Acts surpasses nearly all the New Testament Books in length. It is an inseparable link between the Gospels and the Epistles. Therefore, without Acts, the New Testament would be incomplete. Originally, Luke’s two writings, his Gospel account and Acts, most likely were circulated as one work. The narrative of Acts was the natural sequel to the story of Luke’s Gospel account. When John’s record was published as the final Gospel at the end of the first century, Luke’s Gospel was weaned from Acts and linked with the other three Gospels to become known corporately as “The Gospels”. At about the same time, Paul’s writings were being collected and identified under one title, “The Apostle”. Thus, seventeen New Testament Books were brought together and reduced to two units. Moreover, these two units found their common link in Acts. Therefore, Acts is the continuation of the Gospels account and establishes the basis for the Epistles.
Portraying the developing church, Luke follows a path that leads him to countries north and west of Jerusalem. He relates what occurred in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome, omitting what happened elsewhere. Luke bypasses many names of the countries which he lists as nations (2:9-11). These countrymen came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, heard the Gospel proclaimed, and returned to their home lands. Luke disregards what happened in countries to the south and east of Israel.
Luke, the master writer, was also a professional researcher. He interviewed many witnesses, for their firsthand accounts of the life of Jesus to pen the Gospel of Luke. Research of written sources was also required. Luke had personally experienced much of Acts history or learned about it from his companion Paul.
A. Sources for Writing Acts
From all the available material, Luke selects only certain incidents and when he describes them, he is deliberately brief. For instance, his report on the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) raises many questions because of its briefness. He relates that Peter, who is the leader of the Jerusalem church, simply leaves for another place (12:17). Luke states that at the conclusion of Paul’s second missionary journey, Paul “went up and greeted the church” (18:22), implying that this was at Jerusalem.
Historians in the ancient world set strict limits to the narrative material which came by way of oral tradition or other sources.
Luke had to be brief in view of the wealth of material and length of the period of time he covered. Tradition places Jesus’ ascension (described in 1:9-11) about 30 A.D. Paul’s release from prison was around 60 – 63 A.D. These dates are only approximate; therefore, Luke covers about thirty years. Luke tells us that Jesus began his public ministry when He was thirty years old. This ministry lasted three and one half years. The period that the Gospel of Luke covers is about thirty years. The total number of years for both Luke and Acts is about sixty years.
Acts is continuous of Luke, but it was separated during the second century. However, the introduction of Luke also applies to Acts. Luke writes that his information was handed down to him by eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, Luke 1:2. As he collected his material from the Apostles and other eyewitnesses for the Gospel, he obtained facts for Acts from Peter, Paul, James, Silas, and Timothy. The use of the pronouns we and us in Acts, reveals that Luke was present as an eyewitness. He indicates that he was in Jerusalem when Paul was arrested and that he met James and the elders (21:17-18).
Luke begins the Book of Acts with the first person singular pronoun “I” (1:1) and in the second half he uses the first person plural “we.” Since his style of writing is the same throughout Acts, we can draw the conclusion that the personal pronouns refer to the author of this book.
Luke’s Gospel can be compared with the other Gospels, but Acts as a historical account is unique. It is the only history book of the early church in the Bible.
The early readers of Acts were acquainted with Paul and his fellow worker, Luke (Col. 4:14; II Tim. 4:11; Phil. 24), and were able to check the accuracy of this writing. Members of the churches at Ephesus and Colosse would know the names and places Luke mentions in Paul’s journeys. They would have rejected the book as fraudulent, if Luke had presented fiction.
Therefore, we reason that Luke depended on oral tradition which he received from persons having personal knowledge of the events that had occurred.
The three movements in Acts follow its key verse, Acts 1:8:
a. Witnesses in Jerusalem (1:1 – 8:4)
After appearing to His disciples for 40 days (1:3), the Lord tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the fulfillment of His promise concerning the Holy Spirit. Ten days after His ascension, this promise is significantly fulfilled as the disciples are suddenly empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit. The disciples are transformed and filled with courage to proclaim the brand new message of the resurrected Savior. Peter’s powerful sermon, like all the sermons in Acts, is built upon the resurrection, and 3,000 persons responded with saving faith. After dramatically healing a man who was lame from birth, Peter delivers a second crucial message to the people of Israel resulting in thousands of additional responses. The religious leaders arrest the Apostles, and this gives Peter an opportunity to preach a special sermon to them.
