Acts: The Gospel Moves Out
The fifth book of the New Testament proves unique in numerous ways. First, it is the only intentional “sequel” in the canon. No other Gospel besides Luke’s proceeds to narrate the events of the first generation of Christian history. And while various epistles spawned follow-up letters, to our knowledge no two letters were ever conceived as a unity from the outset. Thus one cannot fully understand the book of Acts without first studying the Gospel of Luke. As straightforward as this point may seem, it is often not realized because in the canonical process of grouping the four Gospels together, John’s has intruded and come between Luke’s first and second volumes.
Second, the contents of Acts remain unique. It is the only book to treat the period between Jesus’ crucifixion (probably in a.d. 30) and the end of Paul’s ministry (or at least nearly the end, sometime in the 60s). It has often been observed that the traditional title ascribed to the book, “The Acts of the Apostles,” is somewhat misleading because the only one of the original Twelve who plays a prominent role in this work is Peter. The most highlighted human character is Paul, who thought of himself as an apostle but was not one of the Twelve. Beyond that, we read a little about John, the other ten are listed, but the remaining characters are not apostles at all. Perhaps, then, we should think of the work as “The Acts of Peter and Paul,” or better “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since Luke clearly sees the work of the early church as “Spirit-directed.” Yet whatever the title, this is the only existing work inside or outside the canon of Scripture to describe this first generation of church history. Thus all appeals to the “New Testament church” as a model for Christian living in any other time and place sooner or later wind up scrutinizing Acts.
Third, this volume offers unique problems in application. Unlike the epistles, it gives few formal commands. Even the four Gospels, with their emphasis on Jesus’ ethical instruction, have more explicitly didactic material than Acts. Most of its contents simply present various vignettes involving the characters Luke chooses to highlight. Subsequent readers frequently find themselves asking, “What is normative?” “What is a positive example to emulate or a negative one to avoid?” Or, “Are certain events included for other reasons—perhaps just because they happened and remained important for explaining developments in the fledgling church?” One fundamental hermeneutical axiom in answering these questions is to distinguish consistent patterns of behavior from multiple contexts within the book (and within the rest of the New Testament more generally) and patterns that vary from one context to the next. Luke, as narrator, can also give indirect clues by noting God’s blessing as the result of some activity—a further way of indicating its exemplary nature.
Finally, the book of Acts appears in a unique position in the progress of God’s revelation to humanity. The first Christian generation clearly formed a transitional period from the age of law to the era of the gospel. No one woke up the day after Pentecost to hear a Jerusalem town crier announcing the end of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new! The differences that Jesus made through his life, death, and resurrection only gradually dawned on his followers. Parallel to this development was the transformation of Jesus’ first group of disciples from an exclusively Jewish sect centered in Jerusalem to what one generation later had become a predominantly Gentile movement scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Thus while many incidents in Acts reflect Christians, especially Jewish ones, still observing the law, Luke’s own theological emphasis lies in highlighting how Christianity successively broke free from the law. It is this freedom (without using it as a license for sin) that remains normative after the end of this period of transition.
Comparing the prefaces of Luke and Acts, along with the style of the two narratives overall, has convinced virtually all scholars that the author of these two volumes must be the same person. But who is he? Strictly speaking, Acts, like the four Gospels, is anonymous. As best we can tell, the titles to the books did not appear in the original documents and were probably first added in the second century as the various books of the New Testament began to be gathered together. The testimony of the ancient church fathers, however, unanimously affirmed that Luke, whom Paul calls his “beloved physician” (Col. 4:14 KJV), was the author, a man who appears to have been a Gentile, since Paul refers to him only after mentioning “the only Jews among my fellow workers” who have remained with him (v. 11). Church tradition also accounts for those sections of Acts in which the author changes from third-person narrative to first-person plural (describing what “we” did) as due to Luke’s presence with Paul on those occasions (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16). In modern times, however, scholars have proposed at least two other options. First, this “we material” could reflect the diary, memoirs, or oral recollection of an eyewitness and companion of Paul, which was consulted by someone else while writing the entire Acts: The Gospel Moves Out book. Alternately, some think this is an entirely artificial literary device based on allegedly similar practices, particularly in narrating travel accounts, especially by sea, of various characters in Greco-Roman stories, even when the author had no link to any participants in these adventures.
In the late nineteenth century, William Hobart argued that distinctively medical vocabulary appeared throughout Luke-Acts, corroborating the tradition that a physician wrote these works. But in the early twentieth century, Henry Cadbury demonstrated that this vocabulary appeared just as frequently in nonmedical works, demonstrating the inadequacy of Hobart’s argument. In more recent times, however, Loveday Alexander has shown that the closest parallels to the prefaces of Luke and Acts are found in Greco-Roman scientific treatises. While this does not prove that Luke was a “scientist,” or more specifically a physician, it is at least consistent with the early church tradition.
