The book of Acts is unique among the books of the New Testament. Four gospels bear testimony to Jesus’ earthly ministry, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection. Twenty-one epistles explain His identity and mission and direct our faith-formed love in response to His redemption. The book of Revelation unveils the hidden conflict behind the world’s all-too-visible woes, assuring us that the Lamb has triumphed. But only the book of Acts describes the foundational decades in which the risen, ascended Lord laid the foundation for His church.
1. Acts is the floodlight that illumines the “tunnel” between the Gospels and the Epistles.
If we had no book of Acts as we read the New Testament, we would feel like passengers in an unlit coach as their train enters a pitch-black tunnel, then finally emerges into daylight. As our eyes readjust, we see that much has changed: new fellow-travelers, new porters, and new conductors.
As the Gospels close, the risen Lord Jesus is demonstrating the reality of His resurrection through “many proofs” (Acts 1:3, summarizing Luke 24, Matt. 28, Mark 16, and John 20–21). Although His Apostolic witnesses are all Jewish, Jesus commissions them to carry His good news to all nations. As the Gospels end, John the Baptist’s prediction that Jesus would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16) still awaits fulfillment, which Jesus says will happen soon (Luke 24:49; John 15:26).
Into the tunnel we go. When we emerge, suddenly we meet Paul, who calls himself an Apostle of Christ but was nowhere to be found when Jesus appeared to Mary and Peter and others. Twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection, Paul is writing letters to Christian believers in Greco-Roman cities: Thessalonica, Galatia, Corinth, Rome, Philippi, Ephesus, Colossae. Paul admits that he once persecuted Jesus and His people, but now he wholeheartedly serves Jesus as Lord. How did such a radical reversal come about?
The groups to whom Paul writes are outsiders, “Gentiles,” formerly “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:11–13). So, Jesus’ vision for the international spread of God’s gracious kingdom is being achieved. What events triggered the shift of focus from Israel’s “lost sheep” (Matt. 15:24) to “other sheep” outside the “fold” (John 10:16)?
Paul’s congregations have been baptized in one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). They “live by the Spirit,” so they must “walk by the Spirit,” bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–25). When and how did that apex of the Messiah’s ministry (according to John)—the outpouring of God’s Spirit—take place?
Acts is the floodlight in the tunnel that answers these questions. On the day of Pentecost, Jesus baptizes His followers in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4–5; Acts 2). Later, the Lord sends Peter to share good news with gentiles and to watch in wonder as the Spirit welcomes them into the family of God (Acts 10–11). We meet Saul (later known as Paul), blinded by Jesus’ glory and transformed from persecutor to propagator of “the Way” (Acts 9). As Paul travels over sea and land to bring “light to the nations” (Acts 1:8; Acts 13:46–47), we hear the backstory of those congregations to whom he pens his epistles (Acts 13–28). How wise and kind God is to lead Luke to supplement his “first book” (the third gospel) with this second volume.
Acts connects the Gospels and Epistles by narrating how the Lord Jesus laid the foundation for His church, poured out God’s Spirit, and embraced the gentiles in grace.
2. The risen and reigning Christ is the lead actor in the drama of Acts.
In describing his gospel as about “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” Luke implies that Acts narrates what Jesus continued to do and teach after He ascended to heaven (Acts 1:1–2, emphasis added). Because Acts describes the Apostolic ministries of Peter (Acts 1–12) and Paul (Acts 13–28), the titles “Acts of All the Apostles” and “Acts of the Apostles” were attached to this book very early. Nevertheless, Luke wants us to know that the real Hero who directs and empowers the church’s growth is the risen Lord Jesus Himself.
Just as Jesus chose Apostles during His earthly ministry (Acts 1:2), so Jesus chooses a replacement for Judas to join the Apostles (Acts 1:21–26). The Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is the work of Jesus: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33, emphasis added).
