Acts is an important book for our understanding of the origins and growth of the early church. Its longer title, The Acts of the Apostles, reflects the prominence of the apostles Peter and John in the early days of the church, and the prominence of the apostle Paul in the subsequent expansion of the church into the Gentile world. The book is important also for our understanding of the writings of the New Testament as a whole. Paul’s earlier letters all belong to the period of Acts, and present-day readers will understand even the remaining letters of the New Testament better when they are familiar with Acts.
The writer of Acts
Early Christian records, including the record within the Bible itself, indicate that Luke wrote the book of Acts. The book was the second of two volumes that Luke wrote, the first being Luke’s Gospel. Luke wrote for a person of some importance named Theophilus, to give him a trustworthy account of Christianity from the birth of its founder to the arrival of its greatest apostle in Rome (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2).
Luke was a doctor by profession (Col 4:14), but he became also a skilled historian. Secular historians acknowledge him as a reliable writer, whose record is a valuable source of information on a period that changed the course of world history. He carefully dated the beginning of his story according to well known events in secular history (Luke 1:5; 2:1-2; 3:1-2), and the findings of archaeology confirm the exactness of the technical words he used in relation to places and officials (Acts 13:7; 16:12,35; 18:12,16; 19:31,35).
Parts of Acts are Luke’s eye-witness accounts, indicated by his use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ in some of the narratives. On two of Paul’s missionary journeys he spent some time travelling with Paul (Acts 16:10-12; 20:5-6,13; 21:1,7,17), and he accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome that concludes the book (Acts 27:1-3; 28:16; cf. Philem 23-24).
From the title of honour that Luke uses in addressing Theophilus, it seems that Theophilus might have been a high ranking official in the Roman government (Luke 1:3; cf. Acts 23:26; 26:25). Whether he was or not, there is no doubt that at the time Luke wrote (in the early AD 60s) the Roman government was paying increasing attention to Christianity. Luke was therefore concerned to point out that Christianity was in no way rebellious to Roman rule and was not a threat to law and order. To understand why such a defence of Christianity was necessary, we should first consider the circumstances of the Roman Empire in which the Christians lived.
During the last century of the pre-Christian era, Rome had spread its power far and wide, but this did not immediately produce the Roman Empire as we know it in the New Testament. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Rome went through a disastrous time of civil war, political confusion and social upheaval. Thousands of people were poor and without work, and lawlessness was widespread. Corruption flourished among government officials, and ambitious army generals were constantly plotting for more power.
Then, in 27 BC, arose one man who was able firstly to control, then to correct, the disorders. He became the first ruler of what became known as the Roman Empire, and he took the name of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). He was so honoured by the people that the rulers of the Roman Empire after him took his name, Caesar, as the title of the Emperor (Luke 3:1; 20:22; Acts 25:11,25).
The people were so thankful for the peace and order that Augustus brought that they praised him in language usually used only for the gods. From this arose Emperor worship, which became the official religion of the Empire. The government allowed other religions, but those religions had first to be officially registered. Nevertheless, all people had to offer worship to the Emperor’s image, even if they belonged to one of the other (registered) religions. The only exception concerned the Jews. The Roman authorities did not force Jews to join in Emperor worship, because they knew that Jews would never bow to any idol. As long as the Roman authorities thought that Christianity was part of the Jewish religion,
they took no action against the Christians. But once they saw that it was a new religion, different from Judaism and therefore outside the law, they persecuted the Christians cruelly.
Originally, a Roman citizen was an inhabitant of Rome, whose citizens were given special privileges by the Emperor. Later, the government extended Roman citizenship to people of other cities and provinces, as well as to people who had given outstanding service to the Empire. Some people were able to buy Roman citizenship. People could have Roman citizenship even if they were not of Roman blood, and this citizenship passed on to their children (Acts 22:28).
Roman citizens could not lawfully be bound or beaten by local judges or officials, nor could they be executed without a verdict from a general meeting of the people. If they were not satisfied with the justice they received, they could appeal direct to the Emperor (Acts 16:37; 22:25-29; 25:11).
There was much trade and travel between the provinces of the Roman Empire. Government officials, businessmen and soldiers went to all parts of the Empire to promote trade and maintain peace. They usually settled in towns that the Romans called colonies. These were towns established as centres of Roman life in a non-Roman world, and their citizens enjoyed the right of self-government and the privileges of Roman citizenship. Among these Roman colonies were Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Troas, Corinth and Philippi (Acts 16:12).
