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New Testament: Acts

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Summary

Holy Spirit Window, ST. Peters Basilica, Bernini (1666)

The Acts of the Apostles portrays Jesus' followers from their days with the risen Jesus in Jerusalem to Paul's mission in Rome. Initial chapters focus on the life of the early community of believers in Jerusalem and the work of the Holy Spirit among them. Called, inspired, and even driven by the Holy Spirit, the apostles spread the gospel throughout northern Mediterranean lands. The story of Paul's call to spread the news of Jesus is the central emphasis of the second half of Acts. The final verse of Acts summarizes the book's themes: welcome of all, bold proclamation and teaching about the kingdom of God, and God's plan as unstoppable.

So What?

Because it provides a perspective on the work of the apostles and Paul that we get nowhere else, the Acts of the Apostles is invaluable as a witness to the development of communities of followers of "the Way" of God disclosed in Jesus. Driving the message of Acts is the conviction that God's Holy Spirit, now inextricably bound to the risen Jesus, empowers and legitimates the activities of believers at many critical points. The opening up of salvation (being in covenant relationship with the God of the Jews) to all people is at the heart of this book. Around this central theological idea Acts also emphasizes that Christians are called to hospitality, friendship, and boldness in speech and in interpretation of Scripture.

Where Do I Find It?

The Acts of the Apostles is the fifth book in the New Testament. It comes directly after the four Gospels and before the Letters of Paul.

Who Wrote It?

Acts was written by the same author who produced the Gospel according to Luke, yet there is no hard evidence about exactly who this person was. From his writings it is clear that he used Greek well, knew the Jewish Scriptures in Greek, was educated, and probably lived and wrote in an urban area.

When Was It Written?

Acts was probably written late in the first century C.E. It is likely, but not certain, that the writing of Acts followed that of the Gospel according to Luke, which usually is dated between 75 and 85 C.E., although these dates also are uncertain.

What's It About?

The author of the Gospel according to Luke offers a second book, in which the apostles and other believers, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to Rome, begin to develop communities of believers baptized in the name of Jesus and gathered around prayer, Scripture study, meals, and care for one another.

How Do I Read It?

Read Acts as the history that its author chose and ordered for the sake of his first-century readers. One must read, therefore, knowing that this writer aimed to clarify how the beginnings in Jesus' day had yielded the increasingly Gentile church that had sprung from Jewish roots, but no longer adhered to Jewish law, yet claimed faithfulness to the God of the Jews. Acts also attempts to make clear that this group of religious women and men were not a danger to civic order, even though the God who sent Jesus for the salvation of all people was the God no other god or earthly ruler could challenge. Acts as history is shaped by these goals.

AUTHOR: Sarah Henrich, Professor of New Testament

I. The Community Gathers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:1-8:3)
Jesus promises his followers that they will witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and "to the ends of the earth." The witness in Jerusalem begins at Pentecost, and the community of believers organizes itself around prayer, teaching, the sharing of meals, and care for all who are in need.


A. A Mission Command (Acts 1:1-9)
Jesus spends forty days with his followers, helping them understand that the Holy Spirit will lead them in unanticipated ways to spread the message of God's gracious promise of God's reign inaugurated in Jesus.

B. A Foretaste of God's Reign (Acts 1:10-2:47)
After Matthias is chosen by God to take Judas's place among the Twelve, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Twelve and others gathered with them on the day of Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit leads to new believers and an ideal way of living together in community.

C. God's Word Is Boldly Preached in Word and Deed (Acts 3:1-4:37)
In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man born lame and preach the good news of God's universal restoration. After they are questioned, warned, and released by religious authorities, they and their own community experience the power of the Holy Spirit that will enable them to continue to speak the word of God confidently.

D. Internal and External Struggles in the Young Community of Believers (Acts 5:1-42)
Ananias and Sapphira conspire to lie to the community but die as a result of lying to the Holy Spirit. The disciples' public witness gets them into trouble again with the religious authorities, whose warnings are met with this famous reply from Peter: "We must obey God rather than any human authority."