With the rise of modern biblical criticism, particularly in the nineteenth century, many followed the influential philosophy of Ferdinand Christian Baur, who built on Georg W. F. Hegel’s dialectic view of history, in which a movement (thesis) was eventually opposed (antithesis) until a compromise between the two was achieved (synthesis). Baur believed that “Luke” mediated between the extreme Jewish Christianity of Peter and James and the extreme Gentile Christianity of Paul, creating a very late, mid-second-century synthesis. If the two works were this late, then of course no actual travel companion of Paul could have penned them. Today this approach has been all but abandoned.
Contemporary skepticism concerning Lukan authorship has focused far more on the apparent theological contradictions between Acts and the undisputed letters of Paul to argue that no close follower of Paul could have been the author of Acts. The classic exposition of this claim appears in a short article by Philipp Vielhauer, who pointed out four major differences: (1) Acts allows for a “natural theology” in which humans by general revelation may come to find God (esp. Acts 17:16-31), whereas Paul has an altogether negative view of the possibility of salvation apart from explicit faith in Christ (e.g., Rom. 1:18-32). (2) Paul’s attitude to obeying the law is more positive in Acts, as compared especially with his tirade against those who would impose the law on Christians in his letter to the Galatians. (3) Paul’s Christology in Acts, like that of other early Christian preachers, centers on the resurrection, whereas in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul refers to the crucifixion as the exclusive heart of his gospel. (4) Finally, the eschatology of Luke appears to be “delayed,” that is, the author recognizes a fair amount of time may elapse until Christ returns, whereas the Paul of the epistles still holds out a lively hope for an imminent parousia.
There are valid observations in these summaries of key contrasts between Acts and the epistles, but they can be easily overdrawn. (1) Romans 1:19-20 agrees with Paul in Athens (Acts 17) that all humanity should recognize from the nature of creation that a creator exists. (2) Acts 13:39 makes clear, even in Acts, that Paul does not believe the law can save anyone, while 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 emphasizes Paul’s willingness to put himself under the Law for the sake of winning his Jewish contemporaries. (3) Neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection represents Christ’s entire salvific work, as Paul himself observes by stressing the necessity of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. (4) Finally, a closer study of both Acts and the letters of Paul demonstrates strands of a lively expectation of Christ’s near return, coupled with the possibility that it may in fact not happen for some time (cf., e.g., Luke 17:20-37; Acts 13:40-41, 47; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:10).
David Wenham thus rightly concludes that the differences between Acts and the epistles probably prove that Paul himself did not write Acts (though, of course, no one has ever claimed that)! But the differences do not demonstrate that an associate of his, himself theologically trained in the early Christian faith with his own emphases writing to a specific audience with particular needs, could not have authored this work. Moreover, no convincing reason has ever been given for the early church to have uniformly latched on to such an otherwise obscure person as Luke and claimed him as author of either the Gospel or Acts if he were not the true writer of these works.
As noted above, it was popular in the mid-nineteenth century to date Acts to the early or even mid-100s. This late date allowed scholars to dismiss fairly easily the reliability of Luke’s narrative as a tendentious presentation, concealing the serious differences that divided the first Christian generation. Petrine and Pauline Christianity were seen as profoundly different trajectories in the first century, with Luke’s compromise only a much later development. Galatians 2:11-15, rather than Acts 15, seemed to reflect these early tensions better.
Today, however, a sizable majority of scholars dates Acts to sometime after a.d. 70 and before the mid-90s. The decade of the 80s proves most popular and could almost be spoken of as the consensus date among more liberal commentators. Later dates are rejected because by then Paul’s letters were becoming widely known, so that the silence of Acts about them would be inexplicable. Because Acts follows the Gospel of Luke and many date Luke to a time after the fall of Jerusalem (particularly on the basis of Jesus’ alleged “after the fact prophecy” in Luke 21:20), then Acts also would have to postdate 70. The supposed theological contradictions associated with Vielhauer (see above) likewise lead scholars to assume that some time has elapsed since the epistles were written in the 50s and 60s for further development in thought to have occurred.
On the other hand, most conservatives still date Acts to the period between approximately a.d. 62 and 64. The abrupt end of the book, with Paul awaiting the results of his appeal to Caesar in Rome, has suggested to many that Luke wrote almost immediately after these last events occurred. Given that Acts 21-28 has been narrating Paul’s arrest, his various hearings and his imprisonments in considerable detail, all building toward his appeal to the emperor, it is hard to understand why Luke would not have recorded the outcome of that appeal if he had written at a late enough date to have known it. The two-year period of house arrest in Rome, with which the book of Acts ends, should probably be dated to 60-62 since Festus acceded to power in 59 and Paul was shipped to Rome that fall. If we allow some time for Luke to pen his Gospel, then we arrive at the date suggested above. What is more, if early church tradition is accurate that Paul was in fact freed as the result of this appeal (only to be arrested and martyred again later in the decade), this almost certainly must have occurred before Nero began persecuting Christians in 64 (see below, p. 77). As we discussed in our earlier volume, Luke 21:20 does not have to be seen as writing the events of history in the guise of prophecy after the fact. But if Luke 21:20 reflects a genuine prediction on Jesus’ part, then it does not help us determine the date of Luke’s writing one way or the other.
