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LUKE - ACTS      Luke Acts


W.Barclay comments on Luke's second work: "In a sense Acts is the most important book in the New Testament. It is the simple truth that if we did not possess Acts, we would have, apart from what we could deduce from the letters of Paul, no information whatever about the early Church". [1]


As we have said, Lk.1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2 are important to any discussion on the authorship and purpose of the Third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  There is almost universal agreement that they are the work of one author.  Both works are addressed to Theophilus, and the style, subject-matter, theological outlook and vocabulary confirm the unity of authorship.  There is a sense of continuity between Luke-Acts.  Many scholars view Acts as a second volume of a history of Christian beginnings. [2]

The earliest external evidence to authorship is supplied by Irenaeus in Against Heresies III.14.1-4, where he states that Acts was written by Luke the companion of Paul.  The Muratorian Fragment (c.A.D. 190) says: "moreover the Acts of all the Apostles are included in one book.  Luke addresses them to the most excellent Theophilus because several events took place when he was present, and he makes this claim about the... journey of Peter and the journey of Paul". [3]


Lk.1:1-4 indicates that Luke depended on different sources for his Gospel data.  He also relied on others for his second work.  He had access to Peter, Mark, Mnason and James for details of the life and events of the Jerusalem church.  He could have gleaned details about the riot in Ephesus from Gaius and Aristarchus (Acts 19:23-41).  Barnabas could share information with him in Antioch.  His stay in Caesarea must have been enlightening, for there he had access to Philip (see Acts 24:27).

The "we" passages
As a companion of Paul, Luke had first-hand knowledge about the apostle and the Gentile mission. This is indicated by the use of the first person plural in the so-called "we" passages of Acts (see Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16).  These sections may have been taken from his travel-diary: they are a strong argument for Lucan authorship of Acts - and therefore for the Third Gospel as well. [4]


Dating may be determined by the time that Luke's Gospel was written, and the first Christian Council was held in Jerusalem, c. A.D. 48-49 (Acts 15).  Acts must have been written after these events - and probably before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (A.D. 70).  Another outside date may be suggested by the fact that Paul's death is not recorded. (The apostle was executed during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68). A date before A.D. 64 is suggested. [5]


Some of the purposes seen in the Gospel are continued - and even highlighted - in the Acts.  It is important to sense that like other NT books Luke-Acts may have primary and secondary purposes.

1. In Luke-Acts, Luke demonstrates that God is working out his plans and purposes.  God's purposes are stated (Acts 2:23) and Scripture is seen as being fulfilled (2:16-21).  There is a sense of direction in the mission of the church (13:1-3).  God's presence is experienced through divine encounters, the visitation of angels and the gifts of the Spirit (e.g.,8:26; 9:3-19; 11:27-28).

2. Luke seems concerned to demonstrate that the Lord Jesus continues his ministry by his Spirit through his church.  Acts is the Lucan equivalent to the end of Mark's Gospel: "Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it" (Mk.16:20).  The power of God is seen in signs and wonders which are performed in the name of Jesus (Acts 3:16; 14:3).

3. Acts is concerned with mission.  Acts 1:8 is the key verse of the book: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth".  This verse contains the divine mandate to preach to the nations (cf. Lk.24:46-49); the divine message (witness of Jesus); and the divine means of its accomplishment (the Holy Spirit).  Acts covers three decades, during which time the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire.

4. Luke seems intent in giving an overview of the life and worship of the church.  He does not write a detailed history of the early church - rather he seeks to present a cross section of the first century Christian communities, their fellowship, ministries and outreach. This is illustrated by the fact that nothing is said about the churches in Babylon and Rome, and there is very little information on the ministry of prophets.  There is no one model for local churches - instead there is unity in diversity.

Some passages present vivid pictures, e.g., Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37.  The early church consisted of Christian communities united by life in the Spirit.  F.F.Bruce says that Acts may be called "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" as "the Risen Christ acts through His Spirit in the Church". [6]

5. Acts is a political apologetic.  Luke demonstrates that Christians are not religious or civil trouble makers.  In each of the trials, whether before the Sanhedrin, governors or kings, the early Christians are seen to be "not guilty" (e.g., Paul in Acts 26:32).  Even in persecution the church does not retaliate (5:41-42). [7]

6. The continuity of Christianity with Judaism is demonstrated.  Jesus is seen to the be promised Messiah.  The first Christians met in the temple and took the gospel into the synagogues.  Christianity only broke with Judaism after the destruction of the temple in A.D.70.

