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Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

- Acts

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to Acts

There is no evidence that the title, “The Acts of the Apostles,” affixed to this book, was given by divine authority or by the writer himself. It is a title, however, which, with a little variation, has been given to it by the Christian church at all times. The term “Acts ” is not used, as it is sometimes with us, to denote decrees or laws, but it denotes the doings of the apostles. It is a record of what the apostles did in founding and establishing the Christian church. It is worthy of remark, however, that it contains chiefly a record of the actions of Peter and Paul. Peter was commissioned to open the doors of the Christian church to both Jews and Gentiles (see the note on Matthew 16:18-19); and Paul was chosen to bear the gospel especially to the pagan world. Since these two apostles were the most prominent and distinguished in founding and organizing the Christian church, it was deemed proper that a special and permanent record should be made of their labors. At the same time, occasional notices are given of the other apostles; but of their labors elsewhere than in Judea, and of their death, except that of James Acts 12:2, the sacred writers have given no information.

All antiquity is unanimous in ascribing this book to Luke as its author. It is repeatedly mentioned and quoted by the early Christian writers, and is mentioned as his work without a dissenting voice. The same thing is clear from the book itself. It professes to have been written by the same person who wrote a “former treatise,” addressed to the same person, Theophilus (compare Acts 1:1 with Luke 1:3), and it bears manifest marks of being from the same pen. It is designed evidently as a continuation of that Gospel, since, in this book, the author has taken up the history at the very time where he left it in the Gospel Acts 1:1-2.

Where, or at what time, this book was written, is not known with certainty. However, since the history is continued to the second year of the residence of Paul at Rome Acts 28:31, Acts was evidently written about as late as the year 62 a.d. And, since it makes no mention of the subsequent facts in the life of Paul, or of any other event of history, it seems clear that it was not written much after that time. It has been common, therefore, to fix the date of the book at about 63 a.d. It is also probable that it was written at Rome. In Acts 28:16 Luke mentions his own arrival at Rome with Paul. Since Luke does not mention his departure from that city, it is to be presumed that Acts was written there. Some have supposed that it was written at Alexandria in Egypt, but of that there is no sufficient evidence.

The canonical authority of this book rests upon the same foundation as that of the Gospel by the same author. Its authenticity has not been called in question at any time in the church.

This book has commonly been regarded as a history of the Christian church, and of course the first ecclesiastical history that was written. But it cannot have been designed as a general history of the church. Many important transactions have been omitted. It gives no account of the church at Jerusalem after the conversion of Paul; it omits his journey into Arabia Galatians 1:17; it gives no account of the propagation of the gospel in Egypt or in Babylon 1 Peter 5:13, or of the foundation of the church at Rome, or of many of Paul’s voyages and shipwrecks 2 Corinthians 11:25; and, it omits the labors of most of the apostles, and confines the narrative chiefly to the transactions of Peter and Paul.

The design and importance of this history may be learned from the following particulars:

1. It contains “a record of the promised descent and operations of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord Jesus promised that after he had departed to heaven he would send the Holy Spirit to carry forward the great work of redemption, John 14:16-17; John 15:26; John 16:7-14. The apostles were directed to tarry in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high, Luke 24:49. The four Gospels contained a record of the life, instructions, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. But it is clear that he contemplated that the most signal triumphs of his gospel should take place after his ascension to heaven, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The descent of the Spirit, and his influence on the souls of men, was therefore a most important part of the work of redemption. Without an authentic, an inspired record of that, the account of the operations of God the Father, Son, and Spirit in the work of redemption would not have been complete. The purposes of the Father in regard to that plan were made known clearly in the Old Testament; the record of what the Son did in accomplishing it was contained in the Gospels; and some book was necessary that should contain a record of the actions of the Holy Spirit. Since the Gospels, therefore, may be regarded as a record of the work of Christ to save people, so may the Acts of the Apostles be considered as a record of the actions of the Holy Spirit in the same great work. Without that, the way in which the Spirit operates to renew and save would have been known very imperfectly.

2. This book is “an inspired account of the character of true revivals of religion.” It records the first revivals that occurred in the Christian church. The scene on the Day of Pentecost was one of the most remarkable displays of divine power and mercy that the world has ever known. It was the commencement of a series of stupendous movements on the earth to recover human beings. It was the true model of a revival of religion, and it is a demonstration that such scenes as have characterized our own age and nation especially are strictly in accordance with the spirit of the New Testament. The entire Book of the Acts of the Apostles records the effect of the gospel when it comes fairly in contact with the minds of people. The gospel was addressed to every class. It met the Jew and the Gentile, the bond and the free, the learned and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, and it showed its power everywhere in subduing the mind to itself. It was proper that some record should be preserved of the displays of that power, and that record we have in this book. And it was especially proper that there should be given by an inspired man an account of the descent of the Holy Spirit, “a record of a true revival of religion.” It was certain that the gospel would produce excitement. The human mind, as all experience shows, is prone to enthusiasm and fanaticism; and people might be disposed to pervert the gospel to scenes of wildfire, disorder, and tumult. That the gospel would produce excitement was well known to its Author. It was well, therefore, that there should be some record to which the church might always appeal as an infallible account of the proper effects of the gospel, some inspired standard to which might be brought all excitements on the subject of religion. If they are in accordance with the first triumphs of the gospel, they are genuine; if not, they are false.

