Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 43-55.
Copyright © 1990 by The
THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS
DAVID S. DOCKERY
The Book of Acts claims to provide a historical picture of the
early church from its beginnings in
portrait of the life and preaching of the
primitive church in
In reporting the advancement of the gospel mission, Luke theologized
on the sermons and deeds of Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul. Promi-
nent among the issues in the study of Acts is the relation of theology
and history. While this critical issue is not our primary concern, we
cannot ignore the question while discussing Luke's theology of the
Spirit, Christ and salvation, and the Church and eschatology.
I. The Critical Questions
F. C. Baur, from an extreme, one-sided perspective, established a
milestone for the position that the church in the Book of Acts was not
historical, but the product of a theological tendency.1 Baur, the leading
figure of the 19th-century
theological intention was to harmonize the apostles and the primitive
church into the unity of the Una Sancta. He maintained that the history
reflected in Acts and the history in Paul was not unity, but contrast.
Baur's position was advanced in the beginning of the 20th century by
H. J. Holtzmann,2 and countered by A. Schlatter.3
1 The course of research is traced in W. W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of
the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) and W. G. Kummel, The New
Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (London: SCM, 1973); idem,
Introduction to the New Testament (London: SCM, 1975) 125-88.
2 H. J. Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie (
3 A. Schlatter, Neutestamentliche Theologie (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1922-1923).
44 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
In the past 40 years the question has been reopened and vigorously
debated. The Bultmann school extended Baur's thesis suggesting that
Luke's Christology was pre-Pauline and his natural theology, escha-
tology, and view of the law were post-Pauline. Thus, the theology of
Luke did not represent the primitive church, but an emerging early
catholicism.4 E. Kasemann emphasized that Luke legitimized his view
of the church in relation to heretical views on the basis of its continuity
with the early apostolate and its sanctified realm in the world. He
claimed Luke was the first advocate of an early catholicism.5
Lukan scholarship entered a mature phase with the work of H.
Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (1960). Modifying the research
of Holtzmann, Klein, Bultmann, and Kasemann, Conzelmann advo-
cateda salvation-history approach outlined around four themes: (1) the
center of time for Luke was the time of Jesus, not the time of the
church; (2) the theology of Luke must not be compared with that of
Paul since it was faced with a problem that was not existent for Paul:
the delay of the parousia and the church's existence in secular history;
(3) characteristic for the historical composition through which Luke
solved this problem was the compartmentalization of three salvation-
history epochs: (a) the time of
the time of Jesus, the intrinsic time of salvation, (c) the time of the
church as a time of struggle with doubt and of patience; and (4) through
this periodization Luke wanted to make clear to the church of his time
that the forms of the church may change, but the fundamental structure
should be maintained.6
Throughout, Conzelmann rejected the historical accuracy of Acts
and viewed Luke's thought as a distortion of Pauline and Johannine
thought. O. Cullmann contested Conzelmann's conception of Lukan
salvation history as a distortion of Paul and
John.7 I. H.
building on the work of
addition to his own fresh research, argued that Luke was a faithful
historian and theologian.10 It therefore should not be surprising that
4 See J. D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament
5 E. Kasemann, Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1960) 88-94.
6 H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (London: Faber, 1960) 14-17.
7 O. Cullmann, Salvation in History (London: SCM, 1967).
8 W. M. Ramsay, based on geographical and archaeological studies, argued Luke's
history was amazingly accurate. See Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the
Trustworthiness of the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915).
9 A classical scholar, A. N. Sherwin-White, has concluded that for Acts the confirma-
tion of historicity is overwhelming. See Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law
in the New Testament (London: Oxford, 1963) 189-00.
10 I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 45
many good, critical scholars believe that Luke has given us a trust-
worthy picture of the life and thought of the early church. Therefore, it
is possible to understand Acts as a reliable source for the theology of
the young church.
