ACTS: WITNESSES TO THE WORLD

By Steven Charles Ger

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses
both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

~ Acts 1:7-8 ~

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Every so often, a commentary comes to the attention of the student of Scripture that strikes him or her as being head and shoulders above the crowd. Steven Charles Ger's Acts: Witnesses to the World has struck this editor and AMC's board secretary Mottel Baleston in just such a way. For this reason, we have decided to present Acts in its entirety - not just for the wealth of information that may be gained from its study, but, as Mottel stated, as a model for how a Bible study ought to be done. Has God given you the gift of teaching? Perhaps you'll be next to pick up the torch for this level of teaching. ~ editor

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INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND TO ACTS
Part 2 of 3

Links to previous increments of Acts: Witnesses to the World
may be found in our Library.

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PURPOSE OF ACTS

Perhaps as many as a dozen plausible reasons have been proposed over the centuries to explain the occasion of Luke's writing of Acts. Countless students have valiantly, but futilely, applied themselves to the task of narrowing down the list to one overarching purpose. Yet to limit Luke to only one purpose does injustice to his broad and monumental work. Although addressed to only one individual, his patron, Theophilus, it must be recognized that Luke wrote with multiple purposes in mind. It is possible to ascertain, upon analysis of the Acts narrative, four particularly compelling purposes.

Historical: The primary purpose of Luke's work is historical. It is the sequel to his gospel, which was the chronological account of Jesus' earthly ministry, and Acts resumes with the record of Jesus' continued ministry through the agency of His apostles (1:1). Luke wrote this account to carefully and systematically trace the growth and geographical expansion of the church over its first three decades (2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). While acutely selective in his choice of material, Luke provides every necessary historical highlight to understand the development of the church from its origins in
Jerusalem through its climactic extension to Rome (see Table 2).


Theological: Luke's purpose went far beyond the historical. Another purpose Luke has is theological in nature. He wrote Acts to validate that Christianity is the legitimate development of God's plan and program for both Jews and Gentiles as engineered by the Holy Spirit (1:5-8; 2:1-47; 5:1-11; 6:5; 8:14-17; 10:44-47; 13:1-4; 19:1-7). Luke reveals the continuity between what God had promised to Israel through covenant and prophecy and what has been received by the church.

Luke also carefully demonstrates that God's promises to Israel have not been exhausted by the initiation of the church age. Although only a Jewish remnant has currently accepted their messiah and at present the nation stands in opposition to him, at some point in the future Israel will acknowledge Jesus as their Lord, savior and king (3:21).

Acts, however, is not a theological treatise. It must always be remembered while studying Acts that Luke is not concerned with developing doctrine. This is a book of historical descriptions, not propositional prescriptions. His intent was not to make normative for all believers through all time the unique and unrepeatable experiences of Pentecost, Saul's Damascus Road encounter, or to standardize various apostolic decisions, miracles and judgments.

As a historian, Luke is concerned with the practical application of these new and unprecedented theological developments. He defines the nature, structure, and practices of this new community of believers. He describes the relationship of this community to its adherents, to the unbelieving and often hostile Jewish community, to the Temple, in Judaism in general, and to the power of the Roman Empire. Finally, he relates the only major theological controversy to arise within the first three decades of the Church, that of Gentile inclusion into the church on an equal basis with Jews.

Apologetic: Luke also writes with an apologetic purpose in mind. He proves that, while the Jewish leadership consistently opposed the Christian movement from the start, the Roman civil authorities demonstrate no such antagonism (13:12; 16:39; 18:15-17; 19:37-40; 24:23; 25:19-25; 26:31-32; 28:30-31). Although Judaism viewed Christianity as an ominous and menacing sect, the Roman Empire perceived no such threat from the burgeoning movement, despite the fact that its founder had been executed as a criminal by Rome.

Luke assembles a thorough stream of evidence to establish that Christianity was not a political movement, but primarily a religious one; a movement with a profound Jewish heritage and deeply rooted in Hebrew Scripture. Therefore, by highlighting Christianity's Jewish association, Luke sought to demonstrate that the new faith should share Judaism's status as a recognized, legally accepted religion within the Empire.