3. This book shows that “revivals of religion are to be expected in the church.” If they existed in the best and purest days of Christianity, they are to be expected now. If, by means of revivals, the Holy Spirit chose at first to bless the preaching of the truth, the same thing is to be expected. still. If in this way the gospel was at first spread among the nations, then we are to infer that this will be the mode in which it will finally spread and triumph in the world.

4. The Acts of the Apostles contains a record of the organization of the Christian church. That church was founded simply by the proclamation of the truth, and chiefly by a simple statement of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The “Acts of the Apostles” contains the highest models of preaching, and the purest specimens of that simple, direct, and pungent manner of addressing people, which may be expected to be attended with the influences of the Holy Spirit. It contains some of the most tender, powerful, and eloquent appeals to be found in any language. If a man wishes to learn how to preach well he can probably acquire it nowhere else so readily as by giving himself to the prayerful and profound study of the specimens of preaching contained in this book. At the same time we have here a view of the character of the true church of Christ. The simplicity of this church must strike every reader of “the Acts .” Religion is represented as a work of the heart, the pure and proper effect of truth on the mind. It is free from pomp and splendor, and from costly and magnificent ceremonies. There is no apparatus to impress the senses, no splendor to dazzle, no external rite or parade adapted to draw the affections from the pure and spiritual worship of God. How unlike to the pomp and parade of pagan worship! How unlike the vain and pompous ceremonies which have since, alas, crept into no small part of the Christian church!

5. In this book we have many striking and impressive illustrations of what the gospel is suited to produce, to make people self-denying and benevolent. The apostles engaged in the great enterprise of converting the world. To secure that, they cheerfully forsook everything. Paul became a convert to the Christian faith, and, for that, cheerfully gave up all his hopes of preferment and honor, and welcomed toil and privation in foreign lands. Compare Philippians 3:4-11, 2 Corinthians 11:24-27. The early converts had all things in common Acts 2:44; those “which used curious arts,” and were gaining property by a course of iniquity, forsook their schemes of ill-gotten gain, and burned their books publicly Acts 19:19; Ananias and Sapphira were punished for attempting to impose on the apostles by hypocritical, professed self-denials Acts 5:1-10; and throughout the book there occur constant instances of sacrifices and toil to spread the gospel around the globe. Indeed, these great truths had manifestly seized upon the minds of the early Christians: that the gospel was to be preached to all nations; that whatever stood in the way of that was to be sacrificed; that whatever toils and dangers were necessary were to be borne; and that even death itself was cheerfully to be met if it would promote the spread of true religion. Therefore, this was genuine Christianity. This is still the spirit of the gospel of Christ.

6. This book throws important light on the Epistles. It is a connecting link between the Gospels and the other parts of the New Testament. Instances of this will be noticed in the notes. One of the most clear and satisfactory evidences of the genuineness of the books of the New Testament is to be found in the undesigned coincedences between the Acts and the Epistles. This argument was first clearly stated and illustrated by Dr. Paley. His little work, the Horae Paulinae, which illustrates it, is one of the most indisputable proofs which have yet been furnished of the truth of the Christian religion.

7. This book contains incontrovertible evidence of the truth of Christianity. It is a record of its early triumphs. Within the space of 30 years after the death of Christ the gospel had been carried to all parts of the civilized and to no small portion of the uncivilized world. Its progress and its triumphs were not concealed. Its great transactions were not “done in a corner.” It had been preached in the most splendid, powerful, and enlightened cities; churches were already founded in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and at Rome. The gospel had spread in Arabia, Asia Minor, Greece, Macedon, Italy, and Africa. It had assailed the most mighty existing institutions. It had made its way over the most formidable barriers. It had encountered the most deadly and malignant opposition. It had traveled to the capital (Rome), and had secured such a hold even in the imperial city as to make it certain that it would finally overturn the established religion and seat itself upon the ruins of paganism.

Within 30 years, it had settled the point that it would overturn every bloody altar, close every pagan temple, bring under its influence everywhere the men of office, rank, and power, and that “the banners of the faith would soon stream from the palaces of the Caesars.” All this would be accomplished by the instrumentality of Jews - of fishermen - of Nazarenes. They did not have either wealth, armies, or allies. With the exception of Paul, they were people without much education. They were taught only by the Holy Spirit, armed only with the power of God, victorious only because Christ was their Captain, and the world acknowledged the presence of the messengers of the Highest One and the power of the Christian religion. Its success never has been, and never can be accounted for by any other supposition than that God Himself attended it! And if the Christian religion is not true, the change which was brought about by the twelve apostles is the most inexplicable, mysterious, and wonderful event that has ever been witnessed in this world. Their success will stand until the end of time as an argument for the truth of God’s overall plan (see 2 Corinthians 13:8). It will always confound the infidel. And, it will forever sustain the Christian with the assured belief that this is a religion which has proceeded from the all-powerful and infinitely benevolent God.

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