Acts of the Apostles is kind of a tough one to nail down, genre-wise. In a way, it's similar to ancient histories or biographies. It's obviously trying to record the background of the early church and tell the tale of the individual people that worked to spread the gospel after Jesus died.
But it's also more than that. It has tons of sermons and also works like an apology. No, that doesn't mean that Acts is sorry to have bumped into you on the subway. An apology is a work that provides a defense or justification for something. This one is a defense of Christian faith that helps provide readers with arguments to convince others to follow Jesus. Finally, it's also a little bit like a novel because it's just so darn entertaining. Only in the Bible will you get four genres rolled into one (source).
The action in the Gospel of Luke was confined to the Jewish homeland in Judea. Jesus liked to work neighborhoods he knew. But Acts of the Apostles spans far and wide. Even Jesus predicts that the apostles will be his "witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). He wasn't kidding.
Acts begins in Judea around 30-something CE. The opening chapter starts right after Jesus has died and risen again. Forty days later Jesus ascends into Heaven (1:9). Ten days after that the apostles all get visited by tongues of fire (2:1-4). It was a busy month and a half.
So when Peter and the other apostles start preaching in and around Jerusalem, it's at great personal risk. Remember—the religious authorities in the city had just turned Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. Yeah. So the twelve apostles weren't exactly talking about the most popular guy in town when they mentioned Jesus's name.
After Stephen is killed and folks in Judea decide to start openly persecuting Christians again, the disciples start to branch out (11:19). The whole stoning thing made them realize that they might not want to put all their eggs in one basket. Enter Paul (post-conversion) and his band of traveling disciples.
Paul touches base with the apostles in Jerusalem before taking a trip to Antioch (which was near his hometown of Tarsus) to work on building the church there (11:25-26). When the Holy Spirit taps him to start spreading the gospel far and wide, Paul is definitely up for taking a trip around the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
Back in the first century, the Romans were large and in charge. Throughout the Empire, conquered people were required to pay homage to Roman gods or to pay the price for crossing Rome. Believe us, that is one price you did not want to pay. The folks in Judea were under Roman control and they didn't much like it either. Even though Jews were granted an exception to the whole worship-Roman-gods-or-die law, they didn't take too kindly to their occupiers. In 66 CE, they actually tried to kick Rome out of Judea. Things did not go well.
Every time he goes to a different place, Paul runs into different problems. In each city he arrives, Paul first seeks out the local Jews and visits the synagogue to preach about Jesus (13:5, 14:1, 17:1, 18:19, 19:8). If the Jews in town aren't receptive, Paul tries the local Gentile population.
But things don't always go too smoothly with the Gentiles either. In Lystra Paul and Barnabas are worshiped as gods. Roman gods (14:11). In Ephesus they tick off some of the local craftsmen who think that the Christians are trying to put them out of the idol-making business (19:27). The truth is they are, but Paul decides it's best not to mention that to the angry mob.
No matter where he goes, Paul keeps his setting in mind. When he's in a synagogue, he appeals to his audience's Jewish sensibilities by quoting Hebrew scripture left and right. Makes sense. But since that wouldn't work with a Gentile audience, Paul uses different tactics with these folks. When he arrives in Athens and sees the city is covered in idols, he doesn't outright denounce their gods. Instead, he appeals to them on their terms:
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. (17:22-24)
That Paul is a real pro.
All of this leads us to a pretty good question: Why does Paul change setting so often, but Peter hardly ever does?
You can sort of divide the story by its setting shifts. The first part features Peter and takes place in Judea. The farthest he gets away from home is Caesarea, which is about 75 miles north of Jerusalem. Way to explore, Peter. The second part is all about Paul and his travels around the Empire, which take him all the way to Italy. Sure, there's no place like home, but there must be something more going on here.
It probably had to do with their backgrounds. Peter and the other apostles grew up in the Jewish homeland. They were raised in Jewish homes and associated with other Jews. They were probably just more comfortable appealing to Jews rather than Gentiles. Paul on the other hand, was raised Jewish in a Gentile area in Tarsus. In other words, he lived and worked among Gentiles his whole life.
Paul also would have been familiar with the kinds of things that were taught in Greek universities. While he knew Hebrew and received an excellent Jewish education, it would have been easier for him to mix with and appeal to non-Jews. Even Festus says Paul is suffering from "too much learning" (26:24). Even though it's clear he doesn't mean it in a good way, it's obvious Paul has a top-notch educational background. Meanwhile, Peter and the apostles are described as "uneducated and ordinary men" (4:13). Advantage: Paul.
