We come to the conclusion of our introduction to the Book of Acts today by looking at its purpose and theme. On one level, as is true of most literary works, Luke had many purposes and Acts has many themes. Our interest here is to highlight Luke’s overarching purpose and theme.
As we mentioned earlier this week, Acts is technically a sequel; it is a follow up volume to Luke’s “first account” (Acts 1:1)—the third gospel. In the prologue to his gospel, Luke identified his purpose as being “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:4). We said yesterday that Theophilus was most likely a God-fearing Gentile who had accepted Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism. Luke wrote his gospel and Acts, therefore, to strengthen that conviction and build Theophilus up in faith by offering historical verification of what he had been taught (Marshall, p. 22). Luke’s gospel was just the beginning—Acts the conclusion (Acts 1:1). “If the Gospel gave the facts about the ministry of Jesus, Acts demonstrated how the preaching of Jesus as the Christ corroborated and confirmed the facts recorded in the Gospel; when the good news was preached, the Spirit made the word effective and brought the hearers into the experience of salvation” (Marshall, p. 21-22; emphasis mine). So while Acts does appear to have numerous secondary purposes (e.g., soothing tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians; convincing Roman officials that as the fulfillment of Judaism, Christianity deserves the legal protections previously offered to Jews; evangelizing unbelievers), these purposes are just that: secondary. Luke’s overarching purpose was to edify and strengthen the faith of Theophilus and other believers who would read his account.
Similarly, while a number of secondary themes could probably be identified, the primary theme of Acts can be found in Acts 1:8, where Jesus tells the apostles, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Acts is the story of the apostles bearing Spirit-empowered witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 1:1-6:7), Judea and Samaria (Acts 6:8-9:31), and to the ends of the earth (Acts 9:32-28:31). As we go through the book, we’ll see a simple formula repeated over and over again: 1) The Gospel goes (the apostles are obedient in preaching Jesus Christ); 2) The Spirit shows (the Spirit both convicts people, bringing them to salvation, and gives signs to the apostles that new groups, like Samaritans and Gentiles, are being brought into the Church); and 3) The Church grows (new converts are added to their number).
In the midst of this formula, Acts teaches us also about the nature of the church, the unity of the church, and the mission of the church. But contrary to popular belief, Luke does not paint over difficulties in the church to portray a rosy picture of a perfect church. The earliest church was not without its problems. Church members lie to one another, there are ethnic/racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles, the most notable missionary team (Paul and Barnabas) disbands over an intense disagreement. The Church, even in Acts, is not perfect. Yet Luke shows that even in the midst of struggle, the Church’s purpose does not change: to “be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
Other Posts in the Series:
References & Further Reading:
Carson, D. A. & Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Lea, Thomas D. & David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.
Marshall, I. Howard. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.