Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 43-55.

          Copyright © 1990 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.    




                THE THEOLOGY OF ACTS




                                      DAVID S. DOCKERY

                                            Broadman Press

                                       Nashville, TN 37234



            The Book of Acts claims to provide a historical picture of the

early church from its beginnings in Jerusalem to the arrival of Paul in

Rome. Luke, the recognized author of this important work, painted a

portrait of the life and preaching of the primitive church in Jerusalem

to Judea, Samaria, and unto the remotest parts of the world (Acts 1:8).

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 Tubingen school, contended that Luke's

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 (Tubingen: Mohr,


            3 A. Schlatter, Neutestamentliche Theologie (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1922-1923).



            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 Israel, (b) the center of time identified as

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. Marshall,

building on the work of W. Ramsay8 and A. N. Sherwin-White,9 in

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 (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1977) 341-67.

            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 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,


                        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

Jewish community in Jerusalem to Gentile congregation in the capital city of the Roman

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

Beyond Jerusalem," RevExp 87 (Summer, 1990) 423-38; J. Polhill, "Acts 6-12: The

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).



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 Jerusalem, in Judea and

Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

            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 Israel, so the Pentecost story serves as a theological

construction of the church's birth. Pentecost is best understood as the

reverse of the curse of Babel (Gen 11:9). Pentecost was the concluding

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 Qumran community (1 QS 1:20).18

            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


            16 I. H. Marshall, "The Significance of Pentecost" SJT 30 (1977) 347-69.

            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;

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 9:233-34.

                        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 Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 12-14). But the words uttered at

Pentecost were immediately recognized by those who heard them as

current languages, while at Corinth an interpreter was needed for

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 Mount Sinai (De decalogo 33)."19

            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.

            22 R.. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids:

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 (Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity, 1990) 29-45.



            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

(doxological) Christ.

            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

Rome. The greatness of Luke's view lies in showing more impressively

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

apostolic message.


            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 Palestine, and who was crucified and raised from

the dead.

            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 (London:

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. Holladay, "Acts," in Harper's Bible Commentary (ed. J. L. Mays; San

Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 1078-79.



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. Wilson; Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1971) 352.

            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



                                    IV. Church and Eschatology


            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 Israel to the NT e]kklhsi<aa, though he rightly admits a close link

between the two. Also cf. B. Reicke, "The Constitution of the Primitive Church in the

Light of Jewish Documents," Scrolls and the New Testament (ed. K. Stendahl; London:

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).



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

live in Jerusalem from the Diaspora began to complain because the

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 church of God" (Acts 20:28). The Book of

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. Martin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 55-67;

cf. Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (West-

chester, IL: Crossway, 100B) 89-102.

            48 L. T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986)

            227; also cf. M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1979).

            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

Rome freed from Jewish associations and practices.50

            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.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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Dallas, TX   75246


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