E. Stephen's Call as Deacon, Brave Speech, and Death (Acts 6:1-8:3)
Stephen, one of those chosen to assist in the work of the community, enrages the religious leaders with his speech at a trial occasioned by jealousy and carried out through false witnesses. He is martyred and dies with a vision of Christ, just as readers are introduced to Saul (who will later be known as Paul) as one of those who approves of Stephen's stoning.


II. Witness to the Gospel Extends into Samaria (Acts 8:4-40)
In the stories of Simon the magician and the Ethiopian eunuch, the Spirit empowers Philip and Peter to preach and do miracles in Samaria and beyond. Simon reveals how the news of Jesus can be welcomed and yet misperceived, while the baptism of the Ethiopian shows a thoughtful and humble joy.

III. Saul, Soon to Be Known as Paul, Is Called to Witness (Acts 9:1-31)
With the help of Ananias, Barnabas, and other believers who dare to trust God's surprising choices, Saul is launched on a mission to proclaim Jesus.

IV. Witness to the Gentiles and Calling to the Larger World (Acts 9:32-15:35)
After Peter raises a widow from the dead, he takes the good news of God's mercy in Jesus the Christ to Gentiles, a step that requires him and other believers to abandon the scriptural command of God about distinguishing between clean and unclean. The community's decision to baptize Gentiles without expecting them to keep purity laws or practice circumcision is a source of tension throughout the rest of Acts.

A. Creating a New Community of Jewish and Gentile Believers (Acts 9:32-11:18)
Peter is called to raise Tabitha/Dorcas from death; then, through a series of providential encounters and the work of the Holy Spirit, he is summoned to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile. After Cornelius and his household are baptized, Peter and other Jewish believers remain with him and eat in his home, acts that Peter must defend when he is back home in Jerusalem, where his story is accepted and generates praise of God.

B. The Church Grows in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30)
Because of the flight of the persecuted believers from Jerusalem, the word about Jesus spreads into new territory, taking root in Antioch to the joy of Barnabas and the Jerusalem church.

C. King Herod: Persecutor and Blasphemer (Acts 12:1-25)

Herod Agrippa I persecutes the church by rounding up its leaders, including Peter and James. While Peter escapes custody and flees, Herod dies in his arrogance.

D. Barnabas and Paul Travel to New Places (Acts 13:1-14:28)
Barnabas and Paul visit a number of Mediterranean cities from Pisidian Antioch to Iconium, then Lystra, and back again. Paul's preaching in synagogues and among Jews leads some to believe and others to resist the message about Jesus.

E. The First Great Council (Acts 15:1-35)
Believers gather in Jerusalem to address the question of whether it is still required that baptized people be circumcised (if male) and keep the purity laws. The council's decision to demand only the most basic food laws and not circumcision derives from its understanding of the Holy Spirit and Scripture, and it is a decision that creates both flexibility and difficulties for new communities of believers.


V. Paul's Witness in Cities around the Aegean Sea (Acts 15:36-21:16)
Paul travels to the major urban centers of Asia Minor and the eastern areas of Greece, preaching the gospel wherever he goes. Reception varies, yet small communities of believers are established in many places.

A. Paul Visits Syria and Cilicia with Silas (Acts 15:36-41)
After a disagreement, Paul travels without Barnabas or John Mark.

B. Paul and Silas in Philippi (Acts 16:1-40)
Through a vision, Paul, Silas, and others are called to Macedonia, where they convert a number of people to belief in Jesus, including Lydia, a seller of purple goods, and her household, as well as a jailer and his household. Paul insists on his rights as a Roman citizen to decent treatment and is sent speedily on his way by the Philippians.

