Luke-Acts is not the beginning of a story; it continues one that God began a long, long time ago.
Yes, the story of Luke-Acts actually began centuries before when God first promised rescue to Adam in Genesis 3. This promise appeared again and again throughout the Old Testament—to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets.
These promises were made over a period of about 1,500 years, and by the time Luke begins they’ve become deeply ingrained in Israel’s thinking. Repeatedly, through prophets and priests and kings, God promised to rescue His people from their enemies and from the curse of sin.
This is why Luke begins his story reminding us that Israel is ruled by a foreign nation, Rome, and has been ruled by foreigners for 600 years. In Jesus’ day, many expected God’s rescue to include an earthly king like David, complete with a political and religious kingdom.
Back in Genesis 12, God called Abraham when he was an ordinary individual and promised him He would perform this rescue, blessing every nation of the world through his descendants (Genesis 12:2-7). God kept this promise when He rescued the nation of Israel out of slavery (e.g., Deuteronomy 26:5-9) and freed her to worship Him. He then made a covenant with her (e.g., Deuteronomy 28).
As the years passed, Israel and her kings and priests repeatedly disobeyed God and thus forfeited His blessings. Despite this, Israel remained a key part of God’s plan to reveal Himself, as those who received “the very words of God” (e.g., Romans 3:1-2). In particular, God chose David to be king over Israel—although he was a young and obscure shepherd-boy—and made great promises to him about blessing the world through his descendants, just like he promised to Abraham (2 Samuel 7:8-16).
As we see in Luke, at just the right time, God sent His Son Jesus to fulfill these promises to Adam, Abraham, and David. This is why the genealogy in Luke shouldn’t be skipped, because it shows us right off the bat who Jesus is; he’s the descendant of David, the fulfillment of God’s promise, the second Adam! These roles are not incidental to Jesus’ identity. In fact, they help present-day Jewish readers to see that Jesus hasn’t come out of nowhere. He is the one whom God has sent to rescue His people and the one whom God will send a second time to judge all the inhabitants of this world, to bring it to an end, to inaugurate the new heavens and new earth, and to be acknowledged by all as Lord over all (e.g., Luke 17:24-35, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Philippians 2:8-11).
Luke-Acts teaches us that all people, not just Israel, need to be saved and rescued!
God has always taken the initiative in rescuing people from sin and its consequences, including the final judgment. This initiative is made plain in His promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. God also makes clear in these promises that the Savior was not sent just to save Israel but the people among nations who respond with genuine repentance and faith in Jesus as Lord.
The Old Testament clearly teaches that all people everywhere are sinful and in need of salvation; the Old Testament also indicates how God will act to accomplish this salvation. Even the sacrificial system reminds us there must be a better and perfect sacrifice to take away sin once and for all (Hebrews 9:25-28). But who could make such a sacrifice? The prophet Isaiah tells us that God will exercise His rule through a chosen king (Isaiah 9:6-7) who will also be the suffering servant and the final perfect substitutionary sacrifice for sin (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). But this King would also be a warrior or conqueror who rescues His people by destroying God’s enemies (Isaiah 59:16-20).
Jesus’ contemporaries, Theophilus included, would have been expecting all this. But Jesus turns out to be a different kind of Rescuer.
As Luke’s Gospel begins, all these Old Testament promises remain unfulfilled. Simeon, the old man, represents how Israel should have received Jesus as God’s foretold Messiah. The Jews understood that the promised king from David’s family tree was the key, that when the Davidic king arrived every promise would be realized. This was why people like Simeon were so eagerly awaiting the promised Davidic king (usually referred to as Messiah or Christ). In Luke, God is revealing that Jesus is the Messiah through whom His promises will be fulfilled.
What a surprise to discover that God’s promised Savior fulfilled all of these in one person, Jesus, His only Son.
Here’s the trajectory of Acts: Old Testament promises to missionary rescuer and Messiah to a newly created community of the King.
In Acts, everything began in Jerusalem—“the city of the great king” (Psalm 48:2), the site of the Temple, the center of Israel’s worship of the living God. When Acts ends, however, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, has reached Rome—the city of Caesar and the center of Gentile world power.
