The Acts of the Apostles Or the Gospel of the Holy Spirit
When we come to the Acts in our Holy Bible reading, we meet with a history unlike any other in the world. The marvelous fact that the precise and trustworthy author of the third Gospel took up his pen to record the foundation and early spread of Christianity has resulted in incalculable blessing to all succeeding ages of believers. How much would we have lost without this precious and singular gem! The value of this sole contemporary memorial to the apostolic age cannot be measured. If St. Luke had not chronicled for us those early days, how many questions would have risen to the mind: about the state of the apostles after the Ascension; about the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the world; about the labors of St. Peter, head of the disciples; about the career of St. John, the young and timid disciple of the Gospels; about the mysterious origin and colossal efforts of St. Paul, who "labored more abundantly than they all" (I Corinthians 15:10); about the reception of the gospel among the Jews and the Gentiles; and about the general collision of the new Faith with the world?
St. Luke never gave a formal title to his work, intending it to simply be a sequel to his Gospel—a continuation of the story of Christ's Kingdom on earth—whereas our current title was added by a later hand. But it has been well said that St. Luke's history may be properly called The Gospel of the Holy Spirit; for it relates the birth, growth, and victory of the Holy Spirit's work in the life of the apostles. The entire contents of Acts was prophesied, in fact, by our Lord in John 14:16: "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—" as St. Luke records in detail this "abiding forever" in the apostolic church, the Fathers record it in the patristic church, and we find its effects bearing witness until modern days. It is the sacrament of Myron, for example, that attests to and confirms the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our churches.
The book of Acts properly falls between the four gospels and the epistles; it forms a logical link between our Lord's life as described in the gospels, and the later development of Christian theology and ethics, as reflected in the pauline and catholic epistles. It is impossible to jump at once from the gospels to the epistles: they represent two distinct eras, separated by an epoch of growth in church size and doctrine that would be unaccounted for except by St. Luke's history. In the gospels, the apostles are feeble, shifting men, marked by hasty decisions and faulty thinking; in the epistles they are old, wise, divine souls with hearts enflamed with the love of Christ. In the gospels, the followers of Jesus are a small, inconspicuous band, unnoticed by the civil government; in the epistles, they are a large body spread out through the known world, and cause such agitation to Caesar that they are sentenced to extermination. In the gospels our relation to Christ is expressed in simple, childlike terms ("Come to me all you who labor..."), while in the epistles, our unity in Him—"Christology"—is developed and brought out in the highest and most beautiful modes of theological expression.
Just as St. Luke opens his gospel with the birth of Christ, so does he open his history with the birth of the church by the Holy Spirit (chpt. 2); and at every step the Holy Spirit's action is emphatically recognized. Ananias and Sapphira's great error is to lie to the Holy Spirit (5:3). The seven deacons chosen to serve were "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (6:3). St. Stephen is pre-eminently "full of faith and the Holy Spirit," and he castigates the Jewish leaders because they "always resist the Holy Spirit" (7:51). St. Peter and St. John go to the despised Samaritans to "pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit" (8:15). It is the Spirit who tells Philip to overtake the Ethiopian eunuch's chariot to preach Christ to him (8:29). St. Paul's conversion is completed by the on-laying of Ananias' hands and the reception of the Holy Spirit (9:17). The acceptance of the Gentiles in the person of Cornelius is attested by the pouring out of "the gift of the Holy Spirit," which results in a kind of Gentile Pentecost (10:44-48). Barnabas is also "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (11:24), and it is the Spirit who separates St. Paul and Barnabas out for the mission to the Gentiles that will occupy the entire second half of the book.
