The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Jesus’ disciples from their time in Jerusalem, just after Jesus’ ascension, to Paul’s eventual arrival in Rome. Roughly the first half of the book concentrates on what happened to Jesus’ first disciples and how, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they began to share the good news, first in Jerusalem and then further afield. The second half of the book picks up the story of the apostle Paul (whom we meet first at his conversion on the road to Damascus in chapter 9) who spreads the good news to the Gentiles in Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey), then Greece, and finally Italy.
'But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' (Acts 1.8)
19 'Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.' (Acts 3.19-20a)
34Then Peter began to speak to them: 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.' (Acts 10.34–35)
There are a few gory bits (the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5 and King Herod Agrippa in chapter 12). Otherwise there is not much that's tricky. Probably the hardest thing is keeping a track of the places Paul and the other disciples visited. It can help to read Acts with a map of the Roman world in the first century to hand so you can plot where the different places are.
The opening few verses of Acts (1.1–2) indicate that this book is the sequel to an earlier one. Since Theophilus is also mentioned in Luke, it is probable that the same author wrote Acts as wrote the Gospel of Luke.
It is worth noting that these two books were probably always separate as they both contain an account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven (one question is which was written first – Luke or Acts?).
Traditionally it was widely believed that Luke, the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, was a physician and a companion of Paul (he is mentioned in Philemon 1.24, Colossians 4.14 and 2 Timothy 4.11). Tradition identifies his birthplace as Antioch but the place where he lived, when not travelling with Paul, as Troas.
There is much discussion about whether Luke was a Gentile or not. He certainly knew, and was able to quote from, the Jewish Scriptures. This might suggest that he was a God-fearer – a Gentile who kept the Jewish law.
From his writings we can tell that he was a keen historian and laid out both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in a style reminiscent of the historical accounts of his day.
Many scholars would date Acts to a similar time as Luke’s Gospel, so around the AD 80s.
Just as in Luke, there is very little in Acts to indicate how the first recipients might have been feeling at the time.
Like a lot of the Old Testament history books, this is a book that falls into the category of what you might call theological history – history with a purpose. It is not telling the story just so you can know what happened, but so that you can understand why it happened. Many of the historical books of the Bible are like this.
1.1–8.40 The early community in Jerusalem and the start of the spread of the good news (to Samaria)
9.1–15.35 The good new starts to spread and the Christian community gathers in Jerusalem to discuss whether Gentiles should be asked to become Jews
15.36–20.37 Paul travels further afield, into Asia Minor and Greece
21.1–28.31 Despite the danger, Paul returns to Jerusalem, is arrested and sent to Rome
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Ephesus, Damascus, Antioch, Corinth, Philippi, Tarsus, Lystra, Macedonia, Achaia, Cenchreae, Galatia, Phrygia, Canaan, Troas, Phoenecia, Cilicia, Caesarea, Achaia, Asia, Asia Minor, Babylon, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Cenchreae, Crete, Galilee, Gaza, Haran, Jerusalem, Judea, Mesopotamia, Midian, Miletus, Mount Sinai, Nazareth, Phrygia, Samaria, Shechem, Sidon, Syria, Thessalonica, Thyatira, Tyre
Artemis, Festus, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Gallio, Alexander, Annas, Apollos, Aquila. Aristarchus, Barnabas, Benjamin, Caiaphas, Chaldeans, Crispus, Demetrius, Gaius, Isaac, Israel, James brother of John, James (Jesus’ brother), James son of Alphaeus, John brother of James, Joshua, Judas, Mark, Matthew, Matthias, Medes, Moses, Nazarenes. Pontius Pilate, Sadducees, Silas, Sosthenes, Theophilus, Timothy, Tychicus
Altar, Day of the Lord, disciples, Feast of unleavened bread, Gentiles, God-fearer, Hades. Hebrew, High Priest, idols, Moloch, Passover, Pharisees, priest, scribes, synagogue
One of the interesting strands that runs through Acts is the intersection of baptism and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Holy Spirit falls on people first, and then they are baptised (chapter 10); sometimes people are baptised in the name of Jesus and then receive the Holy Spirit (chapter 19). Keep an eye open for these twin themes (of baptism and the Holy Spirit) and see what you think about how they are connected.
Another huge theme is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Again, reflect as you read about what you think about the disagreement between Paul, Peter and James.
Acts is known for the long speeches given by various people along the way. Read these carefully and ask yourself why you think Luke uses so many of them. What do they add to the story?
One of the key features of Acts is the strength of community among the early Christians. They ate together and shared everything together. Reflect on how this compares to your local Christian community and ask whether it's reasonable to aim for this level of community today.