Miracles don't just happen every day. That's kind of the point. But in Acts the apostles bring the miracle power wherever they go. Healing the sick. Raising people from the dead. Makes you wonder why they don't magic themselves out of trouble more often.
In Acts of the Apostles, signs and wonders are all over the place:
When was the last time any of this happened to you? We'd say it's all pretty darn miraculous.
In all these cases, a miracle means that something unusual or completely impossible happened. The Bible folks see this as a sign that God is hanging around and still cares about them. God has broken into the natural world and stirred things up (it's not everyday that paralyzed guys get up and walk). This is tangible proof that God is large and in charge, and also that He's on the side of Christians.
It's also a natural continuation of what God started way back in the gospels with Jesus. After all, if God gave Jesus the power to perform miracles and even come back to life, then what's to stop him from doling out a few powers to his most devoted followers? Nothing, that's what.
These days God is a little subtler. Some people still believe in miracles, while others think that everything has to have a rational or scientific explanation. But back in biblical times, people saw miracles everywhere. And without miracles you couldn't possibly claim to have an in with God. Would Peter have succeeded if he just talked about Jesus? Maybe. But raising people from the dead kind of helps give your message that extra little oomph.
Seeing is believing. Or that's what they say anyway (whoever they are). But in Acts of the Apostles, seeing and not seeing are pretty literally tied to believing.
In one of the most famous now-you-see-me-now-you-don't scenes in the Bible, Paul is (not) minding his own business while walking along on his way to Damascus when:
Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" […] The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:3-9)
When Paul's sight finally comes back "something like scales fell from his eyes" (9:17). Paul can now see the truth. This Jesus he's been persecuting is actually a pretty swell guy. He rushes out to be baptized and start preaching. Spoiler alert: he's really good at it.
Later, Paul pulls the same trick with the false prophet, Bar-Jesus. He temporarily blinds the guy and others instantly start to believe (13:9-12). Paul gets all his best ideas from God.
This symbol is actually pretty simple. Those who can't "see" the truth about God—Paul and Bar-Jesus—become literally blind. Paul's blindness ends with him finally understanding who Jesus really is, and the episode with Bar-Jesus helps others figure it out. We love it when symbols all come together like this.
There's also the little extra layer of people experiencing visions from God:
In all these cases, the believer sees something that's not apparent to everyone else. This is a super unique and important message from God. The correct interpretation relies on the person seeing the truth behind the message and knowing what to do. 'Cuz sometimes it's tough to figure out what animals and sheets floating in the sky mean.
Water. It's cool. It's refreshing. It's delicious. And it's also the perfect thing for baptizing new Christians. Go figure.
Baptism is a pretty big deal in Acts of the Apostles. Loads of people physically dunk themselves in water in order to show their commitment to Jesus:
Those who welcomed his message were baptized. (2:41)
The eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (8:38)
[Paul] got up and was baptized. (9:18)
[Lydia] and her household were baptized. (16:15)
[The jailor] and his entire family were baptized without delay. (16:33)
Why get your hair wet to show that you believe in Jesus? Because it's all part of starting your new life as a Christian. Just like babies grow and develop in the water-like amniotic fluid in their mother's womb (sorry, bear with us), baptism by water is seen as a way to be reborn into a fancy new Christian life. It's also a whole lot less slimy.
You just have to get a little wet and you're all good. Kingdom of God here we come! Um, not quite.
Acts makes it clear that baptism isn't some kind of cure-all that instantly fixes all your problems. Though it's true that the water washes away your sins (22:16), it's still possible to be baptized and act like a jerk (see: Ananias and Sapphira). Baptism is an outward symbol of an inner reality.
Jesus also explains there's baptism with water (which is what John the Baptist offered) and baptism with the Holy Spirit (which is what the apostles are peddling) (1:5).
The converts in Samaria are baptized, but they don't receive the Holy Spirit until later (8:16). When it comes to Cornelius and his Gentile friends, Peter says, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (10:47). In other words, they've already got the spirit, so someone best get the wading pool ready.
Upstairs or downstairs? Where would you rather live? If you're part of a British melodrama on Masterpiece Theater, upstairs is the way to go. Of course, if there's a tornado, you're gonna want to run for the lower levels. When the apostles are faced with tragedy, they choose upstairs. Lord Grantham would be proud.
The "room upstairs" or "upper room" appears a couple times in Acts of the Apostles:
Do the followers of Jesus have something against ground level? Are they just really into stairs? What's going on?
