The Book of Acts
Acts is important for two reasons:
- It traces a major shift that takes place by the early church leaders in understanding of the purpose of Jesus.
- It traces a shift that takes place from the leadership of Peter to Paul.
In this lesson you will see the shift from Peter to Paul. In the next lesson you will learn about the shift in understanding the purpose of Jesus. (This will make more sense once you read it.)
- Luke was a physician.
- He also wrote the Gospel of Luke.
- He traveled extensively with Paul.
- He was an eyewitness to many of the events describe in Acts that involved Paul.
Place and Time of Writing
- Place: Unknown
- Time: Around 90
- Acts is the only history book in the New Testament.
- It covers the time period from the ascension of Jesus (AD 30) to Paul’s imprisonment (around 62).
- The first part focuses on Peter (chapters 1-12) and the second part focuses on Paul (13-28).
- Peter is mentioned extensively in Acts up to chapter 15, and then no more in the rest of the book.
- This is significant and will be explained in the next lesson.
- Just like in the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts is addressed to Theophilus.
- This could be a person, or it could mean “one who loves God” and is written to all Christians.
- Acts tells the history of the early church from AD 30-62.
Details about Acts
Timeline of Acts: All dates are approximate [Note: as with most dates in the first century, different scholars have different viewpoints; if you go to other sources you may see slightly different dates.]
- A.D. 30
- Jesus was crucified, died, buried, resurrected, and ascended out of sight.
- Apostles returned to Jerusalem.
- Apostles chose someone to take Judas’ place: Matthias became the twelfth Apostle.
- Day of Pentecost (explained below); Peter preached the first sermon.
- Over 3000 people became Christian.
- Christianity begins to spread outside of Israel.
- Peter was basically the leader of the Christian movement during this time period. He was not chosen, but he was the leader of the 12 Apostles when Jesus was alive and he remained their leader until the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50.
- Paul became a Christian on the road to Damascus.
- Paul went on his First Missionary Trip.
- Council of Jerusalem: Paul basically became the leader of Christianity. He was not chosen, but he had the most correct understanding of Christianity and he left to go on the most significant missionary trips of all the Apostles; Peter, James (the half-brother of Jesus), and John were at the Council of Jerusalem.
- Paul went on his Second Missionary Trip
- Paul went on his Third Missionary Trip
- Paul arrested in Jerusalem and taken to Rome; while there he was mainly under house arrest
- (Not in Acts) Paul probably released from prison during this time
- (Not in Acts) Paul probably traveled outside of Rome. He may have gone to Spain.
- (Not in Acts) Paul back in Rome; he and Peter were arrested and martyred.
- Peter was crucified upside down.
- Paul was beheaded. (Roman citizens could not be crucified, and Paul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen.)
Outline of items in this section:
- Choosing a new apostle
- Day of Pentecost: Speaking in tongues
- Peter is the leader
- Paul’s biography up to his First Missionary Trip
- Paul’s First Missionary Trip (1MT)
- Council of Jerusalem
- Paul’s 2MT
- Paul’s 3MT
- Paul’s arrest and trip to Rome
- Optional: Extra-biblical [means not in the Bible] quote about Peter’s and Paul’s deaths.
The Ascension: 1:1-11
- The “Ascension” is the Christian belief that Jesus’ last act on earth was to take his 11 Apostles (Judas had committed suicide) to a lonely, high place where he rose up until he was out of sight. This is described in four places in the NT: at the end of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the beginning of the book of Acts.
- Remember that John included mainly new information about Jesus and did not want to repeat information found in the Synoptics. That is a good guess as to why he didn’t tell about the Ascension of Jesus.
Choosing a new Apostle to take Judas' place: 1:12-26
- After the 11 Apostles saw Jesus ascend out of sight, they were not sure what to do. After all, for three years they had traveled with Jesus and he had made all the decisions: where to go, what to do, etc. Since Jesus was only 33 years old at the time, they probably thought he would be with them for several more decades, and then he ascends and they are left alone. This was the only the second time that they had been without Jesus.
- The first time was after Jesus was crucified. But he died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday, and so they were still in the process of grieving when, all of a sudden, he returned.
- Acts 1:4 shows that the 11 Apostles were staying in Jerusalem before the Ascension, and so they returned. This verse plus the next one shows that Jesus told them: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
- They waited in Jerusalem, therefore, along with other followers of Jesus, including the mother of Jesus. And they waited and waited. Eventually they decided that they could do one thing while they wated: replace Judas.
- Remember that Jesus had originally chosen 12 Apostles. After betraying Jesus, Judas had committed suicide. (Matthew 27:1-10) Therefore, the 11 Apostles decided that Jesus must have meant for the Apostles to number twelve, and so they chose someone to take Judas’ place.
