Witnessing to the World
The book of Acts is the second volume written by Luke. He addresses the Gospel to Theophilus, which means “lover of God” or “friend of God.” “The Acts of the Apostles” isn’t a survey of the ministry of all twelve disciples; rather it is about Peter (chaps. 1-12) and Paul (chaps. 13-28). But in another sense it’s not really about them; it’s about what the Holy Spirit does through them. Thus, this book could be titled, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”
The key word is “witness,” used more than thirty times. After the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers at Pentecost, “those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word ” (Acts 8:4). The early Christians were so totally convinced that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead that they literally gave their lives to witness to the world about what He had done.
1.Christ began to teach the Word. The Holy Spirit spreads the Word.
2.Christ did miracles to show His deity. The Spirit miraculously transforms individuals.
3.Christ was crucified and raised again. Christ is exalted by the Holy Spirit.
4.The Son of Man came to save all. The Holy Spirit came to bring people to salvation.
In the Old Testament God’s glory dwelt in a tabernacle and in the temple, but in the New Testament God’s Spirit lives in the lives of believers, and they carry Him into the marketplaces and streets as they witness the power of Christ’s resurrection. In the Old Testament the Jews were a separate people from the Gentiles, distinctive by the circumcision in their body, plus their language, religious observances, and dress. In the New Testament believers go to everyone—Jews and Gentiles—witnessing what Jesus Christ can do for them. Their impact on Roman society was so great that it was said of them, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (17:6). The book of Acts begins with the red-hot enthusiasm of a growing church in its first thirty years, and in these thirty years we see all the strengths and weaknesses that will be characteristic of the body of Christ in the next 2,000 years.
Where: Unknown (probably in Rome during Paul’s imprisonment, 28:16-31)
Date: AD 60-62
Key Words: Witness (Gk. martus) and Church (Gk. ekklesia)
Key Verse: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The similarity of the introductions in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles indicates that the same person wrote both books (see discussion of authorship of the Gospel of Luke). Like the Gospel of Luke, Acts is dedicated to Theophilus (Acts 1:1), and the author begins with a clear reference to the Gospel: “I wrote the first narrative” (1:1). The traditional view throughout most of church history is that Luke was the author of both. D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo write, “Luke’s authorship of these two books went virtually unchallenged until the onset of critical approaches to the New Testament at the end of the eighteenth century.”1 However, there is no serious external evidence to support the critical view.
The author of Acts is clearly an eyewitness of much of what he writes (note his use of “we” in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-29; 28:1-16, indicating that he was a traveling companion of Paul on these occasions). Luke was a medical doctor (Col 4:14 ), and the book of Acts was written by someone who could do careful research (Luke 1:1-4) and had an interest in miracles of healing (3:6-9; 8:7; 9:18, 38-40; 14:8-10; 16:16-18; 19:11-12; 28:3-6), an approach expected of a doctor. Also the classic Greek style of Acts suggests an author who was well educated. All the evidence points to Luke the physician as the author.
Not much is known about the early life of Luke. Most say he was a Gentile, and some claim he was a Greek; however, others believe he was a Jew. Tradition says Luke was born in Antioch (modern-day Syria), although some say he was from Tarsus (modern-day Turkey). This view claims he studied medicine in the same city as Paul’s early education and that in the early days they knew each other. Some claim, although it cannot be proven, that Luke was an indentured slave/servant of Theophilus and that the two books were written for his former benefactor.
The primary recipient of the book of Acts was a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). The introduction to Luke calls Theophilus “most honorable,” a term similar to “most excellent,” which was used of the Roman officials Felix and Festus (Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25). Thus, it is possible that Theophiluswas a Roman official or nobleman who became a Christian. Of course all that is actually known is that Theophilus was a believer who needed or wanted credible instruction concerning the life of Jesus (the Gospel of Luke) and the growth of the church (the Acts of the Apostles). The fact that Luke and Acts circulated in the early church with the other Gospel stories indicates that Luke must have intended the recipients of both books to be more than just this one man. The explanation of Jewish terms and culture indicates that these books were intended to help a broader Greek audience who lived in the far corners of the Roman Empire and did not have a firsthand understanding of the life of Christ (in Luke) or an appreciation of how God used Peter, Paul, and other leaders in the growth of the early church (in Acts).
