The Movement: The Setting of the Book of Acts

We are three weeks into our new series, The Movement. You can watch or listen to the last three sermons HERE. This year Vintage Church is taking 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. Over the past two weeks we answered four questions related to Acts. First we answered: (1) Who wrote the book of Acts and (2) When was the book of Acts written? You can find that blog HERE. Then we answered: (1) What type of book is Acts? and (2) Why was Acts written? You can find that blog HERE. This week we are going to discuss the setting of the book of Acts, the time and place in which the events took place.

The Time & Place of Acts

The setting of Acts is unique, because it encompasses a large amount of time as well as a vast area of geography. Luke writes a narrative that includes over thirty years of history with stories from Jerusalem to Rome. Therefore, it is almost impossible to narrow down succinctly the cultural context and setting of the book of Acts. This, however, should not stop us from understanding the basic setting surrounding Acts. The significance of Acts is that it bridges two worldviews1 or cultural perspectives. Luke begins telling a distinctly Jewish story. He begins his story about a Jewish messiah who has come to restore Israel. This Jewish story, however, quickly turns into a global story. The story begins in the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, yet it ends in the capital of the known world, Rome. Therefore, Luke is writing a history which combines both Jewish elements and Greco-Roman elements. Certainly during this time the prevailing culture in the known world was not Jewish but rather Greco-Roman culture. This meant that Judaism did not influence Greco-Roman culture but that Greco-Roman culture influenced Judaism.

Hundreds of years prior to the rule of Rome, Israel was exiled from the land of Israel by Assyria and Babylon. While many Jews later came back to the land of Israel, many stayed where they were living. One writer notes that “as many as two-thirds of the Jews in the first century were living outside Palestine.”2 During the time of Acts we find Jews living in Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Greece, Rome, and other places. While Judaism enjoyed a place of privilege within the Roman empire because of their longstanding relationship with Rome, most prominent Greeks and Romans held negative attitudes toward them.3 Despite these negative attributes, the Greco-Roman culture provided an environment in which Christianity could flourish. When Alexander the Great conquered the known world in the third century BC, he hellenized each culture he came in contact with, bringing Greek culture to everyone. Alexander founded cities with Greek features like theaters, gymnasiums, schools, and other elements. He brought Greek deities to other cultures. He also brought philosophy to other lands. Another significant element to Alexander’s conquest was improved travel. As Alexander moved East he developed highways to increase travel between the East and the West. Quite possibly the greatest element of Alexander’s Hellenization was the emergence of Greek as a global language. Koine Greek became the language of trade and commerce. Therefore, almost everyone spoke this language and it became the universal language for the world.4 Hopefully you can see the implications of Alexander’s Hellenization. He gave Luke and the early church a common language. He gave Paul and other missionaries like him better highways on which to travel to bring the Gospel to the nations. As we read Acts, we must read it, seeing both the the Jewish and global context in which it was written. When we do this we can better understand exactly what was happening and what Luke was trying to articulate.

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1A worldview is defined as the interpretive grid through which humans, both individually and corporately, perceive all of reality.
2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 427.
3Ibid., 428.
4Ibid., 13–14.