On Sunday we continued in our new series, The Movement. You can watch or listen to the sermons from the past two Sundays HERE. This year Vintage Church will take a journey through the book of Acts looking at The Movement Jesus began with his church. While we don’t know everything about the early church, we can learn a lot about the church from the book of Acts. The book of Acts is a historical account of who the early church was. This account is a picture of The Movement. To give us a better understanding of the book of Acts we created a small introduction booklet. You can find an electronic version of this book HERE. Last week we answered two questions: (1) Who wrote the book of Acts and (2) When was the book of Acts written? You can find that blog HERE. This week we are going to answer two more questions: (1) What type of book is Acts? and (2) Why was Acts written?
What Type of Book Is Acts?
While Acts probably never had a title originally, the genre of the book helped to give the book a generally accepted title. The historically accepted title of the book of Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles.” This title became associated with Luke’s work sometime during the second century AD.1 This title makes sense in light of what Luke was trying to share with his original readers and us today. The New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington III, is right when he writes “if you go to Acts to answer all of the later questions about infant baptism, or church apostles after the first generation, you will be frustrated because of a lack of complete, and sometimes any, answers. Luke’s agenda was not ours.”2
Based on the title attributed to Luke’s work it is clear his goal was not to answer all of our questions about the early church. Rather, he wanted to share the acts of the apostles, particularly Peter and Paul. This is where the title teaches us much about the genre of Acts. Throughout the past few decades there has been a debate as to what type of book Luke was writing. Often people ask “was Luke actually writing history?” When we ask this question, we are often thinking of writing history in light of how history is written today. This, however, is the wrong way to think about it. If we want to know whether or not Luke actually wrote history we have to compare it to how history was written in the first century AD. While there were various viewpoints on history, it seems as though Luke was writing history according to the Greek understanding. The Greek historian, Polybius, considered “personal observation and participation in events, travel, inquiry, the consultation of eyewitnesses” to be hallmarks for true Greek history.3 Another important Greek element to how Luke wrote Acts is his arrangement of his material. Greek historians typically arranged their material both chronologically and geographically. Interestingly enough, Luke tells his story chronologically but he also tells his story geographically, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Rome (i.e. to the ends of earth).4 Also important to Greek history was the mixing of narrative and speeches. Throughout Acts, we see Luke writing as a Greek historian, mixing narratives and speeches. The speeches he utilizes “convey theological perspectives on reported events and carry the narrative forward.”5 From this and other evidence it seems clear that Luke was writing a Greek theological history of early Christianity.
You might be asking yourself why this is this important. If Luke intentionally followed the pattern of Greek history, then we can say with confidence that what he wrote was not fiction but actually the history of the early church. While Luke wrote the book of Acts from his own subjective perspective, he still wrote Acts with the goal of explaining objective history. Therefore, in knowing that Luke wrote according to the standards of Greek history, we can trust that Luke accurately described the early church in Acts. This allows us as Christians in the twenty-first century to have an example of what the church looked like in the first century. While this does not provide us with a prescription of how the church should be, it does provide an incredible description of the early church.
Why Was Acts Written?
Why was the book of Acts written? At first glance, this is a basic question with an obvious answer. If we look at the Gospel of Luke, Luke’s first volume, we see that he is writing to provide “an orderly account” or “narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1–4). Also of significance is that he wrote Luke and Acts to a man named Theophilus. While we do not know much about Theophilus, it seems as though he was “a socially significant recent convert who has been informed or more likely instructed about the Christian faith but still had some confusion and questions.”6 Because he was potentially a socially significant individual, Theophilus was probably also wealthy and therefore able to support financially Luke’s writing of his Gospel and Acts.
While this does not speak necessarily to the purpose of Acts, this information still influences the overall purpose. Luke certainly did want to provide information about Christianity to Theophilus. However, he also wrote for a broader context. Whether written to the Christian or pagan, Acts was written as an apologetic/defense of Christianity.7 While Luke does not neglect the Jew, a major focus of this defense was the inclusion of gentiles in the church. Throughout Acts he emphasizes “to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles.” Perhaps then what Luke is trying to illustrate is that “Jew and Gentile united in Christ is the true Israel, not the new Israel.”8 Therefore, Acts is a defense of how Jesus came to save both the Jew and Gentile and make this mixed group God’s people.
1F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts. Rev. ed. New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 3.
2Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 1.
5Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 27.
6Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, 51
7Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 38.
8Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, 73.