David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

A teaching outline of the Acts of the Apostles

This outline is based on Richard Longenecker's commentary in the Zondervan Expositors' Bible Commentary series (volume 9, 1981)

Luke begins with an introduction (1:1-2:41) that identifies four key elements in the mission of the Church. He divides the main body of his account into six sections, or panels. Each section ends with a brief summary statement. (This is the main reason for seeing this structure as being how Luke himself organised his account, rather than something that we have imposed onto it from outside.)

Introduction: The foundations of the Christian Mission (1:1-2:41)

Longenecker identifies four foundations of the mission of the early Church:

  • the command to witness
  • The apostles
  • the Holy Spirit
  • the ascended Lord

Each of these receives Luke's attention in the introduction:

  • The command to witness, 1:6-8
  • Jesus' ascension, 1:9-11
  • The full number of the apostles - Matthias is chosen to replace Judas, 1:12-26
  • The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 2:1-41

Planning the teaching programme: either cover the introduction in two messages (chapter 1, chapter 2) or in four messages (Introduction, 1:1-11; the choosing of Matthias, 1:12-26; the arrival of the Holy Spirit, 2:1-13, and Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, 2:14-41).


Part 1: The Christian Mission to the Jewish World - focuses mainly on Peter (2:42-12:24)

Panel 1 - The Earliest Days of the Church at Jerusalem (2:42-6:7)

After the introduction, Luke uses introductory paragraphs, illustrations, and summary statements, rather than trying to tell the whole story:

So 6:7 is a summary statement for this whole panel:

So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the Faith.

Within this first panel, there are three blocks of material. Each has an introductory paragraph (2:42-47, 4:32-35, 5:12-16), illustrations, and a summary sentence.   2:42-47 is an introductory paragraph not only for the immediate block of material, but for the whole panel.


FIRST BLOCK (2:42-4:31)

2:42-47 is an introductory paragraph about the life of the early Church in Jerusalem.

Planning the teaching programme: because this is an important paragraph, it is worth giving it one message on its own.  If time does not allow this, include it with what follows.

An illustrative cycle of events around the Temple:

  • 3:1-10 - Peter heals the lame man at the Temple. This is a specific illustration of what the introductory paragraph says about the believers worshipping at the Temple; about wonders and signs being done by the apostles, and about the people holding them in awe.
  • 3:11-26 - Peter's sermon in the Temple
  • 4:1-22 - Peter and John arrested and questioned
  • 4:23-30 - The prayer of the believers

4:31 - a summary sentence:

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Planning the teaching programme: either cover 2:42-3:26 in one message, and 4:1-31 in another, or, if time allows, split each of these in two.


SECOND BLOCK (4:32-5:11)

4:32-35 - The Community of the believers - an introductory paragraph

Two illustrations:

  • 4:36-37 - a positive example - Barnabas
  • 5:1-10 - a negative example - Annanias and Sapphira

5:11 - a summary sentence:

Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events

Planning the teaching programme: cover 4:32-37 in one message and 5:1-10 in another. If time does not allow this, cover the whole block in one message.


THIRD BLOCK

5:12-16 - Healings by the Apostles - an introductory paragraph

Illustrations:

  • 5:17-42 - Growing persecution
  • 6:1-6 - The first 'deacons'

6:7 - a summary sentence

So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the Faith.

Planning the teaching programme: the most logical way to handle this block is in three messages - 5:12-16, 5:17-42, and 6:1-7. This follows the natural units of thought, but results in a very uneven distribution in terms of the lengths of the passages. How important is this?


Panel 2 - Critical Events in the Lives of Stephen, Philip and Saul / Paul (6:8-9:31)

  • 6:8- 8:1a - the killing of Stephen:
    • Stephen is arrested, 6:8-7:1
    • Stephen's defence, 7:2-53
    • Stephen's stoning, 7:54-8:1a

There is a sort of 'interim summary statement' at 8:1b-3:

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

  • 8:4-25 - Philip in Samaria
  • 8:26-40 - Philip and the Ethiopian official
  • 9:1-30 - the conversion of Saul / Paul

9:31 - Summary Statement:

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

Stephen represents a major shift, as the Good News moves out from its Aramaic-speaking Jewish roots into the Greek-speaking Jewish community. There is also a geographical development: in 1:8, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses in 'Judea and Samaria,' and in 8:1, the church is scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

The key theme of this part of Acts (and one of the key themes of the whole book) is that the Good News is moving out into the Gentile world. In 8:4-25, it comes to the Samaritans, and in 8:26-40 it comes to an Ethiopian convert to Judaism. In 9:1-30, there is the conversion of Paul, the apostle to the non-Jewish world:

This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. (9:15)

Planning the teaching programme: 6:8-8:1 is a single unit, and it makes sense to cover it in a single message, even though it is a long passage. (in terms of the flow of the book of Acts, a lot of Stephen's defence can be summarised quite briefly.) It also makes sense to treat 8:4-25, 8:26-40, and 9:1-31 in single messages, although this means handling some fairly long passages.


