What was Luke’s purpose in writing the book of Acts? One possible answer is that he wanted to explain how Christianity went from being a predominantly Jewish phenomenon to a predominantly Gentile one. Or rather, to explain the geographic spread of the Gospel.
With this view in mind we can outline the book as follows: Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), Judea and Samaria (8-10), the ends of the (then-known) earth (11-28). This view is supported by Luke’s summary statements dispersed throughout the book (6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:4-5, 19:20).That said, it has to be noted that he focuses on only one trajectory: Jerusalem to Rome. We don’t know how the gospel spread to Crete (Titus 1:5), Illyricum (Romans 15:19), or Pontus, Cappadocia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).
The summary statements mentioned in the previous paragraph could be considered as closing formulas, thus leading us to divide the book into 6 sections.
1:1-6:7. The church in Jerusalem, its growth and initial hindrances and opposition.
- Catalyst for growth: Pentecost. The first Pentecost had been tightly linked with the first Passover, and this connection is repeated here.
- Main speech: Peter’s sermon in chapter 2.
- Opposition provided by the Jewish religious leaders.
- Hindrances presented by Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deception and the problem with the Greek-speaking widows.
Incidentally, all the men chosen to bear the responsibility of supervising the distribution of food were Greek-speakers (Hellenists), as their names attest.
6:8-9:31. The gospel in Judea and Samaria.
- Catalyst for growth: Stephen’s martyrdom results in a scattering of the believers who carried the word with them (8:1).
- Main speech: Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin in chapter 7.
- Opposition provided by non-Christian Hellenistic Jews (6:9)
- Hindrance presented by Simon the Sorcerer (chapter 8 )
This section includes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus who was: (1) a Hellenist (2) a fierce Jewish opponent (3) the one who was God’s chosen instrument to carry His name before the Gentiles (9:15).
9:32-12:24. The gospel to the Gentiles.
- Catalyst for growth: Cornelius’ conversion (chapter 10)
- Main speech: Peter’s speech to Cornelius and his household in chapter 10.
- Opposition provided by King Herod (chapter 12)
- Hindrance presented by some in the Jerusalem church who opposed Peter’s going to Cornelius’ home (11:2)
In this section, we have the account of the first Gentile church, that at Antioch.
12:25-16:5. The gospel in Asia Minor.
- Catalyst for growth: The church at Antioch, prompted by the Holy Spirit, sends out Barnabas and Saul on what would become Paul’s first missionary journey.
- Main speech: Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch in chapter 13.
- Opposition provided by Jews who reject the gospel (13:50 and elsewhere)
- Hindrance presented by the Judaizers (15:1)
In response to the problem raised by the Judaizers, a council was held in Jerusalem in which the church there embraces its Gentile brothers and sisters in addition to not laying Jewish religious requirements on them.
It is interesting that Saul becomes Paul around the time of the encounter with Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Paphos. It is also during this 1st missionary journey that the name order switches, and Paul is mentioned before Barnabas from this point on (compare 13:2 and 13:42).
16:6-19:20. The gospel in Europe.
- Catalyst for growth: Paul’s second and third missionary journeys.
- Main speech: Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens in chapter 17.
- Opposition provided by Jews (17:5-7, 13, 18:6, 12) and Gentiles (16:19-21, )
19:21-28:30. Paul in chains.
- Catalyst for growth: Paul’s preaching
- Main speech: Paul’s speech before Festus and Agrippa in chapter 26
- Opposition provided by Jews (21:27-28), Gentiles (19:23-41)
- Hindrance presented by the plot to kill Paul (23:12-22) and by his hardships on the voyage to Rome (shipwreck, snake bite).
The last word in the Greek text of Acts is akolutos, which can be translated ‘unhindered’ or ‘without restriction’. Paul preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ boldly and unhindered. What a way for Luke to end his book!
Sources: Bible.org, The Proclamation Trust/ David Cook, The Proclamation Trust/ David Jackman, D. A. Carson, ‘How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth’ by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart