Historical Information on Acts

Acts of the Apostles

History and Background Information

This is the second of a two volume set of Luke's writings, it's companion volume being the Gospel of Luke. At the end of the gospel of Luke Jesus says "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." In this sequel, we see the fulfillment of Christ's words as the apostles carry the gospel to the world.

  1. Introduction:
    1. Luke has the distinction of being the only Gospel writer to produce a sequel to his book on the life and ministry of Jesus.
    2. It appears that Luke set out to show in two volumes how redemption came to mankind.
      1. Volume I relates the coming of a Redeemer who died for our sins, rose in triumph, and looked to the time when all men would share in salvation. Luke 24:46 47.
      2. Volume II takes up the narrative at that point and shows how the gospel went from Jerusalem to Rome in approximately 30 years.
      3. The Gospel he wrote tells about the things "Jesus began both to do and to teach. " Acts 1:1.
      4. Acts tells what he brought about through the Holy Spirit's continuation of his work. Acts 1:8; cf. John 16:13.
    3. Luke wrote well over one fourth of the entire New Testament.
    4. The Acts of the Apostles is a crucial part of Holy Scripture.
      1. It tells of the establishment of the church.
      2. It describes the growth (amid frequent perils) of the church and records the gospel's amazing spread through the Roman Empire.
      3. It gives inspiring accounts of great persons who loved not their lives unto death..
  2. Background to the Acts of the Apostles.
    1. The author:
      1. Luke was not an eyewitness to the life of Christ (Luke 1:14), but he was a participant in many of the events of Acts (Acts 16: 10 17; 20:5 21:18; 27:1 28:16).
      2. He was with Paul at Rome during the imprisonment with which Acts closes. Acts 28:30 31; cf. Col.4: 14; Phile.24.
    2. When was Acts written?
      1. Acts closes abruptly with Paul under house arrest at Rome, waiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar.
      2. The most reasonable explanation for the book's leaving us in the dark as to the outcome of the appeal is that the case had not yet been decided when Luke wrote.
      3. Paul and his company arrived at Rome in the spring of A.D. 60 and stayed there "two whole years" before going to trial. Acts 28:30.
      4. Thus Acts must have been written sometime in A.D. 62, just before Paul's trial and release.
      5. Note: Tradition tells us that Paul undertook additional missionary labors following his release, perhaps in Spain. Cf. Rom.15:24 28.
    3. The title of this book: The Acts of the Apostles.
      1. The book title's are not inspired.
      2. The book certainly does not tell all the acts of all the apostles; it doesn't even relate some of the acts of all of the apostles.
      3. Some have suggested that a better title might be the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Additional Background to the Acts of the Apostles.
    1. Luke was a physician (Col.4:14), and his medical background and interests seem to appear at times.
      1. He uses medical terms ("convulsed" (thrown down, ASV) and "examine" (look upon, ASV) in Luke 4:35 and 9:38.)
      2. In Jesus' saying about the camel and the needle's eye, Luke uses the technical term for a surgeon's needle; Matthew and Mark use another word which refers to a needle of whatever variety. Luke 18:25; cf. Matt.19:24; Mark 10:25.
      3. Saul did not merely have his sight restored, but "there fell from his eyes as it were scales"; he then "took food and was strengthened." Acts 9:18 19.
      4. Publius' father "lay sick of fever and dysentery." Acts 28:8.
    2. Why did Luke write?
      1. He saw the need to commit to writing an accurate account of the beginning and spread of Christianity. Cf. Luke 1: 1 4.
      2. It chronicles the triumph of the gospel over the hearts of men in a hostile world. Acts 2:47b; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30 31.
  4. The Message of the Book of Acts.
    1. Acts is designed to trace the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome.
    2. A simple outline of the book can be formulated on the basis of Jesus' statement at Acts 1:8.
      1. In Jerusalem. Acts 1:1 8:3.
      2. In Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:4 11 :18.
      3. In the uttermost parts of the world. Acts 11:19 28:31.
    3. As he was moved by the Holy Spirit, Luke showed how the purpose of God to save mankind was being worked out in human history.
    4. Its spread throughout the larger Roman Empire mainly through the efforts of Paul.
      1. Paul always began his preaching in each city among its Jewish population. Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4; 19:8; 28:17.
      2. Rejection by the Jews led to preaching among the Gentiles. Cf. Acts 13:46.
  5. Major Themes and/or Issues in the Book of Acts.
    1. The reliability of Luke as an historian.
      1. In the last century, critical thought generally held that Acts was a second century document from a third rate historian.
      2. Recent research in geography, archaeology, and history have so thoroughly vindicated Acts' trustworthiness as a document from the first century that such criticisms now appear absurd.
