Literature Study GuidesNew TestamentActs Of The Apostles Summary

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New Testament | Acts of the Apostles | Summary

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Summary

Chapters 1–8

After Jesus ascends to heaven, his disciples begin an evangelizing mission in Jerusalem under the leadership of Peter and guided by the Holy Spirit.

  • On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles and gives them the power to speak foreign languages, so that many in the crowd believe and are baptized.
  • The Christ-believers share their possessions to help those in need.
  • Apostles are arrested by the Jewish high priest and the Sadducees, but an angel opens the prison doors and lets them out.
  • A deacon named Stephen is stoned to death for speaking against the Jews and accusing them of "opposing the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51).
  • The Christ-believers begin to travel and preach outside of Jerusalem; through Philip, the message travels to Samaria and Ethiopia.

Chapters 9–17

The apostle Peter and a new Christ-believer, Paul, expand the mission beyond Jews, inviting gentiles (non-Jews) from cities throughout the Mediterranean to join the community.

  • A Jewish man named Saul is arresting Christ-believers, but while traveling to Damascus he hears the voice of Jesus ask him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). After this, Saul joins the community.
  • While staying with a Roman centurion named Cornelius, Peter has a vision that teaches him to include gentiles in the Christian mission.
  • King Herod kills James, the brother of John, and imprisons Peter, but one angel helps the apostle escape from prison and another strikes Herod down.
  • Saul, now known as Paul, travels with Barnabas to teach gentiles about Jesus the Christ in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.
  • At a formal council in Jerusalem the Christ-believers agree that gentiles who join the people of God need not be circumcised, a requirement of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17.
  • Paul, Timothy, and Silas begin a mission to gentiles throughout Macedonia and eventually reach Athens and Corinth in the province of Achaia (modern-day Greece).

Chapters 18–28

The text focuses on Paul's mission, which eventually leads him into conflict with both Jewish and Roman authorities.

  • At Ephesus in Asia Minor, Paul conflicts with those who worship other gods.
  • After traveling to Macedonia and Greece again, Paul returns to visit Christ-believers in Ephesus and then moves on to Jerusalem, where he is arrested.
  • There is a Jewish plot to kill Paul, so a Roman tribune sends him to the Roman governor Felix in Caesarea. After two years in prison, Paul is sent by King Agrippa to Rome so he can be tried by the emperor.
  • On the way Paul is shipwrecked, but everyone survives and gets to Malta.
  • Finally in Rome, Paul preaches to Jews in the city and accuses them of rejecting God's message so that it gets sent to gentiles instead.
  • Paul continues to teach about Jesus for two years in Rome.

Analysis

Acts depicts the growth of the Christian community, and the author concentrates on who is included in the community and what is required for those who would follow what he sometimes calls "the Way" (Acts 9:2). This "Way" is not just a set of beliefs but also a manner of life. Initially the circle of Jesus's apostles expands in Jerusalem and the immediate area, incorporating Jews who already think of themselves as the people of God into the group of Christ-believers; this early expansion effort shows how deeply the Christ-believing movement was embedded in Judaism and the teachings of the Jewish scriptures.

Following "the Way" means becoming part of the people of God who were first called by God as described in the Jewish scriptures. Certain rituals and practices also play a role in marking the Christ-believers as a unified community. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 lays out a more limited set of legal requirements than the Torah; circumcision is no longer required, but gentiles who join the people of God as Christ-believers should still "abstain ... from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:20).

Other rituals also become important for the community. The early chapters of Acts depict the addition of followers through the ritual of baptism, and those who join the Christ-believers also "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:41–42). These ritual acts served to unite the early Christ-believers through communal practices.

But one particular belief is essential: Paul's conversion story appears three times in the narrative (Acts 9, 22, 26), highlighting the importance of the moment when he came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the promised Jewish Messiah (or "anointed one"). It is worth noting that the Paul depicted in Acts is somewhat different from the Paul depicted in his own authentic letters. In the Letters he strongly objects to any Christ-believers needing to follow the Jewish law; this opposition is tempered in Acts (compare Galatians 2:3 and Acts 16:3). Perhaps most surprisingly, Acts does not ever say that Paul wrote letters as part of his missionary activity.

Importantly, the Acts story introduces the Holy Spirit as an agent in the growth of the Christ-believing community. Although the authors of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John all mention this divine being, the author of Luke and Acts goes into greater detail about the role of the spirit: it inspires, empowers, and guides the apostles and all those who join the Christ-believing movement.

From its first appearance in the text at Pentecost (Acts 2), the Holy Spirit plays an important role in the Christian ritual of the laying on of hands, which accompanies baptism as a way of incorporating people into the community. At the end of the book Paul also notes that the Holy Spirit, speaking through the prophets, had correctly predicted the fate of the Christian movement. Some scholars have even proposed that Acts can be read as a history of the Holy Spirit working in the early church.

Throughout Acts readers see the apostles and Christ-believers empowered by the Spirit but facing human disbelief and even outright opposition. There is a repeated pattern in Paul's journeys; for example, the apostle preaches first to Jews and then, after being rejected or imprisoned, moves on to share the message with gentiles. Paul describes these breaks with the Jews in passages such as Acts 13:46–47, 18:5–6, and 28:23–28. The shift from a mission to the Jews to a mission to the gentiles does not just happen city by city. Some scholars identify this shift of focus as a major theme of Acts. It could even explain the focus on Peter, apostle to the Jews, in the early books and the change to a focus on Paul, apostle to the gentiles, in the second half of Acts.

Some of the most striking moments of cultural contact include Christian meetings with gentiles who are devoted to deities in the Greek pantheon. When Greeks in Lystra and Derbe mistake Paul and Barnabas for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus (Acts 14), the text seems to show that many people in the ancient Roman world were trying to find commonalities between this new Christian message and kinds of theology or religious stories that were more familiar.

The conflict between Christ-believers and worshippers of Artemis in Ephesus (Acts 19), however, shows that the growing Christian community was sometimes perceived as a threat to traditional gentile practices. Despite moments of tension and conflict, the text seems to suggest that some opposition to Christ-belief can have a positive effect, because it can lead to an expanded mission and a wider distribution of the gospel message.

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