The book of Acts is the first history of the Christian church. It traces Christianity from its beginnings in Jerusalem, following Jesus’ resurrection, to the arrest of the Apostle Paul in Rome, the heart of the Empire. The author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote Acts.
The Genre of Acts and Its Significance
While Luke’s Gospel is a biography, Acts is written as a history. Like many ancient histories, Acts reflects a creative composition, utilizing a range of subgenres. History, like any other literary genre, is told from a particular perspective. Limited objectivity is especially apparent in ancient histories. Accordingly, we can assume that Acts reflects the concerns of its author. As modern readers, then, we should approach the book of Acts as another channel to Luke’s view of salvation history.
The Thematic Approach to Acts
This chapter utilizes the thematic method. When scholars approach texts thematically, they look for recurring ideas that can shed light on an author’s emphases. With Acts, we are particularly well positioned to use the thematic approach because we can trace the development of particular ideas from the Gospel through the history of the church.
From the Gospel to Acts: The Opening Transition
The beginning of Acts reveals many of the book’s key themes. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples; he informs them that they will receive the Holy Spirit and from Jerusalem they will spread the message to “the ends of the earth.” The end of the age, including Jesus’ return, will be delayed as they evangelize. Just as the Jews reject Jesus in the Gospel, so the Christian message is rejected by Jews in Acts. Some Jews, however, do convert, most importantly Saul, also known as Paul. It is through him that the Gospel is spread among Gentiles in many of the provinces of the Roman world. Luke goes to great lengths to explain why the gospel ceased being a message only to Jews. The cycle of Jewish rejection of the gospel and Gentile acceptance of it allows Luke to show how Gentiles came to be a part of the people of God. The author insists that Gentiles do not need to become Jews before becoming Christians, but he is equally adamant that the gospel is not contrary to Judaism.
Themes in the Speeches in Acts
Like most ancient histories, Acts includes a significant number of speeches. An examination of some of the different types of speeches in Acts reveals several Lukan themes. In speeches addressed to Christians, Luke emphasizes that the church represents the fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures. The church also stands in continuity with Jesus through the twelve apostles, who guide the missions and ensure a unified church. Evangelistic speeches highlight that Jesus’ death was a miscarriage of justice; it does not bring atonement but guilt, which encourages repentance (necessary for salvation). Paul’s apologetic speeches addressing Jews emphasize his continual allegiance to the religion of Judaism and his innocence before Roman authorities (both also apply to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel). For the author of Acts, faith in Jesus’ resurrection affirms, rather than rejects, Judaism; the church is the fulfillment of Judaism.
Conclusion: The Author and His Themes in Context
In Acts, Luke narrates the opposition Christian leaders received as they preached the gospel. It is possible that these narratives were intended to give direction to Luke’s readers who were also confronted with hostility. Luke attributes the delay of the end of the world to the necessity of spreading the gospel to the “ends of the earth.” Because the end is not imminent, moreover, Luke insists that his audience focus on the present, specifically on social issues. Finally, Luke’s emphasis on Jewish roots for a predominantly Gentile mission may also serve an apologetic function. In the ancient world, novelty was viewed with suspicion; by stressing the ties to Jewish tradition, the author establishes Christianity as ancient.