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the debate is not exclusively between conservatives opting for a pre-70 date and liberals preferring a post-70 date. Several prominent evangelical scholars opt for the later date, assuming that Luke meant to end his account with the gospel reaching Rome. This was the heart of the empire from which it could truly go out to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) and may well have formed in Luke’s mind a fitting climax, even if modern sensibilities want to know the outcome of Paul’s appeal. The possible chiastic structure of Luke’s two-volume work could also support this understanding. Beginning by setting God’s plan of salvation in Jesus in the context of Roman history at the outset of the Gospel, Luke closes the Acts with the fulfillment of that plan in Rome. In a chiastic structure, the climax appears in fact at the center of the document, in this case the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. There lies Luke’s most crucial theological datum, and less urgency appears for the end of the work to be as climactic. Conversely, the wellknown liberal English bishop in the 1970s, John Robinson, dated Acts (as he did all of the New Testament documents) prior to a.d. 70 for a variety of reasons, including his conviction that Luke 21:20 was too vague to be a description of the Roman sack of Jerusalem ex post facto.
Both the Gospels themselves and early church tradition typically give us the least information about the introductory topic of the audience to which each of the Gospels and Acts was addressed. In the opening verse of both of his works, Luke refers to Theophilus, a name that means “lover of God” and that some have taken as a generic reference to Christians. Most, however, recognize this was a proper name in the ancient Greek-speaking world and probably refers to Luke’s patron for his writing project, given the time and cost involved in researching and dictating to a scribe an enterprise as ambitious as this one. Because of the preface to the Gospel (Luke 1:1-4), it would appear that Theophilus was either a new Christian or what we would call a “seeker,” whom Luke wishes to instruct further in matters of the faith so that he could believe them with greater assurance. But the early church regularly understood all of the Gospels to be written first of all for entire Christian communities and then quickly to be circulated for the benefit of the church at large. Speculation concerning the location of Luke’s congregation has ranged from Antioch, to Ephesus, to Philippi, with little way of being certain of any identification. Because of his interest in the theme of material possessions and his portrayal in Acts of a number of comparatively wealthy early believers, it is also plausibly suggested that he may have been writing to a slightly more well-to-do Christian community somewhere in the predominantly Gentile and Greek-speaking eastern half of the empire. But beyond that we can say little with confidence.
At least three main purposes dominate Acts, perhaps to an even greater extent than they did Luke’s Gospel. The first is clearly historical. By being the only Gospel writer to pen a sequel, Luke obviously wanted to preserve a selective record of important events in the life of the first Christian generation. Despite a handful of apparent contradictions, which will be dealt with in the commentary section, countless names, places, customs, dates, and other details appear in the book of Acts, which can be corroborated by reference to non-Christian sources, and an even greater number can be harmoniously meshed with data from the epistles to form a plausible, detailed chronology of this roughly thirty-year period. A classic example involves the precise terms Luke uses for the political rulers in various cities and provinces, terms that include proconsul, magistrate, governor, chief, city clerk, tribune, procurator, and politarch. Some of these changed, even within the first century, yet in every case Luke gets the right term matched with the right community in the right period of time, hardly likely for someone unconcerned with careful historical reporting.
Indeed, the archaeological support for the Gospels pales in comparison with the amount of information available from all of the sites treated in Acts. To this day tourists travel throughout Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean, visiting modern cities as well as ancient ruins that fit well with a host of details in Luke’s second volume. Over a hundred years ago, the British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay set out to disprove the historicity of Acts but, after extensive work, particularly in Turkey, became convinced of the book’s reliability and converted to Christianity. His works still contain a wealth of valuable information, but they must be supplemented by Colin Hemer’s magisterial work The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, which contains the most extensive compendium of historical information by which one can evaluate the historicity of Acts. Hemer comes to a most favorable verdict indeed. Also crucial in understanding the historical background more generally to virtually every location, development, and custom treated in Acts is the five-volume collection edited by Bruce Winter entitled The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting.
However, even more fundamental than history to Luke’s purposes were his theological motives. Luke is narrating not secular history but salvation history (Germ. Heilsgeschichte)—God’s plan of redemption—as it unfolds during this key juncture between his old and new covenants. Thus God, especially through his Holy Spirit, appears as the primary agent who causes the events of the book to unfold. Particularly prominent is the geographical progress of the gospel as new churches are planted. Evangelistic efforts are highlighted, far more than the necessary subsequent work of “follow-up.” While the point has been exaggerated, it is fair to observe that Luke recognizes the end may not come immediately. Indeed, he may have been the first Christian (or at least the first Christian writer) to suspect that the church might continue long enough for such a theological history as his to prove valuable.
The definitive recent survey of the major theological themes in Acts is edited by David Peterson and I. Howard Marshall. A comprehensive evangelical compendium of studies of the theology of Acts, it includes contributions on topics such as the plan of God, Scripture and the realization of God’s purposes, salvation history and eschatology, God as Savior, the need for salvation, salvation and health, the role of the apostles, mission and witness, the progress of the word, opposition and persecution, the preaching of Peter, the speech of Stephen, the preaching and defense of Paul, the spirit of prophecy, the new people of God, the worship of the new community, the Christian and the Law of Moses, mission practice and theology under construction, Israel and the Gentile mission, reciprocity and ethics, along with other more general or methodological essays.