These and other important towns were linked to each other and to Rome by a system of roads that the Romans built throughout their Empire. The early Christian missionaries chose important towns along these roads as centres for the extension of the gospel. Once strong churches were established in these centres, the gospel would quickly spread to other places along the roads and in the regions round about.
The Greek language, which had become widely used during the time of the Greek Empire, was now the most commonly spoken language of the Roman Empire. This helped considerably towards the rapid spread of Christianity to the peoples of many nations. Local people of different regions continued to speak their own languages (the Jews of Palestine, for example, spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew), but they usually spoke Greek as well (cf. Mark 5:41; 15:34; John 19:20; Acts 14:11; 22:2).
Greek was also the language most widely used for reading and writing. The New Testament was written in Greek – not the classical Greek of the scholars, but the common Greek of the ordinary people. Yet it was still a rich and powerful language, well suited to be the means by which God made known his purposes to the world.
Jews in the Roman Empire
Over the centuries Jews had become scattered throughout the lands of the Roman Empire. Some of these had migrated in search of better commercial opportunities, and others had fled as refugees in times of oppression. Then there were those who had been taken captive to foreign lands by conquerors such as Babylon, and those who had moved elsewhere when given permission by overlords such as Persia. They were known as ‘the Jews of the Dispersion’ or ‘the scattered Jews’ (John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Kings 15:29; 17:6; 24:14-15; 25:11; Ezra 1:1-4).
Because they and their ancestors had lived in other countries so long, most of these Jews spoke only Greek. They had no knowledge of Palestinian languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic. However, they maintained their Jewish identity and unity through following the religion of their ancestors. Wherever they lived they built synagogues as centres for worship, teaching and supervision of Jewish affairs in general (Luke 4:16-17,31-33; 12:11; Acts 13:14; 17:1; 18:7-8). They kept the traditions of the law of Moses and went to Jerusalem for various ceremonies and festivals (John 5:1; 7:1-3).
Many Gentiles were attracted by the high moral standards of the Jewish religion and often joined in the synagogue services. Some were even circumcised and baptized as Jews, and so became known as proselytes, or converts to Judaism (Acts 2:10-11; 6:5). Most, however, did not become full proselytes, preferring simply to attend the synagogue, listen to the teaching, and keep certain sabbath and food laws. These were called God-fearers, or worshippers of God (Acts 10:1-2; 16:14). Many of these Gentiles, having already a knowledge of God and a desire to worship him, readily became Christians when they first heard the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 13:43; 14:1; 17:4).
God’s true people
Throughout his book Luke made it clear to Theophilus that Christians, not the followers of Judaism, were the true people of God. Christianity was not an illegal religion, but the legitimate continuation of the religion established by Abraham and developed through Moses, David and the Israelite nation (Acts 2:31- 33; 13:26-33; 15:15-18; 26:22-23; 28:23).
This progression from the old era to the new, from the Jewish age to the Christian, came about through Jesus Christ. He was God’s Saviour for the world, the Messiah of whom the Jewish religion spoke and for whom it prepared the way (Acts 2:36; 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5,28). Though he had physically left the world and returned to his heavenly Father, he was in a sense still in the world. Through the Holy Spirit he lived within his followers, the Christians, and through them he continued to work (Acts 1:4-5; 2:33; 3:6,16; 4:30-31; 5:31-32). The growth of the church was the ongoing work of the living Christ, acting by his Spirit through his followers (Acts 8:39; 9:17,31; 10:19,45; 13:2,4; 15:28; 16:7-7).
Christians were people who cared for others. They brought help and healing to those who were sick, distressed, lonely, and poor (Acts 3:2-6; 5:15-16; 9:32-41; 11:28-29; 14:8-10; 28:7-9). They may have been involved at times in civil disturbances, but Luke pointed out by one example after another that they were never the trouble-makers. Consistently the Roman authorities declared the Christians to be innocent (Acts 16:37-39; 18:12-16; 19:31,37; 23:29; 25:18; 26:31-32; 28:30-31). In almost every case where there was trouble involving the Christians, the Jews were to blame (Acts 9:23,29; 13:50; 14:2,5,19; 17:5,13; 18:12-17; 21:27).
Luke’s entire story emphasized the triumph of the Christian gospel and the life-giving blessings it brought for all people, regardless of race. The first part of the story had concluded with the triumphant return of the risen Christ to his heavenly Father (Luke 24:50-53). The second part begins at the same point (Acts 1:1-11) and shows how, in only thirty years, Christianity grew from a handful of believers in Jerusalem to a vast community that brought new life and hope to Asia Minor, eastern Europe, and even to Rome itself (Acts 28:31).