The most recent approaches to Acts see the book in light of its
place in the NT canon, apart from historical considerations.11 Our
approach in this article will merge these positions. We shall examine the
theology of Acts within its canonical setting, yet accepting the portraits
of the church as adequate history.12 Yet, whatever merits the work has
for historical investigation, Luke's work is nevertheless primarily theo-
logical, no matter how much he has put us in his debt for the historical
information he has conveyed to us. As J. C. Beker has said, "Luke is a
master theologian."13 Luke does not profess to write a work of the-
ology, but what he writes is theologically informed and significantly
contributes to our overall understanding of NT theology.14 With this
understanding let us turn our attention to Luke's view of the Holy
Spirit, Christ, salvation, the Church, and eschatology.
II. The Holy Spirit
The activity of the Spirit in Acts universalized the mission of
Jesus.15 What the apostles did, in fact whatever was done by the
church, was seen to be the work of the Spirit. Initially Luke indicates
that his book was the result of the Spirit's teaching from the resurrected
11 See M. Parsons, "Canonical Criticism," in New Testament Criticism and Inter-
pretation (eds. D. A. Black and D. S. Dockery; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming
1991). Canonical hermeneutics does not reject the historical issue, it brackets the question
to deal with other concerns; also see Parsons, "The Sense of a Beginning in Acts 1-5,"
RevExp 87 (Summer, 1990) 403-22.
12 As G. Ladd has noted, "This does not require us to believe that the sermons Luke
reports are verbatim accounts; they are altogether too short for that. Nor do we demur
that Luke is the author of these speeches in their present form. We may, however, accept
the conclusion that they are brief but accurate summaries of the earliest preaching of the
apostles. It is also clear that Luke is not a critical historian in the modern sense of the
word; . . . all real historical writing must involve selection and interpretation, and Luke
selects from the sources of information available to him, both written and oral, what to
him are the most important events in tracing the extension of the church from a small
empire." See Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974)
314; cf. D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981)
42-48; also see D. Dockery, "Acts 6-12: The Advancement of the Christian Mission
Hellenist Breakthrough," RevExp 71 (1974) 475-86. .
13 J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 162.
14 L. Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) 144-45.
15 See M. Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
46 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Lord to the apostles (Acts 1:2). The apostles were reminded to wait for
the Spirit's coming; thus the Spirit's coming at Pentecost did not come
to the apostles unprepared.16 The Spirit is not to be dissociated from
Jesus. As F. D. Bruner observes, "the Spirit is Jesus at work in continua-
tion of his ministry."17
It is the promise of Christ that the Spirit will direct the expanding
ministry of the church (Acts 1:8). Luke prohibited apocalyptic specula-
tion regarding times and seasons. The attentive look of the apostles
should focus not on the Parousia, but on where and how the Spirit
would establish them as witnesses. Through the direction and power of
the Spirit, the gospel would be heard in
The Spirit's special manifestation at Pentecost was the event which
began the church age. As the giving of the Law at Sinai served as the
birth of the nation
construction of the church's birth. Pentecost is best understood as the
reverse of the curse of
act of the ascension (cf. John 7:39; 16:7). It was accompanied by
unusual physical phenomena: a sound like a mighty wind and tongues
like fire (Acts 2:2-3). These extraordinary signs must be regarded as
singular to this initial experience, since they are not regularly repeated
elsewhere. Although the Spirit would continually be outpoured, the
outpouring would never again signify the inauguration of a new era.
The relationship between fire and Spirit obviously links Pentecost to
John the Baptist's proclamation at Jesus' baptism (Matt 3:11). It is
noteworthy that the coming of the Spirit was also associated with the
inauguration of the new age in the
Luke indicates that all the believers were filled with the Spirit
(Acts 2:4), emphasizing the corporate nature of the Spirit's work. The
little group of believers was sealed by the Spirit. There is no sugges-
tion that anyone who believed was either not filled or partially filled.
