While Acts is a record of history, Luke weaves many theological themes into these stories to teach us about God and his mission. He shows us how God is working and speaking in this story and our own stories. Here are some of the key themes that Luke highlights for us.
The Mission of God
This is the major theme of Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, we see that Jesus came to the earth to advance the mission of God. His mission was to see his kingdom spread to the ends of the earth by drawing people to himself through his life, death, and resurrection (Luke 24:46-47). When Luke begins writing Acts, he says that what “Jesus began to do and teach” in his earthly ministry, he is continuing to do now from heaven (Acts 1:1-2). Acts is a story about men and women encountering the resurrected Jesus, who is alive and reigning in heaven.
It is Jesus who pours out the Spirit on the Church on Pentecost (Acts 2:33). It is Jesus who saves men and women as they hear the gospel (Acts 2:47; 16:14). It is Jesus who reveals himself to the unbelieving Saul, simultaneously protecting his people and sending out one of the greatest missionaries our world has ever seen (Acts 9:1-6). It is Jesus who establishes his Church and gives direction to church planters (Acts 1:24-25; 16:6-10). In other words, Jesus is still advancing the mission of God.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
The work of the Holy Spirit is so prevalent in Acts that many commentators have suggested the book should be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than “The Acts of the Apostles.” The Holy Spirit empowers the Church to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus (Acts 1:8, 2:1-4). By the power of the Holy Spirit, men and women come to faith in Jesus. Signs and wonders are performed, such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. People are filled with the Holy Spirit, moving them to preach the gospel with boldness, speak in tongues, and prophesy. The Holy Spirit is the one driving and empowering the Church for everything.
Acts emphasizes our need for the Holy Spirit. He is not reserved for a special class of people. Instead, the gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to everyone who repents and trusts in Jesus (Acts 2:17-18, 38). By the power of the Spirit, every Christian gets to participate in the mission of God, no matter their education, age, or occupation.
The Birth of the Church
Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:3, 8). He sent them out on the mission of God, but told them to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit. Then on Pentecost, Jesus poured out the Spirit, and the Church was born. Taking up the call of Jesus, the Church lives on mission by multiplying gospel communities. By the end of Acts, the Church has preached the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, to Jew and Gentile.
The Church in Acts shows us the true nature of gospel community. We see believers living life together, reading the Bible together, worshipping together, praying together, and reaching their city together. They are now a family, giving their time and money to support one another (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). They help other local churches with finances and prayer. They are actively planting other churches, raising up leaders to shepherd, lead, and protect the church. In Acts, we see the foundations of the Church and how we should love God, love people, and push back darkness.
But the early Church was not perfect. Acts also gives us a glimpse behind-the-scenes into the messiness of the Church. We see lying, cheating, and arguments (Acts 5:1-11; 6:1; 15:36-41). We see the church wrestle through what it means to live in light of the gospel. They debate how the gospel applies to the Temple, the Law, and the non-Jewish believer (Acts 15). When we look at the early Church in Acts, we are confronted with both the beauty and the messiness of gospel community.
Persecution & Providence
As Jesus advances the mission of God, the world and culture violently oppose this. In Acts, we see the Church going through times of intense persecution and suffering. The Apostles are threatened and beaten by the religious authorities (Acts 5:17-42). Many Christians were imprisoned for their faith (Acts 8:3). Stephen is killed because of his faithfulness to preach the gospel (Acts 7:54-60). The Apostle James is killed for political favor with the Jews (Acts 12:3). We can especially see this theme of suffering as we follow the life of Paul. He is beaten, left for dead, arrested on multiple occasions, and even shipwrecked. The final seven chapters of Acts are devoted to Paul’s imprisonment and trials because of his faith in Jesus. When we live on mission for Jesus, persecution is a reality.
But behind all of this suffering is the providence of God. God uses this persecution to advance his mission. It is because of the persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom that the gospel spread to the Samaritans and the Ethiopians (Acts 8). Paul’s imprisonment allows him to preach the gospel to jailers, governors, and kings (Acts 16:25-34; 24:1-27; 26:1-32). And it is his unlawful imprisonment that leads to the spreading of the gospel to Rome (Acts 28:11-31).