Luke and Acts are two volumes of a single work. Beginning with the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah, they trace the history of his followers down to the authorʼs own day, some time after the middle of the first century AD.
Luke wrote this history to serve several important purposes. The first was to assure followers of Jesus that what theyʼd been taught about him was trustworthy. Itʼs likely that Theophilus, the man who sponsored and helped circulate this work, was a Roman official, since Luke addresses him in his opening dedication as most excellent Theophilus, using the title generally reserved for such officials. Luke speaks of him as someone whoʼs been instructed in the Christian faith and says he wants him to know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke no doubt wishes the same for the many people that Theophilus will share the work with.
Luke–Acts also shows that the true God is faithful and can be trusted completely. It does this by documenting how God kept a promise made to the people of Israel by sending them Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, or King. It then shows how God invited non-Jews (known as Gentiles) to follow Jesus as well. Lukeʼs history thus demonstrates that the extension of Godʼs blessings to people such as Theophilus and his friends represents not a fickle change in plans, but the masterful fulfillment of a plan God has been pursuing over the ages. In the Bibleʼs story, it has been Israelʼs role all along to bring Godʼs light to the rest of the world. The earliest Jesus-followers take up this calling by announcing Jesusʼ victory over sin and death to all the nations. This theme runs all the way through both volumes, with Paul and Barnabas telling one Jewish audience:
The Lord has commanded us:
“I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
So Luke–Acts tells the story of how God invited first the people of Israel, then the people of all nations, to follow Jesus. The form of Lukeʼs history reflects this message. In the first volume, the movement is towards Jerusalem, the center of Jewish national life. In the second volume, the movement is away from Jerusalem to other nations, closing with Paul proclaiming the kingdom of God in Rome, the capital of the empire.
Compared with other national histories of the time, which often contained twenty or more volumes, Lukeʼs is short. Each of its two volumes covers about 30 years. Like other historians of his day, Luke provides an outline of important events and stocks it with details from the sources available to him: letters, speeches, songs, travel accounts, trial transcripts and biographical anecdotes. (Luke had access to these as a co-worker and traveling companion of the apostle Paul.)
The first volume, the book of Luke, begins with a preliminary section that introduces the main themes of the whole work by telling the story of Jesusʼ early life. This book then has three main sections:
: The first one describes Jesusʼ ministry in Galilee, the northern area of the land of Israel (pp. 1490–1501).
: The second section presents a long journey to Jerusalem, during which Jesus teaches and answers questions about what it means to follow him (pp. 1501–1517).
: The third describes how Jesus gave his life in Jerusalem and then rose again to be the Ruler and the Savior of the world (pp. 1517–1526).
The second volume, the book of Acts, has six parts. Each one describes a successive phase in the expansion of the community of Jesusʼ followers outward from Jerusalem. The divisions between them are marked by variations on the phrase, The word of God continued to spread and flourish.
: In the first phase, the community is established in Jerusalem and becomes Greek-speaking, enabling it to spread its message throughout the empire (pp. 1527–1534).
: In the second phase, the community expands into the rest of Palestine (pp. 1534–1540).
: In the third phase, Gentiles are included in the community along with Jews (pp. 1540–1544).
: In the fourth part, the community intentionally sends messengers westward into the populous Roman province of Asia (pp. 1544–1549).
: In the fifth phase, these messengers enter Europe (pp. 1549–1554).
: In the final phase, the community reaches all the way to the capital of Rome and into the highest levels of society. Godʼs invitation is thus extended to all nations (pp. 1554–1567).
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