The Book of Acts


Introduction

Why do we have the book of Acts? In the eyes of many, it is merely a collection of interesting stories about the early history of the Assembly (or Church). Such an answer (even if it were adequate) only tells us the contents of the book and not its purpose. Again, there are undeniably many incidents that the author (Luke) could have included in his history, but he does not. For example, we are told virtually nothing about the later activities of the twelve apostles, and even Peter practically disappears after the middle of the book. Why? Clearly, Luke is writing “with method” (Luke 1: 3), and Acts is not just history, but history carefully chosen to demonstrate whatever purpose he (under the Spirit’s guidance) is seeking to put across. The question is, ‘Do we know what that purpose is?’

Some Peculiarities of the Book of Acts

Luke distinctly tells us that the book of Acts is the sequel to his Gospel (see Acts 1: 1), and it would be plainly unintelligent to ignore that fact. Of course, the Gospel and the Acts are also two volumes, not one (which they could have been), and that detail should not be ignored either. In Acts 1: 1, the author refers back to “all things which Jesus began both to do and to teach” (Acts 1: 1, my emphasis)—which implies that the Lord’s work and teaching continued after His ascension (that being the closing event of Luke’s gospel). In the one it was personal, in the other though His people.

   Now most Christians are of the view already alluded to, namely that Acts gives us the early history of the Assembly. However, while this is true, that does not prove it to be the purpose of the book. If that were its object, then it seems odd that Luke does not prepare the reader for it in his gospel. We know that the Lord spoke about the Assembly prior to his death (see Matt. 16: 18; 18: 17), but the word assembly is not found in Luke’s Gospel at all—despite Luke being the companion of Paul, the man who had a unique ministry in relation to the Assembly (see Col. 1: 24, 25).

   Another peculiarity of the book of Acts is the way the Assembly is introduced (or, rather, not introduced). Leaving aside Acts 2: 47 (where it is doubtful whether ekklhsia, the Greek word for assembly, should be in the text), the Assembly simply appears unheralded (and, initially, unnamed) in the narrative (see Acts 2: 41; 4: 4; 5: 11; 8: 1 etc.). Of course, the Assembly was formed when the Holy Spirit was sent from the ascended Christ, but Luke does not exactly present the coming of the Holy Spirit in that connection but links it simply with power and witness to the resurrection (see Luke 24: 49; Acts 1: 8).

   One more oddity is the strange way in which the history is closed, almost as if unfinished (see Acts 28: 30, 31). Yet there is no inspired follow-up, and it is clear that the conclusion is designed to be as it is (as it must be if inspired). Some have speculated that the seeming lack of a firm conclusion is to leave room for others to continue the testimony afterwards, but this does not account for the fact that Luke must have known some of the later history (see Col. 4: 14; 2 Tim. 4: 11 etc.). That none of this was made use of suggests that the Spirit’s purpose with the history recorded in Acts does in fact end with chapter 28.

Theophilus and Luke’s Gospel

To properly understand the book of Acts we need to ask ourselves what the man for whom it was written would have made of it, and he would come to it with his mind filled with what he had read in Luke’s Gospel (he certainly was unfamiliar with the contents of Ephesians and Colossians for they were not yet written). Now Matthew is well-known for focusing on the presentation of the kingdom to Israel but so, in his own way, does Luke (the word kingdom is mentioned 54 times in Matthew, and 45 times in Luke). Theophilus was a Gentile, but having read Luke’s Gospel he would have become familiar with Jewish hopes and how the God of Israel had “visited and wrought redemption for his people, and raised up a horn of deliverance for us in the house of David his servant” (Luke 1: 68, 69). He would have also learnt how prophecy (see Is. 42: 6; 49: 6) predicted “a light for revelation of [the] Gentiles” (Luke 2: 32). It would also be apparent to him (even if not to the Jewish leaders), that his day was a turning point in Israel’s history, for as Luke 16 told him, “the law and the prophets [were] until John: from that time the glad tidings of the kingdom of God are announced” (v16). Jewish blindness as to the day of visitation meant that instead of kingdom deliverance and glory, Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed as the Lord foretold (see Luke 19: 41-44) in AD70—forty years after the kingdom had been offered (40 being the number of probation). Now many say that this rejection of the kingdom was followed by God bringing in a new thing—Christ’s Assembly (see Matt. 16: 18). That is certainly what happened, but it is also far too simplistic a summary. Why, for example, does Luke only report Peter’s confession as “The Christ of God” (Luke 9: 20), and omit the words “the Son of the living God” as recorded in Matt. 16: 16? The term Christ of God does not necessarily take us beyond Jewish hopes of a national deliverer and His kingdom on earth, but Son of the living God is wide enough in scope to encompass a divine conqueror of death, ascended into heaven, and later to be livingly connected to His Assembly on earth (even though Matthew gives no hint of the Assembly as anything other than a Jewish entity—hence “nations” in Matt. 18: 17—and omits the ascension altogether from his gospel). Seeing as Luke (rather than Matthew) relates the events of Pentecost, is it not inexplicable that he does not provide Peter’s full confession?

