The full title of this book is “The Acts of the Apostles.” As Jesus returned to the Father, He left behind a group of His disciples, whom He called His apostles (literally meaning, “ones who have been sent out”) to spread the news of His kingdom to the entire world. Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, is the author of this book as well. Unlike the multiple perspectives we received on the life of Jesus, transmitted through four Gospels, we are only privy to one perspective on the life and activities of the apostles during the first 30 years of the church.
The book of Acts focuses primarily on two key figures: Peter and Paul. It is not that these were the only men who did marvelous things for Jesus’ Kingdom, it is that the theological message of the story of Acts is the message that the church needed to preserve. The book of Acts, as told through Luke’s perspective, really chronicles the journey of the church’s self-understanding from that of being an exclusively Jewish culture that has received the Messiah to that of being a trans-cultural, universal community that knows how to contextualize the truth of Jesus into any and all cultures. The problem that the teachers of Israel had, the problem that got them ousted from their role as shepherds of God’s people, was the problem of exclusivity. God promised Abraham that He would bless all nations through Abraham’s people. That has always been God’s agenda and always will be. The leaders of Israel missed this and made the promise of Abraham an exclusive club where only members of Israel, the “circumcised”, were allowed to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to tear that dividing wall down and open up the Kingdom of God to the entire World, that through Him, all men might be saved. In the early church, the first disciples were very Jewish and had been trained from the moment they were born to believe that God hated Gentiles. These types of ingrained prejudices are hard to deprogram, even with the Spirit of God flowing in your heart. The story of Acts is the story of deprogramming. Through the Holy Spirit, the church was slowly taught that the Kingdom of God was to be more than the city of Jerusalem.
The key verse to the book is Acts 1:8
But you will receive power when
the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you
will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
and in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the Earth.”
The outline of the book can be drawn around this verse. As you can see in the picture, the Kingdom of God is like a tree whose branches spread throughout the world. Remember how, in our studies of the Old Testament prophets, Israel was seen as a tree that had become fruitless and was being cut down. Isaiah said that a branch would rise up from the stump of Jesse and grow a new tree. That branch is Jesus and the new tree is the church, the Kingdom of God on Earth. Acts tells the story of how that tree grew, almost got stuck in the same spot as the Old Testament, broke free of the dividing wall, and then branched out to the world.
The trunk of Israel (ch. 1-6)
The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in the middle of a very Jewish moment, the day of Pentecost. Pentecost was one of the many feasts that were dictated in the Law of Moses. On that day Jewish people from all over the world received the Holy Spirit and took the seeds of the Kingdom of God back to their corner of the world. On that day, like a dandelion gone to seed, being blown in the wind, the seeds of the Kingdom were spread from Europe to Africa, From Spain to China. The story of Acts, however, focuses on the seeds that were growing in Jerusalem. During these six chapters we see the baby church, under the leadership of Peter, take its first steps in what it means to be a Christ community, shining as light in the world.
The Stone that shattered the world (ch. 7-8)
Quickly the Jerusalem church became comfortable in its Messianic Jewish existence and became internally focused, forgetting the global mission of the great commission. God had to stir them up with the murder of Stephen to get them to spread out and plant the seeds of the Kingdom in different fields.
The first attempts at spreading out (ch. 9-14)
Philip was the first to really branch out. He preached the gospel to the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian. His coloring outside the Jewish lines was the beginning of a cultural revolution. Peter was a bit more stuck in his Jewishness and needed an act of God (through a vision) to break him of his levitical perspective of what is clean and unclean. It took the conversion of a Centurion to begin to shift his thinking. A case could be made, based upon some of Paul’s comments in Galatians, that Peter continued to struggle with this issue throughout his life.
In these chapters we are also introduced to the first Greek Christians (and the term “Christian” itself) in the church of Antioch. This pivotal church had the courage to send Paul and Barnabus off on a gentile mission into Galatia…charting uncharted territory.
Getting past the clot (ch. 15)
The activities of the previous chapters caused a great stir in the church. “How could Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit without first being circumcised and following the Laws of Moses!?!” Do you see how Jewish the first Christians were? In this chapter we see the first major clot the church experienced. The image of a clot is a good one. If the Holy Spirit is the blood and the church is the body, then the controversy over circumcision was like a big blood clot that was threatening to cut off life from the Gentile members of the body, thus crippling the church. By the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit, the controversy was resolved and the mission to the Gentiles was blessed by the church in Jerusalem!
To the ends of the Earth (ch. 16-28)
The apostle Paul, a man who could be “all things to all men” was commissioned by the Holy Spirit, under the blessing of the church in Jerusalem, to preach the gospel and plant churches throughout the Gentile world. In this section of Acts, we witness the first attempts at communicating the message of the Jewish Messiah to non-Jewish people. Through Paul’s actions as recorded in the story of Acts, and through reading his epistles which were written during the course of this story, we can learn a great deal about how to be the church and how to understand the gospel message within local and diverse cultures. We are still living in the book of Acts today, trying to be the Kingdom of God while communicating its message to the dark and foreign kingdom which surrounds us.