A Synopsis of Acts


1. Introduction
2. Luke the Author
3. Luke’s Purpose
4. Luke the Eyewitness
5. Luke the Historian
6. Luke’s Medical Bias
7. Luke’s Characters
8. The Jerusalem Council
9. Persecution
10. Christianity is Non-seditious
11. Sermons in Acts
12. Evangelism
13. The Holy Spirit

1. Introduction

The book of Acts can be contrasted with the book of Joshua, for both are concerned with crossing thresholds into something radically new. After reading the Pentateuch, the reader needs to know how the Israelites actually possess the land God has promised them. Whereas Joshua depicts how God’s people acquire the Promised Land, Acts shows how God’s people acquire His Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, limited acreage is provided. In the New Testament, limitless power is provided. As the land was essential for the establishment of God’s nation, so the Holy Spirit is essential for the establishment of His Church.

Joshua is the gateway to the rest of the Old Testament just as Acts is the gateway to the rest of the New Testament. In the Gospels, we study the teachings of Jesus, but in Acts we study the effects of His teachings. The only logical place for Acts in the Bible is exactly where it is: immediately following the Gospel narratives.

Acts shows the disciples working under the harshest of circumstances, facing the gravest dangers, and serving a Master who was recently executed as a defamed criminal. Disciples who preach about the crucified Messiah reap contempt, ridicule, opposition, persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death. There is a marked absence of pomp, ceremony, ritual, pride, and egocentricity. The apostles have no hidden agenda. As the book unfolds, we note the candidness in their testimonies and the honesty regarding their own faults. Luke is not shy to point out the imperfections of the Church:

<> Ananias and Sapphira are dishonest (Ch. 5).
<> The Grecian Christians complain (Ch. 6).
<> Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement (Ch. 15).
<> Paul sharply retaliates when he is slapped (Ch. 23).

The Gospels provide the facts about Jesus and Acts affirms these facts. The Gospels record “what Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1) and Acts explains how Jesus continues His work through the Holy Spirit (1:8). Luke’s narrative shows how the salvation Jesus offers affects an increasing number of nationalities in the fascinating era of 30-61 A.D.

Those who read this book are immediately drawn into an exciting drama. Acts depicts God’s strategy to save the human race and demonstrates how God communicates His universal Gospel. The work of the Holy Spirit is prevalent as the Church expands her global mission. Luke proves that New Testament events fulfill Old Testament prophecy. These events are frequently affirmed through miracles.

2. Luke the Author

The New Testament consists primarily of the Gospels and the Epistles. Only Luke writes a selective history based on eyewitness accounts. His story is colorful, animated, and dramatic.

During Paul’s first Roman imprisonment, he is closely associated with Luke. Therefore, he probably writes Acts while in Rome around 63 A.D. There are several reasons for this probable date:

<> If Luke had written it any later, he would have mentioned Paul’s second incarceration and impending execution.
<>Although Luke notes that the Church suffers persecution, it is considerably less than during the Neroian persecution which occurs after 64 A.D.                                       
<>There is no hint of the Jewish War which begins in 66 A.D. and ends when Jerusalem’s temple is destroyed in 70 A.D.

It is logical to assume the book of Acts was written prior to these events.

Luke views Christianity as a part of world history as he depicts the steady, methodical, calculated expansion of the Gospel into the Gentile world. The author thinks like a Greek, but expresses himself like a Jew. Only a person of notable education and writing ability could have penned such a masterpiece of literature. He demonstrates in his Gospel that he is skilled at arranging material with a clear and focused objective.

There is no evidence Luke ever heard Jesus preach. In his Gospel he writes about what he hears, but in Acts, he writes about what he sees. Although Luke is never mentioned by name in Acts, twice in Paul’s epistles he refers to Luke as being in the company of Aristarchus (Col. 4:10-14 & Philemon 4) who is also active in Acts (19:29 & 20:4). That the same man wrote both the Gospel of Luke and Acts is apparent for several reasons:

<> Luke refers to “the former treatise” which he wrote to Theophilus (Acts 1:1). This is the same Theophilus addressed in Luke’s Gospel (1:3).
<> In both documents, Luke is conscious of Gentile needs.
<>There is a prominent place given to women in both books.
<>In Luke and Acts there are close similarities in the style and use of Greek.
<> Of the four Gospel writers, Luke is the most evangelistic and this emphasis continues in Acts.
<>The conclusion of Luke’s Gospel dovetails with the beginning of Acts.