   Again, why does only Luke record the Lord’s prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34)? Primarily, this prayer has reference to the Roman soldiers, but it is indefinite enough to also include the Jews who “by [the] hand of lawless [men]” (Acts 2: 23), crucified and slew the Lord. Even to such, forgiveness was available, for they “did it in ignorance” (Acts 3: 17)—but how would this forgiveness be offered? In the parable of the husbandmen, the murder of the son invites a ruthless response from the lord of the vineyard: “He will come and destroy those husbandmen, and will give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20: 16). That, clearly, is what happened to Israel in consequence of their rejection of Christ—but it is not the whole story. The same parable is found in Matt. 21: 33-46 and Mark 12: 1-12, but Luke also relates another parable that is unique to his Gospel. This is the parable of the barren fig-tree (see Luke 13: 6-9), the context of which is an inability to discern the time of visitation (see Luke 12: 56), the existence of an adverse party (see v58), and the danger of not repenting (see Luke 13: 1-5). The fig-tree having been planted in a vineyard (comp. Is. 5: 2) is a clear picture of the favourable position into which Israel had been placed—yet the owner complained that “[these] three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree and find none: cut it down; why does it also render the ground useless?” (Luke 13: 7). This has similarity to an actual incident in the Lord’s life in which He sought fruit on a fig-tree and not having found any, exercised immediate judgement (see Matt. 21: 18-20). However, in the parable, judgment is not instant, but deferred, because the vinedresser pleads, “Sir, let it alone for this year also, until I shall dig about it and put dung, and if it shall bear fruit—but if not, after that thou shalt cut it down” (Luke 13: 8, 9). It is this period of delay which is described in the book of Acts.  

The Disciple’s Question

Now if the promised kingdom is such an important a feature in Luke’s Gospel, we would hardly expect the subject to be dropped like a stone when he comes to write his sequel (although this is precisely what many seem to believe). What did the Lord Jesus speak to His disciples about during the forty days after His resurrection? “The things which concern the kingdom of God” (Acts 1: 3, my emphasis)!  If we turn back for a moment into the Gospel, we should not be surprised at this, for the disciples “had hoped that he was [the one] who is about to redeem Israel” (Luke 24: 21). To say that in Acts 1 the Lord spoke about the kingdom in order to close off these hopes until long into the distant future contradicts the teaching of the parable of the fig-tree. It also ignores how the Lord dealt with the disciple’s question in Acts 1: 6. They ask, “Lord, is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel?”, to which He responds by leaving the matter open when He could so easily have said ‘No’. It is also not without significance that the book of Acts closes with Paul “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 28: 31). The Lord speaking of the kingdom of God (see Acts 1: 3) and Paul preaching the kingdom of God are thus the bookends of the volume! Would Theophilus take this preaching by Paul to be unrelated to the preaching of the twelve in Luke 9: 2, seeing as in the original Greek the wording is virtually identical? It is stretching credulity to say so. Now of course some things had changed (not least the death and resurrection of the King), and it follows that the glad tidings of the grace of God (see Acts 20: 24), touching more particularly on eternal matters, was now preached. However, it is also clear, even right up until the end of Acts, that the public kingdom—the universal reign of Christ in power on earth—is not left out of the message (see Acts 17: 7; 19: 8; 20: 25; 28: 20-31). Acts is not so unconnected to the OT as some think it is, but transitional. The Assembly is formed, but Israel as a nation is not yet publicly set aside, and if “repentance and remission of sins” are now preached “to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 47), Israel and the public kingdom remain prominent. That this is so is obvious from Peter’s first preaching, where he invokes Joel 2, the context of which is clearly “the last days” (Acts 2: 17) and declares that “all the prophets from Samuel and those in succession after [him], as many as have spoken, have announced also these days” (Acts 3: 24)—Samuel having denounced Israel’s sin in rejecting Jehovah as their king (see 1 Sam. 10: 19). Peter’s message to the nation was, “Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from [the] presence of the Lord, and he may send Jesus Christ, who was foreordained for you” (Acts 3: 19, 20). This essentially is the millennial kingdom re-offered (conditional on national repentance), in which both Israel and the earth would be rejuvenated. Was Peter mocking the Jews with an offer that was not real and imminent? No—the opportunity was there, and the nation was being ministered to (see Luke 13: 8) with a view to bearing the fruit they ought to have borne when the kingdom had been first offered to them (see Luke 3: 8). Yes, this could not take place without a new heart (see Ezek. 36: 26), but the point here is not Israel’s inability but God’s grace.

