Consider helping today!
Holman Bible Dictionary
The most significant help in discovering the author of Acts is simply recognizing this book's relationship to the Gospel of Luke: 1) Both books begin with a greeting to a man named Theophilus (“friend of God”); 2) Acts' greeting to Theophilus refers to a previous writing; 3) The end of Luke intentionally overlaps with the beginning of Acts to provide continuity between the two volumes; 4) the author's writing style, vocabulary, and attention to specific themes remain constant throughout both books.
Consequently, the reader must assume Acts was written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. In fact, many Bible readers believe Luke-Acts is a single work which was divided into two parts as the books of the New Testament were gathered together. The size of Luke and Acts combined makes the author of these two books the chief contributor to the New Testament, having written twenty-five percent of all Scripture from the Christian era. Taken as a whole, Luke and Acts are a larger work than the combined letters of Paul.
Once readers assume Luke and Acts come from the same pen, they can begin to look for evidence within these books which points toward the author's identity. How can we tell the person who wrote these books was named Luke?
The first piece of evidence comes in Luke 1:2 . There, the writer states he was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. This fact eliminates any of the eleven disciples as candidates for authorship. Next, the “we” passages in Acts also offer a major, internal clue to the identity of the book's author. During the account of Paul's missionary journeys, the author occasionally changes his style from that of a third person observer to a first person participant. In Acts 16:10-17; Acts 20:5-16; Acts 21:1-18; and Acts 27:1-28:16 , the author speaks of “we” and “us” in relationship to Paul's travels. The language implies the author himself traveled with Paul. These “we” sections include the time when Paul was imprisoned at Rome. Scholars have determined Paul wrote Philemon, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles during his house arrest in that city. By searching those letters for references to Paul's fellow workers, they compiled a list of companions who could have written Luke and Acts. In 2 Timothy 4:11 , Paul says, “Only Luke is with me,” making him the most likely person to have written Luke-Acts.
Students of the first century church confirm the likelihood of Luke's authorship with what they call the “negative” argument. This negative argument recognizes the early church's tendency to attribute the authorship of New Testament works to recognized apostles and eyewitnesses of the ministry of the Master. We have no reason to assume early Christians would have given credit for the authorship of Luke-Acts to such an insignificant figure as Luke unless they possessed firm evidence the doctor, traveling companion of Paul, did indeed write this important document.
The facts surrounding the authorship of Acts are not merely intended to bolster the knowledge of persons interested in Bible trivia. Knowing Luke wrote Acts is crucial for understanding this book. Unless readers see in Acts the continuation of themes and emphases which Luke began in his Gospel, they will miss some of the most vital helps available to them for interpreting Acts. Unless readers see the purpose of Acts as a direct continuation of the purpose of Luke, they will miss the main thrust of the book.
The Purpose of Acts Why did Luke write Acts? What purpose was the Spirit leading him to fulfill? The years have produced several different answers to those questions.
The opening verses of Luke and Acts mention Theophilus as the recipient of Luke's writings. As mentioned earlier, the name means “friend of God” and was common among Jews and Greeks in the first century. Many Bible students think Theophilus was a Roman dignitary sympathetic to the Christian cause. Perhaps Luke was writing a defense of Christianity for this official during a time of persecution to show him there was nothing subversive or sinister about the followers of Jesus. The geographical framework of Acts, the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, lends credibility to this idea.
In addition to Luke's possible purpose as an interpreter of Christianity to the Roman world, Paul's traveling companion seems to have perceived himself specifically as a recorder of God's saving work. In Luke 1:3 of his Gospel, Luke clearly states he is trying to make “an orderly account” of the events surrounding Jesus' ministry.
The only question which remains is Luke's reason for dividing his record of those events into Luke and Acts as he did. The obvious solution to this question would be that Luke focuses on Jesus Himself while Acts focuses on the followers of Jesus who continued their Master's work. This solution misses one important verse, Acts 1:1 , where Luke says to Theophilus: “In my former book I wrote about all Jesus began to do and teach” Luke implied that Jesus continued to do and teach more, and that His story was incomplete where the Gospel ended. In fact, a careful reading of Acts makes it clear that Jesus remained the active, living, focus of Luke's story. In Acts 9:4 (NIV), Jesus spoke directly to Saul and asked, “Why do you persecute me?” Later, in the same chapter, Peter could say directly to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” ( Acts 9:34 NIV). In chapter ten, Christ made His will known to Peter concerning a ministry to the Gentiles. These are but three examples of Jesus' vital involvement in the spread of the gospel in Acts.