3. Luke’s Purpose

Throughout Acts a sense of unity of purpose is maintained. Luke tends to deliberately amplify incidents and events that relate to the promotion of the Gospel. Acts records the way in which the Holy Spirit impacts the lives of various individuals of every class whether young or old, rich or poor, bond or free, male or female, educated or ignorant, Jew or Gentile.

The book is written for several specific reasons:

1. To AFFIRM Christians are not subversive.
2. To CERTIFY Rome is the objective toward which everything in Acts moves.
3. To CLARIFY how the Church evolved from Judaism to become multi-ethnic.
4. To DEMONSTRATE the rapid expansion of the Church, numerically, ethnically, and geographically.
5. To ILLUSTRATE how the Great Commission is pragmatically fulfilled.
6. To MOTIVATE Believers to desire a deeper experience with God through the Holy Spirit.
7. To PROVE the spread of the Gospel is unstoppable, despite all forms of opposition.
8. To SHOW how churches are established at strategic points throughout the Roman Empire.
9. To VALIDATE God is fulfilling His Old Testament promises, thus the Gospel message can be trusted by all nations.
10. To VERIFY the reality and practicality of the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Acts is not designed as a general history of the early church, but a selective history. A number of factors prove this is the case:

<> There is no mention of the Jerusalem Church after Paul’s conversion.
<> Luke omits Paul’s trip to Arabia (Gal. 1:17).
<> There is no record of the gospel being brought to Egypt and Babylon (I Pet. 5:13).
<> The founding of the Church at Rome is not referenced.
<> Paul’s other shipwrecks are not mentioned (II Cor. 11:25).
<> Only a few references are made regarding the activity of the other apostles.

Acts allows the reader to enjoy a prolonged look into the life of the early Church. The first Christians are viewed as brothers and sisters who practice self-denial. They fellowship, pray, and partake of the Lord’s Supper together. They are seen becoming increasingly organized, caring for the sick, teaching, distributing funds, casting out demons, and burning books on witchcraft. The strong unity among them is astounding.

Without Acts, the rest of the New Testament would lack authenticity and authority. The book throws great light on the rest of the New Testament because so much in Acts is affirmed in Pauline literature. The second part of Acts reads like a journal of Paul’s ministerial efforts. Without Acts, many events referenced in the epistles could not otherwise be verified. Paul actually writes all his letters during the thirty years covered in Acts. His inspired writings contain the majority of the doctrines and theology in the New Testament.

4. Luke the Eyewitness

Luke lived in the era when the Gospel message was in transition from oral to written form. It is logical God would use a professional like Luke for this work. The formulation and growth of the early Church is recorded from the objective perspective of a Gentile, rather than a Jew. Furthermore, Acts is written by a man who is present during most of the events he records. Much of what he writes is based on personal observation.

There are numerous passages in which Luke, without explanation, uses the term “we.” It is assumed these are the times when Luke joins Paul in his travels. The “we” passages begin in Acts 6:10 when Luke sails with Paul from Troas to Macedonia. There is a period of time when apparently Luke is not with Paul, but the use of “we” suddenly resumes in Acts 20:6 and continues to the end of the book. This means Luke is in Paul’s company for a total of about 12 years. Paul mentions Luke in Philemon and Colossians and both references place Luke with Paul during his first Roman imprisonment. This faithful co-worker is with Paul just before he is martyred (II Tim. 4:11).

5. Luke the Historian

The opening verses of Acts show Luke intends to be as factual as possible. As his narrative progresses, it takes on the distinctive flavor of first century history. His observations concerning various officials help chronicle events as they dovetail with secular Roman records:

<> The birth of Jesus is connected to an edict of Augustus (Lk. 2:1).
<> Quinterius is indeed the governor of Syria in that era (Lk 2:2).
<> A famine does occur during the reign of Claudius (Acts 28:2).
<> A royal edict does expel the Jews from Rome (Acts 28:2).

Luke’s accuracy is affirmed because secular dates and events in world history inevitably agree with his statements.

