Acts 1:1–4

Luke is recognized by some as the greatest historian of the ancient world. As author of the book of Acts, he offers us tremendous insights into the ancient church. Yet Luke’s early account is far more than a history book. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul begins his series in Acts to consider the reliability of this New Testament book as well as its overarching themes.


The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:1–4)

Though this is not part of the text today, I ask you to remain standing while I go back and read the prologue to the gospel according to Saint Luke:

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:1–4)

Luke Volume Two

This morning, we begin our study of the book of Acts. We could call it also the study of the gospel of Luke, volume two, because it is clear in antiquity that Luke provided a two-volume work of the history of Christ and the Apostolic age.

When books were written in those days, they were not typeset with the kind of machinery we are accustomed to today. They were written by hand, usually on parchments made of papyrus. The standard length of a book in antiquity, written in this manner, was about thirty-five feet long. The scrolls were then rolled up and carefully preserved as they were read from church to church.

Initially, Luke penned two volumes on two separate scrolls. The first was on the gospel account of Christ and the second, which would be carried along with the first, was what we call the book of Acts. Early on in church history, it became the practice of the church to collect the four biographical sketches of Jesus, what we call the four Gospels, and keep those four scrolls together in the church to be read and studied. As a result, there was a physical separation between the gospel of Luke and his volume two, which was the book of Acts. Sometimes these two books are called Luke-Acts together. It was in the early church that the title The Acts of the Apostles was given to this portion of Luke’s writings.

Some saw Acts as such an elaborate defense of the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul that they thought that it ought to be titled The Acts of the Apostle Paul. But Paul is not introduced until the seventh chapter, as we will see. There is much attention given to the church in Jerusalem and the ministries of Peter, John, Stephen, Phillip, and others, so that it would really be a misnomer to call the book The Acts of the Apostle Paul, although Paul emerges as the central figure in Luke’s volume two.

Luke does not identify himself by name as the author, but it is almost a certainty if we look carefully at the “we” passages of Paul’s missionary journey, when we know Luke was in that band of men with Paul. When he speaks in terms of “we,” he is referring to himself as the writer of this book, so it is not difficult to deduce, as the church has, that Luke was the author of both his gospel attributed to him and the book of Acts.

Another alternate title that could be given to Acts is one that I favor: The Acts of the Holy Spirit. This book really is a history of the Holy Spirit’s acts. Since it was inspired by the Holy Spirit and is a record of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the endowment of the Holy Spirit on the Apostolic church, and the ministry of the church under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, one could even go so far as to call it the autobiography of the Holy Spirit.

In any case, as we go through the narrative, let us not miss the power and presence of the third person of the Trinity, whom Jesus had promised so deeply and fervently in the Upper Room Discourse that we looked at in the gospel according to Saint John.

A Dedicated Apologia

Certain similarities exist between the beginning of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of the book of Acts. Both volumes are dedicated to a certain person named Theophilus.

The name Theophilus, if we break it down linguistically, means “friend or lover of God.” We looked at the Greek phileō last week, which is one of the words for “to love.” Theos, of course, is the word for “God.” Theophilus can also mean “one who is loved by God.” It can mean either “one who loves God” or “one who is loved by God.”

Because the name Theophilus carries with it the concept of being a lover of God or one loved by God, many believed that the book was not addressed to any specific person but addressed to all who are beloved of God or lovers of God. The case against that, however, is the addition in Luke’s prologue of the title “most excellent.”

The reason that phrase may be significant is that in the ancient world, major publications were often dedicated to members of the nobility. Members of the nobility were often addressed with gracious titles such as most excellent. Since Luke’s gospel is addressed not to just any Theophilus but to the “most excellent Theophilus,” many conclude that the book is ascribed to a Christian in high places in antiquity, who was as devout as his name suggests.

In this latter part of the first century and in the second century, it was commonplace for Christian apologists to address their defenses of the Christian faith to the emperor or to Rome, such as Antonius Pius, for example. We see something similar in the book of Acts. The book of Acts is a kind of apology or apologia, a work of apologetics, a defense of the truth claims of the Christian faith.

Along with that, Acts is an important defense of the authenticity of the Apostolic authority and office of Paul, because Paul was not one of the original Twelve. Three times in Acts, there is an account of Paul’s call and conversion on the road to Damascus, which grants more credibility to this one to whom the Lord gave an Apostolic mission to the gentiles. But that is another story. We will look into that question as we encounter it from time to time in the text itself.