Not exactly a theme but still centrally related to Luke’s theological purpose is his apparent apologetic motive—defending the faith against critiques of various kinds. If it is not merely Theophilus whom Luke wants to know the truth of the gospel with certainty (Luke 1:4) but all believers in the communities that will receive his writing, then Luke may well recognize that competing apocryphal traditions about characters and events in the first Christian generation had begun to circulate, if not yet in writing then at least by word of mouth. Even more probable is that there were external charges by both Jews and Romans that merited a Christian response. In various ways both groups thought that Christians were breaking their laws. Luke takes pains throughout the Acts to show that this is not the case. Luke may also be defending the faith to Gentiles, inside or outside the church, who began to wonder why this originally Jewish sect was becoming predominantly Gentile, with most Jews rejecting Christianity within thirty years of its inception. Luke thus shows how it is the natural and necessary outgrowth of Judaism and how it is the unbelieving Jews, rather than Christian believers, who have deviated from God’s will.
A third purpose, while no doubt subordinate to historical and theological interests, appears to be literary. Luke writes many of his stories in an artistic and adventurous manner. Who can read the account of the storm and shipwreck of Paul, in chapter 27, without feeling the suspense at numerous points? Who cannot help but chuckle at those praying in John Mark’s home, in chapter 12, who refuse to believe that their prayers have been answered and Peter has been released from prison, even when the servant girl Rhoda tells them he is standing on their doorstep? Who cannot marvel at the great swings of superstition by the pagans in Lystra (chapter 14) or on the island of Malta (chapter 27), who at one moment think Paul is divine and at the next a condemned criminal? Luke repeats the stories that prove central for him, narrates speeches and episodes at greater length depending on their importance, uses the literary device of foreshadowing (e.g., with Saul’s role at the stoning of Stephen), and, in general, seems to delight in recounting the works of God in his world with some aesthetic skill.
A particularly controversial aspect of Luke’s style of writing involves speeches or sermons attributed to various individuals. Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, has often been quoted for explaining how he tried to acquire reliable sources when attributing speeches to his characters, but also conceded that he was not always able to do so. In such instances, he freely composed words he believed were likely to reflect the kind of thing most probably said on a given occasion (Peloponnesian War 1.22.1-2). Scholars of Acts have often cited one or the other of these two prongs of Thucydides’s comments as accounting for the speeches in Acts. Without a doubt the messages, like Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, were often drastically abbreviated. In keeping with completely acceptable historical and literary practice of the day, Luke would have felt free to put in his own words his understanding of the heart or essence of what a given speaker uttered. That Luke regularly relied on eyewitness reports, trustworthy oral tradition, and shorter written sources for composing his Gospel makes it prima facie probable that he did so for the book of Acts as well.
The Roman historian Livy, for example, somewhat different from Thucydides, averred that he consistently relied on sources that he inherited, while Polybius censured those who fabricated history. At the same time, there are occasional written or oral addresses in Acts where it seems unlikely any Christian could have had access to them. A classic example is the letter from the commander Claudius Lysias to the governor Felix in 23:26-30, and Luke may even give hints on such occasions that he is recording information less literally (see below, pp. 70-71). But overall we have no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the speeches of Acts.
“The ancient title Praxeis was a term designating a specific Greek literary form, a narrative account of the heroic deeds of famous historical or mythological figures.” Clearly Luke believes his characters to be historical. More specialized designations in recent studies devoted to the genre of Acts point out significant parallels between Luke’s second volume and the “short historical monograph,” “ancient intellectual biography,” “apologetic historiography,” and “biblical [i.e., Old Testament] history,” while also recognizing that, as in the Gospels, the end product of Acts is a unique mixture of genres. As the second volume in Luke’s two-part work, Acts raises expectations of closely resembling the Gospels in genre. Yet because the focus is no longer on the one, central character of Jesus but on several early Christian leaders and the emerging church that they guided, the label need not be identical. If the Gospels are best described as theological biographies, then perhaps Acts is best described as a theological history. And, as noted above, this does not exclude the fact that Luke writes in a very artistic and aesthetically pleasing fashion as well. Like the ancient historian Ephorus, Luke organizes a series of historical subjects along geographical lines, while rhetorically Luke blends elements of the style of the Septuagint with characteristics of Greco-Roman orators.
Of the many different outlines proposed for Acts, four take account of significant features in the text that must inform any proposal concerning the book’s structure. First, Acts 1:8 has regularly been seen as a programmatic statement of the book’s outline. Here Jesus prophesies that the disciples will be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, moving out to Judea and Samaria and ultimately reaching the ends of the earth. The three stages of chapters 1-7, 8-12, and 13-28 roughly correspond to this three-part outline. There is no question that topically Luke’s progression of thought shows the fledgling Christian movement spreading ever further afield from its origins in Israel.
