An Introduction to Acts

April 10, 2021

1 I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After he had suffered, he also presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:1-3

Written by Tom Rauter from the Brentwood Campus

What does today’s passage in Acts reveal about the author of the book, the recipient of the “narrative,” and its purpose? Acts 1:1-3 initially appears to introduce an anonymous work for another person using a pseudonym. Who is the “I” in verse 1? Most Bible scholars acknowledge that the writer of Acts is Luke, the Gospel writer and “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). Other references to Luke appear in verse 24 of Philemon and in 2 Timothy 4:11.

Who is “Theophilus”? Bible scholars offer a variety of opinions about the addressee’s identity. One clue is in the name Theophilus itself—the same name Luke uses in the introduction to his Gospel (Luke 1:3).

Theophilus in Greek means “lover of God.” The name is a pseudonym. The man behind the pseudonym may have been an earnest seeker of information or instruction about Jesus and His Church, perhaps a recent convert to Christianity, or an early Church leader in need of a history of the Church and biographical information about its Founder.

Luke’s Gospel addresses Theophilus using the formal modifier “most honorable” (Luke 1:3). The first verse of Acts 1 includes no such modifier. Why? Theophilus could have been Luke’s patron, a financial supporter who may have financed the writing and dissemination of Luke and Acts to other Christians within the Roman Empire. The difference in the forms of address Luke uses in Luke 1:3 and in Acts 1:1 suggests a growing closeness, perhaps even brotherliness, that developed between the “most honorable” Theophilus and Luke in the interval between the writing of the Gospel and the writing of Acts.

How did the book of Acts come to be in our modern Bible? First- and second-century Church fathers quickly recognized that Luke’s Gospel and his history of the early Church were important documents essential to preserve. Luke’s Gospel constitutes a biography of Jesus using the testimony of “the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Word handed down to us” (Luke 1:2). Luke’s history of the early Church in Acts was at the time and remains today an invaluable record of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, once again using the testimony of “original witnesses and servants of the Word.”

Acts provides eyewitness accounts of major events in the life of the first-century Church, of several of the Apostles (notably Paul and Peter), and of many disciples. Luke himself became an eyewitness to the events he recorded beginning at Acts 16:10, where he introduces the plural personal pronoun “we,” which he employs from there through the end of the book. Luke’s eyewitness account of the shipwreck, rescue, and sojourn on the island of Malta is one of the most dramatic action narratives in all literature.

Is Acts history? Luke’s Gospel and his narrative in Acts both include specific and verifiable facts, times, descriptions, people, and places. Bible scholars have long admired Luke’s historical accuracy as well as his use of Greek, some of the most eloquent and descriptive writing in the New Testament. One Bible scholar has described Luke as “a cultured, well-educated doctor-scientist with outstanding literary abilities.”* The introduction to Acts in the New International Version states emphatically, “Hostile criticism has not succeeded in disproving the detailed accuracy of Luke’s political and geographical designations.” Can today’s Christ-followers trust Luke’s narrative in Acts as history? Yes, we can!

*W. P. Barker, Everyone in the Bible, 1966, p. 217.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. How do you personally assess the importance of the first three verses of Acts 1 to your understanding of the purpose and value of Acts?
  2. Do you think Theophilus was the patron of Luke who made possible the writing and dissemination of Luke’s Gospel and of Acts? Modern historians of ancient history estimate that only about 20% of the male population of the Roman Empire of Luke’s day were literate, and then only among the upper classes. Scrolls played an important part in the intellectual life of Roman society. The cost of writing a scroll, especially of a scroll long enough to contain the entire text of Acts, for example, amounted (by some estimates) to a minimum of four days’ wages (see the notes on Acts 1 in the Christian Standard Study Bible). If Luke (or Theophilus, or both) intended to circulate copies of the scroll to churches in existence at the time of writing, the cost of producing the original scroll and any number of copies would have been considerable. If Theophilus was indeed Luke’s patron, he must have been sufficiently wealthy to support the writing and dissemination of multiple scrolls. Some scholars have suggested the man behind the pseudonym might even have been a wealthy Roman official. Why would he have used a pseudonym?
  3. How can modern-day Christians become “patrons” supporting the writing and publication of Christian books, magazines, and scholarly journals?
  4. Have you ever read about archeological discoveries that support Biblical accounts as history? How do such discoveries affect your attitude toward the Bible?

Missions Prayer
Pray for creativity in strategy for group leaders working through Hope for the World missions partner Young Life. Pandemic concerns have made it difficult for some leaders to connect with students they know are isolated, searching and need Jesus. Pray for the pandemic to end and community to be restored.

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