The filling of the Spirit enabled them to speak in other (e!teraij)
tongues. What amazed the people was not the sudden phenomenon of
people speaking in unintelligible tongues, but they heard Galileans
speaking in their own language (Acts 2:6). Whether the miracle was one
17 F. D. Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)
18 F. F. Bruce, "The Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles," Int 27 (1973) 172-73.
The structure of Acts compared with Luke's Gospel also indicates that the birth of Jesus
(Luke 1:1-2:40) parallels the birth of the church (Acts 1:1-2:47). See R. Longenecker,
"The Acts of the Apostles," Expositor's Bible Commentary (12 vols.; ed. F. E. Gaebelein;
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 47
of speaking, or hearing, or both, is not clear. What is clear is that the
Spirit was active and responsible.
The tongues here are often identified with ecstatic utterances
similar to those at
Pentecost were immediately recognized by those who heard them as
current languages, while at
understanding. Therefore, "the tongues in 2:4 are best understood as
'languages' and should be taken in accord with Philo's reference to
understandable language as one of the three signs of God's presence in
the giving of the law at
D. Guthrie suggests that it does not seem unreasonable to regard
the Pentecost manifestation of tongues as exceptional. In only two
other places in Acts is speaking in tongues mentioned, in both cases as
an accompaniment of the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 10:46; 19:6).20
In neither case is there mention made of the hearers being able to
understand, and these occurrences may perhaps be more similar to the
Corinthian experience than to Pentecost.21 Yet, all three experiences
described in Acts were for confirmation while the Corinthian experi-
ences were for edification.
The Spirit's activity at Pentecost was interpreted as a fulfillment of
Joel's prophecy which refers to "the last days" and to the inauguration
of "the great and manifest day of the Lord."22 The pouring out of the
Holy Spirit was for the apostles an evidence that Jesus had been
The Spirit was given in order to create in individuals and in the
church a quality of life that would otherwise be beyond their ability.
Also the Spirit was given to unite believers into a fellowship that could
not be paralleled in any other group. The Spirit's coming was not so
much to allow men and women to be comfortable, even though the
Spirit is the Comforter (John 16:13), but to make them missionaries and
proclaimers of the good news (Acts 1:8).23
19 Longenecker, "Acts," 271. A dissenting opinion can be found in R. J. Banks and
Moon, "Speaking in Tongues: A Survey of the NT Evidence," Churchman 80 (1966)
278-94. They favor the interpretation that glossolalia is the ability to speak in a spiritual
language which might be a language of humans or angels.
20 Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 538-39.
21 Helpful distinctions are clarified by A. Hoekema, Holy Spirit Baptism (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 48-50.
N. Longenecker, Biblical
Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (
Eerdmans, 1975) 79; cf. G. Luedemann, Early Christianity According to the Tradition in
Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
23 Cf. J. R. W. Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World (
InterVarsity, 1990) 29-45.
48 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The Spirit is present and promised in the Gospels, but not fully
given until after the events of the Gospels. It is true that the Gospels
were written after the giving of the Spirit, but they do not concentrate
on that event. Instead they focus on the Spirit's equipping Jesus for his
ministry.24 As the Spirit equipped Jesus for his ministry (Luke 1, 2, 4), so
the Spirit equipped the people of Jesus for ministry (Acts 1, 2).
The central theme at Pentecost was not the Spirit; rather it was
Jesus Christ and the cross event. Luke found the point of the giving of
the Spirit not in the pouring out of the Spirit per se, but in the universal
promise of salvation for which the Spirit was poured out.25 The ministry
of the Spirit was Christocentric. The purpose of the Spirit was to
spread the news of (missiological) Christ and to exalt the name of
After Pentecost the Spirit was active in many aspects of the Chris-
tian community. The Spirit's power was specifically noticed in preach-
ing, in prophecy, in witness, in joy, and in the making of decisions. Yet
the primary emphasis of the work of the Spirit in Luke's second volume
was mission. His theological emphasis demonstrated that the Spirit
who dwelt in the Messiah of Israel now was available to the citizens of
than anyone else that the church can live only by evangelizing and by
following whatever new paths the Spirit indicates.26
The Spirit used various means to carry out the church's mission.
