ACTS: ITS PURPOSE & STRUCTURE

M. Scott Bashoor (August 2017)

This entry has been published in VOICE: An Independent Church Journal (98:5, November-December 2019), pp. 20-21.

The book of Acts is Luke’s account of the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church among Jews and Gentiles during the middle third of the 1st century. It is a continuation of Luke’s Gospel which ends with Jesus’ commissioning the disciples to spread the news of His saving work to the world. It was written around AD 61–63 for “Theophilus,” and it focuses primarily on the ministries of Peter and Paul.

Luke was an associate of the Apostle Paul and was an eyewitness to many of the stories in the second half of the book. (Luke includes himself for the first time in 16:10 when he uses “we” to signify his inclusion in Paul’s traveling band.) He accompanied Paul to Rome to await his trial of appeal before Caesar. Somewhere along the way, Luke encountered a Gentile named Theophilus who had great interest in the Christian faith. Luke was probably with Paul in Rome when he wrote this collection of historical narratives to help Theophilus better understand the growth of the church amongst gospel believing Jews and Gentiles.

The identity of Theophilus has been much debated. Some authorities regard the name (lit., “lover of God”) as a generic title for any devoted reader, so they regard the book as an open treatise written to all Christians everywhere. But Luke’s reference to Theophilus as “most excellent” (Luke 1:3; cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25) suggests that he was a real person, a Gentile of high social order. His exact identity is unknown. He might have been a wealthy donor contributing to Paul’s ministry and defense, or perhaps he was even part of Paul’s legal counsel in Rome. I am inclined to see Theophilus as a convert of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles who needed clarification that the ministry of the Gospel was truly intended by God to come to Gentiles like himself. It is especially fitting for Luke to write this discourse since he is believed by many authorities to be the only Gentile author of New Testament books,

Like the Gospel of Luke, Acts is a collection of factual historical narratives carefully selected to convey theological truths. Luke does not attempt to write a complete history of all the major personalities and events during the church’s first 30 years. He intentionally focuses upon the ministries of Peter and Paul.  The larger purpose of the book is to validate Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, a mission which met great resistance in Jewish circles—even some Jewish Christian circles. The book begins by focusing on the ministry of Peter, but the remaining two thirds is about Paul. Peter and most of the other apostles were still active in ministry during Paul’s missionary journeys, but Luke has special interest in Paul’s work. As one compares the narratives of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with the narratives of Peter and Paul, an important connective thread emerges. Many notable things which Jesus did, Peter also did (such as preaching, healing, suffering in Jerusalem); and those things which Peter did, Paul also did. Thus Theophilus is encouraged to see Paul’s ministry as a God-ordained continuation of what Jesus began and what was continued by the Twelve, including the gospel mission to the Gentiles.

This understanding of the book’s purpose helps the reader see more clearly the book’s structure as a collection of narratives pivoting around the ministries of Peter and Paul. Often the book has been outlined around points of geography mentioned in 1:8—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the outer world of the Gentiles. While this range of territory is certainly covered in the book, it does not really provide its structure.

The book opens with a Prologue (1:1–11) that reminds Theophilus of the previous volume written to him. Luke probably wrote his gospel a few years earlier, and the opening of Acts closely mirrors the conclusion of the previous volume. From 1:12–12:25 Luke focuses largely on Peter’s leadership of the early church from Pentecost to the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles. Toward the end of the accounts of Peter’s ministry, Saul (later Paul) is introduced, first as a persecutor and then as a convert. In 12:25, the book shifts its focus onto Paul’s missionary ministry which remains in view for the rest of the book. Peter appears in the narrative one last time at the Jerusalem Council (15:1–16:4) to validate Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

The two halves of the book each contain 3 sub-sections (1:12–6:7; 6:8–9:31; 9:32–12:24; and 12:25–16:5; 16:6–19:20; 19:21–28:31), and each of these concludes with a similar summary statement about the progress of the Gospel (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30–31). The book does not have a fully developed conclusion, but the final sub-section summary statement (28:30–31) is an adequate conclusion for the whole.

Throughout the book there are strong overtones about God’s sovereignty—from God’s miraculous inauguration of the church, to the Spirit empowered spread of the Gospel, to the providential direction of the apostolic teams in their ministries. This same theme of God’s sovereign plan was strong in Luke’s Gospel, as well. God had a sovereign plan which He was working out. A grand part of this plan was the taking of the Gospel to the Gentiles so He might redeem a people for Himself. Luke assures Theophilus and, by extension, all other Gentile readers that it was God’s plan from the beginning to send the Jewish Messiah to be the Savior of the world.