God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Learning to Live in the Spirit:
An introduction to the book of Acts
Dr. Jim Denison
Book of Acts overview
West Texans know the difference between a “flush-pump” well and an “artesian” well. A flush-pump well is drilled down to a water source; the tubing and pump handle are installed; and the handle is pumped until water is forced to the surface. An artesian well is quite different: when it is drilled to the water source, the underground pressure forces the water through the hole to the surface.
Many of us live a flush-pump faith. We pump ourselves up by studying Scripture, praying, attending worship services and religious events, and striving to grow in our faith. But an artesian well faith is possible. We can live in Christ so that his Spirit flows through us in victorious and power-filled daily experience. Who would choose the former when the latter is available to us?
The book of Acts describes Christianity as God intends it to be lived. Here we meet those who laid the foundations upon which the Church has worked to build the Kingdom across more than twenty centuries. These men and women were closest historically to Jesus; many of them walked personally with him in his incarnate ministry. His Spirit used them to initiate the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.
Let’s remember the purposes and priorities which motivated the apostolic Christians. Then we will live in the Spirit and continue the Acts which he empowers.
What is the book of “Acts”?
Who wrote the book?
Nowhere does the book we title “Acts of the Apostles” name its author. But reading the book, we encounter an interesting phenomenon beginning with Paul’s trip west to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17): the writer describes Paul’s group as “we.” He includes himself in the missionary team again when they moved from Philippi to Troas and Ephesus (20:5-16), on their journey to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and to Rome (27:1—28:16). So in identifying our author, we are looking for a missionary associate of Paul.
We know that Luke the physician was a close companion of the apostle. Paul calls him a dear friend and doctor (Colossians 4:10-14), his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), and lists him among his companions at the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11). In addition, early tradition names this doctor as the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) and the Muratorian Canon (end of 2nd century) are among the important historical sources. By the 3rd century, the Church held the unanimous opinion that Luke is the author of our text.
So who was he?
He was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Luke 1:1-4, where he states that he interviewed eyewitnesses in preparing his book). He was a man of excellent education; his Greek is the most advanced in the New Testament, and his use of medical terms is unique in the Bible (cf. Acts 3:7, where he describes in medical language the healing of the cripple).
Luke was a Gentile, probably the only Gentile writer in the New Testament (excepting perhaps the author of Hebrews). He makes clear that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 2:21; 10:43; 13:46-48; 15:16-18; 28:28). He shows God’s care for all persons in need (cf. the beggar of ch. 3, Cornelius in ch. 10, the sailors of ch. 27). Women are important to him and to the Kingdom (cf. Dorcas, 9:36-42; Lydia, 16:11-15).
He wrote to a world filled with skeptics against his faith. For instance, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian wrote (A.D. 118), “The Christians got their name from one Christus, who was executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh—not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world collect and find a home” (Annals 15.44).
In a very real sense, Luke is more like us than any other biblical writer. We are not eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ; we are Gentiles; we live in a world of modern education; we work in a global economy and share universal concerns; and we face a skeptical culture. The God who used Luke’s work to change his world will use ours in the same way, if we learn to live in the Spirit as he did.
How was Acts written?
The traditional title of our book, “Acts of Apostolic Men” or “Acts of the Apostles,” was given to the work in the mid-second century. The original text, as with all the book of the Bible, was untitled. This title is not entirely accurate—only four apostles are mentioned in the narrative (James, 12:2; John, though he never speaks; Peter; and Paul, the primary figure from ch. 13 forward). A much better title is “Accts of the Holy Spirit.”
The book, like the Gospel of Luke, is dedicated to “Theophilus” (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). His name means “lover of God,” but his identity is otherwise unknown. He may have been a Christian whose given name Luke wishes to keep secret for protection. He might have been a high government official whom Luke wrote in attempting to defend Christians against persecution. It is possible that he was Luke’s former master (doctors were often slaves). Perhaps Theophilus released Luke, and the physician wrote and dedicated this book and his Gospel to him in appreciation. Or he may have been Luke’s financial sponsor for his project.
The unidentified recipient of the book makes the narrative even more universally relevant. You and I are not Romans or Philippians; no book of the Bible was written specifically to us. But if we are a “lover of God,” this book is for us.
The book seems dependent upon the Gospel of Mark, and thus would have been written after A.D. 45. It does not record Paul’s death, which occurred before Nero’s demise in A.D. 68. Tradition places the origin of the book at Antioch, Paul’s headquarters. But Rome is possible, as the book ends there, as is Ephesus, a major focus of the narrative.