Luke’s History

Going back to the prologue to Luke, notice what Luke says. He understands that others had undertaken the task of writing down a history of the things that had gone on in the life of Jesus: “Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:2–4).

Luke, the beloved physician, was an educated man. His Greek was of the highest literary quality found in the New Testament. He provided a number of manifestations of his academic credentials, if you will. He was writing not just as a believer, but as a historian. He was basically saying, “I’ll take great care to trace the story from the beginning, from those who were there, to include in my account things that either I or other people whom I have interviewed saw.”

For example, we get more information in the gospel of Luke about the birth narratives of Jesus than from any other source. Traditionally, the idea is that Luke personally interviewed Mary to get Mary’s perspective on all the events surrounding the annunciation, nativity, and so on.

When we stand from the vantage point of the twentieth century and look back over the ages, we are dependent for our knowledge of antiquity on the historians who wrote the history of that time. We look to Tacitus, to Heroditus, to Suetonius. We look to the Jewish historian, Josephus. All these great historians of the ancient world have been subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny critical scholarship can give.

That scrutiny is no less true for the Gospel writers. Luke wrote both a gospel and a history of the Apostolic outreach of the early church going into the gentile lands. Since we have two volumes from his pen, there is a sense in which his work has been subjected to closer scrutiny from a secular perspective than any other biblical biographer.

Let me just say right up front where I am on Scripture. I believe this is the unvarnished Word of God, inspired by the Holy Ghost, infallible, and inerrant in everything it says. I do not need the verification of a secular archeologist to convince me that this is the Word of God. But I want to present to you the idea that from a secular perspective, Luke has been esteemed as the most accurate historian of the ancient world. He enjoys a higher reputation than Suetonius, Heroditus, Tacitus, Pliny, Josephus, or any of the rest because his work has been checked more carefully than anybody else’s.

Verified Testimony

How can you check Luke’s work from the vantage point of the twentieth century? Let me take a moment to answer. When Luke talks about the appearance of an angel by the name of Gabiel to Zacharius or to Mary, it is hard to verify that story through the normal structures of scientific inquiry into the past. Unless we were to find a petrified set of angel wings, we are not going to be able to do that.

But there are many things included in Luke’s work that do have testability—that is, they can be verified or falsified by archeological examination. Early in the twentieth century, a British scholar by the name of William Mitchell Ramsay was a skeptic about Christianity, and he set about travels where he traced the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul as recorded in the book of Acts.

Ramsey was looking for things that could be discovered, such as the local landscape, its shape, and what the ruins indicated would be the type of city to which Paul traveled. What would be the titles of the local rulers or magistrates in foreign cities that were not commonplace and common knowledge to people who lived in Jerusalem?

Ramsey started out a skeptic and ended up a believer because he was overwhelmed by the evidence he was able to uncover, where the stones were crying out that every title of every magistrate whom Luke recorded in the book of Acts was verified by the turning over of the shovels of archaeologists. Likewise, the description and accounts of the towns were just as Luke had described them.

Some years ago, I began to write a novel, and in that novel, I had an episode take place in Tokyo. I have never been to Tokyo. I do not know anything about Tokyo. But all I had to do was go to the library, and I could get manifold witnesses to street names, important buildings for commerce, and for entertainment. I could reconstruct Tokyo in a fictional way in this activity without feeling like I was going to get caught with inaccuracies of describing the local scene. Today, it would be even easier. You can get on the internet and it is almost like a virtual trip to Tokyo, and you can write from that basis. In my novel, I had a detective scene. I did not know how it should work, so I called a man from the FBI and he explained to me what would be involved, and that is how I wrote it.

Luke did not have that advantage. Luke could not go down the street to the library or get on the internet and find out how things were in Philippi, or how they were in Colosse, or how they were in Corinth or Ephesus. The portraits he gives of those locations have been verified time and time again.

The reason I emphasize all of this is because in the prologue, he labors the point at the beginning of the gospel of Luke and Acts that he is not writing a religious tract; he is writing history that has been corroborated by eyewitness testimony and by what he calls in his prologue to Acts, “many infallible proofs.”

Obedience to Christ’s Mission

Let us go back again now to Acts, starting in verse 1: “The former account”—that is, his gospel—“I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up”—that is true, Luke’s first volume ends with his account of the ascension—“after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen.”