Jesus is the Lord who adds to the number of believers “day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47; see Acts 5:14; 11:21–22). As a once-lame man leaps in the temple courtyard, Peter and John direct the astonished crowd’s attention away from themselves and toward the true Healer: “And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all” (Acts 3:12, 16, emphasis added; again in Acts 4:9–10). When the blinded persecutor Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the answer comes: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5, emphasis added). Jesus chooses Saul “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Jesus is the Lord into whose safekeeping Paul and Barnabas commit new believers and their elders (Acts 14:23); the Lord who opens Lydia’s heart to the gospel (Acts 16:14–15); and the Lord who encourages Paul in Corinth, “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10), and in prison (Acts 23:11).
Acts relentlessly calls attention to the personal presence of the exalted Lord Jesus in His church through His Spirit. Christ is no absentee despot, remote and unapproachable. Although He reigns at God’s right hand in heaven, Jesus is still “God with us” here on earth. By His mighty Spirit He sustains the church’s life and drives the church’s growth. Jesus keeps His promises:
- “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
- “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).
- “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Acts shows us Jesus, vibrantly alive, sovereignly ruling, and ever-present through His Spirit in His church, spreading the light of God’s grace to the end of the earth.
3. Acts equates church growth with Word growth.
As Luke does in his gospel (Luke 1:80; 2:40, 52; 4:14; etc.), so in Acts Luke intersperses, between his accounts of specific events, summaries of the ongoing aftermath of those incidents. After thousands are converted at Pentecost, they “were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” sharing resources, worshiping in the temple, and eating together (Acts 2:42–47; see Acts 4:32–35; 5:12–16; 9:31; 16:5).
A recurring theme in these summaries is the “growing” of the Word:
- Acts 6:7: And the word of God was growing (auxanō), and the number of the disciples was multiplying greatly in Jerusalem (author’s translation).
- Acts 12:24: But the word of God was growing (auxanō) and multiplying (author’s translation).
- Acts 19:20: So the word of the Lord was growing (auxanō) and prevailing mightily (NASB).1
Luke is referring to the church’s growth, both in numerical size and in spiritual maturity. He describes church growth as “word growth” because the Word preached by the Apostles in the Spirit’s power is the invincible weapon by which Christ captures hearts, and the nourishment that brings God’s children to maturity.
The central role of God’s Word in the church’s life and mission is shown in the predominance of sermons and speeches throughout Acts. Even before the Spirit’s descent, Peter explains to gathered believers how Judas’ treason and replacement fulfills Scripture (Acts 1:15–22). On Pentecost, Peter shows how Psalms 16 and 110 and Joel 2 foretold Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:14–36). To temple crowds and to their leaders, Peter and John testify that Jesus’ name alone saves (Acts 3–4). Stephen surveys Israel’s shameful history of rejecting God’s rescuers, climaxing in the murder of the Righteous One, Jesus (Acts 7:2–53). Peter speaks the good news to gentiles (Acts 10:34–43). In synagogues, Paul shows Scripture’s fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah (Acts 13:16–41; 17:2–4, 11, 17). He also speaks the Word to polytheistic pagans (Acts 14:14–17), to urbane philosophers (Acts 17:22–31), to Jewish crowds (Acts 22:1–22), and to gentile rulers (Acts 26:1–23). Apostles speak the Word to address church controversies (Acts 15:7–21) and to equip church leaders (Acts 20:18–35). When Acts ends, Paul remains in Roman custody, but he is still “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31).
Why so many spoken words in a book that the church has called Acts? Acts teaches this crucial lesson: Christ’s church grows and thrives not through market analysis or human strategizing—and not even through signs and wonders, by which God once confirmed the Apostles’ testimony (Heb. 2:3–4; 2 Cor. 12:11–12)—but rather through the Word of grace that they preached from the Scriptures, in the power of the Spirit.
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.
- Jesus (Mark 4:8) and Paul (Col. 1:6) also use the farming metaphor of the word as “growing” (auxanō) seed.↩