The Book of Acts as Theology

Theo LukeThere is a third element of the book of Acts which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has wide variety of theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books and there are dozens of books on Luke as a Theologian.

Luke’s theological agenda is the main reason he writes Acts. While he does preserve history in an appealing and entertaining fashion, his main point to present a particular theological agenda. Does recognizing the fact a biblical writer has a theological perspective mean he is “non-historical”? Not necessarily, but there are some thinks Luke simply never addresses which are a matter of historical interest because they are not helpful for his theological agenda. For example, Galatians 2 seems to indicate a great deal more tension between Paul and Jerusalem than Acts 15. If all we had was Acts 15, then we might assume Paul and James worked through some minor differences and found an equitable solution. Galatians indicates Peter and Barnabas were both pressured by James to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles. Luke emphasizes the unity of the church at the time of the Jerusalem council; Paul emphasizes his independence from Jerusalem in his letter to the Galatians. Both are accurate, albeit both men write with different theological and apologetic reasons.

I want to suggest here at the beginning of a long series on the book of Acts that the final verses of the book may very well be the “theological statement” for Luke/Acts as a whole. In Acts 28:31-31 we are told Paul taught “freely and with boldness” because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. The disciples of Jesus all endure trials and persecution as the boldly proclaim the gospel, including two who are killed on account of their testimony (Stephen in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12). Paul spends quite a bit of time under arrest in the book, often in Roman custody but occasionally he is subject to mob-rule (he is beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the mob at Thessalonica, the riots in Ephesus).

Paul also faced opposition from Jewish Christians who want to impose the Law on Gentile converts. From the letters, Paul sees these threats from “insiders” as potentially more damaging to his churches than persecution from civil authorities. Galatians makes it clear that if the Gentiles accept this “other gospel” then Paul’s efforts have been in vain. Divisions and factions in Corinth threaten to destabilize what was potentially Paul’s most successful established church!

But at no point in the book of Acts is the gospel itself restrained.  Peter might be put in prison, but the Gospel is still free. Stephen and James may be killed, but the Gospel is still free. Paul may spend years under house arrest, yet the Gospel is still going out to the whole world.

By looking at the last line of the book of Acts we see how Luke wanted to end the story.  The idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books. Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” The gospel of Luke concludes with the same idea: Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture (Luke 24:44-49).

Acts begins with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming Holy Spirit which the Father promised to send (Acts 1:4).  This promise appears in Luke 3:15-17, but is drawn from the Hebrew Bible as well (Joel 2:28, Jeremiah 31:31-33). Acts is the story of how the fulfillment of God’s promise works its way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, ultimately to Rome itself.

I think this “theology of mission” holds the book of Acts together and may explain why Luke omitted some details we would have liked to have known about. Since unity of the church is important for Luke’s view of Gospel spreading throughout the world, he is less likely to give all the details of factionalism in the early church. Are there other illustrations of this theological agenda to be found in the book of Acts?

11 thoughts on “The Book of Acts as Theology

  1. One of Luke’s focus and agenda in Acts is showing God’s work throughout the world. Although he does tie in historical facts and connects some moments, he also does not mention others, “Acts often narrates the fulfillment of something that was predicted in the Gospel” (Jipp pg. 11). Luke does not ignore the history, he uses it for showing what God is doing. He does hit on some major stories and connects them with other Gospels. When reading this blog, I was reminded of a few things. The first being missions focused and sharing what God is doing throughout the world to the reader. This reminded me of my own life as I am heavily involved with Missions at my church. Throughout the year we work on sharing what missionaries are doing throughout the world. In Acts, Luke has an agenda of sharing these mission moments and telling just how God has been working throughout the world. Through this, he is ultimately telling of God’s plan being revealed. This missions work, however, was never promised to be easy. In fact, the majority of the men faced torture, prison, or death. I think about what it means to be a missionary today, and the difference between the two times. Although missionaries have the same risk today, some places are safer to go than others. One of my favorite parts of Luke’s writing is his end statements, and that is how even though the circumstances God continues to work through the lives of those men.

  2. According to Joshua Jipp, the book of Acts has a lot of purposes, but there is a main purpose. This purpose is how Acts is a bridge between the “Gospels” and the “Apostles” (Jipp, 9). Acts is also a book that continues the story of Jesus. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, the gospels tell a story and they teach lessons. I mentioned the parables. These are lessons that Jesus is trying to teach. The Gospels also show the life of Jesus. This consists of His birth all the way up until his death. This is very similar to the last post as well. We see in the history of Acts, that there is some stuff left out.

