The Acts of the Apostles
By Charles Fremont Sitterly
1. BACKGROUND OF THE BOOK
The world was aimlessly wandering across the trackless marshes of time at the midnight of human history. Even the Jews, the one nation possessing the Torch of Truth, had overlaid it with a pall of tradition, and lost the Way. The Greeks had philosophized every phase of thought and life, and had deified every virtue and vice, until for them there was nothing new. The Romans, in addition, had deified first their Capital and then the Emperor, and in the name of both had conquered all lands, so that there was the peace of exhaustion over the whole world.
Thus man’s extremity becomes the divine opportunity, and Christ, the Way for the Jews, the Wisdom for the Greeks, and the Power for the Romans, appears as Redeemer, Teacher, and King, and brings Life and Immortality to Light. The Way is so plain, the Light is so bright, and the Life so abundant that once realized He can never be lost again, and the one supreme business of men is henceforth to witness to and proclaim Him unto the ends of the earth. The author of Acts had experienced this transforming truth and given himself and his talents to this business. His dear friend and patron, Theophilus, had shared his joy, and to him Luke dedicates both his books of treasured miscellany gathered through many years of loving research and travels.
Both books are built about the same two dominant ideas, which spring out of the above facts. First, Jesus the Nazarene is the Anointed Son of God Most High. He is endowed with all power in His own right and as setting forth the undivided mind of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Having ended the period of His earthly humiliation and suffering, making plain thereby the way of salvation for sinful men, He has ascended to the highest heaven and does administer and through the Holy Spirit will administer mercy, righteousness, and truth to the end of the ages. Second, this Christ, though fulfilling to the letter every promise made of Messiah, is not alone the Saviour of the Jews, be they Hebrew-born or heathen proselytes, but He is the only and abundant hope of universal redemption without let or limitation of sex, race, land, epoch, or social status.
2. THE AUTHOR AND HIS SOURCES
From every standpoint the opinion is valid that Luke, the beloved physician and friend of Paul (Col. iv, 14), was the writer of Acts. The fact that the author makes no use of the Pauline Epistles, and yet without design coincides with them in countless points, shows that he was almost always a member of Paul’s company. The remarkable accuracy as well as peculiarity of the book in matters pertaining to the government of various Roman provinces, including the islands, and in those of topography and racial characteristics, again go well with Lukan authorship. Luke was not a Jew (Col. iv, 11) but probably a Greek, and belonged to the second generation, not knowing Jesus according to the flesh (Luke i, 2). Quite possibly he was converted under the preaching of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch, as his friend Theophilus appears, in early tradition, to belong there, and Luke’s book takes up the narrative from the transfer of interest to Antioch with fuller detail and indications not infrequent of the testimony of an eyewitness. All of the “we” passages, including that of xiv, 22, fall in this half of the book. We therefore have in Paul and Luke himself the source of the larger part of Acts. For the first twelve chapters Peter, Philip, Barnabas, Mark, and James the Lord’s brother are first-class and all-sufficient sources, and Luke had abundant opportunity for consulting these as well as others of the Judean circle.
3. THE PURPOSE OF THE AUTHOR
Having traced from the beginning the life of his Lord until His Ascension in the first volume, it is clear that Luke’s purpose in the book before us is to continue the narrative unbroken, showing how the Saviour, though ascended, continued active and dominant in guiding, inspiring, and protecting His followers in their work of spreading the news of the Gospel as far as their influence or power could be felt. The program is furnished by the Commander as He withdraws from sight. The power promised for its execution is at once fully given from on high. His spiritual presence is clearly manifest at every critical turn; courage, wisdom, diplomatic and dialectic adroitness, such as daunts Sanhedrins, Councils, and every form of organized persecution, mark the men of hitherto ordinary spirit and address, while everywhere their enemies take knowledge that they have learned of Jesus, and apparently propose to bring “this man’s blood” afresh upon that generation. The leaders themselves attribute their power and boldness in every case to the mind and touch of the Master. Miracle is as plentiful and employed for precisely the same ends here as in the Gospels, and to ignore or deny it is to do violence both to the spirit and letter of every page. The living, reigning Christ is the sole and sufficient key to the Acts and actors here brought forward, though but very few of either are mentioned out of a vast background of both which soon filled Egypt and all North Africa, Parthia and all the Fast, as fully as the provinces of Asia Minor, Greece, and all the West. The book at best is but a sketch, boldly and artistically drawn, but still a sketch, tracing in barest outline some of the experiences, teachings, and travels of two of the greatest men of that or, indeed, of any age. Peter and Paul are the foci about which everything turns. Other of the artist’s favorites, like Barnabas, Stephen, and Philip, are but understudies to these, and the multitudes behind them but lay figures. Finally, Peter, having played his part, gives way to the master Strategist, Advocate, and Organizer of early Christianity.
