The book of Acts is a unique but crucial book in the canon of the New Testament. Unlike the gospels, all of which focus on the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as upon His death, burial, and resurrection, Acts focuses upon what came after, when the Lord had ascended back into heaven. The Lord Jesus left His disciples with many commands to carry out, and Acts tells us how they began to accomplish them.
The author of this book, it cannot be doubted, was Luke, the physician, friend, and co-worker of Paul the apostle. His words in Acts 1:1, speaking of the “former account” which he had made, and the dedication of this book to “Theophilus,” both point us back to Luke 1:3, where the same author speaks of his determination to write an account to Theophilus. Luke was not a disciple during the time of Christ, and only joined Paul partway through his ministry. Thus, he was not an eyewitness to many of the things he recorded in the book of Acts, at least, not until the later chapters. Yet Luke’s words in his gospel assure us that he had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first.” Since this knowledge certainly did not come from him witnessing with his own eyes these events, we can be assured that what he means is that the book of Luke was given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And this being true of his gospel, the same, we can be sure, was the case with the book of Acts, which was written as a companion book to the gospel of Luke. In Acts, Luke continues his account, and does so by Divine inspiration.
Many teach that Luke was the only Gentile author of a book of the Bible. Although we could point to other Gentile authors, like Nebuchadnezzar writing Daniel 4 (see Daniel 4:1,) still if Luke was indeed a Gentile, this would be the only book of Scripture we know of to be written completely by a non-Jewish author. Even Daniel 4 was Nebuchadnezzar writing through Daniel. Thus, the claim that Luke was a Gentile author seems questionable. Why would God have made this one exception?
The idea that Luke was a Gentile is based on two pieces of evidence. The first is that the name “Luke” is probably a Latin name, and not a Hebrew name. However, this does not prove anything. Philip, one of the Lord’s twelve disciples, also had a Gentile name, as did all seven of the “deacons” or servants of Acts 6:5, though the fact that these were all of Israelite ancestry cannot be argued. Having a Gentile name was no proof of Gentile ancestry. My own name, “Nathan,” is of Hebrew origin, yet it in no way “proves” that I am a Jew.
The second piece of evidence pointing to Luke being a Gentile is that he was not circumcised. We learn this from Colossians 4. There, in listing his fellow-workers, Paul mentions Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus called Justus, and then proclaims, in Colossians 4:11b, “These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision.” After this, he lists more of his fellow workers, and we would assume that these, then, are NOT of the circumcision. In Colossians 4:14, one of those listed is “Luke the beloved physician.” This, many would argue, points to the fact that Luke must have been a Gentile. Yet does this necessarily follow? I do not believe that every Jew was circumcised. Particularly outside the land, many ancestral Israelites gave up on the practice of the religion of their fathers. Having turned their backs on the culture of their people, most of these would have neglected the circumcision of their male infants. Luke, rather than being a Gentile, could have just as easily been one of these.
It seems to me that the protestations of many that Luke must have been a Gentile are based more on wishful thinking than on any actual facts in the case. The best evidence, I believe, for thinking that Luke was an uncircumcised Jew, not a Gentile, is the fact I mentioned above, that every other book of Scripture was written by or through one who was of Israelite origin. Luke would have been quite an exception, if indeed he was a Gentile. The assertion that Gentiles were taking over in the Acts period and the Jews were being relegated to the background must be called into serious question if the author of every one of the books of the New Testament was in fact a Jew that believed. Insisting that Luke was a Gentile lets those who see Gentiles on every page of the New Testament off the hook from explaining this persistent fact of the universal (human) authorship of the books of the Bible by Israelite authors, even after the supposed switch from Jews to Gentiles had taken place. Yet seeking to support an idea is not sufficient evidence ever for a conclusion, and there is no solid evidence to support the idea that Luke was not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
Though many would like to see an exception to the universal authorship of the New Testament by Jews because of their desire to exalt the place of Gentiles in the New Testament and minimize that of the Jews, yet the fact remains that universally apart from Luke, every other author of the remaining twenty-five books of the New Testament was an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the light of this, what would we assume about the one author we cannot confirm was a Jew? Those who have an axe to grind might jump on the lack of solid evidence, and eagerly assert that this means that Luke was a Gentile. Yet I believe we should do better if we would rather demand solid evidence before admitting that the one author we could not confirm to be an Israelite was in fact a Gentile. The rule is so strongly that the authors of Scripture are Jews, that I believe we would be far more honest to admit that Luke was more likely an uncircumcised Jew who returned to the faith of his fathers by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ than we would be suggesting that this man must have been a Gentile believer.