C. Paul and Silas in Thessalonica and Athens (Acts 17:1-33)
While preaching in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas meet opposition from some Jews and move on to Athens. In Athens, although many scoff at him, Paul persuades some people of the good news about Jesus' resurrection and promised return.

D. Paul in Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 18:1-19:41)
Trouble develops when some of the Jews in Corinth bring Paul before a Roman proconsul named Gallio, but Gallio dismisses the attacks on Paul as a matter of theological distinctions with no relevance to civil issues. Paul leaves for Ephesus, where he and the Holy Spirit make clear that miracles can be done only by those who believe in Jesus' name, which is stronger than any other.

E. Paul Sets Sail for Jerusalem (Acts 20:1-21:16)
Paul raises Eutychus from death, then has a final conversation with the elders of the church in Ephesus, who meet him in Miletus and are brought to tears by his words. Paul sails on toward Jerusalem and is warned by a prophet in Caesarea that he will be in danger.


VI. Paul's Witness in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-23:30)

Although he knows the danger of facing the opposition to his work among the Gentiles, Paul returns to Jerusalem to speak of his mission and bring offerings from assemblies of believers from the north and west. Although he is welcomed by the leaders and many others, he must defend himself before the people and the Jewish council of elders.

VII. Paul's Witness to Gentiles and Kings (Acts 23:31-26:32)
Before the Roman officials Felix, Festus, and finally King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II), Paul defends himself against charges brought by Jewish leaders. The officials perceive his case as a dispute among the Jews about their religious beliefs and therefore determine that Paul does not deserve punishment, even though he must be sent on to Rome because of his appeal to Caesar.

VIII. Paul's Journey to Rome (Acts 27:1-28:31)

A dangerous storm at sea, shipwreck, sojourn on Malta where Paul heals many ills, and welcome outside Rome precede his two-year stay there. Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome, and the book's final word is a Greek term meaning "without hindrance," which describes the way that God's story goes forward no matter what difficulties are encountered.

AUTHOR: Sarah Henrich, Professor of New Testament

We do not know what sources went into the writing of this book, nor where, when, or exactly by whom it was written. The writer of Luke's Gospel also wrote Acts, and so both books are often referred to as Luke-Acts, reflecting their relationship as a two-volume literary piece. The common authorship of the two books suggests that Acts was written after Luke, probably between 75 and 95 C.E., during the time when Christians were beginning to distinguish themselves from their Jewish roots. Acts looks back, seeking to lay out how Jesus' first followers--that small group in the relatively small city of Jerusalem--spread and grew to the widespread and largely Gentile church that the author and his audience knew.

Acts itself establishes the time frame in which its events occur. The story extends from the forty days between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the end of Paul's two years in Rome, a relatively short period of around thirty years. Acts offers few temporal reference points in the history it spans, such as the reference to Gallio's proconsulship (18:12-17). If the author knew of Paul's death or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., he does not mention these things.

In terms of geography and culture, Acts locates readers firmly yet selectively in the world of the eastern and northern Mediterranean during the early Roman Empire. Major cities of that time and place, such as Ephesus, Damascus, Antioch, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome, are visited by Christian witnesses. Some aspects of life in those cities are described realistically, including descriptions of governing authorities, interest in magic, work, and common behaviors and attitudes.

Acts is "historical" within the ancient understanding of that term. History-writers of that era created speeches that could or should have been made; they did not have the ability to know or to record for posterity what really may have been said in a given situation. Like other accounts of ancient history, Acts is selective; it does not systematically lay out the spread of Christian communities. It provides, for instance, no information about the spread of Christians into Egypt or other important cities where Christians established themselves in the first century. Acts devotes half its length to Paul's travels and after chapter 15 pays almost no attention to other apostles, including Peter. While the selectivity can be frustrating for those who would like to know more, or potentially misleading if one insists that Acts tells the definitive story of early Christian activity and belief, Acts nevertheless remains our earliest overview of the beginning of the Christian movement, an invaluable book.

