The same author who wrote Luke also wrote Acts. It is “part two” of his account of Jesus and the earliest missionary journeys of Paul and the other apostles. Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension and ends twenty-eight chapters later with Paul under house arrest by Roman guard. All in all, Acts tells the story of how Christianity began with a crucified founder and a handful of followers. In the next thirty years, driven by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and mainly under Paul’s leadership, Christians brought the Good News of the resurrection of Christ far beyond the land of Judea where it all began. By the time we reach the Acts, the early Christians had seen converts in Asia Minor, Greece, and were knocking on the doorstep of Rome itself. Paul was under house arrest by the Roman guard; a small inconsequential movement had gotten the attention of the empire.
Acts can be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-12 deal with the early years of the church’s expansion, beginning in Judea at Pentecost and moving outward into Galilee and Samaria. After Paul’s conversion (chapter 9), Peter sees a vision telling him to go the Gentiles, which drives him as far as Antioch. It is here that the followers of Christ were first called Christians.
Chapters 15-28 focus on Paul’s missionary journeys, as they are often called. He seems to have taken three such journeys, each one taking him further from the origins of the gospel in Jerusalem (and the surrounding areas). The last eight chapters of the book we find Paul in tension with Rome, culminating in his journey to Rome and house arrest.
One prominent theme in Acts is how the gospel is for all, regardless of one’s nationality. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost enabled the gathered disciples to speak the languages of the peoples who had gathered to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. This episode demonstrates in a dramatic way that the gospel is for all who come, not for one ethnic group. The tension between Jews and Gentiles is a recurring theme in Acts, as it is in the New Testament, especially in Romans and Galatians. The events at Pentecost in effect announced that God no longer limited himself to a particular people, or temple, or law—which was not an easy thing for many people to accept.
This theme is revisited in the well-known scene where Peter is told in a vision to eat food that was unclean according to Jewish law. This vision was a symbol of how God wants the gospel to spread to Gentiles as well as Jews. What was absolutely astounding about this vision for the world at that time is the fact that Gentiles were allowed to become part of God’s family as Gentiles. They did not need to convert to Judaism through means of circumcision, as the Old Testament requires.
Of course, this new movement (Christianity) created new sociological and theological tensions. These came to a head in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The issue was what to do with Gentile followers of Christ: do they need to keep the laws of Judaism? The answer was a resounding no. Gentile Christians only need to abstain from certain behaviors, like eating food sacrificed to idols, and this was so that the Gentile Christians would not needlessly offend their Jewish brothers. Circumcision was deemed no longer necessary to covenant membership, which was nothing less than eliminating the centrality of Jewish ethnic identity for God’s plan.
Acts is full of accounts of the early activities of the church, and it paints a very realistic picture of tension and strife—not just between Jews and Gentiles, but also between major figures such as Peter and Paul. At least some of the book claims to be written by an eyewitness, and much of the book rings true in that regard.
– Peter Enns