While we commonly refer to one new covenant book simply as “Acts,” a number of Bibles have the title “The Acts of the Apostles” printed before the opening verse. This fascinating book reveals a number of things about the apostles of Jesus and their role in the early church. In fact, in one form or another, at least one apostle is mentioned in every chapter of the book of Acts (in chapter 7, Saul is introduced before he became an apostle). What can we observe about the apostles in the book of Acts?
- Their identity – The names of the 11 apostles who remained after Jesus’ ascension are recorded in Acts 1:13. Judas Iscariot is missing from the list since he was already dead (1:16-19). Two additional men were selected as apostles: Matthias (1:26) and Saul of Tarsus/Paul (22:13-15; Romans 1:1).
- Real witnesses of Jesus – The apostles were witnesses to the Christ in Jerusalem and far-away places (1:8). Time and again, we read that they testified about Jesus’ resurrection (2:33; 3:15; 4:33; 5:30-32; 10:39-41; 22:13-15). When they “witnessed”/“testified,” they were not sharing their own personal feelings or relating how they had been converted. No, when they acted as “witnesses,” they did what authentic witnesses do – they told what they had seen and heard (22:15; John 3:32). No one living today saw or heard the Christ, observed His miracles, or saw Him after He arose from the dead. Thus, none of us is qualified to testify for Jesus.
- Their authority – It was to the apostles that the multitude of Jews on Pentecost turned when they wanted to know what they must do to be forgiven (2:36,37). The new converts continued in the apostles’ doctrine (2:42), which was the same as the Lord’s teaching. When the apostles did many signs and wonders in Jerusalem, “the people esteemed them highly” (5:12,13). Cornelius understood that Peter’s message to him had the authority of God behind it (10:33). Later, the apostles’ authority was recognized by the church at the Jerusalem discussion regarding circumcision and keeping the old law (15:2,6,22,23).
- Delegated Authority – When the church faced a potential crisis because some widows were being neglected, it was “the twelve” who took the lead in handling matters (6:1,2). However, they delegated authority in this matter in two stages. First, they appealed to “the multitude of the disciples” to choose seven brothers who met the criteria set forth by the apostles (6:2,3). Next, after those men were selected, the apostles appointed them to take care of the matter of serving the widows (6:3,6). Delegating authority to others in no way reduced or threatened the apostles’ position or authority. It simply allowed the apostles to remain focused on different matters, while at the same time giving other faithful saints an opportunity to serve, help, and grow in the process.
- Leaders in evangelism – Other members of the church were part of the evangelism “team” (8:1,4; 11:19-21), but the early chapters of the book clearly show the apostles as the ones taking the lead in spreading the gospel. It was the twelve who taught on Pentecost (2:14,37). It was Peter and John preaching in Solomon’s porch (3:11-4:2). The apostles witnessed to the Lord’s resurrection (4:33). The twelve taught daily in both public and private settings (5:41,42). An apostle carried the good news to the Gentiles (10:34-48; 15:7). Beginning with chapter thirteen, we see a heavy focus on the work of Paul. The early church was blessed immensely to see the apostles’ evangelistic example and mindset. How thankful we should be to have the record of their evangelistic fervor and perseverance.
- Laying hands on others – The apostles laid hands on the seven servants to appoint them over the business of tending to the needs of the widows (6:6). They laid hands on other disciples in order to pass on to those disciples miraculous powers from the Holy Spirit (8:14-20; 19:5,6). In other cases, they laid hands on people to heal their sickness (28:8).
- Courage to live and suffer for Jesus – First it was John and Peter taken into custody and threatened (4:1-21). Then it was all twelve of them (5:17-42). Paul joined them in suffering immensely for his preaching, including being stoned (14:19,20). Through all of their trials and persecution, the boldness of the apostles was clear to friend and foe alike (4:13; 21:13,14). Threats did not intimidate them, imprisonments did not slow them down, and beatings did not silence them. Their perseverance ought to encourage us and stir us up!
- Worthy of respect, but not worship – The lives and faithful service of the apostles cause us to admire and appreciate them. Worship them, though, we dare not. Why? Because they were flawed humans, not sinless Deity. Peter refused the worship of Cornelius (10:25,26), just as Paul later did not accept the worship of misguided souls (14:11-18).
The apostles played a unique, never-to-be-repeated role in the infancy of the church of the Christ (Ephesians 4:11). On our part, let us learn from them and strive to imitate their example as they imitated the Master (1 Corinthians 11:1).
— Roger D. Campbell