The Acts of the Apostles are for the whole world
The main reason the Holy Spirit inspired St. Luke to write the Acts of the Apostles is crystal clear in the pages of that book. But I wonder how many of us who have read and listened to readings from the Acts have realized what that purpose is. Things can be missed when we hear them piecemeal, and there are a great many particular episodes in the Acts which temporarily take center stage. But overall, the purpose of the book is to demonstrate beyond doubt that God’s salvific work through Jesus Christ is not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles.
We are fortunate to have this book for many reasons, of course. It gives us innumerable details about the life of the Church during the apostolic age, details which are critical to our understanding of everything from its hierarchy to its missionary spirit. From this book we learn new things about the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, and the operations of the Holy Spirit generally. We also learn the fundamental pattern of Christian preaching and gain important insights into the community life of the first Christians. The book recounts astonishing miracles which both consoled the early believers and helped their number to grow. It offers fresh details about key figures like Peter and James, and considerable information about the remarkable life and ministry of St. Paul.
Among the more important items, The Acts of the Apostles provides significant apologetical material for debates with Christians who reject papal primacy. We find, for example, that Peter was the one who determined that Judas had to be replaced with another who was a witness with the apostles to the Resurrection, and so Matthias was chosen to fill out the number of the Twelve (ch. 1). Similarly, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, it was Peter who spoke for all the apostles in announcing the Gospel to all who witnessed that event (ch. 2). It was Peter also who both announced and explained the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, who died as soon as they lied about their gift of the proceeds of their property to the community (a gift they were not required to make in the first place) (ch. 5).
It was the apostles, including Peter, who decided that they should not devote themselves to material works of charity, instead establishing the diaconate (ch. 6). They concluded that “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). It was Peter who, through a vision, was instructed to preach Christ to a household of Gentiles, and who witnessed them receiving the Holy Spirit (cf. ch. 10). This prepared him for his decisive role in settling a long debate at the Council of apostles and bishops held at Jerusalem, concerning whether the Gentiles were required to observe Jewish customs such as circumcision:
And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence. [Acts 15:7-12]
The role of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles is vital for our understanding of the Church’s authority and mission. In one place, Luke writes tellingly that “Peter went here and there among them all”, whereas others seemed to have more singular missions. But to relate the decisive conclusion to the Council’s debate, as I did in the preceding paragraph, is to highlight the overriding purpose of the book before I have presented the whole. So let us turn to another key figure in the drama.
It is in the life and ministry of St. Paul that we find a constant stream of evidence for my claim, and St. Paul is in fact the subject of eighteen of the book’s twenty-eight chapters. He was a devout Jew, highly trained by Gamaliel, one of the most respected of the Pharisees. Everyone knows how Paul persecuted the early Christians, beginning with the stoning of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Paul himself was willing to listen to Christ only after the Lord struck him down and blinded him on the way to Damascus. But after this dramatic conversion, Paul’s life is one long series of rejections by the Jews until he became the foremost preacher of Christ to the Gentiles.
Perhaps everyone also knows what an annoying personality St. Paul must have possessed. He separated from his traveling partner, Barnabas, because the latter trusted John Mark as a good companion, despite John Mark’s having left them in Pamphylia. He was very stubborn about working for his living as a tentmaker, refusing to accept personal support from the early Christian communities. And of course he was a passionate preacher and a superb debater who generally took the lead role. He was, as he reveals in another place (1 Cor 15:10), tempted to pride in how hard he worked compared with the others. His personality quirks were probably seldom very sinful, but we can see that they would often have been obnoxious to others.
We might say that St. Paul was simply more willing to face constant strife than many of the other men and women chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel. This willingness, along with his tremendous success in argument, caused Jewish leaders to conspire against him repeatedly, either to have him arrested or to have him killed. Thus, when the Jews wanted to kill Paul in Damascus, shortly after his conversion, his “disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts 9:25), and so Paul went on to Jerusalem. And when he disputed against the Hellenists there, they also sought to kill him, so “the brethren…brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus”, his home town.
Luke tells us in chapter 11 that it was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians. The reason for this also involves questions surrounding Paul and the Gentiles, for he and Barnabas made great gains among them. Not long after Peter had his vision and justified the mission to the Gentiles to the circumcision party in Jerusalem, new groups of missionaries were sent out who understood that the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Before this, the converts were mostly Jews who followed the “Way” of Christ. But as the Gentiles increased in number, especially through the work of Paul and Barnabas, this was an insufficient designation, and all believers began to be called simply “Christians”.
To the Gentiles
Paul soon undertook missions to other cities in which both Jews and Gentiles needed to hear the Gospel, though they began in each place by preaching in the synagogues. For example, he and Barnabas won many converts in Antioch of Pisidia, but once again the leading Jews became alarmed and began to revile both of them. So Paul and Barnabas replied:
It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Acts 13:46-47]
Paul continued to get in trouble everywhere. In Lystra he cured a man crippled from birth, and the pagans wanted to offer sacrifices to Barnabas (as Zeus) and Paul (as Hermes, because he was the chief speaker). They prevented this from happening, but Jews came from Antioch to stir up others against Paul, who stoned him and left him for dead. Once again he had to move on to a new place. This pattern continued in various Greek cities, until in Ephesus Paul precipitated a new kind of violence. He was so successful in preaching against the worship of silver idols that the silversmiths rioted!
Finally, Paul made his way to Jerusalem, where he successfully defended his policies toward the Gentiles before James, who had to contend with the Judaizers there. But Jews from Asia followed Paul and denounced him, leading to his arrest once again. To shorten the tale considerably, the Jews sought his execution no matter whose custody he was in, and some officials wanted to placate them. Therefore, since he was a Roman citizen, Paul appealed for judgment to Caesar. The result was that he was eventually sent to Rome, where he preached and taught under house arrest while awaiting trial. This whole process stretched out for several years, and included one of Sacred Scripture’s famous storm-at-sea adventures, in which Paul kept up everyone’s courage and brought all safely to shore.
To the whole world
The book of Acts ends while Paul is still preaching under house arrest. Many Jews came to hear him at his lodgings, and Paul tried once again to convince them that they must accept the Christ. But they could come to no agreement, and so they made ready to leave. This is how we learn the main purpose of the book, for this failure with the Jews in Rome prompted Paul to make his last statement—the announcement with which Luke’s narrative ends (Acts 28:25-28):
The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: “Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.”
Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.
The Church uses a different English translation of that last sentence to introduce the Invitatory Psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, whenever Psalm 67 is used. For those who no longer think in terms of Jews and Gentiles, this has an even more powerful impact, as befits what is clearly the most important point of The Acts of the Apostles:
“You must know that God is offering his salvation to all the world.”
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