Before Beginning …
Acts continues the story that began with Luke's Gospel. What began with Jesus' life did not end on Easter. God's plan requires another act: the gospel must spread beyond Jerusalem to all the peoples of the earth (Lk 24, 47; Acts 1, 8 ). Luke recounts the deeds of the first generation of apostles by which God took the movement out of the Galilean and Judean environment of its birth. He has not provided a detailed chronicle of everything that occurred during the period between the resurrection of Jesus and Paul's arrival in Rome (ca. ad 30–62). Peter disappears from the story once Paul's mission to the Gentiles is established as God's plan. Acts ends with Paul under benign house arrest in Rome, able to preach to visitors ( 28, 17–31 ). We hear nothing of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul there under Nero, although allusions show that Luke's readers are expected to know of Paul's death ( 20, 25; 21, 13 ).
A Story of God's Salvation
Acts has an unusual ending. One of its heroes is under arrest in Rome, and we never find out what happens to him. As soon as you read Paul's letter to the Romans, you find out that he was not the first missionary to reach Rome. There was an established Christian community before he arrived ( 1, 8–15 ). Paul mentions a number of people associated with that church at the end of the letter ( 16, 1–16 ).
Luke did know about these people. He mentions the fact that two famous missionaries, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18, 2; see Rom 16, 3f ), had had to leave Italy when the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome. Roman sources tell us that riots over the name of “Chrestus” was the cause (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25). This event may have taken place as early as ad 40 (see note to Acts 18, 2 ). While Luke has not included all of the events in early Christian history that were known to his readers, he has adopted a literary genre close to what the ancients would consider an “historical monograph.” Unlike secular histories of great wars, lives of emperors, the founding of states, and the like, Luke has models for history writing in the Jewish Scriptures. Biblical history wants to show how God's plan of salvation worked out through special people and events. We use the expression “salvation history” for this type of writing.
Understanding Salvation History
How do we even know what God's plan is? You will see as you read the stories in Acts that even the disciples did not know what God intended. They had certain guideposts. The most important was what they knew about Jesus. Jesus had also told them in very general terms that a new stage in God's plan was about to unfold and that they would be an essential part of carrying it out. They also knew passages from the Old Testament that had helped them understand how Jesus' life and death fitted into God's plan. Luke makes it very clear, however, that even with these resources the disciples would not have been able to figure out God's plan in advance. God intervenes through the Holy Spirit at the critical turning points in the story.
Though God's intervention is crucial to salvation history, human beings are not manipulated like puppets. You will notice that the disciples in the story have to figure out the significance of the unusual experiences that happen to them during their mission. They ask for further assistance from God in prayer. They also discuss the events that have occurred as they prepare to take new steps in preaching the gospel. Their ability to look back on past examples of God's action helps them understand what God is doing in the present. Sometimes they might even have taken the wrong step if God had not intervened. Acts 16, 6–10 reports that the Spirit of Jesus actually caused Paul to change his travel plans in Asia Minor and then to go over to Greece. It was time for Paul to spread the word farther to the west.
The Plan of Salvation History in Acts
Perhaps you have figured out a way of understanding the end of Acts from this passage. The book employs a geographical plan for the spread of the gospel. We begin where the ministry of Jesus had ended, in Jerusalem. We move west until we come to the center of the empire that embraced the whole circle of the Mediterranean: Rome. By the end of the book, you will see that Christianity is no longer confined to the band of followers in Jerusalem. Christian churches dot the empire. Take a look at the map of Paul's missionary journeys in Acts. (See map #14.) You will notice that Paul touches the major cities along the roads and sea routes of his time.
As you read through Acts, you will also notice another feature of the early mission. The disciples preach first to Jews and then to Gentiles. Apollos is active in the synagogues (Acts 18, 26–28 ). Some of Luke's summaries refer to converts from both Jews and “Greeks,” an expression used for non‐Jews, or Gentiles, rather than for persons of Greek descent (see Acts 18, 10 ). But often the mission to non‐Jews begins only when influential people in the synagogue turn the audience against the missionaries (see Acts 13, 44–52 ). Israel has first place in the plan of salvation. She receives another chance after the rejection of Jesus when the disciples begin to preach the gospel (see 3, 11–26 ). The pattern of rejection by Jews followed by enthusiastic reception on the part of Gentiles, makes us aware of a turning point in the story of salvation. The Hebrew Scriptures and the public ministry of Jesus told of God's dealings with Israel. From now on, the story of salvation would involve all the peoples of the world. Luke's pattern of Jews first, then Gentiles, also reminds us that Christianity is indebted to Judaism. That link is not a trivial cultural accident but part of the divine plan of salvation. The Catholic church has called upon Christians to acknowledge this common heritage by rejecting all forms of anti‐Semitism. Through interreligious discussions with Jewish believers, Catholics can come to appreciate the contribution that Jewish traditions have made to their own faith in God.