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Invitation to Acts

The Book of Acts provides a crucial window into the life of the early church. Without it we wouldn’t know how we got from the Jesus of the Gospels to the churches of the letters, we wouldn’t know much about the Paul who wrote so much of the New Testament, and we wouldn’t know how God’s saving purposes spread from being centered in Israel and Jerusalem to encompass the world.

Who Wrote Acts?

The earliest manuscript of Luke’s Gospel attributes the authorship of that Gospel to “Luke.”1 Since the prologue of Acts looks back to an earlier work also addressed to a certain Theophilus, the two works have been understood to be by the same author. The unanimous view of the early church was that this Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Within Acts itself, the “we” passages (where the author uses the first-person plural; 16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16) imply that the author of these two works joins the journeys of Paul at these points. This matches references to the Luke who was with Paul in Rome (Col 4:14; Phlm 24; 2Tim 4:11). The touching final words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:11 point to a precious friendship between him and Luke, formed over many years of travelling and gospel partnership.

Whom Did Luke Write Acts For?

Although Theophilus is named in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1 as the individual to whom Luke is writing, he is likely representative of a wider audience (perhaps as a financial supporter of Luke’s work). Luke 1:1–4 indicates that Luke is writing for a Christian audience who knew of and held to the teaching of the apostles, just as Luke did (cf. the plural “us”). If we probe further into the evidence from the narrative of Acts, this audience must have known the Greek translation of the Old Testament (commonly called the Septuagint), since it is quoted so much, and they must have had an interest in the inclusion of the Gentiles and the relationship between their inclusion and the Scriptures of Israel, since that is such a prominent feature of the book.

Why Did Luke Write Acts?

Since the introduction to Acts picks up on the introduction to Luke’s Gospel, we may take the longer preface of Luke’s Gospel as an introduction to both volumes so that Acts is best understood as a continuation of Luke’s aim to provide “certainty” for his Christian readers concerning the things they had been taught (Luke 1:4).2 In Acts, Luke provides assurance for believers, probably because they face persecution, concerning God’s saving rule, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, through the continuing reign of the Lord Jesus the Messiah, as he empowers his people by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of his saving death and resurrection, that Jew and Gentile alike may receive forgiveness of sins through faith in him alone (see comments on 1:1, 6–8; 28:30–31).

Key Verse

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

— Acts 1:8 ESV


I. The Reign of Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1–2:47)

A. Understanding the Kingdom (1:1–11)

B. The Lord Re-Establishes the Full Number of Apostles (1:12–26)

C. The Lord Reigns and Has Sent the Promised Holy Spirit (2:1–47)

II. The Reign of Christ the Lord over the Temple System (3:1–8:3)

A. The All-Sufficiency of Jesus Contrasted with the Temple (3:1–26)

B. Jesus’s Authority Contrasted with the Temple Authorities (4:1–22)

C. The True People of God (4:23–5:11)

D. The Apostles’ Teaching about Jesus Contrasted with the Temple Authorities (5:12–42)

E. The Leadership of the Apostles Averts Another Internal Threat (6:1–7)

F. Culmination of Rising Opposition and Clarification of Jesus’s Fulfilment of the Temple (6:8–8:3)

III. The Reign of Christ the Lord over Outcasts and Enemies (Acts 8:4–9:31)

A. The Inclusion of Outcasts: (a) Samaritans (8:4–25)

B. The Inclusion of Outcasts: (b) a Eunuch (8:26–40)

C. The Inclusion of Saul the Persecutor (9:1–19)

i. Saul the Persecutor Has Become Saul the Proclaimer (9:19–22)

ii. Saul the Persecutor Has Become Saul the Persecuted (9:23–31)

IV. The Reign of Christ the Lord over All Nations (Acts 9:32–12:25)

A. Peter, an Authentic Messenger of Christ (9:32–43)

B. The Divine Purpose to Bring the Gospel to Cornelius and His Gentile Household (10:1–48)

C. Jewish Believers in Judea Are Convinced That God Granted the Gentiles Repentance (11:1–18)

D. The Establishment and Strengthening of a Church with Gentiles in (Syrian) Antioch (11:19–30)

E. The Reign of “King” Herod (Agrippa I) Comes to an End (12:1–25)

V. The Reign of Christ the Lord Proclaimed to the Nations: Part 1 (Acts 13:1–16:5)

A. Commission in Antioch (13:1–3)

B. Ministry in Cyprus (13:4–12)

C. Ministry in Pisidian Antioch (13:13–52)

D. Ministry in Iconium (14:1–7)

E. Ministry in Lystra (14:8–20)

F. Nurturing the Churches (14:21–28)

G. Clarification in Jerusalem: Salvation by Grace through Repentance and Faith (15:1–16:5)

VI. The Reign of Christ the Lord Proclaimed to the Nations: Part 2 (Acts 16:6–21:36)

A. The Macedonian Ministry: One People under One Lord (16:6–17:15)

i. Commission in Troas (16:6–10)

ii. Ministry in Philippi (16:11–40)

iii. Ministry in Thessalonica and Berea (17:1–9, 10–15)

B. The Achaean Ministry: The Sovereign Lord and Savior (17:16–18:17)

i. Ministry in Athens (17:16–34)

ii. Ministry in Corinth (18:1–17)

C. The Ephesian Ministry: The True Word of the Lord vs the “gods” (18:18–19:41)

i. Travels to and from Ephesus (18:18–23)

ii. Apollos and “More Accurate” Instruction about Baptism (18:24–28)

iii. The Twelve Disciples of John and Faith in Jesus (19:1–7)

iv. Paul’s Proclamation of the Word vs the Sons of Sceva Who Misuse the Name of Jesus (19:8–22)

v. Demetrius, the Silversmiths, and a Confused Crowd of Idol Worshippers (19:23–41)

D. Nurturing the Churches (20:1–21:14)

i. Words of Encouragement in Ephesus, Macedonia, Greece, and Troas (20:1–12)

ii. Encouragement to the Ephesian Elders (20:13–38)

iii. Transition to Jerusalem and Warnings of Arrest and Suffering Ahead (21:1–14)

E. Clarification in Jerusalem (21:15–36)

i. Warm Welcome and Attempted Sensitivity in Jerusalem (21:15–26)

ii. Arrest and Violence in the Temple in Jerusalem (21:27–36)

VII. The Reign of Christ the Lord Vindicated before the Rulers (Acts 21:37–28:31)

A. Paul’s Conversion Account before the Crowd in Jerusalem (21:37–22:29)

B. Paul’s Defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (22:30–23:11)

C. Journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea (23:12–35)

D. Trial before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24:1–27)

E. Trial before Festus in Caesarea (Acts 25:1–27)

F. Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26:1–32)

G. Journey from Caesarea to Rome (Acts 27:1–28:16)

H. Proclamation to the Jewish Leaders in Rome (Acts 28:17–31)

The Reign of Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit (1:1–2:47)

The opening two chapters of Acts set the stage for the rest of the book. The focus here is on the ascension and the continuing reign of the Lord Jesus as seen in Jesus’s outline of how the promised saving plan of God will unfold (1:6–8), his appointment of the replacement apostle (1:21–26), his sending of the Holy Spirit (2:1–41), and the portrait of his growing and transformed people (2:41–47).

Understanding the Kingdom (1:1–11)

1:1–2 The first verse draws our attention to the preceding work of Luke and anticipates what this book will be about. In doing so, Luke helps us to see that he is writing a two-volume project. With the reference to his “first book” and the name “Theophilus,” readers are directed to the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel. This “first book” was all about Jesus, particularly what he did and taught. The word “began” that Luke uses to describe his first volume alerts readers to the focus of this second volume—Jesus’s continuing work. Thus, Luke does not shift topics in volume two, and this is confirmed with the following emphasis on Jesus’s resurrection (1:3), the outline of how he will carry out the Father’s saving purposes through the Spirit, and the anticipation of the Spirit that the Lord Jesus himself will send (1:4–8). Luke reminds readers of this continuing reign at various points throughout the narrative (e.g., 2:47; 9:5–6, 15–16; 11:21; 16:14; 18:9–11; 23:11; 26:17, 23).

The ascension is the hinge of Luke’s two volumes. The ascension marks the conclusion of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the beginning of his heavenly ministry, and it took place after Jesus instructed the apostles, his chosen authorized representatives, on what was to come. The references to “the day he was taken up” (cf. 1:22) and “[the apostles] he had chosen” (cf. 1:24) “frame” this chapter (see comments on 1:21–26).

1:3 Luke concludes this opening summary with reference to two specific actions of the Lord Jesus “after his suffering.” First, Luke emphasizes the reality of Jesus’s resurrection: they saw him “alive,” with “many proofs,” and over an extended period of “forty days.” Since Jesus’s suffering was a major focus of his first volume, the reality of Jesus’s resurrection will be emphasized in this second volume, in keeping with Luke’s emphasis in Acts on Jesus’s continuing reign.

Second, Luke emphasizes Jesus’s teaching on one particular topic over this period of forty days—the “kingdom of God.” This is the first of two references to the kingdom in these opening verses (also 1:6). These two references and the two references in the conclusion (28:23, 31) “frame” the Book of Acts. Furthermore, these four references to the kingdom are not mere passing inconsequential mentions. In this verse, it is the topic of Jesus’s forty days of instruction, and in 1:6 it is the basis for the apostle’s question and Jesus’s answer about how this book, and salvation-history, will unfold. The “kingdom of God” in these contexts refers to God’s saving rule, a saving rule that was promised in the Old Testament, was inaugurated in Jesus’s earthly ministry (Mark 1:15; Luke 11:20; 17:20–21), must be received or entered into by trust in Jesus (Luke 18:16–17), and will be realized in its fullness in the new creation (Luke 18:29–30; Acts 14:22). With Jesus’s ascension, however, the question arises: What does God’s saving rule look like now? Furthermore, how does one enter the kingdom now that Jesus has ascended? What do God’s people look like now in this new era, and how do they relate to the institutions of the old era? These “framing” references to the kingdom indicate that these are some of the questions Luke answers in this second volume (see comments on 28:30–31).

1:4–5 Following the general references to Jesus’s extended time with the apostles and his teaching on the kingdom, Luke focuses on one specific aspect of that teaching—the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, said Jesus, was to come at a specific time, so they must wait in Jerusalem for that time to arrive. The Spirit is the promise of the Father that was announced in the Old Testament (e.g., Joel 2:28; Isa 32:15) and also announced to them by Jesus himself (Luke 24:49). As John the Baptist declared in Luke 3:16, Jesus would be the one to immerse God’s people in the promised Spirit.

1:6–8 As Luke often does, he moves from a general summary to a specific example. Having provided a general summary of Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom and the arrival of the Spirit, Luke describes a specific occasion during this time in which the apostles ask about this kingdom. Having heard that the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit is only a matter of days away, they understandably want to know if this is also the time that God’s people will be restored in keeping with other scriptural promises. Is this the time that Jesus will “restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’s answer addresses both the apostles’ question about Israel and the timing of the Father’s purposes. Although it is not for them to know the exact timing and sequence of the Father’s purposes, Israel is indeed going to experience this scriptural hope. Jesus’s answer draws from the prophetic hope of Isaiah: the Holy Spirit will come upon you (Isa 32:15; 44:5), you will be my witnesses (Isa 43:10–12), and this will come to both Israel—Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Ezek 23:4; 37:15–28; Mic 1:1, 5; 4:2)—and the Gentiles (Isa 49:5–6; cf. 48:20; 62:11; Acts 13:47). Thus, Jesus’s answer neither rebukes the apostles for their question, nor redirects them to some other topic without reference to their question about Israel. The Father’s saving plans are indeed on track, just as he promised. They are being accomplished by the risen Lord Jesus, through his people, who will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Jesus.

1:9–11 These verses emphasize the present location of the risen Lord Jesus in “heaven” (mentioned four times in these verses, although “heaven” means “sky” in the first two instances) and the certainty of his return. The ascension is a visible demonstration for the apostles marking the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, and his transition to his heavenly ministry as he reigns at the right hand of the Father in anticipation of the consummation of the kingdom at his return (cf. 2:2, 5, 33–34; 3:21). Furthermore, the visibility of his ascension points to the visibility of his return. The reference to the cloud draws attention to the divine presence and authority of Jesus as the exalted Son of Man (Luke 21:27; cf. Exod 16:10; 34:5; Dan 7:13–14). The apostles can be reassured that Jesus’s departure does not mean his absence from them. He will continue to reign and will complete the Father’s plan.

The Lord Re-Establishes the Full Number of Apostles (1:12–26)

1:12–14 In this interim period before the pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit, Luke recounts what the disciples were doing. First, the apostles obey Jesus in returning to stay in Jerusalem as Jesus had said to do. During this time of waiting, the disciples devote themselves to prayer in unity, displaying their common and continuing dependence on the Lord in prayer (cf. 1:24). Second, Luke lists the names of the apostles, with one notable absence—Judas. Responding to the actions and absence of Judas is the focus of the rest of the chapter.

1:15–19 Why does Luke pause to spend so much time on this one incident—replacing Judas—when he could go straight to the pouring out of the Spirit and the spread of the gospel? The reason for this is due to his emphasis so far on the fulfilment of promises as a means of providing assurance to readers like Theophilus concerning the outworking of God’s saving plan. How can readers be assured of the outworking of God’s purposes when one of the twelve that Jesus chose betrayed him? Furthermore, Jesus said that the twelve would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30). How can Jesus’s word be fulfilled now that there are only eleven? Peter’s words to the 120 disciples speak to these questions. Almost every phrase of 1:16 emphasizes God’s sovereignty: the Scripture “had” to be “fulfilled.” This Scripture was the speech of “the Holy Spirit” and it was spoken “beforehand” by David, “concerning Judas.” The graphic description of Judas’s death in 1:18 emphasizes the corresponding earthly judgment that came to Judas. Thus, 1:16–18 unpacks Jesus’s words in Luke 22:22 regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. When this passage is read alongside Matthew 27:3–8, it seems as though Judas’s payment led to a purchase of the field by the chief priests, and his gruesome death seems to have come through hanging, with his body “falling headlong,” meaning it burst open (probably from decomposition) and his insides “gushed out.”

1:20 Peter then cites passages from two psalms to show that Jesus’s betrayal was in accordance with Scripture and that his replacement must also be chosen in accordance with Scripture. In citing Psalm 69:25 and 109:8, Peter reads Scripture in line with the broader David-typology that is evident throughout Luke’s Gospel. That is, since Jesus is great David’s greater son, and since the patterns seen in David’s life culminate in Jesus, these two psalms that speak of the betrayal of David likewise point to an ultimate betrayal that is “fulfilled” in the betrayal of Jesus.

1:21–26 The uniqueness of this role among the apostles of Jesus is demonstrated in the qualifications for the replacement. He must have been among them throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry, seen the risen Lord Jesus, and chosen by the Lord Jesus like the other eleven. The act of casting lots alludes to Proverbs 16:33 and adds to the emphasis on God’s sovereignty throughout this unique account. The phrases “the day he was taken up” and “which one of these two you have chosen” reappear from 1:2 (“framing” the chapter) and point to the Lord Jesus as the one doing the choosing. Furthermore, in light of the use of the title “Lord” in this immediate context to refer to the Lord Jesus (1:21; cf. 1:6), the “Lord” to whom they pray is the risen Lord Jesus. On the one hand, these verses highlight the important, unique foundational role that the apostles will have as authentic eyewitnesses of the risen Lord and as the leaders of the renewed people of God (cf. 2:42). On the other hand, these verses show the continuing role of the ascended Lord Jesus, ruling over his people, choosing his replacement apostle, and answering their prayers.

The Lord Reigns and Has Sent the Promised Holy Spirit (2:1–47)

2:1–13 Whereas the previous chapter highlighted “the day he (Jesus) was taken up from us” (1:2, 22) “into heaven” (1:11), this chapter focuses on “the day” of Pentecost, beginning with a sound that seems to come “from heaven” (cf. also “under heaven,” 2:5), indicating already that the risen Lord Jesus is behind these events. The time for the coming of the Holy Spirit has arrived just as Jesus promised. Pentecost was fifty days after Passover and refers to the feast of weeks, or day of firstfruits, when God’s people celebrated God’s deliverance and provision in anticipation of the full harvest (cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–12; Exod 34:22; Num 28:26). The description of this event resembles the theophanies of the Old Testament (and later Jewish descriptions of the giving of the Law at Sinai), emphasizing the presence of God that has come to indwell and empower his people.

Following Jesus’s response to the apostles’ question about Israel in 1:6–8, Luke emphasizes the comprehensive gathering of “all Israel” (cf. 2:36) to receive this promise of the Spirit. Since this was one of the pilgrim festivals, the population of Jerusalem may have swelled to hundreds of thousands. Since Jews have come “from every nation under heaven” (2:5), this event highlights the gathering of all Israel and anticipates the spread of the gospel to the nations. With Jerusalem as the center, Luke describes the people as coming from the east, west, north, and south, as well as from distant islands and lands. Luke reiterates that these were both “Jews and proselytes” (2:11), emphasizing the totality of Israel.

The miracle that signals this momentous day in salvation-history—the long-awaited arrival of the promised Holy Spirit—is that of speaking in other human, but unlearned, languages—“tongues” (2:4, 11), or their “own native language” (2:6, 8). That these disciples were all Galileans (2:7), yet speaking “the mighty works of God” in the hearers’ “own tongues” (2:11), leaves the crowd “amazed and astonished” (2:7, 12). The question “What does this mean?” (2:12) is answered in the following address from Peter about the fulfilment of God’s saving plan in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who has inaugurated the new covenant and poured out the Holy Spirit.

2:14–21 Peter’s answer to the perplexity of the people draws their attention to the fulfilment of prophecy. His address to the people of “Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (2:14) reminds readers of Luke’s comprehensive description in 2:5 and Jesus’s words in 1:8. Peter will conclude his address with an exhortation to “all the house of Israel” (2:36). So, in the context of Acts 1:6–8, readers are meant to see in these events the outworking of Jesus’s promise in response to the apostles’ question about Israel.

The focal point of the first part of Peter’s address is a quotation from “the prophet Joel” (2:16). With an opening interpretive adaptation from Joel 2:28, Peter first affirms that the arrival of the Holy Spirit signals the arrival of the promised “last days” (2:17; see Isa 2:2). The prophetic hope for God’s saving purposes for his people is being fulfilled. The quotation from Joel 2:28–32 highlights three features of this momentous shift in salvation-history. First, “all” of God’s people will now have the Spirit (2:17–18). This is then emphasized with reference to “your sons and your daughters,” “your young men . . . and your old men,” and God’s “male servants and female servants.” This is the new covenant hope for a shift from mediators such as prophets, priests, and kings, to a time when “all” of God’s people will know the Lord (Jer 31:34).

Second, this reception of the Spirit means that all of God’s people “will prophesy” (repeated with an extra line by Peter in 2:18b). Since all of God’s people will do this, the word “prophesy” in this context refers more broadly to “speaking for God” (see Num 11:29). The terminology of seeing visions and dreaming dreams poetically pictures this prophetic role. This is in keeping with Jesus’s words that even though John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets because he pointed to Jesus, yet all those in the kingdom are greater than John (Luke 7:26–28). The newest believer in Jesus this side of the cross and resurrection is able by the Spirit to point people to the fulfilment of God’s long-awaited saving plans in the crucified and risen Jesus with even greater clarity than John the Baptist.

Third, the language of “blood, and fire, and . . . smoke” together with turning the “moon to blood” is symbolic language that emphasizes this is a dramatic intervention of God in history. The arrival of “the last days” and the fulfilment of God’s saving promises are the outworking of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension (which Peter will elaborate on in 2:22–36). This means that judgment is on the horizon. The assurance that the arrival of Jesus brings, however, is that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:21). Who the Lord is, and what his relationship is to the momentous last-days-events of Pentecost, will be the focus of the rest of Peter’s sermon.

2:22–24 Peter addresses Israel (cf. 1:6–8) with the declaration that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were the outworking of God’s purposes. Jesus’s “mighty works and wonders and signs” (2:22) were God’s means of showing that Jesus was carrying out his saving will. They confirm the validity of Jesus’s claim to be the Savior. Likewise, Jesus’s death and resurrection were the outworking of God’s plan. The wickedness of contributing to Jesus’s crucifixion is affirmed, implying accountability for all those involved in these actions. Yet at the same time, these wicked events were the outworking of God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” (2:23). The resurrection was the continuation of God’s purposes through Jesus, demonstrating the completion of Jesus’s work on the cross and vindicating Jesus’s claims.

2:25–31 Peter supports his claim that God’s saving purposes were worked out through the death and resurrection of Jesus with David’s words of praise in Psalm 16:8–11. In this psalm, David expresses his confidence that the Lord’s presence will always be with him, even after death. In fact, David knows that he will not be “abandoned” or left alone in death; his body will “not see corruption.”

Peter argues that this clearly does not refer to David himself, since he did die, and his grave is there for all to see! Since David knew the promise of the Davidic covenant (alluding to Ps 132:11) for an everlasting Davidic rule (2Sam 7:13), Peter says that David was ultimately speaking about the one who would fulfil these assurances in an ultimate eternal and literal way. This extraordinary language points beyond David. Jesus’s physical resurrection shows the ultimate meaning of David’s hope.

2:32–36 So far Peter has argued that Jesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection were the outworking of God’s saving plan, as especially seen in Jesus’s resurrection in accordance with David’s hope. Peter then shows that Jesus’s resurrection and ascension demonstrate his continuing rule. Since (“therefore”) God raised Jesus from the dead, and since the risen Jesus has been seen alive, this established historical fact as well as his visible ascension show that he is the promised ruling Lord. This means that he is the one by whom God accomplishes his long-hoped-for promises, in particular, the promise of the Holy Spirit who was at the heart of the prophetic hope for the restoration and transformation of God’s people. In another contrast with David (“David did not ascend,” 2:34), Peter highlights again David’s own words that point to the coming of a ruling Lord. Like Jesus himself (Luke 20:42–44), Peter uses Psalm 110 to show that the Old Testament pointed forward to one to come who would be greater than great David. This coming one would be called “Lord” and will rule at God’s “right hand,” a reference to God’s powerful rule that delivers his people (cf. Luke 22:69; Exod 15:6; Pss 18:35; 44:3; 98:1).

In 2:36 Peter concludes his speech (“therefore”). Having referred to Israel in 2:14 and 2:22, this reference to “all the house of Israel” in the context of Acts 1–2 also recalls Luke’s comprehensive description of the crowd in 2:5 and Jesus’s promise in response to the apostles’ question about Israel in 1:6–8. In light of the resurrection (2:24–31) and the subsequent pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit (2:32–35), Peter concludes that in God’s saving plan Jesus has entered a new phase of his ministry as the ruling, Spirit-giving Lord. The last-days promise of the Spirit has come because Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension show that he is the one who ultimately fulfils the promise of the Davidic covenant for never-ending rule and the administering of God’s saving plan.

2:37–41 In his conclusion Peter noted that the one who is “Lord and Christ” is the one his Jerusalem audience had crucified (2:36). The reality of the judgment that they face for participating in such a wicked action is pressed upon them by the Holy Spirit’s conviction (“they were cut to the heart,” 2:37). What then can they do? Peter replies like the prophets of Israel—they must repent! That is, as individuals (“every one of you,” 2:38) they must turn from their rebellion against God’s saving rule and turn to Jesus. Although faith isn’t mentioned here, it is the other side of the coin, such that in conversion, repentance and faith describe both a turning from sin and idolatry and a turning in trust toward the Lord, depending upon him for forgiveness of sins. They must also display this inward reality of repentance and trust in an outward act of baptism (see 10:47). Those who turn to the Lord in dependent trust receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s empowering presence to help them reflect the character of the Lord Jesus and to empower them to point others to him. This promise (see 1:4; 2:33) is not only for the present Jewish audience who respond and repent upon hearing Christ proclaimed by Peter (“for you,” 2:39); it is also a promise for all those who respond and repent in future generations (“your children”; cf. 13:33) and Gentiles who are “far off” (see 1:8; 22:21). On the one hand, those who “call upon the name of the Lord” (2:21; Joel 2:32) do so because they are called by “the Lord our God . . . to himself” (2:39). On the other hand, those who respond in this way and get baptized are those who “received his (Peter’s) word” (2:42).

