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The two-volume set of Luke-Acts was an ancient scholar’s attempt at defending Christianity as not only a religion, but also as a way of life. While the first volume focused on the life of Jesus, the second volume, focused on the origins of the Christian Church. The speeches found within the book of Acts are ordered in such a way to plainly demonstrate how Christianity progressed from one man’s idea into the dominant religion of the time period in which Acts was written. Each speech given is representative of a theme found in the book of Acts.
When studying the speeches from Acts, it is important to keep the broader context in mind. The book of Acts itself is about the spread of Christianity and it’s church throughout the Roman world. It was the story of a spiritual conquest that eventually spread throughout the entire known world. And as with any epic story, it was made up of many smaller stories. Most of these stories found in the book of Acts revolved around a singular speech or occasionally, a group of speeches.
In the second volume of Luke-Acts, these speeches make up about one quarter of the entire text. By inserting these unbroken speeches into the book of Acts, the author was able to convey a sense of immediacy that did not normally exist to the reader. When these speeches are observed in their larger context however, they begin to take on an entirely new meaning and intent.
This large group of speeches can easily be sorted into groups and themes by looking at who was orating, what their intent was, who the audience was, and what the audiences’ reactions were. Because Acts was about the spread of Christian Church, the speakers were predominately Jewish-Christians. Paul and Peter orated the majority of the speeches although they are only part of the many Christian advocates who were spreading the Christian message during this time period. Throughout the time frame that book of Acts hopes to frame, many things were happening that were not recorded. It is important to realize that every recorded event portrayed in Acts, surely created Christianesque ripples that flowed continuously outward from the apostles and other devout followers.
Many times, Christian speeches and activities often spurred other speeches that were orated by non-Christians. These non-Christian speeches were mainly negative to the Christian cause and were often preemptive to floggings and violence. Even though these outlying speeches are legitimate, the author’s function of these speeches remains fundamentally different than that of the pro-Christian speeches found in Acts. Therefore they should be viewed as mere reactions and complements to the Christian speeches rather than speeches themselves.
Many of these negative reactions were spurred when Christian speakers attempted to convert devout Jews into Christians, especially early on in Acts. For example, when Paul spoke to a Sadducees council early on in the book of Acts, the reaction the apostles received was not only a speech negating their preaching, but also a beating at the hands of the council. (Acts 5.29-5.40).
The apostles were not deterred by these set backs posed by the council however, and they became more persistent in their witnessing to Jews and non-Jews alike. One method used to persuade Jews to cross over into Christianity was the implementation of history in their arguments and speeches. In Acts 13.16-13.41 Paul explained Jesus’ Jewish origins and how the same Jews that shared his ancestry had eventually rejected him. This message was extremely effective to small groups of Jews, but when a large group amassed during the next Sabbath day, Paul and the apostles were inevitably rejected once again by the Jews.
The apostles were not content with speaking only to Jews because in their opinion, God was universal in his love of humans. They hoped to eventually unify Gentiles and Jews under one religion in which all were equal. In hopes of spreading this message to potential Gentile converts Paul and Barnabas traveled to the town of Lystria and spoke to the inhabitants. (Acts14.8-14.20).
By healing a crippled man in public, Paul and Barnabas gained the attention of many Gentiles, who immediately regarded them as the Hellenistic Gods Zeus and Hermes. After convincing the masses about the way of Christianity, they traveled outwards from Jerusalem still into yet another Gentile town called Derbe.
This continual path away from Jerusalem into the outer world paralleled what the apostles were attempting to do with Gentiles. By allowing the Gentiles to maintain their customs and culture, the way of worshipping the one Christian god became more appealing to the majority of them than pertaining to the typical Roman Gods. The only thing that Christian law required of Gentiles and Jews was belief in the idea that repentance of sin resulted in the forgiveness of God.
As the apostles continued to journey outwards away from Jerusalem, the notion of the Christian church spread with them. In some cases the word of Christianity spread faster than the apostles. When Paul traveled to Ephesus in Acts 19.1 for example, he was met with disciples of Christianity who had been baptized in the name of John, but not yet of Jesus. After Paul had spent considerable time in Ephesus, he began his journey back towards Jerusalem.
Once Paul was back in Jerusalem, the style of speeches drastically changed from evangelistic to defensive. Now that Paul was back in the midst of the hub of Jewish activity, he was constantly questioned, attacked, provoked, and arrested. When Paul went on trial before King Agrippa in Acts 26.1-26.32 his speech had a different message than most of his previous ones. Paul attempted to pacify his accusers by reverting to his Jewish roots and demonstrating that he had disobeyed no laws while within the temple. Paul summed up his experiences with the Jews and Gentiles and eventually was allowed freedom once again.
The purpose for Paul’s arrest in the context of Acts, was to not only sum up the previous themes found in the volume, but to also demonstrate the justification of unity between Jews and Gentiles under the same God. After this was accomplished, Paul was allowed his freedom so that he could continue his travels and repeat all of the subsequent themes that came with his earlier travels.
Once Paul was in Rome, he continued his preaching to the Gentiles. While in Rome, he was subject to much of the same treatment he had found elsewhere in the world. On one hand, much praise and jubilation followed him, but on the other, he was also eventually persecuted and sent to jail. He was eventually forced to basically repeat his earlier apologies and arguments to justify his freedom. As before, he was allowed release so he could continue preaching and teaching in Rome. (Acts 28.17 28.28)
To summarize the book of Acts, once Paul had conquered Jerusalem in a spiritual sense, he set out to conquer Rome as well. These cities represent both the Jewish capital of the world and the Gentile capital of the world. Upon implementation of Christianity of any giving town, the apostles set out to other towns and cities in order to give their powerful speeches, which signified so much more than the words they contained.
Ehrman, Bart D., The New Testament: A Historical Introduction To The Early Christian Writers. New York: Oxford, 2000.
Harvey, A. E., The New English Bible: Companion To The New Testament. Cambridge: Oxford, 1970.
Meeks, Wayne A., et al. ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. Vol. 44. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Stendahl, Krister. Paul Among Jews And Gentiles And Other Essays. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973.