- How did they pick the replacement? Peter said that they needed to choose someone who had “been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” (1:21,22)
- Jesus picked the 12 Apostles, and he also choose 70 (or 72) others from his followers to go on an additional mission. (Luke 10). The replacement could have come from one of these 70 (or 72).
- Acts (1:23-26) states that they chose Matthias, and he became the 12th Apostle.
- Two points here:
- Acts (or any book in the New Testament) does not mention Matthias again.
- We do not know if this was a practice that the Apostles continued. The next Apostle to die was James, the brother of John, as reported in 12:1, 2, but nothing is mentioned about choosing someone to take his place as an Apostle.
Day of Pentecost: 2:1-13: Beginning of “speaking in tongues."
- After they chose Matthias, the Apostles and others waited again and they prayed. Then, according to 2:2-4: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
- This began the practice of “speaking in tongues.” Much has been written about this incident in trying to figure out exactly what took place. The next two verses give a clue (2:5, 6): “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own tongue.”
- These verses show that the Apostles (and maybe others in their group?) began speaking in languages that they didn't know, and Jews gathered in Jerusalem heard them speak in different languages.
- This has led today to a practice known as “speaking in tongues.” This is extremely popular within Christianity. Out of the estimated 2.2 billion Christians today, an estimated 300 million (or about 14%) practice speaking in tongues.
- But what does “speaking in tongues” mean? Today when people say they speak in tongues it means one of three practices (the following is my understanding of "speaking in tongues"):
- Praying in tongues. I would estimate that, when 95% or more of people say they speak in tongues, they really mean that they pray in tongues.
- If you heard someone pray in tongues, you would think it was a different language. After the person finishes, if you ask her what she said, she would not know. Plus, people who speak in tongues usually do not sound alike. I have heard people pray in tongues where it sounds like a song-type of speech with lots of s’s and l’s and m’s. I have heard other people pray in tongues where it sounds earthier with lots of k’s and t’s and d’s.
- The idea is that a person receives a “heavenly language” that is unique to each person and that God understands. In a sense, it is a sign of obedience in that the person begins speaking and allows God to form the syllables.
- A verse that describes this is Romans 8:26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
- Therefore, someone who prays in tongues usually accepts that God guides the tongue to express what the person is not able to express.
- I have been in churches where a person stood up, spoke in tongues (again, it sounds like a foreign language), and sat down. Another person stood up and said, “This is what the Lord has to say to you,” and then preceded to tell the church what God wanted the members to hear. This would be a "heavenly language" tongue.
- I have heard of an American woman who traveled to Africa on a mission trip. While there, she went to an orphanage and noticed a child who was quiet and kept to himself. She asked about the child and was told that both his parents had been killed and the child would not speak to anyone. The woman went to the child and began talking to him, and he answered. They had a conversation and then she turned to go. One of the nurses said that they did not know the American woman knew the local language. The woman said she didn’t, and the nurse told her that she listened as the American woman spoke to the boy in his language. The American woman said that she heard the boy speak in English. This would be speaking in a known tongue.
- So different types of “speaking in tongues” exists. This is different than praying in tongues:
- Praying in tongues is between the person and God.
- Speaking in tongues involves other people listening.
To close this section, a reminder: the Bible does describe speaking in tongues. Over time the understanding of what that means has grown so that several different types of “speaking in tongues” exists in Christianity today. On the other hand, many Christians believe that "spiritual gift" was only intended for Christians in the first several decades of Christianity and it ended sometime in the mid-first century.
Peter was the most prominent Apostle: chapters 1-12
- Peter is shown to be the most prominent Apostle of the early Christian movement in several ways:
- After the Ascension, Peter stood up suggested that a replacement for Judas be chosen.
- On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached a sermon to a crowd that had gathered and about 3000 people became Christian (2:41).
- Peter is the first Apostle to heal someone (3:1-10)
- Peter and John were arrested, and Peter spoke to the Jewish council known as the Sanhedrin (4:1-22).
- The Apostles were arrested and Peter was the spokesman (5:29).
- The Apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria, a small region in Israel (8:14).
- Peter raised a woman from the dead (9:40).
- Cornelius, a Gentile, wanted to know more about God, and he had a vision in which an angel told him to send for Peter (10:1-6).
- Peter is shown to be the first one to truly understand that Jesus came not only for Jews but also for Gentiles by means of a vision (10:9-11:18).
- Peter was arrested and an angel helped him to escape (12:1-10).
