Acts is the last “historical” book of the New Testament – and, therefore, of the entire Bible. The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—covered the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (a.k.a. the Messiah, a.k.a. the Anointed One, a.k.a. the Saviour), and now Acts continues that story to tell the story of the beginning of His nascent Church on Earth, led by Peter, James and other Apostles, eventually introducing a man named Paul, himself becoming an Apostle and important teacher.
The rest of the New Testament, after the Gospels and Acts, consists of a series of letters written by various Apostles—more than half of which are written by this Paul person—expounding teachings that were learned in these early years of the Church, from which modern-day Christianity pulls its understanding of how God works with His people, how we are to behave, and pretty much everything else we believe as part of what we now call Christianity.
The New Testament is the fulfilment of the promises of the Old Testament, with Jesus as the prophesied Saviour. Formerly, the Jews had had the Temple, the meeting point between Heaven and Earth; now members of “the Way” (as Christians are called in Acts) are ourselves God’s Temple; Heaven and Earth come together in our very bodies. This is the Church, and Acts recounts its beginning.
The modern reader may find it strange to read the book of Acts because the early believers had so many things to figure out that we, after a couple of thousands years of Church history, can now take for granted (or think we can):
- How does God view Jewish vs. non-Jewish (i.e. Gentile) believers?
- What about the wider group of Jews who don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah – how does God view them? Are they still His “chosen people?”
- What about all of the rules and regulations that God’s people had formerly been following—things like dietary laws and circumcision and special celebrations—is God simply throwing those rules out? Or do believers (both Jewish and Gentile) still have to follow them? Or… is it a mix?!?
- If any of the rules no longer apply what does that mean about a God who is supposed to be unchanged and unchanging, now and forever? Does it mean that He is capable of changing His mind? Will He change it again?
In the early chapters of Acts we see a group of Jesus’ followers huddled together, wondering what is going to happen, then receiving the Holy Spirit, and then, from that point on, spreading the Gospel far and wide throughout the known world, wrestling with those difficult questions as they go. They’re threatened and punished and even killed for doing so, but they do it anyway. As a result we see mass groups of people, sometimes numbering in the thousands, coming to believe in Jesus as their Saviour; we see many, many people getting miraculously healed of diseases and injuries; we see people speaking in languages they don’t even understand! There is a lot happening in the book of Acts and to the modern [Western] Christian reader it can be both heartening and disheartening.
It’s heartening because we know that the power of the Holy Spirit in starting the early Church didn’t stop with the book of Acts. That power continued right on for the rest of history up to the present day—unabated even when the Roman Empire started persecuting Christians (which doesn’t start until after the events recounted in Acts)—until Christianity became the predominant religion and belief system over all of Europe and even into the as-yet undiscovered New World. Whether one is Christian or not, whether one thinks it’s a good thing or not, it’s hard to imagine a world without Christianity as a major influence.
It’s disheartening to modern-day [Western] Christians because… well, that’s all well and good, but why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work that way anymore? Why don’t we see mass groups of hundreds or thousands coming to Christ now? People outside the West might answer that the work of the Holy Spirit never stopped: He is still bringing new believers to Christ all over the world, all the time. Christianity is still the fastest growing religion in the world; to Christians outside the Western world the book of Acts may seem very modern and up to date indeed!
There’s another important point to call out about the book of Acts which might seem strange to the modern reader – so strange that it might not even occur to us if we don’t stop to think about it: the believers featured in the book of Acts did not consider any of this to be the beginning of a new religion. Those of them who had previously been Jewish—which was the majority of believers mentioned in Acts—still considered themselves to be Jewish. There is no sense that the early believers thought they were replacing one religion with another; no sense that people considered themselves “formerly Jewish and now members of ‘the Way.’” Most of them had been Jewish and were Jewish still – they just had more information about the long-awaited Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures. This new set of beliefs, “the Way1,” is considered an extension of what the Jews had already believed, not a brand new thing.
Many Gentiles (that is, people who hadn’t formerly been Jewish) also start to become members of this Church—that in itself is startling to the early Jewish believers!—and that makes things even more complicated since they’re being brought into this religion that had formerly only been for a certain ethnic group of people. The early Christians soon start to realize that Christ’s Church includes both Jews and Gentiles; although they don’t see it as a “new religion,” that’s “replacing” Judaism, they do see God’s “religion” subtly changing, and, as mentioned, have to spend some time trying to figure these nuances out.
Again, it seems odd to Christians in the modern world—the vast majority of whom do not come from a Jewish background—to see early Christians struggling with these issues, but even by the end of the book of Acts this “Way”—this new set of beliefs, coming out of and extending Judaism—is still mostly populated by Jews, even as the number of Gentiles is growing. Some of the early Christians are scandalized by this idea that Gentiles are now part of God’s people and others rejoice. Thousands of years later it’s so common we don’t even think about it, and it may seem strange to our eyes that all of these early Christians are not only not calling themselves Christians, they’re calling themselves Jews!
The term “Christianity” rarely gets used in the Bible—only three times!—and when it does it seems to be derogatory; it’s what non-Christians called members of “the Way,” not what Christians at the time called themselves. It was later in history—after the time of Acts and the letters recorded in the New Testament—that we started using that term ourselves. ↩︎