4. LITERARY STYLE AND CHARACTERISTICS OF THE BOOK
The author’s style is identical with that of the writer of the Third Gospel, more than fifty words being common to these two books not elsewhere used in the New Testament. Moreover, these literary characteristics are as true of the “we” passages as of the other portions of the book.
The introduction and dedication are the same, and where the writer speaks for himself he writes like a native Greek, and in the best idiom of the New Testament. The Acts opens with the Ascension, an account of which is elsewhere given only at the end of Luke’s Gospel. The author introduces documentary data in the same way, with long reports of speeches, hymns, prayers, and official decrees. He has the same deep interest in women, and in matters concerning Samaria, the same genuine compassion for the poor, and the same peculiar accuracy in the use of medical language, common to both books. This group of data is sufficient in itself to prove the point, as Hobart and Harnack abundantly show. Of the same sort is the marked appeal to the author of both books of spiritual phenomena, both angelic and demoniacal. The personality and presence of the Holy Spirit and of the Angel of the Lord, the prominence of trance and of heavenly vision, and the use of the word “power” absolutely and as an attribute, are also of unique significance. The frequent and full references to the hold of magic, ventriloquism, charms, and various forms of necromancy, and in particular the burning of such paraphernalia and books in the market place of Ephesus, the well-known world center of such interests in the first century, also go well with the personality and interest of Luke as with that of no other writer of the New Testament canon.
5. CHRONOLOGICAL FEATURES
a. THE TIME OF THE ACTION, WITH CHRONOLOGICAL OUTLINE OF THE ACTS
As stated in the Preface, the time covered in the book lies between A. D. 30 and 63. In one brief generation the campaign of the Empire in the name of its new Sovereign was carried out in full, and we have no doubt that in addition to the record here given five years more were enough for Peter to carry it to Parthia on the Fast as Paul did to Spain on the West.
In view of the abundant data as to the time element in the Acts, and remembering the difference in methods of its measurement as between Hebrew and Roman, we have constructed the following schedule of approximate dates:
b. THE TIME OF WRITING THE BOOK
It seems better to date the Acts soon after the last event recorded. The air of verisimilitude and freshness so characteristic of it is thus preserved and the difficulty of Luke’s utter silence, both here and in his Gospel, concerning the momentous doings which fell at and after the close of Nero’s reign, both in Rome and in Jerusalem, is escaped. If either Paul had died or Jerusalem fallen before the author sent forth his book, it seems impossible that either event should have escaped conscious or unconscious implication. On the one hand, Paul is always presented as advancing from one scene of triumph to another, while on the other hand, the vigor of the mother church and the opposition of the Judaizers in Jerusalem, each centering in the Temple courts, upper and lower, never appears in the least abated. Presuming, as we do, that both the Third Gospel and Acts were written, as they pretend to be, for the further enlightenment of Theophilus as to matters he knew in part, the natural view is the rational one, namely, that they were not written widely apart nor either of them later than the decade A. D. 60-70.
6. SPECIAL FEATURES OF THE BOOK
a. PASSAGES REFERRING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
The most marked and perhaps important group of phenomena in the Acts is connected with the personality and operations of the Holy Spirit; indeed, the book has sometimes most aptly been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
b. QUOTATIONS IN THE ACTS FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT
In keeping with the method of the Master, all the great teachers of the New Way make much use of the Old Testament. Eleven different books are referred to in Acts, the Pentateuch, Psalms, and Isaiah having most prominent place. Paul’s use of Aratus or Cleanthes in Athens (chapter xvii, 28) is, of course, noteworthy, as is also his reference to an otherwise unknown saying of Jesus (chapter xx, 35). Note also that Stephen quotes from seven books in his single address, aggregating forty separate references.
c. THE CHIEF ADDRESSES IN THE ACTS
The Acts is fuller of varied and formal sermons, public speeches, apologies, and appeals than any other New Testament book. The facilities for record and preservation in the first century, as now known, better explain their internal peculiarities than the usual theory of their total construction by Luke. The Scripture-filled sermons by Peter, the unanswerable defense by Stephen, the longest discourse of all, and the matchless addresses by Paul are alone enough to make the Acts immortal.
d. JOURNEYS REFERRED TO IN THE ACTS
Another unique feature of the book is its narrative of travels. These again show a cosmopolitan interest and breadth truly remarkable. Despite all the ingenuity of the moderns, not a single error has been established as against Luke’s extraordinary knowledge of life in every corner of the empire.