Primarily the Spirit employed testimony, story, and the proclaimed
word (e.g., Acts 2:14, 36; 3:12-26; 5:32; 7:2-53; 8:4; 13:16-41; 18:5;
19:10). Unpredictably, the Spirit worked through trances (Acts 10:19),
prophets (Acts 11:28), worship services (Acts 13:2), church councils
(Acts 15:28), and inner constraint (Acts 16:6, 7). Through these means
the Spirit universalized and advanced the Christian mission. Yet, al-
ways the Spirit remained the mysterious, sovereign Spirit of God. The
apostolic mission energized by the Holy Spirit proclaimed that salva-
tion was available for Jews and Gentiles alike as proclaimed in the
24 This observation is good evidence for the historical reliability of the gospels.
Many today want to tell us that the Gospels are only the words of the Church placed on
the lips of Jesus. In reality, the Gospels are the words of Jesus placed on the lips of the
25 Longenecker, "Acts," 212-14.
26 Cf. Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit; idem, Evangelism in the Early Church
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 49
III. Christ and Salvation
What was this apostolic message? The consistent aspects of this
message have been articulated by C. H. Dodd. This salvific message
stressed that the age of fulfillment has dawned. It has taken place
through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. By
virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been raised to the right hand of
God as messianic head of the Israel of God. The Holy Spirit in the
church is the sign of Christ's present power and glory. The Messianic
age will shortly reach its culmination in the return of Christ. The
apostles proclaimed that the hearers needed to repent, believe in Christ,
receive God's offer of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, and be baptized
into the believing community.27
As the message of salvation spread, a number of misconceptions
attended the birth and growth of the Christian movement. One con-
cerned the relationship between the new faith and Judaism since Jesus
was proclaimed as Savior of the world. Peter's interpretation of Joel at
Pentecost (Acts 2), Stephen's defense before the Jewish council (Acts
7), Peter's experience in Joppa with Cornelius (Acts 10), and Paul's
discourse on Mars Hill (Acts 17) all demonstrated that Christianity was
not merely a Jewish sect, some narrow messianic movement, but rather
a universal faith.28 Another difficulty was the popular misidentification
of the Christian faith with the cults and mystery religions of the day.29
The encounter with Simon the magician (Acts 8) and the apostles'
refusal to receive worship at Lystra (Acts 14) undermined the charge
that Christianity was another type of superstition. Instead the Christian
message of salvation rested on Jesus Christ, the Lord who belonged to
history, who lived in
Luke's entire story is built on the centrality of Jesus' resurrection.
Obvious is the author's conviction that apart from the resurrection of
Jesus there was no genuine Christian faith (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-20). God
placed his approval on Jesus' life and work by the resurrection, verify-
ing the truth claims of the apostolic message. Thus the replacement
27 Cf. C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments
Hodder & Stoughton, 1936).
28 L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament (trans. J. Alsup; 2 vols.; Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 2:14~16.
29 C. R.
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 1078-79.
50 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
apostle selected in Acts 1 had to have been a witness to Jesus' resurrec-
tion. The sermons and speeches point to the importance of the resur-
rection as the “great reversal” executed by God (cf. Acts 2:22-24, 36;
3:14-15; 5:30-31; 10:39-42). Likewise, Christ's resurrection served as
the basis for the promise of believers' resurrection, the foundation of
their hope (cf. Acts 4:2; 13:32-33; 17:18,29-32; 23:6; 24:21; 26:23).30
Certainly it is the resurrection of Jesus that best explains the
transformation of the shattered followers of Jesus. These disciples
became people who were convinced that Jesus was alive and this
message would transform the world. As Guthrie observes, “their fear-
lessness in proclaiming the gospel demands an adequate explanation
and no approach to the resurrection is tenable which does not account
for this transformation."31 Regarding the apostolic understanding of
the reality of the resurrection, W. Pannenberg claims that as long as
historiography does not begin with a narrow concept of reality which
maintains that dead people do not rise, there is absolutely no reason
why it should not be possible to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as the
best explanation of the disciples' experiences of the appearances and
the discovery of the empty tomb.32
The resurrection and ascension were events that inaugurated his
lordship over the church and the world. The use of the title Lord
applied to Jesus was immediate. The employment of Ku<rioj (Lord)
was equated with deity. Where it is used in Acts, it often is located in
OT quotations or allusions, thus implying that the lordship of Christ
carried with it the essence of Godhood. From Peter's Pentecost sermon
throughout the advancement of the Christian mission, it was natural for
the Christian church to refer to Jesus in this exalted way. Further when
Peter declared Jesus is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36), he pointed to Jesus'
lordship over both Jews and Gentiles.33
The Christ event, death and resurrection, was interpreted as part
of the divine purpose (Acts 2:23). Yet, Luke also recorded Peter's
words that Jesus was killed by the hands of lawless men. The tension
involved in this juxtaposition is characteristic of Luke's soteriology.