Second, chapters 1-12 and 13-28 broadly correspond to each other in that the Christian mission still operates predominantly in Jewish circles with Peter as the main character in the first “half” of the volume while with Paul in the second “half” the ministry turns predominantly to the Gentile world. More intriguingly, numerous specific parallels appear between the ministries of Peter and Paul. Both preach sermons replete with scriptural quotations fulfilled in Jesus. Both experience miraculous releases from prison. Both heal the sick and raise the dead. Both push the boundaries of Judaism by increasingly promoting a law-free gospel. Both are concerned for the poor and organize collections to meet their needs, and so on. There are also parallels between the ministries of one or both of these men and Jesus himself, as depicted in Luke’s Gospel, a few of which include very precisely similar details (see e.g., below on Acts 9:32-43 or 19:21).
Third, and helping to divide the book into shorter segments, Luke records six summary statements, all describing succinctly how the word of God grew and spread, the church was blessed and multiplied in numbers, and similar sentiments. Each of these appears at the end of a “panel” of texts that is reasonably homogeneous, geographically speaking—6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:31. Combining the insights of all three of these approaches leads to an outline as follows:
In addition, it would appear that Luke and Acts together are arranged as an extended chiasm. The Gospel of Luke begins by setting the birth of Jesus in the context of world history and Roman rule. It proceeds to describe the adult Jesus exclusively in Galilee, moves him into Samaria and Judea through the large central section on travel narrative, and culminates with Jesus in Jerusalem. Only Luke among the Gospel writers limits the resurrection appearances to those that took place in Jerusalem and briefly refers to the ascension. Acts then summarizes the resurrection appearances and unpacks the ascension before describing the church moving out through Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and throughout the Gentile world, with the narrative ending with the preaching of the gospel by Paul extending as far as Rome. The only sections that do not immediately seem to match are Jesus in Galilee paired with the church in the Gentile world, until we remember that from Isaiah’s day onward Galilee was often known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (cf. Isa. 9:1; Matt. 4:15) and that it contained a sizable Gentile population in the first century as well.
Textual critics of the New Testament typically identify four major groupings of manuscripts that tend to follow recognizable patterns and are designated according to the parts of the Roman Empire in which they predominated. These four text types are the Alexandrian, the Caesarean, the Byzantine, and the Western. As its name suggests, the Western text particularly reflects manuscripts associated with Italy, including the earliest translations of the New Testament into Latin. The primary Greek uncial manuscript (from the earliest era in which writing was done entirely with capital letters) is Codex Bezae (often abbreviated simply as D and dating from the fifth century). While other parts of the New Testament remain less altered in Codex Bezae, the Western text of Acts is about 10 percent longer than the other text types on which our various modern language translations are based. It is possible that scribal notes originally written in the margins of texts were later copied into the narrative of Acts itself. What is particularly intriguing about the Western text in Acts is that a number of these insertions appear to give additional historical information, even if they do not reflect what Luke originally wrote. Perhaps the most famous of these appears in 19:9 (see below, p. 63). But an evangelical doctrine of Scripture relies only on what most likely appeared in the original copies of individual books, so we will not spend any additional time on this textual issue here.
As already noted, it is probable that Luke used a variety of sources in compiling the book of Acts. Among recent writers, Fitzmyer has as elaborate a set of proposals as any. Antioch is often assumed to be a place where a sizable amount of information could have been acquired, given its role as Paul’s “home base” and a meeting point for various other apostles. When Luke accompanied Paul to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, he would have had even greater opportunity to interview eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus and of the early Christian movement, as well as to consult whatever shorter documents might have been produced covering events for which he was not personally present. With the Gospel of Luke we may develop some reasonable hypotheses because we have other Gospels with which to compare. Thus most scholars believe Luke relied in part on Mark, on a collection of Jesus’ sayings (called Q—the largely didactic material that Matthew and Luke have in common not found in Mark), and possibly a shorter source accounting for some or all of Luke’s distinctive material (L). But without parallel accounts of Acts, the source-critical enterprise proves far more subjective. Short of some new spectacular discoveries in the Middle East, we probably never will be able to delineate the sources of Acts with any high degree of confidence.
The most certain date in the book of Acts comes in 18:12, when Paul appears before Gallio in Corinth. From a stone inscription at Delphi, it appears that Gallio was proconsul there only from July of 51 to July of 52. The famine of Acts 11:27-30, according to Josephus, was actually a series of local famines that spanned 44-46, though its effect continued on for perhaps another two years. Acts 12:25-14:28 suggests that Paul’s first missionary journey followed relatively soon after Paul’s and Barnabas’s return from Jerusalem to deliver famine relief for the poor.
In Galatians 1:18 and 2:1, Paul describes intervals of three and fourteen years, respectively, between his conversion and first two trips to Jerusalem. These trips seem most likely to correspond to Acts 9:28 and 11:30 (for more detailed defense see our treatment of Galatians below). The next step is to identify the specific dates for these two visits. Even if Paul’s famine relief mission in 11:30 were as late as 47, this would push his conversion back to a.d. 30, a full seventeen years earlier, which is the most probable year of Christ’s crucifixion. This would not seem to allow enough time for the events of Acts 1-8 in between the crucifixion and Paul’s conversion and would not work at all if Christ’s death were in a.d. 33, the next most common choice. As a result, some think that the three and fourteen years of Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 are to be taken as overlapping; that is, both are to be dated from Paul’s conversion so that the total period of time from his becoming a Christian to his second trip to Jerusalem was only 14 years. This would allow for Paul’s conversion to be as late as 33, but this does not seem to be as natural a meaning of the grammar of Galatians.
