The book of Acts records the birth and early development of the church over a period of about 30 years – from the early 30s to the early 60s AD.

A multicultural society

The cultural setting of Acts is in some ways similar to our own, because both are very diverse.  Christianity was just one among many belief systems.  As Cook writes:-

‘As well as the dominant religion of Judaism there were followers of the Greek gods—Artemis (Acts 19:27–28, 35), Zeus (Acts 14:12–13) and Hermes (Acts 14:12). There were many religious figures—sorcerers (Acts 13:8ff), fortune tellers (Acts 16:16) and Jewish exorcists such as the Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14) and Elymas (Acts 13:8). The language groups in Acts 2 evidence the diversity of cultures, even in Jerusalem. An individual had the ability and opportunity to pick and choose regarding their belief. Within Judaism, Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, while Sadducees, the Bible-carrying clerics, did not. Then there were the philosophical schools of the Greeks: the Stoics who pursued knowledge and a virtuous life in apathy, and the Epicureans who sought after happiness in serene detachment. Both are mentioned in Acts 17:18.’

The attitude of Rome was one of tolerance.  ‘All religions were tolerated as long as they tolerated other religions, including the Emperor cult.’ (Cook).  We may add that, beyond the offering of sacrifices to the gods, religion was not expected to interfere with daily life.  Of course, such tolerance was impossible for the Christians, because of the unique claims of, and about, Christ.  They sought to communicate their message without giving unnecessary offence (see, for example, Acts 4:19–20; 13:16–41; 14:15–17; 17:30–31), but at the same time preached the gospel fearlessly and boldly (see Acts 5:29, 32; 20:21).

Purpose

Grant Osborne detects a five-fold purpose for this book:-

  1. To preach the gospel. Luke wanted to proclaim the good news of Christ by relating its history in the early Church. It is mainly a historical work showing how the presence of the Holy Spirit moved the people of God from a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a worldwide force bringing the gospel of salvation to a lost world.
  2. To trace the Spirit’s activity and show the divine impetus behind the Church’s mission. Here Luke is a theologian of salvation history as well as the “father of Church history.” The goal of this book is to forge a new movement whose mission is to bring God’s truths to all the world.
  3. To defend the faith. This is an apologetic work with two audiences: to defend Christianity against Jewish antipathy and the demands of the Judaizers, and to show the tolerant attitude of Roman officials, proving that Christianity was no political danger to Rome and should be tolerated.
  4. To bring together the Jewish and gentile elements of the Church into one united new Israel. Both sides need to understand that God’s will is for them to come together and form the new messianic community together.
  5. To teach the historical beginnings of the Church for the benefit of new converts and to tell those in Jerusalem about the spread of the Church into gentile lands.

(Emphasis added)

Bruce Milne wishes to add that the book of Acts has a prescriptive purpose, ‘telling us what the church is, why God called it into being, what are its resources, and how its ministry role fits in with the ministry role of Jesus and His mighty acts of redemption.’  It is primarily, says Milne, ‘a book of mission, and essentially focuses the missional role which the church is called to major on through the course of its life until the return of its Lord. Acts is not just about what the church did, but about what it exists to do, today and every day.’

Relevance for today

Milne notes that ‘if we are conscious today of bearing witness to Jesus Christ in an environment where:-

  • the mass of the surrounding population, in all age groups, are largely ignorant of, and insulated from, our convictions;
  • a huge diversity of religious opinions, or their vehement denial, meet us on every hand;
  • the population is increasingly diverse by every standard of reference;
  • life is largely lived in, and shaped by, dominating urban centres;
  • the people of God are frequently internally divided and sometimes barely recognizable as the people of God at all;
  • absolute values are an ancient memory; and
  • faithfulness to Christ can prove extremely costly, even life-threatening

—then we will find ourselves very much at home in the pages of this ancient book.’

Milne adds that ‘Christendom is no more, and the Western Church is slowly and painfully learning to live without its protective shelter. The good news of the Book of Acts is that God is more than a match for such conditions, and that authentic Christianity can survive and even flourish in precisely this context.’ (Listing added)

Bibliography

In addition to commentaries on the whole Bible and on the New Testament, commentaries by Milne, Stott, Bruce (on the English text), Parsons, Williams, Thomas, Wright, Marshall, Schnabel, Kistemaker, Polhill, Fernando, Peterson, Cook, Barrett.

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