6. Luke’s Medical Bias

Luke frequently employs specific medical terminology used by other physicians of his day. However, Luke abstains from getting too specific lest he lose his readers in technical jargon. His professional medical vocabulary is conclusive, for only a physician would use such words. This is demonstrated by:

<> His preference for stories of healing in both his Gospel and in Acts
<> His documentation of diseases and treatments
<> His use of technical terms regarding medical diagnosis
<> His keen interest in miracles of healing

When Luke is an eyewitness, medical terms are always more prevalent. The difference between Luke and other Gospel writers is apparent, for he often gives additional detailed information regarding healings:

<> Mark records the woman grew worse, but Luke points out she could not be healed by any physician (Mark 5 & Luke 8).
<> Although Mark also records the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Luke notes how Jesus “stood over her.” This is a technical term used by doctors when diagnosing patients. The fact that “the fever left her immediately” shows a physician’s interest (Lk. 4:39).
<> Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the healing of the leper (Mt. 8, Mk. 1 & Lk. 5), but Luke uses a medical term which refers to a severe, advanced case of leprosy.
<>All three Synoptic writers tell of the man with a withered hand (Mt. 12, Mk. 3 & Lk. 6). Luke alone notes it is his right hand.
<>John states that the ear of Malchus is cut off by Peter in the garden, but only Luke records that Jesus touches his ear and heals him (Lk. 18 & Jn. 22).
<>The story of Jairus and his daughter is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. But only Luke notes that after Jesus heals her, He instructs her parents to feed her, denoting a physician’s concern for her health (Mt. 9, Mk. 5, & Lk. 8).

Luke records five additional miracles of healing not found in other Gospels. Only “the beloved physician” records the spectacular Nativity story (Col. 4:14). As Luke records the virgin birth, he conveys the embarrassment of a pregnant but unmarried girl. Joseph’s confusion is clarified only by an angelic visit. Luke makes it clear the conception is supernatural. Any doctor would be awestruck by this unique pregnancy.

As a physician, Luke also often gives specifics regarding lengths of time:

<> Jesus raises the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus from the dead (Lk.8:42).
<> A woman has an issue of blood for 12 years (Lk. 8:43).
<> A man has a spirit of infirmity for eight years (Lk. 13:11).
<> The man at the Beautiful Gate is at least 40 years old (Acts 4:22).
<> Saul is blind for three days (Acts 9:9).
<> Aeneas has the palsy for eight years (Acts 9:33).
<> The impotent man is lame from his birth (Acts 14:8).

Luke’s medical interest is consistent throughout Acts. He prefers to use the term “immediately” regarding healings in both his Gospel and Acts. He seems pleased and amazed with these sudden cures. The man healed at the Beautiful Gate is “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8). 

7. Luke’s Characters

By highlighting various characters in Acts, Luke provides a “biographical interpretation” of the first thirty years of the Church. Each personality accents a new phase in the spread of the Gospel. He tells his story through the eyes of his characters. Every section in Acts seems to focus on a particular individual:

<> Peter is the primary personality in the first five chapters.
<> Steven is the focus of chapters 6 and 7.
<> Barnabus, Philip, and Saul are prominent in chapters 8-12.
<> Paul’s activities dominate chapters 13-28.

Luke’s story gains momentum when Saul is confronted by Christ (Ch. 9). More than half of Acts records the activities of the man whose name is inexplicably changed to “Paul.” The nature of the Acts narrative forces Luke to bypass certain events during this period which Paul references in his epistles. Luke intentionally omits incidents in Paul’s ministry not relevant to the focus of his story, opting to target individuals who promote the spread of the Gospel.

In the first twelve chapters of Acts, Peter is ministering primarily to the Jews. In the rest of the book, Paul ministers mostly to Gentiles. The background and personalities of these two men are very different. Peter is a man who had walked with Jesus for more than three years, while Paul was perhaps the finest mind among the Pharisees. An obedient, intelligent person was needed who could prove Christianity is the true fulfillment of Judaism. Paul was this man. 

8. The Jerusalem Council

When Gentiles begin responding to the Gospel, some Jews believe they must be circumcised according to the laws of Moses. Paul, Barnabas, and others return to Jerusalem to confer with other apostles and elders about this issue. Jewish resistance is a barrier that must be overcome if the Church is to expand. Only after this question is settled can the Gospel stretch beyond Jerusalem.

Luke shows not only how the arrival of the Holy Spirit fulfills Jewish prophecy, but also includes non-Jews as well. The decisions made at the council in Jerusalem are pivotal (Ch. 15). However, it will take a series of visions to convince Peter of the necessity of bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ.