AUTHOR: Sarah Henrich, Professor of New Testament

Abrupt ending. We cannot know with certainty why the author elected to end the book of Acts without describing what happened to Paul in Rome. The author wrote a long time after Paul died there and was likely to have known that. That he ended Acts with the expression without hindrance, even knowing that Paul died sometime after the two years in Rome, is an expression of his hope that the book will be a positive word about God's irresistible purpose.

Acts as Luke's "second volume." The similarity of the prefaces in the Gospel according to Luke (1:1-4) and the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-2), and the continuities in the books' themes and style of writing, have persuaded those who study them that Luke and Acts come from the same author. This means that Acts serves as an expansion of the story told in Luke's Gospel, and it is a rich process to read these two volumes as mutually informative. Because the author is so interested in the fulfillment of God's promises, including promises made by Jesus, some of what happens in Acts can be best understood by comparisons with similar episodes in Luke's Gospel (and vice versa). Consider, for example, the story of the centurion in Luke 7:1-10 in light of the story of the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Think about Jesus' words of forgiveness from the cross (Luke 23:34) when reading what Stephen says when he dies in Acts 7:60. Recall the promises Jesus makes about the witness his followers will give (Luke 21:12-18) as an interpretation of the apostles' journeys, beginning in Jerusalem with Peter and John's display of remarkable boldness and wisdom (Acts 4:13-14). The story of Jesus in Luke becomes a picture of God's activity, prophesying realities that are ever before his followers in Acts.

Actual events and the book of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles is a patterned and repetitive portrayal of ancient events that seeks to tell a sacred history rather than only recount an accurate, verifiable human history. Our questions about "what really happened" are not the same as those asked or answered by the book's author, for he assumes many events rather than seeking to provide evidence for them. The historical "accuracy" of the book's descriptions needs to be considered in light of the author's knowledge and goals. For example, the descriptions of the earliest community of believers in chapters 2 and 4 are likely to be highly stylized, weaving together ideas of a golden age or of perfect friendship expressed in first-century Jewish and non-Jewish ideals, to show what a perfect community in the power of the Spirit might look like. The descriptions of the rank-and-file Jews and the Jewish leaders who reject the gospel (note the similarities in their rejections) are also stylized as a way to explain why the church became primarily Gentile by the time Acts was written. Such descriptions also make the case that Christians were not troublemakers, but Jews were. While a kernel of truth may reside in these descriptions, to accept them as historically accurate in a modern sense can be dangerously naive about the author's own purposes in writing.

Actual speeches and the book of Acts. As is the case for the events described in Acts, one cannot be sure either about the historical accuracy of the speeches in Acts. It seems likely, given the far-flung locations of speech-making in Acts and the lack of technology for recording and keeping speeches and given the common practice of ancient historians' creating suitable speeches for their characters, that Acts does not offer verbatim reports of speeches. Instead, we read what the author deemed most likely or most appropriate for the occasion. This distinction helps us understand some of the differences between the way Paul writes in his letters and the way he speaks to audiences in Acts.

Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Acts offers no clear sequence of events in regard to baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit; it is not always the case that one is first baptized and then receives the Spirit, nor is it always the reverse. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household, making clear to Peter and the others that baptism should immediately follow. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus' followers at Pentecost, and we are not told whether all of them have already been baptized. In Acts 16 both Lydia and the Philippian jailer's household are baptized, but there is no description of the reception of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19 disciples in Ephesus who had been baptized into John's baptism are baptized again in the name of Jesus and then receive the Holy Spirit. Two things are clear in these stories: (1) baptism in the name of Jesus is a great gift that believers find empowering as they become part of communities of worship and shared life; (2) the Holy Spirit is given by Jesus to believers, either before or after their baptism, but always in a way that is connected to baptism. The freedom of the Spirit and the Lord Jesus precludes attempts to systematize the relationship between Spirit and baptism, just as it also prevents us from predicting precisely how the gifts of the Spirit are manifested at the time of a unique individual's baptism. In Acts, the Spirit gives to some the gift of speaking in tongues and prophesying (19:6), to others the gift of praising God in other human languages (2:4-11), and to others the gift of holy joy (8:39; 16:34).