A better solution is to realize that ancient dating often employed “inclusive reckoning,” with both first and last years of a period of time counted. Thus the “seventeen” years from Paul’s conversion to his famine relief visit could have been as little as fifteen and a fraction years. This could place Paul’s conversion shortly following Stephen’s martyrdom in about a.d. 32, with his famine relief visit in 47. Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem would then have been in 35 (32 plus the 3 years of Gal. 1:18).
Robert Jewett has vigorously argued that this time line is impossible and that the full historicity of the chronology of Acts cannot be salvaged. Jewett observes that Aretas IV was not given control over Damascus until 37, but he is the king from whom Paul fled before his first visit to Jerusalem (2 Cor. 11:32-33), which we are dating to 35. On the other hand, we do not even know for sure that Aretas was given much control even in 37. It is merely a hypothesis since Caligula’s reign as emperor began in 37 and he frequently gave client kings more extended powers than emperors usually bestowed. It seems better, therefore, to follow F. F. Bruce, who suggests that Aretas’s influence was more unofficial, allowing for the earlier date. No Scripture actually gives him an official title as ruler in Damascus; Paul merely states that he fled from Aretas.
Herod Agrippa I’s death, described in Acts 12:19b-25, is dated by Josephus to 44. This makes the events of Acts 12 occur before those at the end of Acts 11, but this is no problem because Luke does not link the chapters chronologically. Chapter 12:1 reads merely “about this time” in the Greek, and in his Gospel Luke often arranges events in topical rather than chronological order. Here the topical link would be the common theme of events related to Antioch throughout 11:19-30. An early church tradition claims Peter stayed twelve years in Jerusalem after the crucifixion (Acts of Peter 5:22), which would mean that his imprisonment, miraculous release, and departure from the city, also narrated in Acts 12, happened in 42.
Paul’s first missionary journey, the Apostolic Council, and his second journey up to his arrival in Corinth must then all be dated between 47 and 52. Since Paul was in Corinth at least a year and a half (18:11), apparently mostly all before his appearance before Gallio, he probably arrived in town already in late 50. The most common date for the Apostolic Council, therefore, is 49, but it could have been as much as a full year earlier. Paul’s shorter, first missionary journey could have occurred in either or both of the years 48 and 49. Paul’s third journey gives the impression of brief visits in cities previously evangelized, with the only extensive stop being his nearly three-year period in Ephesus (20:31). So these years would most likely be 52-55, or possibly 53-56.
The next fairly well established date involves the accession of Festus to the procuratorship in Judea. Based on a comparison of several passages in Eusebius and other early Christian writers, it would seem that Felix ruled from 52 to 59, though some dispute one or both of these dates. If accurate, the chronology would place Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem in 57 since he spent two years in prison under Felix (24:27). This would allow up to a year or more for the rest of Paul’s third missionary journey, a reasonable length of time, in which he revisited cities evangelized on the second missionary journey and then returned home to Jerusalem. Paul’s hearings before Festus and Agrippa seem to have come soon after Festus’s accession, with Paul’s appeal to Caesar immediately thereafter. So the trip to Rome probably began in the fall of 59, with the arrival of the shipwrecked passengers who had wintered on the island of Malta, in the spring of 60. Paul’s two years of house arrest in Rome (28:30) would then span 60-62.
QUESTIONS FOR REVIEW
The book of Acts begins with a preface very similar to the opening of the Gospel of Luke. Luke addresses the same patron, Theophilus, and refers back to his prior work in 1:1. Speaking of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” suggests that this second volume reflects what Jesus is continuing to do and teach in the church through the Holy Spirit. Only here, in all of the New Testament, do we learn about the forty-day period of time of Jesus’ resurrection appearances (vv. 2-5). At least three reasons for their inclusion may be discerned. First, they have an apologetic value in demonstrating repeatedly that Christ was truly alive in bodily form. Second, they have didactic or instructional value because Jesus used this time to teach the disciples how all representative portions of the Old Testament were fulfilled in him (see Luke 24:25-27). Much early Christian preaching may have derived from what the apostles learned during this period of time. Third, the appearances have predictive value, outlining God’s program for the coming ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples must not begin their ministry immediately but wait for what John the Baptist had promised—the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This expression is used in many different ways in contemporary churches, but, if we are to remain faithful to the biblical use of the terminology, we will reserve it for the initial experience of the Spirit in a person’s life. Of the other six uses of this phrase in the New Testament, five of them (like this one) refer to John the Baptist’s prediction of the role of the Spirit in the ministry of the coming Messiah. They thus refer to Jesus’ followers’ first immersion into the power of the Spirit, not to any subsequent “second blessing,” significant and genuine as such an experience may be for various believers. The only other use of the “baptism of the Spirit” comes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, in which Paul speaks of everyone in the church having had this experience, presumably including the most immature of Christians. This again suggests that the expression refers to the time of one’s conversion.
