ABSTRACT: Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles teach us not only what to believe about Jesus, but also how to read the whole Bible like Jesus did. Having learned from the risen Jesus himself how “the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” all speak of him (Luke 24:44), the apostles learned to see Christ and preach Christ from the whole Old Testament. Peter and Paul in particular display what a true Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament looks like in practice, showing in their sermons how all the Scriptures speak of Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and global mission. By giving careful attention to Acts 2, Acts 13, and elsewhere, Christians today can grow in seeing the Old Testament through the apostles’ eyes.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Brian Tabb, academic dean and professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to show how Acts teaches us to read the whole Bible.
The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), Luke tells us. This summary statement prompts us to reflect on what the apostles taught and why they emphasized what they did. My claim is that the apostles (1) instructed the early church about what to believe about Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior and Lord of all, and (2) modeled how to read the Scriptures as Jesus taught them.
The “task of biblical theology,” according to James Hamilton, is to understand and embrace the biblical writers’ “interpretive perspective” as “both valid and normative.”1 Said another way, the apostles teach us what to believe and teach us how to read the Bible. To understand how and why the apostles read the Scriptures in the book of Acts, we begin with their teacher, the Lord Jesus. Let’s turn to Luke 24, where the risen Christ offers a master class in biblical hermeneutics.
Luke 24: Christ’s Master Class
There are many lessons we could draw from Luke 24, which offers the most extensive account of the risen Lord Jesus’s teaching in the New Testament.2 Here I focus on three key points that lay the groundwork for the apostles’ preaching in Acts.
First, Christ gives a concise yet comprehensive course on understanding the entire Old Testament. He does not quote specific verses “written” in sacred Scripture in this chapter (as he does many times in the Gospels), but he makes claims about the teaching of the whole Bible:
“all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25)
“Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27)
“all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27)
“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44)
“the Scriptures” (Luke 24:32, 45)
“it is written” (Luke 24:46)
Christ’s reference to “Moses and all the Prophets” is a variation of the common summary for the old-covenant Scriptures, “the Law and the Prophets.”3 “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” is the New Testament’s most comprehensive reference to the three major units of the Hebrew canon — Law, Prophets, and Writings — with the Psalms as the largest, most cited book of the Writings.4 Note the repeated stress on “all” and “everything” in verses 25, 27, and 44 — Christ makes a sweeping claim that whole Bible, from beginning to end, is about him.
Second, the Lord’s biblical exposition focuses on his suffering, his resurrection on the third day, and the global mission in his name. We see this emphasis in Luke 24:46–47: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Verse 46 focuses on Christ’s saving work through the cross and empty tomb, while verse 47 prepares for the spreading work to be carried out by his witnesses.
Third, the risen Lord supplies spiritual sight and spiritual power to his people, so that they can understand God’s word and carry out Christ’s mission. The Gospels offer a checkered assessment of Jesus’s disciples. Positively, they leave vocations and possessions to follow him, they preach good news, and they cast out demons. Yet they also misunderstand Jesus’s teaching and plans — especially his calling to suffer and die. They are fearful in the storm, anxious about their next meal, competitive with one another, and sleepy when called to pray. Judas betrays his Teacher, the others run away when Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him three times.
In Luke 24, Christ “opens” God’s word to the disciples and also opens their minds, giving them clarity about who he is and what the Scriptures reveal as well as the capacity to comprehend (Luke 24:31, 32, 45). He also announces his plan to send “the promise of my Father” to clothe his witnesses with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), giving them courage to carry out his mission. Jesus reiterates this point in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Christ keeps his promise by pouring out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, ushering in “the last days” spoken of by the prophets and bringing salvation for all who call on the Lord’s name (Acts 2:16–21).5
Foundational Convictions of the Apostles
Luke 24 previews the mission and message of Christ’s followers, who preach near and far with Spirit-given courage and Christ-centered clarity. Their teaching reflects (1) their relationship with Jesus, (2) their empowerment through the Holy Spirit, and (3) their belief that the Scriptures are completely truthful and consummately fulfilled by Jesus, the longed-for Messiah and Lord of all.
Acts 4 illustrates these points well.6 Peter and John heal a lame man in the temple precincts and proclaim salvation in Jesus’s name, prompting outrage and opposition from the Jewish council — the same group that previously tried and condemned Jesus. To this hostile assembly, Peter boldly asserts that Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone,” and thus salvation is available only through Christ’s name (Acts 4:11–12). The Jewish leaders’ response is striking: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 NIV).
These verses explain that the apostles’ clarity and courage come from their relationship with Jesus. They exhibit “boldness” (ESV) or “courage” (NIV) as they openly bear witness to their Lord even when experiencing resistance or persecution. These men aren’t just naturally gifted, charismatic leaders; they experience supernatural boldness as they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8). The disciples lack the formal biblical education of the Jewish scribes,7 but they were schooled by Jesus, the Master Teacher. Note that Peter’s claim that Jesus is “the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11) alludes to Psalm 118:22 — the very passage Christ himself cites in Luke 20:17 to explain the parable of the wicked tenants. The chief priests, scribes, and elders who questioned Jesus’s authority in Luke 20:1–2 interrogate his disciples in Acts 4:5. Peter identifies these opponents as “the builders” of Psalm 118:22, who have rejected Jesus — “the stone” whom God chose as “the cornerstone.” Throughout the book of Acts, Jesus’s witnesses demonstrate this same Spirit-given courage and Christ-taught clarity as they interpret and apply the Scriptures.
