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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Acts

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. Acts forms an indispensable link between the accounts of Jesus' life (Gospels) and His disciples' interpretation, preaching, and application of His acts and words in the Letters of the New Testament.

B. The early church developed and circulated two collections of New Testament writings: (1) the Gospels (four Gospels) and (2) the Apostle (Paul's letters). However, with the early Christological heresies of the second century, the value of the book of Acts became obvious. Acts reveals the content and purpose of Apostolic preaching (kerygma) and the amazing results of the gospel.

C. The historical accuracy of Acts has been accentuated and confirmed by modern archaeological discoveries, especially in relation to the title of Roman governmental officials

1. stratçgoi, Acts 16:20, Acts 16:22, Acts 16:35, Acts 16:36 (also used of temple captains, Luke 22:4, Luke 22:52; Acts 4:1; Acts 5:24-26)

2. politarchas, Acts 17:6, Acts 17:8; and prôtô, Acts 28:7, cf. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament

Luke records the tensions within the early church, even the fight between Paul and Barnabas (cf. Acts 15:39). This reflects a fair, balanced, researched historical/theological writing.

D. The title of the book is found in slightly different forms in the ancient Greek texts:

1. Manuscript א (Sinaiticus), Tertullian, Didymus, and Eusebius have "Acts" (ASV, NIV)

2. Manuscripts B (Vaticanus), D (Bezae) in a subscription, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyrian, and Athanasius have "Acts of the Apostles" (KJV, RSV, NEB)

3. Manuscripts A2 (first correction of Alexandrinus), E, G, and Chrysostom have "Acts of the Holy Apostles"

It is possible that the Greek words praxeis, praxis (acts, ways, behavior, deeds, practice) reflect an ancient Mediterranean literary genre which denotes the lives and actions of famous or influential people (e.g., John, Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul). The book probably originally had no title (like Luke's Gospel).

E. There are two distinct textual traditions of Acts. The shorter one is the Alexandrian (MSS P45, P74, א, A, B, C). The Western family of manuscripts (P29, P38, P48 and D) seem to include many more details. It is uncertain whether they are from the author or were later insertions by scribes, based on early church traditions. Most textual scholars believe that the Western manuscripts have later additions because they

1. smooth out or try to fix unusual or difficult texts

2. add additional details

3. add specific phrases to accentuate Jesus as the Christ

4. are not quoted by any early Christian writers any time in the first three centuries (cf. F. F. Bruce, Acts: Greek Text, pp. 69-80)

For a more detailed discussion consult A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger, published by the United Bible Societies, pp. 259-272.

Because of the vast number of later additions, this commentary will not deal with all the textual options. If a textual variant is crucial to interpretation, then and only then will it be dealt with in this commentary.


A. The book is anonymous, but Luke's authorship is strongly implied.

1. The unique and surprising "we" sections (Acts 16:10-17 [second missionary journey at Philippi]; Acts 20:5-15; Acts 21:1-18 [end of third missionary journey] and Acts 27:1-16 [Paul sent as prisoner to Rome]) strongly imply Luke as the author.

2. The connection between the third Gospel and Acts is obvious when one compares Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1-2.

3. Luke, a Gentile physician, is mentioned as a companion of Paul in Colossians 4:10-14, Philemon 1:24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. Luke is the only Gentile writer in the NT.

4. The unanimous witness of the early church was that the author was Luke.

a. the Muratorian Fragment (A.D. 180-200 from Rome says, "complied by Luke the physician")

b. the writings of Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200)

c. the writings of Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 156-215)

d. the writings of Tertullian (A.D. 160-200)

e. the writings of Origen (A.D. 185-254)

5. The internal evidence of style and vocabulary (especially medical terms) confirms Luke as author (Sir William Ramsay and Adolph Von Harnack.

B. We have three sources of information about Luke.

1. The three passages in the NT (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11) and the book of Acts itself.

2. The second century Anti-Marcion prologue to Luke (A.D. 160-180)

3. The early church historian of the fourth century, Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, Acts 3:4, says "Luke, by race, a native of Antioch, and by profession, a physician, having associated mainly with Paul and having companioned with the rest of the apostles less closely, has left us examples of that healing of souls which he acquired from them in two inspired books, The Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles."

