When studying the Gospel/Acts accounts in the New Testament, one of the most important concepts to grasp is the nature and purpose of the narrative. How and why was the narrative account written?
Luke wrote a two-part narrative giving an account of the ministry and teaching of Jesus among the witnesses and then the Holy Spirit’s work through the church.
1. First, understanding that Acts is the compendium to the “first book” (Acts 1:1) that Luke wrote as an account of the ministry of Jesus and then the subsequent actions of the church provides a necessary framework for interpretation. The major genre of the book of Acts is narrative. Narrative as a genre has unique features, which are paramount for understanding, especially when compared to the other most common New Testament genre of Letters. For one, narratives are much more descriptive than prescriptive in nature. This characteristic does not mean that narratives do not carry the full weight of God’s authority with them or that they are not applicable to believers today. Rather, they simply are much less direct in giving directives or applications than their counterparts. Often narratives describe what happened or what God did, sometimes only once in history (Acts 2:1-12), rather than prescribe what should, will, or must happen. Therefore, the reader learns something of the nature, purpose, or attribute of God from what happened in the narrative, and then interprets and makes application from that truth. When looking for the purpose of any narrative, and here specifically Acts, this should be considered.
2. Second, Luke wrote both accounts to a figure named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). In understanding Luke’s purpose for Acts, we need some understanding of who this person is and why Luke wrote these accounts to him. There are three leading theories on who the designation Theophilus could have been referring to. The first two relate to what is the assumed etymology of the name itself. Theophilus is a Greek compound made up of theos, meaning “God,” and philos, meaning “loved or beloved.” Since the argument has been made that Gentiles who desired to follow the God of Israel were often referred to as “God-lovers/God-fearers,” (Acts 10:22), the two leading theories are that Theophilus was either a Greek who worshipped the God of Israel or that Theophilus was a representative title for a group of Gentiles. The third theory is that Theophilus was not Greek at all, but was actually a Jewish High Priest in the late 30s AD as identified by the Jewish historian Josephus. Regardless, Luke gave an explicit purpose statement to this Theophilus in his Gospel account. We read it in Luke 1:4: “That you may have certainty concerning the things that you have been taught” (ESV). He did not give such a statement in Acts; however, one seems to be implied in Acts 1:1-2 in light of the content of the rest of the book: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (ESV). Therefore, the purpose of Luke seems to be to affirm as true what Theophilus, whoever he was, had been taught about Jesus, His ministry, and mission. And the purpose of Acts seem to be to let this Theophilus know that the mission and the power to accomplish Jesus’s ministry and mission had not dissipated even though Jesus was no longer present “in the flesh.” Perhaps the intent in writing to Theophilus, then, was to give him confidence to accept Christ as Lord and thus join the mission of the church with confidence, even in the bodily absence of Christ.
So how does this purpose of Acts relate to Acts 11:19-26 (25-26)?
1. The Commission of Christ to make disciples had not changed nor lost its power for effectiveness. The passage begins by showing that messengers shared the Gospel and their message took root in the lives of its hearers (vv. 21-22). A local church was born (vv. 23-24) and then the members matured in Christ (v. 26).
2. The Commission of Christ to make disciples and the power there unto found success beyond geographical and ethnic barriers. The birth of this church occurred not in Jerusalem but in Antioch (v. 19). And even though at first the messengers only shared the word with the Jews alone, eventually many Gentiles also came to faith in Christ. The church in Antioch became the first church reportedly to have a membership constituted by both Jewish and Greek believers (v. 21).
3. The Commission of Christ to make disciples “to the ends of the earth” and the source for its accomplishment occurred among the gathered church as the Word was taught publically (v. 26).