Except for the Creation narrative in Genesis and the End Times discussion in Revelation, no book of the Bible can match the historical and geographical sweep of Acts. It stretches from Spain to Arabia over a period of thirty to forty years, telling the story of the early days of the spread of Christianity. And so, rather than focus on theology or the rules of Christian living set out in this book — although instances of both are there — I thought it would most useful to provide a brief summary of the events, the “acts,” that Acts recounts. (If this summary is too long, there is a good and shorter one at this link: http://files.tyndale.com/thpdata/firstchapters/978-1-4143-2562-0.pdf) (“A Journey through the Book of Acts,” page 9).
It’s reasonable to divide the book into two fairly equal parts, the first about the early church under Peter’s ministry, and the second about Paul’s missionary journeys. The author is Luke, who also wrote one of the four Gospels (together his two books make up a quarter of the New Testament) and is the only non-Jewish biblical author. He accompanied Paul on some of his travel, so that occasionally the narrative contains “we” passages. Like Luke’s gospel, Acts is addressed to one Theophilus, to give him a full and factual account of the events covered.
One last and obvious introductory point: The bottom line of the text, and the whole subtext, of this book is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, “Go and spread the Word everywhere!” And that’s what Peter, Paul, and the rest of them did.
The Ministry of Peter (and Others) in the Early Church
Jesus’s post-Resurrection time on earth ends with his Ascension to Heaven; He tells the apostles they are to witness for Him “to the ends of the earth.”
Matthias is chosen to replace Judas among the twelve.
The Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost to Peter and the others in Jerusalem. Peter preaches an impromptu sermon to the crowd there, making three thousand converts that day.
Peter, accompanied by John, heals a beggar; they evangelize to a crowd afterwards, and are dragged before the Sanhedrin, who reluctantly let them go after Peter and John refuse to back down. Afterwards, the apostles continue to evangelize.
Ananias and his wife Sapphira are struck dead when they lie about the amount of money they received for property they sold (they told Peter they had donated the whole amount when they hadn’t).
The apostles heal many and gain popularity; as a result, they are persecuted by the Sanhedrin, but this doesn’t stop them. At one point they are arrested and jailed, but during the night an angel opens the doors and they walk out; on the advice of a highly respected Pharisee named Gamaliel — who taught Paul, by the way — the Sanhedrin then decide not to re-jail them.
The apostles choose seven more men to oversee the equitable distribution of food to widows, one of whom is Stephen.
Stephen is an effective preacher and miracle-worker, so he too is hauled before the Sanhedrin. After an impassioned speech, which concludes that the Sanhedrin in rejecting Christ are just like past Jews who have resisted God, Stephen is stoned to death: He is the first Christian martyr. And one of those approving the stoning and watching over the clothing laid down by the stoners was a man named Saul.
Indeed, Saul was a vigorous persecutor of the Christians in Jerusalem, and as a result of such persecution the apostles began to scatter elsewhere.
Philip preaches in Samaria. He is joined after a while by Peter, who chastises a local sorcerer named Simon for trying to bribe him (Peter) to give him (Simon) the ability to convey the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (this is where the word “simony” comes from, by the way). After leaving Samaria, Philip evangelizes in other places, most notably to an Ethiopian eunuch who is on his way back home from worshiping in Jerusalem.
Saul is converted on the road to Damascus (he is not called “Paul,” however, until 13:9): Jesus appears before him, temporarily striking him blind. After regaining his sight, he starts to evangelize to the Jews in Damascus, who are understandably baffled given his prior track record; they conspire to kill him, but he escapes by being lowered in a basket through a hole in the city wall. In Jerusalem, while many Christians not surprisingly don’t trust him, he is befriended and vouched for by Barnabas.
The church grows and Peter continues to minister and perform healing miracles. He has a vision that he is now allowed to eat any animal — that is, even animals considered unclean by Jews — and baptizes a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his household. So Christianity is becoming open to all, rather than just a Jewish cult.
Antioch becomes a hotbed of Christianity; Barnabas finds Saul in Tarsus and together they team up in Antioch, which is where the term “Christians” is first used.
King Herod arrests Peter, after killing the apostle James, but an angel enables him to escape from prison. Soon thereafter, Herod is struck down when he fails to disavow claims by an adoring crowd that he is a god.
Paul and His Missionary Journeys
Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Paul goes on his first missionary journey, accompanied by Barnabas (among others, but it is apparent that they are the two leaders). They start at Antioch (the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea), sail to Cyprus, and then head into the interior of what is now south central Turkey (traveling to Perga and nearby Attalia, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe); they then retrace their steps back to Antioch. Paul’s standard approach is to preach first in a new town at the synagogue, where he generally receives mixed (at best) reviews, and then to preach to the local Gentiles. Paul heals the lame and is frequently physically attacked because of his message.
While Paul is back in Antioch, a dispute breaks out among the broader church between those who believe that Gentiles who want to become Christians must also follow Jewish law (including, importantly, circumcision) and those who reject this claim (including, importantly, Paul). The question is presented to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem — the group making the decision is referred to now as “the Jerusalem council” — and, after Peter gives a speech endorsing the Pauline position, the decision is announced by James: Gentiles need not be burdened with following Jewish law except “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (see 15:23-29, where Luke reproduces the entire text of the letter that was sent).