Therefore, despite the fact Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus, there is no evidence anyone in the early church perceived Him as “gone” from their midst. He healed, spoke, and directed the work of His disciples. Even when they preached, the disciples thought of Jesus as literally present in their preaching. They asked the listeners of those first sermons, not merely to believe facts about Jesus, but to encounter through their words the One who died, rose again, and lives forever. The ascension marked not Christ's departure, but a change in the way Christ performs His ministry of salvation and grace. Consequently, Acts is the continuing story of Jesus' work. It simply begins once He is no longer bound by the limitations of time and space. Acts tells what happened following the ascension when Jesus started to work through His new body, which is the church.
Themes of Luke Continued in Acts Because the story begun in Luke (the saving work of God) continues in Acts with the same central character (Jesus), one must expect the central themes of Luke to continue in Acts as well. What are the themes which express Luke's personal understanding of the gospel and give his record of Jesus' story his unique touch?
1. An emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke began his Gospel with stories about individuals upon whom the Spirit descended. He described Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, and Anna as full of the Spirit and, consequently, instruments of God's efforts to save His people. Acts begins in a similar way: at Pentecost the Holy Spirit engulfed the entire community of believers who become the vehicles through which the good news of Jesus was proclaimed in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ). Luke's emphasis on the work of the Spirit is obvious throughout both books.
2. A concern for outcasts and sinners. Both in the Gospel which bears his name and in Acts, Luke showed special sympathy toward persons who fell outside the traditional Jewish boundaries of acceptability. The shepherds who attended the birth of Christ would not have been admitted to the Temple or synagogue for worship because keeping sheep made them “unclean.” Yet, the Spirit led Luke to record the angels' invitation to these men to gather around the manger. In Acts, Luke fully developed this theme which he began in the first volume of his work. The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40 ), Cornelius (Acts 10:1 ), and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:22-34 ) all represent persons rejected by Judaism but accepted and redeemed by Christ.
3. An emphasis on women. Women constituted a special group of persons cut off from the center of Jewish worship. They were not permitted beyond their own court in the Temple, and in the synagogues they were forced to stand behind a partition while men read from the Scriptures. A prescribed morning prayer which was popular during the first century was, “Blessed be God that He did not make me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Luke, however, carefully recorded the importance of the role of women in the spread of the gospel. He told about the birth of Jesus from Mary's viewpoint (as opposed to Matthew's version from Joseph's experience). Luke is also the only Gospel which mentions the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36-38 ), the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-17 ), and the Galilean women who supported Jesus' ministry (Luke 8:2 ). In Acts, Luke specifically drew attention to the conversions and consequent roles of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15 ,Acts 16:11-15,16:40 ) and Priscilla (Acts 18:18-28 ). He also mentioned regularly the conversion of nameless women at various stops on the missionary journeys of Paul (see Acts 17:4 as one example). Judaism allowed no room for women leaders, and Jews would not have considered female converts worth mentioning.
4. The piety of Jesus and His followers. All the principal characters of Luke's story demonstrated great personal devotion to God and tremendous personal discipline in their spiritual lives. In the Gospel, Mary and Joseph performed all of Judaism's prescribed rituals associated with childbirth and the dedication of a new infant. Jesus worshiped in the synagogue “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16 ), and prayed regularly. In Acts, the disciples showed the same qualities. The first few chapters constantly describe the apostles in the Temple praying. Paul's ministry was punctuated by the same type of spirituality.
Acts' Story A final help for understanding the second part of Luke's larger work is a brief outline of the book's contents. As mentioned earlier, Acts 1:8 provides the framework for Acts as Jesus' message and influence moved outward from Jerusalem to the farthest point of the earth. Acts 1-7 focus on the early church in Jerusalem. This part of the book tells of the early successes ( Acts 2:41 ) and the early persecutions (Acts 4:1-22 ). The life of the church in these chapters is marked by tremendous cooperation and mutual assistance (Acts 2:42-47 ). At the same time, however, changes and expansion put a serious strain on the fellowship as the church tried to seek Christ's will (Acts 6:1 ).
The death of Stephen in Acts 7:1 marks the beginning of a transition in the story as heightened pressure from Jewish authorities forced many Christians to leave Jerusalem. God used the intended evil of the persecutors to help spread the gospel in Judea and Samaria. The conversion of Paul ( Acts 9:1-30 ) and Peter's new openness to a Gentile ministry (Acts 10:1 ) made possible the spread of the gospel to all the world.