Luke addresses and answers several vital questions:

<> How exactly do Jewish prophecies include Gentiles?
<> Since most Jews remain hostile to the Gospel message, how can these prophecies be fulfilled?
<> How is the Gospel to be presented to the Gentiles?
<> Will Gentiles accept a Jewish Messiah?
<> Will born-again Jews accept born-again Gentiles as equals?
<> Can Gentiles be saved apart from Jewish circumcision?

All of these concerns revolve around the fundamental question of racial equality. But every one of them can be solved by those who listen and respond to the Holy Spirit. For the Gospel to spread to every nation, racial bias must be eliminated (Mt. 28:19).

Interestingly, the Roman Empire had a policy of religious tolerance. Though Judaism enjoyed religious protection from the Roman government, the majority of Jews were still intolerant of Christianity. Luke methodically records how anger surfaces more quickly among the Sadducees and Pharisees than anyone else. As the story of Acts unfolds, Jewish resistance becomes more and more intense. It becomes apparent that Jews everywhere are reluctant to accept Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism. Although some Jews viciously attack Believers, all opposition to the Gospel is unsuccessful. Paul is finally forced to appeal to Gentile rulers for justice, for he expects none from other Jews.

9. Persecution

Luke makes it clear the same persecution the disciples faced when they walked with Jesus now continues after His ascension. As the book of Acts commences, the disciples encounter increasing opposition:

<> Spirit-filled Believers are mocked on the Day of Pentecost, (2:13).
<> Sadducees imprison Peter and John (4:1-3).
<> Steven is killed for his faith and persecution soon follows (7:58).
<> Saul makes havoc of the Church and incarcerates Believers (8:3).
<> Herod kills James and arrests Peter (12:2-3).

Jesus foretold of persecution, trials, and suffering for those seeking to enter the Kingdom of God (Mk. 10:30 & Acts 14:22). But the Church remains victorious despite the world’s animosity. Luke records how God protects and delivers his ministers:

<> Peter is miraculously released from jail.
<> Paul escapes over the wall in a basket.
<> Plots against Paul’s life are foiled.
<> Paul reaches Rome safely, despite shipwreck and snakebite.

10. Christianity is Non-seditious 

One of Luke’s clear objectives is to defend Christianity from all opponents. Knowing only Rome has the authority to crucify a man, jealous religious leaders falsely accuse Jesus (Jn. 19:7). Both Pilate and Herod find no fault in Him (Lk. 23:14-15). In Acts, the enemies of Christ continue to bring false allegations against Spirit-filled Believers. Various officials examine disciples, but in most cases are acquitted. Luke demonstrates how Roman authorities are generally favorable to Christianity, while the real opposition comes primarily from unsaved Jews. By selecting incidents which involve disciples being confronted by secular rulers, Luke proves Christianity is no threat to Rome or any other nation:

<> In Jerusalem, Peter and John are threatened by the Sanhedrin, but set free (4:21).
<> In Philippi, Paul and Silas are released by the officials (16:39). 
<> In Corinth, Gallio says Jewish laws are irrelevant concerning Roman law (18:17).
<> Paul denies he has wronged Rome and King Agrippa agrees (25:8 & 26:31).
<> In Jerusalem, both Felix and Festus would have released Paul had he not appealed to Caesar (Ch. 26).
<> In Rome, Paul’s sentence is reduced to mere house arrest.

The Church Jesus founded on the day of Pentecost will prevail, no matter who agrees or disagrees. After several disciples are examined by the most powerful rulers on earth, it is clear those who follow Jesus are not guilty of sedition. As the book of Acts draws to a close, the Church is expanding westward into Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. However, Luke never suggests Rome is the final destination of the Gospel message. Because the Holy Spirit can effectively penetrate a sinful city like Rome, there is hope for Calcutta, New York City, Brussels, Chicago, Tokyo, and Phoenix.

11. Sermons in Acts

The verb “Gospel” (evangelion) means “to evangelize” or “to preach the Gospel.” Evangelion is the vehicle by which the Holy Spirit draws people to Christ. One-fifth of the total content of Acts is comprised of speeches delivered by Peter and Paul.

