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Why Did Luke Write Acts?

Luke states his purpose for Luke-Acts in the first few verses of his gospel. Both volumes are addressed to the “most excellent Theophilus,” likely a recent convert to Christianity of high social standing and perhaps the person who gave Luke the money to publish these two books. Luke writes his account “so that you [Theophilus] may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Presumably Theophilus has received instruction (katçcheô, meaning “to teach”) that was not entirely adequate. Luke wants to encourage and establish Theophilus and others like him more fully in their new faith.

Perhaps we should think of Acts as a kind of comprehensive discipleship manual, designed to reinforce the Christian faith for new believers. Luke does this by showing these new believers that what God promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus, he now continues to work out. In short, the Holy Spirit empowers the church (both Jewish and Gentile believers) to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world (Acts 1:8).

Spirit → Church → Gospel → World →

This is biblical history at its finest, painted in broad strokes to assure Christians that they are part of God’s grand plan. We can hear Luke saying to believers: “You’re on the right track. You’re truly part of what God is doing. Don’t give up!” Luke’s overarching purpose surfaces in a number of subpurposes or themes. Let’s look briefly at a few of them.

Unit 11, Question 2: In what way can Acts be understood as a discipleship manual?

1. The Holy Spirit

The whole operation starts with the Spirit of God. In Acts 1 Jesus promises that the Father will send the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost (Acts 2) the Spirit descends to indwell and empower the disciples of Jesus. The rest of the book is a record of the acts or deeds of the Spirit through the church. The Spirit empowers believers for witness (4:8, 31), guides them (8:29, 39; 10:19; 16:6–7; 20:22), breaks down barriers (10:44–46), sets believers apart for mission (13:2), and so on. What Jesus began to do (the gospel), he continues to do through his Spirit.

2. God’s Sovereignty

Closely related to the Spirit’s role in guiding the church is the theme of God’s sovereignty. When you read Acts, you are left with the strong sense that God is in control. The Old Testament Scriptures are fulfilled as God works out his plan (e.g., Acts 1:16; 2:16–21, 25–28, 34–35; 4:24–25; 13:32–37, 47). God’s will has been accomplished through Jesus (2:23–24) and his purpose is being accomplished through his people. He overrules imprisonment (4:23–31), human travel plans (16:6–10), the powerful Jewish Sanhedrin (23:11), and even violent storms at sea (27:13–44) to advance his cause. The apostles perform signs and wonders by the power of God. But, as John Stott reminds us, God’s sovereign work is for the sake of the gospel message, not always for the comfort and convenience of its messengers: “So by God’s providence Paul reached Rome safe and sound. But he arrived as a prisoner! Christ’s promise that he would testify in Rome had not included that information.”[1]

3. The Church

The Spirit works chiefly through the church (the people of God) to accomplish his will. As the following summaries illustrate, the Spirit creates a healthy, thriving community where people worship God, care for each other, grow spiritually, and join in the mission:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)

32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32–35)

4. Prayer

As in the gospel of Luke, prayer is a major theme in Acts. The early Christians were marked as people of prayer, and you will find them praying in almost every chapter of Acts. The church is born out of a prayer meeting (1:14). They pray when facing opposition and danger (4:24; 12:5; 16:25; 18:9, 10). They pray for God’s guidance (1:24; 9:11; 22:17–18). They pray for each other’s spiritual needs (8:15; 19:6). They minister to the sick and hopeless through prayer (9:40; 16:16; 28:8). They pray when they commission persons for special service (6:6; 13:3; 14:23). They pray when saying goodbye (20:36; 21:5). They pray when facing death (7:59, 60). Prayer is central to the life of the early church.

5. Suffering

As we read about wonderful things that God is doing in Acts, we sometimes lose sight of the price paid by the early Christians. They suffer imprisonment, beatings, and rejection; they face angry mobs, violent storms, persecution, and even death (e.g., 5:41; 7:59–60; 9:15–16; 12:4; 14:22; 16:22–23; 20:23–24; 21:30–33; 27:13–44). Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders are typical of the early Christian belief that suffering was the rule rather than the exception:

23I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:23–24)

In spite of such hardships, the gospel advances.

6. Gentiles

In Acts the gospel comes first to the Jews, but it spreads quickly “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:9)—to Gentile country. (A Gentile is anyone who is not an ethnic Jew.) The true Israel of God is made up of Jews and Gentiles who have accepted Jesus the Messiah. In his Pentecostal sermon Peter quotes the prophet Joel, who says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. . . . And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:17b, 21, italics added). Peter later realizes that God is serious about a mission that includes Gentiles. After seeing the Spirit come on the Samaritans (8:14–17) and the Gentiles (10:1–48), he confesses: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34–35). The narrative movement in Acts is from Jerusalem to Rome, from Peter to Paul, from Jew only to Jew and Gentile.

7. Witness

The apostles focus their witness on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (e.g., 1:8, 22; 2:32–36; 4:2, 20, 33; 5:20, 32, 42; 10:39–41). Acts 3:15 is typical: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” The empowering of the Spirit for witness does not stop with the apostles. Stephen is faithful in his witness (martys) to the very end (6:8–8:1; 22:20). Philip preaches “the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12, 35, 40). Paul is charged by the risen Lord to carry the gospel to the Gentiles (9:15), and his witness occupies the second half of the story. Luke’s message in Acts is clear: to be a follower of Jesus Christ means to be a faithful witness.

Unit 11, Question 3: How can an understanding of the following themes help us to understand and apply the text of Acts today?

  1. The Holy Spirit
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. The church
  4. Prayer
  5. Suffering
  6. Gentiles
  7. Witness

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