2:42–47 Following his specific description of those who responded on “that day” (2:41), Luke now provides a more general description of what characterized this new covenant people of God. They are united in their dependence upon the Lord Jesus. This is particularly seen in their common devotion to the teaching of Jesus’s authorized representatives and witnesses, the apostles. The apostles’ teaching, as seen in this immediate context, is teaching about the Lord Jesus and how the Scriptures point to him. Their “fellowship” in this context is a united commitment to caring for the needy among them with a generosity characteristic of the Lord Jesus. Likewise, their unity is expressed in sharing meals together in their houses and their common devotion to prayer (cf. 1:14, 24; 2:21). The role of the apostles as the leaders of the new covenant community is also highlighted in the attestation to their message in “wonders and signs” (see 2:22; 4:33; 5:12). A specific example of this is described in 3:1–10. The temple activity of the believers isn’t specified here, but elsewhere in these chapters we read of Peter (3:11–26), Peter and John (4:1–3), and the apostles as a whole (5:20–21, 25) proclaiming Jesus in the temple complex. Similarly, the wording of 2:46 is repeated in 5:42 with reference to their proclamation of Jesus in the temple. Thus, the early believers proclaimed the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and institutions in the risen Lord Jesus in the temple complex itself. Indeed, his continuing reign is noted in the final verse of this chapter—he continually (“day by day,” 2:47) saves people and adds them to this new community.

The Reign of Christ the Lord over the Temple System (3:1–8:3)

This section focuses on the sufficiency of Jesus, who fulfils the role of the temple and rules over his people through his apostles, in contrast to the temple leadership.

The All-Sufficiency of Jesus Contrasted with the Temple (3:1–26)

3:1–10 Having just described Peter’s proclamation of the reign of the risen Lord Jesus and the inauguration of the last days, followed by a summary of the activity of the transformed new community of those who belong to the Lord Jesus, Luke zeroes in on one particular incident to highlight the significance of the preceding events. Luke has referred to the signs being done by the apostles, to activity in the temple courts, and to their devotion to prayer. Now, he selects one particular time of prayer and one particular sign accomplished through two specific apostles in the temple courts. Indeed, the word for “temple” is repeated six times in these ten verses, signaling for the reader that Luke is going to focus on the significance of the ascension of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of the last days for the institutions of the old era.

The account of the miracle begins with a focus on the condition of the man. He was “lame from birth,” “was being carried,” was placed at the gate of the temple, and was begging from those going into the temple. Luke later notes that this man was over “forty years old” (4:22). This is a picture of long-term helplessness. More specifically, his helplessness is described in relation to the temple—he is on the outside. As seen from the following list of verses, Peter and John, and everyone else, are entering into the temple, whereas the lame man is placed outside (3:2, 10). Then after the miracle, he immediately enters the temple.

going up to the temple (3:1)

laid . . . at the gate of the temple (3:2a)

to ask alms of those entering [into] the temple (3:2b)

Peter and John about to go into the temple (3:3)

the miracle takes place

he . . . entered [into] the temple with them (3:8)

the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple (3:10)

Thus, the man joins the list of outcasts mentioned elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 7:22; 14:13). In contrast to this long-term helplessness and exclusion from the temple, however, is the instantaneous (“immediately,” 3:7) and contrasting exuberance (“walking and leaping and praising God,” 3:9) of the man who is healed “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (3:6). The description of this lame man walking and “leaping” recalls Jesus’s words in Luke 7:20–23, which in turn look back to the promises of the end times found in Isaiah 35:3–6. This “sign” (Acts 4:16, 22), therefore, points to Jesus as the promised one who would restore his people and anticipates the full eschatological restoration. As a “sign” that is done “through the apostles,” this act also serves to authenticate Peter and John as authorized representatives of Jesus, and their message that Jesus is the Messiah. The meaning of the “name” of Jesus, however, is unpacked further in the following section.

The temple model in Jerusalem with the southern steps on the left, Solomon’s portico in the foreground and the beautiful gate entrance to the temple in the center

3:11–26 As a “sign” (4:16, 22), this healing is designed to point away from itself. What does it point to? In this section Peter points the people away from himself and toward Jesus (3:12–13). It is not Peter and John’s “power or piety” that enabled the man to walk (3:12). Peter then draws together numerous threads from throughout the Old Testament to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of all the promises of God. Throughout this short summary, Peter identifies Jesus as the Servant of the Lord (3:13, 26), the Holy and Righteous One (3:14; most likely also alluding to the righteous servant of Isa 53; cf. 53:11), the Author of life (3:15; perhaps as the one who leads others to life), the Messiah (3:18, 20), the prophet like Moses (3:22), the Davidic king (3:24; with reference to Samuel), and the descendant of Abraham through whom God brings blessing (3:25–26). This emphasis on comprehensiveness is reinforced with reference to Jesus’s fulfilment of “all” the hopes of Scripture. He is the one spoken of by “all the prophets” (3:18), God spoke about him “by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (3:21), indeed, “all the prophets . . . from Samuel . . . proclaimed these days” (3:24).

The center of the sermon is Peter’s claim that Jesus’s “name” has made this man completely well (3:16). The “name” of Jesus refers to the totality of Jesus’s character; it is Jesus—his power and authority—not Peter and John, who has accomplished this healing. The means by which this healing was received, however, was “faith.” Since this faith is “through Jesus,” Jesus thus enabled him to have this faith that was needed to receive this blessing from Jesus. The people are then urged to repent and turn to God to receive the new covenant blessings of forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit (“refreshing . . . from the presence of the Lord”), and anticipate rather than fear the return of Israel’s Messiah (3:19–21; cf. 1:11; 10:42; 17:31).

Thus, Peter’s explanation of this healing is that it points (as a “sign”) to Jesus as the all-sufficient one. He is the one who encapsulates all the hopes and promises of Scripture and is the one through whom God’s complete restoration will come. In the context of the preceding emphasis on the temple, and the lame man’s exclusion from the temple, Peter’s explanation here is part of a narrative theme in Acts 3–7 that unpacks the significance of Jesus in relation to the structures of the old era. In this context, the inadequacy of the temple is contrasted with the all-sufficiency of Jesus.

Jesus’s Authority Contrasted with the Temple Authorities (4:1–22)

4:1–22 The focus of this section shifts from the temple complex itself to the temple authorities (see 4:1, 5–7, 8–12). Their concern is initially expressed with reference to the apostles’ proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection as that which anticipates the final resurrection from the dead (4:2). Their preaching, notes Luke, is having such an effect that despite the authorities’ attempt to put a stop to it by arresting Peter and John, even so (note “But,” 4:4), many are responding and becoming believers. Their question “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (4:7) showed that what was at stake here was the question of authority, especially over the people associated with God, the people of Israel, since the rulers of Israel exercise their authority here in the temple, the heart of Israel’s faith during the old era. The reference to the “power or name” in their question (4:7) not only focuses the issue as one of authority, but it also recalls earlier references to the significance of “the name of Jesus” in 3:6, 16 and will become the defining issue in Peter’s reply in 4:10, and especially 4:12.

When Luke says that Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8), he indicates that the Holy Spirit empowered Peter to point to Jesus (as Jesus promised, 1:8). Peter addresses first the “Rulers of the people and elders” (4:8) but broadens his reply to show that what he is saying applies to “all the people of Israel” (4:10; cf. 1:6; 2:36). Peter addresses the ruler’s question by pointing to “the name of Jesus,” the Messiah, as the means by which “this man is standing before you well” (4:10). Although they had Jesus crucified, God had raised him from the dead; although they had rejected him like a rejected stone for the building of the temple, he had become the cornerstone, the one who determines the shape of God’s saving purposes (citing Ps 118:22 just as Jesus had done; cf. Luke 20:17). Indeed, Jesus is the exclusive source of ultimate salvation—no one else, no other name anywhere (“under heaven”) is able to save. Thus, although these rulers think they have authority over the temple and the people of Israel, Jesus has exclusive authority everywhere. Salvation can only be found in his name, and this healing is a sign that points to his exclusive and universal sufficiency. The final verses describing this encounter between Peter and John and the temple authorities highlight the powerlessness of these rulers even more. They couldn’t deny that the healing had occurred. Because all the people knew this, the authorities couldn’t punish Peter and John either. In the end their demand that Peter and John should no longer “speak or teach in the name of Jesus” is rejected by the apostles as disobedience to God (4:19–20). In opposing the apostles’ proclamation of the risen Lord Jesus, these temple authorities oppose God.

The True People of God (4:23–5:11)

4:23–31 There is a shift in focus here as Peter and John are released by the rulers and go to “their friends” (“their own people,” CSB). The immediate response of the believers is to raise their voices together to God. Thus, the contrast highlights a shift from those who claim to be the rulers over God’s people who are in fact opposed to God’s purposes, and the true people of God—those who depend upon God in prayer because they belong to him (and one another) through trust in him and his anointed one, the Messiah Jesus.

Their prayer immediately places the preceding opposition in the context of God’s sovereignty. He is the one who rules over all because he is the creator of everything (4:24). He is also the one who has spoken beforehand about those who would oppose Jesus. The believers cite Psalm 2 in 4:25–26 and then make the connections to those who opposed Jesus in 4:27 (with Herod and Pilate replacing the references to kings and rulers in the Psalm). Because of the believer’s association with Jesus (cf. 4:13), however, what is said about those who opposed Jesus applies also to those who oppose his people (cf. 9:4–5). So, after identifying the opposition as those who “gathered together against” Jesus (their human responsibility), in the outworking of God’s predetermined purposes (God’s sovereignty; cf. 2:23), they associate this opposition against Jesus with the opposition from those who “gathered together” against them (cf. 4:5). Their overarching concern, however, is that the Lord would grant boldness to the apostles to enable them to continue to proclaim his word in the face of opposition and that the Lord would continue to authenticate them as Jesus’s messengers with signs such as the healing in the temple that would point to Jesus’s sufficiency. Immediate confirmation of God’s presence was given, and, like Peter, they were all enabled by the Spirit to proclaim “the word of God with boldness” and point to the sufficiency of Jesus.

4:32–37 Continuing the focus on the true people of God, this second “summary passage” (cf. 2:42–47) describes the outworking of the unity of God’s people. They are “of one heart and soul” and, like 2:44–45, they express this unity in their care for the needs of God’s people (4:34; cf. Deut 15:4). Thus, like the summary in 2:45, this is “needs based” selling and not compulsory. In this summary, however, there is greater focus on the apostles as the leaders of God’s true people. The apostles continue to proclaim the lordship of Jesus, and they are the ones to whom the proceeds from these sales are brought (4:35, 37). As Luke does from time to time, he introduces a character briefly who will become more prominent later in the narrative (e.g., Saul in 8:1–3). Barnabas is introduced as a specific example of the generosity of the believers, as a contrasting example to Ananias and Sapphira in the following verses, and in anticipation of his ministry with Paul later in the narrative (9:27; 11:22–30; 13:1–15:41). Barnabas was actually a nickname meaning “son of encouragement”; in other words, he was characterized by being encouraging (he could be called “Mr. Encouragement”). Also, in contrast to the opposition of the priestly leadership of Israel, Barnabas was a Levite who submitted to Jesus’s authorized representatives, the apostles.

5:1–11 In keeping with a focus on the true people of God in this section, these verses point to a potential threat to the existence of God’s people, a threat that comes from the inside this time rather than from the outside. Similarities highlight continuity with the preceding verses. Like the believers, Ananias and Sapphira sell their property (4:34, 37; 5:1) and place proceeds from the sale at the apostles’ feet (4:35, 37; 5:2). In contrast to the believers who are filled with the Spirit, speak God’s Word, and are “of one heart” (4:31–32), however, Ananias’s heart is “filled with Satan” and he “contrived this deed” in his “heart” (5:3, 4). What did Ananias and Sapphira do that was so wrong? Peter specifically says that both the selling of the property and the amount to be given from that sale were entirely voluntary. It was their “own” while it was unsold, and the amount was at their “disposal” after the sale (5:4). The preceding examples of the believers selling and sharing was not total disposal of all property, nor was it enforced, like some early form of communism. The problem was that, in keeping with the character of Satan, they lied (5:3). They kept back “some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it” (5:2) to the apostles in an attempt to deceive. They wanted to look like the rest of the community, but they did not have a heart right with God. Their deception was against the unity of the community that the Holy Spirit had brought about (4:31–32), so ultimately their lie was to God the Holy Spirit (5:3, 4). In describing their action as an agreement together “to test the Spirit of the Lord” (5:9), Peter uses language that has elsewhere been used of Satan’s attempts to derail Jesus’s ministry (Luke 4:2) and of those opposed to Jesus (Luke 11:15–16). Furthermore, the description of Satan filling Ananias’s heart recalls Satan’s involvement with Judas and his betrayal of Jesus, which also involved money (Luke 22:3–6). Like Judas, Ananias and Sapphira are best understood as people who were only superficially associated with the people of God, and whose hearts were instead ruled by the idol of money (Acts 1:17–18; cf. Luke 16:13). The judgment of death is possible at any time since sin brings the judgment of death, and it is only by the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed. In this context the judgment is against a Satanic attack on the unity of the church and preserves the fledgling church from this inward threat before it has even taken the gospel out of Jerusalem.

The Apostles Teaching about Jesus Contrasted with the Temple Authorities (5:12–42)

5:12–16 This is now the third “summary passage” summarizing the activity of the early church (cf. 2:42–27; 4:32–37). There is both continuity as well as development from the earlier summaries. Like the others, the focus continues to be on the apostles as the ones through whom God performs signs and wonders, confirming their proclamation that the risen Lord Jesus is the Messiah (2:43; 4:33; 5:12). Whereas the preceding summary focused on the believers’ care for one another, this summary, while noting their unity, transitions back out to activity in the temple courts, specifically Solomon’s Portico (5:12; cf. 3:11), and out to the city streets (5:15). There is now an intensification developing. Although those in the temple courts were cautious in associating with them (5:13; probably due to the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira), nevertheless, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:14). God was continuing to add to the three thousand of 2:41 and the five thousand men of 4:4, in even greater numbers of thousands now. The “internal” threat has not thwarted the growth of the church. Furthermore, the miracles being done through the apostles were truly extraordinary. The sick were carried into the streets in an effort just to get close to Peter (5:15); indeed, both the sick and those with unclean spirits were brought from the towns around Jerusalem, and “they were all healed” (5:16)! All of this highlights the apostles as the leaders of the true people of God.

5:17–42 Following the transition from the internal life of the true people of God back out to the public activity of the apostles in the temple courts (5:12–16), this section returns to interactions between the apostles and the temple leadership. Whereas one healing by just the apostles Peter and John was followed by an arrest and an attempt to thwart the preaching of the apostles in Acts 4, now many healings by all the apostles are followed by an arrest of all the apostles. The increasing numbers responding to the preaching of the apostles is the reason for the “jealousy” of the temple leadership (5:17). However, just as Luke follows his description of the priestly leadership’s attempt to stop the spread of the word in 4:3 with the word “but” (4:4), so also does he follow their attempt to stop the apostles from their ministry in 5:17–18 with the word “but” (5:19). This time they are miraculously rescued from prison and commanded by the angel of the Lord to go back to the temple courts and “speak to the people all the words of this Life” (5:20). Because Jesus is the risen Lord who has triumphed over death, the message about him is a message about “Life”––it is “eternal life” because sins have been forgiven and salvation from death (the punishment for sin) has been accomplished (5:31; 13:26–39).

Like Acts 3, there is a focus here on the relationship between Jesus and the temple, but more specifically, like Acts 4 the focus is on the relationship between the apostles and the temple authorities. Those who sent for the apostles were “the high priest . . . those who were with him . . . the council and all the senate of the people of Israel” (5:21b). Despite this full description of powerful leadership, in contrast to this miraculous rescue and continued proclamation of the apostles, the temple leadership are unable to stop them. Even though the prison was “securely locked,” they found “no one inside” (5:23), the captain of the temple and the chief priests were “perplexed” (5:24), and the captain and officers were “afraid” of the people as they went and brought the apostles before the council (5:26).

The emphasis throughout this section is on the “teaching of the apostles” that has taken place in the “temple.” Just as they were commanded to go into “the temple and speak to the people” (5:20), so they “entered the temple . . . and began to teach” (5:21). Word came to the leadership that “The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people” (5:25). The leaders objected that the apostles were told “not to teach in this name,” yet they have “filled Jerusalem” with this “teaching” (5:28). The final verse of this section highlights the main focus in this encounter: “every day in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42). Such activity identifies the apostles, not the temple hierarchy, as the ones who know and obey God (5:29, 32). Thus Gamaliel, a “teacher of the law,” speaks better than he realizes when he declares, “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found to be opposing God!” (5:39). Nevertheless, the intensification noted above in 5:17–18 also concludes this section. Whereas Peter and John were released with a warning in 4:17–18, it is only Gamaliel’s advice that prevents them from being killed here (5:33), and they are eventually released, this time with a flogging (5:40). Uppermost in the priorities of the apostles, however, was to honor Christ. Hence, they see this persecution and suffering in light of their association with and proclamation of him (4:27–29). They rejoice that they are privileged to be suffering “dishonor for the name” (5:41).

The Leadership of the Apostles Averts Another Internal Threat (6:1–7)

6:1–7 In these verses, Luke moves from external opposition back to another potential internal threat to the growth of the church. While a dispute over the distribution of food to some of the widows may seem minor and hardly a threat to the existence of the church, important matters are at stake. First, the care of widows was to be a characteristic of God’s people Israel under the Old Covenant (Deut 10:18; 14:29; 24:19; 26:12–15; 27:19) and reflects the character of God himself. Second, the care of widows was also a feature of Jesus’s ministry. Indeed, Jesus’s care for widows is set in contrast to the temple leadership who “devour widows’ houses” (Luke 18:1–8; 20:45–47; 21:1–6). Thus, the care of widows here places the early church in continuity with faithful Israel, and Jesus himself, and in contrast to the leadership of Israel. The dispute arose between “the Greek-speaking believers” and the “Hebrew-speaking believers” (6:1 NLT). In other words, this dispute, if unresolved, had the potential to split the church along ethnic lines, potentially perpetuating the Gentile-Jew division and threatening the spread of the church as one people of God to the nations. That such a potential threat to the continuing life and growth of the church is in view can be seen in the way Luke introduces and concludes this incident. It was “when the disciples were increasing in number” that the complaint arose (6:1). Then, once resolved, Luke adds that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (6:7). This potentially disastrous dispute was resolved through the wise leadership of “the twelve” so that in the end the proposal pleased “the whole gathering” (6:5), and united prayer concluded the proceedings (6:6). So, neither external opposition nor internal conflict has been able to stop the spread of the Word. The summary statement of 6:7, highlighting the continued growth of the disciples in Jerusalem, is placed at this transition point in the narrative, before the account of Stephen, and before the Word spreads outside of Jerusalem. As we have seen before (4:36–37), Luke likes to occasionally drop in names that he will later focus more on. He does this again in this list of names with the mention of Stephen’s character and passing mention of Philip (6:5).

Culmination of Rising Opposition and Clarification of Jesus’s Fulfilment of the Temple (6:8–8:3)

6:8–15 Luke moves from showing how an internal threat to the Christian community was overcome so that the Word continued to spread, to another external threat in Jerusalem. The account of this external threat brings to a culmination the rising opposition in these chapters (moving from warning, to flogging, to death), and a culmination in showing Jesus’s superiority to the temple system. Both of these are highlighted in Stephen’s defense, the longest speech in Acts. In 6:8–15 Luke first explains the nature of the charges and the opposition Stephen faced, before reporting Stephen’s speech and the aftermath. Having introduced Stephen in the preceding account as one of those who were “of good repute,” “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3), and Stephen himself as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5), Luke now focuses on the way the Spirit shaped Stephen in faith and wisdom as he proclaimed Christ in the face of opposition. Stephen is introduced again as “full of grace and power,” probably referring to the way he was empowered to proclaim Christ and the source of the “great wonders and signs.” All of this marks Stephen out as one whom God is using, one who is faithful, like the apostles. By contrast, the opposition against Stephen (consisting of Hellenistic Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia), although disputing with Stephen, were unable to refute what he was saying, yet they still refused to accept his message. Thus, in contrast to Stephen, they oppose the Spirit. The charges they have against Stephen are that he says: (1) “blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11); (2) “words against this holy place and the law” (6:13); and (3) that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered.” These charges can be boiled down to two: Stephen is against (1) the Law/Moses, and (2) God himself, particularly God’s dwelling place the temple. Luke points out the falsity of their charges by noting that those who brought the charge in 6:11 do so because the Hellenistic Jews “secretly instigated” (i.e., probably bribed) some men to bring these charges, and then specifying in 6:13 that they were “false witnesses.” So, the following speech of Stephen shows that Stephen is not against the Law (or Moses) or the temple (and thus God).

7:1–8 After the brief opening question from the High Priest, Stephen enters into an overview of the history of Israel to show that he is not against the Law or the temple. Throughout the speech he makes subtle points about God’s presence with his people, and the opposition that characterized Israel’s response to God’s messengers. He focuses his history on individuals associated with the foundations of Israel’s history (Abraham, 7:2–8; Joseph, 7:9–16), then a special emphasis on Moses (understandably in light of the charges, 7:17–44), and nearing his conclusion he briefly refers to Joshua (7:45), David (7:45–46), and Solomon (7:47). Stephen summarizes the foundation of Israel’s history from Abraham’s call to Jacob and the twelve. Although Genesis 12:1 states that God’s call came to Abraham in Haran, Stephen, like Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7, emphasizes God’s initiative from the beginning, in Mesopotamia. The emphasis here, however, is on God as the God of glory whose presence is associated with a place far away from the land of Israel. God’s glory is also mentioned in the concluding words of Stephen’s speech (7:55). Although Stephen has been charged with speaking against “this holy place” (6:13, 14), he points out here that the “place” of God’s presence was also this remote mountain (7:7; Exod 3:12). Abraham himself did not get to own “even a foot’s length” of the promised land, relativizing the significance of this location to experience God’s presence.

7:9–16 In his overview of Israel’s history, Stephen next highlights God’s presence with Joseph in Egypt. Indeed, in the Greek text Egypt is mentioned five times between 7:9 and 7:15, and four distinct trips to Egypt are mentioned on the part of Joseph, his brothers, and then all seventy-five of the family. Stephen stresses that in the end Jacob and “our fathers” were buried in Shechem (that is, not in their beloved Jerusalem). Even though God was with Joseph, Stephen also introduces the theme that God’s messengers faced opposition from Israel. The jealousy of the brothers toward Joseph anticipates the opposition that Moses (and then Jesus and Stephen) will face in the following verses.

7:17–36 Stephen’s summary of Israel’s history focuses on key individuals. His overview of Moses’s role in Israel’s history, however, is by far the longest. This is of course due to the charges being brought against him (see comments on 6:8–15 above). Stephen describes Moses’s life in three forty-year blocks (7:23, 30), emphasizing that God was with Moses even though he was born in a time of severe hardship for the people of Israel. He was born “as the time of the promise drew near” (7:17). Even though Israelite infants were dying, Moses was, by God’s grace, preserved, brought up by Pharoah’s daughter, educated by the Egyptians, and “was mighty in his words and deeds” (7:19–22; cf. Luke 24:19). At forty years old, even though he defended a fellow Israelite and struck down the attacking Egyptian, when he later sought to reconcile two fighting Israelites, the one who was in the wrong “thrust [Moses] aside” (cf. Israel’s later response to Moses in 7:39) and objected, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (7:27). So, Moses went from Egypt into exile in Midian.

It was forty years later when Moses heard the voice of the Lord, this time at the burning bush in the wilderness, at Mount Sinai. This “place” where Moses was standing was “holy ground” (7:33; cf. 6:13–14; 7:7). Then, having been sent by the Lord to Egypt, Moses was the one who led the people of Israel out and performed “wonders and signs” (cf. 2:43; 6:8) in Egypt, the Red Sea, and “in the wilderness for forty years” (7:36). Thus, the focus of Stephen’s summary of Moses’s ministry has been on God’s presence with him outside the land of Israel, particularly in Egypt, and the wilderness, with a subtle allusion to a “holy place” that was in the wilderness. Furthermore, Stephen has noted that, like Joseph (7:9), Moses too was “rejected” (cf. “denied” in 3:13, 14) by the people of Israel, even though God had sent him to be their “ruler and redeemer” (7:35; cf. Luke 24:21; Acts 7:27, 39–41).

7:37–43 By stating that Moses was the one who said, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers” (7:37), Stephen also highlights Moses as one who pointed forward to Jesus (cf. 3:22). Stephen has been subtly alluding to Jesus all along, as can be seen in the references (noted above) to Moses being “mighty in words and deeds,” performing “wonders and signs,” being “rejected,” and his role as “ruler,” “judge,” and “redeemer.” Stephen is building his case that he cannot be against Moses since Moses anticipated Jesus.