      3. Sir William Ramsay was trained in and accepted the German critical theories; when he actually began archaeological work in Asia Minor, he was forced to abandon the attitude he had learned toward Acts and eventually became one of the most ardent defenders of Luke's reliability. Cf. Ramsay's The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (1915).
      4. Acts reflects details that only a first century author who was personally familiar with them could have related.
      5. Luke knew, for example, that . . .
        1. Cyprus, Achaia, and Asia were senatorial provinces governed by proconsuls. Acts 13:7; 18:12; 19:38.
        2. The chief magistrates of Thessalonica were called ''politarchs." Acts 17:6,8.
        3. The leading men of Ephesus were "Asiarchs." Acts 19:31.
        4. Laws and customs of the Roman world conformed to patterns that we have only recently been able to corroborate independently.
      6. Luke is now known to display a minute accuracy of detail which is unsurpassed in ancient literature.
    2. Some special features of Acts.
      1. The geography of the book involves three key cities.
        1. Jerusalem is the base for the church's evangelistic activity among the Jews for the first 12 chapters.
        2. Antioch is the center of activity among the Gentiles in chapters 13 21.
        3. Rome is the city of Paul's evangelistic enterprise as the book comes to a close.
      2. In terms of central personalities, Peter and Paul dominate respective halves of the book.
        1. Peter, apostle to the circumcision, is the central figure of the first 12 chapters; Paul, apostle to the uncircumcision, is the principle of the remainder.
        2. Even the miracles they performed in confirmation of their apostleship are recorded in parallel: healing lame men (3:2ff; 14:8ff), "miracles of harm" (5:1ff; 13:6ff), healings through secondary means (5:15; 19:12), casting out demons (5:16; 16:18), confronting sorcerers (8:18ff; 13:6ff), and raising the dead (9:36ff; 20:9ff).
      3. The activity of the Holy Spirit is given great notice in Acts.
        1. The outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost is in many ways the central event of the book. Acts 1:4 5; 2:1 13.
        2. The message preached and the signs performed in its confirmation are all attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit.
    3. The early expansion of the church.
      1. In the earliest days of the church, the church was confined to Jerusalem.
      2. The persecution of Christians following Stephen's martyrdom led to evangelization in the areas of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1ff.
        1. Philip preached in Samaria. Acts 8:4 25.
        2. He converted an Ethiopian. Acts 8:26 39.
        3. He preached in the Gentile city of Caesarea. Acts 8:40.
      3. The first recorded instance of Gentile conversion is Peter's experience with Cornelius. Acts 10.
        1. This met with objections. Acts 11:1 3 I:
        2. As a result, however, the right of Gentiles to hear the gospel was affirmed. Acts 11:4 18.
      4. Near the time of Cornelius' conversion (A.D. 40?), the gospel came to Antioch.
        1. Preaching was first to the Jews. Acts 11:19.
        2. An outreach was begun among the Gentiles. Acts 11:20 21.
      5. Antioch of Syria now becomes the center of activity in the book.
    4. The missionary tours of Paul.
      1. The church at Antioch was founded by fugitives from Saul's persecution at Jerusalem. Acts 11:19.
        1. Many Gentiles were converted in this city. Acts 11 :20 21.
        2. The brethren at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to look into this unusual situation. Acts 11:22 24.
      2. Barnabas decided to seek the help of Saul in building up the church at Antioch. Acts 11 :25 26.
        1. He had shown confidence in Saul earlier, shortly after his conversion. Acts 9:26 27.
        2. Now he would bring him into a situation where the Lord's providence was to give an opportunity for the greatest missionary efforts in all history.
        3. Note: This is about ten years after Saul's conversion, and we do not know what was happening in his life during that time. Cf. Gal.1: 15 24.
      3. Three great missionary tours were sponsored from Antioch.
        1. The first tour covered the years AD 46 47 (Acts 12:25 14:28) and was followed by a conference at Jerusalem which debated the matter of Gentile obligations to the law (Acts 15:1 35).
        2. The second tour began in A.D. 48 and extended into late 51 or early 52 (Acts 15:36 18:22); the gospel was carried to Europe (Macedonia) and Greece.
        3. The third tour began in A.D. 52 and ended with Paul's arrest at Jerusalem in 57 (Acts 18:23 21:16); Paul's extended work at Ephesus for about three years was done in connection with this tour.
        4. Of course these dates are merely the best estimates available.
      4. The remainder of Paul's career in Acts is spent as a prisoner at Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome.
      5. Tradition relates a fourth missionary tour into the West (possibly as far as Spain) following his release from prison in Rome.
    5. The conversions in Acts.
      1. Acts has accounts of both conversions and non conversions in its pages.
      2. General reactions to the preaching of the gospel in Acts may be summarized with Acts 17:32 34.
        1. Some mocked. Cf. Acts 26:24.
        2. Some listened out of politeness or curiosity. Cf. Acts 17:21; 24:24.
        3. Some believed. cf. Acts 18:8
      3. Paul's comments on human reaction to the gospel are recorded in 1 Cor. l: 18ff.