The significance of such a claim was to establish that neither the
salvation provided by Jesus nor the salvation offered to men and
women happened accidentally.
30 M. Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963)
31 Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 377.
32 W. Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man (London: SaM, 1968) 109.
33 E. Haenchen,
The Acts of the Apostles (trans. R. McL.
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 51
In line with the divine purpose and the fulfillment of Scripture
(Acts 3:17-21; 10:42), Luke described Jesus' crosswork by picturing
Jesus as servant (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30) as well as Savior (Acts 2:38;
3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 13:23, 38). The servant themes find their background
with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.34 The meaning of savior is directly
related to the truth that a releasing of sin has taken place, a forgiveness
has been provided, only in Christ (Acts 4:12).35
The emphasis on forgiveness of sin was prominent in both of
Luke's volumes. In Acts 2:37, Peter told the Pentecost audience that
forgiveness of sins and the experience of the Spirit's presence were
promised to those who repented and were baptized (also cf. Acts 3:19,
26; 5:31). Luke also associated forgiveness with the response of faith in
Acts 10:43; 13:38, 39; 15:9.36 In Paul's defense before Agrippa, faith and
repentance were brought together with the forgiveness of sins.37 For
Luke, the act of faith and the act of repentance were seemingly
Faith involved turning to Jesus Christ in trust and commitment,
thus entering into the new life (Acts 16:31). Repentance also involved a
turning about so that one's life was focused on a new direction (Acts
5:31). On the basis of repentance and faith one was baptized and
initiated into the new community, thus experiencing the reality of
forgiveness of sins.38 For Luke the new community, the church, was the
sphere in which the forgiving and re-creating presence of God was
34 Though this identification is not always recognized. See M. D. Hooker, Jesus
and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959) 107-16.
35 Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 462, contends that Luke needs the epistles to
supplement his theology of the work of Christ. F. Stagg, however, in New Testament
Theology (Nashville: Broadman, 1962) 146-48, constructs a gift and demand model of the
cross. Also see Stagg, The Book of Acts (Nashville: Broadman, 1955) 28-34.
36 Guthrie, New Testament Theology, passim.
37 The association of repentance and faith in Luke's thought is virtually unnoticed
by C. Ryrie and Z. Hodges in the current "lordship salvation" controversy. This does not
imply that J. MacArthur is entirely correct, but does note a major gap in the methodology
and content by one side of the discussion.
38 In early Christianity the baptism event was understood primarily as an act of
initiation into the believing community. The phrase "be baptized for the forgiveness of
your sins.' (Acts 2:38) does not mean that something magically happens in the baptismal
waters. Cf. D. J. Williams, Acts (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 37-42. For a
detailed study of baptism in Acts, see G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New
Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962) 93-12.5.
39 The distinctions of number in the Greek verbs are significant in this connection.
The call to repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38) is in the singular, but the promise to
receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is in the plural, for the Spirit was given to the
52 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
As we have noted the critical event in the launching of the Chris-
tian community was undoubtedly Pentecost.40 Acts leaves no doubt
that the new church was essentially a community of the Holy Spirit.
Immediately following the Spirit's descent on the community, it grew
significantly in an astonishing manner (Acts 2:41).
The shape and mission of the church developed over time. The
Christian community initially maintained its Jewish roots and associa-
tions. They continued to worship in the temple (Acts 3:1) and viewed
themselves as representatives of the true Israel.41
The Spirit-led community exemplified authentic and spontaneous
community (Acts 2:42-41; 4:32). The key element in this community
was its voluntary nature, so it cannot be seen as a type of communism.
