After the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, this book represents the pivot of God. In this book, we move from the world of the Jewish to the world of the
Gentile church. We move from a largely agrarian world to an urban world. We move from God’s work in one nation to a cosmopolitan work among all nations. The book begins at the Ascension of Christ (c. 30 A.D.) and ends with Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome (c. 60-61 A.D.) The book begins in Jerusalem, and ends in Rome, and that is a fact filled with metaphorical significance.
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In this text we see two important things identified—the ruler, and the realm. First, the ruler is Jesus Christ, working in the power of His Spirit, poured out at the beginning of the book. The realm is the entire world. This verse contains, in effect, a table of contents for the expansion of the gospel through the rest of the book of Acts. First Jerusalem (Acts 2:14), then Judea (Acts 2:14), then Samaria (Acts 8:5), and then out to uttermost part of the earth (Acts 28:16).
In the previous book, Luke tells us that we had read about all that Jesus had begun to do and to teach (Acts 1:1). The implication is that here, in this second book, we will see what Jesus will continue to do and to teach by means of His body in the world. We see this reality also in the words that Jesus speaks to Saul on the Damascus road. Saul is persecuting Christians, and Jesus asks why he is persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4). By means of His Spirit, Jesus is identified with His people, and continues His ministry on the earth. And in a very real way, we can find additional encouragement in the way the book ends so inconclusively. It is almost as though Luke said to be continued . . . And it has been, down to the present day.
The book of Acts is filled with prisons. There are about twenty references to them, and in addition we find references to gates, doors, and guards. Because of the hostility of those who hated the gospel, trouble was stirred up everywhere the disciples (particularly Paul) went. The goal was to make it look as though they were the troublemakers. But Luke has a corresponding goal—he fills this book with exonerations, angelic and otherwise. The praetors of Philippi arrest Paul and Silas, but have to apologize for it (Acts 16:19ff ).
Gallio throws a case against the Christians out of court (Acts 18:12ff ). Paul is friends with the pagan Asiarchs at Ephesus, and the town clerk vindicates Paul against the charge of insulting Diana (Acts 19:31). Festus and Agrippa II agree together that Paul deserves neither death nor imprisonment (Acts 26:32). Luke wants to show, and does show, that the Christians are not that kind of threat to the empire.
A Question of Timing
As you are trying to arrange the books of the New Testament in some kind of order, one question that will arise is the placement of Galatians in the chronology of Acts. A problem is created by the fact that there were two Galatias, one ethnic and the other administrative. Are we talking about Dakota, a sub-tribe of the Sioux, or Dakota, as in North and South? So when Paul writes to the “Galatians,” who is he writing to? If he is writing to the Galatians of the Roman province, then this places his book in the chronology of Acts. If he is writing to the ethnic Galatians up north, then we don’t quite know how and when Paul got acquainted with them.
This is important for several reasons. One is that an early date for Galatians gives us a mature statement of justification by faith alone very early on in the history of the church. It was not a late “add-on,” a Pauline afterthought. Second, the details in Galatians blend very nicely with Acts on this view. For example, the “famine relief visit” (Acts 11:28-29) is the visit that was in response to a revelation (Gal. 2:2). And third, it explains why Paul didn’t appeal to the decision of the Jerusalem council in a letter dedicated to the very same controversy. He didn’t appeal to it because it had not yet happened. It also explains the heat of Galatians.
Stephen, the One Who Saw
At the very end of Stephen’s life, he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus in Heaven (Acts 7:55). At the very beginning of Saul’s Christian life, he saw a vision of the same Lord Jesus, shining like the sun (Acts 26:13). One of the central reasons why Saul came to see Jesus is because he had had an earlier encounter with Stephen. Stephen is actually one of the most important figures in church history. He was the first disciple to actually “get” the big picture. And his impact on Saul was enormous.
Stephen was ordained as a deacon, but had the power of working miracles and was a marvelous preacher. He came into a dispute with certain men who were
from the synagogue of the freedmen. They were from, among other places, Cilicia. The principal city in Cilicia was Tarsus, Saul’s home town. Stephen shut them all down, so they arranged for some men to falsely testify against him. The charge was that he was blaspheming Moses and the holy place (Acts 6:11,13). This, after Stephen was doing miracles, just like Moses had. And when they hauled him in, his face was shining like an angel’s—just like Moses’ face had. He defends himself masterfully—God was with Abraham in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2), with Joseph in Egypt (Acts 7:9), and with Moses in Midian (Acts 7:33). Wherever God is, that is holy ground.
Now imagine an unregenerate Saul, seething with hostility and genius, losing an argument with a Christian deacon. It is hard to imagine him taking it well. But he would also be smart enough to know that killing a man is not the same thing as refuting him. The first appearance that Saul makes in the Bible is when he is holding the cloaks of the men that “others” had suborned, while they killed Stephen. He then went off in a fury, trying to shut up the voices in his head. In this relay race, Stephen had been struck down, and the baton clattered to the track. But in the wisdom and providence of God, the next man to pick it up—in order to run the good race—was an unlikely convert named Saul.