Acts: an Introduction

Acts Biblestudy Introduction

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8

The ladies at my church have a monthly biblestudy.  I led our most recent study of the book of Isaiah, and we just began a new study through the book of Acts.

True story: the best part about leading a biblestudy?  You are forced, er, held accountable, to actually put the time in and do the study!


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We had our first meeting, covering an introduction to the book and Acts chapter 1, in March. One of my pet peeves is a biblestudy book which tells you what the Bible says, and then asks comprehension questions that don’t really require your reading the Scriptures yourself in order to answer them.  Ugh.

That’s why I have really have enjoyed the Knowing the Bible series we have used for Isaiah and Acts.  J. I. Packer is the theological editor, Dane Ortlund is the series editor, and various pastors/teachers author each study guide.  Each book is titled “a 12-Week Study,” but we have been using each “week” (or chapter) to guide our monthly meetings.  The chapters feel rich enough to sustain a vigorous discussion (in fact, we rarely have time to discuss each topic), but not so dense that we can’t faithfully complete the study during our busy lives.

I have also appreciated that the Knowing the Bible series consciously links each week’s study to “Gospel Glimpses,” “Whole-Bible Connections,” and “Theological Soundings” from the entirety of the Bible.  It is evident that the authors and editors want to facilitate us seeing Jesus in each and every moment of God’s Word, and to connect the particular passage we are studying to the entirety of Scripture.

While I encourage you to delve deeply into the Scriptures for yourself, I wanted to share a bit of an introduction to our study of Acts.

Purpose of Acts

Justin Holcomb, the author of our study, says in his introduction, “Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world.  Nothing is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel.”

The point of Acts is not the actions and work of individuals or even the church as a whole; the point of the book is the continuing actions of God Himself as the gospel expands.

Where do we see gospel expansion in the book of Acts?

Geographic Expansion

We see the gospel first preached publicly and mightily at Pentecost in Jerusalem (ch. 2).  Persecution is a vehicle to send the believers throughout all Judea and Samaria (ch. 8-12).  God specially designates Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles (“to the end of the earth”), sending him on missionary journeys throughout the known world (ch. 12-28).

It is helpful to keep a map beside you as you study the book of Acts.  Many of the place names are unfamiliar to us.  Even when we’ve heard the names before, it is difficult to really grasp the locations and directions about which we are reading without a map as reference.  The English Standard Version website has a wonderful page full of full-color Bible maps. I have found this map and this map to be especially helpful as I study the book of Acts.

Ethnic Expansion

 At first the church is made up primarily of ethnic Jews from Israel.  Within 2 chapters, however, we see the gospel being shared in many languages (Acts 2: 5-13) to devout men from “every nation under heaven” who were in Jerusalem to worship.  We then see the Samaritans and an Ethiopian saved in Acts 8, and soon the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles in a mighty way (Acts 10-11).  It has always been “too small a thing” for God to save only one nation (Isaiah 49:6)!

 Church Structure Expansion

 Acts begins with a small group of disciples and followers in an upper room.  Church discipline makes a dramatic appearance in Acts 5.  Soon mercy ministry necessitates the establishment of the deaconate (Acts 6).  We begin to see a church authority structure that is taking on the role of ordaining men for certain tasks (e.g. Acts 13), and a council of representative leaders gives wise and authoritative instruction to the church as a whole (e.g. Acts 15).

Trial/Suffering Expansion

 As Jesus predicted in John 15:18-27, the world that had hated Him would also hate those who followed in His footsteps: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.” (John 15: 20-21)

Mocking from the crowd on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13) quickly expands to arrests and threats (Acts 4).  It escalates to beatings (Acts 5).  Soon the first martyr, Stephen, is viciously murdered by stoning (Acts 7).  While many believe in Christ as the gospel expands geographically, many others violently oppose the church throughout the remainder of Acts.  This shouldn’t surprise us, as we recall the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13).

Literary Genre of Acts

Acts is a historical narrative.  It is not metaphor.  It is not poetry.  It is not prophecy.  It is not allegory.  It is not a systematic theology.  It is the record of historic events laid out in an organized, well-crafted, elegant, and truthful story form.

