The Book of Acts, which continues the narrative that Luke began in his gospel, is especially important because it was the first written history of the Christian church. Acts concerns the very vital period in Christian history between the resurrection of Jesus and the death of the apostle Paul, the time when Christian ideas and beliefs were being formulated and when the organization of the church into a worldwide movement was being developed. Only with knowledge of this background can we understand the writing of the Gospels, as well as the other New Testament literature that followed.
The book has been called "The Acts of the Apostles," really a misnomer because Acts has very little to say concerning most of the original Twelve Apostles. Peter's activities are described at some length, and John and Philip are mentioned, but more than half of the book is about Paul and his connection with the Christian movement. Scholars are somewhat divided in their opinions concerning the book's authorship. There can be no question about Luke being the author of parts of the book, but the inclusion of what has been called the "we sections" raises some question about the persons to whom the pronoun "we" refers. Was someone other than Luke also involved in the reports that are made? While no definite answer can be given to this question, it seems highly probable that Luke was the author of the original book, but the work of editors and redactors was added before the text reached the final form in which we have it today.
The Book of Acts contains twenty-eight chapters. Of these, the first twelve report events between the time of Jesus' last meeting with his disciples and the beginning of Paul's work as a Christian missionary. The remaining sixteen chapters describe Paul's activities, beginning with his mission to the church at Antioch and ending with an account of his residence in Rome as a prisoner of the Roman government. The events recorded in the first section of the book include such topics as the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the choosing of a disciple to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, the Feast of Pentecost and the so-called gift of tongues, Peter's sermon delivered on that occasion, the arrest of Peter and John in the Temple at Jerusalem, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, the stoning of Stephen, Philip's meeting with the eunuch and the baptism that followed, the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, and Peter's visit with Cornelius, the centurion. In addition to giving us some insight concerning the early activities of the Christian community, these accounts are especially valuable in that they tell us about the beliefs that Christians held concerning Jesus prior to the writing of the Gospels.
Paul's letter to the church at Corinth is the earliest written summary of the Christian faith. Paul mentions that he received no direct revelation concerning the facts pertaining to the life of Jesus and their significance for the Christian faith, but he is passing on to the members of that church what has been related to him by others. From this statement, we can infer that the essential beliefs of the Christian community about Jesus were already formulated and were included in the preaching that took place prior to that time. The first section of the Book of Acts reports several different sermons that give us definite information about these beliefs. These sermons constitute the kerygma, or the primitive gospel that was proclaimed by early Christians before any written records were made. For example, we are told of Peter's sermon to a group of about one hundred and twenty people, another sermon that he delivered on the day of Pentecost, and a third one that he preached in Jerusalem, standing on Solomon's porch in front of the Temple. Stephen's sermon at the time of his stoning is reported at considerable length, and we are told of Philip's instruction to the eunuch whom he baptized and again of Peter's discourse with Cornelius and his report to the Christian leaders at Jerusalem. In the last section of Acts, a number of Paul's sermons are recorded in considerable detail. From these records, it is possible to reconstruct with a fair degree of accuracy the main contents of the kerygma, or earliest preaching of the Christian church.
The story of the stoning of Stephen throws some light on those factors in Paul's experience that led to his conversion on the road to Damascus. From Chapter 13 to the end of the book, we have a somewhat detailed account of Paul's missionary journeys and his experiences with different churches. In Chapter 15, we have a report concerning the Jerusalem council in which the issue concerning circumcision was discussed. The account that Luke gives with reference to the results of this meeting does not agree in all details with the account of the same meeting given in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Since Paul was a participant in the council and Luke was giving what might be called a secondhand account, the preference must be given to the one in the Galatian letter. Luke was a strong believer in Christian unity, and in this instance, as well as in others that might be mentioned, he was anxious to minimize the differences between conflicting views. To him, the question had to be settled in a manner that was satisfactory to everyone.
The remainder of the Book of Acts describes Paul's visit to Macedonia. While in the city of Philippi, Paul and his companion, Silas, were thrown into prison. After an earthquake shook the prison, they were released and at Paul's insistence were given a police guard until they were safely out of the city. Paul's experiences at Athens and at Corinth are related, as is his work at Ephesus, where he stayed for a considerable period of time, probably from two to three years. The occasion for Paul's last visit to the city of Jerusalem was the collection of gifts from the various churches that he wished to give for the relief of poor Christians in that city. Trouble broke out while he was there, and he was accused of starting a riot in the Temple. Paul spoke at some length in his own defense. Forty men entered into a plot to kill Paul, but a friend warned Paul of the plot, and Paul appealed to a Roman officer for protection. The officer heeded his request, and Paul was given asylum at Caesarea, a seat of the Roman government. In Caesarea, hearings were held before Felix and Agrippa, to each of whom Paul was given an opportunity to speak in his own defense. At his request, he was permitted to go to Rome in order that his case might be tried in Caesar's court. On the voyage to Rome, he was shipwrecked but eventually did get to Rome, where he was accorded a considerable amount of liberty even though he was still a prisoner. After a time, he was tried, convicted, and executed.
In writing the Book of Acts, Luke traces the expansion of the Christian movement from its earliest beginnings to the time when it reached worldwide proportions. Luke was keenly aware of the way in which Christianity was being attacked by enemies of the movement, and he wanted to present the story of its development in a most favorable light. Although it was quite impossible to write a complete history of the movement, he selected those events that he regarded as the more important ones, sufficient to characterize the movement as a whole. Having been a companion of Paul, he was more familiar with Paul's work than he was with the activities of other Christian leaders. Then, too, he was an admirer of Paul and realized the significance of Paul's work in bringing the gospel to various cities. He deeply appreciated the points of view held by Jewish Christians, who conceived of Christianity as a further development of Judaism instead of as an entirely separate movement. He wanted to emphasize the agreements rather than the differences among those groups whose ideas frequently clashed with one another. In this respect, he was a kind of troubleshooter of the early Christian movement.
We do not know what source materials Luke used for writing Acts. Some things he observed himself, and quite possibly he may have kept a diary from which he extracted materials that were useful for his narrative. Presumably he had access to other manuscripts, and some of what he reported was obtained by direct conversation with others. Many things were omitted, and Luke was not completely unbiased in all that he wrote, but given these limitations, Luke produced a remarkable piece of work whose inclusion in the New Testament contributes a great deal toward a better understanding of the entire work.
The early Christian sermons that Luke summarized and recorded form to a very great extent the basis for a reconstruction of the kerygma, and from this point of view, the gospel records were made. Luke's account of how Christianity made its way among Gentiles without discarding the more vital points of Judaism did much toward establishing unity. The account of Paul's arrest in the city of Jerusalem and the trials that followed clearly vindicate Paul in the eyes of any impartial reader. The end of the book is somewhat disappointing because one would expect to read about Paul's trial in Caesar's court, but the account ends rather abruptly. Some people think that Luke intended to write a third volume of his history but was unable to do so. Of this we cannot be certain. However, we are indebted to Luke in no small measure for the two accounts of Christianity that he did write.