7. The universality of the gospel is demonstrated - Gentiles are added to the church.  The first church was Jewish - the inclusion of the Gentiles to the people of God was a momentous event (see Acts 11:1-18). The intimations in the ministry of Jesus (ministering to the non-Jews) in the Gospel is now made plain. Paul heads the Gentile mission in the Acts.

8. Some scholars argue that Luke explains the delay of the parousia.  The theory is that the church had to explain why there was a delay in the return of Christ.  Acts indicates that the gospel must be preached to all nations before the Lord returns (cf., Mt.24:14).

9. Acts may refute certain heresies, e.g., the belief that as well as a faith in Christ men had to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved.  The issue of Gentiles and circumcision is dealt with in the first Christian Council found in Acts 15.

10. Acts provides a defence of Paul's character and ministry.  It may even be viewed as a defence brief for Paul's trial in Rome. [8]

Some of the above points may be subheaded under others, but they are spelt out in the interest of clarity.  Excellent reading is to be found in the introductions to the commentaries recommended in these website notes. [9]


We said in the introduction to the Gospel of Luke that Sir William Ramsay's work written in 1895 vindicated Luke as "a historian of the first rank". [10] This research has been supported more recently by F.F.Bruce and C.S.C.Williams [11] against the reaction stimulated by redaction criticism and the views of H.Conzelmann and E.Haenchen. [12] The works of A.N.Sherwin-White also support the historical reliability of the Acts. [13]

The speeches in the Acts
Difficulties do arise in regard to the historicity of the book when we are confronted with the verbatim speeches recorded by Luke (e.g., Acts 26:1-23). [14] F.F.Bruce and I.H.Marshall provide adequate reading for the student here. [15]

Miracles in Luke-Acts
The inclusion of miracles in his writings is sometimes held against Luke being a historian. But miracles are seen as forming an integral part of the ministry of Jesus - and of the continuing ministry of Jesus through his church.  Miracles are messianic signs - and signs of the kingdom of God.  The works of God are described as miracles, wonders and signs (dunamesi kai terasi kai sēmeiois: Acts 2:22).


Modern scholarship recognises Luke as a theologian.  Theological motifs are common to both works, for example, the concept of divine time and the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Major themes have already been considered under the heading of the purpose of the Acts - to them we add these further notes.

The early church preached a person, Jesus Christ, the Risen-Crucified.  He is Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22), yet Lord and Christ (2:36).  He is preached as Son of God (9:20).  Be aware of titles that are left behind in Acts, e.g., Son of Man (7:56), and those that are brought out, e.g., the Servant of the Lord (implicit in the Gospel (Lk.4:18f.; 22:27) explicit in Acts (4:27,30)).

Salvation history (Heilsgeschichte)
"The story recorded in Acts is seen as standing in continuity with the mighty acts of God recorded in the Old Testament and with the ministry of Jesus." This is one way of expressing what is meant by salvation history. [16] H.Conzelmann, maintains that Luke is concerned with salvation in three time periods, and sees the church age as the last period - the period of the ecclesia pressa, "during which the virtue of patience is required, and it is possible, by virtue of looking back to the period of Jesus, also to look forward to the Parousia". [17]

The keynote of the ministry of Jesus is the gospel ("good news") of salvation.  The Son of Man comes to seek and save the lost (Lk.19:10). The universality of salvation is depicted in Luke-Acts.  Luke shows a distinct interest in people and the way Jesus Christ met them in deliverance and healing.  Lk.22:17-20 and Acts 20:28 are significant for the sacrificial death of Jesus. 

The Holy Spirit
The Spirit who empowered Jesus (Lk.3:21-22; Acts 10:38), and was promised by him at his ascension (Lk.24:49; Acts 1:8), is subsequently outpoured on Jew and Gentile (Acts 2 and 10). The Holy Spirit provided the dynamic of the primitive Christian community's life and mission.  The early church was charismatic.

Other interests
Luke's interest in people, healing and miracles, praise and prayer, peace and joy, angels and their ministry, and the providence of God are among the interests common to the Gospel and Acts.  Luke is interested in the advancement of the Faith in the Roman Empire.