Geographical structure. As Luke's Gospel begins in Jerusalem with the worship of God and ends in the same way, so the location of events in Acts has geographic importance. In Acts 1:8, those who believe that Jerusalem will be the center of God's restoration learn from Jesus that they will witness to that coming restoration in Jerusalem, then in the larger area of Judea and Samaria, and finally to the very ends of the earth. This journey begins in Jerusalem, where the Eleven (the twelve apostles without Judas) add a twelfth to their number and--along with others, including Mary the mother of Jesus--wait for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The beginning in Jerusalem lasts until Acts 8, which opens with a "severe persecution" of the church and the departure of many believers to the "countryside of Judea and Samaria," a scattering that leads to many new conversions and the creation of new communities. In Acts 11:19, readers see that some of those who had fled Jerusalem end up as far away as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, cities north and west of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. As Acts focuses more on the story of Paul's travels, the trajectories move out farther and farther from Jerusalem, all around the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Acts ends in Rome, not the ends of the earth as we know it, but nearing the western end of the Mediterranean. As Paul continues to preach the word of God unhindered, even as he is under house arrest in faraway Rome, it is clear that the ends of the earth--wherever they were and are understood to be--will be reached.

Hostility and the Jewish people. Acts portrays the Jews in Jerusalem and Asia Minor in a variety of ways. Many Jews share interest and belief in Jesus. There are conflicts between Jewish communities and the Jews who believe in Jesus. Theological divisions arise among Jews (for instance, in the argument about resurrection in 23:8). According to Acts, when Paul travels in Asia Minor some Jews resort to rabble-rousing and violence to stop him. In these and other stories the author shows his late first-century audience two important things: (1) Christians are not the cause of social discord, but it is only the people who harass them; (2) Christians are really God's people in continuity with the past, while some Jews foolishly reject their own tradition.

Jesus' resurrection appearances. If Acts and Luke were written by the same person, why is the story of Jesus' postresurrection time with his disciples different in each book? The opening of Acts and the forty days Jesus spends with the disciples can be understood as filling out Luke 24:45, where Jesus "opens Scripture" to his disciples before his ascension.

Literary genre. Scholars disagree about what kind of book Acts is. Some argue that it should be read as a biography; others regard it as something closer to an ancient novel full of adventure and entertainment as well as teaching. It is more likely, however, that Acts was written as history in an ancient sense. It is not primarily investigative history, but the author's efforts to gather information include also his taking into account the divine forces at work within human history. All historical writing involves choosing incidents to report, adopting a point of view, and the limitation of one's sources. As historical writing, Acts tells the stories of an earlier time to explain how the present time came to be. Of particular concern in Acts is understanding why fewer Jews than Gentiles believe Jesus to be God's Messiah, how Christians can be people of God and not keep certain laws decreed by God, and how Christians themselves are good neighbors and not troublemakers for the Roman government.

Paul and the Twelve. According to Acts, Paul's relationship with the Twelve and the Jerusalem community was more trusting, close, and harmonious than we might imagine from Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Both Acts and Galatians speak of contact and mutual respect between Paul and other church leaders. Galatians emphasizes Paul's independence on behalf of the letter's recipients, while Acts has a very different agenda, seeking to show how the church spread in accord with God's will through the power of the Spirit. Acts does reveal conflicts within the church (for example, 5:1-11; 6:1; 15:1-5; 21:17-22) but does not portray sharp divisions among the leaders. We do not know what the relationships were, given our reliance on two sources with quite different agendas. One might think that both Acts and Galatians portray Paul's relationships accurately and that the relationship was basically one of respect, but that Paul (and perhaps others) did not hesitate to raise difficult issues concerning gospel-based living.