The second introductory section of Acts narrates Christ’s ascension (vv. 6-11). The disciples appear still to be looking for their Messiah to reign over an earthly kingdom of Israel (v. 6). Jesus does not deny that one day he might function in this capacity, but that time is not now. Instead, when the Spirit comes upon the disciples, they must fulfill the Great Commission (vv. 7-8; cf. Matt. 28:18-20). This passage provides a key warning against all supposed prophecy in any age that claims to know the time of Christ’s return. The terms “times or dates” represent two of the most general words for periods of time in the Greek language (chronos and kairos) and do not permit us to claim to know even the generation in which Jesus will come back. Verse 8 forms a miniature outline of the rest of the book and the progress of the gospel that Luke will record. It has inspired Christians throughout the ages to begin evangelism at home and then move outward in ever widening circles.
In verses 9-11, Jesus is taken up to heaven. This does not prove that heaven is a place up in the sky somewhere but rather indicates to the disciples that the resurrection appearances have ended. As the angels explain, the ascension also indicates the way in which Jesus will come back one day—publicly, visibly, on the clouds of heaven (cf. Matt. 24:24-27; Mark 14:62). For Jesus himself the ascension implies the completion of his work of salvation as he now returns to his heavenly Father.
Waiting for the Holy Spirit (1:12-26)
The rest of chapter 1 describes the disciples waiting for the Spirit’s coming. Verses 12-14 show them obeying verse 4 and highlight their unity. Verse 15 gives us their number; interestingly, 120 people constituted a legitimate, separate community in Judaism. Continuing to pray rather than to act precipitously, Peter leads the gathering in selecting a replacement for Judas. Verses 18-19 explain how Judas had taken his own life. Matthew 27:3-10 seems to give a quite different account of his death, but the two can be harmonized. The rope on the tree from which he hanged himself could have broken and the corpse fallen upon a rock, while the priests’ purchase may have been reckoned as his by their agency.
More importantly, Peter sees two key Psalms attributed to David, in which he contends against an archenemy (69:25, 109:8), as typologically in need of fulfillment in the first century as well (vv. 16-17, 20). Thus the group must choose a successor to Judas. While this passage became a prooftext for the doctrine of apostolic succession in the early church, nowhere else does the Bible ever describe one of the Twelve being replaced. Specifically, when James, the brother of John, is martyred (Acts 12:2), Luke gives no indication that anyone sought to fill his office. It is apparently important for the leadership of the fledgling church to number twelve at the outset, to symbolize the church as the true Israel but not throughout its history. At the beginning, in its entirely Jewish phase, the church has become the new or true Israel.
The criteria for choosing the replacement also prove telling (vv. 21-22). The new apostle must have been a part of Jesus’ larger group of followers, from the days of the ministry of John the Baptist onward, and a witness of the resurrection. Clearly, according to this definition of apostle, such an office could have existed only in the first century. On the other hand, Paul will use the word in his lists of spiritual gifts as one of the ways God endows his people in every age (see below, p. 190). The manner of choosing between the top two candidates is even more fascinating (vv. 23-26). As often in Old Testament times, the disciples cast lots, somewhat akin to our rolling of dice. Does this mean that believers today should use such a method in determining God’s will? Probably not. The method is never used again in the New Testament, and “the coming of the Spirit soon gave the church a more certain guide to God’s will.” At the same time, nothing in Luke’s narrative suggests that the disciples employed a faulty approach on this occasion. While it is sometimes argued that we never hear of Matthias again and that Paul was God’s “real twelfth” apostle, this overlooks the fact that, apart from Peter and John, we never hear from any of the other apostles again in the book of Acts.
Acts 2 introduces us to a momentous event, the significance of which can scarcely be overestimated. Pentecost completes the sequence of events that began with Christ’s death, included his resurrection and ascension, and now provides the opportunity for God to bestow his Spirit upon all his people. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came upon certain Israelites temporarily for special acts of power and service; now he will permanently live within all believers. The occasion is a harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the Passover (Lev. 23:15-22). Already during the period between the Testaments, Jews had decided this festival marked the time of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai (Jub. 1:1). It was fitting, then, that just as the first covenant was established with signs and wonders, so too the new covenant would be heralded with dramatic events. Moreover, though God confused the languages of earth’s inhabitants at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11), here he begins to undo that confusion.
It is unclear what literally happened as the Spirit descended on the disciples (vv. 1-4). Luke uses similes to explain that there came a sound “like” rushing wind (the same word as for spirit in Hebrew and Greek) and tongues “as” of fire (the sign of divine judgment in the Old Testament). Miraculously, all of the Jewish visitors from other parts of the empire whose indigenous languages would have been other than Greek could now hear the apostles speaking in those tongues (vv. 5-12). This miracle was hardly necessary to enable communication because all the people knew enough Greek to speak with one another and make sense of the festivities in the first place. Moreover, Peter subsequently addresses the crowd, explaining the phenomenon they have just experienced, and he speaks in Greek at that time as well. Rather, the miracle offers a dramatic confirmation of the divine origin and truth of the disciples’ message. Here, too, Luke introduces the expression, being “filled with the Spirit,” which for him is different from the baptism of the Spirit. Whereas a person is baptized only once, at conversion, he or she may be filled repeatedly, that is, empowered for bold witness or other divine service (e.g., Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9).