Panel 3 - Advances of the Gospel in Palestine-Syria (9:32-12:24)

  • Peter heals Aenas and Dorcas, 9:32-43
  • The conversion of Cornelius, 10:1-38
  • Peter defends his actions, 11:1-18
  • The church in Antioch, 11:19-30
  • Peter's escape from prison, 12:1-19
  • The death of Herod, 12:19-24

The conversion of Cornelius, and its sequel (10:1-11:18) is a key step in the Good News moving out into the non-Jewish world. Commenting on 12:1-23, Longenecker says:

With its acceptance of the conversion of 'half-Jews' in Samaria, a Gentile centurion and his friends at Caesarea, and Gentiles who were only loosely associated with the synagogue at Antioch of Syria, the Jerusalem church was straining the forms and commitments of Judaism almost to the breaking point. There was hardly any further room for expansion within the traditions of Judaism, and soon the Christian mission would break out of those limits to embrace a direct mission to the Gentile world.

Summary Statement:

But the Word of God continued to increase and spread. (12:24)

Planning the teaching programme: It makes sense to cover this section in five messages: 9:32-43, 10:1-38, 11:1-18, 11:19-30 and 12:1-24


Part II: The Christian Mission to the Gentile World - focuses mainly on Paul (12:25-28:31)

... in the first half of Acts, Luke presents the Jerusalem church's ministry as focused primarily on the Jewish world, with such outreaches as at Samaria, Caesarea, and Syrian Antioch understood as being in some ways exceptional. In effect, then, Luke has reserved for Paul the mission to the Gentiles that Jesus saw as inherent in the Servant theology of Isaiah 61. (Longenecker).

Panel 4 - Paul's first missionary journey, the Council at Jerusalem and its aftermath (12:25-16:5)

Outline:

  • 12:25-14:28 - Paul's first missionary journey
  • 15:1-35 - the Council at Jerusalem
  • 15:36-16:5 - the start of Paul's second missionary journey

Paul's first missionary journey:

  • 12:25-13:3 - Paul and Barnabas are sent out
  • 13:4-12 - on Cyprus
  • 13:13-52 - in Antioch
  • 14:1-7 - in Iconium
  • 14:8-20 - in Lystra and Derbe
  • 14:21-28 - return to Antioch

Summary Statement:

So the churches were strengthened in the Faith and grew daily in numbers. (16:5)

Planning the teaching programme: Paul's first missionary journey can be covered effectively in two messages, 12:25-13:52 and 14:1-28. The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) should be covered in a single message, and the start of Paul's second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-16:5) can also be covered in a single message.


Panel 5 - Wide Outreach through Two Missionary Journeys (16:6-19:20)

Outline:

  • 16:6-10 - God directs the outreach
  • 16:11-40 - In Philippi
  • 17:1-9 - In Thessalonica
  • 17:10-15 - In Berea
  • 17:16-34 - In Athens
  • 18:1-17 - In Corinth
  • 18:18-28 - Priscilla & Aquilla, and Apollos
  • 19:1-19 - In Ephesus

Paul in Philippi:

  • 16:11-15 - The conversion of Lydia
  • 16:16-40 - Paul and Silas in prison

Summary Statement:

In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power (19:20)

Planning the teaching programme: 16:6-40 (mainly Philippi) can be covered in one message, or split in two if time allows. 17:1-15 (Thessalonica and Berea) can be treated in one message, and 17:16-34 (Athens) in another. 18:1-28 (Corinth) can be one message, and 19:1-20 (Ephesus) one message.


Panel 6 - To Jerusalem and on to Rome (19:21-28:31)

Outline:

  • 19:21-22 - Programme statement
  • 19:23-21:16 - The journey to Jerusalem
  • 21:17-23:22 - Paul in Jerusalem
  • 23:23-26:32 - Paul in Caesarea
  • 27:1-28:15 - The journey to Rome
  • 28:16-30 - Paul in Rome

Summary Statement:

Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (28:31)

In his commentary, Longenecker points out that this 'panel' is much longer than the others - about a third of the whole book. Particularly important are: (a) Paul's 'defense' speeches, and (b) the amount of first hand narrative ('we...').

'It cannot be said that the length is related to the theological significance of the material presented. It seems rather to be related to the apologetic purpose of Luke, particularly in the five defenses, and to the eyewitness character of the narrative with its inevitable elaboration of details.' (Longenecker).

In 19:23-41, Luke's main point is probably that Paul and his team were not found guilty of doing anything illegal in Ephesus (v. 37). It is also important that some of the officials of the province were friends of Paul (v. 31). Christianity was not a subversive sect!

Planning the teaching programme: Early in the planning, you will need to decide whether to speed up, in order to cover this panel in the same kind of time frame as the others, or to carry on at the same sort of pace and accept that it will take longer. Acts 19:21-20:6 can be treated in one message (mainly on the riot at Ephesus); Acts 20:7-38 would be another. Acts 21:1-16 could be treated on its own, or it could be included with 20:7-38 (although this would make for a long reading). Acts 21:17-22:29 would make another message (or it could be split into 21:17-36 and 21:37-22:29). Central to this passage is Paul's defence in 22:1-21. Acts 22:30-23:22 can be treated as one message. Acts 23:23 - 24:27 forms one message (mainly Paul's defence before governor Felix). It would be possible to cover Acts chapters 25 and 26 in one message (mainly Paul's defence before Agrippa). Or it could be split into Acts 25:1-22 and Acts 25:23-26:32. Chapter 27 can conveniently be dealt with in one message, and chapter 28 in two (1-15; 16-30)