Paul then goes on his second missionary journey. This one was considerably longer, starting again in Antioch but this time going overland through what is now south central Turkey (via Tarsus, Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium) to Pisidian Antioch, after which he has a vision that he should stop preaching in Asia and instead go to Macedonia. He accordingly proceeds to Troas Assos on the northeast corner of the Aegean Sea and from there sails into Europe, to Philippi in Macedonia. He then travels down the Greek coast through Thessalonica and Berea to Athens (where he speaks at a meeting of the Areopagus, with mixed results) and Corinth, where he stays “for some time” and where the Lord tells him in a vision, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” He has founded churches all along the way, continuing to follow his approach of talking to the local Jews first and then the Gentiles. Leaving Corinth, he now sails back east, to Ephesus, an important port then, near the middle of what is now the Turkish coast on the Aegean, and then sails on to Judea and goes overland to Jerusalem, and finally heading overland through what is now Syria and back to Antioch. Note that this time Paul is not traveling with Barnabas; they parted ways because of disagreement about whether to take along John Mark (Paul didn’t think him reliable because he had left them in mid-journey before; Paul replaced him with Silas, but apparently he and John Mark were later reconciled, see Colossians 4:10 and II Timothy 4:11).
Along the way on his second missionary journey, Paul picks up a young protege named Timothy in Lystra (my NIV study Bible notes, “Timothy is the first second-generation Christian mentioned in the New Testament”; his mother was a converted Jew, but his father was Greek). Near Philippi he converts a merchant woman named Lydia; he and Silas are imprisoned there because they banish a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl, but a violent earthquake opens the prison doors and allows them to convert the jailer; Paul then plays his Roman citizen card, as he does from time to time in Acts, to intimidate the local magistrates (that card, by the way, is why Paul can choose to be beheaded later on rather than crucified; membership has its privileges). In Corinth he meets a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who have been exiled along with other Jews from Rome by the the emperor Claudius; other local Jews haul him before the local Roman official there, too, but he is released; Priscilla and Aquila continue with Paul when he leaves Corinth and heads back east.
On his third missionary journey, Paul again travels overland from Antioch to revisit the churches he has started in Galatia and Phrygia in what is now south central Turkey and this time heads to Ephesus. He spends two to three years there, performs “extraordinary miracles,” then revisits the believers in Macedonia and Greece, and finally sails to Judea (making along the way a final stop in Miletus, about 50 miles from Ephesus, where he bids a tearful an eloquent farewell to the latter’s elders) via Cos, Rhodes, and Patara, and overland returns yet again to Jerusalem via the coastal cities of Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea.
On the third journey we’re introduced to an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos, another learned, powerful, and popular preacher. Paul does much healing (including a young man who has killed when he fell out a window after Paul’s long sermon put him to sleep — surely a close call that all clergy should take to heart) and must deal with a riot in Ephesus (precipitated by Paul’s preaching against idols, which was bad for the local idol dealers).
But at the conclusion of this third journey in Jerusalem, Paul is once again arrested, and the remainder of Acts recounts his imprisonment and convoluted legal proceedings there and in nearby Caesarea — before the Sanhedrin, then the Roman governor Felix, and then his successor Festus — followed by his subsequent decision to appeal in Rome and his eventful voyage to the Eternal City, which included a harrowing shipwreck off Malta. The book ends, poignantly, with Paul under house arrest but still preaching in Rome, first to the local Jews (with, as always, mixed results) and then “to all who came to see him.”
A Concluding Thought
The rather disjointed narrative of Peter’s ministry — just one darned thing after another — and the travelogue for Paul’s both ring true as an attempt, per Luke’s promise at the outset to Theophilus, of comprehensive straight reportage. And while the rather abrupt end to the book might reflect a plan on Luke’s part to write a third book (tradition says that Paul was eventually released from that Roman imprisonment, traveled to Spain, and was ultimately rearrested and beheaded in Rome, so Luke would certainly have had plenty of good material), it is also more evidence that Luke is giving us just the facts rather than attempting to write a polished literary trilogy. Luke reproduces verbatim a couple of letters (the one from the Jerusalem council discussed above, and a letter to the Roman governor Felix from one Claudius Lysias), and provides much rather random detail — again, hardly what you’d expect from a mythical narrative by a frustrated ancient novelist.
Now, a nonbeliever might say, sure, but what Luke has done is write a factual account and then mixed in a lot of made-up miracles and whatnot. But how plausible is that? Often the miraculous events are an inextricable part of the narrative, and it is hard to conceive of a reason why Luke would want to go to the trouble of concocting such an elaborate lie. Luke himself was apparently a fellow traveler, literally, with Paul for some of the book, and so he would himself have seen much of what he reported, and was also in a very good position to judge, for example, whether Paul in particular was a liar and/or lunatic. (I found a useful discussion of the “we” passages on the textual veracity point here: http://ed5015.tripod.com/BActsWeSections153.html.)
So the existence of this text may not be proof of all that happened, but it is certainly evidence — strong evidence.
P.S. Paul at one point quotes one of Jesus’ most famous sayings — “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20:35) — and what’s interesting is that it does not appear in the Gospels. So apparently someone had heard this and somehow it had gotten passed along to Paul. And indeed it sounds exactly like something Jesus would have said, does it not? Another bit of apparent veracity.