Now that we have completed our study of Isaiah, we are going to take up the Book of Acts. Acts is the second volume of the two-volume work, Luke-Acts. But that statement immediately raises a question. If Luke-Acts are a two-volume work, why are they not together in the New Testament? They undoubtedly did circulate together fro a time. But near the end of the first century, or at the beginning of the second, shortly after the publication of John’s Gospel, the four canonical Gospels were gathered into a collection that was circulated as a Gospel collection. Then Acts somehow began to circulate separately from Luke.
You may have noticed that I have used the title, “Book of Acts.” The traditional title, since the middle of the second century, is “The Acts of the Apostles.” However, some have been uncomfortable with the traditional title, because the book does not deal with all of the apostles. It deals mostly with only two of them: Peter and Paul. Today both titles are used.
Regarding so-called introductory questions, several matters that involve both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. The first is the issue of authorship. There is little dispute about authorship by Luke of both the Gospel and Acts, because the tradition that Luke wrote them is essentially universal from the late second century on, which suggests that there was a strong tradition of Lucan authorship prior to that. Some modern scholars have attempted to dispute Lucan authorship, but they have had little success. Thus the Church has long believed that Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), a Gentile companion of the apostle Paul, wrote both the Gospel and Acts. However both documents are anonymous. That is, the author does not identify himself anywhere in the text of either book.
So we looked at some internal evidence about the authorship. Internal evidence, you will remember, is evidence from the books themselves. We began by showing the connections between Luke and Acts that demonstrated they were written by the same author. In Luke 1:3 the author said he was writing the book for a man named Theophilus. Then in Acts 1:1 the author says, quote, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught.” So we saw that Acts also was written for Theophilus, and that the author described the “first book” in terms that indicate it was a Gospel.
We noted further that both books have similarity of language and style. Finally, we noted that the Gospel of Luke ends with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven (Lk. 24:44-53). And the book of Acts begins with an account of the Ascension in Acts 1:6-11. We also took note of the fact that no other Gospel writer tells us about the Ascension. Thus it was quite clear that Luke and Acts make up a two-volume work by the same author.
Next, we turned to the evidence that Luke is the author. We looked at the first of four so-called “we” passages in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-17; 27:1-28:16). They are called “we” passages, because in those passages the author records events at which he was present; and he writes in the first person plural. We found the first “we” passage in Acts 16:10-17. The context of the passage was Paul’s second missionary journey. We noted that the author had been writing in the third person throughout the book to that point. For example, verse six reads, quote, “They went through the region of Phyrgia and Galatia, having been forbidden to speak the word in Asia,” and so on. Then after Paul had a vision in verse nine of a man from Macedonia calling them to come to Macedonia, the author, in verse 10, suddenly changes from the third person to the first person. It reads, quote, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia.” This means that the author was a traveling companion of Paul’s on the second missionary journey. Other “we” passages indicate that the author also was traveling with Paul during his third missionary journey. So the list of candidates for authorship was immediately considerably narrowed.
Scholars have strongly debated whether or not the medical language used by the author in the two books indicates that he was a physician. But regardless of that, scholars generally agree that Luke the physician is the companion of Paul’s that best fits the evidence. Thus the traditional view of Lucan authorship most satisfactorily explains all of the evidence.
Next, we turned to the issue of to the date of the Gospel, which is closely tied to the date of Acts. Since most scholars believe Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a written source, they must date Mathew and Luke later then Mark.
Unfortunately, there are two views regarding Mark’s date. One view suggests that Mark was written in the fifties, which means that the earliest Matthew and Luke could have been written was in the sixties. The other view suggests that Mark could not have been written until the sixties, when the first Roman persecution took place. Therefore those scholars push the date for Matthew and Luke back to the seventies or eighties. These matters are important for dating Acts, because Acts had to be written after Luke.
At any rate there are three main proposals regarding the dating of Acts. One view is that Acts wasn’t written until the middle of the second century. That view essentially has been discredited, and we won’t take time to discuss it. A second view is that Acts was written in the seventies or eighties. Many, perhaps most, scholars today hold this view. They begin by accepting a date for Mark in the sixties, which requites Luke to have been written after AD 70. And that in turn requites Acts to have been written still later.
But many evangelical scholars, and I would include myself in this group, believe that Luke-Acts was written in the early sixties, perhaps about AD 60-61, but at least before AD 64. There are two major reasons. First, there is no indication in Acts that the author knew about significant events that took place between AD 60 and AD 70 such as the persecution of Christians by the Romans that began under Nero in AD 64 and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Second, the author never tells the outcome of Paul’s court case. Acts ends with Paul having been in prison in Rome for two years, yet enjoying considerable liberty to preach and teach while in prison. So when Luke finished writing Acts, he didn’t know the outcome of the trial.
