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The Book of Acts

The earliest tradition of the Church and internal analysis of the text concur in attributing this inspired book of the New Testament to Luke, the human author of the third Gospel. This tradition is to be found in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Muratorian fragment, Jerome and Eusebius of Caesarea, among others.

The continuity between Luke’s Gospel and the Acts is easy to recognize. Often there is a coincidence of style, vocabulary and even doctrinal theme. Even more convincing is the argument that the second part of Acts, which covers the journeys of Paul, contains a “diary” written by one of his companions in the first person plural. The diary stops at certain points and the first person disappears, whenever its author was not present. From Paul’s letters we know who his companions were and that only Luke could write the “we” when he was the eyewitness of the events recounted.

As regards the date and place of composition of the book the following information can be deduced: the Acts finish with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (A.D. 61-63). Since Luke wrote his Gospel first, perhaps towards the end of 62, Acts must have been written between 62 and 64. The latter year was when Nero’s persecution began, but there is no reference to the persecution in Acts; in fact, Luke’s last episode shows Paul in prison in Rome, the capital of the Empire, and Paul free to preach the Gospel without interference. And even though he on occasion predicts that he will suffer, no reference is made to his martyrdom. From this we may conclude that Acts was written in Rome shortly before the July 64 fire after which Nero began his persecution of Christians. This could explain the rather rushed conclusion we can notice at the end of the book.

Luke, an educated man, by profession a physician, meticulous and orderly, sets out in Acts, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to prove the truth of the apostles’ teaching and show how rapidly it spread; the Church’s expansion, among the Gentiles particularly, was marked by miracles; the content of his book covers a large part of the history of the origins of Christianity, bearing out what our Lord had foretold: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

And so the Christian faith spread out from Jerusalem, where on the day of Pentecost some three thousand people were converted and baptized (2:41). From that point onwards, with the help of the Holy Spirit, an expansion began which would continue until it covered the entire world. Many of those first Christians were Hellenist Jews before their conversion (6:1), who after the martyrdom of Stephen were persecuted and expelled from Israel (8:3-4). Their outlook, open to other lands and cultures, enabled them to put down roots, first in Samaria and border countries and then in more distant regions. Thus, for example, we know that by the time of Paul’s conversion, Christianity had already reached Damascus, where the disciples included Ananias (9:10). This first expansion is attested to by Luke before he relates the miracles worked by Peter at Lydda and Joppa: “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied” (9:31).

A second important step in the spread of the Church stemmed from the arrival of persecuted Christians, after the martyrdom of Stephen, in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (11:19). There the Gospel was preached at every opportunity. It was in Antioch that “the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (11:26). From that point onwards Antioch became the second focus from which the faith spread. Already there was frequent contact between Antioch and Jerusalem (11:27ff), Luke making it clear that Jerusalem enjoyed pre-eminence. After each of his three apostolic journeys Paul made his way back to Jerusalem, and was imprisoned there on the last occasion.

The third significant stage in the spread of the Church resulted from Paul being brought to Rome, where he remained under arrest pending trial. Even though he was in chains for love of Jesus Christ, his vigorous apostolate continued unabated.

We can see, therefore, that Acts, rather than a detailed and complete account of the origins of the Church is a trustworthy and specific report of the extraordinary aid which the Holy Spirit gave the Church from its inception.

Just as the four Gospels tell of the incarnation of the Son of God and his work of salvation, the Acts of the Apostles is a kind of fifth Gospel containing the only account we possess of the coming of the Holy Spirit and his action in support of the Church during the first thirty years of its existence.

Here is a very brief summary of the teaching which the book contains:

1. Jesus Christ 

After receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples openly preach that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter specifically ends his address on the very morning of Pentecost with this statement: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”(2:36).

Thus, the messianic character of everything Jesus did is made perfectly clear, both the prophecies that spoke of him in advance and the miracles which marked his life. Of these, the greatest, the definitive, miracle is his own resurrection (2:24-32), which decisively proves his divinity. Paul also, as soon as he is converted, preaches that Jesus is the Son of God (9:20; 13:33).

It is Jesus who sent the Holy Spirit and who forgives sins, because he is the Author of life (3:15); he it is who saves all men, for as the “suffering servant” undergoing his passion and death he redeems all mankind (8:32-33); and, because he is God, his name is all powerful (4:10-12) and he, before all others, must be obeyed (4:19).

Just as in the Old Testament the name of God is invoked, now the name of Jesus must be invoked with the same faith, for in him all authority and virtue resides. To him the apostles have recourse in all their trials, and in his name they preach and baptize those whom they convert. Finally, it will be a privilege for them to suffer persecution for confessing his name and even to give their very lives for the Lord.