Picking up on the earlier reference (7:30) to God’s presence in the wilderness with Moses, Stephen now adds that the wilderness location was also where Israel received, through Moses, the Law, “living oracles” (7:38; mediated by angels, cf. 7:53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2). Israel, however, “refused to obey” Moses (anticipating Stephen’s conclusion in 7:53), “thrust him aside” (cf. 7:27), and turned instead to idolatry (7:39–41). Instead of responding in obedience and worship, Israel’s reception of the Law was characterized by worship of an idol, “rejoicing in the works of their hands” (anticipating their response to the temple in 7:48).

In 7:42–43 Stephen describes God’s judgment of Israel’s idolatry, quoting Amos 5:25–27. Israel “turned” in their hearts to Egypt, so God “turned” from them (cf. Rom 1:24, 26, 28). The quotation from Amos serves to identify this characteristic pattern of Israel’s idolatry, not only in the wilderness generation, but also in the generation of Amos’s day, leading to the exile of Israel “beyond Damascus” (i.e., to Assyria; Amos 5:27). Stephen’s adjustment of these two words to “beyond Babylon” (7:43) extends God’s judgment of exile to the southern kingdom and the destruction of the temple itself.

7:44–50 Having established that Israel’s reception of the Law took place in the wilderness and was characterized by disobedience and idolatry, Stephen now transitions to speak of the development of the temple in Israel’s history. Beginning with the tabernacle as an anticipation of the temple, Stephen highlights that, although it was given according to God’s directions and pattern, this too was experienced in the wilderness (7:44). Ultimately, Solomon was the one who built this “house” for God as his dwelling place. Thus, there is no criticism here of the temple itself, nor of the idea that it symbolized God’s presence with his people. Yet, they should have known, as Isaiah the prophet declared, that no such “house” could contain God, since he is everywhere present, ruling from heaven over all creation, which his “hand” has made (7:49–50). The Lord’s words from Isaiah 66:1–2 echo Solomon’s own words at the dedication of the temple (1Kgs 8:27). Stephen is not “against” the temple, just as he is not against the Law. Nevertheless, there may be an implicit critique of Stephen’s audience in the contrast made between houses “made by hands” (7:48) and all creation made by God’s “hand” (7:50). The term used to describe the temple as that which is “made by hands” is a common way of referring to idols (cf. Lev 26:1, 30; Isa 2:18; 10:11; 16:12; 19:1; 21:9; 31:7; 46:6). The same word is used in Acts 17:24 to say that God does not live in temples “made by man.” The reason this may already be a subtle critique of their idolatrous view of the temple is that Stephen has just described Israel’s idolatry at the giving of the Law in similar terms as worshipping “the works of their hands” (7:41). Thus, Israel’s history of idolatry (7:42–43) continues in their wrong understanding of the temple building itself (cf. Jer 7). This critique comes to them through the words of God himself in Isaiah 66.

7:51–53 Up to this point Stephen has indirectly critiqued his audience by noting that throughout Israel’s history God has never been limited to the temple, since his presence has been experienced by his people in Mesopotamia (Abraham), Egypt (Joseph, patriarchs, Moses), and the wilderness (Moses and the “holy ground,” the giving of the Law, the tabernacle), and God himself said as much concerning the temple. Furthermore, Israel’s history has been characterized by the rejection of God’s messengers (Joseph), including the one through whom the Law came (Moses), and turning to idols, worshipping “the works of their hands.” Such subtlety, however, gives way at this point to a much more direct judgment upon his audience. The shift to direct condemnation is evident in the repeated second-person address: “you . . . you . . . your . . . you . . . your . . . you . . . you . . .”! Stephen’s intensity is seen in the accusations of his audience as “stiff-necked,” “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” those who “resist the Holy Spirit,” descendants of those who “killed” the prophets who then “murdered” the one the prophets spoke about, and as lawbreakers. Stephen’s language and tone here associates him with the prophets of Israel who made similar charges throughout Israel’s history (cf. Exod 33:3, 5; Deut 9:6, 13; Jer 6:10; 9:26; Isa 63:10). His argument is essentially “like fathers, like sons.” They are just like their disobedient, rebellious, idolatrous ancestors. And as such, they are the ones who disobey the Law and rebel against God. It should be remembered at this point that because Stephen gets interrupted, we should not view this denunciation as the conclusion or goal of Stephen’s defense. Nor should we see this as Stephen merely seeking to score points against his accusers. We’ll soon see that in Stephen’s dying words he longs for their forgiveness, as he points them toward the Lord Jesus.

7:54–60 The fury of Stephen’s audience aligns them with Israel’s history of rejecting God’s messengers. Like those outside the kingdom (cf. Luke 13:27–28), they “ground their teeth” at Stephen (7:44). Stephen’s declaration that he sees Jesus, the ruling Son of Man, standing in a position of power and authority at the right hand of God (whether as an advocate rising to greet Stephen, or perhaps rising in judgment over his accusers, cf. Isa 3:13) in this context is the conclusion to his speech (note the literary frame with reference to God’s glory; 7:2, 55). This has been his goal all along. In proclaiming Jesus, he is not against Moses, for he is proclaiming the one that Moses spoke about. He is not against the temple, for he is proclaiming the one who fulfils all that the temple pointed toward. This last point will become evident in Stephen’s final, dying words.

It is at this point—the mention of Jesus as the ruling Son of Man—that the audience could take no more. In an act of angry mob violence, they tried to (1) take in no more (“cried out with a loud voice” and blocked their ears) and (2) prevent Stephen from saying any more (“rushed together at him”). Like Israel of old (7:52), their anger against God’s messenger turned to violence as they threw Stephen out of the city and threw stones at him there to kill him. However, in their view, Stephen was a blasphemer, and he must face death. Saul is introduced here, not as one who plays a significant role in Stephen’s death, but as a young man (perhaps in his twenties) approving of and learning from the behavior of his elders (cf. 8:3; 9:1–2). Luke occasionally mentions people early in the narrative that will become more prominent later (e.g., Barnabas, 4:36–37).

In contrast to their murderous violence, Stephen calls out two dying prayers. These two prayers, the final words of Stephen, are the conclusion to this whole chapter, and indeed this whole section from 3:1. As the concluding words, they point to the message of these chapters. On the one hand, Stephen’s prayers to receive his spirit and for the forgiveness of his attackers reflect the character of the Lord Jesus from Luke’s Gospel (cf. Luke 23:34, 46). Indeed, the repetition of the word “cry out” in 7:57 and 7:60 implies that Stephen yells his prayer for their forgiveness over the angry screams of his attackers. Importantly, however, Stephen prays these two prayers to the Lord Jesus. This not only highlights the deity of Jesus, but it also highlights Jesus as the one who fulfils the role of the temple perfectly. Jesus is the one who grants access to God’s presence (here, in heaven, in response to the request to “receive my spirit”), and Jesus is the one who can forgive sin. Both of these—God’s presence and forgiveness of sin—are key features of what Israel hoped the temple would provide. Thus, Stephen is not against the temple; he proclaims, points to, and prays to the one who perfectly fulfils all that the temple anticipated.

8:1–3 Stephen “fell asleep” in the sense that, for him, as for any believer in the Lord Jesus, death is not the end. The spirit goes to be with Christ, and the body will be raised at the last day (Luke 23:43; Phil 1:23; 2Cor 5:8). Stephen’s execution as the first Christian martyr brings to a climax the rising persecution of these chapters (4:3, 17–18; 5:18, 33, 40–41) and triggers the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem through persecution in the following chapter. Some incorrectly surmise that because persecution was the trigger for believers to depart from Jerusalem, and because the apostles stay, that the early church was initially disobedient to the command of the Lord Jesus to take the gospel to the nations. However, the reference to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria in 8:1 recalls Jesus’s words in 1:8 and highlights the faithfulness of the believers to their commission to bear witness to the Lord’s salvation in Jerusalem and Judea. It was not theirs to know the times and dates of God’s plans to bring restoration to Israel and the Gentiles, but it is at this point in the face of persecution that the believers flee for their lives and this persecution then becomes the means for the spread of the Word. The apostles stay in the face of such persecution—perhaps out of a sense of care for the church in Jerusalem and out of a continuing love for their fellow Israelites—to continue to bear witness to Christ. Some of these believers, devout men, are said to have made “great lamentation” over the death of Stephen. All of them would have been in great fear of Saul. The description in 8:3 is one of great violence as Saul attempts to destroy the church (cf. 9:1–2; 1Tim 1:13).

The Reign of Christ the Lord over Outcasts and Enemies (8:4–9:31)

The Inclusion of Outcasts: (a) Samaritans (8:4–25)

8:4–8 Having shown Jesus to be the one who provides all that the temple pointed to, Luke now focuses on the inclusion of two groups outside of the temple system: Samaritans and Eunuchs. As indicated above, Luke shows here that the spread of the Word not only takes place despite attempts to stop it (4:3–4; 5:18–20), but now persecution is the very means by which the Word is spread. As he has done elsewhere, Luke once again moves from a general summary to provide a particular example (e.g., 1:6; 3:1; 4:36–37; 5:1). Philip, one of those chosen to help the widows in 6:5, is among those who were fleeing for their lives, proclaiming the Word whereever they went. In 21:8 Luke calls him “the evangelist.” Luke focuses on Philip for a reason: to highlight the inclusion of Samaria under the reign of the Lord Jesus. In New Testament times, Samaritans were viewed as outside God’s covenant people (cf. Luke 17:18; Matt 10:5; John 4:7–10; 8:48), as those characterized by religious compromise and the introduction of foreign gods from the time of the exile (2Kgs 17:29, 32–33), and as those who, before that, had rebelled against the Davidic monarchy, introducing their own second monarchy under Jeroboam (1Kgs 12:16–20). In intertestamental times they had dedicated their temple to Zeus. Nevertheless, their temple and capital, Samaria, were destroyed by the Maccabean ruler John Hyrcanus. In keeping with the prophetic hope that one day the northern and southern kingdom would be united under a Davidic king (Ezek 37:24–25), Luke shows how the gospel spreads to include Samaria in fulfilment of Jesus’s words in Acts 1:8. In saying that Philip went to “the city of Samaria” (8:5), Luke recalls the name given to the capital of the northern kingdom in the Old Testament (renamed Sebaste by Herod the Great). Philip’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah is attended with signs confirming the legitimacy of Philip and the authenticity of his message. Like the ministry of the apostles, “many who were paralyzed or lame were healed” (8:7; cf. 5:16).

8:9–13 To highlight the significance of Samaria’s response to the message that Jesus is the Messiah, Luke describes the hold that magic (i.e., sorcery; cf. Lev 19:31; Deut 18:9–14) had on the entire area through the influence of Simon. The essence of this is the view that particular methods (sayings, potions, formulae) could be used to manipulate deities for personal benefit. Simon had been held in high regard as one with divine power for an extended period of time (i.e., this was no passing fad in Samaria—this was entrenched), and Luke emphasizes that his power and his sorcery had captivated the entire population (“all . . . from the least to the greatest”). Nevertheless, by God’s grace the power of the gospel broke through. When Philip “preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” they believed and were baptized, indicating both the comprehensive proclamation of the saving rule of Jesus the Messiah as well as the genuine response from “the people of Samaria,” both “men and women” (8:9, 12). Luke states that “even Simon himself believed” and was baptized. Yet there is a hint in Luke’s description that all is not as it seems with Simon. Just as he had “amazed” the people of Samaria who attributed divine “power” to him (8:9, 10), so too was he “amazed” at the signs and powerful works in Philip’s ministry (8:13). We will see below that Simon appears to have “believed” only superficially rather than genuinely turned from his idolatry (8:18–24).

8:14–17 This passage is unique in the Book of Acts, for, apart from the salvation-historical event of Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit fell on believers after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension), this is the only place where those who have believed in Jesus receive the Spirit as a distinctly separate and later event to conversion. The Gentiles in Acts 10 receive the Spirit at conversion when they believe (10:43–44; 11:17), and later the disciples of John the Baptist also received the Holy Spirit when they believed in Jesus (19:4–6). The norm is that conversion in Acts includes repentance/belief, demonstrated in baptism, and accompanied with the reception of the Spirit (2:38). Why did this take place differently? And why did the apostles send Peter and John? Given the historic division between Judea and Samaria outlined above, and given the emphasis on the fulfilment of Jesus’s words that Judea and Samaria will be united under his reign, the emphasis here is on the healing of this historic division in the people of Israel through the authentic apostolic gospel message proclaimed by Philip and witnessed and confirmed by Jesus’s authorized representatives, the apostles Peter and John. Luke’s focus is on Samaria as a whole, rather than a paradigm for individual reception of the Spirit (note “Samaria had received the word of God,” 8:14; cf. 11:1). Luke himself implies that the situation was unique when he says that the Holy Spirit had “not yet fallen on any of them” (8:16). This unique delay serves to highlight the oneness of God’s people, both Judea and Samaria, under their Davidic king, the risen Lord Jesus, in the gospel message authenticated by his apostles.

8:18–25 The inauthenticity of Simon’s response becomes apparent here. Simon’s offer to purchase the ability to dispense the Spirit indicates that he is still operating under the view that divine power can be manipulated for his own benefit. Thus, in keeping with Luke’s wider emphasis that the use of money reveals the state of one’s heart (e.g., 1:18; 5:1–11; cf. Luke 16:13), Simon is revealed to be still under the sway of idolatry. Peter declares that both Simon and his money will perish because of his view that “the gift of God” could be purchased (8:20). Indeed, his “heart is not right before God” (8:21). When Peter likewise declares that Simon is “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (8:23), not only does this indicate a heart captivated by sin, but the language also alludes to the description in Deuteronomy 29:18 of idolatry that brings judgment. Finally, instead of following Peter’s admonition to repent and pray, Simon asks Peter to pray for him that he might not face the consequences of his actions. Simon is an example of someone who has not repented from idolatry, showing that outward “belief” and “baptism” are no guarantee of a genuine internal turning from sin and trust in Jesus as the Messiah.

The Inclusion of Outcasts: (b) a Eunuch (8:26–40)

8:26–40 Continuing with his focus in this chapter on the inclusion of those outside the temple system, Luke now highlights the conversion of one particular individual through Philip’s ministry. The divine initiative in the spread of the gospel is first noted through the directions given to Philip by an angel of the Lord (8:26), then the instructions by the Spirit (8:29), the providential timing of the reading from Isaiah 53 (8:32), and the Spirit’s continued direction of Philip afterwards to Azotus (8:39–40). Luke provides a full description of this individual as “an Ethiopian [not the modern region, but an area in the upper Nile], a eunuch, a court official [the reason for being a eunuch] of Candace [a title for the following], a queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure” (8:27). Despite this lengthy description, every time Luke refers to him in the following account, he only calls him “the eunuch” (8:27, 34, 36, 38, 39). This repeated description then is the clue for understanding Luke’s purpose in this account. Given the background of Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:17–23, the emphasis on him as “the eunuch” implies that his trip to Jerusalem “to worship” would have been a disappointing one in which he was unable to participate in the temple worship, like the lame man in Acts 3. His reading just so happens to be about another rejected figure, the servant of Isaiah 53. This servant, in the context of Isaiah, would both represent Israel and restore Israel (Isaiah 49:3, 5), bearing upon himself the punishment that would bring them peace (53:5) and being “numbered with the transgressors” (53:12; cf. Luke 22:37). At the invitation of the eunuch to identify this suffering figure, Philip, no doubt delighted at such an incredible request, “told him the good news about Jesus” from “this Scripture” (Acts 8:35). Interestingly though, Luke notes that Philip began with this Scripture. Just rolling down the scroll a little further Philip would have come to Isaiah 56, which continues to unpack the results of the Servant’s achievements. Here the Lord points forward to the day when “my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). At that time “foreigners” will be included among God’s people, as will the eunuchs who “hold fast my covenant.” These eunuchs are promised “a name better than sons and daughters; I [the Lord] will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The Lord continues, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7). The Lord will gather “the outcasts of Israel” (56:8). Luke shows us that this is being worked out in the proclamation of the gospel about Jesus, the promised suffering Servant of the Lord. Philip, having been taken next to Azotus by the Spirit, continues this gospel proclamation up the coast until Caesarea, where we will next meet him (21:8).

The Inclusion of Saul the Persecutor (9:1–19)

9:1–9 Before Luke reaches the conclusion of this section with his summary statement in 9:31, he recounts the most famous conversion and commission in Acts, that of Saul. In stark contrast to the preceding conversion of the eunuch, rather than reading his Bible and pondering the identity of the Servant, Saul was “still breathing out threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1; cf. 8:3). Indeed, Saul was so intent on bringing an end to this movement, what Luke calls “the Way” (i.e., not just a faction within Judaism, but the true expression of God’s purposes), that he went with the high priest’s authorization beyond Jerusalem and Israel to Damascus, a Hellenistic city of the Decapolis approximately 150 miles north of Jerusalem. The portrait here is of someone who was deeply opposed to what he thought was a blasphemous aberration of God’s will, people who followed a crucified (and therefore cursed) man. However, in another reminder that in Acts Jesus isn’t absent and uninvolved (cf. 1:1), Saul is stopped by none other than Jesus himself. The emphasis throughout this account is on the sovereignty and grace of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1Tim 1:16; cf. Acts 22, 26). In a remarkable statement, the voice that Saul hears after falling to the ground asks him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (9:4) instead of something like “Why are you persecuting my people?” Likewise, when Saul asks the identity of the “Lord,” the reply is “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5). The implication is that to persecute and oppose the people who belong to the Lord Jesus is to persecute and oppose him (cf. Luke 10:16; Acts 4:13, 27–29). Saul’s conversion, his turning from opposition to Jesus to a dependence upon him as Lord, is pictured in the extended experience of dependence in Damascus, where he is without sight and sustenance (9:8–9).

9:10–19 The uniqueness of Saul’s conversion account, already seen in the personal intervention by the risen Lord Jesus himself (cf. 1Cor 9:1; 15:8–10), is further developed here as it becomes clear that his conversion also entails his specific commission for service. Ananias (not to be confused with the Ananias who died in Acts 5) was a disciple at Damascus, one of those Saul was going to pursue (note that Luke does not narrate how the gospel had already spread to Damascus). The Lord continues to direct affairs as he instructs Ananias on where to find Saul and what Saul is doing (“praying”). He reassures Ananias that Saul is his “chosen instrument” and lays out what the ministry of Saul will entail (“Lord” is used five times in the exchange in 9:10–15). As Jesus’s chosen instrument, Saul will (1) “carry” (i.e., bring or proclaim) the Lord’s name before “the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel” (an outline of Saul/Paul’s ministry for the rest of the Book of Acts, that includes proclamation to both Gentiles and Israel), and (2) “suffer” for the Lord’s name (following the pattern of Jesus himself; the Greek word dei [“must”] is used here as it was for Jesus in Luke 9:22). These two features will be immediately demonstrated in 9:19–22, 23–31. Saul’s conversion is complete with the reception of the Spirit symbolized in his baptism and the return of his sight.

Saul the Persecutor Has Become Saul the Proclaimer (9:19–22)

9:19–22 The reference to Saul proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues in Damascus should call to mind the previous reference to synagogues in Damascus at the beginning of the chapter (9:2). The places where Saul was now proclaiming Jesus were the very places he was going to in an effort to capture believers (9:21; cf. Gal 1:17). The reader is supposed to marvel at the power and grace of the Lord Jesus! Saul proclaims that Jesus is “the Son of God” (9:20), which when paired with the statement that “Jesus was the Christ” (9:22) in this context most likely means that he is the anointed and promised Davidic king (cf. 13:33). Saul’s immediate and bold proclamation of Jesus’s kingship already demonstrates the first element of his role as one who will “carry” (proclaim) the Lord’s name (cf. 9:15).3

Saul the Persecutor Has Become Saul the Persecuted (9:23–31)

9:23–31 These verses show that the second element, “suffering” for the Lord’s name (cf. 9:16), would also accompany Saul’s proclamation, first in Damascus itself (9:23–25), and then in Jerusalem (9:26–30). An early indicator of much more to come, Saul faces opposition for his proclamation from the Jews in Damascus “after many days” (cf. Gal 1:18). In order to escape this plot to kill him, the disciples outwit the Jews who were watching the gates day and night by lowering Saul in a basket through an opening elsewhere in the wall (cf. 2Cor 11:30–33).

The next phase of the opposition that Saul immediately faces takes place back in Jerusalem (9:26). Not surprisingly, when he attempted to join the disciples there, “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (9:26). The last time there was a knock at the door and Saul was outside was not a stress-free experience for the believers in Jerusalem (cf. 8:3). It is in this context that Barnabas, that “son of encouragement” (4:36), lives up to his name again. Barnabas was a great believer in the power and grace of the Lord Jesus to transform even the greatest of enemies. So, Saul began preaching boldly in Jerusalem too. Nevertheless, as with Stephen, the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem also tried to kill Saul. So, it is the believers once again who help Saul to escape, ultimately to Tarsus, his birthplace (22:3), and the place where Barnabas will go to get him when we next meet Saul (11:25). A summary statement highlights both numerical and spiritual growth by the Holy Spirit under the reign of the Lord Jesus (9:31). This summary rounds off Luke’s focus in these chapters (8–9) on the restoration of Israel as the gospel has moved out from Jerusalem (note Luke’s language “all Judea and Galilee and Samaria”; cf. 1:8). The reign of the Lord Jesus unites and includes those on the fringes and anticipates the widespread inclusion of even the Gentiles with the conversion and commission of Saul. A significant precursor and anticipation of this spread to the nations is the focus of the next section.

The Reign of Christ the Lord over All Nations (9:32–12:25)

This section between 9:31 and the next summary statement in 12:24 contains two main accounts focusing on Peter: (1) Peter and Cornelius (9:32–11:18), and (2) Peter and Herod (12:1–23). Between these two accounts is a brief snapshot of the establishment and strengthening of the church in Syrian Antioch (11:19–30), which anticipates the focus on Antioch from Acts 13 and illustrates the two broad emphases of 9:32–12:25: the spread of the Word to the Gentiles, and the spread of the Word in the midst of persecution.

Peter, an Authentic Messenger of Christ (9:32–43)

9:32–43 This section orients readers to Peter, who will become the focus in chapter 10, and highlights two miracles, one in Lydda (9:32–35), and the other in Joppa (9:36–43), indicating movement from Jerusalem toward the coast which will continue up to Caesarea in Acts 10. Once again, as with Damascus, Luke notes that there are believers (“saints,” 9:32, 41) in both places, though he has not recounted how that came to be. Both incidents emphasize an impossible situation: Aeneas had been bedridden for eight years (9:33), and Tabitha (her Aramaic name, translated as Dorcas in Greek; 9:36) had become ill and died (9:37). Both accounts point to Jesus. First, most explicitly Peter says to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” and follows with similar instructions to those that Jesus gave in Luke 5:24 to rise and pick up his bed. The immediacy of the healing likewise resembles Jesus’s ministry. In the second account, Peter, like Jesus in Mark 5:40, sends everyone out of the room and, with words resembling Jesus, says, “Tabitha arise” (9:40, sounding similar to “Talitha cumi,” although that was Aramaic for “Little girl . . . arise”; cf. Mark 5:41). Unlike Jesus, however, he does this after kneeling and praying, expressing his dependence on the Lord. All of this highlights the apostle Peter as an authorized representative of Jesus (i.e., as an apostle; cf. Acts 2:43; 5:12). Indeed, the believers in Joppa sent word to Peter in Lydda to come to them urgently when Tabitha died. Since an apostle was nearby, perhaps there was something he could do!

The Divine Purpose to Bring the Gospel to Cornelius and His Gentile Household (10:1–48)

10:1–8 The shift in location to Caesarea introduces a specific focus on the inclusion of Gentiles under the reign of the Lord Jesus. Caesarea was located on the northern coast above Joppa, built by Herod the Great, and named in honor of Caesar Augustus. Under Roman rule it was the capital of Judea and is the location for Paul’s trials in Acts 23–26. It had, therefore, a large military presence. It is in this setting that Luke introduces Cornelius, a centurion with the Italian cohort (responsible for one hundred soldiers in a cohort of approximately 600 soldiers). This reinforces his link with the imperial power, yet he is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). This indicates that he was a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who worshipped the God of Israel, knew Israel’s Scriptures, and attended synagogue worship, but did not undergo circumcision and did not commit entirely to matters such as the food laws––in other words, a “God-fearer” rather than a full convert. His prayer and his generosity identify him as one of those who, like the Jewish remnant at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, were waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promises (cf. Luke 2:25, 37–38). Thus, in one sense his prayers are answered in the following events (10:4, 31). He must trust in Jesus, however, in order to be saved (10:43; 11:14).

