends to be dated in two time periods, either between AD 62-70 or AD 80-95. Those who opt for a later date believe that Acts must be completed before the reign of the Roman Emperor Dominition in the mid-90’s. The optimistic tone in Acts towards the Roman Empire, would not have been possible under Dominition’s persecution. Furthermore they do not think the Author of Acts, was aware of Paul’s letters which were also in circulation in the mid-90s. Those holding to a later date also do so because they attribute a later date to the Gospel of Mark (which precedes Luke/Acts) and believe that the Jewish life in Acts reflects circumstances after the fall of the temple in AD 70. The most significant factor favoring an early date is the abrupt ending of the book in which Paul is languishing in prison but still able to proclaim the gospel. This abrupt ending makes the most sense if it describes the circumstances of the apostle when Luke is completing his work. If Luke knew of Paul’s release or eventual execution why not record these? I believe that the arguments for a later date (situation of Judaism in Acts and the relationship between Acts & Paul’s letters) actually point to an earlier date and think that Acts was written in the early to mid 60s.
Significance: If Acts is written in the early to mid-sixties then he is narrating events that have occurred in the past thirty years. This should increase our sense of the reliability of Acts. There would have been many sources for him to draw from and significant feedback if he inaccurately portrayed events of such significance. Even if Luke wrote during the later time frame we should still have great confidence in his work as there would still be eye witnesses to the ministry of Jesus and rise of the early church.
Structure: Acts is structured around the witness of the Apostles in fulfillment of Jesus promise (1:8) that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Furthermore there are growth and summary statements through the book which show the progressive fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.
Significance: Rather than looking to the courage, eloquence, or leadership of the Apostles our primary focus in reading Acts should be the faithfulness of Jesus in building his church by the power of the Holy Spirit. This should encourage us in the midst of our own frailty, weakness, and doubts as we pursue Jesus’ ongoing mission in this world.
Thesis: In seminary I remember one of my professors having a central thesis about Acts that went something like this: the gospel progresses, strengthened the church internally and growing it external despite opposition from without and weakness within. I think this is a great way to look at the book of Acts which enfolds other purposes such as promoting an accurate theology, reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christians, and communicating the gospel to those outside the faith.
Significance: While we should read Acts to learn about the history of the church and better understand what it means to be a Christian in a specific time and place, if this is all we do, we fall short. We must see Acts as the continuing ministry of the ascended Christ in which his gospel spreads throughout the world by the power of his Holy Spirit which energizes his body – the church. Practically this will mean engaging the ascended Christ ourselves when we read acts and connecting what God was doing then to what he is doing today. Jesus’ promise that his disciples will spread his gospel to the end of the earth is still being fulfilled today. In the life of every Christian the central thesis of Acts should find expression.