It started out as the second volume of Luke’s 2 volume account of Christian origins, but as the New Testament adopted the arrangement that we know today, it got separated from volume 1 – the third gospel.
The title The Acts of the Apostles seems to date back to a point in the second century and while it is a fair enough title, it’s worth considering a couple of other possibilities.
One suggestion (favoured, for example, by Arthur T Pierson) is that we think of it as The Acts of the Holy Spirit. And you cannot really have a book of Acts without the Holy Spirit. Nothing started until he was powerfully poured out on Pentecost, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He was the source of the early disciples’ power and his fulness was accompanied by a boldness in their witness and preaching. Pierson writes:
Church of Christ! The records of these acts of the Holy Ghost have never reached completeness. This is the one book which has no proper close, because it waits for new chapters to be added so fast and so far as the people of God shall reinstate the blessed Spirit in his holy seat of control.
But what about the regular title with its venerable tradition of some 18 centuries? When we read Acts are we not reading the acts of the apostles? Apostles like Peter and John who take the lead in the early chapters. And like Paul who emerges following his dramatic conversion in chapter 9 for his story to dominate the second half of the book.
But I think there is a third possibility which arises from Luke’s opening verses:
In the first book… I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…
The intriguing implication of that phrase is that the contrast between Luke volume 1 and Luke volume 2 is not simply between what Jesus did (in the gospel) and what the church/apostles did (in Acts) but is actually between what Jesus began to do directly while physically present (in the gospel) and what Jesus continued to do indirectly (in Acts) through the ministry of his apostles and his church as they went out from Jerusalem to be his witnesses.
But why do we have to pick and choose?
It may not be particularly concise or snappy in terms of titles, but how about reading Acts like this:
The ongoing acts of the Lord Jesus, which he did through the ministry and witness of his disciples, as they were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Any thoughts? How might a change in the title change the way we read the book? How would it affect our understanding of the book’s implications for the 21st century church?