Luke parallels (1) the remarkable ways in which God sovereignly arranges to bring Cornelius’s Gentile household together with Peter so that Peter can present the good news about Jesus, and (2) the ways in which God convinces Peter and then his fellow Jewish believers in Judea that the Gentiles are included with them together as one people (united under one Lord Jesus, through faith in him, with one Holy Spirit, at God’s own initiative). The chain of events begins therefore with God’s initiative. An angel of God came to Cornelius in a vision and provided detailed instructions about where to send people to find Peter, including which town he was in, which house he was in, and where that house was. The fact that Simon Peter was staying at the house of Simon the “tanner” is mentioned twice (9:43; 10:5–6). Since a “tanner” worked with the skins of dead animals, some think he may have been considered “unclean,” which may suggest that Peter had partially recognized the salvation-historical shift that had taken place, though without working out the full implications of these changes for Gentile mission. There is some question, however, over whether tanners were unclean. The designation “tanner” merely identifies the “Simon” whose house “Simon Peter” was staying with, and probably explains why it was located by the sea (due to the smell, and the use of water for washing). Because of the nature (and the smell) of the work, it was a despised occupation, yet Peter was the one through whom the excluded lame man was healed (3:1–10), and one who has just expressed concern for the paralytic in Lydda and the grieving in Joppa.

10:9–16 The emphasis on God’s purposes continues with the note of providential timing: just as they were entering Joppa, Peter was going up on his rooftop to pray (at noon). These two actions are paired because God was orchestrating them both: just as Cornelius needed to be saved, so also Peter’s understanding of how Gentiles can be included needed to be transformed. This transformation comes through a vision that Peter sees while he was hungry and waiting for food. The vision focuses on animals which Peter is commanded in this vision to kill and eat. Peter recognizes that the Lord is the one speaking, but also that the animals are considered unclean and forbidden in the Mosaic Law (Lev 11:2–47), and so he objects. Strikingly, though, the voice comes back with another command. The command is not to eat that which is unclean, but not to call “common” that which “God has made clean” (10:15; cf. Mark 7:19). In other words, this is God’s doing. He has brought about a change, and he is the one who sovereignly determines this change. As the account unfolds, it will become clear that the point is about people. A salvation-historical shift in determining the nature of God’s people has come, and it has been brought by God himself.

10:17–22 Another note of providential timing is given in 10:17. While Peter was at that very time processing the three-times repeated vision about God making these things clean, the men sent by the Gentile Cornelius arrived at the gate of the house looking for him. Again, it was while Peter was pondering the vision that the Spirit instructed him about the arrival of the men and what Peter should do. Interestingly, the three men, says the Spirit, have been sent, not by Cornelius (though that is true, 10:8), but by the Spirit (10:20).

10:23–33 The scene shifts to Caesarea again, and to a gathering at Cornelius’s home consisting of Peter and some Jewish believers from Joppa, as well as Cornelius’s Gentile relatives and friends. After Peter clarifies that he, as a mere human being, is not the one to be worshipped (10:25; cf. Luke 4:8; 24:52), the following verses repeat the preceding events to set the stage for Peter’s message. Peter stresses that God is the one who has been involved (“God has shown me,” 10:28). Peter has also recognized that the vision was not so much about “anything” that is unclean, but “any person” (10:14, 28). Peter knew, of course, that Gentiles could join the people of Israel under the old covenant, and he knew about the command of Jesus to go to all nations. What he apparently was yet unclear about was the equal basis and equal status that Jew and Gentile would now enjoy through Jesus and the salvation-historical shift that came with the inauguration of the new covenant. Cornelius then recounts the detailed instructions he was given in order to find Peter, closing with the recognition that what Peter will say has been “commanded by the Lord” (10:33). Thus, the focus turns to Peter’s message.

10:34–43 In keeping with the account of these events in this chapter, Peter’s speech highlights God’s actions and God’s initiative. First, Peter declares what he has come to understand about God’s character: God does not show partiality but accepts, or welcomes, people from “every nation.” This universal emphasis frames Peter’s speech as he declares in 10:43 that “everyone” who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins (therefore defining what it means in 10:35 to “fear him” and do “what is right”). Then Peter unfolds what God has done in sending Jesus the Messiah who is “Lord of all” (note “God” is mentioned six times in 10:34–42). Peter’s account of the good news summarizes the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and repeats the essential message that Peter had proclaimed in Jerusalem: although “they” (the Jews of Jerusalem) had killed him (the “tree” alludes to the curse of Deut 32:23; cf. Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13), God has raised him, showing him to be righteous, and authenticating the historical reality of the resurrected Jesus through eyewitnesses. Because Jesus is the risen Lord and universal judge, Peter’s final statement is important: Jesus is the long-awaited means of complete forgiveness and acceptance with God for “everyone who believes in him” (10:43). This is indeed “good news of peace” (10:36).

10:44–48 Peter had only just gotten the words out of his mouth that the only requirement for forgiveness of sins was to “believe” in Jesus when “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (10:44). These final verses show that the emphasis in this account is on the unity of Jew and Gentile as one people through Jesus, and this unity is evidenced in their reception of the Holy Spirit. The Jewish (i.e., “circumcised”) believers who had accompanied Peter from Joppa were amazed that “the Gentiles” had received the Holy Spirit (10:45). Peter’s declaration that they “have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” looks back to Pentecost when the Jewish believers received the Spirit. Indeed, their reception of the Spirit is the basis for why they should be baptized, symbolizing their conversion and inclusion among God’s people (10:47). The reason Peter says “just as we have” is that these Gentiles were “speaking in tongues and extolling God,” just as Peter and the Jewish believers had done on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4; cf. 11:15–16). This miraculous ability to speak in other languages, therefore, was a sign to them that God had brought about a salvation-historical shift and Gentiles were now included equally among God’s people on exactly the same basis as the Jews—through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Jewish Believers in Judea Are Convinced That God Granted the Gentiles Repentance (11:1–18)

11:1–3 Luke’s summarizing description of the preceding event as “the Gentiles also had received the word of God” (11:1) recalls his earlier statement that “Samaria had received the word of God” (8:14) and shows that his focus in these accounts is on the momentous salvation-historical events in which God demonstrates that his people include the Samaritans and Gentiles (i.e., Acts 8 and 10–11 are not a paradigm for individual conversions). Although 11:1–18 effectively repeats the events of Acts 10 to emphasize the momentous significance of the inclusion of the Gentiles, the specific focus of these verses is on the resolution of a dispute about these events between Peter and the Jewish believers in Judea (“those of the circumcision,” NKJV; cf. 10:45). Their criticism that “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2) indicates that the issue is one of implied acceptance and equal fellowship (without regard for the requirements of the Mosaic Law).

11:4–18 Peter responds by recounting the events outlined in the preceding chapter, now from his experience. First, Peter tells how he arrived at Cornelius’s house (11:4–14), and then he describes the event of their reception of the Spirit during his message and his conclusion about the significance of this event (11:15–18). Peter’s additional details about “birds of prey” (11:6; cf. Deut 14:11–18), his “close” examination of the sheet of animals (11:6), and his objection that nothing unclean had “ever entered [his] mouth” (11:8) all highlight his meticulous adherence to the details that his Jewish objectors would have appreciated. Nevertheless, Peter emphasizes, as the preceding account has highlighted, that God himself has orchestrated these events: the voice came “from heaven” (11:9), God has made these foods clean (11:9), the timing was providential (“at that very moment,” 11:11), the Spirit instructed him to go with the men (11:12), and the angel had instructed Cornelius with details about where to find Peter and told him that Peter’s message is the means of salvation (11:14). Then Peter explained that he was still speaking and had more to say when the Holy Spirit came (11:15). This was in keeping with “the word of the Lord (Jesus)” (11:16), and therefore God was the one who gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:17). The response of the Jewish believers confirms that they get this point: “they glorified God, saying ‘. . . God has granted repentance . . .’” (11:18, emphasis mine). Peter’s conclusion about their reception of the Holy Spirit reaffirms his conclusion at the end of the events in chapter 10. This event is just like that of Pentecost (11:15–16): the Holy Spirit fell upon them “just as on us” (i.e., in Acts 2), and this was “at the beginning” (i.e., Acts 2), this was the same as the promise of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1:6; i.e., referring to Acts 2), and therefore this was “the same gift” that “he gave to us.” The reason for stressing that this event was just like that of Pentecost comes through again in their conclusion that God has granted Gentiles repentance (11:18; cf. 10:45; 11:1). Thus, there is one people, Jew and Gentile together, with one Holy Spirit. The focus is once again corporate (i.e., on this group as Gentiles) and salvation-historical. God’s promised last-days restoration of Israel (Judea and Samaria) and the inclusion of Gentiles is on track, just as Jesus said (1:6–8).

The Establishment and Strengthening of a Church with Gentiles in (Syrian) Antioch (11:19–30)

11:19–21 Luke continues his focus on the geographical spread of the gospel further north as he recalls the movement of believers because of the persecution mentioned in 8:1–4. These believers were preaching the Word wherever they went (8:4), mostly to their fellow Jews (11:19). Luke specifically focuses on the Greek-speaking Jews among them (originally from Cyprus and Cyrene, cf. 4:36; 6:9; 13:1; 21:16) who also spoke to the Greek speakers as far north as Antioch in Syria. This is the first mention of Antioch in Acts. Antioch was one of the leading cities in the Roman Empire and was ranked third (in population) behind Rome and Alexandria.4 In these verses Luke focuses on how this church is strengthened to become the next major center for the spread of the gospel (cf. 13:1–3; 14:26–28; 15:22, 30, 35; 18:22). Luke highlights the numerical growth of this church: “a great number” believed and turned to the Lord (11:21). This emphasis on the great number of believers continues throughout this section (cf. 11:24, 26). Luke explains, however, that this growth came about because “the hand of the Lord” was with those who proclaimed the “the Lord Jesus” (11:20–21). “The Lord,” in this context, therefore, refers to the Lord Jesus to whom the hearers were turning. Thus, this brief comment is a reminder once again that Jesus is not absent and inactive after his ascension; rather, this book is about what he is continuing to do as he reigns from the right hand of the Father, enabling the Word to spread (cf. 1:1).

11:22–30 Although Luke has noted the numerical growth of the church, in these verses he particularly emphasizes the strengthening of this church. This is seen in three scenes: the sending of Barnabas from Jerusalem; Barnabas’s collection of Saul and their ministry together; and the gifts from the church in Antioch to help the believers in Judea. The first time we encountered Barnabas in Acts, Luke explained that “Barnabas” was actually a nickname meaning “son of encouragement” (cf. 4:36) and he was generous with his possessions. The last time Barnabas was mentioned he came alongside Saul and encouraged the Jerusalem believers to believe in the transforming power of God’s grace in Saul’s life (9:27). The church at Jerusalem, therefore, seems to think that he would be the best person to send to this complex setting in which Jews and Gentiles were together in one congregation (“he was a good man”! 11:24). So, true to his name, “when he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (11:23). The focus, therefore, of Barnabas’s encouragement is that of persevering trust in the Lord. To assist him in this work, he traveled as far as Tarsus to bring Saul (cf. 9:30). In the context of much movement in Acts to this point, the continuous teaching for “a whole year” (11:26) emphasizes a prolonged focus on nurturing these new believers into maturity. The name “Christians” is first applied to believers here and seems to be a designation from outsiders based on their association with and commitment to Jesus, the Christ (cf. “Herodians” in Mark 3:6; 12:13). During this time, the prophet Agabus predicted a severe famine. The significance of this detail in this context is that it shows both the generosity of the Antioch church as well as the establishment of this church. Not only do they reflect the voluntary giving of the early Jerusalem church (“according to his ability,” cf. 2:44–46; 4:34–5:2), but they are also the ones now sending to Jerusalem as they send their gift with Barnabas and Saul (11:30; cf. Gal 2:1–10).

The Reign of “King” Herod (Agrippa I) Comes to an End (12:1–25)

12:1–6 Following the “interlude” of 11:19–30, Luke returns to his focus on Peter (see comments in the introduction to 9:32–12:25). In noting that it was “about that time” that Herod was persecuting the believers (12:1), Luke once again highlights severe opposition while recounting the growth of the early church. The Herod that Luke refers to here is Agrippa I, Herod the Great’s grandson. He was friendly with the Romans and was given the title “king” by the Roman Emperor, (Gaius) Caligula. At this time, he ruled over as much as his grandfather “Herod the Great” (Judea, Galilee, Samaria, from AD 41–44). The opening scene emphasizes Peter’s predicament and the murderous wickedness of Herod. The context for his arrest of Peter was the violent death (“with the sword,” 12:2) of James, the apostle and brother of John, and the positive response this brought from the Jews. In other words, if it wasn’t for the Passover week, Peter would be dead too. Thus, the implication is that Peter’s death is next on the agenda. The details of Peter’s imprisonment highlight his certain death even more, since there is no likelihood of escape. The description of “four squads of soldiers” guarding him in 12:4 is expanded upon in 12:6 with reference to soldiers on either side of Peter, two chains, and sentries at the door. The fact that this was the arrangement right up until the “very night” (12:6) that Herod was to bring Peter out suggests certain death on the horizon for Peter. The “earnest prayer” in this context of impending death seems most likely to be for Peter’s safety and deliverance from danger (cf. the same word in 3Macc 5:9; Jonah 3:8; cf. the cognate adjective in Luke 22:44). As the account unfolds, it becomes clear that Peter’s deliverance is due to God’s grace and not human ingenuity or even the godliness or great faith of the believers. It is not an “escape,” because Peter himself is virtually uninvolved. Indeed, Luke notes in 12:6 that Peter was sleeping! It’s hard to know how Peter can sleep in this situation, but the point in this context is that he clearly is not the one orchestrating an escape.

12:7–17 As the events unfold and the angel leads him out, Peter does not know what was going on; he thinks he is having an exciting dream (12:9). It is only when he is outside of the prison and his rescue is complete that “Peter came to himself” (12:11). When Peter goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the believers were “earnestly” praying for him, the portrait of God’s people is not overwhelmingly positive. Rhoda the servant girl comes to open the door when Peter knocks and rejoices at hearing Peter’s voice. Luke’s note that “she did not open the gate” and instead went back inside and reported that Peter was “standing at the gate” (12:14), thereby leaving Peter outside in obvious danger, suggests a harmless but humorous portrait of Rhoda (many have noted that it was easier for Peter to get through the gate of the prison than the gate of the prayer meeting; cf. 12:10, 14). Finally, we come to the portrait of the believers who, Luke reminds us, were praying (12:12). Their three responses in 12:15–16 (that Rhoda must be crazy, that it must be an angel or messenger, then, finally, amazement) perhaps indicate that their prayers were being answered despite their weak faith rather than because of their great faith or godliness.

The focus of this account, then, is not on the believers, whether it be Peter, Rhoda, or the praying church; rather, the focus is on the power of the Lord. In the account of the rescue, it was an angel “of the Lord” who initiated the events, the chains just “fell off” Peter’s hands (12:7), and the iron gate “opened of its own accord” (12:10). When Peter “came to himself,” he realized that “the Lord” had sent his angel. When he finally got to recount to the believers what happened, he described “how the Lord had brought him out of the prison” (12:17).

Theatre at Caesarea where Herod Agrippa I died

12:18–25 Although a shift in location doesn’t come until 12:19–20, Herod is reintroduced into the narrative at this point, and he remains the focus to the end of the chapter. The portrait of Herod, therefore, opens and closes this chapter. Furthermore, the royal language, such as the title “king” noted in 12:1, also returns in these closing verses. First, although the chapter opened with a display of Herod’s power, it is Herod’s powerlessness in Peter’s escape that is seen here. His soldiers are disturbed, and despite Herod’s search, he couldn’t find Peter. The deaths of his soldiers reinforce the danger Peter was in. The dispute between Herod and the people of Tyre and Sidon, those dependent on him for food, further highlights the negative portrait of what it means to be under his rule. Indeed, the emphasis in 12:20–21 is on Herod as a “king.” Blastus is described as “the king’s” chamberlain, the people are dependent on “the king’s” country for food, and Herod put on his “royal robes” and sat upon his “throne” before the people.5 Finally, as a sign of the kind of power “king” Herod thought he had, he welcomed the praise from the people that his voice was that of a god and not a mere human being (cf. 10:25–26). It is at this point that the angel of the Lord “strikes” again (12:7, 23).6 Because he exalted himself and refused to glorify God, this “king” Herod is brought down in judgment (for “worms” as signifying judgment, cf. Isa 14:11; 66:24). The location of the summary statement about the continued spread of the Word that concludes this section, therefore, is significant. This chapter invites a comparison between “the Lord” who rescued Peter and the apparently powerful “king” Herod who persecuted the Lord’s people and put them to death. This chapter encourages God’s people that although such wicked rulers arise and suffering may come (remember James’s martyrdom, 12:2), ultimately judgment will come for the wicked, and it is the Lord who reigns and enables the spread of the Word to continue. The return of Barnabas and Saul to Antioch with John Mark after their ministry in Jerusalem (12:25, cf. NJB, NLT) frames this chapter with reference to their ministry and prepares for the following account of the continued spread of the Word from Antioch.

The Reign of Christ the Lord Proclaimed to the Nations: Part 1 (Acts 13:1–16:5)

Following the summary statement at the end of chapter 12 that concludes the focus on Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles in Caesarea and his rescue from death at the hands of Herod, the next summary statement in 16:5 frames the focus in this section of the gospel going further and further into Gentile territory. Having shown the establishment of the church at Antioch in the middle of the preceding section (11:19–30), the spread of the gospel goes out from and is reported back to this church in this section. Thus, there is a clear literary frame around 13:1–14:28 (seen in the return and report to Antioch in 14:26–28 as well as the specific framing reference to “the work” in 13:2 and 14:26). Throughout this mission in Acts 13 and 14, Jews and Gentiles are both exhorted to believe, and both are equally promised forgiveness of sins with the only requirement for both being belief in the Lord Jesus. The distinction between Jews and Gentiles shifts to a distinction between Jews and Gentiles who believe in contrast to Jews and Gentiles who refuse to believe. This issue is the heart of the discussion in Acts 15, so it is best to include Acts 15 in the broad focus of this section. The opening verses of chapter 16 revisit the issue of circumcision and recount the distribution of the decisions reached in the council of chapter 15. So, following Spencer, this section may be outlined as follows:

Commission in Antioch (13:1–3)

Ministry in Cyprus, Pisidia, Lycaonia (13:4–14:20)

Nurturing the Churches (14:21–28)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (15:1–16:5)7

A similar outline will be used for Acts 16:6–21:36, providing a big-picture overview of Acts 13–21.

Commission in Antioch (13:1–3)

Paul and Barnabas’s travels in Acts 13–14 (from Barry J. Beitzel, The New Moody Atlas of the Bible [Chicago: Moody, 2009], map 110)
13:1–3 These verses are important for understanding the significance of the first major launch of the gospel outside the land of Israel. The make-up of the church at Antioch (cf. 11:20–21) is a picture of the diverse impact of the gospel and the unity that comes in Christ. Luke lists a number of those who are in the church, and the geographical spread is remarkable: Barnabas (a Levite from Cyprus, 4:36), Simeon (with the Latin name Niger, possibly from North Africa), Lucius (from Cyrene, on the northeastern coast of Libya; cf. 2:10; 11:20; Luke 23:26), Manaen, who was brought up with Herod Antipas (i.e., in Galilee; cf. Luke 3:19; 9:7), and Saul (from Tarsus in Cilicia, cf. Acts 9:30; 11:25; 22:3). All of them were together in one congregation because of their common faith in the Lord Jesus. It is from this church that the Holy Spirit initiates the next major development in the spread of the gospel––bringing Jew and Gentile together as one people under one Lord. Luke does not focus on how the Holy Spirit instructed the believers to set apart Saul and Barnabas (probably through a prophet since prophets are mentioned in verse 1), but that it is his initiative and his work (note that Barnabas and Saul are “sent” by both the believers in Antioch as well as the Holy Spirit, 13:3, 4).

Ministry in Cyprus (13:4–12)

13:4–12 This journey begins with ministry in Barnabas’s homeland, Cyprus, and it begins, as usual, in the synagogues. On the other side of the island at Paphos, they encounter a Jewish false prophet who practiced sorcery (i.e., sorcery/magic is encountered as the gospel goes out on the Gentile mission just as the gospel went out from Jerusalem). Ironically, his name, Bar-Jesus, means “son of Yahweh who saves.” His identification as a false prophet is seen in his “seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (13:8). Paul’s description of this as “making crooked the straight paths of the Lord” (13:10) shows that “Bar-Jesus” is opposed to the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist and their ministry of pointing people to the coming of Jesus (Isa 40:3–5; Luke 3:4–6). Rather than being a “son of Yahweh who saves,” he is instead a “son of the devil” (13:10). This encounter, together with the emphasis here on the “word of God” that they proclaim (13:5) and that the proconsul sought to hear (13:7) and believed in (13:12), highlights Paul as a true prophet, proclaiming the true Word of God. It is in this setting, then, that Luke notes Paul’s rise to prominence as a leader in the proclamation of the gospel. The account shifts from “Barnabas and Saul” in 13:2 and 13:7, to “Saul, who was also called Paul” in 13:9, to simply “Paul and his companions” in 13:13 (and then “Paul and Barnabas”; e.g., 13:46, 50; 14:1). Luke chooses this context to tell us that Saul’s Roman name was “Paul,” and this of course becomes the designation for Paul in the rest of Acts, largely because his ministry is focused on the proclamation of the good news to Gentiles, as well as to Jews.

Ministry in Pisidian Antioch (13:13–52)

13:13–15 John Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas from Jerusalem to Antioch (12:25) and to Cyprus as a helper (13:5), and he now returns to Jerusalem from Perga (13:13). No reason is given here, but it is something that Paul rather than Barnabas later objected to (15:37–39). When they arrive in Antioch (which Luke calls “Pisidian” because it neighbored Pisidia, but also to distinguish it from the Antioch in Syria that they departed from), they go as usual into a synagogue and are invited to share a “word of encouragement” (13:15) from the Scriptures. Although this is a common event in Paul’s ministry, this is the only time Luke records what Paul would say on these occasions. Thus, this may be taken as a kind of “sample” synagogue sermon of Paul’s as he proclaims Christ.

13:16–25 The sermon may be divided up at the places where Paul addresses his audience: here (13:16), 13:26, and concluding at 13:38. The significance of Paul’s address to both fellow Israelites and those who fear God (i.e., Gentiles who attended synagogue services; cf. 10:1–2) becomes clear in the conclusion (13:38–39). In this first section, Paul provides an overview of Israel’s history, focusing on the leaders of Israel until the arrival of David as king. The emphasis in this brief history, however, is on God’s gracious provision throughout Israel’s history, culminating in the arrival of Jesus. God is the subject of almost all the verbs in 13:17–23 (“chose,” “led,” “put up,” “gave . . . gave,” “removed . . . raised up . . . testified,” “brought . . . promised”). Thus, Jesus is the Savior that God brought just as he promised, and John the Baptist is the one who announced his arrival and greatness.

13:26–37 The arrival of Jesus the Savior is now described as the arrival of “the message of this salvation” (13:26). The message of salvation, which is “good news” (13:32), concerns the events and significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In a condensed form, Paul states that Jesus’s death was God’s will (13:27), yet Jesus was innocent (13:28), and he bore God’s curse (13:29; see 10:39). In other words, the ingredients of an understanding of the atonement are there, although they are not elaborated upon in this context. Likewise, Jesus’s resurrection was God’s will (13:30) and was seen by witnesses (13:31), and Jesus has entered a new phase of his ministry at his resurrection and ascension in fulfilment of Scripture (as great David’s greater Son, 13:32–37; see also 2:25–36).

13:38–41 The significance of these saving events (“therefore”) is that a response must be given. Jesus’s death must have been for the purpose of dealing with sin, for Paul proclaims that it is on the basis of what he has just said that “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). If forgiveness of sins is available, then so is justification, a justification that was not attainable through the Law (CSB; cf. Rom 4:6–8). Moreover, this remarkable offer is available because of Jesus for “everyone who believes” (13:39; i.e., both Jew and Gentile). God’s warning is added to this promise with an analogy from Habakkuk 1:5.

