Acts – Prescriptive or Descriptive

Acts 1.1 reads like this:

“I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach…”


The former account is the Gospel according to Luke, and Acts picks up the narrative. Can you imagine if Acts wasn’t in your Bible, and things just stopped in Luke 24.53? There would be no link from the resurrection to the fledgling church communities we see in later books of the Bible. How did the Gospel message get to Ephesus, Corinth, and Galatia? Who are Timothy and Titus? How, given the world at the time, did the message of one man go from provincial and cultural hotbed to the most important city in the known world? Acts is the link between the Gospels and the letters, Acts is the beginning of the movement. 

One often encountered question with Luke’s second scroll, so to speak, is whether it’s there for us to follow impeccably (and is therefore prescriptive) or whether it’s there to tell us what happened (and is therefore descriptive). 

Should we seek to replicate everything we see in Acts as normal for the church? Is Acts a record of what happened and something we can learn from and apply to our own situations? Is Acts, to use the words of Cicero, the rule or the exception that proves the rule?

Acts is a remarkably accurate book, historically, and as A.N. Sherwin-White wrote

“The historical framework is exact. In terms of time and place the details are precise and correct… As documents these narratives belong to the same historical series as the record of provincial and imperial trials in epigraphical and literary sources of the first and early second centuries AD…For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted”.

So, it’s a real account of real people in a real place at a real point in time. However, the question remains: do we seek to replicate and integrate Acts to the last iota, or, do we see what is going on, seek to understand what is going on, and apply that to our own lives, today?

As we move through Acts, day by day, this is what we will seek to know. Simply, is Acts prescriptive or descriptive? Rules or principles? Directive or informative?

Whatever conclusion we come to as we walk through this book we see, right from the very first sentence, what is going to be central to all that we learn:

“I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen”.

(Acts 1.1-2, NET, emphasis added

Everything we see and read in Acts will be, I believe, able to be brought back to this, all that Jesus began to do and teach…All that Jesus said and taught lit the fuse, Acts is the firework exploding, and day by day we will seek to examine the explosion! 

Published by James Travis

Pastor of Saar Fellowship in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Married to Robyn and Dad to our two boys.

17 thoughts on “Acts – Prescriptive or Descriptive

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