The book of Acts serves as a tremendous encouragement to all who have cast their lot with this Jesus movement. The challenges of today are not all that different from the challenges our brothers and sisters of old had to face.
Luke’s first volume to the Roman official Theophilus was all about how the world’s salvation, hoped for by generations of Israelites, had arrived in Jesus. Luke’s second volume continues the narrative, describing the many things Jesus continued to do and teach (Acts 1:1). This book especially highlights the many things that should have brought an end to the Jesus movement, were it not from God (Acts 5:38-39), not the least of which is the list of charges being brought by the Jewish leadership against the Apostle Paul (Acts 24:5-6).
Many have observed the structure of Acts to be based largely on geography, with Acts 1:8 delineating the sections: “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
So the book roughly gets divided accordingly (here is an example):
- Jerusalem – Acts 1:1-8:3
- Judea and Samaria – Acts 8:4-12:25
- Ends of the earth – Acts 13-28
- Paul’s first missionary journey – Acts 13:1-15:35
- Pauls’ second missionary journey – Acts 15:36-18:22
- Paul’s third missionary journey – Acts 18:23-21:17
- Paul’s voyage to Rome – Acts 21:18-28:31
This geographical breakdown makes a lot of sense, and can certainly be helpful for visualizing the narrative. My chief concern with it is that it doesn’t follow closely on the literary markers. To give one clear example: The end of Paul’s second “journey” (Acts 18:22) and beginning of his third (Acts 18:23) has no literary fanfare whatsoever. No closure. No sense of climax and resolution. Nothing to signal the end of one unit of thought and the beginning of another. It’s as though Luke didn’t intend a break there, or a new section to begin at Acts 18:23.
I’ve been helped by the observation numerous other commentators (John Stott, William Taylor, etc.) have made, that the chief literary markers in the book of Acts are the narrative statements summarizing the Christian movement’s growth. There are seven such statements scattered through the book (Acts 2:47, 6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, 19:20, 28:30-31), and every one is accompanied by a tangible sense of narrative resolution, giving us good reason to see them as marking Luke’s main units of thought. (Here are two posts to help you identify units of thought in biblical literature.) Acts 5:14 appears at first to be another example of a narrative summary of growth, but it clearly falls within a narrative episode and isn’t accompanied by a clear narrative resolution.
These seven markers, summaries at the end of their units, divide the book into seven sections. (Daniel Wallace does a great job highlighting the value of both ways of structuring Acts—geographical divisions and narrative summary divisions—in this analysis.)
Each of the book’s seven sections highlights a particular obstacle or state of affairs that threatens the fledgling Jesus movement. And the dramatic tension and climax of each section shows the movement overcoming the obstacle in such a way as to precipitate even further growth. This movement simply cannot be stopped.
The first section (Acts 1:1-2:47) highlights the absence of Jesus. Though he departs and ascends to heaven, he leaves them with the promises of a kingdom and his Spirit (Acts 1:3-5). They know they’ll need to refill their “twelveness” in order to live out their identity as a new kingdom, a new Israel (Acts 1:15-26). They then receive the Spirit and begin to proclaim the kingdom (Acts 2). Despite the absence of Jesus, God adds to their number daily (Acts 2:47).
The second section (Acts 3:1-6:7) highlights the pressure of pain, both internal and external. The external pain of persecution (Acts 3:1-4:31) yields to the internal pain of deceit and treachery (Acts 4:32-5:11). More external pain from persecution (Acts 5:12-42) leads into further internal pain of having to manage affairs within such a rapidly growing community (Acts 6:1-7). Despite the pain, both external and internal, the Word of God increases, and even priests obey the faith (Acts 6:7).