Paul's calling. Why do the three descriptions of Paul's calling to faith in Christ (9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18) differ from each other? The differences point out the importance of understanding speech-writing and speech-making in the ancient world. In each case, both audience and context are slightly different. The details of a speech take shape from Paul's calling to persuade each audience of the truth that Jesus was the Messiah of God, had been raised from the dead, and had called Paul to mission to the Gentiles.

Women in Acts. The names and stories of a number of interesting women emerge in the story of the development of early Christian communities in Acts. Although the stories are brief and tell us little about these women, they hint at the importance of the women as members and leaders in Christian communities. Acts tells the stories of women in a matter-of-fact way, as if the early Christians simply took the work of women for granted. From the beginning of Acts (1:14), where Mary the mother of Jesus is with the apostles and others and receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to the account of Priscilla (Prisca) and her husband instructing the bright and eager young Apollos in the faith (18:24-26), Acts puts before us women in a variety of roles. Tabitha (also called Dorcas), who is widely known and respected by men and women because of her devotion to good works and charity, is so mourned at her death that Peter comes to Joppa to raise her from death (9:36-41). Lydia, a leader of a household involved in the work of selling and perhaps producing expensive purple goods, meets Paul in Philippi, believes what he says, and becomes the leader of a gathering in her own house (16:12-15). The mother of John Mark has a group of believers in her house for prayer, a dangerous act that must be hidden from authorities, yet her household is known to believers, for Peter stops there briefly after he escapes from jail (12:12-17). It is precisely because Acts nowhere underlines the work of these women as special or unusual that we assume it was not unusual to find women in this wide variety of roles and publicly known for the parts they played in early Christian communities.

AUTHOR: Sarah Henrich, Professor of New Testament

Baptism. In Acts, baptism in the name of Jesus is an important event in the lives of new believers, for it is connected to the gift of the Holy Spirit and joy. The baptized become part of the body of those who have been saved.

Boldness. Jesus' disciples, even those who are untrained or skimpily educated, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in such a way that they can speak well and powerfully about God's gracious resurrection of the Messiah. In the first century, persuasive public speech was considered a fine art, the goal of a person's education. In Luke 21:14-15, Jesus promises his disciples the ability to articulate persuasively their experiences with him and their convictions about God's in-breaking reign. At Pentecost (Acts 2), this gift changes the disciples from followers to powerful witnesses and interpreters of Scripture for mission in a new world.

Christians in society. Throughout Acts, the Christian preachers and believers are shown over and over again to be law-abiding and peaceful people who both believe and continue to live in their social situation. The very high value of social harmony is preserved by new believers, although they are unfairly maligned and harassed by Gentile and Jewish persons who bear responsibility for riots and other forms of social unrest. Such a portrayal of Christian behavior makes a theological claim: Christians do not seek an earthly kingdom, and their God calls them to lives of peace and social responsibility through caring for one another and the neighbor.

Friendship and Christian community. It is definitive of the Christian community that its members gather for meals, feed those who have no way to provide for themselves, and have all things in common. Such behavior also characterizes friendship as it was understood in the ancient world, as a relationship among equals who cared deeply and mutually about one another's well-being. Friends were expected to speak the truth with one another and to provide material assistance to one another if necessary. This concept of human community as a community of friends in the deepest sense fills the pages of Acts, reflecting the book's understanding of the reign of God as it happens among us.

Friendship and the Holy Spirit. For ancient people, friendship had to be limited to a relatively small number of people in one's life, because of the intense obligations it entailed and because usually one's friends were social equals. In the Christian communities, the Holy Spirit empowers persons to become one another's equals no matter what their social status, thus creating a large number of friends. That same Spirit also strengthens and empowers people to meet the obligations of friendship.

