This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
How shall we describe the amazing narrative we know as The Acts of the Apostles? Fast-paced, expansive, sweeping, intense, surprising, gripping, poignant, compelling, epic? All such descriptions would apply, and more. We have not read Acts rightly if we’ve just noted a string of historical details. Acts is unique in Scripture, yet it is a continuation of what its Gentile author, Luke, started in his Gospel when he set out to write “an orderly account” for someone named Theophilus so that he “may know the certainty of the things [he had] been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Acts opens with:
“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2)
Right away Luke tells us the main characters of this narrative are the apostles (including Paul) and the Holy Spirit. From beginning to end, Acts is the story of the Holy Spirit inspiring, empowering, and guiding the followers of Jesus on a world-changing mission.
To read Acts rightly, we need to keep in mind Luke’s purpose: to tell the story of how the gospel of Jesus the Christ broke out of the limitations of Judea and Galilee and spread across the Mediterranean world, crossing the barrier between Jew and Gentile and becoming a truly universal spiritual movement. Acts is about gospel and mission and Spirit. It is not a biography about the lives of Peter or John or even the apostle Paul. The focus is on the spread of the message about Jesus, and the dramatic ways people either accepted it or rejected it.
Acts has frequently been read in the past as a description of how the Christian church is supposed to operate. This is understandable, as Christian leaders desire to base today’s forms of ministry on a scriptural foundation. Only some of this is possible, however, because Luke clearly did not set out to write a manual on church life or church policy. Yes, it is true that Acts 2 gives a picture of healthy spiritual devotion: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v. 42). But a couple of verses later, it says that the believers were selling their property and possessions in order to give to others, that they met in the temple courts every day, and that they ate together in each other’s homes (vv. 45-46). Churches today do not follow this pattern detail by detail. We don’t sell our cars, there is no temple to meet in every single day, and we don’t ring the doorbells of each other’s houses every night to share supper. Nor does Acts say these practices were then followed in the churches founded in Asia Minor or Greece or Rome.
Acts tells us what happened, which is not the same thing as telling us what should happen today. There were no church buildings in Acts; no pianos, guitars, or drums for worship. We have descriptions of the baptisms of only first-generation believers, and the method of baptism varied: in the name of Jesus; in the name of Father, Son and Spirit; in bodies of water; in a jail in Philippi; and in the desert along the Gaza road. The leadership structure of the early churches evolved over time, and we are not given a definition of how often the Lord’s Supper should take place in our churches today.
Acts is not a list of policies and formulae—it is something more wonderful—an account of the dynamic and oftentimes unpredictable movement of the Spirit of God in the era of the apostles, which puts us in the posture of expecting the unexpected today.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this for us. The vitality of the church will always come from the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit as believers become part of a dynamic movement. This is not to downplay the importance of church structure, but perhaps keep it in perspective.
There are a dizzying number of incidents reported in Acts, each of which is worthy of our contemplation. We ought to put ourselves in Paul’s place as he is chased out of a town, or shipwrecked, or plodding through two years of teaching in Ephesus. We need to imagine what it would have been like for Peter, commanded in a dream to enter the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and witness the unthinkable: the gospel spreading beyond the Jews. We need the maps at the back of our Bibles to have a sense of the geography of this movement.
The structure of Acts can be summed up this way: ever outward. First, there is Jerusalem and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the empowering of the apostles. The gospel crosses the line into the Gentile world with Cornelius. Peter is front and center in these early chapters. Then comes the conversion of the hostile Pharisee Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the apostle. The story proceeds with three great missionary journeys crossing one barrier after another until it eventually comes to the seat of the Roman Empire.
The Gospels give the gospel, and Acts, the mission of the gospel. And today in the 21st century, we see the cycle of proclamation, persecution, and expansion repeating. It is important for believers to understand that we have been here before and what it all means.
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.