In the first 12 chapters of Acts, no other Apostle is spoken of as much as Peter. It is safe to say that, beginning with the Ascension of Jesus in A.D. 30, Peter was the most prominent Apostle of the early Christian movement. Note: he was not the leader because he did not give orders to other Apostles. The book of Acts makes clear that the Apostles gathered together and made decisions jointly instead of one person ordering the other Apostles. Nevertheless, Peter was the most prominent Apostle for the first 20 years of Christianity. That changed as Paul became more prominent.
Paul’s biography up to his First Missionary Trip
- Born a Jew and grew up in Tarsus, which is in southern Turkey.
- He was also a Roman citizen.
- That is why Paul was eventually beheaded instead of crucified.
- Scholars do not know how Paul became a Roman citizen.
- He trained with Gamaliel of Jerusalem, who was one of the leading Jewish scholars of that day.
- He was extremely intelligent and educated.
- He became a Pharisee.
- Scholars do not agree whether or not Paul was ever married.
- He was extremely zealous for Jewish traditions and the Jewish faith.
- He was present when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was killed.
- He asked the Jewish High Priest for permission to arrest Jews who had become Christian. He was commissioned to do that task.
- While on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem (135 miles in a straight line), he had an experience with Jesus: 9:3-6: "As he neared Damascus on a journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 'Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked. 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. 'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'"
- Soon after that Paul became a Christian.
- He spent years preaching and studying this new faith that he had originally persecuted.
- He became an Apostle.
Paul’s 1st Missionary Trip (1MT): chapters 13 & 14
- For a map, go here
- The church leaders in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on a journey to tell people about Jesus.
- Paul is described as an Apostle in 14:14.
- Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe are in an area known as Galatia.
- Later we will discuss the letter to the Galatians.
- Note: Making a connection with an earlier idea: why was Paul able to travel freely? Because of Pax Romana.
Council of Jerusalem: 15:1-35
- After the 1MT was over, Paul traveled back to Antioch.
- Some men came to Antioch and taught that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to become a Christian. (We will talk much more about this in the next lesson.) The church leaders sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to get the matter resolved.
- Peter was at the meeting, which became known as the Council of Jerusalem.
- The Apostles and other church leaders decided that Gentiles did not have to get circumcised before becoming a Christian or follow the Law of Moses after they became Christian.
- They then sent Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with this message.
Paul became the most prominent Apostle
- At this point Christianity did not have a detailed leadership structure. For example, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the Apostles did not have an election amongst themselves and vote Peter as the leader. Instead, he naturally rose as the most prominent Apostle because of his personality and because he had been one of the Apostles closest to Jesus. The apostles (and others) gathered together whenever a decision had to be made, and they made the decision as a group.
- In the same way, no one elected Paul as the "most prominent" Apostle. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) appointed Paul to go to the Gentiles. The combination of Paul having the most correct understanding of Jesus, his personality, and his willingness to travel to many parts of the Roman Empire caused him to became the most prominent Apostle. But he was not the leader in that he told the other Apostles what to do, because he didn't. He did have a small group of followers who he gave instructions to, but he was not the "President" of Christianity because there was no main leader of Christianity. Eventually, though, Christianity did develop a very structured leadership style; once that happened then the pope was the leader of Christianity. (I would say maybe by the 400's and certainly by the 500's, although Catholics believed it began with Peter, as we discussed in Matthew.)
Paul’s 2nd Missionary Trip (2MT): 15:36-18:22
- For a map, go here.
- From 15:36: “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’”
- Paul initially traveled to some of the cities he visited before, but he decided to make a much longer trip and tell about Jesus in many more cities.
- Locating the cities that Paul wrote letters to.
- If you look in the upper right hand part of the map you will see the Aegean Sea.
- Above that you will see the cities of Philippi and Thessalonika.
- Below and to the left you will see the city of Corinth.
- Below and to the right you will see the city of Ephesus, and further inland you will see Colossae.
- Later we will discuss letters Paul wrote to all these cities.
Paul’s 3rd Missionary Trip (3MT): 18:23-21:26
- For a map, go here.
- Paul returned to Antioch for a while.
- From 18:23: “After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place [to the cities he visited before] strengthening all the disciples.”
- Basically Paul visited the same cities he visited on the 2MT.
- But, instead of ending his trip in Antioch like he did for the first two missionary trips, he ended up in Jerusalem. While there he was arrested.
Paul’s Arrest and Trip to Rome: 21:27-28:31 (the end of the book)
- For a map, go here.
- While in Jerusalem Paul decided to go to the Temple.
- This caused a problem: because Paul had taught that people do not have to be circumcised (from the Covenant with Abraham) nor follow the Law of Moses in order to please, many Jews did not want Paul to be in the Temple area, which symbolized the center of the Jewish faith.
