I was recently in a small group that asked, “So what’s the theme of the Book of Acts?” There are many ways to answer such a question, but let’s just look at how it opens and closes.
You could dub Acts as Luke’s Account of the Gospel, Volume 2. (Compare Acts 1:1-2 with Luke 1:1-4.) The disciples saw the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial, so seeing him alive again is the last thing they expect. Jesus has to do things like inviting Thomas to touch his wounds, or eating meals with them (so they know he’s not a ghost).
So, what does Jesus want to talk about? He does not say, “Well, guys, I’ve been to the other side, and I’m back to tell you: there’s a really scary hell to avoid. Make your decision now to ensure you go to heaven.” Cringe! No, that is not Jesus’ gospel.
He had less than six weeks with them, so he focused on one thing:
Acts 1:3 (NIV)
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Did you get that? After the resurrection, Jesus’ theme is the same as before. His central message is still the kingdom of God.
By the end of the Book of Acts, even non-Jews are submitting to the resurrected Jesus as ruler (Lord), acknowledging him as Messiah (King). Luke focuses his story on one emissary of King Jesus: Paul, tasked with bringing his message to the nations (gentiles).
So how does Luke summarize Paul’s message? Here it is, the final verse of Acts:
Acts 28:31 (NIV)
He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
Did you get that? Paul’s main message is the kingdom of God, i.e. that our ruler (Lord) is Jesus, the anointed King (Christ). Paul is in Rome, under house arrest, because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw his message as a threat to their power. Now he’s at the heart of the Empire—right under Caesars’s nose—proclaiming another king (other than Caesar) and another kingdom (other than the Empire). Paul is so bold, yet no one stops him!
Jesus’ main message was the kingdom of God. Paul’s main message was the kingdom of God. Luke opens and closes the Book of Acts with the kingdom of God: does that make it Luke’s main theme as well?
An honest person in our small group said, “You know, I never noticed that was the opening and closing theme of Acts.” Had you? We tend to skip over bits we don’t understand. Since we don’t understand the kingdom, we don’t even notice that we’re missing the main thing!
It would be rewarding to read the Book of Acts as the story of how God’s kingship is being restored over the world that had rejected his authority. To do that well, we need the back-story of the kingdom. So next post, we’re going back to Genesis, to gain the kingdom perspective we need.
What others are saying
Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 754:
One of Paul’s topics is the rule of God that arrives through Jesus. This major theme of Jesus appears twice in the climactic scene [Acts 28:23, 31]. Although it is rare elsewhere in Acts (1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; see the discussion at 1:3), the idea is a part of key speeches throughout Acts (2:17–36; 3:12–26; 13:32–39). The fact that the idea begins and ends the book is also important; this is a literary inclusio that underscores the idea’s associations and significance.
David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 72–73:
The kingdom of God remains a key for understanding the gospel in Acts. It is mentioned at significant points in the narrative as a way of describing the preaching of the gospel, and it is clearly the theological context or framework in which Jesus was proclaimed as Lord and Christ (Acts 19:8–10; 20:21–27; 28:23, 31; cf. 1:3). Sometimes it is simply stated that the early Christian preachers proclaimed the kingdom (8:12; 19:8; 20:25; cf. 14:22), and sometimes it appears that the preaching was exclusively Christological (e.g., 2:14–41; 3:12–26; 4:8–12). Although Jesus has become more explicitly the content of the message in Acts, his teaching in the Gospel progressively reveals how central he is to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom purpose (e.g., Lk. 4:16–27; 5:22–24, 27–32; 9:18–27).