The transitional part of Acts continues in Acts 11-13 as Peter convinced others in Jerusalem that Gentiles needed to hear the gospel as much as the Jews ( Acts 11:1-18 ). The dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem during the persecution there resulted in a strong church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-30 ). By Acts 13:1 , the influence and missionary efforts of the church at Antioch began to surpass those of the church in Jerusalem.
It is the vision of the Christians in Antioch which shaped the remaining chapters of Acts. Their sensitivity to God's Spirit resulted in the three missionary journeys of Paul and the spread of the gospel throughout Asia Minor and, ultimately, to Europe and Rome. Paul's arrival at Rome marked the advent of Christ's message at the very seat of civilization and the symbolic completion of His mission which began in Acts 1:8 .
I. God Prepared for Jesus' Mission to Continue (Acts 1:1-7:69 ).
A. Jesus' resurrection and ascension prepared for the Spirit's coming with power (Acts 1:1-11 ).
B. The waiting church organized for mission (Acts 1:12-26 ).
C. The Spirit empowered God's people for mission (Acts 2:1-4 ).
D. The gospel overcomes ridicule to unify the church (Acts 2:5-47 ).
E. The gospel overcomes imprisonment to add to the church (Acts 3:1-4 ).
F. The gospel overcomes tradition and threats, increasing the church's power, unity, and generosity. Acts 4:5-37 ).
G. The Spirit overcomes Satan's temptations of greed and pride (Acts 5:1-16 ).
H. God overcomes human jealously and fear (Acts 5:17-42 ).
I. Spirit-filled leaders help the church overcome disputes and continue to grow (Acts 6:1-7 ).
J. False accusers and persecution cannot halt the church's mission (Acts 7:1-60 ).
II. God Overcomes Human Barriers to Continue Jesus' Mission (Acts 8:1-13:52 ).
A. God overcomes cultural barriers (Acts 8:1-40 ).
B. God overcomes organized opposition (Acts 9:1-31 ).
C. God overcomes physical barriers (Acts 9:32-43 ).
D. God overcomes racial barriers (Acts 10:1-11:30 ).
E. God overcomes political persecution (Acts 12:1-25 ).
F.God overcomes sorcery. Acts 13:1-12 ).
G. God expands the mission to "pagan peoples" (Acts 13:13-52 ).
III. God Expands Jesus' Mission through Geographical Boundaries (Acts 14:1-20:12 ).
A. Persecution helps spread missionary work (Acts 14:1-7 ).
B. Missions honors God, not missionaries, and maintains strong ties with the sending church (Acts 14:8-28 ).
C. Missions is based on salvation by grace through faith without ritual burdens (Acts 15:1-35 ).
D. Missionaries can disagree and spread the gospel (Acts 15:36-41 ).
E. God leads missionaries in new paths (Acts 16:1-40 ).
F. God can use the jealousy of religious people and the power of intellectual argument to spread His gospel (Acts 17:1-34 ).
G. Missionaries preach fearlessly and follow God's will (Acts 18:1-23 )
H. Missionaries need accurate understanding as well as zeal and fervor (Acts 18:24-28 ).
I. Missionaries lead people to baptism in Jesus' name and to receive God's Spirit (Acts 19:1-8 ).
J. God disciplines those who seek personal gain through false use of Jesus' name (Acts 19:9-41 ).
K. Missionaries visit new churches to strengthen the converts (Acts 20:1-12 ).
IV. Human Limits Cannot Hinder Jesus' Mission (Acts 20:13-28:31 ).
A. Missionaries testify of Christ, even in the face of danger (Acts 20:13-24 ).
B. Missionaries train leaders to carry on their work (Acts 20:25-38 ).
C. Missionaries must be willing to die for their faith (Acts 21:1-14 ).
D. Missionaries use every opportunity to share their personal testimonies (Acts 21:15-22:21 ).
E. Missionaries use political rights to gain further opportunities to witness (Acts 22:22 — Acts 23:11 ).
F. God protects His missionaries against religious enemies (Acts 23:12-35 ).
G. Enemies cannot prove their case against God's missionaries (Acts 24:1-25:27 ).
H. Imprisonment lets missionaries preach forgiveness (Acts 26:1-32 ).
I. God can protect His missionaries against danger (Acts 27:1-28:10 ).
J. God uses fellow Christians to encourage enchained missionaries (Acts 28:11-16 ).
K. Even foreign prisons cannot keep God's missionaries from preaching the gospel (Acts 28:17-31 ).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Acts'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/acts.html. 1991.