Here are some helps as you study the book of Acts:
The book of Acts completes the narrative portion of the New Testament, following on from the four gospels. The remainder of the New Testament is composed of various epistles and writings. I might have properly grouped Luke and Acts together, as they share the same author, making those books a two-volume history. But I will soon deal with the Gospel of Luke in a separate article in this series.
The book of Acts is also called the Acts of the Apostles, and rightly so, as it details the lives, activities, and mission of the apostles and their immediate followers. It extends from the time of the death of Christ to the arrest and imprisonment of the Apostle Paul. Given that it does not mention his death, it is assumed by many scholars that the book was written by Luke around 62 AD.
The story of the birth and spread of the early church is recounted here. It details important events such as the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the conversion of Saul, the Council at Jerusalem, and Paul’s missionary journeys.
We all should relate to and be sympathetic with the words of R. Kent Hughes as he introduces his series of expository sermons on the book:
One reason I love to study the book of Acts is its uniqueness. It is the sourcebook for the spread of early Christianity. Without it we would know little about the apostolic church except what could be gleaned from Paul’s epistles. It is the chronicle of the spreading flame of the Holy Spirit.
It is also a book with a splendid theme, tracing the work of the Holy Spirit through the birth, infancy, and adolescence of the church. Its title could well be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” or “The Acts of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit Working through the Church.” Acts forms the perfect counterpart and contrast to the Gospels. In the Gospels the Son of Man offered his life; in the Acts the Son of God offered his power. In the Gospels we see the original seeds of Christianity; in Acts we see the continual growth of the church. The Gospels tell us of Christ crucified and risen; Acts speaks of Christ ascended and exalted. The Gospels model the Christian life as lived by the perfect Man; Acts models it as lived out by imperfect men.
Many more commentators could be appealed to here, but let me look at three main topics in Acts as discussed by Steve Walton. Not only is he working on a new commentary on Acts (see below), but he has contributed a helpful piece on Acts in the very useful 2-volume set, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament and Theological Interpretation of the New Testament (Baker, 2005, 2008).
Each book of the Bible is covered in this set edited by Kevin Vanhoozer, and I have often used chapters from the two volumes in this series of Bible study helps. So here I draw upon Walton in the NT volume. He says this about the “Message of Acts”:
In Acts, God is purposeful. Luke presents the church’s growth as fulfilling Scripture, with a particular stress on Isaiah and the Psalms….
Acts portrays God as a missionary God, seeking first Jewish people to come to know him through Jesus the Messiah, and then drawing in Gentiles too, carrying out the program of 1:8….
As the book progresses, God pushes the believing community out among the Gentiles. At crucial points, God intervenes to direct the believers….
God acts and calls people through a number of agents: angels (10:3-6), the Spirit (8:29), people (Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul are particularly prominent), and his word….
The believing community is presented warts and all, to the extent that believers can be a barrier, or at least resistant, to the new moves God is making.
So where does Jesus fit into this development? While he is not entirely absent from the narrative (e.g., 9:34), in Acts we generally hear about Jesus rather than encounter him acting personally. Jesus is the center of the apostolic preaching, especially his resurrection….
In Acts, God is encountered personally most frequently by the Holy Spirit—when people turn to God, they receive the Spirit….
Walton also discusses “Acts in the Biblical Canon.” He writes:
Acts is properly to be read as the continuation of Luke’s Gospel, and many seeds planted in the Gospel come to fruition in Acts. Thus, the hints of Gentile inclusion found in the infancy narratives (e.g., Luke 2:32) become a major theme in Acts. The new exodus motifs found in Luke, notably the use of Isa. 40-55 (e.g., Luke 3:4-6), are fully developed in the renewal and restoration of Israel in Acts, which now becomes a worldwide, ethnically inclusive community (note the echo of Isa. 49:6 in the key verses Acts 1:8; 13:47). The Lukan emphasis on the Spirit as the power of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:35; 3:16, 21-22; 4:1 [twice], 14, 18; 10:21; 11:13) leads to Jesus promising the Spirit’s power for the apostles’ ministry (Luke 12:12; 24:49; Acts 1:5), and to the Spirit’s coming to equip the believers for mission and ministry (Acts 2:1-4, 16-21, 38; etc.). To read Acts apart from Luke is to impoverish and badly skew one’s reading of Acts….
