The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles form an introduction to the second part of a two-part work written by Luke. These two works, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, were written to someone named Theophilus. Though most likely a real person, it has been suggested that Theophilus may have been a pseudonym to protect the individual from various persecutors. In any event, Theophilus appears to be a gentile who most likely made Luke’s writings available to other interested readers. Luke also was a gentile. This connection formed a bond between Luke and Theophilus influencing much of what Luke wrote about.
Themes in Luke-Acts
Luke had several interests which governed his writing. A close examination of Luke-Acts reveals that these interests form themes that are laced throughout Luke writings. It is of value to briefly examine each theme in order to better understand the purpose of Luke’s writings and therefore see more clearly why Luke recorded the events of Acts 1-5. The following are a list of themes found in Luke-Acts:
- Perhaps the overarching theme in Luke’s writings is his interest is the universality of the gospel. Apparent throughout Luke-Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is intended for all mankind, not just for the Jews.
- Closely connected the universality of the gospel is a second interest: a concern for minorities and those looked down upon in Jewish society. Through the pages of Luke’s works, we see the Savior and the Apostles concerning themselves with the poor, women, gentiles, and Samaritans. In fact, there are more references to women in Luke’s writings than nearly any other place in the standard works.
- A focus on individuals. As one reads through Luke-Acts, note the number of individuals referred to either by name or incident.
- The importance of the Holy Ghost permeates Luke’s writings. Though more pronounced in Acts, a close reading of the Luke’s works shows the necessity of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost in order to make the necessary commitment and change in a person’s life. Further, through the revelation that comes through the Holy Ghost, the early Christian Church was guided.
- Luke is interested in showing the importance and power of prayer. More than the other gospel writers, Luke demonstrates both the Savior’s teachings and example of prayer.
- Luke seems very concerned with the dangers of wealth.
- Luke demonstrates the joy and happiness the gospel brings to the life of individuals. Such words as “joy”, “gladness”, and “rejoice” are found on nearly every page of Luke-Acts.
An important, yet subtle, theme found in Luke-Acts is Temple vs. House theme. This is a contrasting theme rather than a theme of opposition. For Luke, the Temple represents the ritual of worship where the house represents the heart of worship. That is to say, in the Temple where rituals were performed to God, such rituals may be ceremonial only. The genuineness of one’s commitment to the gospel is truly found in how one lives the gospel in the home. Carefully examining Luke’s writings will reveal numbers of stories taking place within the Temple or house or where both Temple and house (either in name or implied) are found in juxtaposition to each other.
The physical resurrection of Christ is another theme that is important to Luke. As will be noted, the resurrection was not a well-accepted concept in the world in which Luke wrote. Yet the resurrection is the sign of the reality of Christ and his mission.
The Theme of Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ
Keeping these themes in mind, I will discuss a few insights into some of the important aspects of Acts 1-5. The opening chapter of Acts centers on two stories: the ascension of Christ (1:4-11) and the calling of Matthias to replace the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve occasioned by the suicide of Judas (1:15-26).
Organizationally, Luke uses the story of the ascension of Christ as a vehicle to establish the structure of Acts which is carefully organized around the theme of the universality of the gospel. The structure is given in verse eight. Here the Savior tells the Apostles that “ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Acts 1-5 record incidents associated with the gospel as taught by the Apostles in Jerusalem. Acts 6-9 outlines the spread of the gospel throughout Judaea and Samaria. Finally, Acts 10-28 narrates how the gospel was taken to the gentiles, focusing mainly on the ministry of Paul.
Theologically, the story of the ascension continues the theme of the physical reality of the resurrection of Christ. In his gospel, Luke recorded the very important incident of the Savior’s appearance to the Twelve Apostles after His crucifixion. The Apostles were troubled by what they saw and supposed it was a spirit and not the physical Lord. But the Savior said: “Why are ye troubled? And why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” They touched His physical resurrected body and learned for themselves of its reality (23:36-40).
That Jesus is still in a physical, resurrected state is made clear in the story of the ascension. Having taken the Twelve to the Mt. of Olives and speaking to them one last time, all of a sudden “he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.” Astonished, the Apostles “looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up” when “two men stood by them in white apparel.” The angels said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11). Just as Jesus ascended to heaven in a physical resurrected body, He would in like manner return to that very same mountain in the same form.
The world in which Luke and Theophilus lived was very much influenced by Greek or Hellenistic culture. This created a formidable challenge for the early Church, particularly regarding the doctrine of physical resurrection. Richard Draper explains: “The Hellenistic mind‑set found the idea of a resurrection strange indeed. Many a Greek or Roman would have had little difficulty believing that a god had sired a son, for their mythologies supported the idea. Also, belief in prophecy and portents was widespread, as were reports of miracles and those who performed miracles. The idea that a mortal could become as the gods was not difficult for many to accept, and there were precedents for both men and gods dying and coming back to life.
“But the idea that a mortal could rise from the dead and enter eternal life with a physical body had little precedent. Much of the Hellenistic world denied the reality of any kind of resurrection, let alone a physical one. The Greek rejection of the physical body made the idea of a resurrection of that body abhorrent. Some believed that mortals had been resuscitated from death, but these isolated incidents were a mere postponing of eventual death. There simply was no room in the Hellenistic world view for belief in any kind of a general resurrection at the end of world history.”[i]
As a result of the Hellenistic mentality, many early Christians rejected the idea of the resurrection while believing in other Christian doctrines and ideals. But the resurrection was central to Christianity. In his gospel, Luke recorded the Savior saying to the Jews, “This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet” (Luke 11:29). Of course the sign of Jonas has reference to the prophet Jonah who was in the belly of a whale for three days. Likewise, Christ would be buried for three days after his crucifixion but would come forth on the third day as a physical resurrected being. His resurrection would be the sign of the reality of His atoning mission.