Occasion and Date
The introduction to Luke suggests why the two books were written and how they were to be used, “So that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4). The books were written to give a credible record of Jesus’s life and death, then a documented account of the growth and success of the early church. The phrase “know . . . about the things you have been instructed” suggests the books were written to those who were believers. They needed to be grounded in the truth. This implies they shouldn’t base their faith on exaggerated claims or human theories about what may or may not have happened.
It would seem certain that Acts was written before AD 70 when Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. This event was so decisive in the ongoing controversy between Jews and Christians that it seems inconceivable Luke could have left it out. Following this same line of reasoning, Luke doesn’t mention Nero and Rome’s burning and the resulting persecution of Christians when Nero blamed them for the destruction of the city (AD 64-65). Also, the book of Acts ends before any mention of the results of Paul’s trial (AD 62). Then a likely date for Acts is approximately AD 62. It was probably written in Rome while Paul was a prisoner and “stayed two whole years in his own rented house” (28:30).
Genre and Structure
The book of Acts is written in the style of ancient historical writing, interspersed with personal biographies.2 It also contains twenty-three speeches, which make up one-third of the book.3 Acts traces the growth of the church in three concentric circles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). The church succeeds in witnessing in the first circle in Jerusalem, for “every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news” (5:42). The church was successful in the second circle of Judea and Samaria because Luke records that “the church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers” (9:31 NLT). The gospel went out to the third circle that reached the ends of the earth when it reached Rome, the hub of the empire, and from this vibrant city Christians (including soldiers [Phil 1:13; 4:22]) carried the gospel to the ends of the (known) earth.
I.Witnessing in Jerusalem (1:1-8:3)
A.Birth of the Church at Pentecost (1:1-2:47)
B.Expansion of the Church in Jerusalem (3:1-8:3)
II.Witnessing in Judea and Samaria (8:4-12:25)
A.Ministry of Philip (8:4-40)
B.Conversion of Paul (9:1-31)
C.Ministry of Peter (9:32-12:25)
III.Witnessing to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth (13:1-28:31)
A.Paul’s First Missionary Journey (13:1-14:27)
B.Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)
C.Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)
D.Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (18:23-21:19)
E.Paul’s Arrest, Imprisonment, and Voyage to Rome (21:20-28:31)
The birth and growth of the church in Acts reveals God’s plan to take the gospel to the world as an extension of the Jewish messianic hope from its beginning in Jewish Jerusalem (Acts 1) to the heart of the Gentile world in Rome (Acts 28). As Luke traces the story of the birth and growth of Christianity, he records the earliest history of the Christian church.
Sections of the eastern wall of the old city of Jerusalem.
Following the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days, commissioning the disciples to be His witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (1:1-3). After Christ’s ascension the disciples and 120 people received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish feast held fifty days after Passover (2:1-13). As a result of Peter’s preaching, 3,000 people were saved and baptized, and the New Testament church was launched (2:14-47).
Once the church was established, Luke records how the Jerusalem church grew. The author meticulously records the numbers of converts, which immediately begin multiplying by the thousands (4:4). At the end of the first major section of the book, Luke emphasized that “the word of God spread [and] the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number” (6:7). Throughout the book of Acts, Luke traced numerical growth as an evidence of God’s blessing. Although many Jews became disciples, there was strong opposition by Jewish officials, and Stephen became the first Christian martyred for preaching the gospel (7:1-60).
After the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip, one of the seven original deacons (7:1-6), went to Samaria preaching the gospel with great power and success (8:4-17). In response to the Samaritans’ conversions, Peter and John came from Jerusalem to lay hands on the new believers and imparted the Holy Spirit to them, demonstrating continuity between the Jewish and Samaritan believers. Later Philip was led of the Spirit to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (8:26-39). After Philip explained Jesus to him from Isaiah 53, the eunuch believed and was baptized. His return to Ethiopia is credited with spreading the gospel into Africa at that time.
A decisive event in the history of Christianity took place when Saul (later Paul), a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, was converted to Christ on the road to Damascus. Blinded by a vision of the risen Christ, Saul was later healed and baptized by a disciple named Ananias. Immediately the converted Saul became a bold proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus, the promised Messiah. Saul would eventually exchange his Jewish name for the Greco-Roman name Paul, as he expanded his ministry to the Gentiles.
