Acts is the second book of a two-part work written by Luke. The “first book” referred to in Acts 1:1 is the Gospel of Luke. Luke says that his first book was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), implying that Acts is about what Jesus continued to do and teach through his Holy Spirit after he ascended into heaven. Although the book is titled “The Acts of the Apostles,” it is better viewed as a record of the great “acts” or “achievements” of Jesus and the Spirit through the apostles.
Acts 1:8 summarizes the book: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” After the Spirit empowers the apostles, they begin spreading the gospel of Jesus throughout the ancient world. Chapters 1-12 tell about the witness to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Chapters 13-28 tell about the witness to the ends of the earth. Wherever the gospel is taken, churches are formed. Keep an eye out for three important themes:
The Holy Spirit: The book of Acts is important for developing our understanding of the Holy Spirit. What can we learn from Acts about the Holy Spirit? Who he is? What is his work in the world? What is his role in our salvation and sanctification?
The Church: Acts records how Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit and began forming local communities of faith. What can we learn from Acts about the church? What is the purpose of local churches? What should churches do when they meet? What is the authority structure in the church?
The Great Commission: Acts records how Jesus’ followers carried out the Great Commission given in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” What can we learn from Acts about making disciples? Missions work? Planting churches? Personal evangelism?
Reading & Summaries
READ: ACTS 1-2
Luke tells how Jesus “presented himself alive…by many proofs” after his resurrection, then taught for forty days before ascending into heaven. Jesus promised to send his Holy Spirit and commissioned his followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Since Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, Peter and the other apostles appoint Matthias to fill his office. Note: This is the last mention of casting lots to determine God’s will (i.e. to choose Matthias and not another man)—a method that was used by God in the Old Testament, but is unnecessary since the coming of the Holy Spirit.
While the apostles are praying in an upper room in Jerusalem during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends and fills them. Since people who speak many languages are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast day, the Spirit enables the apostles to speak in “other tongues” (languages) so that everyone can hear the gospel preached in their own language. After Peter preaches a sermon about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, three thousand people repent, believe, and are baptized. The believers immediately begin fellowshipping together.
Key Concept — Filled with the Holy Spirit: At Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit indwells every believer (Romans 8:9), not every believer is filled with the Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit, one must yield full control of his or her life to the Spirit’s authority. In response to the prayer of faith, the infilling Spirit purifies the carnal heart and empowers the believer to be an effective witness. (This initial filling with the Spirit is also called the baptism of the Spirit, cf. Luke 3:16.) Believers should go on to walk daily in the Spirit’s fullness (Ephesians 5:18) and expect to experience many subsequent fillings, i.e. times of spiritual refreshment.
READ ACTS 3-5
Peter heals a lame beggar outside the temple, then preaches to the crowd that gathers. Peter calls the people to repent and believe in the name of Jesus, for “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (4:12). The religious leaders warn them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name, but they choose to obey God and call a prayer meeting to pray for boldness to proclaim God’s word.
To provide for the needs of the poor in the growing community of believers, many sell their possessions and allow the apostles to distribute the proceeds among the church. Ananias and Sapphira publicly lie about their gift to the church and are stricken dead. The apostles continue to perform many signs and wonders.
Peter and the apostles are arrested and miraculously delivered from prison, then brought before the religious leaders who formerly charged them not to teach in Jesus’ name. Peter explains, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29), and goes on to preach Christ. Gamaliel, a wise Pharisee, convinces the religious council to leave the apostles alone.
READ ACTS 6:1-8:3
The apostles choose seven men to handle financial matters in the church so that they can devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the world” (6:4). One of these men, Stephen, is arrested by the council and accused of blasphemy because of his preaching about Jesus. After showing from the Old Testament that Jesus is the Messiah, Stephen accuses the religious leaders of resisting the Holy Spirit and killing “the Righteous One” (7:52). Stephen becomes the first martyr of the church when he is dragged outside the city and stoned to death.
Saul, a Pharisee trained by Gamaliel, approves of Stephen’s stoning and begins a systematic persecution of the church, dragging Christians out of their homes and putting them in prison. Note: Saul is more commonly known by his Greek name, Paul.
READ ACTS 8:4-9:43
Saul’s persecution of the church inadvertently causes the gospel to spread by scattering Christians throughout the ancient world, preaching Jesus wherever they go. In Samaria, Philip proclaims Christ and many believe, including Simon the magician, who is later rebuked for trying to put a price tag on the power of the Holy Spirit. Philip also converts an Ethiopian man on the road to Gaza.
While Saul is traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians, Jesus appears to him in a glorious light and asks, “Why are you persecuting me?” (9:4). Saul, blinded by the light, is led to Damascus where he fasts and prays for three days. God sends Ananias to lay hands on Saul, at which point Saul regained his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was baptized. Saul begins preaching Jesus as the Son of God and flees when the Jews plot to kill him. When the disciples realize that Saul has been converted (and is not merely trying to deceive them), they accept him into their fellowship and enjoy a time of peace.
At Lydda, Peter heals a bedridden man (Aeneas). At Joppa, he resurrects a disciple (Dorcas) from the dead, causing many to believe in the Lord. Note: This transition prepares the reader for a key section about Peter and his discovery that God fully accepts Gentiles (non-Jews) through faith in Jesus.
READ: ACTS 10-12
God gives a vision to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, about Peter who is residing in Joppa. Meanwhile, God gives Peter a vision in which a voice tells Peter to eat unclean animals; when Peter refuses, the voice says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
Key Concept — Gentiles (non-Jews) accepted by God: In the Old Covenant, God gave Israel dietary restrictions to keep them separate from their “unclean,” idol-worshipping neighbors. Under the New Covenant, Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). In Acts 10, Peter learned to fully embrace this teaching and the truth that it represents: in Christ, there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Both are “clean” by faith.
Cornelius’ servants find Peter and bring him to Cornelius’ house, where Peter preaches Jesus to an assembly of Gentiles. When the Holy Spirit falls on all who believe, Peter realizes that they have been accepted by God. Peter reports to the church and “they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (11:18).
Barnabas and Saul spend a year teaching the church at Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. The church faces persecution by Herod (Agrippa I) who executes the apostle James and throws Peter in prison; Peter is delivered by an angel. God strikes Herod dead when he accepts praise as a god.
- What questions do you have about this week’s reading?
- What aspects of the baptism of the Holy Spirit are highlighted in Luke 24:49 and Acts 15:8-19?
- Acts 2:42-47 describes the fellowship of early Christ-followers. What does this teach us about the life of the church?
- Who does Peter say that Ananias lied to in Acts 5:3? In Acts 5:4? What does this tell us about the Holy Spirit?
- What do Acts 5:28 and 5:42 teach us about what Christians should do in their local communities?
- Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 shows that the entire Old Testament was leading to Jesus. What OT references do you recognize?
- In Acts 9:15, God says that Saul was his chosen instrument for representing his name to the world. By choosing the least likely candidate—someone who hated Jesus and persecuted the church—God received all the glory for Saul’s ministry. Who do you know that seems like a hopeless case? Pray and ask God to give you faith to believe that he or she can be saved, then make a plan to share the gospel with him or her.
- According to Acts 12:23, why is Herod stricken dead by God? How does this help us to understand the basic problem with sin?