4. This is a composite profile of Luke.

a. a Gentile (listed in Colossians 4:12-14 with Epaphras and Demas, not with the Jewish helpers)

b. from either Antioch of Syria (Anti-Marcion prologue to Luke) or Philippi of Macedonia (Sir William Ramsay on Acts 16:19)

c. a physician (cf. Colossians 4:14), or at least a well educated man

d. became a convert in middle adulthood after the church was started at Antioch (Anti-Marcion prologue)

e. Paul's traveling companion ("we" sections of Acts)

f. unmarried

g. wrote the third Gospel and Acts (similar introductions and similar style and vocabulary)

h. died at the age of 84 at Boeotia

C. Challenges to Luke's authorship

1. Paul's preaching on Mars Hill in Athens uses Greek philosophical categories and terms to form a common ground (cf. Acts 17:0), but Paul, in Romans 1-2, seems to regard any "common ground" (nature, inner moral witness) as futile.

2. Paul's preaching and comments in Acts depict him as a Jewish Christian who takes Moses seriously, but Paul's letters depreciate the Law as problematic and passing away.

3. Paul's preaching in Acts does not have the eschatological focus that his early books do (i.e., I and 2 Thessalonians).

4. This contrasting of terms, styles, and emphasis is interesting, but not conclusive. When the same criteria are applied to the Gospels, the Jesus of the Synoptics speaks very differently than the Jesus of John. Yet, very few scholars would deny that both reflect the life of Jesus.

D. When discussing authorship of Acts it is crucial that we discuss Luke's sources because many scholars (e.g., C. C. Torrey, ) believe Luke used Aramaic source documents (or oral traditions) for many of the first fifteen chapters. If this is true, Luke is an editor of this material, not an author. Even in the later sermons of Paul, Luke only gives us a summary of Paul's words, not verbatim accounts. Luke's use of sources is as crucial a question as his authorship of the book.


A. There is much discussion and disagreement as to the time of the writing of Acts, but the events themselves cover from about A.D. 30-63 (Paul was released from prison in Rome in the middle 60's and rearrested and executed under Nero, probably in the persecutions of A.D. 65).

B. If one assumes the apologetic nature of the book concerning the Roman government, then a date (1) before A.D. 64 (the beginning of Nero's persecution of Christians in Rome) and/or (2) related to the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-73.

C. If one tries to relate Acts to Luke's Gospel in sequence, then the date for the writing of the Gospel influences the date of the writing of Acts. Since the fall of Jerusalem to Titus in A.D. 70 is prophesied (i.e., Luke 21:0), but not described, seems to demand a date before A.D. 70. If so, then Acts, written as a sequel, must be dated sometime after the Gospel.

D. If one is bothered by the abrupt ending (Paul still in prison in Rome, F. F. Bruce), then a date related to the end of Paul's first Roman imprisonment, A.D. 58-63, is favored.

E. Some historical dates related to the historical events recorded in Acts.

1. widespread famine under Claudius (Acts 11:28, A.D. 44-48)

2. death of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:20-23, A.D. 44 [spring])

3. proconsulship of Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7, appointed in A.D. 53)

4. expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius (Acts 18:2, A.D. 49 [?])

5. proconsulship of Gallio, Acts 18:12 (A.D. 51 or 52 [?])

6. proconsulship of Felix (Acts 23:26; Acts 24:27, A.D. 52-56 [?])

7. replacement of Felix by Festus (Acts 24:27, A.D. 57-60 [?])

8. Judea's Roman officials

a. Procurators

(1) Pontius Pilate, A.D. 26-36

(2) Marcellus, A.D. 36-37

(3) Marullus, A.D. 37-41

b. In A.D. 41 the procuratorial method of Roman administration was changed to an empirical model. The Roman Emperor, Claudius, appointed Herod Agrippa I in A.D. 41.

c. After the death of Herod Agrippa I, A.D. 44, the procurator method was reestablished until A.D. 66

(1) Antonius Felix

(2) Porcius Festus


A. One purpose of the book of Acts was to document the rapid growth of the followers of Jesus from Jewish roots to worldwide ministry, from the locked upper room to the palace of Caesar:

1. This geographical pattern follows Acts 1:8, which is Acts' Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

2. This geographical expansion is expressed in several ways.

a. Using major cities and national boundaries. In Acts there are 32 countries, 54 cities and 9 Mediterranean islands mentioned. The three major cities are Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome (cf. Acts 9:15).

b. Using key persons. Acts can almost be divided into two halves: the ministries of Peter and Paul. There are over 95 people mentioned in Acts, but the major ones are: Peter, Stephen, Philip, Barnabas, James and Paul.

c. There are two or three literary forms which appear repeatedly in Acts which seem to reflect the author's conscious attempt at structure:

(1) summary statements(2) statements of growth(3) use of numbers
Acts 1:1-7 (in Jerusalem)Acts 6:8-31 (in Palestine)Acts 9:32-24 (to Antioch)Acts 12:25-5 (to Asia Minor)Acts 16:6-20 (to Greece)Acts 19:21-31 (to Rome)Acts 2:47; Acts 5:14Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31Acts 12:24; Acts 16:5Acts 19:20 Acts 2:41; Acts 4:4Acts 5:14; Acts 6:7Acts 9:31; Acts 11:21, Acts 11:24; Acts 12:24Acts 14:1; Acts 19:20

B. Acts is obviously related to the misunderstanding that surrounded the death of Jesus for treason. Apparently, Luke is writing to Gentiles (Theophilus, possibly a Roman official). He uses (1) the speeches of Peter, Stephen, and Paul to show the scheming of the Jews and (2) the positiveness of Roman governmental officials toward Christianity. The Romans had nothing to fear from the followers of Jesus.

1. speeches of Christian leaders

a. Peter, Acts 2:14-40; Acts 3:12-26; Acts 4:8-12; Acts 10:34-43

b. Stephen, Acts 7:1-53

c. Paul, Acts 13:10-42; Acts 17:22-31; Acts 20:17-25; Acts 21:40-21; Acts 23:1-6; Acts 24:10-21; Acts 26:1-29

2. contacts with governmental officials

a. Pontius Pilate, Luke 23:13-25

b. Sergius Paulus, Acts 13:7, Acts 13:12

c. chief magistrates of Philippi, Acts 16:35-40

d. Gallio, Acts 18:12-17

e. Asiarchs of Ephesus, Acts 19:23-41; Acts 19:23-41 (esp. v. 31)

f. Claudius Lysias, Acts 23:29

g. Felix, Acts 24:0

h. Porcius Festus, Acts 24:0

i. Agrippa II, Acts 26:0 (esp. v. 32)

j. Publius, Acts 28:7-10

3. When one compares Peter's sermons with Paul's it is obvious that Paul is not an innovator, but a faithful proclaimer of apostolic, gospel truths. If anyone copies anyone, then it is Peter (cf. Acts 1:0 Peter) who uses Paul's phrases and vocabulary. The kerygma is unified!

C. Luke not only defended Christianity before the Roman government, but he also defended Paul before the Gentile church. Paul was repeatedly attacked by Jewish groups (Judaizers of Galatians, the "super apostles" of 2 Corinthians 10-13); and Hellenistic groups (Gnosticism of Colossians and Ephesians). Luke shows Paul's normalcy by clearly revealing his heart and theology in his travels and sermons.

D. Although Acts was not intended to be a doctrinal book, it does record for us the elements of the early Apostles' preaching which C. H. Dodd has called "the Kerygma" (essential truths about Jesus). This helps us see what they felt were the essentials of the gospel, especially as they relate to Jesus' death and resurrection.


E. Frank Stagg in his commentary, The Book of Acts, the Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel, asserts the purpose is primarily the movement of the message about Jesus (the gospel) from a strictly nationalistic Judaism to a universal message for all humans. Stagg's commentary focuses on Luke's purpose(s) in writing Acts. A good summary and analysis of the different theories is found on pp. 1-18. Stagg chooses to focus on the term "unhindered" in Acts 28:31, which is an unusual way to end a book, as the key to understanding Luke's emphasis on the spread of Christianity overcoming all barriers.

