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How to Understand The Book of Acts

The book of Acts describes the first thirty years of the growth of the church as it was empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness to Jesus (1:8). Acts begins with a few disciples in Jerusalem, the Jewish centre of the world, and ends with the gospel being proclaimed freely in Rome, the centre of the Gentile world. Luke was very selective with his material, concentrating on the growth from Jerusalem to Rome, and omitting the spread of the gospel east and south from Jerusalem. He also focuses his attention on first Peter, and then Paul, and says very little about the other apostles.

Luke describes with great honesty, that with some struggles and controversies, the church burst out of its origins in Judaism, to become a worldwide body consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.

Being dedicated to Theophilus, who was probably a Roman official, it is possible that Luke wrote the book as a testimony to the Roman authorities, showing that the church posed no threat to the power of Rome, but that most of the opposition came from the Jews.

The question of historical precedence

The Book of Acts is quite easy to read and understand, but problems arise when we seek to apply the book to the life of the church today.

The author of Acts recounts many of the activities and practices of the early church, merely describing what they did, and did not necessarily intend to establish these practices as patterns that must be followed by all churches down through history.

The basic question is, “If they did it in the early church, must we do it in the same way?”. Should we use the actions of the early church recorded in the Book of Acts as setting a precedent for our practices in the modern church?

When reading a narrative such as the Book of Acts, then we are reading a record of what happened at that particular time. We are not always told whether the event was good or bad in the sight of God, or whether this is what always should be done. To determine this we have to look at the teaching passages, where commands are given for conduct, and make our own assessment of the events recorded.

One example is when the apostles in the early church sold their possessions and held everything in common (2:45, 4:32). At that particular time they shared at least some of their possessions. However in other places in the New Testament they kept their own private property. Paul calls the rich to be rich in good deeds and be generous (1:Tim 6:17-19). He does not tell them not to have their own property. This would indicate that Luke was not intending to set a precedent to be followed in all circumstances.

Another example is the selection of table servers (6:1-6). This does not necessarily give timeless instructions for the selection of church leaders. The required character qualities are given elsewhere (1 Tim 3:8). We can learn from these passages, and receive wisdom from them. Wisdom is shown in choosing leaders from the same ethnic group where the problem is in Acts 6.

The accounts can give patterns to follow, especially if practice is mandatory, but the method is not. For example, baptism and communion should be practised, but we are not told exactly how or how often. If only one pattern of behaviour is seen that will give a strong precedence, but if different patterns are seen, then there is greater flexibility.


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