The next major events in the history of Christianity included Peter’s ministry to the Jews in Syrian Antioch (9:32-43), his vision at Joppa (10:1-8), and his witness to Cornelius, which resulted in the conversion of the first Gentiles (10:9-48). These chapters contain the accounts of Christianity’s first break with Jewish dietary laws, social customs, and the inclusion of Gentiles. The salvation and baptism of Gentiles at Caesarea opened the door to the next level of world evangelism. Later the good news spread to Syrian Antioch, and many believed (11:19-30), but Jewish leaders killed James and had Peter thrown in jail (12:1-19). Not long after this God brought Herod’s life to an end because he accepted worship (12:20-25).
Ruins of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea. This was the area where Herod died.
III. Witnessing to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth (Acts 13:1-28:31)
Next the church advanced to Cyprus and Asia Minor as Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark were sent out as missionaries from the church at Antioch in Syria (13:1-3). While they were ministering on Cyprus, a Jewish magician was struck blind, a Roman proconsul was converted, and Saul’s name was changed to Paul (13:4-12). From Cyprus the team moved into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), to Pamphylia, and then into the province of Galatia. At Perga, John Mark left and returned to Jerusalem while Paul and Barnabas went on to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe before returning to Antioch in Syria. There was opposition to the gospel in Cyprus (13:6-11), Antioch (13:45), Iconium (14:5), and Lystra (14:19), but later Paul returned to these places to strengthen the saints in each city (14:21-28).
A serious disagreement arose at Antioch as to whether the new Gentile converts needed to be circumcised. The church sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to report on their Gentile mission and to settle the issue with the apostles. The Jerusalem Council was held in AD 49, where it was determined that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised (15:10) and that both Jews and Gentiles were saved by grace through faith alone (15:11). James, Jesus’s brother, pastor of the Jerusalem church, presided over the council. A letter was then issued declaring their official position and circulated to the churches expressing apostolic authority (15:22-30).
The rocky outcrop known as Mars Hill in Athens seen from the Acropolis.
Upon returning from Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas decided to revisit the converts from their first journey. However, a disagreement arose over taking John Mark along. Ultimately, Barnabas took Mark and retuned to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and took the overland route through Syria and Cilicia to southern Galatia. At Lystra, Timothy joined them, and they continued west to Troas, where Paul received the “Macedonian call” to take the gospel to Greece (16:9-10). Luke then traces Paul’s evangelistic mission to the Greek cities of Philippi (16:11-40), Thessalonica (17:1-9), Berea (17:10-14), Athens (17:15-34), and Corinth (18:1-17), and then to Ephesus in Asia Minor (18:18-22).
Shortly after arriving back in Antioch, Paul began his third missionary journey, retracing the steps of his second journey, until he came again to Ephesus (19:1-19). Paul’s evangelistic ministry was so successful among the Gentiles that a public demonstration broke out in the arena led by silversmith idol makers whose business losses were extensive because of the great number of Christian converts. Leaving Ephesus, Paul ministered to the churches throughout Macedonia and Greece (20:1-2) and backtracked again to Troas (20:3-6) where he raised young Eutychus from the dead (20:6-12). From there Paul sailed to Miletus where he met the Ephesian elders. Following a tearful farewell, Paul sailed to Tyre and traveled on to Caesarea and Jerusalem.
At Jerusalem, Paul was arrested by Jewish authorities, and he defended himself before the Sanhedrin (22:30-23:10). Tensions were so high the Roman authority transferred Paul to Felix, the governor at Caesarea. During his two years at Caesarea, Paul presented his case before Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa. In the meantime, being a Roman citizen, Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome. However, the voyage ended in a shipwreck off the island of Malta before Paul was finally placed under house arrest in Rome where he continued preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (28:31).
The book of Acts begins with Peter preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, the metropolitan center of Judaism. It ends with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, the metropolitan center of the Roman Empire and the Gentile world. Interestingly, there is no conclusion to the Acts of the Apostles. The final verses read, “[Paul] welcomed all who visited him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-31). Luke does not conclude with a sermon, nor is there a benediction or signature by Luke. The author simply ends by bringing the reader the latest news in the ongoing ministry of the risen Savior through the Holy Spirit.
