Book Review – The Message of Acts (John Stott)

This volume of the Bible Speaks Today series runs to over 400 pages (plus study guide), making it one of the longest in the series. Rather than simply providing commentary on the text, Stott seeks to show how the message of Acts applies to us today.

I have tried, therefore, to address myself with integrity to some of the main questions which the Acts raises for today’s Christians, such as the baptism of the Spirit and charismatic gifts, signs and wonders, the economic sharing of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, church discipline, the diversity of ministries, Christian conversion, racial prejudice, missionary principles, the cost of Christian unity, motives and methods in evangelism, the call to suffer for Christ, church and state, and divine providence.

His attention to contemporary issues raised by the text makes this commentary a much more vibrant read than several other commentaries I have read on Acts (TNTC by Howard Marshall, NICNT by F F Bruce, NIBC by David Williams). Stott does address issues of historicity, geography and historical background, but not to the same depth as these other commentaries, leaving him plenty of space to reflect on theology and practical application.

The group of churches I am part of, newfrontiers, tends to favour different interpretations of the book of Acts to Stott in several places. First of all, Stott is convinced that the concept of an “apostle” belongs to the first century only, arguing that there are no more apostles today, since apostles must be directly appointed by Christ. This causes him to make less emphasis on Paul’s church planting methods and relationship with those churches as a paradigm for modern day church planting and apostolic ministry.

Second, Stott is not a charismatic, and so plays down expectations that gifts of tongues and prophecy as well as signs and wonders may occur today. Third, he strongly disagrees with the Pentecostal (and Catholic) understanding of baptism in the Spirit as distinct from conversion. There are other places where his Anglicanism is noticeable, such as his plea not to abandon the “institutional church”, as well as his views on the mode of baptism.

Notwithstanding these differences of opinion, there is a wealth of profitable material to be gleaned from this commentary. He highlights some interesting parallels between Luke’s gospel and Acts, including the way Paul’s journey to Jerusalem mirrors Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. In addition, the arrest and trial narratives of both Jesus and Paul have various parallels. Another is the similarity between the Emmaeus road and Ethiopian eunuch stories. By telling these stories in parallel ways, Luke shows how the early believers (and Paul especially) walked in the steps of Jesus.

Just as the Spirit came upon Jesus to equip him for his public ministry, so now the Spirit was to come upon his people to equip them for theirs.

Though he does not take it up at every point, Stott chooses a few key places to defend the historicity of Luke’s account, such as the ascension and the relationship between the three tellings of Paul’s conversion.

Stott brings out plenty of helpful principles for evangelising and for communicating the gospel as he works through the various stories of the mission of the early church, especially in how different approaches were needed for those of different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Although in Acts 19:1-6 Stott is adamant that the Ephesian disciples were clearly not believers, his language sounds remarkably similar to David Pawson’s concept of the “normal Christian birth” consisting of distinct elements:

The norm of Christian experience, then, is a cluster of four things: repentance, faith in Jesus, water baptism and the gift of the Spirit. Though the perceived order may vary a little, the four belong together and are universal in Christian initiation.

Though Stott’s views on the Spirit will not be agreed with by those like myself from newfrontiers, we do find a lot of common ground on his comments on eldership. He sees eldership as being “local” and “plural”, with no pyramid structure, but rather a team. “Elders”, “pastors” and “overseers” are all terms referring to the same office.

This was my second reading of Stott’s commentary on Acts, and it only serves to cement its place as my favourite on this book. I would recommend consulting it to all who preach from or study the book of Acts.

Book Review – NIBC Acts (David Williams)

Brief Summary

A 455 page commentary on the book of Acts in the NIBC series, which is based on the New International Version. The focus of this commentary is on explaining more fully the meaning of the text, and providing the appropriate historical and contextual information.

The Introduction

He begins by quoting J B Phillips – the church we see in Acts is "the church as it was meant to be". The introduction is a fairly concise 17 pages, and presents Luke as the author and discusses his purposes in writing. Luke is not interested in writing a general history of the church, but in following the route of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. Williams takes up the challenge of defending Luke’s historicity in a number of places throughout the commentary, arguing that Luke writes with integrity.

The Commentary

The commentary itself does not include the biblical text, but where words or phrases are commented on they are included in bold. He does not often spend time on the Greek text, but is quite thorough in providing the historical and geographical background needed to fully appreciate what was going on.

The style of this commentary is not an exposition, so he does not often enter into discussion on the theological matters raised, but occasionally will add a comment (sometimes more freely in the footnotes).

He argues that the visit of Gal 2:1-10 is the same as that of Acts 15:1-29. He claims that Stephen believed the building of the temple to be a mistake – God had never intended for there to be a temple. On the matter of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, he sees this as a once-for-all historical event not to be repeated.


The main strength is that he is thorough but has a good sense of what material to relegate to the footnotes, which avoids the commentary becoming too longwinded.


While it is good at what it attempts to achieve (explain the meaning of the text), the real lack for me is reflection on theology. He seems reticent to enter into too many theological debates. To be fair, this may well be due to the nature of the commentary series, but with hindsight, it wasn’t the most thrilling commentary to read cover to cover (as I have found with a few other Acts commentaries!).

Why Buy It?

As I have said already, it is not the best for reading right through, but it will serve a purpose as a reference book. However, I would probably recommend the TNTC commentary on Acts by I. Howard Marshall or the NICNT commentary on Acts by F. F. Bruce ahead of it. My favourite Acts commentary remains John Stott’s "The Message of Acts", which has a much stronger emphasis on application (even though I don’t agree with all his conclusions). It might also be worth checking out the recently released Revised Expositor’s Commentary on Acts by Richard Longenecker and Darrell Bock’s new commentary on Acts.

