Many readers struggle with the book of Acts because they assume that it has to be a model for us to follow. Reading through the book of Acts we might wonder why we don’t speak in tongues, perform miracles, or exercise control over demons. But even on the more practical level, some read the book of Acts as a pattern for church growth. Similarly, I once heard a well-known Christian speaker say that he was in the process of rethinking how his church operated because when he compared his church with the church of Acts, he didn’t see enough similarities. The problem with this view is that the book of Acts was not written to be a template for the church to follow. Rather, the book of Acts is a historical record of how the church developed.
The Connection between Acts and Luke
One of the ways we can tell Acts is not a template but a historical record is its close connection with Luke.
Most scholars rightfully view the books of Luke and Acts as being a unified work consisting of two volumes referred to as Luke-Acts. Acts was not an afterthought or an attempt to ride the popular acceptance of Luke. Rather, Luke had planned all along to continue the story which began in Luke.
We see this in Acts 1:1–2.
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen.
Here Luke writes that his gospel was his first account, which by itself may be evidence that he always intended to write a second volume. But, even more than that, he writes that his first volume was “about all that Jesus began to do and teach.” This stands out a bit. Normally you don’t talk about the beginning of something unless you intended to follow through and finish the story. This unusual way of describing Jesus’s past actions sets the stage for Jesus’s continued work in Acts through His Apostles. In other words, Luke is saying, “Last time I showed you what Jesus started to do and teach, and this volume will continue that emphasis through His representatives.”
In this way, the works of Luke and Acts blend together. In the book of Luke he emphasizes the person and work of Christ as the Son of David, the hope of Israel. That purpose is carried on in Acts by further emphasizing and describing the expansion of the church to the Gentiles.
A helpful illustration of this is found in looking at the geographical emphasis of Luke-Acts. Compare the following chart:
|Focus on Israel, promoting Christ as the Son of David, the answer to all of Israel’s hopes and expectations of the kingdom.
|Luke 19–Acts 8
|Focus on Jerusalem, the divine location which stages both the rejection of Christ by the Jews and the affirmation of Gentiles in the plan of God.
|Acts 8–Acts 28
|Focus on Gentiles, the spread of the gospel from its inception in Jerusalem to the center of the Gentile world, Rome.
Voorwinde gives a helpful analysis of the geographical message of Luke-Acts.
From this we may safely conclude that the geography of Luke-Acts shows it is one story. The story begins in Israel, moves to Jerusalem as the heart of Israel, and from there it moves into the Gentile world. In the Gospel of Luke the story moves to Jerusalem. In Acts the story moves away from Jerusalem and on to Rome. The story moves out from Jerusalem in ever widening circles, but it always returns to Jerusalem either to confirm Jerusalem’s rejection of the Gospel or to confirm the mission to the Gentiles.Stephen Voorwinde, “Luke-Acts: One Story in Two Parts,” Vox Reforma 75 (Dec 2010): 11
Because they are a part of the same work, we should approach Luke and Acts the same in our interpretation and application. Often the stories of Luke are not meant to be copied but are meant to show us something about who Jesus is and what He is doing. The same applies to Acts. In Luke, just because Jesus casts out demons or raises the dead does not mean that is supposed to be something we follow or apply to our own lives. Similarly, in the book of Acts, just because the Apostles also raised the dead and did all kinds of miracles does not mean we should expect that in our own lives either.
Applying Biblical Narratives
Although there are examples of churches and characters worthy of emulating in the book of Acts, the reason we know we should be like them is that we are commanded to be like them elsewhere. This should not detract from the purpose of the book of Luke and Acts—the progression of the mainline narrative of God’s redemptive plan (much like OT books such as Genesis or Samuel).
So what are we to make of Acts if we can’t default to emulation?
The beauty of Acts is that it provides a deep theology by demonstrating why the church is predominantly Gentile now, and why the Jews are still in exile awaiting the coming of the Messiah again. Acts is a narrative that explains why the world is the way it is, and why the exile continues today (cf. 1 Pet 2:11).
Acts also shows how God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to overcome the curse for all of humanity has been accomplished and how the person of Jesus has provided for a new humanity in the church. Without the book of Acts, these details would be lost, or only a faint picture of what we take for granted now. Rather than looking for something to emulate in every story, try reading Acts with a view to who Jesus is, and what he was doing establishing His church as the central focus for this part of His redemptive plan. That is what Luke wanted his original audience to do, and he also wants you to do that.