Biblical Keys in Acts

Tim McLaughlin Jr
14 min readMay 12, 2022

What follows is adapted from an assignment I completed as part of my education through the Antioch School. It has been altered from its original form mostly in ways that make it more suited to a blog post than an essay. The objective of the assignment was to demonstrate that I had “developed a basic understanding of biblical keys to the establishment and expansion of the first-century Church as taught in Acts.”

The Acts of the Apostles continues the work begun in Luke’s gospel, where he states his general purpose when he says he is writing a record “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4, NASB). In the beginning of Acts, Luke then states of his previous book that it was “…about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen” (Acts 1:1b-2, NASB). That is, Acts will be the account of the apostles continuing the work of Christ under His orders. If Luke has set confidence in what his readers have been taught as the goal, and begins Acts by citing that the work of Christ is continuing, we can conclude that the purpose of Acts is not simply to record activities taken by the apostles but to give confidence that the teachings those apostles handed down are the orders of Christ. As such, Acts is not simply a record of previous events, but a standard against which present and future events can be compared. It is fundamentally normative, showing not merely what the apostles did do but what the apostles, and the church they were instrumental in establishing, should do.

Acts, then, is a guide. It plays out within a specific context, and we must consider the degree to which that context influences specific actions taken, but doing so can reveal an understanding of what purposes and methods were guiding those decisions. If the apostles were operating under the orders of Christ, then their purposes and methods are Christ’s purposes and methods, and if that is the case, these must also be our purposes and methods. Paul’s exhortation to “be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” rings true for the entire book of Acts; to whatever extent the apostles were imitating Christ, we must also imitate them (1 Corinthians 11:1, NASB). Luke’s concern, that we be confident in what we have been taught, must include what we’ve been taught about the functions and purposes of the church. After all, in Acts he shows us what those functions and purposes are.

Identifying the Principles of Acts

If Acts will be useful to us for this purpose, then it must be true that the principles that guided the apostles can be identified within Acts. We would have to be able to single out the things that determine how the apostles acted and taught in establishing and expanding the church, parse them out from the influence of their context, and have some means of applying them to our own contexts. These principles would be the keys that the course is attempting to focus on.

The work of identifying those principles begins with studying the stories of Acts. The narrative of the book shows what these principles look like in action within a specific context, and we cannot draw the principles out of the narrative without studying the narrative for elements that are specific to context, elements that are common across multiple contexts, and a careful analysis of the actual practices and teachings of the apostles within the narrative.

To that end, the narrative of Acts can be broken down into major chunks. This class uses a system that looks for places where Luke appears to be wrapping up one portion of the narrative and beginning another; others may focus on immediate context or the broader life of the church as it develops throughout the book. Regardless, the purpose of breaking the narrative down is to see the principles raised and applied across multiple circumstances. Each of the primary principles, the things that must be in place across all churches across all time, would have to appear in every major chunk of the narrative. Therefore, this paper will operate on the following major chunks:

1:1–6:7: Initial practice and growth. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The recognition, definition, and establishment of leaders;
  2. The practice of constant, invested community;
  3. Submission to teaching;
  4. Faithfulness in the face of opposition; and
  5. The work of the Holy Spirit.

6:8–9:31: Persecution and expansion beyond Jerusalem. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The work of leaders in continuing to guide and expand the church;
  2. The work of the community in geographic expansion;
  3. Submission to teaching;
  4. Faithfulness in the face of opposition; and
  5. The work of the Holy Spirit.

9:32–12:24: Peter and the Gentiles. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The work, identification, and establishment of leaders;
  2. The expansion of the community beyond the Jewish sphere;
  3. Submission to teaching; and
  4. The work of the Holy Spirit.

12:25–16:5: Spread into Asia Minor. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The identification, training, and establishment of leaders;
  2. The geographic expansion of the church into Gentile territory;
  3. Submission to teaching;
  4. Defining terms of the community;
  5. Faithfulness in the face of opposition; and
  6. The work of the Holy Spirit.

16:6–19:20: The Church in Europe. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The identification, training, and establishment of leaders;
  2. The geographic expansion of the church into Europe;
  3. Distinguishing the community from the world;
  4. Submission to teaching;
  5. Faithfulness in the face of opposition; and
  6. The work of the Holy Spirit.

19:21–28:31: Paul’s path to Rome. This stage of the church’s development relied heavily on…

  1. The faithfulness and continuity of leadership;
  2. The support of community;
  3. Submission to teaching and guidance;
  4. Faithfulness in the face of opposition; and
  5. The work of the Holy Spirit.

It is important not to get bogged down on questions we cannot answer. As Getz notes in Sharpening the Focus of the Church, “forms and structures are not absolutes in the Bible;” and as nonabsolutes, they cannot be our focus1. Instead, we must focus on the things that stand out as recurring principles, and the ways their various forms and structures tell us about the nature of those principles.