Lastly, he discusses the “Theological Significance of Acts.” Again, a few brief quotes from his discussion are worth presenting here:
A major issue in interpreting Acts is the extent to which it is prescriptive, saying how the church is always meant to be, or descriptive, telling us how the church was at this particular period….
First, Acts compels us to ask, and keep asking, what God is doing in our churches and our lives. At times the voice of God prevents believers from going the wrong way (e.g., 16:6-8), and at other times the divine call seems surprising (e.g., 8:26)….
Second, Acts encourages an expectation that God will act and speak in order to bring people to himself. The emphasis on the expansion of the believing community “to the ends of the earth” (1:8) shows this theme on a large scale, and numerous individual incidents show God reaching out to people….
Third, the evangelistic speeches in Acts focus on the resurrection of Jesus, suggesting a corrective to today’s evangelistic message and preaching. The speeches highlight the fact and implications of the resurrection of Jesus.
As a concluding devotional thought, let me mention something about what I referred to above – that Luke-Acts can be seen as one, long narrative account. In Acts 1:1 we read these words: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”
The implication of course is that the book of Acts is a continuation of what Jesus did and taught. But even a not very alert reader will notice that Jesus disappears from the scene as early as Acts 1:11. So where is the continuation? The point is, his disciples – and by extension, we Christians today – continue the work of Christ. We continue to share what he taught and what he did. A sobering but incredible thought!
A brief outline of the book runs as follows:
1:1-7:60 – The early spread of the church in Jerusalem
8:1-9:31 – The church spreads to Samaria
9:32-12:25 – The church spreads to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch
13:1-15:35 – The extension of the church from Antioch to Galatia
15:36 -21:16 – The extension of the church to Macedonia
21:17-28:31 – The years of Paul’s imprisonment
Devotional, expository commentaries
Boice, James Montgomery, Acts (Baker, 1997)
Hughes, R. Kent, Acts (PTW, 1996)
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Authentic Christianity: Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, 6 vols. (Banner of Truth, 1999-2006)
Sproul, R. C., Acts (Crossway, 2010)
Scholarly, academic commentaries
Bock, Darrell, Acts (BECNT, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., Acts (NICNT, 1954)
Bruce, F. F., The Acts of the Apostles (Greek Text) (Tyndale Press, 1951)
Blaiklock, E. M., The Acts of the Apostles (TNTC, 1959)
Keener, Craig, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. (Baker, 2012-2015)
Larkin, William, Acts (IVPNTC, 1995)
Longenecker, Richard, Acts (EBC, 1981)
Marshall, I. Howard, Acts (TNTC, 1980)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, Acts (BTCB, 2006)
Peterson, David, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC, 2009)
Polhill, John, Acts (NAC, 1992)
Schnabel, Eckhard, Acts (ZECNT, 2012)
Stott, John, The Message of Acts (BST, 1990)
Wall, Robert, The Acts of the Apostles (NIB, 2002)
Witherington, Ben, The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1997)
Wright, N. T., Acts for Everyone, 2 vols. (WJK, 2008)
Other studies in Acts
Bock, Darrell, A Theology of Luke and Acts. Zondervan, 2012.
Neyrey, Jerome, ed., The Social World of Luke-Acts. Hendrickson, 1991.
Pao, David, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus. Baker, 2002.
Thompson, Alan, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan. IVP, 2011.
See also the five-volume set The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting released by Eerdmans in the 1990s.
As is so often the case, with so many works on offer here, some readers might be pleading that I narrow things down somewhat. So let me offer a few highlights: Bock, Peterson, and Schnabel may be the ones to run with. Of course if you have the time, money and book shelf space, you might try devouring the 4,500 pages of Keener’s massive 4-volume set as well.
And be aware of some forthcoming commentaries on Acts that will be eagerly anticipated. They include Stanley Porter (NIGTC); Joel Green (NICNT); Steve Walton (WBC); and Richard Bauckham (THNTC).
Happy reading and happy study.
(For Australian readers, many of these titles can be found at Koorong: www.koorong.com/ )