There are five key ideas in Acts; four of these are key words: witnessing (19 times), church (56 times), Holy Spirit (41 times) and prayer (27 times). The other is that of the growth of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel, which is attested throughout the book (2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 8:25; 10:44-48; 13:12, 43; 16:14-34; 17:6, 12; 18:10). The book of Acts is filled with gospel preaching, including sermons by Peter, Stephen, and Paul. “Believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (8:4 NLT). They used “saturation evangelism,” using every available method at every available time to reach every available person. So they were accused of having “filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28). They went door to door (5:42) and shared Christ at work and in the marketplace. They used many techniques involving witnessing (martureō) (1:8); talking (daleō) (4:1); evangelizing (evangelizō) (8:4); explaining (dianoigō) (17:3); teaching (didaskō) (6:48); reasoning (dialegomai) (18:4); discussing (suzeteō) (6:9); announcing (kerussō) (8:5); and making disciples (9:22).
The church met in synagogues, by the riverside, on Solomon’s porch, in an upper (banquet) room, on mountains, in caves, in various homes of believers (6:42; 10:25; 16:40; 17:7; 18:7), and in lecture halls (19:9), or at any place they could gather. First they met for prayer (1:14) then added evangelism (2:14), teaching (2:42), Communion (2:42) and fellowship (2:42). The church slowly organized itself, first adding a twelfth apostle to take Judas’s place (1:15:26), then deacons (6:1-7). Next they ordained elders (11:30; 14:23); and when there was a major doctrinal problem, they called a church council (15:1-12). Then they agreed on a written explanation that was to be circulated among the churches (15:20-35). When faced with persecution, Irenaeus said, “They despised death, and even showed themselves superior to death.”4
The church is victorious because its witness is empowered by the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts is filled with prayerful intercession and becomes a prayer manual to succeeding generations. The church is praying in the upper room when Acts opens (1:14). After the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, they continued daily in prayer (2:42-6:4). The apostles went daily to the temple to pray (3:1). When persecution broke out, they prayed (4:24). Paul fasted and prayed three days after meeting Jesus on the Damascus road (9:9-11). Both Cornelius and Peter were praying when God directed an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles (10:2 ff). Prayer delivered Peter from prison (12:5). As the church was praying (13:2-3), the Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to their first missionary tour. Paul met people praying by a river in Philippi, and when arrested and beaten, he sang psalms and prayed in prison (16:25). And Paul healed the sick with prayer (28:8). Spirit-empowered, praying believers were used by God to launch the church, and the same are needed to continue its impact in today’s world as well.
For Further Reading
Bock, Darrell L. Acts.BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.
Ger, Stephen. Acts: Witness to the World. Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2004.
Polhill, John. Acts.NAC. Nashville: B&H, 1992.
Stott, John. The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1990.
Toussaint, Stanley D. “ Acts.” BKCNT.Ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor, 1983.
Chronology of Acts5
Event Chapter Date
Christ’s Ascension Acts 1 May, AD 33
Pentecost Acts 2 May, AD 33
Peter and John Arrested Acts 3-4 Summer, AD 33
Apostles Arrested Acts 5 AD 34
Deacons Appointed Acts 6 Winter, AD 35
Death of Stephen Acts 7 Spring AD 35
Samaritans Believe Acts 8 Summer, AD 35
Saul’s Commission Acts 9 Summer, AD 35
Saul’s Damascus Ministry Acts 9 AD 35-37
Saul Returns to Jerusalem, Sent to Tarsus Acts 9 Fall, AD 37
Peter Meets Cornelius Acts 10 AD 40
Paul in Antioch Acts 11 AD 42
Death of James and Herod Agrippa Acts 12 AD 44
Saul and Barnabas in Jerusalem Acts 12 Fall, AD 47
First Missionary Journey Acts 13-14 Spring, AD 48–Fall 49
Jerusalem Council Acts 15 Late AD 49/Early 50
Second Missionary Journey Acts 16-18 Spring, AD 50–Fall 52
Third Missionary Journey Acts 18-21 Spring, AD 53–May 57
Paul Imprisoned Acts 22 June, AD 57–Summer 59
Voyage to Rome Acts 27 Summer, AD 59–March 60
Paul’s Roman Imprisonment Acts 28 March, AD 60–Spring 62
Death of James Spring, AD 62
Death of Peter Summer, AD 64
Death of Paul Early AD 68
Jerusalem Destroyed Summer, AD 70
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