Nero martyred Paul in AD 64. Those who date Acts in the seventies or eighties of course believe that Luke had to know the outcome of Paul’s trial, but chose not to tell it in Acts. Some of them say that Luke’s purpose was to describe the progress of the gospel, so he didn’t want to draw too much attention to Paul the man. Others say that Luke wanted to avoid ending Acts with the death of Paul as a parallel to his ending his Gospel with the death of Jesus. Still others suggest that Luke planned to write a third volume that would have told “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey liked to say. But due to circumstances Luke never got an opportunity to do that.
From my perspective, it is much more reasonable to believe that Luke ended Acts the way he did, because that was the situation at the time of writing. He did not know the outcome of Paul’s trial. Therefore I would date Luke-Acts before AD 64. Discussion?
Now then, next, we want to look at Luke’s purpose in writing Acts. In the first century, it was common practice for persons who were writing multi-volume works to state the purpose of the entire work at the beginning of the first volume. As Luke says in Luke 1:1-4, he was writing the books to give a man named Theophilus an accurate and orderly account of “the events that have been fulfilled among us,” about which Theophilus already had been instructed.
Now turning to Acts 1:1-5, in verses one and two Luke says, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” That is a very accurate summary of the Gospel of Luke, so as we clearly saw earlier, Acts is the second volume of a two-volume work. Thus the first volume is a record of apostolic witness to Jesus’ ministry of word and deed, his suffering, death, resurrection and triumphal ascension to heaven. And the second volume is a record, in summary form, of the history of the church over roughly the next thirty years.
However, the NIV and RSV have a much more helpful translation of the clause regarding the “first book.” The RSV translates, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” This brings out the powerful implication that Acts is a record of what Jesus continued to do and teach through the Holy Spirit, who is the spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7), and the apostles. In other words, Jesus ministry on earth was presented in the first book, and his ministry from heaven through the Holy Spirit and the apostles over the next thirty years is the content of the second Book.
Some extreme biblical critics have hotly disputed the historicity of Acts. But Luke claimed to be writing an accurate, orderly account (Luke 1:1-4). And the radical critics have not made their case against him. As John Stott points out (The Spirit, the Church, and the World: the message of Acts, pp 23-24), Luke was well qualified to write a history. He was a well-educated physician. And his stylish Greek shows him to have been a person of culture.
Moreover, Luke was a traveling companion of Paul’s during Paul’s second and third missionary journeys as well as his journey to Rome as a prisoner. So Luke had first hand information for writing much of the book.
Stott also points out that Luke spent two years in Palestine during Paul’s two-year imprisonment at Caesarea (Acts 21:17), and then he accompanied Paul on his voyage to Rome as a prisoner (24:27). The importance of this was that it gave Luke a two-year opportunity to travel Palestine interviewing apostles and others to gather material for the earlier chapters of his book. So he had opportunity to do the kind of research that he claimed in his preface to his Gospel.
Study of the details of the book, a study that we have not yet done, indicates additional purposes. For example, Luke develops a political apologetic. That is, he goes out of his way to demonstrate that the Roman authorities have nothing to fear from Christianity. Rather than being seditious or subversive, they have been good citizens. For example, Pilate had found Jesus innocent; and Paul, for all of the delays in his case, never was found guilty of anything. In addition, some Roman officials had become Christians, like the centurion at the cross, Cornelius, who also was a centurion, and Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul on Cyprus.
Stott also reminds us that Luke was a “peacemaker” in the church, quote, “He wanted to demonstrate by his narrative that the early church was a united church, that the peril of division between Jewish and Samaritan Christians and between Jewish and Gentile Christians was providentially avoided, and that the apostles, Peter, James, and Paul were in fundamental agreement about the gospel” (p. 27). Close quote.
Most scholars recognize that Luke is a theologian as well as an historian. Stott, following Howard Marshall, calls him a theologian of salvation (p. 30). And this is accurate, because throughout both books, Jesus’ death, resurrection, reign, and gift of the Holy Spirit are seen as the fulfillment of centuries of prophetic promises. And salvation is offered to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. In addition, Acts shows how Christianity grew in about three decades from a small sect among the Jews to a worldwide religion.
In verse two Luke tells us that Jesus gave the apostles, whom he had chosen, instructions before ascending to heaven. You will recall that the main thing he instructed them about was the great commission to take the gospel into the world and make disciples (Mt. 28:16-20).
In verse three, “the many convincing proofs” over a forty-day period that he was alive refers to the many resurrection appearances Jesus made to his disciples during those days. Then in verses four and five we see Jesus commanding them to wait in Jerusalem for “the promise of the Father,” which was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” The water baptism of John the Baptist was one thing, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit is quite another. As we see in Luke 24:49, the coming of the Holy Spirit would clothe them “with power from on high.”