While we have four versions of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ (the four Gospels), we have only one account of the birth and growth of the early church. That makes Acts—our one story of the spread of Christianity across the New Testament world—unique and indispensable! Traditionally this book that bridges the gap between the Gospels and the New Testament letters has been known as the “Acts of the Apostles.” Since Luke focuses on Peter and Paul and lesser-known characters like Stephen and Philip much more than the original twelve disciples/ apostles, a more precise title might be “The Continuing Acts of Jesus by his Spirit through the Apostles and Other Early Christian Leaders.” But that’s far too long, and it’s easy to see why most people prefer the name “Acts” (i.e., deeds or actions). The book of Acts shows us and tells us how God worked through the early church to change the world.
In Acts we read about the Holy Spirit’s coming to empower believers, about Peter’s Pentecostal sermon where thousands are saved, about signs and wonders, and about a vibrant Christian community. We read of Stephen’s dying for his faith, of Philip’s carrying the gospel to the Samaritans, and of Paul’s famous missionary journeys, leading him eventually to Rome. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to accomplish salvation for the entire world. In Acts the good news of that salvation goes forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. As a record of how the gospel marched triumphantly from Jerusalem to Rome, Acts is packed with spiritual power and adventure. Who wouldn’t want to read Acts?
Along with the adventure, Acts carries its own set of interpretive challenges. How does Acts relate to the gospel of Luke (the two books were written by the same person)? Is Acts merely a record of what happened (history), or does it also promote the Christian belief about God (theology)? Why did Luke write Acts, and how does its message relate to us? How did Luke organize Acts? And most important, how do we grasp the message of Acts?
This last question is particularly timely because of our tendency to idealize the early church, thinking of it as bigger than life. We forget that the early church included people with sins, weaknesses, and problems—people just like us. We tend to look to Acts as the blueprint for the church of all ages. This raises the central interpretive question related to grasping the message of Acts: Should we take Acts as normative, so that the church in every age should imitate the experiences and practices of the early church? Or should we read Acts as merely descriptive of what was valuable and inspiring in the early church, but not necessarily binding on us today? In this unit we will meet these interpretive questions head-on and offer you insight into reading one of the greatest real-life adventure stories of all time.