by Ed Gallagher
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.Acts 2:42
This lesson surveys the book of Acts, considering how God watched over his people after Jesus ascended to heaven. Acts shows the establishment of the church and its spread throughout the Roman world, despite frequent opposition.
In many churches of Christ the book of Acts is perhaps the most popular, most taught book in the Bible. Why do you think that is? It probably is because of our emphasis on the restoration of New Testament Christianity, since the book of Acts presents a picture of the New Testament church.
What is the purpose of the book of Acts? It seems that primarily Luke wants to show how God is working through the church, fulfilling his promises, even after Jesus ascended to heaven. Within that purpose, he wants to show how the church spread and grew despite frequent opposition. The book begins in Jerusalem and ends with Paul in Rome 30 years later.
Who would you consider to be the main characters of Acts? You could talk about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit as the main characters, since they are certainly active throughout the book. If we’re talking about human characters, then we would point to Peter (and John) in the first half of the book and Paul in the second half of the book. The other apostles are barely mentioned. The conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus was a story so important it was told three times in the book (chapters 9, 22, and 26). The focus shifts in ch. 13 to Paul’s three missionary journeys (chs. 13–14; 15:36–18:22; 18:23–21:16) and his voyage to Rome (map). Part of this narrative contains “We passages” (16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16), meaning the author of Acts accompanied Paul on some of his journeys.
Why do you suppose Luke wanted to focus on Peter and Paul? We should not imagine it’s because the other apostles were not doing anything important. Rather, it may be that these two apostles were especially instrumental in spreading the faith among Gentiles, and Luke—a Gentile writing for a Gentile audience (Theophilus, 1:1)—would especially want to explain how a religion centered on the Jewish Messiah, using Jewish writings as Scripture, worshipping the Jewish God, could have become so popular among non-Jews.
Just before his ascension, Jesus provided an outline for the events that would follow (1:8): the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles, who would then testify to Jesus in Jerusalem, then in all of Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.
Before any of those events happen, the apostles choose a replacement for Judas (1:12–26). What are the qualifications for the replacement apostle and what will be his job, according to 1:21–22? The chief qualification is that he must have been present with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry all the way to his ascension, and his job will be to testify to the resurrection. The importance of the resurrection is made clear in the next sermon when Peter takes up his entire sermon on that topic (2:22–36).
In this early period, the church seems to be an ideal society. How does Luke’s depiction of the church in Acts serve as a model for us today? See especially 2:42–47; 4:23–37. The church worshipped together, prayed together, and took care of one another.
Early on, the church faced opposition. The Jewish leaders arrest Peter and John for talking about the resurrection of Jesus (4:2), then arrested (all?) the apostles out of jealousy (5:17), and then again because the apostles were teaching in the temple (5:25–26). Stephen was killed (7:54–60) for allegedly speaking against Moses and the temple (6:8–14). These were all external threats, but there were also some internal threats. What were some internal threats? Ananias and Sapphira were greedy and selfish, wanting glory without sacrifice (5:1–11), much like the apostles before Jesus’s death (Luke 9:46; 22:24). The church was divided for some time in regard to language and culture, a problem that seems to have become manifest when certain widows were ignored (6:1).
This problem regarding the widows (all Jews, but of different cultures) foreshadows a major theme of the book, which is the spread of the gospel among different cultures, not just among Jews. What was it that caused the church to start spreading among different cultures? The persecution after Stephen’s death, a persecution apparently led by Saul of Tarsus, drove the Christians to other lands (8:1–3). Sometimes God’s purposes are served when his people face suffering (note 9:16).
First Philip goes to Samaria (8:4–24), then he converts an Ethiopian eunuch (8:25–40), possibly a non-Jew (though scholars debate this). Paul’s conversion was a momentous event for the Gentile ministry (9:15), but it was Peter who jump-started this ministry with his sermon to Cornelius (ch. 10). Cornelius was an uncircumcised Gentile, and God made clear his approval of Cornelius by sending his Spirit upon him (10:44), so that Peter was sure that they were candidates for baptism as they were, without the need to become Jewish (10:45–48). This event—the conversion of a Gentile—was so significant, so revolutionary, that the story is told twice in consecutive chapters (chapters 10–11), leading to the unexpected conclusion that “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). Soon, Paul and Barnabas began missionary tours that had the Gentiles as a chief focus (see 13:44–52, etc.). The issue of Gentile inclusion within the people of God was so controversial that a council was called at Jerusalem to decide whether circumcision was required (15:5), and the apostles concluded that it was not required (15:19–20). The same issue comes up in some of Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians (but see also Eph 2:11–16).
The book of Acts shows God’s care for his people. Despite the many adversaries, “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (12:24). God is fulfilling his purposes through his people by the power of the Spirit.
Additional Questions for Discussion
In what ways does the prologue to Acts (1:1–2) connect this book to the Gospel of Luke?
What aspects of early Christian practice does Luke emphasize in Acts 2:42–47? Which aspects are “extreme,” from the standpoint of the way you have seen Christianity normally practiced?
Read Peter’s second sermon (Acts 3:11–26). What does he emphasize about Jesus here?
How did these first Christians respond to persecution? Read Acts 4:23–31; 5:40–42.
Paul’s first major sermon in Acts is in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, at the beginning of his first missionary journey (13:16–41). What were the main themes of this sermon? What response did it generate?
Below are two Bible Project videos on Acts, but there are four further Bible Project videos on Acts here.
Here is a longer video (38 min.) with scholar Steve Walton discussing Acts.
There is a movie (3 hrs) based on the Acts of the Apostles. A teacher could choose to show scenes from the movie and discuss them.