Luke is bold indeed in his writings. Speaking so clearly and forthright regarding the resurrection of Christ is a testimony of his conversion to the truth of the message and mission of Jesus Christ.
The theme of the Savior’s resurrection continues throughout the rest of Acts (see 2:22-36; 4:1-2, 33; 17:16-33; 23:6-10; 24:10-21; 26:1-29). In fact, the next story in Acts 1, filling the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve, carries the resurrection theme forward. When the Twelve met to replace Judah, they first discussed the qualifications of potential candidates. These qualifications included witnessing the resurrected Lord. Taking the lead, Peter said, “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (1:21-22). Of two who qualified, one was called, Matthias.
Beyond this story, the scriptures say nothing more regarding Matthias. Later legends place him among the seventy who had been called by the Lord in Luke 10. These accounts also give two different versions of his death. As a consequence, it is impossible to know how reliable legend may be regarding him. It appears that one of the reasons Luke records this story is to continue the resurrection theme.
The Theme of the Holy Ghost and the Day of Pentecost
The incidents of the Savior’s ascension and the calling of Matthias both allude to the theme of the Holy Ghost. Before the ascension, the Apostles ask the Lord if he was to restore the kingdom to Israel. The Savior responded: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (1:7-8).
It is apparent in the Gospel of Luke that the Apostles thought the messianic role of the Savior was to immediately restore the kingdom to Israel. Indeed, as the Savior with His Apostles drew near to Jerusalem, the Apostles labored under the mistaken idea “that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (19:11). The Savior was unable to correct their misconception.
It seems the reason why the Apostles failed to grasp the full mission of Jesus was they lacked the doctrinal understanding that can only come through the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Savior had taught the Twelve that when they received the gift of the Holy Ghost, “he will guide [them] into all truth” (John 16:13). “By his power,” Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “men may know the truth of all things.”[ii] Likewise, Joseph Fielding Smith taught that “the power to understand and clearly comprehend the revelations of the Lord will be given” those who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost.”[iii]
Because the Apostles lacked the gift of the Holy Ghost, they were not capable of fully comprehending the restoration of neither the kingdom of Israel nor the role they would play in bringing that about. Therefore, the Lord told them to return to Jerusalem where they would receive the awaited promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost. It came a few days later on the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.
The Day of Pentecost plays a pivotal role in Luke’s writings. As the gift of the Holy Ghost descended upon the Twelve, they became changed men. This is best evidenced by the example of Peter. Luke is careful to record several stories in Luke-Acts about Peter that demonstrate the change that comes upon him after receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is seen in contrasting the Peter of Luke’s gospel with the Peter of Acts.
In the Gospel of Luke, Peter appears unstable in his commitment to Christ and the gospel–at times strong with conviction and at other times weak and fearful. For example we see the strength of Peter when the Savior asked the Apostles “whom say ye that I am?” Peter promptly responded, saying, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). On another occasion, Peter declared to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.” But the Savior, knowing Peter’s unsteadiness without the gift of the Holy Ghost, warned: “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:33-34). The bitter prophecy came true within a few hours. In the courtyard of the palace where the Savior was tried before members of the Sanhedrin, onlookers recognized Peter as a disciple of Christ. Frightened, Peter adamantly claimed that he did not know who Jesus was (see Luke 22:54-60).
The Day of Pentecost changed Peter forever. On that day, the Twelve “were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (2:4). With the reception of the Holy Ghost came attending spiritual gifts including the gift of boldness. In Acts 2-5, several stories are recorded revealing a new Peter who was bold and undaunting. He taught the gospel openly with power and authority and without fear (see 2:5-36; 3:12-26). He healed the sick (3:1-11; 5:14-16), administered the church organization (4:32-5:12), and boldly faced the personal threats of the Sanhedrin without flinching (4:5-21; 5:26-42). Indeed, as a result of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, Peter was a changed man. He now was the fisher of men the Lord promised him he would be (see Luke 5:1-11).
As the themes of resurrection and Holy Ghost play an important part in Acts 1-5, so other interests important to Luke’s writings are also located within these chapters. The following are examples.
Luke’s interest in prayer is seen in see in Acts 1 where the Church members gathered in the upper room (where the Last Supper was held) and “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (1:14). Though prayer was practiced in private, the Apostles continued to go to the Temple “at the hour of prayer” for worship (3:1).
The theme of the joy of the gospel exemplified in a number of places in Acts 1-5. Peter quotes David’s word wherein David said: “Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance” (2:26-28). Another example of joy is seen as the Church members often ate together “with gladness and singleness of heart” (2:46). Again, after the Apostles were miraculously freed from prison, they returned to the gathered members of the Church “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (5:41).
One more example. Temple and House theme is constant in these chapters. Whereas Luke’s gospel opens in the Temple (Luke 1:5-23) and ends in the Temple (Luke 24:52-53), Acts begins in a house (Acts 1:12-13) and ends in a house (Acts 28:30-31). Throughout Acts 1-5, the Apostles are either in the temple or a house. This theme becomes even more pronounced as the story recorded in Acts continues (especially notice both Acts 6 and 7).
The chief interests that govern Luke’s writings are clearly seen in Acts 1-5. But it must be clear that these themes continue throughout the rest of the Acts of the Apostles. When viewed in connection with their counterparts Luke’s gospel, these themes prove to be powerful in their message: a message Luke intended his reader to receive. The reader who keeps these interests in mind when reading Luke’s writings will be greatly benefited.
[i]. Richard D. Draper, “The Reality of the Resurrection,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 32, p. 34.
[ii]. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p.490.
[iii]. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (vols. 1‑4. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957‑1963), 4:90.