A common fund was established from which needs were supplied. The
voluntary pattern of concern developed as the church grew and ex-
panded (cf. Acts 6:1; 11:21; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8-9).42
The picture of the early church presented in Acts 2:42-41 com-
bined worship, fellowship, proclamation, and concern for physical and
social needs. These regular meetings took place in the temple and
appear to have centered around the breaking of bread (the Lord's
supper) and corporate prayer. The importance of prayer and its rela-
tion to mission is well developed in Luke's story (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:42; 3:1;
4:24; 12:12; and 13:3).
The new community empowered by the Spirit and dependent on
divine resources available through prayer understood its primary task
to be witness and mission (Acts 1:8). This was accomplished through
the community's lifestyle, its proclamation, signs and wonders, and the
specific tasks and speeches of the apostles and leaders. Those who
responded to the witness were incorporated into the community
through baptism (2:38-41; 8:12, 36; 16:15; 19:5; 22:16). Believers were
baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Luke wanted to distinguish
Christian baptism from John's baptism and therefore emphasized the
community of which the individual became a part. Cf. L. Morris, Spirit of the Living
God (London: InterVarsity, 1960) 54-57.
40 Marshall, “Significance of Pentecost,” 350-56; also cf. J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and
the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975) 144-46. i
41 H. Kung, The Church (London: Search, 1968) 115-16, warns against equally
transferring the term
between the two. Also cf. B. Reicke,
"The Constitution of the
of Jewish Documents," Scrolls and
the New Testament (ed. K. Stendahl;
SCM, 1958) 143-56.
42 See K. F. Nickle, The Collection (London: SCM, 1966).
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 53
Christological meaning of the experience.43 Some have suggested that
water baptism was required for receiving the Holy Spirit, but this
seems extremely doubtful.
There are examples of household baptisms in Acts (11:14; 16:15,
31; 18:8). It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to believe that such
passages mean that the faith of the head of the household was sufficient
for the children, relatives, or household slaves.44 The household refer-
ences most likely designate only those of mature age who confessed
their faith in Christ.45 Baptism served as an initiatory rite incorporating
the followers of Christ into the new community and identifying them
with their Lord and his people.
Almost immediately the church adopted the practice of the Lord's
Supper. Luke indicates that this practice helped to bind believers
together so as to recognize their essential oneness with the Lord Jesus.
Little indication is given as to how the supper was observed, but it
obviously was regularly practiced. Initially it appears to have been
observed daily (Acts 2:46), and later it became a weekly observance
(Acts 20:7). Clearly the purpose clause in this last passage indicates that
the supper was the focal point of the church's worship.46
In the beginning the church's only leaders were the apostles. There
was little organization, and the importance of the twelve derived from
the fact that Jesus had specifically appointed them. Matthias was
elected to replace Judas. Luke also refers to Paul and Barnabas as
apostles (14:4, 14).
Other leadership roles developed including elders, prophets, evan-
gelists, and a functioning role akin to deacons. Elders arose from
Jewish synagogue models. No explanation is given concerning the
function of these elders, but they most likely carried out administrative
tasks. On their return trip, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the
newly established churches on their first mission journey (Acts 14:23).
During the farewell discourse to the Ephesian elders/bishops (Acts
20:17, 28; cf. Titus 1:5, 7), Paul exhorted them to feed the flock (cf.
1 Pet 5:1-5).
In addition to apostles and elders, prophets exercised leadership
roles by bringing words of revelation for the edification of the church.
Occasionally they would prophesy future events (Acts 11:28; 21:10).
43 See L. Hartman, "Baptism into the Name of Jesus' and Early Christology: Some
Tentative Considerations," ST 28 (1974) 21-48.
44 Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 350.
45 Beasley-Murray, Baptism, 93-126; 312-20; also see P. K. Jewett, Infant Baptism
and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 47-50.