Book Review – Acts (I Howard Marshall)

The Tyndale Commentary series is written to “help the non-technical reader understand his Bible better”. The introduction presents Acts as a “sacred history” – an account of the fulfilmnent of Scripture – and volume 2 in Luke’s story of Christian beginnings. Some emphases he notes include a concern with the opposition that surrounds the spread of the gospel, and Christianity as the true Judaism.

One of Marshall’s chief interests is to defend the historicity of the book of Acts against what he views as unjustified skepticism, particularly from Haenchen. Hardly an episode goes by where he doesn’t note the criticisms that have been levelled at it, and attempts to provide a response. He resists the temptation to provide overly neat solutions to all problems though, preferring often to simply demonstrate that the events as described are not as unlikely as some have found them.

Despite his concern with historicity, the commentary does not get bogged down in incidental historical and geographical details as some more technical commentaries on Acts can tend to do. Marshall is concerned also to comment on theological matters, but he sticks strictly to what is directly discussed, rather than considering some of the extrapolated doctrines and practises that Christians have found in the book.

Each section is given a brief overview where Marshall retells the story of what happens in his own words, and indicates any particular issues that will be dealt with in the commentary. Then it is examined verse by verse (or couple of verses) with each of these subsections occupying a paragraph or two. His writing style is good, and the issues he chooses to raise are generally ones that are of interest to evangelical readers, so he maintains the reader’s interest throughout.

One theological issue that will be of interest to many readers early on in the book is how he handles the issue of baptism in the Spirit. He unflinchingly sees the baptism as always taking place at conversion, and thus sees extraordinary circumstances where it happens otherwise (e.g. Samaritans in Acts 8 to show solidarity; Ephesians in Acts 15 are not Christians in the first place). He does not interact at all with the view that says these are distinct but normally coincident experiences.

He argues that Acts 11 (rather than 15) and Galatians 2 describe the same incident. As the focus of Acts shifts more to Paul, Marshall notes how Luke demonstrates parallels between the lives of Jesus and Paul, although he is quick to dismiss any claims that Luke fabricated incidents and details to create this similarity. The many speeches in Acts are not to be understood as quotes verbatim, but rather Luke’s faithful retelling of the essence of what was or would have been said in the situation. At the end of the book, Marshall lists all the options for why we are not told what happens next, but prefers not to make a judgement on which is to be preferred.

Despite being written back in 1980, this commentary is still one of the most frequently recommended commentaries on Acts, and deservedly so. Its straightforward approach will help anyone preparing Bible studies or sermons to get clear in their minds what was happening, as well as seeing Luke’s purposes behind the way the story is told. The purpose of the Tyndale series is not to focus on application, and Marshall does not do so. At 430 pages with very few footnotes, it is just about a manageable length to read cover to cover, but any longer would push it into the realm of a reference book. Those who are not interested in hearing Acts defended historically might save themselves some time by reading a commentary with a more devotional outlook, but this remains a valuable tool to all students of the Word who want to understand it better so that they may apply it better.

Book Review – The New International Commentary on Acts (F F Bruce)

The book of Acts is something of a hermeneutical minefield, due to the many different ideas of how to apply the various practices and experiences of the early church and apostles. Bruce mainly avoids comment on these issues, preferring to simply help us get to the bottom of what the text is saying, and showing how the author achieves his purpose of demonstrating that Christianity was not an illegal or subversive religion. He provides excellent background information on the historical, geographical and political features that provide the setting for the book of Acts. It is also a useful source of information for correlating the biographical information in the epistles with Luke’s account.

Although Bruce is willing to discuss matters of theology, he nowhere attempts to develop a Lukan pneumatology or ecclesiology which is probably a good thing, given how controversial these would prove to be (and in any case it is doubtful that Luke expected his writing to be used in that way). His comments are also fairly terse in passages where a less technical commentary might offer some more devotional thoughts. For example, while Bruce provides background details on all the people and places named in Acts 20:4, he only comments briefly on Paul’s great statement in Acts 20:24. Having said that, where he does permit himself briefly to expound a text, his insights are often profound. I actually found the final section of the commentary to be the most enjoyable, as Bruce attacks some of the petty criticisms of Paul from other commentators who judge him for some of his statements during the trial narratives.

It is in fact often when he is engaging with other commentators that the best of Bruce comes out. He is never overt about his personal faith or direct with the moral or theological lessons he draws out, but as he takes down other arguments he leaves the reader to fill in the blanks. He states that Paul is Luke’s hero, and in places hints that the same could be said of himself.

The NICNT commentaries do a good job of keeping secondary issues out of the main text by making extensive use of footnotes and this volume is no exception. Bruce provides his own translation of Acts, and each section of text is followed with a brief introduction before the comments which are usually on one or two verses at a time. This format means that people studying individual sections can get a good sense of context. As with other NICNT commentaries, the introduction is comprehensive without being long-winded. Bruce tentatively accepts Luke as the author but does not presume to suggest his own date (other than saying it is a first century composition), preferring to summarise the options.

Those who need some quick points of application for sermons or Bible study groups may find that this commentary is too “academic” for their liking. However, for those wanting to wrestle with the text themselves, it gives the firm footing of properly understanding the historical context that is necessary before trying to extrapolate principles for today’s Christians.