Why does Luke put this in the prologue? In Sunday school this morning, we looked at the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. After Paul was blinded by light and fell to the ground, he heard a voice calling to him, which we will look at more carefully as we study the book of Acts. When Paul responded to Christ, he said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:6). I reminded our people that years later, at the end of his ministry, when Paul stood on trial before King Agrippa in chains and gave the defense of his ministry, he recounted the story of his conversion. Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” Paul responded, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28–29).

Just before Paul had this exchange with Agrippa, Festus interrupted Paul’s defense and said with a loud voice: “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!” Paul responded, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason” (Acts 26:24–25). Amid that discussion, Paul said to the king, “King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 16:19).

I would love, at the end of my life, looking back to my ordination and my conversion, to stand before Christ, and say: “Lord, I was not disobedient. I did everything You told me to do. I went everywhere You told me to go.” If I died tonight and said that to the Lord, two of us would know instantly that was not true: Him and me. So, it would be foolish for me to claim it. We cannot say that about Paul.

Paul’s life and ministry was the paradigm of obedience in the Apostolic church. He did what Christ told him to do. Luke’s agenda is not only to verify that Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision. Luke starts by reminding his readers of the commandments Jesus gave just before He left in the ascension. What follows in the rest of the book of Acts is a drama of the highest magnitude, the drama of the obedience of the early church to the mission Christ gave them.

The Foundation of the Church

Let us be careful. We have a record of the pristine, Apostolic community. The temptation would be for us to read the book of Acts as if we are reading the story of Christianity in its perfection. But if we read the Apostles’ letters, we know that the early church was anything but perfect. Most of the Apostolic letters are written to correct errors, heresies, abuses, and disobedient behavior among the people of the early church. So, the early church was by no means perfect. But it is important because of its proximity to the foundation of the Christian church.

Years ago, I was embroiled in a controversy regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That controversy never dies. I was in a meeting with some theologians, and one of the persons at the table was defending the Reformation doctrine of justification, and the other person said to him, “Luther may have been right in the sixteenth century, but it doesn’t matter anymore.”

That person went on to say: “Your problem is that you’re stuck in the sixteenth century. You’re spending all your life trying to defend the sixteenth century.” The theologian defending justification by faith alone responded: “You don’t get it at all. I couldn’t care less about the sixteenth century. It’s not the sixteenth-century gospel I’m interested in defending. It’s the first-century gospel that I’m concerned about.”

If I want to get stuck in a century, I do not want it to be the twenty-first century, the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century, or the twelfth century. I want to go back to the foundation of the Christian church, to the purity of the gospel as it was set forth by the Apostles, that we may study the Apostolic doctrine in that location. This is what Luke was doing—he was giving us an account of the obedience of the commandments to the Apostles whom Christ had chosen.

The Kingdom Has Come

Luke continues at the beginning of Acts, “To whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs”—of course, Luke is referring to the resurrection—“being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” What Luke says in this text is critical.

The prologue acts as a preface. The preface sets before us the purview of the author, what things he will select from all the events he could possibly select in the narrative of the early church. He tells us why he teaches the things that he teaches in this book. What Luke talks about through the rest of the book is the Apostolic witness to the kingdom of God.

We could, therefore, summarize the theme of the book of Acts this way: it is about the church’s obedience to Christ’s commission and commandment to be His witnesses, as the ascended King, as the King of kings, and as the Lord of lords.

If you wonder why the first century church turned the world upside down and why we do not, it is because they preached the kingdom of God, and we often do not. They believed the kingdom burst out in power in the appearance of the King, who came on the scene after John the Baptist, the forerunner, said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The ax is in His hand, the ax is laid at the root of the tree” (Matt. 3:2, 10).

Then came Jesus saying what? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He said, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). A new chapter of world history began with the ministry of Christ and with His ascension to the right hand of the Father, where He is enthroned as the King.

One of the worst distortions of theology that plagues the evangelical world is the idea that the kingdom of God is something completely future. You might have been taught all your life that the kingdom age comes later. But that view completely destroys the biblical testimony of the breakthrough of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus and especially in His ascension.

Yes, the consummation of the kingdom is still in the future. But the reality of the kingdom is now. The mission of the early church was to bear witness to the reality of that kingdom in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the utter parts of the earth.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.