What’s so special about the book of Acts? What are its themes and what is its significance for Christians today?
Of the 27 books that make up what we know as the New Testament, the one called the Acts of the Apostles is unique in the information it contains. This title may be a bit misleading, because 11 apostles are barely mentioned, while the book concentrates almost exclusively on the early work of Peter (chapters 1-12) and the short but influential ministry of Paul (chapters 13-28). It chronicles the period from A.D. 31 to approximately A.D. 68.
But why should anyone care about such a small segment of time—only 37 years—less than 2 percent of the nearly 2,000-year history of Christianity?
When we understand the great themes of the Acts of the Apostles, seemingly disconnected individual events take on a new significance.
Three great themes
Scholars may find various themes in the book of Acts; but for our purposes, it can be helpful to focus on three. Two of these were especially important to the earliest Christians, and a third is vital to the followers of Jesus Christ today.
Having these themes in mind can help to bring the events of this book to life. After all, the apostle Paul himself tells us that all Scripture—including the Acts of the Apostles—“is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, New Revised Standard Version).
Theme 1: Jesus Christ actively guides His Church
All four Gospel accounts end with the story of Jesus Christ’s execution and His resurrection from the dead. This was (and still is) an unprecedented event, and it is understandable that most people would find it difficult to believe. Luke, who was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, knew that this incredible claim had to be established before anyone could believe the gospel message.
In the first nine verses of Acts he briefly covers the 40-day period after Jesus’ resurrection and His interaction with the disciples. Luke makes it clear that Jesus was irrefutably alive and giving instruction to those who would lead the New Testament Church. He shows that Jesus’ message to the disciples focused on the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
At the end of that 40-day period, Jesus confirmed a promise He had made about the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received this very special promise from God. From that point on, they would become witnesses of Jesus Christ to the whole world.
But witnesses of what? Jesus did not need any witness that He had lived a physical life for over three decades in the Roman province of Judea and had died as if He were a common criminal at the hands of the Roman overlords. The witness was needed to confirm that He had conquered death and was alive from the dead.
After the amazing events on the Day of Pentecost at the beginning of Acts 2, Peter gives a powerful sermon proving that Jesus really was resurrected to life, and that the resurrection itself proved every claim that He had made about being the promised Messiah.
Building the Church
But Jesus had promised much more than “simply” rising from the dead. He had promised that after He was raised, He would be actively involved in the work of His Church. He did not say He would suddenly create a Church; He said He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18). That was a commitment to work with His followers over a period of time.
At His final Passover with His disciples He promised that, through the Holy Spirit, He would never abandon them but would come and dwell in His disciples, revealing His will, increasing their understanding of God’s truth, strengthening them through trials.
Proof that Jesus hadn’t abandoned the Church
As the Acts of the Apostles progresses, Luke records a series of events, many of them clearly miraculous and beyond the ability of any human to accomplish, that proved to the earliest Christians that Jesus had not abandoned them. He was actively involved in guiding the Church. Repeatedly in difficult situations they sought His guidance and intervention, and He led them in ways they could never have anticipated.
There were times when it appeared that He had abandoned them, but it soon became clear that He was leading them in ways they never would have gone on their own.
For example, one of the early leaders, Stephen, was murdered by the religious authorities (Acts 7), and a great persecution began against the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 8). Many believers were forced to flee into other areas of Judea and Samaria—and ultimately as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19). Undoubtedly they wondered why God was allowing these events, but circumstances soon showed that God was using this scattering as a way to begin spreading the gospel message.
The early Church did not see Jesus as just its founder; it saw Him as the living Head of the Church, actively guiding their decisions and blessing their efforts. When challenges arose, they prayed for His help, and the book of Acts shows us they genuinely believed He answered their requests.
Did Jesus abandon His Church at some point in the years since then? If not, shouldn’t Christians today still look to Him as the active Head of the Church?
Theme 2: Who are God’s chosen people?
Before ancient Israel entered the Promised Land, God inspired Moses to make it clear to them that they were specially chosen by God for His own purposes—that they were set apart from other nations (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2).
The sad history of Israel was that they had failed in their special calling, choosing to go their own way instead of obeying God. Israel, as the northern 10 tribes became known after the days of King Solomon, had been carried into captivity by the Assyrian armies in the eighth century B.C., and they never returned. The nation of Judah, composed primarily of descendants of Judah and Benjamin, became known as Jews, and they were carried into captivity by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. It was the descendants of these people who were the Jews of Jesus’ day.
