Acta apostolorum: an absolute bestseller

Not every book is translated into hundreds of languages and is read year after year. But this author has made it, creating the basis for sermons that are practice-oriented.

The Acts of the Apostles with its 28 chapters is the most comprehensive book in the New Testament. In the canon of the New Testament it comes immediately after the four gospels, which describe the life and suffering of Jesus. Acts reports about the founding of the Christian church and the work and activity of the Apostles. Acts is therefore the first historical record of the fledgling Christian church of 2,000 years ago.

Acts does not want to be a comprehensive work on history. In many parts it is simply not as detailed as the gospels or the epistles of the New Testament are. In fact, Acts is intended more as a work of edification and to encourage faith. It describes the life of the first Christians, how they spread the message of God to the people, and how they suffered from persecution and attacks, and how they died.

A two-thousand-year-old bestseller

The title “The Acts of the Apostles” first began to be used around the second century in the original Greek dialect Koine (Praxeis Apostolon). This is also reflected in Acta apostolorum, as Acts is called in Latin. In those days there were several of these early Christian beststellers: for example, The Acts of Thomas or The Acts of Philip. But of all of these Acts of the first centuries, only Luke’s made it into Scripture.

Acts, like the gospel of Luke, begins with a preface addressed to a distinguished man by the name of Theophilos. According to ancient custom, the dedication of a book to a person meant that he had to support the dissemination of the work. Today, in our time, this call goes out to all Christians.

Successful twin-pack

The Acts of the Apostles by Luke was composed between the years 90 to 100 after Christ. There is evidence that the author who wrote the gospel of Luke also wrote Acts. This can be gathered from the style, and linguistic and theological similarities.

Acts begins where the gospel ends. It almost seems as though the author regretted having ended his gospel with Christ’s ascension to heaven. No, with Christ’s ascension the spread of the gospel and the building of the church only really began: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). And this is precisely what Acts recounts: the great miracle on Pentecost, the speaking in tongues, the testimony of Stephen the martyr, the Gentile mission, the journeys of the Apostles.

A manual for congregations

There are various reasons why Acts—despite its length—is the most widely read book of Scripture. One reason is: this book is pure history. It provides us with knowledge of congregational life and the ministries of that time. And most readers can understand it without requiring explanation or interpretation.

But this is exactly where the difficulties lie, Werner de Boor, a Protestant theologian, explains in the preface of a Bible commentary: The reader should not only be aware of the history, but understand it as a guideline for congregational life today. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2: 42). Of the many statements in this book, this is surely the most well-known testimony about our brothers and sisters in the early church—and an ideal to follow.

What is important for the author of Acts is the spread of the gospel around the world. All human instruments, on the other hand, are of secondary importance. Acts is not a biography of important people. The only thing that is important is the one big, divine plan: eternal salvation for all of mankind.

The basis for divine service and daily life

In June, the Divine Service Guide is dedicated to various aspects from Acts. The Divine Service Guide is the monthly magazine for ministers of the New Apostolic Church and provides them with guiding thoughts for divine services. Over the next four weeks it will discuss such aspects as fellowship, the difficulties experienced in preaching the gospel, the support of the apostolate, and God’s will to save. Preaching cannot get any more practical than this.

The significance of Acts for the individual is surely very different for everyone. Or to put it in the words of Martin Luther, who in his last manuscript wrote: “Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics cannot be understood unless someone has worked as a shepherd or farmer for five years, while the letters of Cicero can only be understood by those who have been involved in significant state affairs for forty years, and the Bible can only be understood by those who together with Christ and the Apostles have governed the congregation of God for a hundred years.”

Oliver Rütten

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Oliver Rütten
Divine service, Congregational life