  3. Luke’s main concern of Acts is the establishment of his theological agenda, which dedicates much time to the movement of Christianity throughout the world. As Brock addressed in The Theology Luke/Acts, there are a plethora of theological interests and threads which are encountered throughout the book of Acts. This emphasis on theology, instead of solely historical pursuits, may lead to some categorizing the book as a “non-historical” account of the early church. Yet, this conclusion understates and diminishes the historical value of the text. While the historical origins of the early church are not given priority by Luke, embedded within the theological message, is descriptions and acknowledgments of early church events. For example, Acts 7 describes the killing of Stephen, and Acts 12 accounts for the death of James. This serves to display the open persecution of early Christians, which has theological implications due to John 15:18-19 and Luke 6:22 describing how believers would suffer for Jesus Christ and His calling.
    However, the prioritization of Luke’s theological agenda, as opposed to detailed accounts of early church history, cannot be ignored. Rather, we should embrace this emphasis with the understanding that while the primary contents of the Book of Acts are theologically-based, much valuable historical information of the early church is available within the text. This importance of theological-intention is displayed by Long in his reference to the seeming dissimilar accounts of the tension between Paul and Jerusalem in Galatians 2 and Acts 15. In Galatians 2, it indicates a large amount of tension between Paul and Jerusalem, while Acts 15 accounts for what seems to be a small disagreement between Paul and James. Both accounts from Luke or Paul are true, yet the differences in theological messaging and apologetic reasoning are varied. Luke indicates a sense of unity among the council of Jerusalem, using it as a starting from which the church could reach the “ends of the earth”. While Paul writes of his independence from Jerusalem to the Galatians which furthers his missionary journeys.
    Overall, the emphasis on theological messaging in the book of Acts does not mean the text itself is ahistorical. Rather, it should be viewed as a theologically-intended description of early church events that contain valuable information in light of the New Testament text as a whole.

  4. The premise of this blog post is that Luke is a theologian and that his writing in the book of Acts reflects this.

    These classes have a way of challenging my thinking and growing my understanding and appreciation of the Bible, particularly regarding the original historical context. Our class has not officially met yet (and we already have homework!) but I am already being challenged in my thinking – particularly with this post based on Luke as a theologian.
    Luke has, according to the blog post, a goal of writing about God’s work in the world and does through various theological themes. This is also reflected in the introduction to Acts in the ESV Study Bible. Summaries of the state of the church and basic journey narratives (ie itineraries) are noted to be unique features in Acts as compared to other gospel accounts.

    Understanding the theological agenda of Luke as he writes in Acts, will affect my study of this book in several ways.
    First, it will provide an important basis as we begin this class. It will be crucial for me to be able to identify both the theological themes and the historical narrative. This will provide a deeper understanding versus viewing it simply as a historical narrative alone.

    Second, it will help me understand that narrative better. Knowing that Luke wasn’t trying to give a play by play of every event will help me appreciate and evaluate the details and narratives that the does write about. Why did he choose to focus on this story or event? How does it fit into the greater theological narrative of the book?

    And thirdly, I believe that it will provide the means for a healthy application of the lessons in Acts. If Acts is understood as more than a narrative of the early church, it should provide a bigger application as opposed to simply using Acts as a step by step recipe for the modern church.

  5. I have no doubt that the book of Acts is full of theological truths. As a theologian, Luke wrote the book of Acts and shares with us some of the amazing things that happened while the Gospel moved around to new places around the world and the early church was starting to grow. Something that I really like about this book of the Bible is that we are able to see many things be fulfilled, such as the Holy Spirit coming upon people (Acts 2:4), though there are many other examples. Some people like to bring up the fact that some details seem to be different in the book of Acts compared to books like the book of Galatians and that some details are not found at all. I think that this further proves that the book of Acts is theological because Luke appears to not be worried about some of the smaller details of things. Instead, since Luke was a theologian, he may have wanted to focus on only providing the details that were important enough of being included, such as the details that would inform people about spreading the Gospel and helping people know God better. I personally can understand why Luke did not focus too much on some of the smaller and less important details because I think that they would be unnecessary for what Luke may have been trying to accomplish by him writing the book of Acts. What we get from Luke is a historical and theological book about the spread of the Gospel and the fulfillment of promises.

  6. I have never heard about Luke the writer talked about in such a theological way. Both of his books are fascinating with the way he writes and I definitely believe that he does push this theological mission throughout this book of Acts. Based on the ESV study bible, Luke wrote the gospel of Luke so that his readers would understand the gospel is for both Gentiles and Jews and he continues this theme in the book of Acts by sharing the gospel is free for all as P. Long describes above.