Peter’s first sermon (vv. 14-41) proceeds to interpret this first example of speaking in tongues in light of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32. But what in the Old Testament came merely “afterward” (Joel 2:28) is now occurring explicitly “in the last days” (Acts 2:17). The New Testament consistently affirms that the last days or end-times began with Christ’s first coming. The pouring out of God’s Spirit, in turn, leads to his bestowing gifts upon his people (vv. 17-18). The cosmic signs that Joel foretold (vv. 19-20) can be taken somewhat figuratively and seen as fulfilled in the crucifixion (recall the eclipse of the sun in Luke 23:45) or understood as something that has not yet taken place. In any event, Luke wants to quote Joel as far as the final promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 21). Here appears the first hint in Acts that the disciples understand that the gospel will eventually go to Gentiles as well. Verses 22-36 form the heart of Peter’s message on this occasion and proceed according to the following logic. If the last days have come, then the Messiah must have appeared. He did; he was Jesus (vv. 22-24). The evidence is then marshaled from the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 16:8-11 (vv. 25-28) seems to suggest that David was speaking of himself, but clearly he was not immortal. Knowing that God had promised to establish his descendants on the Jewish throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12-16), David prophesied about the coming Messiah, believing that death could not ultimately bind him (see esp. v. 31). As for Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35), Jesus himself had already interpreted this text as referring to his messianic role (Mark 12:35-37 pars.). Thus Peter’s conclusion follows inexorably—God has indeed raised Jesus, elevating him to the same exalted position in heaven that he had previously occupied, thus justifying the title “Lord” as well as “Christ” (Messiah) (v. 36).
The response to Peter’s sermon proves powerful, leading him to give what may be considered the first “altar call” in the history of Christian preaching (vv. 37-41). Peter specifies two things his listeners must do (repent and be baptized) and makes two promises concerning what they will receive (forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit). We may speak of these four elements as the Pentecostal package because they are considered as a unit, here and throughout most of the New Testament. There will be three apparent exceptions in the book of Acts, which we will deal with when we come to them. Meanwhile, we need to define our terms. Repentance, as consistently in Scripture, means not just sorrow for sin but a noticeable change of behavior. Water baptism, well-known to Jews already from their practice of baptizing converts to Judaism as well as from the ministry of John the Baptist, was an outward sign and testimony to the inward change that God had begun in the person. That such baptism was to be administered in the name of Jesus Christ does not contradict the Great Commission, in which a trinitarian formula appears (Matt. 28:19). Rather, it shows that there was no fixed formula for the words that had to be recited at a person’s baptism this early in the history of the church.
At first glance it could appear that Peter is requiring water baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but this would contradict numerous texts that speak of salvation by God’s grace alone. Even in chapter 3, in his very next sermon, Peter speaks of repentance without requiring baptism (v. 19). Probably, verse 38 forms a chiasm (A. B. B. A.), in which repentance is linked with forgiveness and baptism with the name of Jesus. “The gift of the Holy Spirit” does not refer to a specific spiritual gift, as in Paul’s lists of charisms (teaching, prophecy, giving, etc.). Instead it employs an appositional genitive—the gift “which is” the Spirit himself. As in verse 22, Peter again stresses that his offer is for everyone—“for you and your children” (v. 39)—both the current Jewish generation and their offspring—as well as to “all who are far off”—presumably implying Gentiles as well as Jews.
Communal Sharing (2:42-47)
The final paragraph of Acts 2 depicts the initial organization of those who responded to Peter’s invitation and joined the 120 (vv. 42-47). Verse 42 is regularly cited as the earliest description of four central elements in Christian worship, which should characterize the church as it gathers in any time and place: preaching or teaching God’s word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper (Communion or the Eucharist) and prayer. Fellowship is then further unpacked in verses 43-47 as far more than simply small talk over a meal! Rather, it involves communal sharing, particularly of one’s material possessions. The imperfect tenses throughout these verses suggest a process of sharing, not a once-for-all, absolute renunciation of personal goods. This is not the modern system of contemporary communism, which is atheistic and coercive. The disciples pooled their resources out of love for God and one another in an entirely voluntary manner. At the same time, verse 45 does provide the foundation for the first half of Marx’s famous manifesto—“to each according to his need.” The other half will also appear in Acts—in 11:29 (see below, p. 46).
God’s people should share with the poor and needy in their midst! Nor does this paragraph permit the interpretation that these practices were a mistake (based on the idea that the church’s later poverty could have been avoided had it not given its money away). Luke, as narrator, makes clear that God approves of this scheme by concluding the passage stressing that God “added to their numbers daily those who were being saved.”
QUESTIONS FOR REVIEW