The disciples are hiding out in the days following Jesus's death and resurrection. After all, the folks in Jerusalem aren't too thrilled with them and they like to express their disapproval in crucifixion form. A room in the upper level of a house would be a good place to hide. You can survey the scene out the window to see who's coming, which gives you a heads-up when unexpected visitors arrive. Basically, you're taking the high ground.
Upstairs is also just a little bit symbolically closer to the man upstairs. It's no accident that all kinds of miraculous things happen when the disciples are elevated both spiritually and physically. It also means Jesus doesn't have as far to go when he gets lifted up into Heaven. Hey, ascending is tiring.
Of course, the upper room isn't all fun and games. One night, while Paul is preaching, a young man drifts off to sleep and falls out the window of the upstairs room (20:9). Hey, Paul—that sermon might need a bit more work. Naturally, Paul rushes downstairs and discovers the kid's not dead yet. The magic of the upper room in action.
Acts is pretty tame as far as sex and drugs go. The apostles even warn people not to fornicate (15:20), so that's good family fun. It is just a tiny bit violent though (the persecution of a religious minority usually is). Though the story doesn't go into graphic details, it's kind of hard not to think of Stephen's bloody body getting bashed with rocks or how gross and painful it would be to get flogged. Stonings, beatings, and murder plots abound. Read this one with a few lights on.
Inferno by Dante
When Dante runs into Pope Nicholas in Hell, he asks how much the apostles charged Matthias for taking Judas's place among the apostles. The answer is nada. Take that, Pope Nicholas.
Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri
The souls in Purgatory love to tell stories (about people who have it way worse than them). One of these stories that comes up is about Sapphira and her husband, who held out on the apostles and paid the price. Dante also writes that Stephen spends all his time in Purgatory praying for his persecutors. That is one stand-up saint.
Paradiso by Dante Alighieri
When Peter asks Dante what faith is, he quotes Paul back to him. We're imagining Peter rolling his eyes a little bit at that.
Billy Budd by Herman Melville
When Billy attacks and kills the lying Claggert, Captain Vere shouts, "It is the divine judgment on Ananias! Look! […] Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" And he does.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The narrator shares some words of wisdom from his grandfather (and Acts): "'You start Saul, and end up Paul,' my grandfather had often said. 'When you're a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts to trying to be Paul—though you still Sauls around on the side.'"
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The chapter that features the rabbits swimming across the river opens with a quote from Acts 27:43-44: "The centurion […] ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land." Don't worry—the bunnies make it, too.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The narrator of the novel wonders about a quote she sees: "From each according to her ability; to each according to his need." She thinks it comes from Acts 11:29—"The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea"—but it's really closer to something Karl Marx said. Oops.
Fences by August Wilson
When Gabriel suffers a head injury in WWII, he starts to believe he's the archangel Gabriel. The cool part is he gets to hang out and eat biscuits with Peter in Heaven.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Pentecost comes up a few times in this novel. Dr. Urbino dies on Pentecost (bummer), and Florentino and América share a bed on the morning of Pentecost. It's not one of the sexier holidays, but hey.
Lycidas by John Milton
This poem features a really long speech by Peter, who holds the keys to Heaven and complains (rather loudly) about corruption in the church. To be fair, that probably was one of his pet peeves.
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Oliver Mellors writes a love letter to his beloved Connie: "My soul softly flaps in the little Pentecost flame with you, like the peace of f**king." What a charmer.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
When Stephen Dedalus is going through his religious phase (deciding whether or not to become a priest), his director tells him to pray to his patron saint, which is none other than St. Stephen himself.
Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Every year on Pentecost, King Arthur's knights are supposed to take an oath of honor and goodness to uphold the virtuous knightly way of life. Pentecost seems like a good time for that.
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
Paulina's name links her to St. Paul. At the end of the play, the king's wife is even miraculously resurrected in her house. Paul would be proud.
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas
In this sequel to The Three Musketeers, the Duc de Beaufort escapes from prison on Pentecost. He tells his jailor before the big prison break: "Now, what has Pentecost to do with me? Do you fear, say, that the Holy Ghost may come down in the form of fiery tongues and open the gates of my prison?" We wouldn't put it past the Holy Ghost.
I Put a Spell on You by Nina Simone
In her autobiography, the famous jazz singer said, "I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus," when she learned about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Twelve Apostles by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
In this fairy tale, Peter is the oldest of twelve brothers who realize that they've been born three hundred years before Jesus. Oops! With the help of an angel, the brothers are able to sleep soundly in a cave until Jesus comes. That's some smart thinking.