46 Cf. R. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964).
54 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The prophet played no administrative role in the churches. Agabus is
mentioned twice (Acts 11:28; 21:10) and the daughters of Philip also
carried out this ecstatic function.47 There may have been a separate
class of leaders known as evangelists. Philip is the only one known by
that term (Acts 8; 21:8). He was one of the first table waiters prior to his
work as an evangelist.
The first formal leadership was chosen when an internal problem
arose within the church. Greek-speaking Jews who had returned to
Hebrew-speaking widows apparently were favored in the daily distri-
bution of the food. The apostles' task had grown so large they had
become open to the charges of insensitivity and partiality. To solve the
problem seven were chosen to take care of the widows. Probably this is
the source of the office of deacon that developed almost three decades
later (cf. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:7). As the apostles had their spiritual author-
ity symbolized by their function of feeding the people (Acts 4:32-37),
so the seven gained their spiritual authority for the Hellenistic mission
signified by their charge to feed the Hellenistic widows.48
The women played a prominent role in the early church. They
apparently were involved in the election of Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).
They too received the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
(Acts 2:1-18). Women were among the first believers (Acts 5:14; 12:12;
16:14-15; 17:4,34). In Acts 18, Priscilla took the lead with her husband
Aquilla in teaching the eloquent Apollos. Acts 21:8-9 indicates that
Philip's daughters had the gift of prophecy.
The churches generally were bound by no ecclesiastical ties or
formal authority. They nevertheless evidenced a profound oneness.
"Church" was usually used of local congregations. Occasionally the
plural (churches) was used to designate all the churches in an area (Acts
15:41; 16:5). The singular can, however, be used to include all the
believers in a given city (Acts 5:11; 8:1) and can designate the church at
large (Acts 9:31). Regardless, Luke's theology clearly teaches that the
community of faith is "the
Acts demonstrates49 that the church gradually broke with the synagogue
and became an independent movement. The early church that was
47 E. E. Ellis, "The Role of the Christian Prophet in Acts" in Apostolic History and
the Gospel (ed. W. W. Gasque and R. P.
cf. Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (West-
48 L. T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986)
227; also cf. M. Hengel,
Acts and the History of Earliest
49 Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 353.
David S. Dockery: THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS 55
hardly distinguishable from its Jewish milieu at its birth is pictured at
the conclusion of Luke's story as a predominantly Gentile fellowship in
Finally, we must look at how Luke approached the consummation
of the new age. The theme of the return of Christ was introduced early
in the story (Acts 1:6-11). Significant is the point made by the two
heavenly beings that the return of Christ will be in "the same manner"
as the ascension. This description rules out any suggestion that the
second coming took place spiritually at Pentecost, at the time of re-
generation among believers, or at the death of believers.51 These words
clearly support a futurist interpretation of the second coming.52 A
"realized eschatology" is inconsistent with such a promise.
Peter's Pentecost sermon pointed not only to the coming of the
Spirit as proclaimed by the prophet Joel, but also to the Day of the
Lord and its accompanying signs. The Day of the Lord was present;
yet it remained for the future. They were now in the last days (Acts
2:17), though they awaited a time when God would "send Jesus. . . for
he must remain in heaven until the time comes for all things to be made
new" (Acts 3:20-21). Underpinning Luke's theology was the idea that
the eschaton has been inaugurated, but it awaits a future consumma-
tion. At that time, Jesus, whom God has raised from the dead, will
judge the whole world with justice (Acts 17:31).
The gospel proclamation, the oneness of the community, the call
to repentance, and the urgency of the Christian mission were presented
in light of the return of Christ and the future fixed day of judgment.
Luke's theology focused on the work of the Spirit in the new com-
munity that was established on the death and resurrection of the
church's Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. This new community, born
within Judaism, obeying the missionary imperative, advanced the gos-
pel by the Spirit's enablement throughout the Mediterranean world.
The church at the end of the 20th century must likewise be faithful
to the Spirit's leadership in worship, fellowship, proclamation, and
50 Ibid., 355-56.
51 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rev. 1988) 41.
52 Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 802.
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