The literary beauty of the Gospel extends into the Acts.  The nativity stories, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and the story of the meeting on the Emmaus road are matched by the stories of the raising of Dorcas, Peter's deliverance from prison, Paul's appearance before Agrippa and the storm at sea.  Again, following the Gospel, the book is written in a literary style representing the LXX.  Luke has a rich vocabulary - 732 of his words do not appear elsewhere in the NT; 261 in the Gospel only; 413 in Acts only; and 58 are common to both works. [18]


The original text of Acts is lost.  This means students have to depend on the work of lower critical or textual scholars for its recovery.  References will be made to the Received Text, the Western Text and the Critical Text of the Acts. [19] F.F.Bruce gives a sufficient and helpful explanation on the text of Acts in his commentary based on the Greek text. [20]


Questions are often asked about Luke's portrayal of Paul, his character, activities and theology. For example, Paul's visits to Jerusalem are compared with Galatians 1-2; Paul's teaching on tongues (glossolalia) in 1 Cor.14 is compared with Acts 2; and the apostle's relationship with Peter in the Acts and Epistles is also compared. 

F.C.Baur and the Tübingen school held that in the beginning the church had two sections - the Jewish church led by Peter, and the Gentile church led by Paul.  The two were separate entities until they joined as the catholic church.  Acts, it was proposed, was written as an enchiridion for the church at peace. How can we criticise this Hegelian view of church history?

Enough has been said to make us aware that we cannot refer to Paul's words or activities in the Acts without some caution or qualification. [21]


A simple analysis
Here is an outline based on the key verse - Acts 1:8 (keyword: witnessing):

  • Preparation for witnessing (1:1-2:52)

  • Witnessing in Jerusalem (3:1-4:13)

  • Witnessing in Judea and Samaria (8:1-9:43)

  • Witnessing to the ends of the earth (10:1-28:31).

A fuller outline
Detailed analysis of Acts will be found in any good commentary. This alternative outline indicates major areas of interest:

  • The beginning of the church (1:1-2:47)

  • The church and the Jewish authorities (3:1-5:42)

  • The expanding church (6:1-9:31)

  • The mission to the Gentiles (9:32-12:25)

  • The mission to Asia Minor (13:1 - 15:35)

  • The mission in Macedonia and Achaia (15:36-18:17)

  • The mission to Asia (18:18-20:38)

  • Paul's arrest and house arrest (21:1-28:31). [22]

 Students will benefit from analysing the Gospel and Acts for themselves.  For this exercise obtain a plain text Bible (without section headings).  Use a coloured fine marking pen (0.3 or 0.5) to create sections and add notes and comments.  Cross-references can be made in the margins.


Basic reading for the Acts of the Apostles may include:

Bruce, F.F., Commentary on the Book of Acts, NICNT, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990.

Conzelmann, H., A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia, ET by J.Limburg, A.T.Kraable & D.H.Juel, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984.

Conzelmann, H., The Theology of Luke, ET by G.Buswell, London, SCM, 1960.

Haenchen, E., The Acts of the Apostles, ET by R.McL.Wilson, Oxford, Blackwell, 1971.

Marshall, I.H., Luke - Historian and Theologian, Exeter, Paternoster, 1970.

Marshall, I.H., The Acts of the Apostles, Leicester, IVP, 1980.

Stronstad, R., The Charismatic Theology of St Luke, Massachusetts, Hendrikson, 1984.

Talbert, C.H., Perspectives on Luke-Acts, Edinburgh, T.& T.Clark, 1978.

Williams,D.J., Acts, NIBC, vol.5, Peabody, Hendrickson/ Carlisle, Paternoster, 1990.

Other useful works:

Bruce, F.F., The Acts of the Apostles, Greek text, revised, London, IVP, 1952.

Bruce, F.F., Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit, revised, Exeter, Paternoster, 1980.

Hengel, M., Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, ET, London, SCM, 1980.

Malherbe,A.J., Social Aspects of Early Christianity, 2nd edition, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1983

Students need to be aware that significant contributions are made to Lucan studies in more generalised textbooks, such as general biblical commentaries and dictionaries.  For example:

Brauch, M.T., "Book of the Acts of the Apostles", in Elwell, W.A. (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol.1, London, Marshall-Pickering, 1988.

Bruce, F.F., "The Acts of the Apostles", in Guthrie, D. & Motyer, J.A. (eds.), The New Bible Commentary - Revised, Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 1970.

Cadbury, H.J., "Acts of the Apostles", in Buck, E.S (ed.), The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, vol.1, New York, Abingdon, 1962.

Johnson,L.T., "Book of Luke-Acts", in Freedman, D.N (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol.4,New York, Doubleday, 1992.

Michaels, J.R., "Luke-Acts", in Burgess, S.M. & McGee, G.B. (eds.), Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1988.

A good Bible atlas is invaluable for the study of the Acts of the Apostles.


1. Does Acts 1:8 suggest an outline for the whole of the Acts?

2. What emphasis is placed on the Holy Spirit in the opening chapter of Acts?

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