Following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit began inspiring select believers to write the books of the NT. Believers likely first received the book of James, followed probably by these books in this order: Matthew; 1 & 2 Thessalonians; 1 & 2 Corinthians; Galatians; Romans; Luke; Ephesians; Colossians; Philemon; and Philippians. (Galatians may have been written after James and before Matthew; the earlier date would not change the discussion in this study in any way). After these 13 books, they received the book of Acts, followed by 13 more books.
Acts thus was written after ten of Paul’s Epistles had been written. The first recipients of the book therefore in the first place would have received the book as a welcome addition to their understanding of the apostles’ doctrine and practice that they already had from the then extant books of the NT.
Second, the first recipients of Acts would have known that Luke, the author of the book, was one of Paul’s closest ministry companions. They would have had every reason to believe that Luke knew Pauline theology about as well as anyone else in their day. They would also have known that Luke had heard Paul preach the gospel probably many scores of times and would thus be the leading expert in his day about Pauline preaching of the gospel. Given these realities, the believers would have had every reason to think that Luke’s representation in Acts of Pauline practice and theology concerning evangelism and discipleship would accord fully with Paul’s own teaching in his Epistles.
Third, they would have noted that Luke wrote Acts as a sequel to his Gospel because he addressed the book explicitly to the same person, Theophilus, and referred to his former treatise that he had written to him (Acts 1:1). They therefore would have known to interpret Acts in close connection with his Gospel. Because Luke had made known to them that his Gospel provided information that they needed for them to have certainty about the things that they had been instructed (Lk. 1:1-4), they would have inferred that Luke’s writing a sequel to it would mean that Acts was providing additional key information for them. They thus would have received the two books as vital information for their doctrine and practice.
Moreover, reading the two books as a unit, they would have noted the great length of Luke-Acts. In fact, if they had made a comparison of Luke-Acts to the Pauline Epistles, they would have discovered that Luke-Acts was far longer than all the existing Pauline Epistles of their time combined. (Even after Paul wrote his remaining books, the Pastorals, such a comparison would have shown that Luke-Acts still comprised a larger section of the NT than all the Pauline Epistles combined.) Noting the explicit purpose of Luke, the fact that Acts was a sequel to it, and the great length of Luke-Acts would have led the believers to stress the importance of both books in their doctrine and practice.
Fourth, they would have noted the distinctive teaching of Acts concerning apostolic evangelism and discipleship. Having access to both Luke and Paul, had they felt the necessity to do so, they would have been able to check on the validity of what Luke wrote in Acts. These believers, therefore, would have fully embraced all of its content without hesitation as additional divine instruction of exceeding value for their doctrine and practice concerning evangelism and discipleship.
I believe that we need to receive the book of Acts as the first believers received it. Acts is inspired of God, and at least concerning its teaching about evangelism and discipleship, is profitable for doctrine for us. Our evangelism and discipleship will only be all that God intends it to be if we heed what Acts teaches us about apostolic evangelism and discipleship.
By looking at Acts through “first-century eyes,” as explained above, we will be “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:17) so that we will glorify God through our fully following the apostles in our evangelism and discipleship.