Acts of the Apostles Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

As the fifth book of the New Testament and a sequel to the Gospel of Luke (or the second volume of what is often called “Luke-Acts”), the Acts of the Apostles continues the story begun by Luke. Unlike the other three New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John), which end the narrative shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Lukan story continues beyond these epical events. This ongoing story includes a wide range of scenes and situations: from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to the Areopagus in Athens, from outlandish opposition to angelic intervention, and from the utopian scenes among the Christian believers in early chapters to life-threatening crises later on (see Acts 21:27-36). While the plot of Acts extends geographically and thematically beyond the Gospel of Luke, both the repetition of numerous aspects of Luke 24 (in the opening eleven verses of Acts) and the similarity between the depiction of Jesus in Luke and key Christian characters in Acts support the conclusion that one should read the Acts narrative as a continuation of the story begun in Luke.

As one reads the Acts, the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 provide a general preview of the story’s progression: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (author’s translation). Thus, the first portion of the book (1:1-8:3) focuses on persons and events in Jerusalem. The second portion of the book (8:4-12:25) extends to the regions around or near Jerusalem. The action of the third portion of the book moves to other places in the eastern Mediterranean world (13:1-20:38). The last portion (21:1-28:31) focuses on the arrest and subsequent trials of Paul, who in chapter 13 had become the leading figure of the Acts narrative.

Everything in the opening section of Acts (1:1-8:3) occurs in the city of Jerusalem. After Jesus’ ascension to heaven, which is recorded only in Luke-Acts, Jesus’ followers return to Jerusalem, as he had instructed them (1:4). These followers, numbering around 120 persons (1:15), gather consistently for prayer (1:14), probably in the temple courts (see Luke 24:52-53). The extraordinary event during Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit comes to these followers and enables them to proclaim the Gospel message in the native languages of those who have gathered at the Jewish Temple for that religious festival, represents God’s fulfillment of his promise to the Jewish people as God’s people. Thus, all the believers are Jewish, whom the author describes in utopian ways: enjoying God’s presence among them; sharing possessions among the large, growing group of Christians; and proclaiming the Christian message about the resurrection of Jesus (see Acts 2:41-47, 4:32-37). However, these wonderful images of the Jewish believers stand in sharp contrast to...

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Acts of the Apostles Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Esler, Philip F. Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An appropriation of sociology and anthropology for the study of Lukan theology. Explores the social dynamics of the Christian community to which Acts (and Luke-Acts) was addressed.

Marshall, I. Howard, and David Peterson, eds. Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998. A collection of twenty-five essays that highlight a variety of major theological themes in Acts. Takes seriously later developments in the study of Acts.

Pervo, Richard I. Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. A provocative study of the dramatic and entertaining aspects of Acts as a popular work of historical fiction or as a historical novel. Highlights the creative elements of the Acts composition.

Seim, Turid K. Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994. A reexamination of common assumptions about the Lukan perspective on women. Emphasizes a “double message” in Luke-Acts: one that preserves positive church traditions about women and another that limits their roles in the public proclamation and ministry of the church in Acts.

Spencer, F. Scott. Journeying Through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004. Interprets Acts from both narrative criticism and the study of sociocultural dynamics. Underscores the element of surprise and its significance for a first-time reader.

Tannehill, Robert C. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990. A classic work emphasizing the unity of the two Lukan works. Interprets aspects of the Lukan writings in the light of their contribution to the whole Lukan narrative.