13:42–52 The aftermath of this sermon continues the theme that God’s saving purposes have arrived in Jesus for all. When the Jewish locals reject the message out of jealousy that this message is appealing to many, Paul and Barnabas make clear that what they are rejecting is the Word of God that promises “eternal life.” In announcing that they will turn to the Gentiles, they do not mean that the Jewish people are rejected in total, since they continue in the following town to go to the synagogue (14:1). Instead, it is an acknowledgement that the promises of the Scriptures are announced in salvation history first to the ones who received those promises, the people of Israel (Rom 1:16). The plan to go to the Gentiles is what “the Lord” commanded them to do (13:47). In citing Isaiah 49:6, Paul and Barnabas cite a Servant song that was applied to Jesus in Luke 2:32. Jesus is that Servant who both represents Israel and also restores Israel. As Jesus’s representatives, they are a “light for the Gentiles” as they proclaim Jesus who is ultimately the “light for the Gentiles.” In this way, as they bring Jesus to the Gentiles, they “bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Jesus alluded to this Isaiah passage in Acts 1:8). Paul and Barnabas are participants with him in his ministry for the people of Israel and the Gentiles. The response of the Gentiles confirms the outworking of God’s purposes to bring them salvation, and Luke highlights that this is God’s own gracious initiative to enable Gentiles to believe and have eternal life (13:48). Thus, the emphasis on the inclusion of Gentiles by God’s grace through faith concludes this first major account of Paul’s ministry in Galatia. In a development that will continue in the following towns, however, it is persecution that forces Paul and Barnabas to leave.

Ministry in Iconium (14:1–7)

14:1–7 In the brief account of Paul and Barnabas’s ministry in Iconium, Luke shows the developing pattern of mixed responses and increased opposition that results in further movement. Thus, they continued their practice of going first to a synagogue, and Luke notes the mixed response. However, the way Luke describes the responses shows the emphasis of this section. On the one hand, those who respond positively are described as “Jews and Greeks [who] believed” (14:1). On the other hand, those who are opposed to them are called “unbelieving Jews . . . Gentiles.” Despite the message being “the word of [God’s] grace,” and despite God graciously bearing witness to that Word through signs and wonders, the city was divided. The attempt to “mistreat them and to stone them” came from “both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers” (14:5). In the face of likely death by stoning, they “fled to Lystra and Derbe . . . and there they continued to preach the gospel” (14:6–7).

Ministry in Lystra (14:8–20)

Statues of Hermes (a herald and messenger) from the Archaeological museum at Konya (Iconium)

14:8–18 Just as the beginning of Peter’s ministry included the healing of a lame man after a sermon about Jesus being the crucified and risen Davidic king, so also does the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Acts 13–14. The parallels are striking: the man was lame from birth (3:2; 14:8), Peter/Paul look intently at the man (3:4; 14:9), both men respond by jumping to their feet (3:8; 14:10), faith is involved in both (13:16; 14:9), and observers mistakenly focus on Peter/Paul, who then point away from themselves (3:12; 14:14–15). The emphasis here, as in Acts 3, is on the man’s helplessness: he “could not use his feet,” he was “crippled from birth,” and he had “never walked” (14:8). The parallels imply that Paul is just as much an authorized representative of Jesus as Peter. The response of the people reflects their amazement at Paul, but this was interpreted through their own worldview that attributes the healing to their own power. They therefore conclude that gods Zeus and Hermes had appeared among them in human form. Just like the temple hierarchy in the aftermath of the healing in Acts 3 were mistaken, so were the priest of Zeus and the crowds here. In a condensed summary of the response of Barnabas and Paul, Luke notes that they first deflect from themselves as mere human beings (cf. 10:26; 12:22) and then declare that they bring “good news” for the people to turn from idols (“vain things”) to a “living God” who is the creator of all and who has revealed himself in creation. Nevertheless, the nations have gone their own way. The implication is that all are accountable to God, and with the reference to “past generations,” the implication is also that a new day has dawned. The significance of the judgment and the salvation-historical shift that has come are not spelled out here, but the use of words such as “good news” and “turn” and a shift in time from the “past” indicates that the elements of what Paul will say in Acts 17 are summarized briefly here.


14:19–20 The link between Iconium and Lystra is highlighted as opposition occurs here too. However, the opposition in Lystra is attributed to Jews who came from both of the previous two towns, Antioch and Iconium. Now the earlier threat of stoning in Iconium (14:5) comes to fruition, and they leave Paul for dead outside Lystra, indicating a rising opposition throughout this section just as there was in Acts 3–7. There must have been some fruit from Paul’s ministry here, as the disciples who gather around him must have become disciples in Lystra. Paul recovers in the city with these disciples before he and Barnabas move on to the next town further inland, Derbe.

Nurturing the Churches (14:21–28)

The road from Derbe

14:21–25 Luke again highlights both the numerical growth (cf. the word hikanos [“many”] used in 11:24, 26; 14:21) as well as the strengthening and establishment of believers (as in 11:19–30). As he signals a conclusion to the mission that began at 13:1, Luke notes that, after making many disciples in Derbe, Paul and Barnabas depart and return the way they came, through Lystra, Iconium, and (Pisidian) Antioch. Given that the only reason they left these locations was the persecution they encountered in each of them, and given that they could have continued from Derbe further east to go through Tarsus and back around to Syrian Antioch, there must be some significant reason for their longer and more dangerous travel here. The reason for this is that they returned “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (14:22; cf. also 15:41; 16:5; 18:23). Thus, the focus of their ministry is care for the spiritual wellbeing of these new believers, especially so that they persevere in their faith in the context of persecution from others in the town. Luke summarizes Paul and Barnabas’s message of encouragement to these believers: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). In this brief statement, Paul and Barnabas lovingly prepare them for the reality (“many tribulations”), allude to the comfort of God’s sovereignty (“we must”; the word dei is used in 9:16), and point to the future hope (“enter the kingdom”). They help them to understand the nature of what it means to follow Jesus in this phase of the inaugurated kingdom, before the kingdom comes in fullness in the age to come. Finally, Paul and Barnabas also show care for these new believers in appointing elders in each church. The role of elders will be elaborated upon in Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders in 20:17–38, but in this context, it is evident that this team of leaders in the local church is one significant means by which believers are cared for and strengthened in their faith in the midst of a hostile culture.

14:26–28 The final verses of this chapter conclude this section and highlight their return to Perga on the coast and then by boat back to (Syrian) Antioch, where they began the mission in 13:1–3. This was where the Holy Spirit had set them apart for “the work” he had for them (13:2), so Luke reminds readers that this was “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled” (14:26, emphasis mine). The report that they give in 14:27 serves to highlight the main themes of these chapters: they declared (1) “all that God had done with them” (i.e., the emphasis on God’s initiative; cf. 13:48), (2) how he (God) had “opened a door of faith” (i.e., that the only required response was belief and that God had enabled this; cf. 13:39; 14:1), and (3) that this door had been opened “to the Gentiles” (i.e., the gospel had reached more and more Gentiles, and all they had to do was believe; cf. 13:48). These emphases on the same gospel message being given to both Jews and Gentiles and the same required response of belief will be the focus in Acts 15.

Clarification in Jerusalem: Salvation by Grace through Repentance and Faith (15:1–16:5)

15:1–5 The issue at the center of this chapter frames these opening verses. First, some were saying, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). This is later repeated with specific reference to the Gentiles: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). Thus, the issue has to do with what is required for salvation. The opening verse indicates that some had come down from Judea (i.e., Jerusalem; one always travels up to and down from Jerusalem) to Antioch and were advocating these additional requirements to faith. Because this teaching had come from Jerusalem, the believers in Antioch determine that the matter must be settled at the source and decide to send Paul and Barnabas there to resolve the dispute. Luke summarizes the themes of the preceding chapters in recounting the journey of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem: along the way they describe “the conversion of the Gentiles,” and when they get to Jerusalem, they declare “all that God had done with them” (15:3–4).

15:6–12 Although there was much debate, Luke focuses on Peter’s summary of the inclusion of the Gentiles through his ministry with Cornelius and his friends and relatives in Acts 10. This is now the third time these events have been recounted (they were repeated in 11:1–18), and the summary here highlights the emphases of Acts 10–11: (1) God’s initiative (“God made a choice,” 15:7); (2) belief was the means by which God saved the Gentiles (“the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe,” 15:7; “cleansed their hearts by faith,” 15:9; “through the grace of the Lord Jesus,” 15:11); (3) they received the Holy Spirit just like the Jews, so there is only one people of God (God gave “them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,” 15:8; “he made no distinction between us and them,” 15:9; “we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will,” 15:11, emphasis mine). Peter’s summary, therefore, highlights the issue at hand as not merely the pragmatics of Jew-Gentile relations, but the heart of the gospel: how one is saved and what response to the gospel is required to be included among God’s people. Luke’s summary of Barnabas and Paul’s ministry is brief, but it also emphasizes that the inclusion of the Gentiles is the work of God (15:12).

15:13–18 James (not James the apostle who died in Acts 12, but James the brother of the Lord Jesus who had become a leader in the Jerusalem church by this time; cf. 12:17; Gal 1:19) briefly summarizes Peter’s message and again highlights God’s initiative (15:14). Importantly, James uses language reserved for the people of Israel in the Old Testament for these Gentiles who have now become God’s people through the Messiah. The language of God “visiting” is often used for God coming to his people either in judgment or, as here, in salvation (Exod 3:16; 4:31; cf. Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16). Furthermore, the reference to God taking “from them a people for his name” (15:14) recalls the language of Deuteronomy 7:6 (cf. 14:2; Exod 23:22), that he took from “the nations” (Gentiles) “a people” (Israel) for himself. Then James argues that this is not an aberration in God’s plan but, rather, agrees with the prophets (see Acts 1:8). The reference to “a people for his name” leads James to cite Amos 9:11 that looks forward to (1) a time when the Davidic kingdom will be established (cf. “tent of David” in Isa 16:5; see Acts 2:30), but then also that (2) the Gentiles “who are called by my name” will seek the Lord.

15:19–35 James’s final words urge the Gentiles to abstain from four specific items (stated in 15:20, repeated in the letter in 15:29, and repeated again when Paul gets to Jerusalem in 21:25): strangled animals, “blood” (eating/drinking of it), “things polluted by idols” (15:20; or “[meat] sacrificed to idols,” 15:29), and “sexual immorality.” To some interpreters these restrictions reflect a continuation of adherence to the Mosaic Law for these Gentiles (or just the laws for Gentiles in the land from Lev 17); to others they are no more than an encouragement to Gentile believers to be sensitive to their Jewish neighbors. However, there were many more requirements than these in Leviticus 17 for the strangers living in the land (e.g., Lev 17:8–9, 15–16; 20:2; 22:18), and the terms used here are not found in Leviticus 17 (e.g., “things strangled”), aside from the fact that, as the following letter will show, these are Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (obviously not in the land of Israel), and the restrictions are limited to just these four (15:28). At the same time, these are not merely “take-it-or-leave-it” suggestions for harmonious relations with their Jewish neighbors. As the following letter will state, these are “requirements” (15:28) and “decrees” (16:4, NET, LSB). Furthermore, the question remains, Why only these four (cf. “no greater burden than these,” 15:28)? Surely there are many other laws that would help maintain good relationships with Jewish neighbors (one thinks of the prohibitions against stealing or murder for example), just as there were for Gentiles living in the land of Israel in Leviticus 17. The best solution is one that recognizes the unity that these four restrictions have when seen together.8 The combination of references to idolatry, blood, strangled animals, and sexual immorality would be recognized as a reference to activity associated with idolatry and cultic activities at pagan temples. With the language of “turning to God” (15:19; cf. 1Thes 1:9), James refers to the repentance from sin and idolatry that has been a part of the required response to the gospel throughout Acts. In summary, therefore, the conclusions of the council are that the only requirement for Gentiles is the same as the requirement for Jews: repentance and faith. They will “not trouble” the Gentiles who are turning to God (15:19; cf. 15:28)—the proclamation of Moses in the synagogues does that (15:21). They do not need to keep the Law to be saved (i.e., they don’t have to become Jews), yet they cannot remain in their pagan idolatry either (they must repent). Thus, the result is harmonious agreement on the nature of the gospel and the required response to the gospel (15:22), and Paul and Barnabas, along with Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, go to (Syrian) Antioch. The result is more joyful encouragement and harmony among the believers there, so Paul and Barnabas along with “many others” remain there preaching the Word (15:30–35).

15:36–41 Paul’s plan to return to see the believers is in keeping with an emphasis in Acts on the nurturing and strengthening of believers (cf. 14:21–23). However, the departure of John Mark earlier in 13:13 to Jerusalem seems to be a sticking point for Paul. He apparently interprets this departure as evidence of unreliability in gospel ministry, whereas Barnabas sees no such problem with bringing John Mark along. Is Paul being too strict, or is Barnabas being too soft? Barnabas is of course known as a “son of encouragement.” Luke does not appear to adjudicate, but simply notes that they part ways as he continues his focus on Paul’s ministry (others depart from the narrative without implying blame, e.g., Matthias, 1:26). This is striking after an account that highlighted the harmony of the believers surrounding the gospel and its required response. Luke implies here that unity in the gospel does not always mean agreement in how best to carry out gospel ministry.

16:1–5 Although many structure the Book of Acts according to missionary journeys and therefore start a new section with Paul’s travels, which started in the preceding verses and continued here back to Derbe and Lystra (cf. 14:20–21), the themes of the preceding chapter continue in these opening verses of Acts 16, until the summary statement in 16:5. First, circumcision gets mentioned again. This time it is in relation to Timothy, who Paul brings along with him from this point. Because his mother was Jewish, Timothy would have been viewed as a Jew. However, by reputation, the Jews in the area, who knew that his father was a Greek, also evidently knew that he was uncircumcised. So, Paul has Timothy circumcised. But why? Hasn’t it just been made clear in the preceding council that circumcision was no longer required? Clearly the reason for this is vastly different to that of the preceding council (and that of Titus in Gal 2). This is not done so Timothy may be “saved” (15:1; Gal 2:5) but “because of the Jews who were in those places” where they were travelling and hoping for a hearing among the synagogues (16:3). In other words, this is an expression of freedom for the sake of the gospel and shows that the preceding council did not set a new law—“thou shalt not get circumcised” (cf. Gal 5:6; 1Cor 7:19; 9:21; and as we noted above, Timothy is viewed as a Jew, not as a Gentile who must conform to the Law here). Second, the council’s decrees are mentioned again in 16:4 as they are distributed to the Gentile believers in the surrounding towns (cf. 15:23, 41). The summary statement in 16:5 serves to bracket the preceding section as a complete literary unit focused on the establishment and strengthening of churches of Jews and Gentiles united in the gospel through faith throughout these Gentile areas.

The Reign of Christ the Lord Proclaimed to the Nations: Part 2 (16:6–21:36)

Broadly speaking, the outline that served to identify the main developments throughout Acts 13–16 can be repeated for Acts 16–21:

Commission in Troas (16:6–10)

Ministry in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus (16:11–19:41)

Nurturing the Churches (20:1–21:14)

Clarification in Jerusalem (21:15–36)9

The similarity is that, like the preceding section: (1) there is an emphasis on the guiding activity of the Spirit in initiating travels at the beginning of this section; (2) after much travel and gospel ministry, there is a concluding section focusing on elders and their care of believers in the midst of suffering; and (3) there is a final discussion in Jerusalem where the issue of Gentiles and the Law is raised again (including a repetition of the “decrees” from the council). This time, the discussion in Jerusalem serves as a transition to the concluding section of Acts, since Paul is arrested there and the charges against him serve as the backdrop to the trials that run through to the end of the book.

One significant feature of this section is that while there is a great increase in the amount of geography covered (moving beyond the regions covered so far to go further west to Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia), there is also a narrowing focus leading to the grand finale in Ephesus (cf. 16:9–10; 19:21–22).10 In Macedonia, Luke focuses on ministry in three places (Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea). In Achaia, he focuses on two places (Athens and Corinth). In Asia, however, Luke focuses only on ministry in Ephesus. Likewise, Luke notes an increasing amount of time that Paul spends in these places, with “days” in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (16:12; 17:2, 11–13), “months” in Corinth (18:11), and two to three “years” in Ephesus (19:8, 10; 20:31). There is also an increased amount of narrative space devoted to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (and on one two-hour event at the end especially) and a subsequent discussion with the Ephesian elders (as Paul is on his way back to Jerusalem). Thus, the events in Ephesus, the last location of Paul’s ministry as a free man in Acts, culminate the accounts of ministry in this section.

The Macedonian Ministry: One People under One Lord (16:6–17:15)

Following the council in Jerusalem that confirmed the unity of Jew and Gentile as one people with the same required response of faith to the gospel, this section continues by showing the fruit of that in the range of people who believe (cf. esp. 16:15, 31–32; 17:4, 12).

The ancient walls of Troas with the Aegean Sea (and Macedonia) in the distance

Commission in Troas (16:6–10)

16:6–10 Like the opening of the mission in Acts 13 (following the summary statement in 12:24), this section (following the summary statement in 16:5) emphasizes the sovereign work of the Spirit. Moving from the east, Paul and his traveling companions attempt to continue west to Asia, then north to Bithynia, and finally northwest to Troas on the coast. The shift from the reference to the “Holy Spirit” (16:6) to “the Spirit of Jesus” (16:7) as the one who prevents them reminds readers that this is the Holy Spirit that Jesus sent (2:33) and, therefore, of Jesus’s continuing role in enabling the spread of the Word (11:21). The emphasis on each attempted move being prevented is on divine guidance, though Luke does not say what the means of this prevention was. Thus, following the vision of a Macedonian man calling them to “come over to Macedonia,” Luke notes, “we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (16:10). This is the first appearance of the first-person plural “we” in Acts (“we sought . . . called us”). It continues through to 16:17 and picks up again at 20:5–6 (indicating that Luke, the author, is involved in these events and remains in Philippi). The repetition of references to “Macedonia” signals a major geographical shift in the narrative from the east to the west (to what is Europe today).

Ministry in Philippi (16:11–40)

Luke’s account of events in Philippi (a Roman colony with Roman army veterans and governmental ties directly to Rome) focuses primarily on three individuals: Lydia, a servant girl, and the Philippian jailer. The parallels between Lydia and the jailer suggest that Luke intends them to be a “frame” for the chapter and that the middle incident with the servant girl should also be read in their light. We will note below the common elements of belief, baptism, household (cf. also 18:8), and hospitality in the accounts of their conversions.

16:11–15 The first event described in Philippi is an encounter with a group of women at the synagogue on the outskirts of town (“a place of prayer” can be another name for a synagogue; cf. 16:16). Lydia seems to have been a wealthy businesswoman and a God-fearer (“a worshipper of God,” like Cornelius). Luke notes that she paid attention to Paul’s message and became a believer. More than that, Luke notes that after all the emphasis on the divine guidance directing Paul to Macedonia, the reason she responds to Paul’s message is that “the Lord opened her heart” (16:15). Since it is the Lord Jesus that she has believed in (16:15), this is another reminder of the continuing activity of the Lord Jesus in enabling the spread of the gospel (cf. 11:21). Lydia’s immediate response is to get baptized and to offer hospitality, demonstrating the sincerity of her response (16:15). This pattern will be repeated with the jailer in 16:31–34.

16:16–19 The encounter with the slave girl highlights again a link between money and those opposed to the gospel. Luke notes that she “brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling” (16:16). Luke is also careful to note that when Paul commanded the spirit to “come out” of her, the spirit “went out” of her, and likewise her owners’ hope of gain “went out” (the same word is used in 16:18 and 19, cf. LSB).11 There appears to be nothing inaccurate about what she was saying (“servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation”), yet it is not from a source that represents the Lord Jesus, and in this setting generic references to the “Most High God” and “salvation” could be misinterpreted (and her announcement is perhaps better translated as “a way of salvation” rather than “the way of salvation,” cf. NRSV). The spirit and slave girl owners would distort the purpose and reality of this proclamation. So, Paul specifies that it is by “the name of the Lord Jesus” that he commands the spirit to come out of her (16:18). That this occurs in between two conversions (a wealthy woman associated with Judaism and a Gentile male jailer) that are deliberately paralleled in their responses suggests that, although it is not explicitly stated here, the freeing of this woman from an evil spirit implies her conversion too. Thus, here we have the inclusion of a Gentile, slave woman (cf. Gal 3:28).12

16:20–40 Part of the focus in this account of events in the Roman colony Philippi is on the interactions between Paul and Roman customs. The owners of the slave girl try to get them in trouble by claiming that Paul and Silas have been advocating “customs” that are unlawful for “Romans” (16:21). Yet the actions of the violent crowd and the magistrates in beating them and throwing them into prison (16:22–24) are matched at the conclusion of the account where it is clear that the magistrates rather than Paul and Silas were acting unlawfully, and that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens (16:35–39). In fact, Paul insists on his rightful fair treatment as a Roman citizen (perhaps for the benefit of the Philippian believers after he goes). The magistrates apologize and obey the request of Paul to accompany them out of the city! Luke notes this point more than once in this section—it is not the believers who cause unrest in the empire.

Between these interactions with the magistrates is the imprisonment of Paul and Silas and the famous conversion of the Philippian jailer (16:25–34). The earthquake in the middle of the night was such that all the doors of the prison came off their hinges and the chains come off the walls. However, although this was providential, it was not for the purpose of escape. Clearly, the jailer thought he would face death being the one in charge of the prisoners who, he assumed, had all escaped (cf. 12:19). Paul’s response to the jailer shows concern for him and is further evidence of their law-abiding behavior. The jailer’s response of fear is no doubt partly related to the fearful experience of the earthquake that had just occurred. Yet his response of falling before Paul and Silas (cf. 10:25) and his recognition that he needed “salvation” appears to be an acknowledgment of his own accountability to God before them. After all, they were the ones who proclaimed, in the words of the servant girl, “a way of salvation” as “servants of the Most High God” (16:17), whom they appeared to know personally since they were “praying and singing hymns to God” at midnight when the earthquake occurred (16:25)! As Luke has been highlighting throughout his descriptions of the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, the only required response for salvation is to “believe in the Lord Jesus” (16:31). In parallel with Lydia’s conversion, there is reference here also to his household as the same offer is extended to them (including servants who would have been a part of his household). Thus, Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (16:32; cf. 18:8). They evidently all responded to the word that was preached to them, as they were all baptized and they all rejoiced (16:33–34). Again, like Lydia, the jailer expresses his new faith in hospitality to Paul and Silas. By showing concern for their wounds, he goes beyond what any jailer was supposed to do! At the conclusion of this account of the first events after the Jerusalem council, before leaving the city, Paul and Silas return to Lydia’s house to see and encourage the “brothers and sisters” (NRSV). This new congregation, made up of male and female, slave and free, Gentile and former God-fearers associated with Judaism, are together described in family terms.

Ministry in Thessalonica and Berea (17:1–15)

17:1–9 Luke links Paul and Silas’s ministry in Thessalonica and Berea with parallels and contrasts between the two cities. Paul and Silas continue to seek to win the Jews, and they begin as usual in the synagogue in Thessalonica (the capital of Macedonia, and a city with high honor for the emperor). Paul’s proclamation about Jesus to the Jews is that Jesus is the Messiah, and he does this through reasoned explanation and proof from “the Scriptures” (17:2–3). As in Philippi, it is the opponents of Paul—this time the Jews of the city—who cause a disturbance and again accuse them of “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus” (17:7). In this context, this is also clearly a false charge. Although it is true that Jesus is the ultimate “Savior” and “King,” and Caesar is not, they are not setting up a rival political opponent in Thessalonica. At the center of this account, however, is Luke’s description of those who “were persuaded” by Paul. There were “some” of the Jews from the synagogue, as well as “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4). Thus, Luke is careful to note that male and female, Jew and Gentile, as well as a range of social classes characterized the new people of God.

17:10–15 Paul and Silas leave due to opposition (just as they had to in Acts 13–14), so they depart at night to nearby Berea. As with Thessalonica, Paul and Silas begin in the synagogue (cf. 14:1). However, Luke draws a contrast with Thessalonica here. Unlike the Jews of Thessalonica, the Jews at Berea were “more noble” than them. That is, they were more “open-minded” (NET), or more “receptive” (NRSV), because they “received the word with all eagerness” and they were “examining the Scriptures daily” to see if what Paul said was true (17:11). This contrast is then illustrated with more disturbance in the city, this time caused by the Jews of Thessalonica who came there too. The reason given for coming to Berea is that they “learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also” (17:13; it was jealousy in Thessalonica, 17:5; cf. 5:17; 7:9; 13:45). Although Paul and Silas were the object of their opposition in Thessalonica (17:5), the focus seems to have narrowed to Paul here since Paul is taken to the coast and brought to Athens while Silas and Timothy remain in Berea, eventually rejoining him in Corinth (18:5). At the center of this account, however, as with Thessalonica, is Luke’s description of those who believed. This time there were “many” of the Jews who believed, along with “not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (17:12). Again, male and female, Jew and Gentile, and a range of social classes characterized the people of God. Following Acts 15, ministry in Macedonia features the results of the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus the Messiah—one people of God under one Lord Jesus.