Leadership

The first principle as identified above is the recurring role and function of church leadership. The church is not meant to function without some kind of formal leadership guiding it. The nature of that leadership had some room to change throughout Acts, and the narrative focuses on different aspects of it at different times, but no major section of Acts is without some emphasis on the existence and nature of church leadership.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash. Used with permission.

In the first section, leadership is a driving force under the guidance and authority of the Holy Spirit. Jesus establishes this norm when He tells the disciples at the beginning of Acts that “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth” (Act 1:8, NASB). These disciples then give the first massive public witness to Christ at Pentecost, assemble the early church, teach in the temple and homes of believers, and answer to the Jewish authorities about the nature of the church and its beliefs. It is also these same disciples who then identify the need for another group of leaders, and it is their guidance that defines the functions of the first deacons and the traits that should be expected of them.

It is one of these identified leaders, Stephen, who is central in the drive of the second section of Acts. Through his faithfulness and boldness in preaching, he draws the attention of the Jewish leaders who go beyond previous questioning and kill him. This initiates a system of persecution carried out against the early church, during which Philip (one of the disciples) works in the Jewish-adjacent contexts of Samaria and a foreign believer in the Law. Meanwhile, the other key leaders remain in Jerusalem and continue to guide the church as it expands in response to persecution.

In the third section of Acts, the gospel reaches Gentiles through the preaching of Peter as initiated and led by the Holy Spirit. As Fee and Stuart note, it is important to recognize that God “did not now use the Hellenists, in which case it would have been suspect, but Peter, the acknowledged leader of the Jewish-Christian mission”2. The other leaders, in response to Peter’s account of the event, welcome the Gentile converts and this opens the door to the work of Antioch in focusing on Gentiles in their context, with the assistance of Barnabas, a leader sent to Antioch by the Jerusalem church, and Paul, identified by Barnabas as a fellow leader.

In the fourth section of Acts, the narrative follows Paul and Barnabas as they are set aside for work by the Holy Spirit and then as they carry out that work. As they carry the gospel through Asia Minor, they also make a point of establishing leaders wherever they see a church come together, even returning to dangerous settings to see that work completed. When Paul and Barnabas finish this work, they return to Antioch where they submit themselves to leadership by reporting all that happened to the church that sent them and its leaders.

The fifth section of Acts continues to follow Paul who, now separated from Barnabas, brings Silas as another leader and identifies Timothy as a man with promise to lead. Again, in every church they establish throughout this part of Acts, they do not stop until they have established leaders to continue working with the church after Paul’s team has left. And in the final section, as Paul makes his way to Jerusalem and, from there, to Rome, he continues to lead and to meet with leaders he has set in place and ensure they are prepared for the work ahead without him.

Through the entire book of Acts, then, the theme of leadership and its responsibility to care for the church and pass that work along to new leaders remains in constant focus. Luke tells us that the initial work of the apostles in leading the church was focused on teaching and prayer, and that in expanding the leadership of the church into a new office the apostles stated, “Instead, brothers NASB). He shows how leaders were confirmed through the existing leadership structures, even when they have been identified by name by the Holy Spirit in the setting aside of Paul and Barnabas. He shows how those leaders did not consider their work finished in establishing a church until there were leaders in place, and though we have very little information on the exact nature of leadership training in the early church, Luke always places leaders in training under the care of, and working alongside, existing leaders within the context of active ministry. These principles, then, should guide us when we make our own plans for selecting, training, and sending out leaders today.

Community

The theme of community is woven throughout the book of Acts. Even when Luke’s narrative follows one person, it is nearly always in the work of establishing or expanding communities of faith. The first section of the book describes the church as a deeply ingrained community, with Luke stating that

…all the believers were together and had all things in common; and they would sell their property and possessions and share them with all, to the extent that anyone had need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 2:44–47, (NASB)

The community grew throughout the first section of Acts, and it is primarily on the feet of this community that the church grows and spreads to other regions in the second section. While leaders had a key role in the second part of Acts, most of them remained in Jerusalem; it is the rest of the body that spreads into Samaria and as far as Antioch, and it is during this time when the God-fearing Ethiopian eunuch is brought into faith in Christ, is baptized into the body of Christ, and then carries on to bring that word to his own community.

The nature of the community has its first radical change in the third section of Acts, when gentiles are brought to faith and begin to be welcomed into the community. We get our first picture at this point, expounded in the epistles, that the community is united in Christ apart from any social divisions that would want to separate it. The community in Antioch is in prayer and fasting together when they receive the call to set Barnabas and Paul aside, in the fourth section of Acts, and it is that same community to whom Barnabas and Paul return and deliver a report. As Barnabas and Paul go about this work, they focus on establishing communities of believers, and Paul continues this emphasis when he moves into Europe during the fifth section of Acts. Finally, the community repeatedly comes around Paul to support him on his way to Rome.