- A mob formed around Paul while he was in the Temple. The Roman soldiers had to rescue Paul as the Jews were beating him. The Roman army commander wanted to whip Paul, but Paul told him he was a Roman citizen, and so he was not whipped. The commander placed Paul in prison.
- 40 Jews were so angry with Paul that they decided to kill him. Paul learned about the plot and told the commander. The commander ordered Paul to be transferred to Caesarea, 105 miles away. Paul remained in prison there and then appealed his case to Caesar. That meant the Romans had to take Paul to Rome.
- Paul then traveled to Rome, mainly on ships.
- The last two verses in Acts state this: 28:30, 31: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
- We do not know why Paul lived in a rented house instead of being in prison. Perhaps he was under house arrest since he was waiting to see the Emperor. This was during the time when Nero was emperor.
Acts ends here and we do not know what happened to Paul. Many scholars believed Paul was eventually released and traveled to different kingdoms, and perhaps as far west as Spain. Paul then returned to Rome where, according to one source, Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside down on the same day under the rule of Nero.
Outline of Acts
Peter's name is in blue boldface and Paul's name is in red boldface so you can see the shift from Peter to Paul.
- Focus on Peter at first.
- Overlap between the two.
- Focus on Paul after the Council of Jerusalem in chapter 15
- 1: Jesus with the 11 Apostles for the last time; Jesus ascends out of sight; Apostles return to Jerusalem and Peter led them in choosing the 12th Apostle to take Judas’ place.
- 2: Day of Pentecost; Peter’s sermon; The Church begins.
- 3: Peter heals a man and gives a speech.
- 4: Peter and John are arrested and then released.
- 5: Ananias and Sapphira killed because of a lie; The Apostles healed many people, are arrested, and released.
- 6: The Apostles chose seven leaders; the Jews arrested Stephen, one of the Seven.
- 7: Stephen gives a long defense of Jesus and Christianity and is stoned to death.
- 8: Paul watched as Stephen was stoned; the church persecuted; Philip in Samaria; Simon the Sorcerer confronted Peter and John; Philip led an Ethiopian to accepting Jesus as his savior.
- 9: Paul set out to arrest Christians and was converted to Christianity; Peter traveled and preached.
- 10: Cornelius, a Gentile, invited Peter to his house and Peter had a vision.
- 11: Peter explained his vision to others; Christianity spread; Barnabas and Paul brought money to Christians in Jerusalem.
- 12: Peter arrested and an angel set him free; Herod died.
- 13-14: Paul’s First Missionary Trip.
- 15: Council of Jerusalem: Peter, James, John, and Paul were there with other church leaders; Paul sent as a missionary to Gentiles.
- 15:30-18:22: Paul’s Second Missionary Trip.
- 18:23-21:16: Paul’s Third Missionary Trip.
- 21:17-23:22: Paul in Jerusalem and arrested; Paul stood trial before different people.
- 23:23-end of 28: Paul traveled to Rome under arrest.
- Last two verses: 28:30,31: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Timeline up to the book of Acts
Dates are approximate.
|63 B.C.||Romans conquer Israel.|
|27 B.C.||Pax Romana began and lasted until A.D. 180.|
|4 B.C.||Jesus born.|
|All dates after this are A.D.|
|30||Jesus was crucified, buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.
Apostles travel to Jerusalem and choose Matthias to replace Judas as an Apostle.
Day of Pentecost: Peter assumes leadership of Christianity.
|30-50||Peter was leader of Christianity.|
|33||Jesus appeared to Paul and Paul became a Christian.|
|48-50||Paul's First Missionary Trip.|
|50||Council of Jerusalem; Paul became one of the main Christian leaders.|
|50-55||Paul's Second Missionary Trip.|
|55-60||Paul's Third Missionary Trip.|
|60-62||Paul arrested in Jerusalem and taken to Rome.|
|62-63||(Not in Acts) Paul probably released from prison during this time.|
|63-65||(Not in Acts) Paul probably traveled. He may have gone to Spain.|
|64||Fire in Rome and Christians persecuted by Emperor Nero.|
|65||(Not in Acts)Paul back in Rome; he and Peter arrested and martyred: Peter crucified upside down and Paul beheaded.|
|67||Gospel of Mark written.|
|70||Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by Romans (it has not been rebuilt).|
|80||Gospels of Matthew and Luke written.|
|90||Gospel of John and book of Acts written.|
|95||Christians persecuted by Emperor Domitian; Apostle John exiled on island of Patmos where he wrote Revelation.|
|96||Emperor Domitian died; Apostle John probably moved to Ephesus.|
|100||Apostle John died; he was the last Apostle to die.|
|390's||New Testament canon "closed" at Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).|
|1200's||Chapters added to the New Testament.|
|1500's||Verses added to the New Testament.|
©2016 Mark Nickens