2. The Holy Spirit 

The Spirit promised by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) is the very Spirit who on Pentecost comes down on the apostles and fills them with his grace; among them is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus (2:3-4). The Acts show that the apostles saw the Holy Spirit as a person distinct from the Father and the Son, though he shares in the same divine nature. Hence to lie to the Holy Spirit, as Ananias and Sapphira did, is the same as lying to God himself (5:3). Even the apostles’ preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is really he who speaks through the mouth of the disciples (4:8; 11:28). The Holy Spirit also gives instructions to Philip (8:29) and to Peter (10:19).

The most important decisions of the Church, as for example those taken at the Council of Jerusalem, are decisions of the Holy Spirit and of the apostles (15:28). Apostolic activity begins at his express command (13:2-4). He guides the apostles, or restrains them (16:6); he appoints the bishops (20:28) and it is he who works the miracles (10:46; 19:6). Therefore, those who are not aware of his existence, even though they may believe in the Father and in the Son, cannot yet be considered true disciples of his (19:2-6).

The Acts speak of a real presence of the Holy Spirit, a permanent, not a passing presence (such as charisms) in the soul of every Christian as soon as he is baptized (2:38; 5:32). He transforms and sanctifies those in whom he dwells. His interior presence, vital and profound, spreads throughout the world through the sacraments which the Church administers. Confirmation is one of these sacraments (Acts 8:15-17).

3. The Church 

The life of grace, the new life which the Holy Spirit brought at Pentecost, created and shaped the first Christian community, that is, the Church. From the very start it was clear that only in the Church, the mystical body of Christ, can salvation be found, because only the Church has the means necessary for attaining salvation–grace and the sacraments, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the Church is open to everyone–not only the heirs of the promise, the Jews, but also the Gentiles: open to everyone provided they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and accept his teaching. Our Lord himself expressly desired that all men should be saved through his Church.

As Vatican II puts it “Those cannot be saved, who knowing that the Catholic Church was founded through Jesus Christ, by God, as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or to remain in it. Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6).”

As soon as the apostles admitted Gentiles into the Church, dispensing them from circumcision and the Mosaic law, the split between Church and Synagogue became explicit, for it became obvious that the Church was the new Israel, the new chosen people (15:14), and not, as some thought, simply a sect of Judaism. This teaching was confirmed by the Council of Jerusalem (15:1ff), which explicitly stated that no Christian, not even those of Jewish background, was obliged to keep the Mosaic law; this teaching had been upheld by Stephen, the first martyr, and the Holy Spirit had charged Peter and Paul to preach it from the very beginning.

4. The life of the first Christians 

Acts tells us a great deal about the lifestyle of the first Christian community. As Luke describes it early on in the book, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42)–spiritual resources for the spiritual goal which God gave them by calling them to the faith. The four pillars on which their perseverance was built are the same today: faithfulness to the apostles’ teaching; unity among all those who practice the same faith, being of one heart and soul (4:32); active sharing in the Eucharist; and constant prayer, which keeps us united to God. The early Christians prayed unceasingly when Peter was imprisoned by Herod (12:5); Peter and Paul pray before they work miracles (9:40; 28:8); Paul and Silas pray in the prison at Philippi, at midnight, after being beaten with rods, and all the other prisoners can hear them (16:25). Prayer is a kind of background music preceding and accompanying all apostolic activity.

Even the sharing of property practiced among the first Christians was simply a logical result of their perfect unity of spirit. They all felt concern for each other and gave the apostles whatever they could to alleviate the situation of the poorer members of the community (2:44-45). This property-sharing was something which grew up spontaneously: it was never something laid down by Church authority: as Peter tells Ananias, he was free to do whatever he wanted with his property.

We can also notice a certain basic hierarchical organization in the Church of the Acts. It is to the apostles that the people give the proceedings of the sale of their surplus property, regarding them as God’s representatives (4:35). When they are baptized they are conscious of submitting both to the authority of Peter, who exercised primacy of jurisdiction in the whole Church, and to that of the other apostles (10:44-48).

This should not lead us to think that the early Christians were a closed group of people isolated from others and uninvolved in the life of society. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit they bore witness to Jesus “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8). They were extraordinarily zealous in their apostolate: this was something which came from their spirit of prayer and their union with God. They really did act as a leaven in a world hostile to Jesus and to the Gospel. Within very few years, after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, they would turn society around, thanks to their docility to the action of the Holy Spirit. Thanks to their effort–even to the point of shedding their blood for Jesus Christ–they brought the seed of the Christian faith to the known world, thereby setting an example for Christians of all eras.

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