The Day of Pentecost

Many speak of the events of Acts 2 as the ‘birthday’ of the Assembly, when what the Lord had foretold in Matthew 16:18 (“I will build my assembly”) would come into reality. This is true as far as it goes, but it also feeds the misconception that all that characterised the Assembly as described later in the epistles (for example, Jew and Gentile as “joint-heirs”—Eph. 3: 6) was in place from Pentecost. The same superficial evaluation regards the words “And when the day of Pentecost was now accomplishing” (Acts 2: 1) as of no significance apart from providing the date when the Assembly began. No! What happened in Acts 2 is intrinsically connected with the “feasts of Jehovah” (Lev. 23: 2). Pentecost is the Greek term for the Hebrew Feast of Weeks, so–called because of its unusual timing: “And ye shall count from the morning after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave–offering, seven weeks; they shall be complete; even unto the morning after the seventh Sabbath shall ye count fifty days” (Lev. 23: 15, 16). Now “the morning after the Sabbath” referred to is the Feast of First-fruits (see v11), which pictures the resurrection of Christ (see 1 Cor. 15: 20, 23). The Lord was raised on the morning after the Sabbath and thus at day 50 there have been eight mornings after the Sabbath. The number eight signifies a new beginning (thus, for example, circumcision was on the eighth day, the cleansing of the leper was completed on the eighth day and David, the new king, was the eighth son of Jesse—see Gen. 17: 12; Lev. 14: 10, 23; 1 Sam. 17: 12, 14). Pentecost is therefore a new beginning. That new beginning was offered by Peter to the Jews (see Acts 2: 38–40; 3: 19–21). Why? Because though they had crucified Christ, God had raised Him from the dead, and in grace He was providing them with another opportunity to subject themselves to the King. Those that submitted themselves were added to the Assembly but initially this would have been understood only as a remnant, a called-out company within Judaism. What was known as the “way” (Acts 9: 2 etc.) was a path of separation from an evil generation in Israel not yet out of Judaism itself (there is no conflict with John 10: 16, which was written down much later, and assumes Israel’s condition as set). Again, readers may be surprised to learn that Gentiles would not be added to the Assembly for many years after Pentecost (some of the dates in Acts are known—see Acts 11: 28; 12: 23 etc.). Certainly, Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost (“and to all who [are] afar off”—Acts 2: 39) are wide enough in scope to allow the entrance of the Gentiles into the Assembly at a later point but there is no suggestion in them of Jew and Gentile equal in one body, having the same access to the Father, and united to the Head in heaven (see Eph. 2: 18; 4: 4; Col. 1: 18). Peter’s preaching does not go beyond Gentiles being blessed in accord with numerous OT prophecies (see Deut. 32: 43; Ps. 72: 11; Is. 2: 2; 11: 10; 24: 14, 15; 49: 6; Jer. 3: 17; Ezek. 38: 23; Mic. 4: 1, 2; Zeph. 3: 9 etc.)—that is, associated with and subservient to the Jew in the kingdom (see Is. 60: 3; Zech. 8: 23; 14: 16).This has nothing to do with what is taught in Paul’s epistles of Jew and Gentile assimilated into one new man (see Eph. 2: 15). Why? Because that was “hidden throughout the ages” (Eph. 3: 9)—meaning that it was not revealed in OT prophecy. The “two wave-loaves” (Lev. 23: 17) of the Feast of Pentecost—Jew and Gentile as associated together but remaining distinct–is quite in keeping with what is presented in the book of Acts.