Divisions between Jews and gentiles
Though the Old Testament Scriptures contained a number of passages showing that God was going to include the gentiles in His plan, the first-century Jews, and especially their religious leaders, believed that they were chosen by God to be the recipients of His blessings and the gentiles would never have that same level of blessing.
In Palestine and in the areas around the Middle East where Jewish communities had been established, there was considerable animosity between Jews and gentiles. Jews and gentiles alike had prejudicial laws against one another, forbidding contact in many ways except for the necessity of doing business with one another.
Many Jews believed that God had chosen their forefathers—and them—because they were superior to the gentiles. The Jews of Palestine attempted to avoid anything they thought would bring them into contact with the predominant Greek and Roman cultures, refusing even to eat a meal with gentiles.
The gentiles responded by putting many restrictions upon the Jews, and sometimes going so far as driving all the Jews out of certain areas—like Rome—for a period of time (Acts 18:2).
God calls gentiles into His Church
Though Jesus was born into a Jewish family, received a Jewish education, taught in the synagogues and was even known by some as a rabbi, it was His intention that His Church would be made up of both Jews and gentiles.
One of the great themes of the Acts of the Apostles is how God, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, changed His elect to understand that all people are really God’s chosen people. Those who were called to Jesus Christ—both Jews and gentiles—had to completely change the way they viewed one another.
The Church that began on Pentecost in Acts 2 was an entirely Jewish church, but the Church that was strong and stable at the end of the book of Acts is made up of Jews and gentiles alike, with gentiles fulfilling many of the important responsibilities.
In a world like ours, where ethnic and racial differences often explode into mindless violence, the story of how God used His Holy Spirit to transform the hearts of both Jews and gentiles so that they could be unified and loving in His Church is an inspiring and worthwhile example.
Theme 3: The example of first-century Christianity
The book of Acts is the single best historical resource available to understand exactly what the earliest Christians believed and practiced. Why is that so important?
As society continues to change today, those who would be Christians must be able to address those societal changes in the right way. The fact that there are hundreds of different systems of belief, all claiming to be Christian, proves that this is not always easy.
Some professing Christians believe that the Bible gives some broad principles that apply across time—love your neighbor, treat others the way you wish to be treated, etc.—and that is really all we need to be concerned about. The specifics of how to love God and love our neighbor may change as society changes.
Other professing Christians believe that, while Christians must be able to address new challenges, the truths and the way of life taught by Jesus Christ and His disciples are applicable across time and teach us how to love both God and our neighbor today.
What did the early Christians do?
Consider a couple of examples. If we accept the idea that God doesn’t really care how we serve Him as long as we set aside some time occasionally for worship, then it really doesn’t matter which day we observe for worship and fellowship.
However, if God is the One who determines when and how His children are to come before Him, then the practices of those first Christians become much more important. The clear scriptural record from the book of Acts showing that the first-century Christians were Sabbath-keepers is very important in helping us understand what God expects of us today.
The second example relates to sexual morality. Any mature adult recognizes that society’s view of sexual morality has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Considering advances in birth control and disease prevention and treatment, many have embraced the idea that there is no longer any viable reason for sexual restraint in the modern world. Surveys have shown that professing Christians have virtually the same sexual morality as their non-Christians peers.
But the society in which the first Christians lived and walked was also a sexually immoral world. How those first Christians understood the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and stayed true to the sexual morality taught throughout the Bible shows us how we must address similar challenges today.
A careful study of the Acts of the Apostles reveals that the Christianity taught by Jesus and lived by His earliest followers was not some mindless system of ritual and rote ceremonial obedience with no understanding of why. It was vital and alive and fully capable of applying the timeless principles of God to a changing world.
The lens of Scripture
God’s Word provides each of us with a spiritual “lens” through which we can view the challenges and questions of life. Just as with a physical lens, the spiritual lens of Scripture enables us to see clearly what we could not see clearly on our own. As you read the book of Acts, try using the three spiritual themes above as lenses to open your understanding of this fascinating book that God preserved for our benefit.
For further study, read the articles in the section: “New Testament: Overview.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.