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What We Would Be Missing If We Didn't Have the Book of Acts

The Uniqueness of Acts

The book of Acts offers something unique in the Christian canon. It has no rival in terms of a book spanning so many different lands. Its references to the Spirit far outpace any other work. It functions as a hinge canonically, bridging the Gospels and Epistles. It recounts the birth of the church age, and its content has no parallel in the New Testament.

Some of Paul’s letters correspond to each other and the four Gospels overlap, but most of what is found in Acts can be found in no other document. Without Acts there would be no account of fire and wind at Pentecost, no description of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, no narrative of the rise of the multi-ethnic church in Antioch, no story of Paul’s visit to Philippi, Corinth, or Ephesus, and no account of Paul’s trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Acts is also unique in that it might be our only writing from a Gentile—in addition to the Gospel by Luke. Colossians 4:11–14 gives a strong, but not decisive, argument for Luke’s Gentile status, since Paul lists Luke after those of the circumcision party.

The Mission of the Triune God

Patrick Schreiner

Follow Luke’s ordered narrative of events in the book of Acts to see how the early church grew “under the plan of God, centered on King Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit.”

The New Testament is largely written to deal with the Jew and Gentile dispute in light of Jesus’s arrival. If this is what the New Testament concerns, then it is remarkable that twenty-seven percent of the New Testament (Luke–Acts) comes from a Gentile mind, heart, and quill.1

Acts is also unparalleled in that it recounts a new stage in Christian history: post-Jesus life. Everything (canonically) before this has been either pre-Jesus or with Jesus. No longer are readers and characters looking forward to a Messiah, or following him on the dusty roads of Galilee. Now, readers get a glimpse of Jesus’s followers as they seek to be faithful to Jesus after he has departed.

The new community must figure out how to act now that Christ is gone. What has God instructed them to do? Where is the kingdom? How will they respond to persecution and pressures? What is the future of God’s people? How do they live under the rule of Rome as a marginal and contested community?

Acts, as a unique part of the canon and coming from a distinctive voice, lays out the unparalleled story of the early church to encourage the church to press on. It, therefore, has much to say to the church in every generation. As Erasmus wrote to Pope Clement VII in 1524, Acts presents “the foundations of the newborn church . . . through [which] we hope that the church in ruins will be reborn.”2

In other words, Acts is a model, a prototype, an exemplar for the renewal of the church. Luke, as a travel companion of Paul, kept his eye on the community of faith, and so should any modern reading of Acts. This story is for more than the people of God, but aimed primarily to encourage God’s people.

Acts speaks to the church in two different ways: as a transitional and a programmatic book.3 As a transitional book, Acts recounts non-repeatable events that establish the community of faith. For example, Pentecost is an unrepeatable event, but also not retractable. The reestablishment of the twelve apostles is exclusive to the period of Acts. The fate of Ananias and Sapphira is not likely to be seen requiring the immediate termination of liars in the church today.

Acts is a model, a prototype, an exemplar for the renewal of the church.

However, Acts also confronts Christians as a programmatic book. It provides guidance for the church in every age. Its message can’t be locked in the past. Its accomplishments can’t be relegated to a bygone era. Its miracles can’t be separated to another age. The same Spirit is still active. The same Christ still rules. The same God still sustains his church. The scope of what happens in Acts is nothing short of remarkable. Within the space of thirty years, the gospel is preached in the most splendid, formidable, and corrupt cities.4 It reaches the Holy City (Jerusalem), the City of Philosophers (Athens), the City of Magic (Ephesus), and the Empire (Rome). Its message and work were not done in a corner. Its victories and opposition were not minor blips in history. Acts recounts the struggle and success of the gospel message going forth, all under the plan of God, centered on King Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit.

The triumph of this movement cannot be attributed to the apostles or Paul but only to God himself. The change brought about by the twelve apostles is the most inexplicable, mysterious, and wonderful event ever witnessed in this world. Luke writes to encourage the church, telling it that this is the plan of God. His kingdom plan is not put on hiatus once Christ leaves; rather, it kicks into high gear as the Spirit comes and the good news goes to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Notes:

  1. A few early Christians also identify Luke as from Antioch. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue (end of second century; cf. “Anti-Marcionite [Gospel] Prologues,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. David Noel Freedman [New York: Doubleday, 1992], 262) describes Luke as “an Antiochene of Syria.” Some even argue “Lucius of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1 is Luke (cf. Rom. 16:21). If he is from Cyrene, the north coast of Africa, then he likely had dark skin. Though this is hard to confirm, if true, Luke-Acts is the only work authored by a black Gentile. While many modern scholars doubt this, as Paul elsewhere calls him Luke (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24), it should be taken into account that the two most “Roman” books (Romans and Acts) call some obscure figure Lucius.
  2. Desiderius Erasmus, Paraphrase on Acts, trans. Robert D. Sider, vol. 50 of Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 4.
  3. I borrow this language from Brandon D. Crowe, The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 4.
  4. The next two paragraphs are a reworking and paraphrasing of Barnes’s moving summary of Acts. Albert Barnes, Notes Explanatory and Practical on the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Harper, 1851), vi.

This article is adapted from The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts by Patrick Schreiner.



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