Luke’s purpose in writing, to continue the record he began in his gospel, is clear. Yet what was the Holy Spirit’s purpose in writing? This is a question that every reader of this book must ask himself, and the answer to this question will strongly affect how we read the book, and what truth we believe we can learn from it.
I believe, from my own studies, that there are more bad doctrines, more erroneous practices, and more mistaken beliefs taken from the book of Acts than from probably any other book in Scripture. If we would include those epistles that were written during the time of which Acts gives the history, we would definitely be able to identify misunderstanding of these as the primary source of false doctrine. I believe this all comes back to one basic and fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of the book of Acts, and that is that it records the beginning and initial growth of the Christian “church” of today. This idea, commonly held by the vast majority of believers and religious Christians alike, is based on the translation of the Greek word ekklesia by our English word “church,” as well as by traditional thought and doctrine. We will examine this belief as we study throughout the book of Acts, and determine the rightness or wrongness of this thought and doctrine as we proceed through the book. We will also examine this word ekklesia, what it means, and what it signifies as the Holy Spirit uses it throughout the word of God. It is clear that our understanding of this one word will determine the truth or error of our interpretation of this entire, inspired book.
A second idea so commonly held that most would not dare to question it but that I believe a serious study of the book of Acts must call into question is that we today are a continuation of what was happening in the book of Acts and in the time of which it is the history. Many have noticed the oddly abrupt ending of the book of Acts, and have wondered at it. I will discuss this when we arrive at the end of the book. Yet the idea of some has been that this is to teach us that we are the continuation of the book, and that really the Acts of the Apostles continue with us today. This is an idea that holds no basis in an actual study of this book, or in a realistic look at the world of Christendom today and the work that goes on in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet it is an idea that is prevalent, so much so that the cry that we all should “get back to the book of Acts” seems to be the common chant of many in the believing world today.
Now of those who attempt to “get back to Acts,” no clear consensus on how this is to be done has been reached. Some attempt to do so by resurrecting the miracles and gifts that run so prevalently from beginning to end of the book. Others try by declaring their leaders as apostles or prophets like unto the twelve and Paul. Others attempt this by choosing to gather in homes and by attempting to pattern their meetings after what we can gather those of believers may have been like in the time of Acts. But whatever the strategy or whatever the beliefs of these various groups, one fact remains true of them all. And that is that they are so busy trying to figure out how they could get back to the way things were in Acts, that they never stop to ask themselves whether or not they should get back to the way things were then. Is this really what God wants us to do? Is Acts really a pattern for the way that the believer’s life and walk should look today? These are questions that seldom are examined, and yet I believe the answers to them will show that Acts is not what many believe it to be, and a look at those who have tried to resurrect its peculiar situation and characteristics will show that all these attempts ultimately end coming up short, if not in utter disaster.
A host of what I believe are false ideas find their justification in the minds of those who hold with them in the words, actions, and teachings of the book of Acts. Among these are the practice of many religious rituals, not the least of which is the water baptism of Christians, whether by sprinkling or immersion, and whether upon babies or adults. Another is the belief in the so-called “charismatic” gifts today, including things like speaking in tongues, words of prophecy, and the like. Another is the idea of the authoritative position of the “church,” and the positioning by God of its leaders over the people. The idea that the “church” has the right to act on God’s behalf towards the people of God is drawn out of incidents recorded in the book of Acts. Finally, a whole host of expectations of God are based upon things written in the book of Acts. Men expect miraculous signs, Divine helps, supernatural interventions, and Spiritual judgments to pass upon men from what they read in the book of Acts. Yet those who wait upon Heaven to provide these things find themselves ultimately disappointed.
I believe that all these errors are based upon a misunderstanding regarding the purpose for which the book of Acts was written. There can be little doubt but that the common idea is that the purpose of the book of Acts was to record for us the early history of the church, and to show us how the situation we live in today first came into being. Those who hold this view see churches being planted throughout the book of Acts, church boards and officers being set up, church ministers or pastors being appointed, church rules being established, church meetings conducted, and a host of other things that they claim are a precedent for things the way they are done in churches today. All this is done to justify from the Word of God the religion and practices of the organization and religion that men call “Christianity.” Yet is this really what we see in the book of Acts?