The Achaean Ministry: The Sovereign Lord and Savior (17:16–18:17)

Although there is no distinct narrative break at 17:16, the broad groupings in 19:20–22 according to the provinces of Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia, as well as the references to Macedonia and Achaia in 18:5 and 18:12 (cf. 16:9–10, 12), indicate that Luke groups these cities accordingly. There is clearly a focus on Macedonia in the preceding section and a focus on Ephesus in Asia in the following section. Although the events in Athens and Corinth differ in focus, they both emphasize the sovereignty of God. In Athens God is proclaimed as the Creator of all, upon whom all depend, and to whom all are accountable. In Corinth, the Lord Jesus sovereignly reassures Paul of his purposes to save his people there.

Ministry in Athens (17:16–34)

Although past its glory days in the 5th and 6th centuries before Christ, Athens was still known for it famous past. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus had all lived there. Indeed, the charge of “advocating foreign gods” (17:18) was among the charges Socrates faced approximately 450 years before! The city was surrounded by evidence of its pagan environment, with temples to Nike and Athena, among others, and statues on the Acropolis to Augustus and Tiberius, among others.

17:16–21 Although there is a continuation of Paul’s ministry pattern of going into the local synagogue, this is the first (and only) reference to Paul also reasoning in the “marketplace” (though cf. 16:19). Luke states that the reason for Paul’s engagement in both the synagogue and the marketplace is that he was “provoked” at the sight of the city “full of idols” while waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him (17:16–17). It is in this setting that Paul encounters some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Although space prevents a full summary of their views, Epicureans were essentially materialists (everything is matter), so if there were any gods, they would be distinct and separate from the world. For the Epicureans, therefore, there is no providence, no purpose, and no judgment. The Stoics (named from Zeno’s meetings on the “stoa” in Athens), by contrast, viewed a divine logos as permeating everything. One of their poets, Aratus of Soli, is quoted in 17:28. Paul, by contrast, preached Jesus and the resurrection, and this was both new and intriguing as well as foreign and confusing to them. The accusation that he is a “babbler” is a derogatory comment that describes Paul as someone who collects bits and pieces of others’ ideas without necessarily understanding them himself (17:18; “ignorant show-off” CSB; “scavenger of tidbits” NASB). Nevertheless, because they constantly wanted to hear about something new, Luke says they asked to hear more about what he was saying about Jesus and the resurrection. Therefore, because Paul concludes with Jesus and the resurrection at the end of the sermon that follows, the following discussion of God as Creator and Sovereign Lord should be understood as the framework for understanding Paul’s proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection.

Altar to an unknown god from the Archaeological museum at Istanbul

17:22–34 Paul’s opening words to the council in Athens are an observation that the Athenians are “very religious” in view of the many objects of worship and even an altar to “the unknown god” to cover their bases (17:22–23). This could be understood as a positive reference to their piety and a standard introduction to a speech. However, since he was disturbed earlier at their many idols, this word may also carry its more negative nuance of being very “superstitious” (KJV; LSJ, 375). In contrast to their ignorance, epitomized in their altar to an “unknown god,” Paul will focus on the true knowledge of God (17:24). In contrast to the distance and indifference of the gods of the Epicureans, and in contrast to the immersion and immanence of the gods of the Stoics, Paul proclaimed a Creator who is distinct from yet engaged with his creation. Paul’s opening description of God as the sovereign Creator emphasizes God’s total sovereignty over all (note the repetition of the Greek word for “all,” pas/panta, in the following): “The God who made the world and everything (panta) in it, being Lord of heaven and earth . . . he himself gives to all (pan) mankind life and breath and everything (panta) . . . he made . . . every (pan) nation of mankind to live on all (pantos) the face of the earth . . .” (17:24–26).13 Paul argues (alluding to Old Testament passages such as Isa 40:18–20; 42:5; 45:18; 55:6; 66:1–2; Ps 50:10–12, as well as citing Aratus in 17:28b) that God is distinct from creation and not limited to creation, which means that he is independent of creation, and rather than needing us, we are dependent on him and accountable to him (17:24–25). Since there is one human race, the problem of sin is a universal problem that requires a universal solution, which God has done something about. Since idolatry is sin and must be repented of, and since history is moving toward a goal—judgment—we must turn to him and to the risen one that he has appointed as judge (17:26–31).14 Since Paul was asked about Jesus and the resurrection, he concludes with this in 17:31, and it is this subject that generates the mixed responses. Thus, although expanding upon God as Creator and Sovereign ruler over all, the essential elements of Paul’s preaching elsewhere are still here: God and his purposes, Jesus’s death and resurrection, and a judgment from which we must be saved.

Ministry in Corinth (18:1–17)

Corinth is about fifty miles west of Athens and was the capital of Achaia. As a busy center that served as a hub for boats and travelers moving west to east and east to west to avoid the rough sailing conditions of the southern coast, it gained a reputation for trade and business as well as immorality. In this cosmopolitan setting, Paul once again faces opposition from the Jews and accusations that he is acting illegally. Yet at the heart of this account is the reassurance from the Lord Jesus that his sovereign purposes are being worked out.

18:1–8 In the immediately preceding passage, Paul proclaimed a God who is sovereign over the placement and movement of humanity (17:26, 28) so that people would come to know him (17:27). What was proclaimed in general terms may be illustrated in specific ways in these subsequent verses, since there is such a concentrated emphasis on movement and travel. Paul “left Corinth and went to Athens” (18:1). Then Luke says that he “found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus (northern Asia Minor, on the coast of the Black Sea), recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla” (18:2; cf. 18:18–19, 26; 1Cor 16:19 [in Ephesus]; Rom 16:3–4 [back in Rome]; 2Tim 4:19 [back in Ephesus]), and he explains that they came from Italy to Corinth because of Claudius’s decree that all Jews had “to leave Rome” (the decree of AD 49 that, according to Suetonius, was due to disturbances over the preaching about Christ). Then, after noting that the presence of Aquila and Priscilla meant that Paul could stay and work with them in the trade of tentmaking in the markets of Corinth while continuing to proclaim Christ in the synagogue, Luke points out that when Silas and Timothy arrive “from Macedonia” (18:5; cf. 17:14–15), Paul was more fully “occupied with the word” (since they brought additional funding; 2Cor 11:8–9; Phil 4:15). In light of Acts 17, such movements reflect the outworking of God’s sovereign purposes in the details and travels of his people, whether freely (Paul), by imperial edict (Aquila and Priscilla), or by prior arrangement (Silas and Timothy; cf. Jas 4:13–15).

Opposition from the Jews is once again the reason for movement in Corinth, reflecting the pattern articulated in 13:46. As a faithful watchman, Paul can announce his move “to the Gentiles” with a clear conscience (cf. Ezek 3:17–19; 33:1–9; Acts 20:28). This time Paul’s more general announcement of his movement “to the Gentiles” is immediately illustrated by his move “next door,” to the house of a former God-fearing Gentile who had obviously come to faith through Paul’s preaching in the synagogue (18:7). Ministry to unreached groups for the sake of the gospel need not always involve travel overseas! This location (next door to the synagogue), however, together with the fact that even the synagogue ruler Crispus and his entire household (probably including servants) “believed in the Lord” (18:8), as did “many” other Corinthians, no doubt only added to the outrage the Jews had exhibited in 18:6. This prospect of increased opposition is likely the backdrop for the following words of assurance.

18:9–11 In this context of opposition, and anticipating the opposition to follow, the Lord Jesus provides Paul with reassurance of his sovereign purposes. The basis for this encouragement to keep going is “I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (18:10). In other words, Paul has assurance of the ongoing presence of the Lord Jesus, and the assurance that his preaching will result in many believing who are yet to come to faith. By grace the Lord Jesus has already set his love on them (cf. 13:38). This means that no one can ultimately harm Paul and bring an end to his ministry in this specific context. This message that the Lord has people that will yet come to faith through Paul’s ministry motivates him to stay. It is no accident, then, that the very next verse states that Paul stayed a further eighteen months in Corinth, his longest stay to this point in Acts. This reassurance of the Lord’s sovereign purposes and protection, therefore, is the center of this account of Paul’s ministry in Corinth.

Judgment seat at Corinth where Paul appeared before Gallio (with the Acrocorinth in the background)

18:12–17 The Lord’s protection of Paul through an attempted attack on him is then demonstrated in the Jewish united attempt to convince Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (an inscription found at nearby Delphi dates Gallio’s position as proconsul from mid-51 to mid-52 AD), that Paul was acting against the law (probably the Roman law in this context). Amazingly, it is not Paul who makes his defense but the Roman ruler Gallio, who not only rejects their claim that what Paul is preaching is illegal, but also places it within the category of Jewish questions about the Scriptures, and as such determines it is not something that he will rule against! This ruling, therefore, provides the early Christians in Corinth legal legitimacy, the opposite of what Paul’s Jewish accusers would have hoped for. The final statement about the beating of the synagogue ruler in front of Gallio on the one hand highlights the disunity and frustration of the Jewish opponents of Paul, and yet on the other hand significantly qualifies the preceding positive portrait of the Roman ruler. His ruling in favor of Paul should not be understood as an unqualified endorsement of Roman rule. Ultimately, it is the Lord Jesus who guides his people and enables the spread of the Word.

The Ephesian Ministry: The True Word of the Lord vs the “gods” (18:18–19:41)

As we noted in the introduction to 16:6, Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in the province of Asia focuses on just one city, Ephesus. Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the empire (after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch) and was therefore the main city and central hub for the province of Asia. It was famous for having the temple of Artemis, one of the ancient seven wonders. Ephesus was also known as a center for magical practices. In this narrative setting, references to Ephesus become the focus from this point forward (18:19, 21, 24; 19:1, 17, 26; 20:16, 17), and the amount of narrative space devoted to Paul’s time in Ephesus is longer than any other location so far, corresponding to the extended amount of time Paul spends here (cf. 19:10; though the longest account covers the shortest time-frame—two hours, 19:34!). The heart of this section is Paul’s faithful proclamation of the word concerning the Lord Jesus and the honor that belongs to the name of the Lord Jesus (19:10, 17, 20), in contrast to the various distortions and confusions of that message and the futility of idolatry (19:26–27). The confusion escalates in each episode.15

Travels to and from Ephesus (18:18–23)

18:18–23 These verses detail the travels of Paul from Corinth, with Priscilla and Aquila (cf. 18:2) to Ephesus, and then after spending time in Ephesus, from there to Caesarea, Jerusalem (implied in the references to going “up” and then “down”), Antioch, and then through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia. Although some see a significant break in the narrative of Acts between 18:22 (apparently the end of the “second missionary journey”) and 18:23 (the beginning of a “third missionary journey”), in this context little is made of any significant break. Instead, the focus here is Paul’s continued travels in anticipation of an extended focus on Ephesus, to be picked up in 19:1 after first describing the ministry of Apollos in Ephesus in 18:24–26. These verses anticipate Paul’s ministry in Ephesus by recounting his ministry in the synagogue there (18:19) and his intention to return there “if God wills” (18:21).

Apollos and “More Accurate” Instruction about Baptism (18:24–28)

18:24–28 Apollos is given a lengthy description in 18:24–25 that sounds impressive until the last phrase. There is no defect in Apollos’s ministry either in knowledge, eloquence, or passion. Whether it be regarding the Scriptures or Jesus to whom the Scriptures pointed, Apollos “taught accurately.” Nevertheless, the final phrase, “though he knew only the baptism of John,” indicates a deficiency. Unlike the following account (19:1–7), it is not as though Apollos still needed to hear about Jesus, and it is possible that he is also empowered by the Spirit (see e.g., the ESV footnote “fervent in the Spirit”; cf. Rom 12:11). Therefore, this slight deficiency may be related to Apollos’s understanding of the role of Christian baptism (he may have focused instead on the repentance associated with John’s baptism). Therefore, although he taught about Jesus “accurately,” Priscilla and Aquila explain to him the way of God “more accurately” (18:26). His continued ministry is spoken of in glowing terms as he goes to Achaia and is a great help to “those who through grace had believed,” publicly demonstrating from the Scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus (18:27–28).

The Twelve Disciples of John and Faith in Jesus (19:1–7)

19:1–7 Although Apollos has moved on to Corinth, Luke’s focus remains on Ephesus as he recounts Paul’s encounter with some “disciples” there. It becomes apparent that these “disciples” were still only disciples of John the Baptist (as the word is used in Luke 5:33; 7:18; 11:1). Paul’s question about whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed picks up on the assumption throughout Acts that believers in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit at the time of belief (e.g., 2:38; 11:17). Their answer that they have not heard about the Holy Spirit is better understood along salvation-historical lines—they had not heard that the Holy Spirit had come (cf. a similar Greek construction in John 7:39). It is this that leads Paul to ask further questions, finding that they were only baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3). This is clearly the signal to Paul that these “disciples” needed to be brought up to speed with some major events in salvation history! The missing link for these disciples was Jesus––a lot had happened since John was telling people to get ready for one coming after him! These disciples of John are caught up to where they should be—united with God’s people in belief in Jesus with tongues and prophecy that link them to the day of Pentecost.

Paul’s Proclamation of the Word vs the Sons of Sceva Who Misuse the Name of Jesus (19:8–22)

19:8–10 The proclamation of the Word of the Lord and his saving rule is at the center of all that happened during Paul’s time in Ephesus. Once again, the pattern of Paul’s proclamation in the synagogue, followed by opposition, followed by a shift in location and continued proclamation is noted here. On this occasion, the reference to Tyrannus and his hall in Ephesus as the new location for extended ministry implies that Tyrannus was a believer who was wealthy enough to loan out a hall that might otherwise be used for local guilds or associations. The summary that over the next two years “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” emphasizes extensive ministry centered in Ephesus (some, such as Epaphras, may have been sent out to nearby areas such as Colossae; cf. Col 1:7).

19:11–20 Although Luke notes that God was responsible for some “extraordinary miracles” (lit. “powers”) through Paul, with diseases and spirits leaving people through cloths that had been in contact with him, this also sets Paul in contrast to the following sons of a Jewish High Priest named Sceva. These “extraordinary” miracles/powers, although obviously unusual and not a type of “ministry strategy,” show that God was with Paul in unusual ways. Such was Paul’s reputation that Jewish exorcists tried to invoke his name and Jesus’s name in order to cast out evil spirits too. In the following encounter, neither Paul nor any other believers are present or involved. In contrast to the two preceding incidents that Luke describes, this group is not comprised of Christians, nor do they intend to become Christians. Rather, they are misusing the “name of Jesus” (19:13). The story of an evil spirit one day answering them back and then the man possessed by the spirit beating them so that they escape naked and wounded highlights their inability to have power over these spirits, in contrast to Paul. The universal effect of the gospel is highlighted again here. Just as Luke had earlier stated that “all the residents of Asia” heard the Word of the Lord, “both Jews and Greeks” (19:10), so now he notes that this event became “known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks” (19:17). Whereas the seven sons of Sceva had tried to misuse the name of the Lord (19:13), now “the name of the Lord was extolled” (19:17). The growth of the church in Ephesus and the evidence of their repentance is vividly described in the voluntary, costly, and comprehensive rejection of their magic scrolls with magic spells (19:18–19). The summary statement of 19:20 serves as a summary of all these events that have taken place since 16:5, but it is placed here to highlight the overall emphasis of the events in Ephesus. It is the “power” of the Word that Luke especially highlights here as continuing to grow in the midst of various confusions and distortions.

19:21–22 These verses note Paul’s travel plans, under the guidance of the Spirit, to go to Jerusalem (cf. 24:17) via “Macedonia and Achaia” and then ultimately to Rome, and they serve as an outline for the rest of the Book of Acts. Although they could signal a shift in the narrative after the summary statement about the growth of the Word in the previous verse, they indicate what is to come rather than a shift in focus. For, after stating these travel plans, Luke notes that Paul continued to stay “in Asia for a while” (19:22), and the next verses are a lengthy account of the final event in Ephesus. Thus, these transitional verses anticipate the following chapters and once again place Paul’s movements in the context of the continuing guiding work of the Spirit (cf. 16:6–10).

Demetrius, the Silversmiths, and a Confused Crowd of Idol Worshippers (19:23–41)

The 9½ foot statue of Artemis found near the Bouleuterion in Ephesus

19:23–27 Before moving on from his focus on events in Ephesus, Luke provides a final dramatic event to round off his account. This event is introduced as “no little disturbance” that arose “concerning the Way” (cf. 9:2; Luke often uses “litotes,” a literary device that expresses the opposite by understatement). The issue that gave rise to this “disturbance” surrounds the loss of business to the silversmiths in Ephesus who made statues of Artemis (and/or her temple) and the loss of honor to Artemis that resulted. As we noted in the introduction to this section, Ephesus was renowned for the worship of Artemis, and the temple here was one of the ancient seven wonders of the world (it was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens). Artemis was worshipped for her help in health and childbirth; thus local pride and reputation, as well as financial profit, and devotion to Artemis herself were intertwined. Demetrius seems to have held a position of leadership among the silversmiths. His speech, probably in the marketplace just down the road from the large theatre, draws attention to the widespread effect of Paul’s gospel preaching that Luke had earlier noted (cf. 19:10, 17, 20): “not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people . . .” (19:26). Correspondingly, this will have an effect on Artemis, described as “she whom all Asia and the world worship” (19:26–27). The problem is that Paul has been saying that gods made with hands are not gods, and they fear the result will be “not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence” (19:26–27). This reflects the wider critique of idolatry found regularly in Acts (cf. 7:41, 48; 14:15; 15:19–20; 17:16, 24).

Theatre at Ephesus with the marketplace up the road (in the center of the photo)

19:28–34 These verses highlight the confusion and blind devotion of the Ephesians. After saying that they rushed together down the road into the (approximately 24,000-person capacity) theatre, Luke states for the second time that they were “in confusion” (19:32; cf. 19:29). This confusion is illustrated with the humorous description that “some cried out one thing, some another . . . most of them did not know why they had come together” (19:32)! The volatility and blind devotion are then noted (again, surely with a sense of incredulity by Luke): “for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (19:34).

19:35–41 Finally, the city clerk, who was responsible for various buildings and administration in the city and served as liaison between the people and the Roman governing body of the city, managed to calm the crowd down. He highlights the seriousness of what they were doing: they were falsely accusing Gaius and Aristarchus, not using the courts and proper legal channels for disputes, and potentially upsetting the Romans by causing such disruption. Once again it is not the believers who cause disturbances in the empire. But even more than that, in Luke’s account it is the idolatrous worshippers in the empire who are characterized by confusion and disturbances. In contrast to the unity of Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free, as one people under one Lord (Gal 3:28), the cities of Iconium (14:4), Thessalonica (17:8), and Ephesus (19:29, 32, 40) are characterized by discord and disunity. Ephesus in particular, as the last major account of Paul’s ministry as a free man, has illustrated that the presence of the Word (19:10, 20), when proclaimed accurately (18:24–28), exalts the “name of the Lord Jesus” (19:5, 17) and transforms lives that are turned from the futility of idolatry (19:18–19, 25–27).

Nurturing the Churches (20:1–21:14)

Just as the mission in Acts 13–14 concluded with a focus on teaching and strengthening believers and the provision of elders for that task, so the mission throughout Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia (focusing on Ephesus) concludes with a focus on words of encouragement and expanded instructions to elders for the task of caring for God’s people.16 After a lengthy account of Paul’s extended time in Ephesus, Luke briefly summarizes Paul’s travels in 20:1–6, before recounting one incident during Paul’s visit to Troas, and then giving an extended summary of his instruction to the Ephesian elders on his way to Jerusalem. Paul’s encouragement to believers is the common feature of each section.

Words of Encouragement in Ephesus, Macedonia, Greece, and Troas (20:1–12)

20:1–6 In this brief travel narrative, Luke focuses on the many words of encouragement that Paul gives to believers. Thus, although he is leaving Ephesus, Luke notes that he first encourages them before going (20:1). Then Paul heads for Macedonia, where again Luke notes that he gave them “much encouragement” before going to Greece (20:2; the same word in both verses; see also 14:22). After another Jewish plot against him there (cf. 18:4–17), Luke lists the increased number of believers (seven) travelling with Paul (although they went on ahead to wait for Paul at Troas as he returned through Macedonia). These believers come from the span of Paul’s previous missions (Berea, Thessalonica, Derbe, and Asia) and serve as a representative summary of the fruit of Paul’s gospel ministry in what has the feel of a farewell journey. Paul may have faced opposition again in Greece (20:3), but here is evidence of God’s work among the nations. The first-person plural “we” returns to the narrative in 20:6 at Philippi, after being last used in 16:17, also in Philippi. Thus, Luke rejoins Paul from here to Jerusalem and then to Rome.

20:7–12 Although they all (the seven, plus Paul and Luke) stay in Troas for seven days, Luke recounts one especially significant incident: the death and resuscitation of Eutychus! A resuscitation places Paul in the same small group of others who have raised the dead, such as the prophets Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament (1Kgs 17:17–24; 2Kgs 4:32–37), Jesus (Luke 7:11–17; 8:49–56), and Peter as Jesus’s representative (Acts 9:36–43). The emphasis in the text, however, is on the extensive teaching of Paul (20:7, 9). The miracle, therefore, serves to emphasize Paul’s role as a spokesperson for God, like Peter, and his compassion and care for God’s people. The same verb “encourage” that was used in 20:1–2 concludes this section as well—they were “greatly comforted” (20:12, CSB; as the verb “encourage” likely means here).

Encouragement to the Ephesian Elders (20:13–38)

20:13–16 These brief travel notes provide the details surrounding Paul’s travels from Troas as he rejoins Luke and the others down the coast at Assos before sailing further down the coast to Miletus. Paul wanted to avoid Ephesus due to his desire to make it to Jerusalem by Pentecost, which reminds readers of Paul’s plans in 19:21. The preceding reference to the days of Unleavened Bread (20:6), together with the combined reference to Jerusalem and the day of Pentecost in these verses, ominously recall earlier references to these feasts in Luke-Acts as Paul nears the end of his travels in Acts as a free man. Both Jesus and James died at the time of the Passover (the only other references to this time in Luke-Acts; Luke 22; Acts 12), and soon after Pentecost the early church faced rising persecution (the only other reference to Pentecost; Acts 2–7).

20:17–27 Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders serves as the grand finale of Paul’s work of encouragement at the end of his ministry in Acts and functions as a farewell speech. The following chapter transitions to events in Jerusalem which set in motion the series of trials that conclude the book. Having provided a sample of Paul’s messages in synagogues (Acts 13) and a sample of Paul’s messages to Gentiles (Acts 17), this is the only extended example in Acts of what Paul said to believers and to elders (cf. 14:21–23). The speech has three main divisions: (1) a summary of Paul’s own ministry (20:18–27)—both what the Ephesian elders know of Paul’s ministry in 20:18–21 (cf. “you know,” 20:18, 20) and what Paul looks ahead to as he heads toward Jerusalem in 20:22–27 (signaled by “And now, behold,” 20:22, 25); (2) Paul’s specific exhortations to the Ephesian elders (20:28–31), and (3) concluding reassurances along with Paul’s own example again (20:32–36).

First, Paul’s own example has been one of comprehensive proclamation of God’s Word in the midst of suffering (20:18–27). Framed by references to Paul not holding back (“I did not shrink,” 20:20, 27), Paul refers to his proclamation ministry as “declaring,” “teaching,” “testifying,” “proclaiming,” and “declaring” throughout these verses. In doing so, Paul essentially says he has proclaimed everything (“anything” that was profitable, repentance and faith, “the gospel of the grace of God,” “the kingdom,” “the whole council of God”), to everyone (Jews and Greeks, and “to you”), everywhere he could (“in public and from house to house”). All of this has been done in the midst of “tears” and “trials” with the prospect of more afflictions to come. Therefore, Paul, like Ezekiel, is a faithful watchman, discharging his duty faithfully and innocent of the blood of those who reject his message (see 18:6).

20:28–31 Paul’s exhortation in these verses shows his love and concern for the spiritual well-being of God’s people in the face of persecution and false teachers. The elders are to watch themselves so they may be examples to the flock (1Tim 4:16), and they are also “overseers” to keep watch over the flock in order “to care” (otherwise translated as “to shepherd,” CSB) for them. The church is not theirs, so they are accountable to God, who purchased the church with the costly price of the blood of his own Son (cf. NET, NRSV).

20:32–38 Paul’s confidence in the spiritual well-being of the believers in Ephesus ultimately rests in God who will build up and sustain his people through “the word of his grace” (20:32). This continues the emphasis on the ministry of the Word in Ephesus in Acts 19 (cf. 19:10, 20). The Word that brought the church into being in Ephesus is the same Word that God will use to sustain the church in Ephesus. This Word is proclaimed, however, by servants who reflect the character of the Lord Jesus in their sacrificial love for one another (20:33–35). Paul’s final action of kneeling and praying with them all displays in practice what he has just concluded with—God is the one he entrusts them to. The final emotional and moving farewell highlights their deep love and affection for Paul.

