When students enter the eighth grade in Highlands Latin School, they have studied the Bible from front to back three full times. So, in junior high our students transition to a study of the early church. Of course, there’s no better way to study the early church than to soak in one of the greatest books of history ever written, The Acts of the Apostles.
The biblical book of Acts, attributed to an early Christian named Luke, tells the story of the growth of a radical messianic Jewish sect led by a first century man, who we know of as Paul today, who travels from the sacred streets of Jerusalem, up the ancient steps of the Aereopogus, along the Egnatian Way, and to the broad streets of Rome. Following this journey, however, can be challenging.
One reason this book is so difficult to study is that it’s unlike any other book. With most books, we know how to read them, in part, because we’ve read other books like them. In other words, we understand their genre. But Acts is hard to fit into one genre.
As history, it accurately records the events of about thirty years in the middle of the first century. During those years, the church was formed; the first Christian was martyred; the first European converted to Christianity; and the teaching of Jesus Christ was spread to much of the Roman Empire.
As theology, Acts has been affirmed as sacred Scripture since the time of the Apostolic Fathers. Acts has inspired hundreds of thousands with the boldness of the Apostles and the generosity of the early disciples.
As literature, Luke eloquently portrays the early life of the church, Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles, and Paul’s trial with timely pace and a vivid sense of place.
So which genre is it? What tools do we need to read this book well? Should we concentrate on learning the geography of the Mediterranean before opening the book? Or maybe, a verse a day from Acts is all we need for spiritual benefit? Or perhaps, a pocket book of classical literary devices would help us navigate some of Act’s complexities?
The answer, of course, is yes. You must do all of these things. The beauty of the Bible is that it’s all of these things and none of these things. In order to unlock the multi-faceted beauty of this genre defying-book, you have to learn to read carefully. Here are a few important principles of reading, which when applied carefully, can begin to unlock the treasure of The Acts of the Apostles.
Understanding the setting of Acts is a daunting task because the story took place both a long time ago and a long way away. But, you must visualize the setting of the story in order to understand why it develops in the way it does (See Acts 1:8). Luke provides remarkable detail describing where Paul and his companions traveled, and a wise reader will patiently find every location that Luke mentions in an atlas or encyclopedia.
Another aspect of the setting that must be understood is the way that Luke, like a movie director, “zooms in and out” on his characters’ journeys. On the one hand, a couple of scenes are “zoomed in on” in a concrete place. For example, Paul’s famous appeal to the idol of “THE UNKNOWN GOD” is set on the steps of the Aereopogus (Acts 17). This scene describes Paul sitting among the philosophers preaching the “foolishness of men” as the “wisdom of God,” a scene that has strange echoes of Socrates’s trial which occurred in the same place only a few hundred years before.
On the other hand, Luke, our master director, “zooms out” for some “cut scenes” that transition from one location to another. These scenes provide internal clues as to when episodes begin and end, and how closely the “zoomed in” scenes should be read together. For instance, the second half of Acts 11 takes a short break between Peter’s radical encounter with Cornelius and his second imprisonment. This “cut scene” overviews the spread of the gospel after Stephen’s death and the work of Barnabas, skillfully pushing the reader toward the conflict to come in Acts 15. While you are reading Acts, you must frequently pause to reflect on what kind of scene you have encountered.
One key to storytelling is great characters, and Acts has them. For instance, Paul is a terrorist turned martyr, and Peter is a good Jewish fisherman who eats pork with a Roman Centurion. Make sure to note the ironies and peculiarities in every character as you read.
In all good stories, there are round characters and there are flat characters. Paul might be one of the most round characters in history. He is first seen approving the murder of Stephen, and last we read of him, he is waiting in Rome determined to gain audience with Nero in order to preach Christ.
Philip is a good flat character who goes where the Spirit leads him, no questions asked. By taking notice of a character’s development, you begin to see what Luke approves of, or disapproves of, what he found notable, and worth capturing.
By plot, I’m talking about all the different narrative devices that Luke used to move the story along. On a basic level, Luke’s plot has a beginning, Pentecost; a middle, the adventures of Peter and Paul; and an end, Paul’s arrival in Rome. Within the broader narrative of Acts, there are also mini-episodes with their own beginning, middle, and end. How these episodes fit together is up for debate, and in fact, you should debate it. There’s no better way to enjoy the book, than with a vigorous discussion about how Luke put these historical events together. It’s imperative that you think not just about what this story says, but how it says it.
Some devices are less obvious. For instance, one of Luke’s favorite devices is repetition. One example which mystifies readers is why Luke chose to repeat Paul’s conversion story three times. But, Luke only chose to record one of Paul’s synagogue sermons (Acts 13:14-43). Most of Paul’s life was preaching sermons in synagogues, but we only have one example. A few mere minutes of Paul’s life were spent lying on the road to Damascus, but it’s repeated in Acts three times. This decision was either an incredible mismanagement of parchment, or Acts has a greater story to tell.
One final literary device worth highlighting is what I will call “echoes.” There are few essential background facts that one has to know in order to understand the basic message of Acts. But a more experienced reader will see all throughout Acts that there are echoes of themes, characters, and ideas which Luke first developed in his gospel. One of the most important examples is the way that Peter and Paul’s ministries seem to resemble each other’s, and both of their ministries resemble Christ’s. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Paul was struck across the face, the same way Christ was, as they stood before the high priest (Luke 22; Acts 23). Among other similarities between the apostles, Peter and Paul both heal the lame and are miraculously released from prison. Even the way Luke frame’s Paul as a witness to the resurrection, just like Peter, even though Paul only subsequently came to accept it, invites the reader to consider, why are they similar, and what does the continuity with Christ’s ministry mean for us today.
Luke’s gospel is not the only book echoed in Acts. Luke was a God-fearer who clearly delighted in God’s Word before He set out to write this book. All throughout Acts there are explicit and implicit references to Old Testament wisdom and history. These references invite the reader to enter Luke’s world of thought and spirituality as he, a master in Old Testament Scripture and inspired by the Holy Spirit, applies and thinks about how the events of Acts relate to what the prophets taught in ages past. Pay attention in Acts 2 as Peter’s sermon is a particularly delightful example of the way Luke’s interpretation of the Psalms is not quite what you might have expected.
In conclusion, reading the book of Acts is like preparing a gourmet meal. The more you put into it; the more you’ll appreciate the feast. The Memoria Press study guides are designed to take beginning and intermediate level readers of Acts to the next level of comprehension. The “Facts to know” section provides key words, locations, and ideas so that you can easily understand obscure references and quickly make a mental map of the scenes of Acts. The comprehension questions guide the reader to the essential facts that one has to know in order to see where Acts is going. And the discussion questions provoke the reader to contemplate how this story could be applied, or it should spark the debate about what’s really going on in The Acts of the Apostles. This study guide is by no means a comprehensive guide to the book. No, you could dedicate your whole intellectual life to this book, and that life would be a life well lived.