It is important to be careful as we read and interpret Biblical narrative.  It is tempting to look for a moral in every story, as if we are reading a collection of Aesop’s fables or Plutarch’s Lives.

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Acts is a factual history, not a moralistic tale of heroes to imitate or villains to deride.  Holcomb says it this way: “Acts doesn’t primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid.”

Therefore, as we study Acts, we should primarily be looking for what Acts teaches us about God (His character, His purposes, etc) rather than merely what it teaches us to do in our particular daily lives.

Value of studying Acts for the church today

James Mongomery Boice, in his commentary on Acts, emphasizes the value that studying Acts has for the modern church.  Just like Holcomb, who says that Acts reveals the church to be the “vehicle” for Christ to “continue his work in the world,” Boice postulates that examining the history of the early church, given to us in the book of Acts, will teach us “what made it strong and how it made its way in the pagan culture of its time.”  That’s a lesson the modern church, still in Babylon like our early church fathers and mothers, would do well to heed.

I was especially struck by Boice’s observation in the introduction of his commentary:

“The second thing that struck me was the concern Luke had for the actual presentation of the gospel, that is, for the early Christian preaching.  His book is only twenty-eight chapters long.  But in those twenty-eight chapters he has included nineteen sermons or formal addresses…In other words, the book is full of teaching.  What this means is that the way the gospel spread in the first Christian century and needs to spread again in our time is by the faithful preaching and teaching of the great truths of the Bible.”

That’s incredible to me.  28 chapters and 19 sermons/addresses?  What does that teach us about the priorities of the early church and the typical means God uses for the dramatic spread of the gospel?

I am curious to notice this more closely as I study the remainder of the book of Acts.  From previous readings of Acts I know that many of these addresses are in the context of legal defenses and street preaching.  Much of the more formal preaching, the way we think of it in the modern era, is simply mentioned, not described in depth.

I am convicted by Luke’s emphasis on the Word preached.  If God’s Word is living and active, as we believe, then there is nothing more powerful than this Sword to pierce and transform hearts.  The modern church should be convicted and encouraged by this.  But I am interested to note more fully the contexts for the proclamations of the Word in Acts.  It is the gospel proclaimed which changes hearts, and the gospel is not confined solely to an hour 1 day a week.

The Gospel of Luke

As I pondered this more, I was drawn back to the Gospel of Luke.  This is, of course, the same Luke who wrote Acts (it is worthwhile to compare Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1).

In Luke 24 we hear the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  They meet the resurrected Jesus (without knowing it is He), and Jesus proceeds to begin “at Moses and all the Prophets,” expounding “to them, in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

Later in chapter 24, Jesus appears to more of his disciples:

“Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”

So even here in Luke’s gospel we see an emphasis on the Scriptures preached as the means by which hearts are opened to the Gospel.

I encouraged the ladies in my study, and I encourage you as well, to read the book of Luke along with your studies of Acts.  Understanding the themes and perspectives of the author can only assist us in interpreting his writings.  I am interested to, even now, begin finding nuggets and parallels that correspond with one another from book to book.


Is your interest piqued to delve more deeply into the study of Acts?  You don’t need anything more than a Bible to begin!   I find that the best first step in any bible study is to read the entire book from beginning to end.  I can pretty much guarantee that any book of the Bible is shorter than the last novel you read!  Reading Acts all the way through gives you that helpful Big Picture context as you go back through and study more deeply.

Keep your eyes open to the key words/themes of Acts: Spirit/Holy Spirit, witness/disciple/apostle, church, gospel, repent, believe.  What other key words do you notice in your studies?

Track the locations on a map.

In parallel, read through the book of Luke.  Do you notice similar key themes?

As we begin our studies of Acts, let’s memorize Acts 1:8 together!

For deeper understanding, consider picking up a copy of the Knowing the Bible Acts study!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!  Please join my email list, follow Humility and Doxology on Instagram, or enjoy the conversations on the facebook page!

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2 thoughts on “Acts: an Introduction”

  1. Nineteen sermons in 28 chapters? That’s remarkable! And I’ve never recognized it!

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time with open air preaching and I can heartily affirm what you say, that those hours are a great blessing to my soul.

  2. Pingback: “According to the flesh”- Romans 8:1-4 – Humility and Doxology

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