It’s always worth trying to figure out the purpose of a Bible book. For example, there’s a lot to be gained from remembering that John is ‘written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). That overall purpose has an impact on how we understand particular passages along the way. Or take the Song of Songs: is its primary purpose to celebrate romantic love between a man and his wife, or to teach us about the relationship between Jesus and the Church? That needs a clear answer. Think how different a pastor’s sermons on the Song of Songs will sound according to which of those two views he takes. So it’s good to ask what Luke had in mind when he picked up his pen to write Acts. Understanding his purpose will allow us to ride in his slipstream throughout the book, like cyclists in an Olympic race. At first it seems Luke will tell us immediately: ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven …’ (Acts 1:1-2). It looks as if he’s about to tell us the purpose of his latest publication. No such luck. He dives straight into his story without further ado.
1) The purpose of Acts is to tell us the inspiring story of the apostles and their deeds
The book’s traditional title is ‘Acts of the Apostles,’ but that title doesn’t actually come from Luke. The earliest known use of it is in a second century work by Irenaeus. At first sight this view of the book’s purpose seems hard to disagree with. The apostles stay in the frame all the way through. When picking an image for this post I chose the one above because it has such an obvious connection to the book. But I think there’s a powerful theological argument for ruling out this suggestion. The Bible doesn’t glorify human beings. The apostles obviously have a huge role to play in the book, but I can’t believe Luke would set out to promote hero-worship. ‘Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory’ (Psalm 115:1).
2) The purpose of Acts is to explain how Jesus’ ministry continued after his ascension
I’ve heard this view in at least one sermon, and have also found it in commentaries on Acts, and in the ESV Study Bible. It’s based on Luke’s use of the word ‘began’ in the first verse of the book: ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach …’ The implication, so the argument goes, is that Luke’s follow-up book will be about everything Jesus continued to do and teach after his ascension, through his apostles. But the evidence seems shaky. New Testament writers have a habit of combining the Greek verb meaning ‘to begin’ with other verbs, even when they aren’t stressing the start of an action. For example Mark 6:7 literally says: ‘He began to send them out two by two;’ and Mark 14:65 says: ‘Some began to spit at him.’ In each case there’s clearly no particular significance in the beginningness of the action described, nor any suggestion of a later continuation. Now we’ve dipped our toe into Greek waters, it would be a shame not to look at another Greek word in Acts 1:1: ‘men’ (it’s the second word of 1:1 in the Greek). There’s no direct equivalent in English, which is why you won’t find the word reflected in English translations of 1:1, but men usually signals that a contrast is on the way, a bit like the English phrase ‘on the one hand.’ So Luke’s use of men in Acts 1:1 might well indicate that he’s contrasting his first book with his latest book – which would mean Acts is definitely not Jesus’ Ministry Vol. II.
3) The purpose of Acts is to show how the Holy Spirit oversees the spread of the gospel
This third option is represented by the fourth century church leader John Chrysostom: ‘The Gospels, then, are a history of what Christ did and said; but the Acts, of what that “other Comforter” said and did.’ Chrysostom’s view seems to have an excellent fit with the opening of Acts. According to a commentator called Robert C. Tannehill, Greek authors at the time commonly introduced a new book with (1) the dedication (i.e. ‘O Theophilus’), (2) a short summary of their previous book, and (3) a preview of the new book’s subject matter. Tannehill argues that in Acts (3) is woven into the beginning of the narrative: ‘The preview of the book that is beginning appears … as part of Jesus’ speech.’ In that speech (1:4-5, 8), Jesus repeatedly mentions the Holy Spirit: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised … you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit … you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.’ The rest of Acts also supports the Chrysostom View. The Holy Spirit is mentioned fifty-five times – averaging twice a chapter. No other NT book mentions the Spirit nearly so often. And at key turning points in the book, such as the spread of the gospel to Europe, it’s the Holy Spirit who’s in control (Acts 16:6-10; see also Acts 8:29,39; 9:31; 11:12; 13:2,4; 15:28; 20:22,28). Now, since the Spirit wants to see Jesus glorified (John 16:14), and works in complete trinitarian unity with Jesus; and since he empowers the apostles to carry out great works of gospel service, the Chrysostom View doesn’t actually lead us very far away from the other two options. But that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. As well as helping us to understand Acts better, it also has multiple applications for evangelism. The Holy Spirit is still present in the world (John 16:7-11), powerfully overseeing the spread of the gospel today, just as he was in the time of Acts. That reminds us to depend on his power as we seek to share our faith. We can ask for the Spirit’s help in meeting non-Christians. We should seek his help in discerning when it might be appropriate to talk about Jesus with non-Christians, because it’s not always appropriate. We certainly need his help in soul-winning or ‘clinching the deal.’ He can help us find out more about world mission and the different ways we can get involved with it. Surely a further application is that we should be careful not to adopt evangelistic strategies without prayerfulness and a sense of the Spirit’s leading. In short, the spread of the gospel is the special project of the third person of the Trinity. Many benefits flow from keeping that in mind.