Future hope for all humankind. Peter's words in Acts 3:18-25 express hope for the future of all persons who belong to the Lord. Jesus' return will signal the "universal restoration" that God has long promised, not least to Israel through the holy prophets.

God and other powers. The God of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are more powerful and beneficent than any other forces in the universe. The stories in Acts make the case that all invisible powers, such as other spirits and deities, are under the rule of the one God, the God of the Jews and of Jesus Christ.

God's faithfulness. Acts is intent on showing continuity among Abraham, Moses, the prophets, David, and the work of Jesus and his followers. In this and other ways, the book continues the biblical story of God's merciful and faithful calling of humankind. God does not abandon the people of Israel, but, instead, God in Christ and the Holy Spirit fulfills promises made long ago, not least the promise that Israel itself should be a light to the Gentiles and that all the earth should honor God.

Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, present from the beginning of Luke's Gospel, is poured out by Jesus after his ascension in Acts 2. The connection of the Spirit to Jesus and the Father connects the experiences of the earliest Christian communities with the life and power of God as it worked in Jesus. The activities of the Spirit resemble those of Jesus in working for good (for example, healing) and for inclusion among God's people (baptism).

Inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. A major theme of Acts is the complex process of including Gentiles among the saved people of God. The Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39) may be the first Gentile baptized, but the focus in Acts is on the repeated story of the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household (10:1-11:18; 15:6-11). This story marks the developing community's refusal to hold Gentiles to the purity laws of Israel, a significant change for the early believers who clung to the Jewish Scriptures.

Mission and hospitality. The nature of Christian mission in Acts is consistent with the commands that Jesus gives in Luke 9-10, where he instructs his followers to announce the nearness of God's reign by entering a village or house and staying there, if welcomed by the inhabitants. Part of God's good news in Jesus has to do with believers' willingness to set aside their fears of other persons and their desires to remain in their own comfort zones, in order to enter into the lives of people quite different from themselves. In Acts, Christians bear witness--as Jesus did, in deed and in word--by "entering" and "staying." They cross social boundaries, not to judge someone who welcomes them, but to honor that person's place, life, custom, and being.


Networks of Christian community. From the beginning of the book (2:43-47) through Paul's determination to face great personal risk on behalf of the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem (chapters 20-21), Acts presents the Christian community caring for its people locally and farther away. This care includes provision for evangelists who move about with one another as they anchor new communities of believers in networks of hospitality and friendship.

"Not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). Acts emphasizes that Jesus and his followers have never been a secret cult and that there is no surreptitious or shameful quality to the Christian message that would endanger the well-being of persons, households, or governments. Christian faith is a public faith with public consequences, because it is faith in the God who openly created and redeemed all that is, and because this God is served by loving and caring for the neighbor, which is also public activity.

The prevailing word of the Lord. The final statement in the entire book of Acts, as Paul preaches "without hindrance" in spite of all the difficulties that have beset him and brought him finally to Rome, is that the word of the Lord prevails. From beginning to end, Acts is a confident assertion that, no matter how things look, human history belongs to God. God will not be overcome by any other power, and the promise of "universal restoration" will be kept.

Reorienting the center of the world. The expectation that Jerusalem would be the center of God's renewed reign was embedded in the hopes of Israel and its prophetic texts. Jesus changes this expectation in Acts 1:6-8 when he declares that the Spirit of God will send Jesus' followers out from Jerusalem to the very "ends of the earth" to witness to God's power. Acts begins in Jerusalem, but, by the end of the book, extends to an apartment in Rome.

Salvation and the end of time. Acts declares that God's promises of salvation and blessing have been and will be kept in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus enables "times of refreshing" (3:20) to come to those who repent as they live on earth, as seen in the gathering of the community of faith (2:43-47; 4:32-37) and in the healings that abound in Acts. A time of "universal restoration" (3:21) remains to come, when Jesus will return and all families of the earth will be blessed.

AUTHOR: Sarah Henrich, Professor of New Testament

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