The next few posts will introduce some major themes in the “Acts of the Apostles”. This title appears in several ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, but as Darrell Bock (2007, 7) suggests, the main character of Acts is not the apostles as much as the Triune God, who “enables, directs, protects, and orchestrates. Nothing shows this as much as the story of Paul, who comes to faith by Jesus’ direct intervention and is protected as he travels to Rome, despite shipwreck.” The Spirit empowers the apostles and early church to be witnesses for Christ’s salvation from Jerusalem to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The extension of God’s kingdom throughout the earth fulfills God’s long standing promises to “pour out his Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28-32) and to call the Gentiles to himself (Acts 13:47; Isa 49:6. Acts 15:14-18; Amos 9:11). The “way” of Christ is not a new religion, but a continuation of God’s promised plan to redeem the world. Spirit inspired testimony to Christ goes throughout the known world – from servants to governors, from Jews to Samaritans to even the Gentiles in Rome.
God uses persecution to advance the Gospel.
Even persecution can be used by the sovereign God to advance the gospel. The early chapters of Acts report the tremendous growth of the church in and around Jerusalem. Initially, Jesus’ commission for the apostles to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) goes unfulfilled. God sovereignly used the Jewish leaders’ hostility towards the church to spread the Christian witness to new areas. By killing and persecuting Christians, the Jewish leaders hoped to crush the Christian movement. But what they meant for harm, God used to spread the gospel.
The stoning of Stephen began the first widespread persecution, which caused Christians to flee Jerusalem and “scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Ironically, this persecution was led by a zealous young Jew named Saul, who would later spread the Christian movement even farther. Lenski (1961, 311-315) notes, “The persecution aimed to destroy the infant church; in the providence of God it did the very opposite. It started a great number of new congregations especially in all of Palestine, each becoming a living center from which the gospel radiated into new territory even as Jesus had traced its course by adding after Jerusalem ‘all Judea and Samaria’ . . . These were ordinary Christians; they did not set themselves up as preachers but told people why they had to leave Jerusalem and thus testified to their faith in Christ Jesus. They fulfilled the duty that is to this day incumbent on every Christian. In 11:19 Luke indicates how far this dispersion reached: to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.”
Jesus’ commission to witness to “Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth” was now being fulfilled. As if to show that God was fully in control, even the one who led the persecution—Saul, ends up becoming an apostle to the Gentiles. By the end of the book of Acts, Saul the persecutor has become Paul the persecuted. Saul led a persecution that spread Christianity to Judea and Samaria, and now Paul was himself being persecuted so that he would bring the gospel to Rome and the ends of the earth. God’s utilizing even persecution to further his purposes provides another reason for seeing the Triune God as the main actor in the book of Acts.
Bock, Darrell. Acts. BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Lenski, R. The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961.
Parsons, M. Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.