The enthusiasm and joy of the infant church is marred by internal and external problems. Ananias and Sapphira receive the ultimate form of discipline because of their treachery, and the Apostles are imprisoned and persecuted because of their witnesses. Seven men, including Stephen and Philip, are selected to assist the Apostles. Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin. In his defense, Stephen surveys the scriptures to prove that the man they condemned and killed was the Messiah. The members of the Sanhedrin react to Stephen’s words by dragging him out of the city and making him the first Christian martyr.
b. Witnesses in Judea and Samaria (8:5 – 12:25)
Philip goes to the province of Samaria and successfully proclaims the new message to a people hated by the Jews. Peter and John confirm his work and exercise their apostolic authority by imparting the Holy Spirit to these new members of the body of Christ. God sovereignly transforms Saul the persecutor into Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, but He uses Peter to introduce the Gospel to the Gentiles. In a special vision Peter realizes that Christ has broken down the barrier between Jew and Gentile. After Cornelius and other Gentiles come to Christ through his preaching, Peter convinces the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem that “the Gentiles had also received the Word of God” (11:1). Even while experiencing more and more persecution, the church continues to increase, spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
c. Witness to the end of the earth (13 – 28)
Beginning with Acts 13, Luke switches the focus of Acts from Peter to Paul. Antioch in Syria gradually replaces Jerusalem as the head-quarters of the church, and all three of Paul’s missionary journeys originate from that city. Their first journey, about A.D. 48-49, concentrates on the Galatian cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. After this journey, a council is held among the Apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem to determine that the Gentile converts need not submit to the Law of Moses. The second missionary journey, about A.D. 50-52, brings Paul once again to the Galatian churches, and then for the first time on to Macedonia and Greece. Paul spends much of his time in the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth, and later returns to Jerusalem and Antioch. In his third missionary journey, about A.D. 53-57, Paul spends almost three years in the Asian city of Ephesus before visiting Macedonia and Greece for the second time. Although he is warned not to go to Jerusalem, Paul cannot be dissuaded.
It was not long before Paul is falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple. Only the Roman commander’s intervention prevents him from being killed by the mob. Paul’s defense before the people and before the Sanhedrin evokes violent reactions. When the commander learns of a conspiracy to assassinate Paul, he sends his prisoner to Felix, the governor in Caesarea. During his two year imprisonment there, about A.D. 57-59, Paul defends the Christian faith before Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. His appeal to Caesar requires a long voyage to Rome, where he is placed under house arrest until his trial.
Acts contains direct speech; with about one half of the entire book is dialogue. There are at least twenty-six speeches, both short and long. They are made by Apostles, Christian leaders, and non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles.
Luke presents eight addresses by Peter, a lengthy sermon by Stephen before the Sanhedrin (7:2-53), a brief explanation by Cornelius (10:30-33), James addressing the Jerusalem council (15:13-21), James giving advice to Paul and the elders in Jerusalem (21:20-25) and nine sermons and speeches by Paul. The remaining discourses by Gamaliel, the Pharisees, Demetrius, the silversmith, a city clerk in Ephesus, Tertullus, a lawyer, and Festus, the governor. Luke also relates the text of two letters: one from the Jerusalem Council to the Gentile churches and the other by Claudius Lysias to Governor Felix.
Speeches are fascinating because when people speak we learn something about their personalities. This sets the book of Acts apart from all other canonical books. Luke portrays people as they are when we listen or read their speech; we come to know them, personally.
Luke heard Paul in Philippi, Ephesus, Jerusalem, and defending himself before Festus and Agrippa. He gathered information on the addresses of Peter from him. Some of these addresses include: Peter in the upper room; near Solomon’s Colonnade; before the Sanhedrin; and at the Jerusalem Council. Perhaps Paul and other witnesses provided information on Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin.
In his Gospel, Luke provides a few time references to demonstrate that his Gospel message is founded on historical fact. Read Luke 1:5, 2:1, and 3:1.
Luke’s history lacks exact dates. Nevertheless, historical precision is more pronounced implicitly in Acts than in the Gospel of Luke. We are able to attain time references in Acts. The book itself appears to be written chronologically with a few exceptions.
D. Luke, the Writer
Most authorities agree that Luke was the writer of Acts. Ancient witnesses, dating as early as A.D. 170, are practically unanimous about this point. The strongest internal evidence for Luke as the author is the fact that Acts and the third Gospel are both addressed to Theophilus, and Acts refers to a “first account,” which obviously was the Gospel.
Paul notes in Colossians 4:14 that Luke was a physician by profession. From an analysis of Luke’s vocabulary in both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, we learn that the writer could have been a medical doctor, who in his writings reflects his profession. Both Eusebius and Jerome testify that Luke hailed from Antioch. In Acts, the writer seems to have a tendency for mentioning Antioch.
Out of the fifteen times that Antioch in Syria is mentioned in the New Testament, fourteen instances occur in Acts. For Luke, Antioch is important because here the church had the vision to send forth missionaries to the Greco-Roman world. If he resided in Antioch, Luke would have met Barnabas (11:22), Paul (11:26), and Peter (Gal. 2:11). And in this city he undoubtedly heard the Gospel message, was converted, and became a disciple of the Apostles.
Luke’s Gospel and Acts are closely related because of the dedication of these two books to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Incidentally, the address “most excellent Theophilus” seems to imply that Theophilus belonged to a high-ranking social class (compare 23:26; 24:3; 26:25). Also, the introductory verse of Acts (1:1) reveals that it is the second volume Luke has written, and a continuation of the first volume (the Gospel).