I believe that nothing is further from the truth than this conception of the book of Acts. However the bloated organization and largely apostate religion we call “Christianity” today came into being, it was not through the actions and activities of God’s apostles recorded for us in Acts. Men seek to use this book to justify what they already believe and practice. Yet it is clear to the honest observer who is willing to follow out all the facts that Christianity only gets its theology or doctrine of God from the Bible, and even that in an often muddled form. The practice of Christendom stems much from ancient Mithraism, and little from anything found in the Word of God. At any rate, the writing of Acts was in no way completed by God to justify the worldly rituals and activities of men as they are practiced all around us today.
So what was, in fact, the purpose of the book of Acts? Why was it that God had Luke put pen to paper to record the things laid out for us in this book? I believe that, first of all, this book was written to reveal to us the continuation and completion of the work the Lord Jesus began to do in His earthly ministry. Luke refers in Luke 1:1 to “all that Jesus began both to do and teach.” I believe that the apostles completed, in most spectacular form, that ministry. We have the record of their accomplishment of that work in the book of Acts.
Secondly, I believe that the record of the book of Acts serves to answer a great question put to the Lord Jesus in Acts 1:6. There, we read of the disciples,
6. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
According to the theology of most, the Lord should have answered this question immediately with something like, “Of course not! The kingdom was never a physical kingdom, but was always meant to be a spiritual kingdom in your hearts. Now, you will leave Israel behind altogether, and form a new religion called Christianity which will center around buildings called churches and which will involve many new rituals and religious acts.” Yet this is not at all how the Lord Jesus responded. Instead, the Lord Jesus, receiving this question, refused to answer it, but instead replied as we read in verses 7-8.
7. And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8. 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.”
So the Lord left it in the Father’s hands whether or not the government of Israel would at that time be restored to it. Of course, what the disciples referred to and what they were hoping for was the appearance of the government of God upon earth, which when it comes will restore Israel’s sovereignty and set them up as God’s leading nation upon earth. Contrary to the view of most, Christ really did leave the possibility open here that that sovereignty would have been restored at that time. Of course, looking back on it now nearly two thousand years later, we can conclude with certainty that Israel’s government was not restored at that time. Yet how did this come about? Why was the government not restored, and what took place instead? These questions will be answered for us by our study of the book of Acts.
Thirdly, as its name implies, the book of Acts sets forth the acts, that is, the actions of the apostles. Quite simply, it records for us what the apostles did. Romans 10:15 declares,
15. And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!”
The word “sent” here in Greek is the verb form of the word “apostle.” This book records the proclaiming and the activities of those whom God sent. As such, I believe that not only their words, but also their actions were commissioned by God. It was not just the words of the apostles that were inspired, although they certainly were in truth. It was also the very things they did that were done under the direct control and direction of the Spirit of God. They not only spoke God’s words, but they also did God’s actions, so that Christ Himself would have done little differently had He Himself been on the scene and acting in their place in the time of Acts. Only, of course, He would have preached Himself, whereas the apostles preached on behalf of another: their Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, imagine what the Bible would look like if the book of Acts did not exist. If we jumped right from John to Romans, what a jarring transition it would be. We would not know who this man Paul is, why he was writing, or what his credentials were. We would have no idea as to what happened to all the disciples after Christ returned to heaven, and what the situations were from which they later wrote their various epistles. Moreover, we would ever have to remain in the dark as to what happened to the grand and glorious work that Christ began that caused it to disappear in so many respects, and what caused to appear instead the odd and dissimilar situation we find ourselves in today. Thus, the book of Acts finishes the picture, showing us the completion of Christ’s work in the past, and giving us hope for a yet-greater completion when all His work comes to fruition in the future when His kingdom comes to earth at last.
So I believe we have before us the true purposes for which God inspired this interesting book. I have only touched on these briefly in this introduction, but we will have ample opportunity to examine them in detail as we move through the text of the book of Acts. For now, let us thank God that we have this book for our learning, for in spite of the many errors in interpretation on the part of men everywhere that they derive from this book, we can still be assured that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a correct understanding of this book is possible, and that with its help we can complete our picture of the truth in order to learn “all the counsel of God.”