The book of Acts provides the earliest record of the birth of the early church and the spread of the gospel message. In many Bible translations it is called “The Acts of the Apostles”. Though this is not a bad title, it is not entirely accurate. When it comes to the recorded ministry of the apostles, the focus in the book of Acts is primarily on the ministries of Peter and Paul. In the book of Acts we see how the message of Jesus Christ spreads from Jerusalem to the ends of the known world. This is rather significant when you think that those leading this mission came from a small group in Israel. The reason why the message spread with life changing results is that the message they had was the gospel, and “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Throughout this book are a number of summaries or progress reports that show how the church is expanding and being established (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31). A considerable portion of this book (about a third) consists of ten sermons – three of them by Peter (2:14-36; 3:11-26; and 10:34-43), one by Stephen (7:1-53), and six by Paul (13:16-47; 17:22-31; 20:18-35; 22:1-21; 24:10-21; and 26:1-29). An important point to understand about this book is that it is transitional. This means that what is often recorded in the narrative is descriptive and not prescriptive for normal church life. Each of these happenings needs to be understood in the doctrinal direction found in the NT epistles (this will be discussed in the next section of our Journey Through the Bible).
The book of Acts can be summarised by the words found in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). There are three progressions of witness: In Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
1. Witness in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7)
After Jesus ascended to the glory of Heaven (1:9-11), the eleven disciples prayerfully waited in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit (1:12-14). They appoint Matthias to replace Judas and he is then numbered among the apostles (1:15-20). The selection of twelve apostles is a clear allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel. This reveals the unfolding plan of God is to continue His work of sovereign grace in the lives of the people of God. A crowd of around 120 were gathered together in an upper room, and then on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit sovereignly and suddenly descended and filled them. This was in fulfillment of the promise of Jesus (Matt. 3:11; John 14:15-31; and Acts 1:5, 8). This filling resulted in them speaking in other languages. Those in the large crowd that had gathered from a number of nations were amazed as they heard words being spoken in their native languages (2:6-12). However some mocked this and accused the apostles of being drunk. Peter then preaches a sermon to the crowd, proclaims that what they have witnessed is a part of God’s plan, and that Jesus is the exalted, resurrected Saviour and Lord. Many were cut to the heart, and then Peter called for them to repent and be baptised (2:38). That day 3,000 people were saved and then baptised (2:40-41). In Acts 2:42-47 is the first summary or progress report of the early church.
The message continues to spread in Jerusalem when Peter healed a lame man (3:1-10) and then used this as an occasion to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the crowd (3:11-26). This got the attention of the religious establishment, so Peter and John are arrested, appear before them, and are then warned to not speak to anyone or preach in the name of Jesus (4:17-18). After they were released, they returned to their fellow believers and gave a report of what happened. They then committed the whole situation to the Lord in prayer seeking further boldness (4:23-31).
Problems now arise from within the Christian community. This involved the deception of Ananias and Sapphira in lying about how much of their money they gave to the work of the Lord. This resulted in direct judgment from the Lord (5:1-6). Another problem occurred when the Church was growing and a number of the Greek speaking Jews complained about their widows being neglected in food distribution. The issues appear around a lack of clear communication due to language barriers (6:1). This was solved when the apostles appointed seven godly men to oversea practical matters of service while the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (6:4). One of those servants was Stephen. In addition to his practical service, he also preached the gospel. One day he was seized and taken to the religious leaders. He stood before them and preached a powerful sermon recounting OT history, with the climax in him rebuking the religious leaders for resisting the Holy Spirit and killing the Messiah (7:50-51). The outcome of this bold sermon was the decision to stone Stephen to death (7:54-60). Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian church.
2. Witness in Judea and Samaria (8-12)
Great persecution was beginning to bear upon the church in Jerusalem. A man named Saul approved the martyrdom of Stephen, and Saul was going from house to house dragging Christians into prison. As a result, many of the believers left Jerusalem. This scattering moved them to Judea and Samaria (8:1-2), which actually is the unfolding of God’s plan for His people to be witness not only in Jerusalem, but also to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
Philip, who was one of the seven godly servants (cf. Acts 6:5) takes the good news of Jesus and shares it with the Samaritans (8:5-25) and with an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40). Then a very surprising thing happens. Saul who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1) was granted authority to have access to Synagogues in Damascus so that he can arrest Christians and take them back to Jerusalem (9:1-2). As he goes on this journey, Saul is confronted by Jesus Christ and is converted. He is then commissioned by Jesus to proclaim His good news to gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. He goes from being a persecutor of God’s people to a preacher of God’s Word.
3. Witness in the Ends of the Earth (13-28)
In this third section of the book of Acts, the gospel message goes beyond Judea and Samaria and extends to the ends of the known world. This material follows Paul’s three missionary journeys (Acts 13-14, 16-18, 19-21) and his journey to Rome as a prisoner (22-28).
First Missionary Journey
Paul and Barnabas were set aside and commissioned by the church in Antioch. This first missionary journey lasted approximately for a year and half. Their ministry took place in Cyprus and Galatia. During this ministry trip, John Mark left them and went back to Jerusalem (13:13). Later this will become a contention between Paul and Barnabas.
Second Missionary Journey
Preparations began for a second missionary journey where they would visit those to whom they had previously preached God’s Word (15:36). However, a sharp disagreement over John Mark occurred between Paul and Barnabas (15:37). Barnabas wanted to bring him, but Paul didn’t. By God’s grace, this difficult discussion ended up with the forming of two missionary teams. Barnabas took Mark and Paul took Silas. Paul and Silas visited the places he previously ministered to in Asia Minor. The journey continued through the regions of Thrace, Macedonia, Achaia, then to Jerusalem and back to Anitoch Syria.
Third Missionary Journey
Paul’s third missionary journey was a very similar route to his second one. But this time he spent around three years in Ephesus. He continued to go from place to place preaching God’s Word and strengthening the churches.