The name Luke, however, is absent from both his Gospel and Acts. The Gospel became known as “the Gospel according to Luke,” yet the major manuscripts omit the name of Luke in the title of Acts. This is no obstacle if we consider that none of the evangelists mentions his own name in the Gospel account he wrote.
Luke became a follower of Paul, as we are able to ascertain from the “we” passages in the second part of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1 – 28:16). He was with Paul on the second missionary journey, accompanied him from Macedonia to Jerusalem at the conclusion of the third missionary journey, apparently stayed in Judea and Caesarea while Paul was in prison, and finally traveled with Paul to Rome. In his Epistles, Paul himself testifies to the fact that Luke was his companion and fellow worker (Col. 4:14; II Tim.4:11; Phil. 24).
Luke probably wrote Acts while in Rome, toward the end of Paul’s two-year imprisonment there, or about A.D. 61. He could not have completed his writing earlier than this, since Acts records Paul’s imprisonment (28:30), which is dated around A.D. 59-61. The Holy Spirit’s design was not to include any more of Paul’s life or of the church’s experience in this book, and so He inspired Luke to write at that time.
The following statements present the idea that the Gospel of Luke was written at an earlier date.
There is no indication where Luke composed Acts. Had he written parts of it already before he accompanied Paul on his voyage to Rome? Was he able to keep his documents safe during the shipwreck at Malta? Did he complete the book in Rome during the two years of Paul’s house arrest? The questions can be multiplied. However, a definite answer cannot be found. Some scholars point to Achaia as a possible place of composition, others to Rome.
4. Style and Language
Luke is an able writer who, compared with other Greek authors deserves respect and admiration for composing a book that in style, word, choice, grammar, and vocabulary takes a place between writers of Koine Greek and those of the classical period. In addition to excellent Greek (including use of the numerous instances of the grammatical use and construction), Luke records many Aramaic phrases/names in his account. Some of these are names of places and individuals. For example: Akeldama (1:19), Barsabbas (1:23), Tabitha (9:26,40), and Bar-Jesus (13:6).
Perhaps because Luke was recording accounts that were reported to him orally, he often adjusted his style to write popular instead of literary Greek. As a result, in many places the use or construction of words or phrases in a sentence or clause lacks clarity and precision. Following are two examples:
“Then the captain with his officers brought them not with force, for they feared the people that they not be stoned” (5:26). The meaning of the last clause is “for they feared that the people would stone them.”
“For many of those who had unclean spirits crying with a loud voice went out, and many who had been paralyzed and [many who] were lame were healed”(8:7). The meaning of the first part of the sentence is, “Evil spirits shrieking loudly were coming out of many people.”
These examples are only a couple from countless others throughout the entire book. In some sentences Luke neglects to give the subject of the sentence, so that its meaning is obscure. For instance: “And there after his father died, he made him move to this land in which you now dwell. And he did not give him an inheritance” (7:4-5). The subject of these two sentences is God, which the translator must supply to clarify the meaning.
There is no explainable answer as to why Luke, who proves that he is capable of writing excellent Greek, presents grammar that is incomplete and defective. The grammatical irregularities seem to reflect the sources Luke consulted for the composition of his book. Yet these peculiarities enhance, not diminish, the stature of Acts. The book itself is a piece of literary art.
The title of Acts, probably added in the second century, is problematic in many respects. Some Bible translations feature the designation “Acts of the Apostles”, and have the support of early church fathers. But apart from listing the twelve Apostles in chapter one, Luke discusses only the ministry of Peter and Paul. To be sure, John accompanies Peter to the temple in the afternoon for prayer, (3:1) and to Samaria (8:14). Obviously, this descriptive title of the book is too broad. The suggestion to resort to the name of “Acts of Peter and Paul” has not met any favorable response because in this book, Luke also narrates the ministry of Stephen, Philip, Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy.
Next a proposal to label the book “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” failed in its bid to gain support. Notwithstanding Luke’s emphasis on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (2:1-4), Samaria (8;17), Caesarea (10:44-46), and Ephesus (19:6), the content of the book is much broader than the proposed title conveys. Moreover, in the first verse of Acts, Luke implies that he is writing a continuation of his Gospel. He indicates that his first volume is a book of “all that Jesus began both to do and to teach” (1:1). By implication he says that in Acts Jesus continues his work. The emphasis, then, falls not so much on the Holy Spirit but rather on what Jesus is doing in developing the church in Jerusalem, Samaria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy.
Still another choice is to name the book “Acts”. The brevity of this title is attractive. Although it avoids the objections raised against the other names, it is nevertheless nondescript and colorless. Ancient writers commonly used the expression “acts” to describe the deeds of illustrious heroes, including Cyrus and Alexander the Great. The title for Acts, accordingly, whether long or short, remains problematic.
The sequence of Luke-Acts from the hand of Luke can be compared with the sequence of Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. The difference, however, is that Christians in the first century placed Luke’s “first book” with the Gospels and considered Acts a history of the church. Thus they placed Acts in the category of historical books. In short, Acts relates the history of the early church.