In Acts, Luke explains to Theophilus how the gospel made progress in such a short amount of time, and his explanation is surprising. It wasn’t because of an especially creative strategy that Jesus’ followers were effective in spreading the good news and establishing new churches. Rather, it was because of the living and active presence of the risen Jesus that brought new life as the Holy Spirit worked in and through the lives of faithful disciples—all to the glory of the Father.
Luke wants the reader—and us—to realize that the key to powerful gospel witness isn’t cleverness or relevance, or even a brilliant strategy or cultural awareness. Instead, for any gospel growth, we should look for the active presence of the Holy Spirit made visible through the lives of obedient and loving disciples.
But Luke-Acts is also a story—and an unfinished story!
If Luke’s Gospel gives us an organized historical account of who Jesus is, what He has done, and what the lives of faithful Christ-followers should look like, then Acts is the continuation of that history. In Acts, Luke presents the story of Jesus’ followers as they are commissioned into the world to both live out the good news and to announce it to all peoples, just as the Old Testament promises had foretold. Like Jesus, his followers in Acts show the gospel and they tell the gospel. Also like Jesus, they suffer for the gospel, but God’s plan still succeeds.
Luke and Acts is a story that began in the first century, but is not yet finished—and the story’s hero is Jesus. When Jesus ascended to the Father in heaven, He left the Holy Spirit who gives life to God’s people and sanctifies the lives of Jesus’ true followers. The Holy Spirit shines the spotlight on Jesus even as He empowers the church for its mission.
In Luke, Jesus lives the holy life that Jesus’ followers seek to live in Acts. As we read both books, let us prayerfully seek to discover our role in this continuing story.
Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Originally, they were a single two-volume work. It will help you interpret Acts if you’ve read carefully Luke’s Gospel. In particular, notice what Jesus began to do and the way in which He commissioned His followers in Luke 24.
The Acts of the Apostles records the story of what Jesus, after His resurrection, continued to do through the person of His Holy Spirit, the apostles, and other ordinary disciples (Acts 1:1). Luke guides our reading by providing section markers in the book:
- Acts 1:8 — Jesus commissions His followers.
- Acts 1–2 — The apostles and others wait in Jerusalem and then experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 3–7 — The apostles witness in Jerusalem.
- Acts 8–12 — Jesus’ followers witness in Judea and Samaria.
- Acts 9–28 — Jesus’ followers witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth.
The Holy Spirit is the Hero of Acts as He works through ordinary people as well as the apostles to make disciples and start churches among different kinds of people in difficult situations and places. The disciples and churches are a praying people, often praying Old Testament psalms to God. God’s people pray God’s Word back to Him in Acts. Often they respond to difficulty or opportunity by gathering to pray.
Acts gives us encouragement in our mission to the ends of the earth and examples for our church ministry and mission. Luke writes history in Acts, and this doesn’t permit him to teach or instruct directly on many important matters. He just accurately tells us the story. Paul’s letters, however, teach and instruct directly on many matters which are merely recounted in Luke’s narrative of Acts. So, it is good to compare Acts with other letters in the New Testament as we seek to witness to Christ, live as disciples, start churches, and equip leaders.
To correctly interpret and apply these examples Luke describes in Acts, ask these questions:
Is this a good or bad example? Evaluate from the text whether the example is positive or negative.
Are these good patterns? Look for repeated patterns in Acts and for indications these patterns were approved by Luke, who writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Where a pattern is repeated many times, it’s worth noting!
Unless the positive examples or patterns match a specific command found elsewhere in the New Testament, we may choose to follow that example or pattern where it is consistent with biblical principles. The patterns or examples do not constitute a command to follow.
When we see the Acts pattern affirmed in other New Testament writings, we can be reasonably sure this is a pattern to follow!
Jesus is still the Hero. Remember, the apostles and early disciples are still just men and women, and they are not perfect. Not everything recorded about them is intended to be a positive example for us.
8 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.
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