History. When I was a boy, it was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I associated it with musty and forgotten old books that few people cared about anymore. It didn’t help, of course, that I had history teachers who themselves were bored with the subject, or had a hard time making the human drama behind the events come alive. The study of history meant memorizing the names of people long dead, and the dates of events that seemed thoroughly disconnected from the everyday life of a middle class American kid. After all, what did these things have to do with me?
But that’s not the kind of history Luke wants to write.
When Luke tells the story of Jesus and his apostles, he writes as a historian, setting the story against the background of other historical reference points. His gospel, for example, begins with “In the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5, NRSV), not “Once upon a time.” Similarly, the story of Jesus’ birth is told in the context of the imperial census and the governorship of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-2).
But for Luke, history was not the mere recitation of names, dates, and events that I endured as a boy. Like the historians whose books make the best-seller lists today, Luke’s task was to weave events into a dramatic narrative, an overarching story that would capture the attention and imagination of his reader, Theophilus.
This is not, of course, what we would call historical fiction; Luke has to investigate and make coherent sense out of the facts and testimony he has at his disposal. Still, a certain amount of “filling in the blanks” was to be expected. Even if he hadn’t been present on the day of Pentecost, for example, he could still report what Peter said in his sermon by relying on what others had told him. By the literary standards of his time, Luke mostly had to get the gist of the sermon right for it to be considered historically reliable.
Moreover, if, as scholars have suggested, Luke’s story is more properly thought of as the history of the acts of God (or the Holy Spirit) and not just of the apostles, that may explain why important parts of the story are left out. If this is a chronicle of the apostles, for example, why is so much space devoted to just one man, Paul, who considered himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor 15:9)? And why, if Paul’s story is going to dominate, are we left wondering about his fate at the end of the book, which was surely written after Paul’s death?
One answer, again, is that this is neither the Acts of the Apostles, nor the Acts of Paul (albeit with a star-studded cast who make cameo appearances). It is the Acts of God, and Paul’s story is chosen as the best example of what God was doing as the gospel expanded from the Jews to the Gentiles. What ultimately happened to Paul is the stuff of biographies, but not of the kind of history Luke is writing.
The two-part story (Luke + Acts) is a grand one indeed. It points backward to the ancient promises of God, as can be seen first in the song of Mary (Luke 1:54-55), then the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and even the prayer of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). In Luke’s gospel, we see what God does through Jesus and the Holy Spirit in Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem. Then, in Acts, the action moves further out, permeating lands throughout the Roman Empire. And at the end, the story is left open-ended, unfinished.
One could say that Luke just ran out of papyrus. But no amount of papyrus could possibly have held the story of what God was doing, of what God continues to do.
The book of Acts ends with a description of Paul as welcoming all comers, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). One senses that Luke wants Theophilus and all his readers to insert themselves into the narrative, to continue proclaiming the gospel.
We cannot read Acts as merely the musty history of what happened to a bunch of people a long time ago. Yes, it is the story of what God was up to at a particularly time and place. But that God is still up to something, in our time, in our place.
And we are part of that story.