Why Acts? Luke’s Purpose for Writing the Sequel

Luke-ActsWhat are we to make of the book of Acts? There is no other book like it in the New Testament, bridging the Gospels and the Epistles. Most agree that it is a precious aspect to the beginnings of the Christian church, Calvin wrote of it as a “great treasure”. F. F. Bruce went as far as to call it a source book of highest value for the history of human civilization. But above these generous compliments, Acts is a vital contribution to our understanding of the apostolic church and spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:47). Though it is a carefully structured, meticulously written history, garnering eye-witness accounts, Acts is much more than a mere window into the past. For the book does not simply inform us; it transforms and challenges us.

But how does Acts do that? In his Gospel, Luke reports that he set out to provide an orderly account of what had been accomplished among them, so that Theophilus might have certainty of the things he had been taught (Luke 1:1-4). The Acts narrative begins by saying ‘in his previous book he dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach(Acts 1:1-3). So Acts covers what Jesus continued to do and teach, through the apostolic witness. Luke-Acts consists of two volumes forming a single work, so the primary purpose of Acts cannot be considered in isolation from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke-Acts we see “the beginning of the gospel, the establishment of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and the proclamation of salvation by the early church” (F F. Bruce). Therefore, it is unavoidable that Acts is evangelistic, proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ to its readers, who may not have witnessed Jesus or his apostles’ ministry first hand.

The purpose of this two volume work is to call its readers to repentance, which is almost always seen as the result of preaching in Acts (see 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:30). Luke puts great effort into recording sermons that were preached by those in the apostolic church. As Calvin has noted, they touch on sound and pure doctrine, the great mercies of God, the grace of Christ, our hope and blessed immortality, God’s calling, repentance and the fear of God. Far from simply retelling the story of the God’s fledgling church, Acts invites its readers to hear those sermons afresh and respond to them in faith and repentance. As Jesus Christ is preached, from Judah to Samaria and to the ends of the world, we are enveloped in the expanding kingdom that reaches into all four corners of God’s world.

Luke-ActsIn closing, Luke makes it clear that the success of the preached gospel came about because the Holy Spirit was at work through those proclaiming Christ (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4; 6:3; 8:17; 10:45; 16:6; 20:23). Luke is emphatic that the progress of the Christian faith is due to the divine agency and work of the Spirit. In reading Acts we are encouragingly reminded that faithfulness to the message of Jesus and the effective superintendence of the Spirit will bring about faith in our hearers. This should give us confidence and challenge us to do as the apostolic church did, boldly preach Christ. The book is a detailed history, proclaiming Christ, calling its readers to repentance, and assuring the church that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through preaching the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Innocent Jesus: A Point From Repetition

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedSix times in Luke 23 the author wants us to see that Jesus really was innocent, and this comes from the lips of four different people. Three times Pilate states that he found no guilt in Jesus (23:4, 14, 22). Sandwiched between the second and third of those concerned public declarations, Pilate tells the crowd of Herod’s verdict on this itinerant preacher: Jesus was not deserving of death, merely ridicule (23:15). Hanging alongside Jesus, staring death squarely in the face, a convicted criminal, guilty by his own admission, holds that Jesus had done no wrong (23:41). Finally we hear the shout of the Roman centurion, ‘This man was innocent’ (23:47). Luke wants us to see that the Innocent dies.

Despite Pilate’s exasperation and Herod trivializing the charges, it seemed nothing could stop the wheels of injustice that were in motion. You might ask, “Why?” The entire scene might sicken you. Perhaps, like the thief, the truth that an obviously innocent man dying for something he did not do causes you to become indignant, furious at how unfair this good man is treated. If that is how you feel then I think you have begun to understand this section of Luke’s gospel. The repeated point of Jesus’ innocence combined with the trial hurtling towards execution is paradoxical; the reader is left frustrated by the tension, the irreversible course of Jesus’ trial. The words of the thief and the centurion bring no comfort or hope; they do not alleviate the tension. Rather, with the death of the Innocent it seems that all is lost.

Are we meant to feel pity? Like we are too often forced to do today, we throw our arms up in despair as we are stunned by another case of gratuitous injustice, another miscarriage of legal system. Or maybe Luke intended to rouse and stir our hearts and emotions, as we are in awe of this valiant sufferer. He said nothing to Pilate; he gave no answer to the trumped up charges. On the cross he prayed for those who hated and scorned him; and he even offered a glorious vision of undying hope to the thief suffering alongside him. Are we left to choose between a picture of somber failure and a gallant renegade? Stanley Hauerwas highlights the singularity of Jesus’ death and cautions us against likening it to any other; the Innocent is no mere martyr. There is more we must gather from Luke’s gospel.

Jesus at Mount of OlivesIn the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel we meet Jesus and hear his heart wrenching prayer on the Mount of Olives. This is the crucial backdrop to the Innocent being tried and abandoned at the cross. There on the Mount we hear an echo from Isaiah 53:10, ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him.’ The Father’s will would be done (22:42). Derek Tidball makes the point that Jesus was not an unfortunate victim with bad timing; instead he says we should see Jesus’ death as the deliberate result of a number of powers. I think Jesus’ agonising plea for rescue,  his weakness supplemented by an angel’s strenth, and the sweat like blood prevents us from saying that Jesus was bold before the death he was facing (22:42-44). At the Mount of Olives we meet a man with only one thing greater than his crippling fear: faith in God the Father.

With this point in mind I think that we can are better able to understand Luke’s intention: while Jesus’ death was the outworking of selfish and sinful men, manipulated by the destructive Satan, only one will prevailed at the cross: the Father’s. Jesus was not a victim tossed about by the evil engineering of men or the corrupting power of evil. He was the Innocent who dies according to the Father’s will in accordance with God’s promise to save those who are truly guilty and without hope. Jesus was not powerless in those last, fateful hours. It was not that the plans of men or Satan triumphed. That day was not an unflinching display of bravery, nor was it the unwitting and helpless death of weak man.

Luke wants us to see that the Innocent died for the guilty. And it could not have happened any other way because of the Father’s will and the Son’s faith.