In 1863, J.W. McGarvey published his first Acts commentary. In 1892, he published what he called, “...much more than a new and improved edition of my first commentary.” He said of this book “that this is most probably the last effort that I shall make to improve a work which many of my friends have represented as the most useful of all my writings, and I now commit this labor of my hands and brain to the fate that awaits it in the form in which it will outlive me in this world.”
The book of Acts is an important New Testament book. McGarvey notes in his introduction, “Acts of Apostles is a much neglected book. It was so in the days of Chrysostom, who lived in the fifth century, and who says: ‘There are many who do not even know that this book is in existence, or who can state the name of the author.’ It is so to the present time; and thousands go to other books of the Bible to find that which is the distinctive teaching of this. The reason is to be found in the fact that before the time of Chrysostom the church had departed from its distinctive teaching, and that to this day they have not returned to it. It was a painful consciousness of this fact which led the present writer, more than thirty years ago to undertake a popular commentary on the book; and although it is not now so much neglected as formerly, it still needs to be brought more prominently before the attention of this age. The fresh attention which has been given to it within our own generation, is mainly a result of attacks made upon its credibility by rationalists; and this may prove the providential means of calling men back to that clear understanding of its teachings, and that faithful observance of them, which characterized the primitive church.”
McGarvey goes on to discuss the “Design” of the book of Acts when he says, “Undoubtedly, then, the writer’s chief design was to set forth to his readers a multitude of cases of conversion under the labors of apostles and apostolic men, so that we may know how this work, the main work for which Jesus dies and the apostles were commissioned, was accomplished. The cases recorded represent all the different grades of human society, from idolatrous peasants up to priests, proconsuls, and kings. They represent all degrees of intellectual and religious culture; all the common occupations of life; and all the countries and languages of the then known world; thus showing the adaptation of the one system of life and salvation to all the inhabitants of the earth.” It is time that we once again study the book of Acts. I am certain that like the fifth century there are many in our churches today who “do not even know that this book is in existence, or who can state the name of the author.”
Alexander Campbell said that the book of Acts is “second only to the book of the sayings and doings of the Lord himself.” He goes on to say that,
“It (the book of Acts) is the only infallible document on earth explanatory of the meaning and importance of the commission given to the Apostles with reference to the erection of a new association composed of persons of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.”
In Acts we see who and how people were won to Christ. We see conversions of people from various classes and people groups. McGarvey says, “Men are taught more successfully and moved more easily by example than by precept...”
Acts gives us the examples we need. There was a time when we were called a people of the Book. The book referred to was the Bible not some New York Times bestseller. My dad once said that you could tell how many preachers a church had recently, by how many times they had been through the book of Acts. It was not uncommon that when the new preacher got on the scene he would take the people verse by verse through Acts to make sure that important fundamentals were in place.
But such is not the case anymore. Acts is not given the prominence in our churches or in our colleges that it once had.
Whereas my generation had to take what they in the college called “six hours” in the book of Acts, today’s students do not get much more than a survey as they go through it in a three-hour course.
Then to that you add that not always do the professors use Restoration Movement commentaries in their classes and we begin to understand why some younger preachers are weak on doctrine and in practice of the bare necessities taught plainly in Acts.
I am reminded of the old old story of the preacher who taught a man how to read so that he could read the Bible. When the man started to learn to read, his only reason was so he could read the Bible. The preacher worked with the man for months, but suddenly the man stopped coming by for his reading lessons. The preacher called the man’s house and asked the man’s wife how he was doing. “He’s doing just fine,” the wife said. “Is he enjoying reading the Bible now?” asked the preacher. To which the wife replied, “O he’s clear past the Bible now and into reading the newspaper.” Many of our preachers and leaders are “clear past the Bible now and into reading other materials.”
It is time to get back to the Bible. In this new year let’s study the Bible afresh and may I suggest that we might begin with the twin volumes of Luke and Acts. Here are some suggestions to aid your study.
- Commentary on Acts by J.W. McGarvey
- New Testament History: ACTS by Gareth Reese
- Practical Commentary on Acts by Donald A. Nash
All of these books are available through the CRA.
Originally published in the Editor's Viewpoint column of the January 2005 edition of The Restoration Herald. Dr. H. Lee Mason served as Executive Director and Editor for The Christian Restoration Association from 1996 to 2019 and continued as Associate Director in 2020.