Transition to Jerusalem and Warnings of Arrest and Suffering Ahead (21:1–14)

21:1–14 These verses recount the travel of Paul and his companions from the farewell to the Ephesian elders at Miletus to their arrival at Jerusalem. Luke identifies the ports and places they stop at along the way, but lingers on two coastal stops in particular: Tyre in Phoenicia (21:3–6) and Caesarea (21:8–14). After the persecution following Stephen’s death, Philip went to Caesarea (8:40), and other believers went to Phoenicia (11:19). References to the Spirit and Paul’s prospects in Jerusalem are noted in both places (21:4, 10–14), reflecting Paul’s own reference to the Spirit and the prospect of suffering in Jerusalem in the preceding chapter (20:22). Some see a contradiction between 20:22 (“I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit”) and 21:4 (“through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem”). When 21:11 is factored in, it is clear that the Spirit is warning Paul of suffering to come in Jerusalem, and the believers therefore urge Paul not to go to Jerusalem (21:12). These two issues (the Spirit’s warning and the believers’ concern) are combined in 21:4: it is because of the (warning from the) Spirit that the believers urge Paul not to continue on to Jerusalem (21:4). Some have also seen an error or contradiction between the prophecy in 21:11 that the Jews at Jerusalem will “deliver [Paul] into the hands of the Gentiles” and 21:33, where it is the commander of the Roman soldiers that ordered Paul to be bound. Nevertheless, in 28:17 Paul himself describes the events as Agabus had said, using the same word as Agabus: “I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (28:17, emphasis mine; referring to the actions of the Jews who seize Paul and drag him from the temple, leading to the involvement of the Roman commander; cf. also 23:27). Ultimately, due to Paul’s insistence, the believers stop trying to dissuade Paul and entrust him to “the will of the Lord” (21:14; cf. 18:21).

Clarification in Jerusalem (21:15–36)

Paul’s plan to visit Jerusalem was first noted in 19:21, reiterated in 20:16, and described in terms of impending suffering in 20:22 and 21:4, 11–12. In 21:15–26 Paul finally arrives in Jerusalem, but the suffering he was told he would face from the Jews doesn’t come until the following section (21:27). As with Acts 15, this section deals with the issue of the inclusion of Gentiles among the people of God through Paul’s ministry. The account also refers again to the “decrees” of the apostles and elders for the Gentiles. Therefore, although it is not easy to make a definitive break in the narrative anywhere in Acts 21, this section appears to conclude the anticipation of Paul’s arrival to Jerusalem noted above and also serves as another evaluation of the place of Jews and Gentiles and the role of the Law for the Gentiles, just as Acts 15 had done for Acts 13–14 (see the outlines at Acts 13:1 and 16:6), before the series of trials that will conclude the book.

Warm Welcome and Attempted Sensitivity in Jerusalem (21:15–26)

21:15–26 In contrast to the conflict and persecution of the following section, these verses highlight a warm and hospitable welcome for Paul and his companions (now also including “some of the disciples from Caesarea,” as well as the seven listed in 20:4, and Luke) upon their arrival to Jerusalem—first at the house of a certain Mnason, originally from Cyprus (as was Barnabas, 4:36; cf. 11:19–20; 15:39), and the believers generally (“the brothers received us gladly”), and then to a meeting with James (the brother of the Lord; cf. 15:13–18) and all the elders. Just as in Acts 15, when Paul speaks about his mission among the Gentiles, he recounts “the things that God had done among the Gentiles” (21:19). Recognizing therefore the initiative and grace of God in the conversion of the Gentiles, when they hear this, they “glorified God” (21:20), just as the Jewish believers did in response to Peter’s explanation of how God had included the Gentiles (11:18; cf. 13:48).

Evidently some false reports had been spread among the Jewish believers that Paul taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs” (21:21). A glance back at 16:3 will quickly show readers that this was a false report. Paul did not teach Jews that they should not circumcise their children. It is one thing to say that Jews and Gentiles are not required to be circumcised to be saved; it is quite another thing to turn that into a new law that demands uncircumcision! Likewise, Paul did not tell the Jews to forsake Moses. On the one hand, he proclaimed Jesus as the one that Moses pointed to. On the other hand, there is no requirement for Jews to become Gentiles, just as Gentiles were not required to become Jews (though they must turn from their idolatry, as the reiteration of the apostolic decree shows; 21:25). The subsequent proposal to participate in the purification rites of four men in the temple shows that Paul was not opposed to Jewish customs and that he himself observed the Law when entering the temple area (21:23–24, 26). Paul paid for the completion of the Nazaritic vows of the four men. Then he fulfilled another ritual of purification, perhaps for those who came from unclean lands (Num 6:9–10).17 Paul’s freedom for the sake of winning Jews to the gospel included sensitivity to their concerns when in the temple (cf. 1Cor 9:20). This charge, however, is a foretaste of what is to come.

Arrest and Violence in the Temple in Jerusalem (21:27–36)

Temple inscription warning of death for intruders/Gentiles who enter the temple from the court of the Gentiles (from the Archaeological museum in Istanbul)

21:27–36 This section functions as a transition to the trials section and concluding chapters of Acts. Most explicitly, Paul’s arrest fulfils the prophecy given by the Holy Spirit in the preceding travel section in 21:11. Broader evidence of a connection with the preceding chapters are the explicit links to the events and riot in Ephesus in Acts 19. Indeed, Luke explicitly notes that it is “the Jews from Asia” (cf. 19:9; 20:19) who saw Paul in the temple and “stirred up the whole crowd” (21:27). Although it was the Ephesian Artemis worshippers rather than the Jews who caused unrest in Ephesus, Luke links the two unruly crowds with the words “stirred up/confusion” (the same word is used in 19:32; 21:27, 31), “shouting/crying out” (the same word is used in 19:28, 32, 34; 21:28, 36), and the description that “some . . . were shouting one thing, some another” (19:32; 21:34).18 Like Ephesus, Jerusalem is a city in confusion (19:29; 21:31). The charge that Paul teaches “everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place” (21:28) also recalls the (false) charges against Stephen (6:11–14). Readers know that these charges, together with the charge that Paul “brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (21:28), are false because of the preceding actions of Paul (21:26), and because of the rationale for the charge that they had seen “Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple” (21:29). These charges, however, now also anticipate the following chapters in Acts. For it is the response to the charges that Paul is against the people of Israel, the Law, and the temple that the following chapters will develop as Paul repeatedly explains that he proclaims the hope of Israel and the fulfilment of the Scriptures, the risen Lord Jesus. The extreme violence of the crowd and the repeated chant of the crowd “Away with him!” (21:36), however, remind readers of the end of Luke’s Gospel and the death of Jesus (Luke 23:18). The blind obedience to Artemis of the Ephesian crowd in the chant “Great is Artemis” is replaced with the blind antagonism to Paul of the Jerusalem crowd with the chant “Away with him!” The ingredients are in place for a long road ahead.

The Reign of Christ the Lord Vindicated before the Rulers (Acts 21:37–28:31)

Following the climactic arrival and arrest in Jerusalem after extensive ministry across Gentile lands in the preceding section, the final chapters of Acts represent another distinct section with the series of trials that characterize the rest of the book. It is not as easy, however, to determine what role these chapters play in the overall purpose of Luke in the Book of Acts. All the exciting church planting and evangelization of yet unreached areas and ongoing strengthening of believers in establishing churches have come to an end. Instead, the narrative unfolds with trial after trial after trial. It would be a mistake to think that Luke recounts the spread of the gospel to Rome. Luke returns to focus on Jerusalem and Israel in these chapters, and when Paul finally gets to Rome, the gospel has already made it there (28:14–15). Embedded in the early stages of this section are the assuring words of the Lord Jesus that Paul should “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (23:11; cf. 9:15; 20:24; 26:17–18). This is the interpretive clue for this section, and it is in keeping with the rest of the Book of Acts to demonstrate the reign of the Lord Jesus in the spread of the Word. In this concluding section of Acts, therefore, the risen Lord Jesus is proclaimed in a defense of the gospel as Paul repeatedly responds to and proves the emptiness of the charges against the gospel he proclaims (see 26:23).

There are clear indicators that Luke is drawing his narrative to a close by deliberately recalling people and institutions from the opening chapters of Acts.19 Just as Peter and John were arrested in the temple and then imprisoned, so is Paul. Just as Peter and John appeared before the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, and the Sadducees, so does Paul. These groups (High Priest, Sanhedrin, Sadducees) have all been absent from the narrative of Acts since Acts 7, yet here they are again. The focus on Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope and Scriptures serves to reinforce the message of the opening chapters that the old temple and temple leadership have come to an end. The risen Lord Jesus is proclaimed before Israel’s rulers.

The overall theme of this final section of Acts, therefore, is found in the following: first, the charges that introduce this section (21:21, 28; 24:5–6); then the responses that (1) Paul is not guilty of those charges (23:9, 29; 25:7, 25; 26:31); (2) indeed, Paul is not against the Law or Israel for he proclaims what the Law and the Prophets say (24:13–14; 25:8, 10; 26:22; 28:17); and (3) Paul does this because he proclaims the risen Lord Jesus as the hope of Israel and her Scriptures (23:6; 24:15, 21; 25:19; 26:6–8, 23).

The section unfolds as follows:20

Trial before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21:37–22:29)

Trial before the council (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem (Acts 22:30–23:11)

Journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea (23:12–35)

Trial before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24:1–27)

Trial before Festus in Caesarea (Acts 25:1–27)

Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26:1–32)

Journey from Caesarea to Rome (Acts 27:1–28:16)

Proclamation to the Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28:17–31)

Paul’s Conversion Account before the Crowd in Jerusalem (21:37–22:29)

The temple model in Jerusalem with the Antonia fortress at the top right (where Paul was taken by the commander’s troops)

21:37–40 These verses highlight the identity of Paul in preparation for the events to follow. Having been rescued by the Roman soldiers from the Jewish crowd in the temple, Paul sought permission from the commander of the Roman troops to address the crowd before being taken from them into the Antonia fortress. It was at this point that the Roman commander found out that (1) Paul spoke Greek, (2) he was not an Egyptian who had stirred up a revolt (and therefore was not in the midst of stirring up another revolt),21 (3) that, in fact, Paul was a Jew himself (and therefore would not have been trying to defile the temple), and (4) that being a proud citizen of Tarsus, he was both a Greek speaker and from a city of note in the Roman empire. Then, with the permission of the commander, Paul addresses the crowd in “the Hebrew language” (which in this temple setting could be either Aramaic or Hebrew). This anticipates an emphasis on Paul’s Jewishness in the account of his conversion that follows.

22:1–21 There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts (9:1–19; 22:1–21; 26:1–23). Each account highlights slightly different aspects of his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. The focus in Acts 9 was on the significant turnaround in Paul’s life (as seen in his arrival in the same synagogues in Damascus, and in the reluctance of the believers in Jerusalem; i.e., more on his “conversion” and less on his “commission”) and the intervention of the Lord Jesus (in stopping Paul and instructing Ananias). The emphasis in Acts 22 here in Jerusalem is on the Jewishness of Paul and of Ananias, and additional details are included about the instructions given to Paul in the temple in Jerusalem from the Lord Jesus himself. In Acts 26, the focus on Paul’s Jewishness continues, with an added emphasis on his persecuting zeal and yet on the hope of the Scriptures being found in the risen Lord Jesus, as well as an emphasis on the authority of the Lord Jesus and the direct mandate coming from the Lord Jesus himself to go to the Gentiles (i.e., an increased emphasis on his “commission” as well as his “conversion”).

The details in 22:1–16 essentially repeat what we know of Paul already, either from the preceding reference to his origin in Tarsus, or from the account in Acts 9 of his persecuting activity and encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Tarsus. Additional information that is included here, however, includes a focus on the Jewishness of Paul as Luke notes again that he addresses them “in the Hebrew language” (cf. 21:40): (1) he was brought up in Jerusalem and taught by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, who was a Pharisee (cf. 5:34–39); (2) in comparison with Acts 9, some of the details concerning what Paul and his companions saw and heard are clarified (Paul’s companions did not see Christ himself [9:7], but they did see “the light” [22:9]; likewise, the companions heard the voice/sound [9:7], but they did not hear/understand the content of the words that were specifically addressed to Paul [“the one who was speaking to me,” 22:9; “to him,” 9:4; “to me,” 22:7, 8; 26:14]), all of which highlight the objective reality of what is “seen” and “heard” (22:14, 15); (3) the Jewishness of Ananias is added (22:12); but (4) Paul’s preaching and the events in Damascus subsequent to his conversion are omitted. In place of Paul’s activity and escape from Damascus, additional information about instructions given to Paul in Jerusalem, even in the temple itself, are added (22:17–21; cf. 9:26–29; Gal 1:18). It is in the temple, therefore, from the risen Lord Jesus himself, that his commission to go “far away” to the nations is reiterated (cf. 9:15). Paul, therefore, was neither against the people of Israel, nor was he against the temple (and his commission was to go far away to the Gentiles/nations rather than bring the Gentiles into the temple!).

22:22–29 Calls for Paul’s death preceded his defense (21:36), and they conclude his defense as well (22:22). The blind rage and violence of the Jerusalem crowd is again highlighted (cf. 21:30–32, 35–36). The tribune intervened again, but this time, to find out what the commotion was all about, he ordered Paul to be stretched out for an examination by flogging. However, since this was unlawful to do to a Roman citizen, Paul once again (cf. 16:37–40) appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen. Earlier, before the antagonistic Jewish audience, Paul highlighted his own Jewishness in his defense; yet here, as he is about to be flogged at the orders of a Roman commander, Paul sought to avoid an illegitimate punishment by rightfully claiming his rights as a Roman citizen. Just because Paul’s commission would include suffering (9:16) does not mean that Paul couldn’t seek to avoid it through lawful treatment. Indeed, to the commander’s dismay, since Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, he had an even higher status than the commander who, perhaps as a Greek, had to purchase his citizenship “for a large sum” (22:28).

Paul’s Defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (22:30–23:11)

22:30–23:5 The Roman commander, still seeking to find out what the Jerusalem Jews had against Paul, ordered the Sanhedrin to meet so he could hear their charges against Paul as a way to work out what to do with Paul. Thus, in the narrative of Acts, this will be Paul’s second defense in Jerusalem. The events had only just gotten started with Paul declaring his clear conscience when the high priest ordered those standing near Paul “to strike him on the mouth” (23:2). The response from Paul that God will judge the high priest as a “whitewashed wall” who acts contrary to the Law, followed by the exclamation from those nearby that Paul is insulting “God’s high priest,” and the subsequent reply from Paul about not recognizing him and his quotation of Exodus 22:28, has sometimes been understood as Paul’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing regarding his pronouncement of judgment upon the high priest, and therefore as evidence for the continuing authority of the Mosaic Law. Several factors in the immediate context, however, suggest that Paul is being ironic by quoting Exodus 22:28 and that his use of the Old Testament here is informed by the arrival of Jesus.22 Is it likely that Paul did not know the high priest? He mentioned him in his immediately preceding account of his conversion as one of those he received permission from to follow Christians to Damascus (22:5; cf. 9:1–2; 26:10). Is the high priest the ruler of God’s people? The early chapters of Acts established the replacement of the rulers of Israel with Jesus and his apostles as the leaders of God’s true people (cf. “rulers” in 4:5–12, 18–20, 26, who are contrasted with the authority of the apostles as Jesus’s authorized representatives over God’s people). The immediately following context reaffirms the lordship of the risen Jesus over Paul’s life (23:6–11). Thus, Paul’s preceding accusation that the high priest was a “whitewashed wall” may mean that Paul’s reply and citation of Exodus essentially states that the law-breaking behavior of the high priest meant that while he was outwardly impressive, he was unrecognizable as the ruler of God’s people. This resembles Jesus’s denunciations of the Pharisees (cf. Matt 23:27–28; Luke 11:37–44) and Ezekiel’s judgments (Ezek 13:10–16). Paul, therefore, was not “speaking evil”; he was speaking as a prophet, and this use of the OT was also informed by the arrival of Jesus, the true ruler of God’s people.

23:6–11 Paul’s exclamation that, in keeping with his training as a Pharisee, he is on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead (23:6) highlights the division among the people accusing him (23:7) and focuses on what the real issue is. In an anticipation of the declarations of innocence to follow, the Pharisees declare “we find nothing wrong in this man” (23:9). Although Paul refers here to the general future hope of the final resurrection of the dead, as the trials proceed, it will be come apparent that his reference here is also related to the significance of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He has already pointed out that his conversion and commission center on his encounter with and proclamation of the risen Lord Jesus. His resurrection is a sign of the entrance already into this age of a hope that was reserved for the age to come. Thus, in his last major trial, Paul will specify that Jesus is “the first to rise from the dead” (26:23). In the final verse of this section, after the Roman commander intervenes for Paul’s safety again, it is the risen Lord Jesus who once again assures Paul of the outworking of his purposes in his life and outlines what this will look like in the weeks and months (and chapters in Acts) to follow. Thus, Paul is to “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (23:11; cf. 28:15).

Journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea (23:12–35)

23:12–22 The rest of the chapter revolves around Paul’s transfer from Jerusalem to Caesarea arising out of another attempt to kill Paul, though now with increased determination (cf. 21:31). The events of 23:12–35 unfold the forming of this plot (23:12–15), the exposing of the plot (23:16–22), and the protection of Paul from the plot (23:23–35).23 Luke emphasizes the futile nature of the plot by repeating it three times (23:12–13, 14, 21). Obviously, they expected to get rid of Paul in the immediate future, though Luke does not say what became of the forty men involved who had sworn “neither to eat nor drink” until they had killed Paul. As the forty men involve the chief priests and elders in their plan, the account ironically emphasizes the Jewish disregard for the Law in their attempt to murder Paul, even though their accusation against Paul is that he is the one who is against the Law (21:28; cf. 7:53; 23:3). Luke tells the story in a way that keeps readers “on the edge of their seats” as a “young man” (Paul’s own nephew) hears of the plot, enters the barracks at the Antonia fortress to tell Paul, is sent by Paul with a centurion to the Roman commander, and then reports “privately” the details of the plot to the Roman commander on the very night before the plot was to be carried out, before being sent away with the charge to “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things” (23:16–22). This is a night of high drama indeed. Yet it is the outworking of the risen Lord Jesus’s protection of Paul to keep him safe and get him to Rome as he promised (23:11).

Herod’s palace at Caesarea (where Paul was likely held prisoner)

23:23–35 The rest of the account highlights once again the role of the Roman commander (now named for the first time, in his letter, as Claudius Lysias) in keeping Paul safe from the violence of his Jewish attackers. In contrast to the forty who were involved in the plot to kill Paul, Claudius arranged for a total of 470 soldiers (including seventy on horses) to ensure Paul got “safely to Felix the governor” in Caesarea (23:23–24). Claudius perceived not only that must Paul be kept safe by a large contingent of soldiers, but also that he was not safe in Jerusalem (cf. 23:15, 20–21), and that for Paul to be exonerated, he must have a legal trial before the Roman governor, who was based in the administrative capital, Caesarea (cf. 10:1; Felix governed Judea from AD 52–59, and as Acts 24:27 indicates, these events take place in Felix’s final two years as governor). Claudius succinctly described the events surrounding the violence against Paul, the intervention of Claudius, the debate before the Sanhedrin that led to Paul being “accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment” (23:29), and the plot to kill Paul. Claudius omitted details that he got wrong (thinking Paul was an Egyptian, nearly flogging a Roman citizen) and neglected to mention that he found out about Paul’s Roman citizenship after rescuing him and nearly flogging him rather than before rescuing him. When they get to Caesarea, Paul is kept in the palace that Herod built. With the move to a trial before the Roman governor Felix, readers can see that Paul is being kept safe under the rule of the risen Lord Jesus and is one step closer to Rome (23:11).

The Trial before Felix in Caesarea (24:1–27)

24:1–9 The Jewish leaders arrive in Caesarea with a paid orator (Tertullus) to present their case against Paul in the best light possible (24:1). The following account summarizes the charges against Paul (24:1–9) and Paul’s response to those charges (24:10–21). Tertullus charges that (1) Paul is a troublemaker (24:5; i.e., causing disturbances and upsetting the peace of the empire), (2) he is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (24:5; i.e., the leader of a separatist faction and despised group who follow the one crucified by the Romans), and (3) he tried to profane the temple (24:6).

24:10–21 The pattern of this whole final section of Acts continues with a refutation of the charges by Paul, an argument instead that what he is proclaiming is consistent with Israel’s hope and Scriptures, and his assertion that the issue surrounds the hope of the resurrection. As readers of Acts already know, it is not Paul that is causing the disturbances throughout the empire. After all, he is the one fleeing for his life from the riotous Jews (cf. 13:50; 14:2, 5, 19; 17:5, 13; 20:19; 21:27, 31, 34–36; 22:22–23; 23:10) and pagan idolators (14:5; 19:40). So, Paul responds to each of the charges: he was not a troublemaker (24:12), he was not in a “sect” or mere isolationist division of Judaism, he followed “the Way” (cf. 9:2), holding to the hope of the resurrection (24:14–15), and far from profaning the temple, he was ceremonially clean, purified, and in fact “bringing alms” or gifts in a collection for the people of Israel and presenting offerings (cf. Rom 15:25–28; 1Cor 16:1–4; 2Cor 8–9). In his conclusion Paul returns to the heart of the issue: the resurrection of the dead (cf. 23:6). Thus, reference is made to the resurrection at two stages in Paul’s response (24:15, 21). This same pattern will be repeated in Paul’s final and longest trial in Acts 26, where he will again point to the resurrection at two stages in his defense, initially in 26:6–8, and climactically in 26:22–23. Although this confirms the conclusion of Lysias that the matter revolves around the interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel rather than a political dispute deserving of Roman punishment, nevertheless, it is Paul’s proclamation of the risen Lord Jesus that continues to be emphasized throughout this section of Acts.

24:22–27 Like 18:17, these verses should prevent readers of Acts from assuming that Luke presents a rose-tinted view of Roman authorities in Acts. The true character of Felix comes through as he “puts them off” (24:22), only listens to Paul because “he hoped that money would be given to him by Paul” (24:26), and, rather than show any concern for the justice of the case, leaves Paul in prison for two years “to do the Jews a favor” (24:27). The implication once again, of course, is that Paul is innocent of the charges against him, since there is no reason for keeping him in prison. This is enough information for readers of Acts to know why Paul spoke to Felix and his wife, Drusilla, about faith in Jesus as the Messiah because of their apparent need for “righteousness and self-control” in the face of “the coming judgment” (24:25). Yet Luke may also assume that readers knew of their reputation. Felix was known for his corruption and cruelty, and according to Tacitus, Felix indulged “in every kind of barbarity and lust, exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave” (History, 5.9). His marriage to Drusilla was his third marriage, and this was her second, after Felix persuaded her to leave her husband for him.24 Drusilla was the daughter of Herod Agrippa, who faced God’s temporal judgment in Acts 12:23 (she was also the sister of Herod Agrippa II; cf. 25:13, 23). Therefore, Paul not only defends his hope in the resurrection while on trial in these chapters, but he also proclaims the need for faith in Christ to rulers who themselves will face judgment before the risen Lord (cf. 17:31; 26:27).

The Trial before Festus in Caesarea (25:1–27)

25:1–5 The Roman governor Festus replaced Felix and promptly (and wisely for a governor of Judea) travelled from the political capital, Caesarea, to the religious and ancient capital Jerusalem. Following the (short) trial in 25:6–12, the following verses (25:13–27) essentially present Festus’s verdict on what he heard from Paul to Agrippa, and then in 25:23–27, Festus introduces Paul’s speech before Herod Agrippa II. Thus, the role of Festus continues throughout the chapter before the focus shifts more specifically to Agrippa in the following chapter. The opening verses (25:1–5) again highlight the persistence and opportunistic obsession that the Jewish leaders have with Paul. They make the most of Festus’s new appointment, seizing on another opportunity to make use of Roman rule to get Paul. After two years, they still want to kill Paul, and they still aim to do this through an ambush—this time through an ambush on his way to Jerusalem if they can convince Festus to transfer him from Caesarea to Jerusalem. This is reminiscent of the earlier plan to ambush Paul and was the reason the commander Claudius transferred Paul to Caesarea in the first place (23:12–35). Clearly, Jerusalem would mean death for Paul. Nevertheless, Festus insists that a trial be held in Caesarea, that there should be legitimate charges, and that there is a possibility that Paul may not have done any wrong (25:5).