    I think the theological agenda in the book of Acts gives the reader an entry way into the other books of the New Testament. Without going into detail about every historical happening, Luke gives his readers enough context in order to share what needs to be said, fulfilling his purpose for the book, and then letting the writers of the later epistles share more within the context of a letter to that church.

    When writing this book, Luke probably found himself in a difficult position. He was trying to tell a story to both Gentiles and Jews and all while trying to form this new Christian community without involving a lot of issues. It seems like he talks about Paul in a very different way than Paul portrays himself in the letters to the churches. For example a lot of conflict resides with Paul and Jewish leaders in Acts rather than Paul and the churches in the letters.

    Although there are some discrepancies with Luke’s historical account in Acts, I think he didn’t want to create conflict between young Jewish and Gentile communities. He used his words in a very eloquent way and told what needed to be told. His book is a great transition to the books later given in the New Testament, because it shows both Paul’s conversion and Peter’s reconciliation with Christ.

  7. From my understanding according to Joshua, the book of Acts served its purposes in a lot of ways, in acts it shows a lot of purpose. The purpose shows how the act is somewhat together with the Gospel and also the Apostles. From what I read and shows me that the book of acts is showing us the story of Jesus and how he became great as he could be even through his tough times and great times. From my experience the Gospels shows us and teaches us how to be the greatest individual we can be in this life especially right now in my opinion because the world is pretty crazy right now! The book talks about his birth and how he came up until he reached his death. As we discuss in our last blog post that there is a lot of stuff that is left out but I am pretty sure when we reach heaven one day we can talk to God and discuss what really went down while he was on earth.

  8. Truthfully; I have read the book of Acts several times, but more so from the perspective of an unfolding narrative of events rather than from a theological perspective. Yet knowing Luke’s writing style and interest in providing detail in his accounts when necessary, it then would be natural to assume that even within the book of Acts that Luke would also add in many theological points throughout the book. In addition, it is important to note that the narrative of events given in the book of Acts cannot be separated from the underlying theological points which Luke implements. This is primarily because these two aspects are entwined within one another and therefore the narrative of events could have not occurred without the influence of divine intervention: more spcefically the works of the Holy Spirit. Overall, the book of Acts should be read and studied like any of the other books within the Bible and instead not only be viewed as a book of historical events.

  9. Much of the “theology” of Acts is not stated but implied. It’s largely assumed … the connection to Luke’s Gospel is one obvious case in point, if we assume the same author for both, as is highly likely.

    Another key “assumption” is the implicit endorsement and advancement of Paul, the main “hero” of Acts. It appears Acts played a leading role in bringing Paul’s theology to the fore. Combined and carefully compared, Paul/Acts reveals that Paul and James had seriously differing theologies and agendas, never resolved before or apparently after Paul’s arrest (or rescue!) in Jerusalem around 60 or 61.

    James was to be killed not long after; then war from 66 -70, culminating in the pivotal destruction of the city and Temple. Before that major overturning of so much, including Jewish sects and Jesus-as-messiah devotion (still heavily Jewish until at least 70), Paul was not widely renowned nor his letters particularly copied and widely used.

    But after 70, opportunity arose for a good story-teller (more than historian in my view) like Luke to promote Paul to a much more influential position. And the evidence is pretty strong that Acts’ release wasn’t until after the early 90s historical work of Josephus, maybe not till the 2nd century.

    It’s significant that Luke restricted his account largely to Paul (after the very early events post-resurrection and around Peter, his vision of the sheets, Antioch, etc.). Why nothing except a passing reference to the significant development of early Jesus-following in Egypt, especially Alexandria, or to the east… even Rome, where the “church” preceded both Peter and Paul?

    The answer may well relate to Pauline theology and influence, it sure seems to me.

  10. The entire purpose of the book of Acts is to reveal this Gospel-centered theology. As Dr. Long introed very clearly in the beginning of this blog post, it “cannot be ignored.” The only way that the church grew (and still can grow) is through the power of the Gospel (since it saves all who believe according to Paul in the first chapter of Romans.) I think it makes sense that Luke didn’t include a ton of historical evidence in order to better further his theological mission of explaining the Holy Spirit’s role in the church & how the early church continued to grow. The stories of persecution that are written about in the book of Acts only increase the power of the Gospel at work in the early church. Everything that Luke wrote in this book points to the powerful, life-changing Good News that the believers are called to trust and believe in and carry out to the rest of the world. We see the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work throughout the book of Acts. It’s almost like the Holy Spirit is the main character of this book and not necessarily the workers for the Holy Spirit (Paul, Peter, James, etc.) Since the early church (as well as the modern-day church) are marked by the Holy Spirit, it makes complete sense that he was kind of the star of the show and Luke’s main reason for writing.

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