The book of Acts consistently puts its work and its leaders in the context of community. This community is deeply invested in one another, sharing every aspect of their lives. It describes the community as being actively engaged in the work of ministry, rather than simply benefiting from it. It presents the community as having a certain authority of its own in mission, in the way it is able to act autonomously when apart from the apostles, in the way Paul submits himself to the church of Antioch in his work, and in the way the assembled church in Jerusalem is tasked with working out the details of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The Christian community, then, is intimate, active, and authoritative.

Teaching

Teaching is a major component of every section of Acts, and the will of the community to submit to that teaching is shown consistently through the book. The church at the end of Acts 2 is described as submitting to the teaching of the apostles, the expansion of the church in the second section of Acts relied on the community teaching others to submit to the teaching of the apostles, and the story of the Ethiopian eunuch has the eunuch directly state that he needs teaching to understand. Each of the later sections is heavily driven by teaching ministries; from Peter’s sermon to the household of Cornelius, through the work of Paul in teaching throughout Asia Minor and Greece, with the book ending on a snapshot of Paul offering teaching to the Jewish leaders in Rome.

However, it is not the act of offering teaching alone that defines so much of the church through the book of Acts, but the willingness of the people to submit to that teaching. It is this unity under the teaching of the apostles, whether delivered directly by apostles or not, that defines the nature and scope of the community of the church. The birth of the church comes at Pentecost, and its first act is to teach the truth of the gospel. The first burst of conversion happens when about 3,000 people submit to this teaching. Over and over again, as the gospel spreads, it takes root where people submit to the teaching of the apostles and align their lives with this teaching. And when the book is nearing its final section and Paul is on his way to be arrested, he calls together elders who have lived in service to the teaching he imparted to them and hands over the task to continue teaching to those who will continue to submit to that teaching.

Faithfulness

Faithfulness to Christ and the teaching of the apostles was shown in the unity of the body; but throughout much of the book, it was also shown through the ability of the church to endure hardship.

In the first section of Acts, the church begins to face opposition in the form of the Jewish leaders arresting Peter and John and ordering them to stop teaching. They refuse, more than once, and make it clear that “…we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” when facing initial threats from those leaders (Acts 4:20, NASB). This escalates, and in the second portion of Acts, Stephen dies as the first Christian martyr. With Saul actively hunting the church, the believers did not stray from the gospel they had received, but carried it with them into the wider world. Post-conversion Paul is routinely opposed during his missionary journeys, stoned and left for dead on his very first outing, and his story as recorded in Acts ends with him under arrest and awaiting trial for his work of carrying the gospel.

While the opposition to the gospel is not a primary theme of the third section of Acts, it is so prevalent throughout the book and offers so much background to the third section that it warrants inclusion as a constant theme in Acts anyway. The church is constantly running afoul of both religious and civil leaders, and faces threats of punishment — and acts of punishment — with constant and unwavering faithfulness to Christ, the teachings of the apostles, and the community of the church.

Holy Spirit

How the church handled that, however, was not in their own strength. Throughout Acts, the Holy Spirit moves to bring about all of the key elements of the book. The church is born from teaching delivered only on the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The teaching of the apostles is guided by the Holy Spirit, the unity of the body is unity in the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the body are identified and equipped by the Holy Spirit, and the church endures opposition thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit in securing them.

The Acts narrative frames every major step of the mission as the work of the Spirit first. The apostles do nothing of great importance until the Holy Spirit descends on them. The Holy Spirit kills Ananias and Sapphira in response to the damage they are doing to the unity of the body through their lies. The first deacons are selected on the grounds that they are “full of the Spirit,” and Stephen faces death with certainty of purpose granted through this same “being full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3; 7:55, NASB). The Holy Spirit teaches Paul what lays ahead of him and calls Ananias of Damascus to welcome him into the church, stirs Cornelius to hear the gospel and Peter to share it with him, identifies Paul and Barnabas for the task of undertaking the first missionary journey, redirects Paul when it’s time for him to enter Europe, and drives Paul to Jerusalem to face arrest and shipment to Rome. Acts is thus Holy Spirit driven, with Him working on every facet of every key element of the book in every major section of the book.

The ultimate lesson, then, is that the nature of the church is deeper than it looks. Imperfect but convincing community can be attained through human means, leaders can be trained to teach most anything, and people can be stubborn in the face of opposition with little prompting so long as they have reason to do so. What defines the church, and ultimately defines the form these other elements take, is that the Holy Spirit directs and fills every aspect of what the church is and does. This is the core element of the book of Acts: that the church is the vessel through which the Holy Spirit operates in the world, and the church has a responsibility to unite under this charge, to hold leadership accountable to this charge, to submit to the teachings that define this charge, and to hold fast to this charge even when all forces of the world are turned against us.

1 Gene A Getz, “A Look Through Three Lenses” in Sharpening The Focus Of The Church Wheaton: SP Publications, 1984, 38.
2 Gordon D Fee and Douglas K Stuart,”Acts-The Problem of Historical Precedent” in How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, 91.

Originally published at https://temclaughlin.weebly.com.

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Tim McLaughlin Jr

Freelance writer and artist, theology blogger, ministry student, church planter, husband and father in New England.