Biographical: Luke's final purpose is a biographical one. In Acts, Luke firmly associates Paul's apostolic ministry with the apostolic ministry of Peter. By developing this strong literary connection between Peter and Paul, Luke demonstrates the full apostolic authority of Paul. Time and again, example upon example, the record of Acts reveals that whatever Peter was empowered to do, Paul was so empowered as well. Luke carefully presents these two men as absolute equals in supernatural ability, apostolic gifting and divine commission (see Table 3).

THEME AND STRUCTURE OF ACTS

The theme, or "big idea," of Acts emanates from the crucial opening passage in the book, which contains Jesus' commission to his apostles, you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This central idea combines each of Luke's four purposes into one coherent whole: identifying message (witness of Jesus, i.e., the gospel), messenger (the apostles) and location of delivery (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the ends of the earth).

With adroit literary skill, Luke uses this divine apostolic commission to organize his book in two major ways: geographical and biographical.

Luke's geographical structure arranges the book according to the location of the gospel's delivery, from Jerusalem (1:1-8:4) to Judea and Samaria (8:5-12:25) and to the ends of the earth (13:1-28:31).

Luke's biographical structure neatly divides the book into two parts, which are mirror images of each other (1:1-12:25 and 13:1-28:31). While the second half of Acts is longer in verbal content than the first (more chapters and verses), Luke has arranged both halves to be equal in chronological content. Luke has broken his coverage of the first twenty-nine years of church history into two equal parts consisting of fourteen-and-one-half years apiece.

Additionally, each fourteen-and-one-half year historical period has its own "leading man," the principal apostle with whom the narrative is concerned throughout that period; first Peter, then Paul.

He further subdivides each fourteen-and-one-half year period into a twelve-and-one-half year and a two-year period. The two-year periods bracket the Acts narrative. The story begins with the first two-year period (1:1-8:4) and takes place solely in Jerusalem, the birthplace of the church. Luke expends seven chapters relating this defining stage in the church's history. The two-year period which concludes the book (28:14-31) takes place solely in Rome, the geographic goal of Paul's apostolic witness. Luke summarizes this final stage in only half a chapter.

The core of the book takes place within the two twelve-and-one-half year periods and chronicles the gospel's transition from Jerusalem to Rome. It also shifts the apostolic focus from Peter to Paul (see Table 4). The key word in Acts is "witness," martus, and is used twenty-one times in Acts. This was to be the main function of the apostles and their associates.

THE FIVE TRANSITIONAL CIRCUITS IN ACTS

Acts is a unique component within the NT corpus. It is only the book of Acts that recounts the historical record of the church's first three decades. The evolution fromsmall Jewish sect to universal movement was not always smooth. The history of apostolic activity serves as a transition between the resurrection of Christ and our own post-apostolic era. Acts serves as the bridge over the following five transitional pathways, or circuits.

First, there is a historical transition as the repercussions of Jesus passing over the mantle of His ministry to His closest followers are traced. The book of Acts records the developing apostolic application of the ministry of Jesus.

Second, there is a cultural and geographic transition as the church developed from its initial Jewish milieu to its eventual expanded, international scope. It was a long road from Jerusalem to Rome, and Acts records the essential elements of that journey.

In Acts, we see the circumstances by which the door to the original Jewish community of believers is unlocked to Gentiles. We learn how spiritual equality was established and recognized between Jews and Gentiles within the broadened community of faith. In Acts, we are privy to the theological difficulties and the very practical obstacles to Gentile equality with which the Jewish community needed to wrestle and ultimately overcome.

In Acts, we also see the paradox inherent in such a specifically Jewish message being rejected by the majority of Jews, yet accepted so willingly by Gentiles who lacked any biblical background or education.

There is also an evangelistic directional transition, with the nation of Israel evolving from the point of terminus in finding God to its serving as the point of departure. In the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels, a centripetal ministry is modeled, where Israel is the center of God's activity, and one who seeks Him must necessarily come through the Jewish people. In Acts, God's activity diffuses, and the rotation of outreach has reversed to one of centrifugal force, where representatives from Israel spin out into the world, bringing God to the nations. The narrative traces a steady progression outward from
Jerusalem, through Israel and to the nations. This was not always a natural or willing transition, and circumstances often provided the catalyst to make this transition.

