by Ron Merryman, Copyright, 1999

The events of Acts occur at a time when God’s dealings with mankind were undergoing a major shift. From the communication-medium of one nation (Israel), God was shifting to the communication-medium of one Body (The Church); from one ethnic people (Jews) to a universal-regenerated-people whose ethnic heritage was inconsequential; from a specialized, restricted priesthood (Levites) to a universal priesthood of all believers. A new dispensation was at hand: the Church Age.

Acts records this shift: it is clearly transitional. Many Bible scholars would agree, though few document the transition.

My purpose in this paper is to demonstrate this transitional essence by pointing out four key characteristics of the Book. Without a clear understanding of this issue, a Christian or a church or even a movement (witness the Charismatics) is very apt to establish teaching from its pages without comparing and contrasting what Paul delineates in his doctrinal epistles.

I. Acts as the Historical Sequel to the Gospels

Demonstrates Its Transitional Nature

First of all, Acts is the historical sequel to the Gospels. As such, it completes the historical narrative of the New Testament and provides the background for other New Testament books. Acts takes us historically from the ascension of Jesus Christ to the first imprisonment of Paul in Rome. The Book covers a period of approximately thirty years (see Figure 1).

This historical transition includes the development of the early church in Jerusalem and its spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Acts opens with the beginning of the church in Jerusalem, made up of Jewish believers, and led by Peter and the Eleven; Acts ends with churches scattered throughout the Empire, made-up mainly of Gentile believers, and led chiefly by Paul and his team. To miss the historical nature of the Book of Acts is to miss its transitional character.

II. The Place of Acts in the N.T. Canon Illustrates

the Transitional Nature of Its Message

Secondly, were Acts omitted from the canon, the New Testament would lose its historical continuity. This argument is closely related to my first, but takes it a step farther.

Think on this: What if there were no Book of Acts in the New Testament? What if upon completing John’s Gospel, you were immediately confronted with the opening words of Romans, "Paul…an apostle…to all that be in Rome…(1:1,7)?" Questions that you could not answer would plague your mind. "Who is Paul?" "What is an Apostle?" "Who are these Believers in Rome"? "What is a ‘church’?" No Book of Acts, no answer to these questions!

Acts clearly serves as the historical bridge that takes us from the Gospels (and their unique message) to Romans and the Pauline letters (and Paul’s unique message). See Figure 2.

III. Acts Demonstrates a Transition in the Messages of the New Testament

Thirdly, Acts clearly demonstrates the transition between the kingdom message, the emphasis of the Gospels, and the Church message, the emphasis of the Pauline Epistles.

Three shifts are involved in this transition:

A. From a POLITICAL-KINGDOM emphasis to a CHURCH-BODY-LIFE emphasis; that is, a shift in focus or concern.

When Acts opens, the disciples (Jewish believers) were very concerned that the triumphant kingdom of Messiah, predicted everywhere in the O.T. prophets, be established. Acts 1:6 records, "When they therefore were come together, they asked (lit. "kept asking," imperfect tense) of him, saying, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?’ "

When Acts ends, the Apostle Paul, under house arrest in Rome, is teaching all things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ including all of his doctrine on the Church. Obviously, he had also to explain the nature of the Kingdom of God from present and future perspectives (Acts 28:31). Figure 3 illustrates the shift from a political kingdom emphasis to a church-body-life emphasis.  

B. From a Jewish-Believer exclusiveness (synagogue-type-fellowship) to a Jew-Gentile-Believer-As-One inclusiveness (church-type-fellowship); that is, a shift in the nature of the assembly.           


Though the church started in Acts 2 with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Jewish believers including Peter and the Eleven were not cognizant of its nature. They perceived the church as a "qahal" (Hb. lhq), an assembly of Jews; consequently, they reached out only to Jews or to proselytes to Judaism (compare 8:4 and 11:19).

The Church as the Body of Christ in which there exists no ethnic advantage is a revelation that God gave initially to Paul, then to others (Ephesians 3:1-6). Transition to this mentality was very slow for the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem.