Jews and Gentiles

One impetus to the entrance of the Gentiles was the behaviour of the Jews. In Acts 7, Stephen’s testimony by the Holy Spirit to the Man in the glory was rejected. Significantly, his martyrdom took place in Jerusalem—the centre of Judaism—and was, in effect, a fulfilment of the parable of Luke 19 in which an embassy was sent after the “high-born man” saying, “We will not that this [man] should reign over us” (see vs. 12, 14). After this, things change. In chapter 8, Philip evangelised the Samaritans (a group that falsely claimed Israel’s place) and preached to the Ethiopian eunuch (a Jewish proselyte or convert). In Chapter 9 the future apostle of the Gentiles was converted, in chapter 10 Peter opened the door to the household of Cornelius as representative Gentiles, and in chapter 11, widespread evangelisation of Gentiles begins after the scattering that followed Stephen’s martyrdom (see vs. 19-21). However, despite this blessing, there is still no indication that the distinction between the Jews and the nations had been removed. That this is so, can be seen from Acts 15: 15-18, where James appeals to Amos 9: 11, 12 to show the blessing of the nations, not as proselytes to Judaism, but as Gentiles in association with Israel. However, association is not identity and has nothing to do with what the apostle Paul later publicly taught about the one body, “wherein there is not Greek and Jew” (Col. 3: 11).  Throughout Acts, the believing Jews and Gentiles retained their national identities, and even Paul readily complied with Jewish practice (see Acts 16: 3; 18: 18, 21; 20: 23-26; 21: 26). His public ministry at the time was accordingly restricted, “saying nothing else than those things which both the prophets and Moses have said should happen” (Acts 26: 22)—and this clearly excluded the mystery of Jew and Gentile equal in one body “which in other generations has not been made known” (Eph. 3: 5).

   Apart from a single mention in Acts 15: 7-12, Peter does not feature in the narrative of Acts beyond chapter 12. From here on, Paul is the focus of Luke’s account, and although he is the apostle of the uncircumcision (as Peter was of the circumcision—see Gal. 2: 7, 8) he continues to evangelise the Jews, typically seeking out the synagogue in each city he visited (see Acts 13: 14; 17: 1, 10, 17; 18: 4, 19). In Acts 13, Paul’s testimony in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia was rejected, and in response he told the Jews that “It was necessary that the word of God should be first spoken to you; but, since ye thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the nations” (v46), basing his action on Is. 49: 6. However, this turning away from Israel is not general, because shortly afterwards Paul preached in the synagogue of Iconium (see Acts 14: 1). Later, Paul’s testimony in the synagogue at Corinth is also rejected and he told the Jews there “Your blood be upon your own head: I [am] pure; from henceforth I will go to the nations” (Acts 18: 6). Again, however, this is local not general, for he later reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue in Ephesus (see v19). From this point on (see v21), Paul is determined to go up to Jerusalem to keep the feast of Pentecost (see Acts 20: 16), but ironically the offered new beginning of Pentecost is passing away for Israel, and this is reflected in the fact that Agabus prophesied that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem and delivered over to the power of Rome (see Acts 21: 11).

   In Rome, Paul called together the leaders of the dispersion and testified “of the kingdom of God … persuading them concerning Jesus, both from the law of Moses and the prophets” (Acts 28: 23). His appeal was only partially successful, and this led him to quote Is. 6: 9, 10 to them: “Well spoke the Holy Spirit through Esaias the prophet to our fathers, saying, Go to this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear and not understand, and seeing ye shall see and not perceive. For the heart of this people has become fat, and they hear heavily with their ears, and they have closed their eyes; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the nations; they also will hear [it]” (vs. 25-28). The passage Paul quotes is also referred to in the Gospel narratives, but only here is it directly addressed to the Jews. This is very significant. In Matt. 13: 14-15, Mark 4: 12 and Luke 8: 10 the prophecy is only quoted to the disciples, while John 12: 40 is simply a comment by the writer (see also Rom. 11: 8). In Acts 28: 26, 27 however, Paul addressed the Jews themselves in exact fulfilment of Is. 6: 9: “thou shalt say unto this people” (my emphasis). The apostle followed this up by repeating that the salvation of God would be sent to the Gentiles and that “they also will hear it” (Acts 28: 28). Acts 28: 25-28 therefore represents the historical closing of the door upon the nation, although individual Jews would still be able to come in search of blessing (as they did—see v30).

Conclusion

The synoptic Gospels describe the offer of the kingdom to Israel and its rejection. The book of Acts, as the last historical book in the Bible, traces how, in grace, following the murder of the King, the kingdom was re-offered to Israel, both at Jerusalem, the centre of Judaism, and at Rome, the centre of the dispersion. Of course, the book of Acts necessarily also speaks extensively about the Assembly since God knew from the outset the stony and intransigent heart of His earthly people, and that the nation would be set aside. However, this is secondary to the real purpose of the book, which is to close up the prophecies concerning Israel until long into the future. In summary, the disciple’s question of Acts 1: 6 receives its final answer in Acts 28: 25-27.

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