F. Although the Holy Spirit is mentioned more than fifty times in Acts, it is not "the Acts of the Holy Spirit." There are eleven chapters where the Spirit is never mentioned. He is mentioned most often in the first half of Acts, where Luke is quoting other sources (possibly originally written in Aramaic). Acts is not to the Spirit what the Gospels are to Jesus! This is not meant to depreciate the Spirit's place, but to guard us from building a theology of the Spirit primarily or exclusively from Acts.

G. Acts is not designed to teach doctrine (cf. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, pp. 94-112). An example of this would be the attempt to base a theology of conversion from Acts which is doomed to failure. The order and elements of conversion differ in Acts; therefore, which pattern is normative? We must look to the Epistles for doctrinal help.

However, it is interesting that some scholars (Hans Conzelmann) have seen Luke purposefully reorienting the imminent eschatologies of the first century with a patient service approach to the delayed Parousia. The kingdom is here in power now, changing lives. The church functioning now becomes the focus, not an eschatological hope.

H. Another possible purpose of Acts is similar to Rom. 9-11: why did the Jews reject the Jewish Messiah and the church become mostly Gentile? Several places in Acts the worldwide nature of the gospel is clearly trumpeted. Jesus sends them into all the world (cf. Acts 1:8). Jews reject Him, but Gentiles respond to Him. His message reaches Rome.

It is possible that Luke's purpose is to show that Jewish Christianity (Peter) and Gentile Christianity (Paul) can live together and grow together! They are not in competition, but joined in world evangelization.

I. As far as purpose is concerned I agree with F. F. Bruce (New International Commentary, p. 18) that since Luke and Acts were originally one volume, the prologue for Luke (Acts 1:1-4) functions also as the prologue for Acts. Luke, though not an eyewitness to all the events, carefully researched them and recorded them accurately, using his own historical, literary, theological framework.

Luke then, in both his Gospel and narrative, wants to show the historical reality and theological trustworthiness (cf. Luke 1:4) of Jesus and the church. It may be that the focus of Acts is the theme of fulfillment (unhindered, cf. Acts 28:31, where it is the last word of the book). This theme is carried forward by several different words and phrases (cf. Walter L. Liefeld, Interpreting the Book of Acts, pp. 23-24). The Gospel is not an afterthought, a plan B, or a new thing. It is God's predetermined plan (cf. Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18; Acts 4:28; Acts 13:29).


A. Acts is to the NT what Joshua through 2 Kings is to the OT: Historical Narrative (see Appendix Three). Biblical historical narrative is factual, but the focus is not on chronology or exhaustive recording of event. It selects certain events which explain who God is, who we are, how we are made right with God, how God wants us to live.

B. The problem in interpreting biblical narrative is that the authors never put in the text (1) what their purpose is, (2) what the main truth is, or (3) how we should emulate the things recorded. The reader needs to think through the following questions:

1. Why was the event recorded?

2. How does it relate to previous biblical material?

3. What is the central theological truth?

4. Is there significance to the literary context? (What event precedes or follows? Has this subject been dealt with elsewhere?)

5. How large is the literary context? (Sometimes large amounts of narrative form one theological theme or purpose.)

C. Historical narrative should not be the only source of doctrine. Often things are recorded that are incidental to the purpose of the author. Historical narrative can illustrate truths recorded elsewhere in the Bible. Just because something happened does not mean it is God's will for all believers in all ages (e.g., suicide, polygamy, holy war, handling snakes, etc.).

D. The best brief discussion of how to interpret historical narrative is in Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart's How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, pp. 78-93 and 94-112.


New books on placing Acts in its first century setting have been produced by classicists. This inter-disciplinary approach has truly helped the understanding of the NT. The series is edited by Bruce M. Minter.

A. The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting

B. The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting

C. The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody

D. The Book of the Acts in Its Palestinian Setting

E. The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting

F. The Book of Acts in Its Theological Setting

Also very helpful are

1. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament

2. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity

3. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World

READING CYCLE ONE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. State the central theme of the entire book in your own words.

1. Theme of entire book

2. Type of literature (genre)

READING CYCLE TWO (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book a second time at one sitting. Outline the main subjects and express the subject in a single sentence.

1. Subject of first literary unit

2. Subject of second literary unit

3. Subject of third literary unit

4. Subject of fourth literary unit

5. Etc.

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