C. From Old Testament Law emphasis (with minimum grace) to New Testament truth emphasis            (with maximal grace); that is, a shift in administrational emphasis.

John tells us that "the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). There obviously was grace under the administration of the Law, but grace hard to be seen. Under God’s dispensation of the Church, grace is seen maximally. Law blesses the good; grace saves the bad. Law is connected with works; grace is connected with Christ and faith. Law rewards works, hence blessings earned; grace blesses without works, hence is a free gift.

My point is this: Acts emphatically demonstrates through its progressive emphases at least three shifts in focus or concern that result in maximal manifestation of God’s grace in His Church.


  1. That Acts is Descriptive, Not Prescriptive, Is Illustrative of Its Transitional Nature

Fourthly, Acts is descriptive (historically), not prescriptive (didactically). It tells what the early church did, not necessarily what we are to do. It tells what they experienced, not necessarily what we are to experience.

Let me point out two illustrations of this truth.

A. Acts 4:32-37 records the efforts of the early church to voluntarily give-up private property and practice communal living. Is this didactic? Is this telling us that all Christians should follow suit? Answer: no, because Acts describes what the early church did, not necessarily what we are to do. Charismatics base doctrine on the experiences in Acts: to be consistent, they should be practicing voluntary communism!

B. Nowhere is the transitional nature of Acts more evident than in the four different means of the giving of the Holy Spirit recorded in its pages. I have listed these in Figure 4 (see below).

Figure 4: The Giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts

Giving of Holy Spirit (When)



Acts 2

After they believed

Holy Spirit fell on them on day of Pentecost

Spoke in tongues

Acts 8

After they believed

Laying on of hands by Peter & John


Acts 10

The moment they believed

Holy Spirit fell on them (mid-message)

Spoke in tongues

Acts 19

At the time of believing

Laying on of hands by Paul

Spoke in tongues


If the Book of Acts is to be normative for today, which of the above is to be the norm? Since they all differ, obviously there is no norm. These are not recorded so that other believers would seek these experiences: Luke is simply telling us what happened, not what we should make or seek to happen.

Many of the experiences in Acts were unique to its time. They are not to be sought by other believers in the Church Age.

It is precisely here that the emphasis as well as the major doctrine of the charismatic movement completely breaks down. I am referring to the Doctrine of Subsequence, the teaching that the baptism or fullness of the Holy Spirit is an experience that is subsequent to one’s salvation and that is to be earnestly sought. The only passages charismatics can use to support this spurious doctrine are found in Acts. But note in Figure 4 that the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Ch. 2) and to the Samaritan believers (Ch. 8) was subsequent to salvation; but it was not earnestly sought in either case. The record of the experience of Cornelius and his house (Ch. 10) also completely disproves the doctrine of subsequence. The moment these believed, they were filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues without any seeking on their part! The filling was not subsequent to their salvation!  They were not eagerly seeking the filling! The fact is that no one in Acts eagerly sought the Holy Spirit. Charismatics fail to realize the transitional nature of Acts and further compound their error by ignoring the detail of its text!


Acts is transitory in nature. It moves the reader from the Kingdom message of the Gospels to the Church message of the Pauline epistles. It moves the reader historically from the founding of the Church in Jerusalem to its establishment throughout the Roman Empire. It records the shift from the myopic narrowness of the early Jewish Christians to the all embracing view of the Body of Christ where there is no Jew nor Gentile, no bond nor free, no male nor female.

One should not seek to build doctrine from its pages unless the doctrine is clearly expressed elsewhere. The only teachings in Acts that are normative for the church are those that are explicitly taught in other New Testament epistles. To miss the transitional nature of Acts is to miss its inherent message.

IN THE NEXT ISSUE OF THE GRACE FAMILY JOURNAL: What of the multiple and varied God-given revelations in Acts: were these to be normative for the Church? How do we know? ˘


Note: Some of the figures in this article can only be viewed through a hardcopy of this article.


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