Overview of the Book of Acts

Overview of the Book of Acts

Overview of the Book of Acts

Author: The author is Luke, a companion of Paul.


To guide the Church in its continuing mission by describing how the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to spread their witness on Christ's behalf to the Gentile world.

Date: A.D. 60-64

Key Truths:

  • Christ's witnesses are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ's witnesses are to go to the ends of the earth.
  • Christ's witnesses suffer persecution.
  • Christ's witnesses establish Churches that continue the mission.


Traditionally the book of Acts has been understood as having been written by Luke the physician, a companion of Paul on parts of his second and third missionary journeys and on his voyage to Rome. The early Church, from the second century to the fourth century A.D., bears testimony to Luke as the author of Acts. Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-202), Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 153-217), the Muratorian Canon (c. A.D. 170), and Eusebius (c. A.D. 325) all credit Luke as the author.

The internal evidence in Acts for this conclusion is twofold. First, the references to Theophilus in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1 connect Acts with the third gospel. Second, the "we" passages found in sections of the latter half of the book (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) indicate that the writer was Paul's traveling companion. It appears that the narrator of Acts escorted Paul from Troas in Asia Minor to Philippi on the continent of Europe, then back again from Philippi to Troas and over to Palestine. He then finally escorted him from Caesarea in Palestine to Italy and Rome.

The author was educated, as attested by the style of Luke-Acts and the high level of Greek used. The author's Greek is sometimes fully literary, resembling that of the earlier classical period (Luke 1:1-4), pointing to a person acquainted with the non-Jewish world. In addition, the author's methodical approach to writing and his research methods (Luke 1:1-4) reveal an educated, highly trained man. Colossians 4:10-14 indicates that Luke was Gentile rather than Jewish.

Colossians 4:14 indicates that Paul had the company of his "dear friend Luke, the doctor." Some scholars, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have argued that the medical language of Luke-Acts and the author's interest in diseases (Luke 4:38; 8:43-44; Acts 3:7; 12:23; 13:11; 20:7-11; 28:3, 8) point to Luke the doctor as the author. More recently, other scholars have argued that medical terms were commonly employed by a number of ancient authors and that this point cannot be used to prove that the author was a physician. Still, the interest in medical matters in Luke-Acts makes it plausible that Luke the doctor was indeed the author.

Time and Place of Writing:

Three time periods have been suggested for the writing of Acts: A.D. 105-130, A.D. 80-95 and before A.D. 70. The first two views are based in part on the theory that in Acts 5:36-37 the author of Acts (probably not Luke, according to this theory) used Josephus (Antiquities, 18.4-10; 20.97-98) for information about the revolutionaries Theudas and Judas. But the Theudas to whom Gamaliel referred (Acts 5:36) may well have been one of the many revolutionaries who arose about the time of Herod the Great's death, not the Theudas of A.D. 44 mentioned by Josephus. Also, the fact that both Luke and Josephus refer to a Judas of A.D. 6 does not show that either author depended on the other. Late date adherents argue that Luke (Acts 12:19-23) had access to and may have copied from Josephus' account (Antiquities, 19.343-350) of the death of Herod Agrippa I in A.D. 44, because both use similar words in describing the event. The two accounts, however, differ considerably. It is also argued that the theology of Acts fits that of the second-century writer Justin Martyr. But this idea works better the other way: Justin Martyr could have received his theology from Acts.

Those favoring later dates also argue that Luke 21:20, with its mention of armies, shows that the destruction of Jerusalem had already occurred when Luke and Acts were written. We note that Mark's Gospel uses the phrase "the abomination that causes desolation" (a prophecy in Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14 taken from Dan. 9:27) as an expression that the Jews would have understood. Luke, by contrast, referred to the same prophetic event but spoke of armies and therefore used a term Gentiles would have understood. In any event, the difference in terms does not prove that Jerusalem had already fallen.

The view that Luke and Acts were written prior to A.D. 70 (probably about A.D. 60-64) is the strongest:

First, chapter 28 ends with Paul in semi confinement. While he waited for his appearance before Caesar, he freely preached to all those who came to him-certainly this was before Nero blamed Christians for the Roman fire in A.D. 64.

Second, there is no mention of Paul's death, which appeared to be imminent in 2 Timothy 4 and which probably occurred in A.D. 67 or 68.

Third, near the end of Acts, Luke portrayed the Roman government as benevolent toward Christianity, an attitude that changed after A.D. 64.

Fourth, the use of primitive terms points to an early date for its composition. These terms include: (1) "disciple" (e.g., Acts 9:26) (2) "the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7), which later became "the Lord's day" (Rev 1:10) (3) "the people of Israel" (Acts 4:10, 27), which was later changed to the term "people" to describe both Jews and Gentiles (Tit. 2:14), (4) the early title "Son of Man" (Acts 7:56), (5) as well as archaic language involving geographical, political, and territorial matters, such as details about the regional boundaries between Phrygian Iconium, Lycaonian Lystra, and Derbe.

Luke collected material from his own eyewitness experiences, from Semitic sources while he was in Palestine and from other sources outside of Palestine. He possibly gained material from people such as Sopater from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy from Lystra (Acts 16:1), and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia (Acts 20:4). While in Palestine during Paul's two-year imprisonment, Luke gathered materials for his Gospel and for the first part of Acts. He probably talked to Mary the mother of Jesus and others who were "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Luke 1:2).

Original Audience:

According to Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1, Theophilus was the primary recipient of both books (see "Introduction to Luke: Original Audience"). The background of this man is not known, but he may have been Luke's patron or benefactor. Certainly he was a Gentile who received Christian instruction (Luke 1:4). As Luke's patron, Theophilus would have provided a living for Luke while the latter spent much of his time researching material and writing his two books. Compare this with Josephus, the Jewish historian (A.D. 37/38 to c. 100) who, besides indicating that the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus were his patrons (Against Apion, 1.50), also spoke of having another benefactor, a certain Epaphroditus (Life, 430; Against Apion, 1.1; 2.1; 2.296). Similar to what Luke said to Theophilus in Luke 1:3-4, Josephus (Against Apion, 2.296) said to Epaphroditus, "To you, Epaphroditus, who are a devoted lover of truth and for your sake to any who, like you, may wish to know the facts about our race, I beg to dedicate this and the preceding book."

Purpose and Distinctives:

Acts presents a true historical record of the development of the early Church in the middle of the first century A.D. Luke's descriptions of geographical and provincial details, of governmental officials and their official actions, of the actions of emperors, and of the sea voyage to Italy with its accurate use of nautical terms, all point to a careful researcher who himself was an eyewitness to many of the events recorded in Acts 16 and succeeding chapters. Luke's Greek is excellent, and it is clear that he was in tune with his Semitic sources, for many Aramaic expressions are used in the first half of Acts.

Luke's purposes for writing Acts may have been several. Luke stated that in his Gospel he had traced the life of Jesus until his ascension (Acts 1:1-2). He summarized his general theme for Acts by stating that the Lord was going to expand his work "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Acts is a road map of the progress of the Church into the entire ancient world; it presents Christianity on the march. Some have also felt that Acts presents a defense of Christianity or attempts to show that Christianity was no threat to Rome. Although Acts is called the "Acts of the Apostles," Luke primarily traced the ministries of Peter (Acts 1-12) and of Paul (Acts 13-28).

The account of the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 plays a key role in Acts. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit because, through the power and testimony of the Spirit, the Gospel was to be spread and the people of all nations were to be called to faith (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1:4, 8). Paul's role in the second half of the book continues this theme as he spread the Gospel throughout the Gentile World.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Gospels and Acts


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.