In addition, there is a theological transition, which moves the church from the personal presence of Jesus to the personal and internal presence of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus directed his apostles throughout His earthly ministry, Acts records the Spirit's direction and guidance of the church. With 2000 years difference between the twenty-first century and the first century, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate just how radical it was for this movement to succeed without the physical presence of its founder and leader. There is a major difference between Jesus being among believers and the Holy Spirit dwelling within believers. Acts records the unprecedented genesis and consequence of this divergence.

In addition, Acts records the movement away from the Law as a way of life and means of relating to God, to that of grace. Following the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, the Mosaic Law has been abrogated (Acts 15:1-29). (6) A new dispensation had dawned, characterized by the law of Christ, not Moses (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Almost from the beginning, the early church was accused of preaching that, in some fashion, the Law had been nullified as a way of life (6:11-14; 18:13; 21:21).

The ramifications of Jesus' resurrection and exaltation as Messiah and the subsequent creation of a new entity, the church community, would force what had begun as a Jewish sect to necessarily make the painful break away from the Jewish religion. Acts traces the church's break with Judaism from original fracture (4:1-2) to gaping chasm (25:2-3).

While the church broke from Judaism as a system, it did not break from Israel as a nation. As the Acts narrative concludes, the church is still heavily Jewish in character. The abrogation of the Law does not imply that the early church abandoned the Law wholesale or ceased observing Jewish customs and traditions (Acts 21:20). The early church regularly attended Temple (2:46; 3:1) and synagogue (13:14), observed the Sabbath (15:21) and circumcision (16:3), and performed ceremonial vows (18:18; 21:24).

Only gradually, over its first decade and a half, did the church as a whole begin to realize that the Law of Moses was no longer operative as the standard way of life for believers. This revolutionary transition slowly came to be understood with the incorporation of Gentiles into the church (11:1-18). Gentiles did not need to become Jews prior to becoming Christians.

The Mosaic Law, however, did not cease to be recognized by the early church as Holy Scripture, God's divine revelation. It continued to be their central basis of instruction, guidance, and source of messianic prophecy. In fact, the Law's greatest purpose for the early church was in its prophetic testimony of the Messiah. It contains the promises of the Messiah, now fulfilled in Jesus (Acts 3:13, 22-23; 24:14; 26:22-23).

Finally, there is a christological transition, which moves Israel and the world from an anticipated messiah to a returning messiah. With the death and resurrection of Christ, God's expectations of His people Israel and of the nations undergo a radical adjustment. Although, from the beginning, salvation has ultimately always been by grace through faith, the specific content of that faith develops over time with each new revelation. Since the dawn of the church age, following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, salvation is solely through faith in Him. Acts records the passion of the apostles as they energetically broadcast the new requirements for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike.

This relates to the final aspect of Acts' christological transition, the generation of devout Jews and God-fearing Gentiles whose lives spanned the period prior to and following Christ's resurrection. Similar to the generational torch which passed during Israel's forty year wilderness sojourn, there was a transitional period of apostolic activity which roughly extended until the death of the final member of the generation which came of age prior to Christ's resurrection.

FOOTNOTES

6. Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Luke-Acts, in Roy B. Zuck and Darrell L. Bock, eds., A Biblical
Theology of the New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 138.

STUDY QUESTIONS

3. List four purposes of Acts.
4. Describe the theme and structure of Acts.
5. Describe the five transitions of Acts.

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Acts: Witnesses to the World
Copyright 2004, Tyndale Theological Seminary

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Steven Charles Ger, Th.M., is a fourth generation Jewish believer. In addition to Acts: Witnesses to the World, his body of work includes a biblical commentary on Hebrews and co-authorship of The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary. He is also a contributing author to The Gathering Storm and the Zondervan KJV Commentary: Old Testament. He is the former host of the weekly radio show, "The Jewish Heart of Christianity," and has appeared as a guest expert on both radio and television. Steven's main work is directing Sojourner Ministries, an organization dedicated to exploring the Jewish heart of Christianity.

Autographed copies of Acts: Witnesses to the World may be purchased from the Sojourner Ministries website at www.sojournerministries.com.

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