Although Luke’s primary purpose is not the development of theology, doctrines evolve through apostolic preaching. Three primary branches of theology evident in Acts are:

1. Soteriology – the doctrine of salvation
2. Pneumatology – the doctrine of the Holy Spirit
3. Ecclesiology – the doctrine of the Church

It is worthy to note that the theology imbedded in the sermons in Acts is always evangelistic in nature. The following elements are typically found in these speeches:

<> God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ.
<> Human beings must repent.
<> Salvation is promised for all who respond in faith to Jesus.
<> The Messiah has arrived, is crucified, died, is risen, and reigns.
<> He performs mighty miracles.
<> He will return.

After the Holy Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preaches to Jewish audiences. When Steven comes into prominence, his lengthy sermon shows how the Old Testament is connected with the New Testament. He proclaims God’s universal plan of salvation and for this he is martyred. Stephen’s message serves as the bridge between Peter’s sermons and those of Paul who becomes “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13). 

12. Evangelism in Acts

Acts is the only inspired document regarding church growth. It has served for two millennia as the foundational template for preaching and evangelism. In the Gospel of Luke a new age is promised and in Acts it arrives.

Luke’s narrative builds a good case for normative Church growth:

2:41 – 3,000 are saved
4:4 – 5,000 more souls are converted
5:14 – multitudes are added
6:7 – the number of disciples multiplies greatly
9:42 – many believe
12:24 – the Word grows and multiplies
13:43 – many proselytes believe
14:1 – great multitudes believe
17:12 – more men believe
18:4 – Jews and Greeks are persuaded
18:10 – Jesus tells Paul many Corinthians are disciples
28:24 – thirty more souls are added

Acts records how the early Church grows through pragmatic evangelism methods. However, Luke’s purpose is not simply to show how the Gospel reaches the Roman Empire. He writes to verify its continuing expansion to the ends of the earth.

In Acts alone is found the origin, progress, and universality of the Church.
Once the church is established in Antioch, it is certain to reach the rest of the Gentile world. Thirty different countries are mentioned in Acts. Some 39 cities are also referenced and almost all of them are outside Israel. As more and more non-Jews receive the Holy Spirit, the broadening expansion of the Gospel message is depicted as unstoppable (Acts 11:17).

No other New Testament book is so encouraging and motivational concerning the escalation of Christianity. After the men Jesus trained become Spirit-filled, they enlarge their evangelistic vision to include all nationalities. In an atmosphere of joy, hope, and victory Luke records the extension of the Gospel from the capital of Judaism in Jerusalem through the capital of heathenism in Rome.

Acts affirms the missional effort of the Church must be filled with vibrant evangelistic activity. This book proves true revival is based on the current movement of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit directs, Believers obey, and wonderful results follow. God sent His Spirit to empower and motivate Christians to win souls.

13. The Holy Spirit

Acts contains the record of the descent of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised (Jn. 14:16-17; 15:26 & 16:7-14). Jesus foretold the greatest demonstrations of His power would occur after His ascension. “Greater works will you do because I go to my Father” (Jn. 14:12). Miracles performed by the Holy Spirit are common throughout the book of Acts:

<> The Holy Spirit is miraculously and powerfully outpoured.
<> The lame are healed.
<> Aeneas is healed of palsy.
<> Stephen, Cornelius, Peter, and Paul all have visions.
<> Dorcas and Eutychus are raised from dead.
<> Jesus appears to Saul. 
<> Elymas the sorcerer is stricken blind.
<> Unclean spirits are cast out. 
<> Prison doors open to free Peter, Paul, and Silas.
<> 276 men are delivered from a terrible storm.

The true hero of Acts is neither Peter nor Paul, but the Spirit of God. Without Him, Acts has no plot and serves no purpose. As Luke’s narrative develops, the actions of the Holy Spirit increase. He shows the arrival of Holy Spirit is the decisive event in Church history. There are some references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and a few in the Gospels. However, only in Acts are His priorities so dramatically portrayed. Every verse in Acts is connected with the work of the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, 120 individuals were filled. Today those who have received the Holy Spirit number in the millions. While salvation is the best gift a sinner can receive, the precious Holy Spirit is the best gift a Believer can receive. The book of Acts concludes with Paul preaching and teaching without opposition. But although Luke’s record may seem to end abruptly, the book is not anticlimactic. Every Spirit-filled Believer helps write the next chapter in Church history.

Maxim of the Moment

The bankrupt man is the man who has lost his enthusiasm. - H.W. Arnold