25:6–12 The trial before Festus occurs in 25:6–12 when Festus returns to Caesarea and is the shortest of the “trials” in this section of Acts (followed by the longest of Paul’s defenses in Acts 26). In this short trial, the innocence of Paul is especially emphasized: Festus has already alluded to this possibility in 25:5, and now Luke adds that the charges could not be proved (25:7). Paul argues that: (1) he has not “committed any offense,” “neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple” (25:8); (2) he has “done no wrong” (25:10); and (3) “there is nothing to their charges against me” (25:11). The additional feature of this short defense, however, is the mention of the Roman emperor by his title, Caesar (referring to Nero, whose earlier years in power were viewed more favorably than his later years). Indeed, “Caesar” is referred to five times in 25:8–12. Paul adds that not only has he not committed any offence against the Law or the temple, but neither has he committed any offense against Caesar (25:8), probably alluding to the charge raised against him before the preceding governor Felix that he was responsible for causing riots and civil unrest throughout the empire (cf. 24:5, 12–13, 18–19). The political maneuverings continue in these verses as, like Felix, Festus seeks to do the Jews a “favor” by having him transferred to Jerusalem (though as a Roman citizen, this must be with Paul’s permission; 25:9). Paul recognizes, however, that his trial before Festus, as the emperor’s representative, is essentially “before Caesar’s tribunal” (25:10; i.e., judgment seat). He knows that certain death awaits him in Jerusalem even though he is innocent of the religious charges, and that as a Roman citizen he has the right to be tried and found innocent before Festus before being transferred back into the hands of the religious leaders. It is in light of the unreliability of Festus to withstand the pressure and persistence of the Jewish leaders, therefore, that Paul appeals to the one in charge of Festus, Caesar himself. On the one hand, the Roman officials receive a mixed portrayal in Acts; yet on the other hand, Paul was confident that he could appeal to the emperor and receive a fair trial because he was not raising a revolt against the emperor. Readers of Acts see in these complicated interactions the innocence of the one who proclaims Christ, just as Jesus himself was innocent of the charges against him (cf. Luke 23:4, 14, 22, 41). As Caesar is introduced into the narrative, however, the mysterious providential outworking of the risen Lord Jesus’s purposes to bring Paul to Rome drive the story forward.

25:13–22 At this point Luke introduces “Agrippa the king and Bernice,” who arrive in Caesarea and who will be the focus of Paul’s speech in Acts 26. The person that Luke calls “Agrippa” was Herod Agrippa II. He was the son of Agrippa I (Acts 12) and therefore the great-grandson of Herod the Great. Having been brought up in Rome in the court of the emperor Claudius, he was gradually granted rule over areas outside of Judea, including Galilee and Trachonitis just north of Judea. However, he was also the appointed authority over the temple (with authority over the appointment of the high priest and the temple treasury) and knew about Judaism. So, his visit to Caesarea may arise out of an interest to hear about the cause of the earlier disturbance in the temple. Bernice was his sister (and the sister of Drusilla, cf. 24:24) who lived with Agrippa.25 These verses essentially summarize Festus’s verdict on the preceding proceedings. As Festus recounts the events surrounding the accusations of “the chief priests and the elders of the Jews” against Paul, he concludes that “they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed” (25:18). Festus, while highlighting his own ignorance of “how to investigate these questions” and downplaying his interest in wanting to do the Jewish leaders a favor, identifies the central issue for the first time. The dispute was about “a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive” (25:19). This has been Paul’s claim all along, that he was on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead (22:6–10; 23:6; 24:15, 21), and this will be articulated with full clarity at the conclusion of the climactic trial in 26:23.

25:23–27 These verses primarily introduce the setting for the following lengthy speech of Paul before Agrippa. The emphasis is on the grandeur of the occasion with all the dignitaries and military commanders present before Paul the prisoner is brought in before them all. The setting is the grand audience hall of the palace that Agrippa’s great-grandfather Herod the Great had built. Festus introduces the proceedings with a summary of his dilemma: the Jewish leaders want Paul dead, but “he has done nothing deserving death” (25:25; cf. 23:29, and above, 25:6–12). Essentially, Festus should have released him, but Paul has (rightfully) appealed to the emperor, and so now Festus must send him to the emperor with an accompanying letter of explanation. The term for “emperor” in 25:25 (and 25:21), Sebastos, is the Greek word for the Latin title Augustus, given to Julius Caesar and then his successors. It might be better translated as “Majesty” here (cf. NET, NRSV). Then in 25:26, Festus calls the emperor the “lord” (Greek, kurios), translated in the NRSV as “our sovereign.” Festus also addresses Agrippa with his full title “King Agrippa” twice, in 25:24 and 25:26 (cf. 25:13, 14; as Paul will do repeatedly in 26:2, 7, 13, 19, 26, 27). These titles, while showing that Paul both appeals to the emperor and respects the king before him, remind readers of the words of the Lord Jesus that Paul is his “chosen instrument” to carry his name “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). This is the Lord that Paul will now proclaim, fulfilling his sovereign purposes.

The Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (26:1–32)

26:1–3 After being granted permission to speak by Agrippa, Paul motioned with his hand, signaling that he was about to begin what Luke and Paul describe as “his defense” (26:1, 2). What follows is the longest of Paul’s speeches in all of Acts. It is a carefully constructed climactic speech that reiterates for the third time in Acts (cf. Acts 9, 22) the impact that the risen Lord Jesus had on Paul’s life as well as the significance of the risen Lord Jesus for all, including those before Paul that day. Paul is particularly appreciative of this opportunity because it gives him a chance to defend himself against his Jewish accusers before someone who (unlike Festus) is well acquainted with “all the customs and controversies of the Jews” (26:3; on the title “King,” see above on 25:13–27). This identifies again the Jewishness of these final chapters of Acts and anticipates the focus on the fulfilment of the Jewish hope in what Paul is about to say.

26:4–18 In keeping with his earlier account of his encounter with the risen Lord in Acts 22, Paul goes straight to the heart of the issue: the authority and claims of the risen Lord Jesus. In keeping with the charges against him, Paul highlights again his Jewish heritage (as in Acts 22), especially his prior zeal as a Pharisee (cf. 22:3) and his “raging fury” in his opposition to “the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” expressed in his persecution of the saints (26:9–11). He too was obsessed with the death of those who belonged to Jesus (implying that more believers than Stephen were killed; cf. 9:1). As he did in his defense in Acts 24, however, Paul signals early on that the core issue at hand is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of the dead is the hope of all Israel. Indeed, given their knowledge of the God of the Bible, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (26:8). This is going to be the climax that he is working toward (26:22–23).

In 26:12–18 Paul focuses again on his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus as he was on his way to persecute his followers in Damascus. Again, there are some similarities with his earlier account in Acts 22 as well as some additional emphases (see on 22:1–21; the additional detail that Paul’s companions also fell to the ground clarifies that this was not just a personal vision of Paul’s). This time, in addition to Jesus’s question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (see 9:4; 22:7), we’re told that the Lord added the proverb “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14). The proverb refers to a kind of stick like a cattle-prod that animal owners would use to prod their animals forward. The proverbial reference to it being hard “to kick against” such prodding refers to the futility of stubbornly resisting God’s purpose.26 Paul may have included this detail here in light of his intention to urge his listeners to also turn from opposing God’s purposes (26:27–29). The emphasis on the authority of Jesus continues as Paul omits any reference to Ananias in order to focus on the ultimate source of his instructions and commission. In 26:17–18 the details of his commission to go to the people of Israel and the Gentiles as a “servant and witness” are expanded upon. In keeping with the original promise to Paul in 9:15–16, and the reassurance of the Lord Jesus to Paul in 18:9–10 and 23:11, it becomes clear here that the reason why Paul has escaped persecution and death so many times in Acts is the Lord Jesus; he is the one who has been “delivering” him from them each time (26:17). He continues delivering him because Paul is sent to the people “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:18; cf. Isa 42:6–7, 16).27

26:19–23 Picking up on the exhortation not to resist God’s purposes and the commission to be a servant and witness so that Jews and Gentiles would “turn” from darkness to light and receive forgiveness of sins, Paul then highlights his obedient response to the Lord Jesus, first in Damascus, but then in Jerusalem, Judea, and to the Gentiles, declaring that they should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (26:20). As Paul nears his central point about the risen Lord Jesus, he briefly recounts the events that have led to these trials. The central issue is that the Jewish leaders were trying to kill Paul, yet Paul was not only being obedient to the prophetic call for all to “repent and turn to God”—he was in fact proclaiming the one to whom Moses and the prophets pointed (26:22). In keeping with the words of the Lord Jesus, Paul declares that the Scriptures pointed to a suffering and ruling Messiah (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; e.g., Isa 53; Pss 16, 110). Two details in 26:23 are especially important for the narrative of Acts. First, Paul identifies Jesus as the “first to rise from the dead.” This is not referring to a resuscitation like Tabitha and Eutychus. Rather, this refers to the final resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. This brief statement clarifies what Paul meant when he said that he was on trial for the hope of the resurrection of the dead (see above on 26:7–8). An event reserved for the end of the age has already been brought into this age in anticipation of the end. Thus, Jesus’s resurrection is an eschatological event, and as such he is the one who offers the eschatological gifts of forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. Second, Paul states that the risen Lord Jesus is the one who would then “proclaim light both to our people [i.e., Israel] and to the Gentiles” (26:23). This brief statement enables readers now to look back and see that all through Acts the proclamation of Jesus to Israel and the nations is the outworking of Jesus’s own ministry, restoring Israel and including Gentiles through his servants and witnesses (see 1:8; 13:47).

26:24–32 The interruption by Festus (probably at the reference to the resurrection of Jesus) enables Paul to clarify that what he is saying (1) is “true and rational,” (2) is public and verifiable knowledge, (3) is the message of the prophets, and (4) requires a response of belief. So, apart from being in chains, Paul considers his position before God to be desirable for king and courtier alike. Paul turns from defense to bold appeal to all those listening, such is the significance of the risen Lord Jesus. The final statements from all those in power once again assert Paul’s innocence (see above on 25:25). He has not done anything deserving death, and he should be set free, yet he has appealed to Caesar. No doubt, part of what Festus included in the letter that accompanied Paul to Rome would be the intractable and death-obsessed opposition that Paul faced from the Jewish leaders that led Paul to make such an appeal.

Journey from Caesarea to Rome (27:1–28:16)

Paul’s journey to Rome (from Barry J. Beitzel, The New Moody Atlas of the Bible [Chicago: Moody, 2009], map 113)
27:1–28:16 When readers of Acts proceed to read of the following boat journey, the description of this journey immediately stands out. Although Luke has described some sailing details earlier in the book with reference to various ports and locations along the way (e.g., 20:14–16; 21:1–3, 7), most of the time the details of the sailing trips have been brief (e.g., 13:4, 13; 14:26; 16:11; 18:18, 21–22; 20:6). One of these must have been challenging, since Luke states that the short trip from Philippi back across to Troas took five days (20:6), but he does not provide a reason (perhaps they were sailing against the wind? cf. 16:11). What stands out about this narrative, of course, is the great amount of detail that Luke provides about their journey. The reader learns of at least the following:

Names of places (some of which get mentioned again below): Adramyttium, the coast of Asia, Sidon, Cyprus, the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, Myra in Lycia, Alexandria, Italy, Cnidus, Crete, Salmone, Fair Havens, Lasea, Phoenix, Cauda, the Syrtis, Adriatic Sea, Malta, Syracuse, Rhegium, Puteoli, Forum of Appius, Three Taverns, Rome

Names of winds: south wind (27:13), northeaster (27:14), south wind (28:13)

Names of islands: in addition to Cyrus, Crete, and Malta, even the small island Cauda (27:16), and the name of a sandbar called the Syrtis (27:17)

Sailing and weather conditions: winds against us (27:4, 7), slowly and with difficulty (27:7, 8), gentle wind (27:13), tempestuous wind (27:14), could not face the wind (27:15), storm-tossed (27:18), no small tempest (27:20)

Time notes: next day (27:3), a number of days (27:7), much time (27:9), day of Atonement (27:9; i.e., October and into the season to avoid sailing before routes were closed between November and March), the next day and on the third day (27:18–19), many days (27:20), a long time (27:21), fourteenth night (27:27, 33), midnight (27:27), about to dawn (27:33), when it was day (27:39), three months (28:12), three days (28:12), after one day . . . and on the second day (28:13), seven days (28:14)

Descriptions of harbors: the harbor (at Fair Havens) was not suitable to winter in (27:12), Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing both southwest and northwest (27:12), a bay with a beach (27:39)

Specific depth measurements: twenty fathoms, fifteen fathoms (27:28)

Details of the boat: the ship’s lifeboat (27:16), supports (27:17), tackle (27:19), number of anchors (four, 27:29), stern, bow, and ship’s lifeboat (27:29–30, 41), ropes that tied the rudders (27:40), foresail (27:40), a figurehead with the twin gods Castor and Pollux (28:11)

Number of people on the ship: 276 (27:37)

Origin of the boats: Adramyttium (27:2), Alexandria (x2, 27:6; 28:11)

The account unfolds in distinct stages: from Caesarea to Sidon and Myra on a ship from Adramyttium (27:2–5), from Myra to Fair Havens on a grain ship from Alexandria sailing to Italy (27:6–8), from Fair Havens to Malta (27:9–28:10), then from Malta to Syracuse, Rhegium, and Puteoli on another ship from Alexandria (28:11–13). Then they travelled on land from Puteoli on the coast of Italy via the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to Rome (28:14–16).

Why does Luke not just go from 27:1 to 28:14b with something like “we set sail and eventually came to Rome,” or “we set sail and after approximately fourteen days came to Malta” (27:33), or even “we set sail and after many difficulties came to Rome”? One clue may be in the reoccurrence of the first-person plural “we” from 27:1 through to 28:16 when they get to Rome, indicating that Luke is a participant in these events and would no doubt never forget such an action-packed journey (see 16:10). Yet the same could be said for 20:6 and their journey to Troas mentioned above. The answer must be found in what Luke has already recorded about what is going on in Paul’s life, and what Paul says during this journey that provides an interpretive clue as to the purpose of this chapter in the narrative of Acts. The risen Lord Jesus has said that Paul will testify in Rome (23:11). We have seen along the way how the Lord Jesus has kept his word to rescue Paul from both his own people as well as the Gentiles in order that he might continue to bear witness to them (26:17–18). At the heart of this account is the assurance that Paul “must stand before Caesar” from, as Paul says, “an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship” (27:33). This account, therefore, shows that the Lord is also keeping Paul safe through storm, shipwreck, soldiers, and snakebite to bring him to Rome. He has escaped death repeatedly in the preceding chapters; now finally and climatically he escapes death on the final leg of the journey (cf. 27:10, 22–25, 42–44; 28:4–6). Perhaps even more specifically, however, this account is not just showing readers that the Lord kept his promise to get Paul to Rome but also how he kept his promise.28 This is the real world of storms and untamable weather, of unplanned changes and stopovers and redirections, of desperate measures and occasional despair (27:20; note the first-person plural there), of unexpected kindness from ordinary people (Festus allowed Paul to sail with companions, 27:1–2; from the centurion, 27:3, 43; from the people of Malta, 28:2, 7, 10), and of welcome encouragement from fellow believers (Paul’s friends at Sidon, 27:3; believers at Puteoli, 28:14; believers from Rome, 28:15). God’s promise is worked out in the midst of these realities.

The account of the storm and shipwreck from Fair Havens to Malta (27:9–44) is high drama indeed, and readers are carried along in the excitement of it all as everyone finally makes it to shore and Luke concludes with “and so it was that all were brought safely to land” (27:44). Throughout this account Paul speaks four times, and these words from Paul also provide an interpretive clue as to the message of this chapter concerning the way that God carries out his promises. First, in 27:9–10 Paul urges them not to sail from Fair Havens because “the voyage was now dangerous” (see above on the timing). Second, in 27:21–26 Paul relays the promise from God that they will all make it safely because he is to stand before Caesar, though they will run aground on an island. Third, in 27:31 as the sailors were about to escape Paul told the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship you cannot be saved.” Finally, in 27:33–34 Paul urges them to eat some food, adding that “it will help you to survive” (NRSV; or more word-for-word, “this is for your salvation” LSB). What stands out about these four statements is that they hold God’s sovereignty and human responsibility side-by-side (cf. e.g., 2:23; 4:27–28; Rom 8:30; 10:13–15; Phil 1:6; 2:12–13). Paul understands that belief in God’s promise to protect him and get him to Rome to bear witness is not the same as “foolish presumption.”29 Indeed, apart from relaying the divine promise, Paul’s observations are remarkable for their underwhelming common sense: this is bad weather for sailing; we need sailors who know what they’re doing to manage this sailing ship; after two weeks without food, we need food to have the strength to battle the waves to shore. God keeps his promises to Paul through the ordinary, everyday actions of living in his world.

The port at Puteoli where Paul stayed a week on his way to Rome

28:1–10 In the final stages of the journey to Rome, Luke recounts Paul’s interactions with the people of Malta. The account highlights, on the one hand, the remarkable kindness of the people, including from “the chief man of the Island . . . Publius” (28:2, 7, 10), and on the other hand, their fickle beliefs based on their superstitious understanding that the goddess of justice determines Paul’s fate (28:3–6). Yet Paul was also able to express his kindness and dependence on God, praying for Publius’s father so that he is healed, and then, reminiscent of the apostles in Jerusalem (5:16), “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured” (28:9). Their extreme generosity concludes the account and displays again how God provides for Paul and his companions on the way to Rome.

28:11–16 As Paul finally nears Rome, he is greeted by believers from Rome who come down to meet him halfway between Puteoli and Rome at the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns. When Paul sees them, he “thanked God and took courage” (28:15). This brief note highlights (1) that Luke is not primarily recounting the arrival of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, since when Paul gets there the gospel has evidently already arrived (cf. 1:8; 2:10; 18:2; just as in Damascus; cf. 9:1), and (2) the fulfilment of the Lord Jesus’s promise to get him to Rome. The note that Paul “took courage” when he saw these believers from Rome recalls the words of the Lord Jesus in 23:11 that Paul can “take courage, for . . . you must testify also in Rome” (cf. 19:21; 27:24). This section concludes, therefore, with Paul and his companions safe in Rome (28:18). Here, and later in 28:17, 20, 23, 30, Luke implies that his conditions as a prisoner were not severe, since Paul was able to stay in his own rented place, receive visitors, and was only guarded by one soldier (by chain). In God’s providence, although Paul was chained, the gospel wasn’t.

Proclamation to the Jewish Leaders in Rome (28:17–31)

28:17–22 The account of Paul at Rome unfolds with three scenes: first an initial gathering “after three days” with the leaders of the Jews in Rome (28:17–22), then an “appointed day” for a follow-up meeting with even larger numbers (28:23–28), and finally a concluding summary of Paul’s “two whole years” in Rome (28:30–31). The focus of this final section, therefore, as it has been throughout Acts 21–28, is on Paul and the people of Israel, and the gospel and the Scriptures. The first scene rehearses many of the themes we’ve seen already: even though Paul was “delivered . . . into the hands of the Romans” (cf. 21:11), he had done nothing wrong, whether against the people of Israel or against the Scriptures; the Roman governors have examined him and also found that he hasn’t done anything deserving the death penalty, but it’s because of the antagonism of the Jews that Paul has appealed to Caesar; again, he is not against his own nation, but instead he is a prisoner because of “the hope of Israel” (i.e., his proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus). The fact that the Jewish leaders in Rome hadn’t heard anything specific about these charges could be because the high priests and elders in Jerusalem hadn’t bothered to make the trip to present official charges in Rome. In view of the (much earlier) Jewish expulsion 18:2, and the conclusions of the rulers in 23:29; 25:18–19, 25; 26:31–32, they may have thought it wasn’t worth their trouble. They were mainly interested in getting Paul to Jerusalem so they could kill him there (25:3, 9), because the trial was not going to go their way.

28:23–28 In the second scene, the greater numbers and the expression “from morning till evening” signal a final comprehensive summary of Paul’s proclamation as he “expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (28:23). The same theme occurs: Paul’s preaching is about Jesus, the one to whom the Law and the Prophets pointed and the one who mediates God’s saving rule (cf. 1:6–8). The disagreement among them, however, is contrasted with Paul’s singular statement from Isaiah that Israel’s rejection of the gospel does not mean that God’s saving purposes are thwarted; rather, by his grace, God’s salvation has gone to the Gentiles (cf. 11:18; 13:46–48; 14:1, 27; 15:3–4, 7–10; 18:6–10; 21:19).

28:30–31 The final scene in Rome concludes the book with another summary of Paul’s preaching: “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:31). This is the second reference to the kingdom of God in this closing section, matching the two references to the kingdom in the opening verses of Acts, and framing the book (see 1:3, 6). Luke has been showing what God’s saving rule looks like now that Jesus has risen and ascended. Jesus continues to administer God’s saving rule as he enables the Word—the good news about his saving death and resurrection—to spread to all the nations, forming churches of believers made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This is epitomized in Paul’s continued welcome of “all who came to him” and proclamation of Jesus, the Messiah, who is the ruling Lord, boldly and “without hindrance.”


Green, Chris. The Word of His Grace: A Guide to Teaching and Preaching from Acts. Leicester: InterVarsity, 2005.

Keener, Craig. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volumes 1–4. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

Peterson, D. A. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Schnabel, E. Acts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Spencer, F. Scott. Journeying through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004.

Thompson, Alan J. One Lord, One People: The Unity of the Church in Acts in Its Literary Setting. LNTS 359. London: T&T Clark, 2008.

–––. The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan. NSBT 27. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 2011.

–––. “Paul as Pastor in Acts: Modelling and Teaching Perseverance in the Faith.” Pages 17-30 in Paul as Pastor. Edited by Brian S. Rosner, Andrew S. Malone, and Trevor J. Burke. London: T&T Clark, 2017.

–––. “The Trinity and Luke-Acts.” Pages 62-82 in The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. Edited by Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman. London: Inter-Varsity, 2016.

–––. “Unity in Acts: Idealization or Reality?” JETS 51.3 (2008): 523-42.

Witherington III, Ben. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio–Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Endnotes & Permissions

1 See Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 19-25; and Thompson, Luke, EGGNT (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 3-6.

2 For similar prefaces for a two-volume work see Josephus, Against Apion, 1:1–5; 2:1–2.

3 The wording for this heading and the next reflects Spencer, 106, 110.

4 Josephus, War 3.29.

5 At a festival held in honor of the emperor in the theatre; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 19:343–50.

6 Spencer, 139.

7 Ibid., 141; Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 63-65.

8 Cf. Witherington, Acts of the Apostles, 460-67; Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 184-87.

9 Spencer, 141.

10 For the following cf. Green, The Word of His Grace, 96-98.

11 Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 198.

12 Green, 99.

13 Spencer, 184.

14 Summarizing D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 392-94.

15 Spencer, 192-93.

16 See above at 13:1; 16:6.

17 The wording here summarizes Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 190.

18 Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, 242.

19 The following summarizes Green, 113-14.

20 Adapting Spencer, 212-13.

21 Josephus, Antiquities, 20.169–72.

22 The following discussion is drawn from Alan J. Thompson, “Acts, Book of” in Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. ed. G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Benjamin L. Gladd, and Andrew D. Naselli (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, forthcoming).

23 Cf. Spencer, 224-25 (on 226 Spencer also highlights the “edge of our seats” drama of the narrative).

24 Josephus, Antiquities, 19.354; 20.141–44.

25 Cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 20.145–47.

26 Euripides, Bacchae, 795 is often cited.

27 See Colossians 1:12–14; Alan J. Thompson, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary (rev. ed.; TNTC; Leicester: InterVarsity, 2022), 51-53.

28 For these observations and a helpful discussion of this journey see David Gooding, True to the Faith: The Acts of the Apostles: Defining and Defending the Gospel (Coleraine, Northern Ireland: Myrtlefield House, 2013), 482-93.

29 Ibid., 486-87.

The text of Acts, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition.  The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives you permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Crossway, the holder of the copyright to the ESV Bible text, grants permission to include the ESV quotations within this work, in English.In addition, TGC gives you permission to faithfully translate the work into any other language, but you may not translate the English ESV Bible into another language.  If you wish to include Bible quotations with the translated work, you will need to obtain permission from a publisher of a Bible translation in the same language.  All scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2016.   All rights reserved.  The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated into any other language.  The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Acts 1


The Promise of the Holy Spirit

1:1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

And while staying1 with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with2 the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The Ascension

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.3

15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong4 he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

  “‘May his camp become desolate,
    and let there be no one to dwell in it’;


  “‘Let another take his office.’

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.


[1] 1:4 Or eating

[2] 1:5 Or in

[3] 1:14 Or brothers and sisters. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, the plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) may refer either to brothers or to brothers and sisters; also verse 15

[4] 1:18 Or swelling up