      4. The faithful preaching of the truth produces the same reactions today.
  6. Overview Guide to the Book of Acts.
    1. The gospel is preached in Jerusalem. Acts 1:1 8:3.
      1. Luke begins his second book with the same event that closed his first, the ascension (1:1 11). As the apostles waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Matthias was appointed to replace Judas (1: 12 26).
      2. On the first Pentecost following the resurrection, Jesus' promise about the Spirit was fulfilled (2:1 13) and the message of the gospel began to be preached (2:14 41). This resulted in the establishment of the church (2:42 47). The second sermon of the book followed the healing of a lame man (3:1 10), which provided Peter with an audience (3:11 26). This episode created opposition with the Jewish authorities (4:1 22) and forced the early believers into an even closer fellowship (4:23 37).
      3. The first internal problem to threaten the church involved Ananias and Sapphira's sin (5:1 11). The apostles' ministry continued to be fruitful (5:12 16) and stirred up more intense opposition from the Jews (5:17 42). A second internal problem was resolved by the appointment of seven deacons (6:1 7). This section closes with an account of Stephen's preaching (6:8 10), his defense before the Sanhedrin (6.11 7:53), his martyrdom (7:54 8:1a), and the resulting persecution of other believers (8:1b 3).
    2. The gospel spreads to Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:4 11:18.
      1. The scattering of saints from the city resulted in the evangelization of Samaria (8:4 25). Luke tells next of the conversion of the Ethiopian treasurer (8:26 40) and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (9:1 31).
      2. Attention now focuses on the work of Peter. Luke tells of his healing of Aeneas (9:32 35) and raising Dorcas from the dead (9:36 43). The conversion of Cornelius is related (10:1 48), along with a resort of that event to the brethren at Jerusalem (11: 1 18).
    3. The gospel is preached throughout the world. Acts 11:19 28:31.
      1. The record of Acts shifts to the evangelization which had spread as far as Antioch in Syria and the joint ministry of Barnabas and Saul in that city (I }:19 30).
      2. Contemporary with the work at Antioch, James was murdered in Palestine by Herod Agrippa I (12:1 4), Peter was imprisoned and then released miraculously (12:5 19), and Herod died a tragic death (12:20 25).
      3. The remainder of Acts focuses on Paul's missionary tours and imprisonments. Beginning from Antioch in Syria (13:1 3), Paul and Barnabas preached Christ at Cyprus (13:4 12), Antioch of Pisidia (13:13 52), Iconium (14:1 7), and Lystra (14:8 18); from Lystra, where Paul was stoned and left for dead (14:19 20), they retraced their travel route and returned to Antioch (14:21 28).
      4. The preaching done among Gentiles on the first tour caused some Jews to protest the mission (15:1 5). The matter was debated (15:6 12), decided by revelation (15:13 21), and communicated to the brethren at Antioch (15:22 35). With this issue resolved, the second tour began. Paul and Barnabas separated company (15:36 39), and Paul selected Silas as his new working partner (15:40). Working in Asia Minor (15:41 16:5), Paul saw a vision of a man of Macedonia (16:6 10). Entering Macedonia, he preached at Philippi (16:11 40), Thessalonica (17:1 9), and Berea (17:10 15). Moving on into Greece, the gospel was preached next at Athens (17:16 34) and Corinth (18:1 17). This tour ended with the return to Antioch (18:18 22).
      5. Beginning the third tour by traveling through Galatia and Phrygia (18:23), Paul came to Ephesus and stayed longer than at any other place during his missionary tours (18:24 19:41). He revisited the churches of Macedonia and Greece (20:1 16) and at Miletus called the elders from Ephesus to himself in order to warn of false teachers (20:17 38). The group then sailed for Caesarea (21:1 14) and went on to Jerusalem (21:15 16). The third tour was at its end.
      6. In Jerusalem, Paul took a vow of ceremonial purity (21: 17 26). A riot stirred up by unbelieving Jews resulted in his arrest (21 :27 36), a public defense (21:37 22:29), and a hearing before the Sanhedrin (22:30 23:11). Because of a plot on his life, the Romans transferred him from Jerusalem to Caesarea (23:12 35). There he spent two years in prison under the procurator Felix (24:1 27). When Festus replaced him as procurator, Paul appealed for a hearing before Caesar (25:1 12). Festus asked Herod Agrippa II to help him in stating a formal charge to Caesar about Paul (25:13 27), and Paul was allowed to make a defense before Agrippa (26:1 32).
      7. In the course of his voyage to Rome (27:1 26), Paul and the company with him were shipwrecked (27:27 44) and landed at Malta (28:1 10). Three months later, the trip resumed, and Paul reached Rome (28: 11 16). He was kept under house arrest there and afforded the freedom to teach the gospel to those who would visit with him (28:17 29); this arrangement lasted for two years (28:30 31).
  7. Conclusion:
    1. Luke has given us a wonderfully compact history of the first 30 years of the church.
    2. The work of God going on in the world today is the continuation of this book.

Acts in Summary

Witness To:PeoplePreacherLocationTimeReference
JerusalemJewsPeterJerusalem2 Years
(A.D. 33 35)
Judea And SamariaSamaritansPhilipJudea And Samaria13 Years
(A.D. 35 48)
The WorldGentilesPaulWorld14 Years
(A.D. 48 62)