The book of Acts is a fascinating study. It is the only inspired account of the birth of the church and early church history. Yet like all of inspired Scripture, it goes beyond mere history. While some are quick to oversimplify their categorization of New Testament genre into stories of Jesus (gospels), instructions for the church (epistle) and history of the early church (Acts), plus the apparently troublesome apocalyptic book of Revelation (their view, not mine), this is too simplistic.
Acts, for example, is an inspired historical document, and it is also inspired theological writing. We do Acts (and ourselves) a disservice if we too quickly dismiss Acts as being non-normative or applicable for the contemporary church. Equally, we get into confusion if we too quickly apply every element we choose and claim it is normative for all situations (most who over-quickly apply Acts tend to be selective in this approach). We need to carefully consider the book of Acts with appropriate hermeneutical skill and submit ourselves to appropriate application of the whole text.
In Acts we find historical narrative accounts, and we find recorded speeches (or better, inspired summaries of speeches). In fact, Walter Liefeld helpfully points out that while quoted speech typically serves in ancient literature as introductory to action, in Acts the speeches are the action. In my spare moments lately I’ve been enjoying a personal study of the speeches of Acts. Apparently (I rely on the arithmetic of others), in the roughly 1000 verses of Acts, roughly 300-365 verses consist of speech material. Some of this is preaching, some is leadership speech, some is legal speech (not mutually exclusive categories).
Ben Witherington asks why Luke includes proportionately so much more speech material in his history than ancient writers like Herodotus, Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, or Thucydides, for example? His answer is worth considering:
“This is because Luke is chronicling a historical movement that was carried forward in the main by evangelistic preaching. This distinguishes his work from that of these other historians who are more interested in the macrohistorical events involving wars, political maneuvering, and the like.”
Before we even give ourselves to consideration of appropriate hermeneutical principles for interpreting and applying the book of Acts; before we engage in rhetorical analysis of the speech material; or before we enter the debate about whether the speeches are accurate representation of the original speaker, or Lukan theology placed in their mouths, etc. Before any of that engages our attention, let’s not miss the obvious. The history of the early church is carried forward by the planned and impromptu speech of preachers. Much of it is evangelistic, some is primarily to believers, some is perhaps opportunistic. But this much is clear – the history of the church, in the early years, down through the years, and in these years, is carried forward in the preaching of those to whom God gives opportunity. Let’s allow that truth to soak into our souls, fire our hearts and ignite our ministries!