Introduction to the Book of Acts

Lesson 1998
Tags: Acts
Excerpted from Ministry Themes in the Book of Acts
Related Resources: Progress in Spite of Adversity

The book of Acts narrates the fascinating story of the growth of the church during the decades that followed the death of Jesus. The Lord spent his final days on earth commissioning his followers to carry to the world the good news of his atoning death and victorious resurrection (see Mt 28.18-20; Mk 16.15-18; Lk 24.45-49; Jn 20.21; Acts 1.8). The book of Acts records that the disciples were clearly obedient to Christ’s command, saturating their world with the gospel (Acts 17.6; 19.26-27). The faithful example of the first-century church is worthy of imitation on the threshold of the twenty-first century. In the interest of reviving the spirit of the early church, this series of lessons will seek to elucidate the true character of its ministry. Since the historical accounts of the book of Acts are best understood in their context, the following background information is provided.


All conservative authors attribute Acts to Luke. Unger gives the following profile of Luke’s life: “(1) Luke was of Gentile origin. This is inferred from the fact that he is not reckoned among those ‘who are from the circumcision’ (Col. 4:11; cf. v.14). When and how he became a physician is not known. (2) He was not one of the ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word’ (Luke 1:2). (3) On the supposition of Luke’s being the author of the Acts we gather from those passages in which the first person we is employed that he joined Paul’s company at Troas and sailed with them to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-11). He accompanied Paul as far as Philippi (16:25-17:1). . . . [I]t is inferred that Luke spent the intervening time—a period of seven or eight years—in the city or neighborhood; and as the we continues to the end of the book, that Luke remained with Paul during his journey to Jerusalem (20:6-21:18), [and] was that apostle’s companion to Rome (27:1) . . . . According to the epistles he continued to be one of Paul’s ‘fellow workers’ till the end of his first imprisonment (Philem. 24; Col. 4:14). The last glimpse of the ‘beloved physician’ discovers him to be faithful amid general defection (2 Tim. 4:11)” (788).

Date of Writing

There is some disagreement concerning the date of writing. Because Acts does not mention the burning of Rome (AD 64) or the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), the date is usually set shortly prior to AD 64 or several years after AD 70. Robertson predicted that the book would ‘‘be finally credited to the time 63 AD in Rome” (1:42). Toussaint corroborates this view: ‘‘The date usually accepted by conservative scholars for the writing of Acts is around A.D. 60-62. Accordingly the place of writing would be Rome or possibly both Caesarea and Rome” (351). However, other commentators opt for a later date: “The evidence is not conclusive on either side, . . . but this commentary tentatively accepts a date . . . in the early seventies” (Keener 321).


Following is an outline survey of the major events and sequences of events recorded in the book of Acts. These account for an overwhelming majority of the book’s content. The structure of the outline is derived from Acts 1.8.

I. The Witness in Jerusalem (1.1-8.1a)

A. Jesus’ Ascension (1.6-11)
B. Selection of a Twelfth Apostle (1.15-26)
C. Pentecost: The Coming of the Holy Spirit (2.1-41)
D. Jewish Opposition to the Church (4.1-31; 5.17-42)
E. Selection of Seven Deacons (6.1-7)
F. Martyrdom of Stephen (6.8-8.1a)

II. The Witness in Judea and Samaria (8.1b-9.35)

A. Evangelism in Samaria (8.4-25)
B. Conversion of Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-39)
C. Conversion of Saul (9.1-19)

III. The Witness to the Ends of the Earth (9.36-28.31)

A. Conversion of Cornelius (10.1-11.18)
B. Expansion to Antioch (11.19-26)
C. Commissioning of Barnabas and Saul to Missionary Work (13.1-3)
D. Paul’s First Missionary Journey (13.4-14.28)
E. Jerusalem Council (15.1-29)
F. Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (15.36-18.22)
G. Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (18.23-21.16)
H. Paul’s Arrest in Jerusalem (21.27-23.31)
I. Paul’s Imprisonment in Caesarea (23.32-26.32)
J. Paul’s Journey to Rome (27.1-28.15)
K. Paul’s Imprisonment in Rome (28.16-31)


It is estimated that the events narrated in Acts took place between AD 30 and AD 60 (Robertson 44).


Scholars are not in total agreement as to the primary purpose of Acts. Some see in it a defense of Christianity in the face of first-century opposition. “Acts works on several fronts: the gospel confronts Roman law courts, Greek philosophers, rural Asian farmers and others on their own terms, and nothing can stop it. A major theme is the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Ancient religions were respected by virtue of their age, and Christians needed to demonstrate that the Old Testament was their book and that they were the authentic voice of Judaism (despite the opposition of much of the Jewish community of Luke’s day to this claim)” (Keener 321-322).

Other authors, such as Robertson, believe Acts to be primarily historical in nature: “[Luke] addresses the book to Theophilus as his patron, a Gentile Christian plainly, as he had done with his gospel. The book is designed for the enlightenment of Christians generally concerning the historic origins of Christianity. It is in truth the first church history” (1:46). Toussaint confirms this view, emphasizing the theological nature of the book’s historical accounts: “The purpose of the Book of Acts may be stated as follows: To explain with the Gospel of Luke the orderly and sovereignly directed progress of the kingdom message from Jews to Gentiles, and from Jerusalem to Rome’’ (350-51).

The latter view seems to be more valid than the former. The book of Acts appears to be written for the benefit of Christians rather than as an apologetic. It is a history, though not in the twentieth-century sense of the word. Its accounts do not document the life of the early church to a uniform degree. Data are included and excluded with the specific purpose of telling the story of the expansion of Christianity from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem to its saturation of the Roman Empire.


The book of Acts is marked by a number of transitions. These changes signify the conclusion of the apostolic age and the establishment of the church age as it is presently known. Though no event can be identified as the exact turning point between the temporary and the permanent in Acts, many readers of the book see chapters 1 to 12 as being distinct from chapters 13 to 28. Following is a chart that summarizes ten transitions in the early life of the church.

 Chapters 1-12Chapters 13-28
Center of ActivityJerusalem
Prominent Character
Geographic Scene
Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria The uttermost parts of the earth
Evangelistic Target
Jews Gentiles
Church Leaders Apostles
Greatest Challenge Daily management of the church Abandonment of Old Testament Law
Greatest Accomplishment Selection of deacons Resolution of Jew-Gentile tension
Thrust(s) for Evangelism Providence (Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius) Providence and strategy (Macedonian call, Paul’s travel plans)
Form of Opposition Religious (Jews) Political (Romans)
Tendency of Christians Concentration Dispersion