Those of us on the New Testament track of our daily reading plan have been in Acts for a couple weeks now.
What we said in the last post about the title of Job is also true of the title of Acts. It is one of the simplest titles of the books of the Bible, yet it is easy to mispronounce. It is for Ohioans, anyway. We native Buckeyes tend to pronounce this title as Axe, as in the chopping tool and possible weapon. That’s how I said it and what I thought it was most of my childhood.
But the actual title is Acts, or, as some translations have it, The Acts of the Apostles. It refers not to a hatchet but to deeds, that is, things done.
The Acts of Peter and Paul
As the longer title suggests, most of the “things done” in this book were done by the Apostles, that is, the “capital A” Apostles, also known as “the Twelve”. Specifically, most of them were done by just two of these twelve Apostles. The first of those is Peter, the outspoken Apostle of the Gospel narratives. And the second of those is Paul, the Apostle born out of time (1 Corinthians 15:8).
In fact, the attention given to the deeds of these two apostles is so great that it can be one way to understand the structure of the book. I’ve heard some Christians teachers divide this book into two parts. They call the first twelve chapters “The Acts of Peter”, and the last sixteen “The Acts of Paul”. That’s what they say this book is. Peter’s acts followed by Paul’s acts.
This is obviously an overgeneralization. We do find acts of other church people, such as the deacons Steven (Acts 7) and Philip (Acts 8), in these sections. We also find Peter popping back up in Acts 15 after fading away in Acts 12. So those two divisions are not hard and fast. But they are basically accurate. The bulk of this book is, at least in one sense, a record of what Peter and Paul did.
The Acts of the Holy Spirit
But in another sense, it is a record of what someone else did. The acts in this book are without doubt acts not just of these two men but of the Holy Spirit.
As recorded in John 14-16, Jesus’ followers were promised the Holy Spirit on the night Jesus was betrayed. (By the way, isn’t it interesting how these two books from two different authors connect perfectly on this particular point?) In Acts 1, this promised is reiterated by Jesus before He ascends.
The promise is then fulfilled in the next chapter, Acts 2, when the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs, enabling Jesus’ followers to speak in tongues and empowering them to preach His Gospel.
The Spirit continues to make itself known throughout the book. By my count, the word Spirit is used 69 times in Acts. Oftentimes, the Spirit is “filling” Jesus’ followers so that they can accomplish some great deed.
In fact, the Spirit is so prevalent in these acts that some people call this book not The Acts of the Apostles but The Acts of the Spirit. In my opinion, that alternate title is accurate. Even if we don’t call the book by this name, we have to be aware of this idea. We have to know it isn’t just us but rather the Spirit in us who is acting.
A World Turned Upside Down
But in addition to talking about who did these acts, we also need to talk about what these acts were and what result they had.
The first one is easy. These acts were acts that “spread the Gospel”. Jesus said in the beginning of the book that these men would be empowered by this Spirit to take His message to all the earth. That’s what these acts are. They are not just “things Peter did” or “some neat stories about Paul”. They are things Peter and Paul did for the purpose of sharing Jesus, stories about how Peter and Paul and Philip and Steven and Barnabus preached the good news to people who had not heard it. That’s important to note.
Equally important is the effect these acts had. We can document this effect in many ways. We know the message was taken to all the earth not just because Acts tells us so but because we have experienced it ourselves. It is not untrue for us to say that we have the faith in Jesus we have today as a direct result of these acts.
But another way is to look at what the ancient people who experienced these acts firsthand said about their effect. We find an example of this in Acts 17. Paul goes to Thessalonica in that chapter, and as was often the case, he finds himself in trouble with local authorities. The non-believing Thessalonians know what effect Paul’s message had on their neighboring cities, how it led them into a completely different way of living. And so they charge him with “turning the world upset down”.
Now these people thought this turning the world upside down was a bad thing. Non-believers always do. But we believers know it is was a good thing. We know the world was really turned right-side up by the message of Jesus.
And we have become a part of that turning. We are taking our part in it today.
I think this is another truth communicated between the lines of Acts. Yes, Peter and Paul get most of the attention here, but they weren’t the only act-ers, the only ones spreading Jesus by doing great deeds. The rest of the capital A Apostles were as well. We aren’t told about their deeds here, but we know they did them. Many deacons, evangelists, and other believers spread Jesus as well.
These acts are not recorded not because they are unimportant. They are not recorded because they are impossible to record. If we were to give Acts yet another title, we might call it The Incomplete Acts of the Church because that is what it is. That is what it was always going to be. It was never going to be a complete acts of the church, because completeness just isn’t possible here. There were too many good people doing too many good things. That’s how the message turned the world upside down.
And we are being encouraged to do our own good things, to spread Jesus in our own way, time, and place. That is clearly an implication of this book for us today. This isn’t just information, just “what happened”. This is inspiration, “what could happen”. Acts is encouraging us to keep acting.