The Evangelist was the constant companion of the Apostle to the Gentiles; and from this accompaniment St. Luke had inherited from St. Paul the free spirit of the gospel which sought to bring the glad tidings of salvation to every Gentile nation on earth. The Gospel of Luke is above all a Gospel for the Gentiles, because we find in its selection of parables and teachings of our Lord the clearest signs that its message is directed to the uncircumcised as much as to the circumcised. And we see a similar principle of selection adopted by St. Luke for the Acts, as he traces the progression and expansion of the religious identity and locality of the Christian Church from Jerusalem to Rome. At the beginning, the faith is outwardly only a Jewish sect of some 120 persons (1:15); by the end, every barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and the Church has become catholic and all-embracing.1 We may infer that one of St. Luke's chief purposes in the book is to inform a Gentile convert (1:1) how the gospel of a Jewish Messiah had reached him, and how it had gained the breadth and freedom it now exhibits.
The structure or scheme of the sacred history can be divided in two different ways. The first scheme is to see the book as primarily an account of the two most prominent apostles: St. Peter, whose labors make up roughly the first half (chpts. 1—12) and St. Paul, whose suffering and journeys are reported in the second half (chpts. 13—28). The second scheme is possibly the more edifying and the more complete: it is to read the book as a spiritual and geographical fulfillment of our Lord's words in the first chapter, "...and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (1:8). St. Luke begins by relating the major events occurring in Jerusalem: the Ascension and Pentecost, then the healings, preaching, and persecution of the apostles in and around the Temple (chpts. 1-7). He then records the faith spreading into Samaria by the preaching of Philip (chpt. 8), and by St. Peter (9:31—11:18), most notably in the baptism of Cornelius in Caesarea. Finally, he begins the third part with the command of the Holy Spirit, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (13:2), and follows them for the rest of the book to the farthest reaches of the known world. The Acts should always be read with a map at hand (preferably more than one), and whatever outlines and helps the reader can find.
Apart from these historical and literary considerations, we would add that the spiritual power of this compact history is inestimable. Though it relates the continual suffering and trials of the apostles, it carries throughout its pages a definite ring of joy. When St. Peter and St. John receive threats from the rulers, they face their hostile enemies with boldness (4:19); and when seized and beaten, they rejoice in the occurrence as a telling sign of their worthiness as disciples of Jesus (5:41). St. Stephen, when facing death before the Jewish council, looks up radiantly and beholds the Son of Man gazing back upon him from the right hand of God (7:56). St. Paul and Silas, after having been beaten with rods and cast into prison, fill the air with great swelling hymns to God that float through the prison corridors to cheer many a sad ear of the desolate inmates. And St. Paul, though surrounded by menacing perils on all sides (2 Corinthians 11:26), marches triumphantly from shore to shore and from land to land, unto the very throne of Caesar, bringing the glad tidings of salvation to every soul that would hear. And do we rejoice equally when we hear the same message? At the very least, in reading the wondrous events of the first age of believers, we have a faultless measuring rod to gauge the sufficiency of our own service and love for Christ.
1 The events St Luke selected for inclusion in the narrative serves to trace the stages of this development. The book opens with our Lord's charge to the disciples that they would be witnesses from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth (1:8). On the day of Pentecost the Spirit is poured out upon Jews "from every nation under heaven," (2:5) already showing that God's favor was no longer confined to one city—Jerusalem—but would extend to every geographic point on earth. Great prominence is given to the speech by Stephen (ch 7), in which he announces the release of God's salvation from the narrow bonds of Jewish religion. Philip's preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch is described at length to inform us of the firstfruits of the faith in Africa (ch 8). The conversion of Saul the Persecutor to Apostle to the Gentiles is related no less than three times throughout the course of the book (chs 9, 22, 26). The conversion of the first Gentile, Cornelius, by St Peter is given substantial room in the text (ch 10), and what appears as a Gentile Pentecost is even described (10:44—48). The believers first receive the sacred title of "Christians" in the predominantly Gentile city of Antioch (11:26). The Jerusalem Council officially pronounces that, in Christianity, a Gentile is free from Judaism's ancient rites, effectively declaring the release of God's salvation from the narrow bonds of Jewish religion. And the entire second half of the book is dedicated to tracing St Paul's steps throughout the heathen world, planting and watering the burgeoning faith in Gentile soil.