The book of Acts is full of wisdom for the function and structure of the church. Two descriptions that may be familiar are “birth of the early church” and “acts of the Apostles.” Both are accurate and helpful. However, Tony Merida appropriately adjusts our primary lens by summarizing the book of Acts like this: “Acts of the Lord Jesus through the Apostles and Church by the Power of the Spirit.1”
Merida emphasizes the proper subject–God and his sovereignty.
The author, Luke, pens the book of Acts as a continuation of his gospel and fulfilling his promise to Theophilus:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).
Closer in, Luke structures Acts to trace the spread of the gospel in “… Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
As we enter the book, three major themes can guide our interpretations.
The first 7 chapters are full of speeches2. Each speech reveals a unifying story through the history of God’s people. The story is one of deliverance, redemption, preservation, and promises kept, all by the hands and mouth of an active God. Readers of Acts will notice consistent language related to God’s divine work. Language like “God gave,” “God did,” “God accomplished,” and so on3.
Each speech is beautiful as it retells historical events with divinely chosen men and women through whom God would bless the world with the Messiah. Readers will be confronted with the majestic and gracious “plan and foreknowledge of God4” that secured salvation for all nations.
With every turn in the narrative, we ought to look for how God–Father, Son, and Spirit–is moving, working, and accomplishing in and through his church as he has throughout history.
In Genesis, God promised Eve’s seed would crush the serpent and destroy sin5. In a few words, this promise is the essence of the gospel. God revealed over time why, how, and who that gospel message was.
Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit so the church would continue spreading the good news to all nations and make disciples6. For this reason, Acts is a significant turning point in God’s redemptive plan.
Luke writes with a direct voice and without commentary. He shepherds his hearers by focusing on the proclamation of the gospel and its implications. There is always one of two responses to the gospel, either acceptance or rejection. Ultimately, the gospel triumphs.
Readers of Acts will notice a constant reference to multiplication–the church multiplied, the believers multiplied, many were saved, many were added, etc. In this way the gospel triumphs amidst opposition, rejection, and suffering.
Structurally, the book of Acts shows our active God unfolding the large-scale blessing of salvation. In history, God chose the nation of Israel to be set apart and distinct as representatives of his grace and mercy. Israel’s election was never meant to stop with themselves, though. God’s purpose in their distinction was to be a light and soundpost for the one, true God.
Unfortunately, over time, Jews allowed their distinction to fuel pride. They looked to the other nations (Gentiles) not as the object of witness but as enemies. By the time we get to the Book of Acts, many Jews believed that circumcision and obedience to the law acquired salvation.
Readers of Acts will see this through the repeatedly addressed question: how could the God of Israel include Gentiles in his salvific plan? The Apostles and leaders of the early church are brilliant in their rebuke, reproof, and unity. It becomes clear that God is building a new community from a structural standpoint. The salvation of Gentiles is not “new” in that they were never before saved, but “new” in that God’s people were no longer centered around a nation but across the world around a person. Structurally, Jesus is the fulfillment of circumcision, the law, and the temple.
Students of Acts will join the Apostles in the worship of a God who is ever-present, all-knowing, gracious, and steadfast. Acts will invite us to consider our faithfulness to proclaim the gospel to all ethnicities, backgrounds, and personalities. We’ll realize our Lord is ruling and reigning and the Spirit is alive and moving. Finally, we’ll be rooted further in the radical message of the gospel–we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.