The apostles’ teaching and practice shows that they believed that the Scriptures were God’s true and authoritative word that Christ has fulfilled. Acts 4:24–28 illustrates this foundational conviction. The gathered believers cite the opening verses of Psalm 2:1–2 as the words of the sovereign Creator God spoken through David, by the Holy Spirit. They refer to the psalm’s human author, David, as “our father,” reflecting their belief that the sacred writings are relevant to them as God’s true people. The church appeals to the Spirit’s divine agency because they know that these inspired words reveal God’s wise purposes. They also cite this psalm to explain why Jews and Gentiles set themselves against Christ and his people. They recognize that this conspiracy against the Lord Jesus follows the script of the Scriptures and thus fulfills God’s secret plans. This conviction that God has spoken in the Scriptures and fulfilled his purposes in Christ emboldens his people to endure suffering and keep speaking with clarity and courage (Acts 4:31).
How the Apostles Teach Us to Read the Whole Bible
In Acts, the Spirit-empowered witnesses preach a message of salvation through Christ alone, while following Christ’s model of biblical exposition. While Luke’s second book is sometimes called “the Acts of the Apostles,” the book is not fundamentally about the disciples’ great deeds. Acts 1:1 explains that the Gospel of Luke recounts “all that Jesus began to do and teach” until his ascension, which signals that Luke’s second volume (Acts) is about what the risen Lord continues to do and teach after his ascension into heaven. Christ is not absent or inactive but carries out his work “through his people, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of God’s purposes.”8
As Christ’s witnesses carry out his mission to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), they also expound the Scriptures just as their Lord taught them in Luke 24. In Acts 26:22–23, for example, Paul reflects his Lord’s emphases on the fulfillment of Law and Prophets, the necessity of Christ’s suffering and resurrection, and the mission to the nations. While Jesus anticipates the outreach to the nations in Luke 24:47, Paul unpacks the biblical hope that the Messiah “would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” as he himself has been carrying out this mission, instructing the Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20).
Peter and Paul are the two most prominent preachers in Acts, so let’s examine their first recorded sermons (in chapters 2 and 13) to see how they interpret the Law, Prophets, and Writings with a particular focus on Christ’s suffering and resurrection and the global mission in his name.
Lord and Christ: Peter’s Message in Acts 2
The risen Lord promises to send the Spirit to empower his people (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8), and Luke records the dramatic fulfillment of this promise in Acts 2:1–4, when the gathered disciples are “all filled with the Holy Spirit” and speak in other tongues on the day of Pentecost. In response to the questions and confusion of the onlookers (Acts 2:12–13), Peter announces that Old Testament prophecy has been fulfilled. The apostle proves from the Scriptures that Jesus is the promised Messiah and risen Lord, that he has sent the Spirit as he promised, and that he saves everyone who calls on his name (Acts 2:14–36). Peter’s sermon focuses on three key passages from the Prophets and the Psalms.
First, he appeals to “what was uttered through the prophet Joel” to explain the events of Pentecost (Acts 2:16). The coming of the Holy Spirit is a crucial development in the biblical story line, fulfilling ancient prophecy and demonstrating that “the last days” have dawned (Acts 2:17). The Spirit’s work in the Old Testament focuses on select individuals, such as prophets, but Joel depicts a new era in which all God’s people would experience the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Joel’s prophecy recalls Moses’s words in Numbers 11:29: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” This ancient hope is realized on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh” — men and women, young and old. The Spirit’s coming empowers Christ’s witnesses for their mission to the nations, and Acts 2:5–11 offers a preview of this global mission as people “from every nation under heaven” hear good news in their own languages.9
Next, Peter asserts that death could not keep hold of the risen Christ.10 He supports this claim in Acts 2:25–28 by appealing to what “David says concerning him” in Psalm 16:8–11:
I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.
Peter declares that David, the author of this psalm, “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:31). Many interpreters treat Psalm 16 as a predictive prophecy of the Messiah. However, the repeated first-person language throughout the psalm — “I,” “me,” and “my” — more likely reflect David’s own confidence before God. Thus, I understand Peter’s appeal to Psalm 16 as an example of what Hamilton calls “promise-shaped typology,”11 the fulfillment of a biblical pattern. In this psalm, the king takes refuge in God and trusts in God’s character and faithfulness in the face of adversity and mortal peril. Christ goes even further, as he is kept through death and raised to unending life. Moreover, the Lord’s promise to give the king an enduring house in 2 Samuel 7 shapes how David expresses his faith in God and his expectations for the future in Psalm 16. Psalm 132:11 interprets the Lord’s covenant promise to David as “a sure oath from which he will not turn back,” which explains Peter’s appeal to God’s “oath” in Acts 2:30. The resurrection of David’s greater Son secures the hope of everlasting joy and life after death for David and all believers who take refuge in his Lord.
Finally, the apostle quotes David’s words in Psalm 110:1 to explain where Jesus is now and who he is as the seated Lord. Peter asserts that Jesus has “poured out” the Spirit after being exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33). This is precisely what Jesus promised in Luke 24:49 and what God himself promised to do in Joel 2:28–29 (cited in Acts 2:17–18). Thus, the exalted Christ is responsible for the miraculous events that the gathered crowd sees and hears. Peter then supports this stunning claim by appealing to Scripture (Acts 2:34–35). David himself did not ascend to heaven but says,
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The apostle’s point is crystal clear for those who recall that Jesus quotes the same psalm in Luke 20:41–44. Christ poses a riddle: How does David call his messianic son “Lord”? Peter clarifies that David’s Lord, not David himself, sits at God’s side. The command “sit at my right hand” repeats Peter’s claim that Christ has been “exalted at the right hand of God,” while also recalling the earlier quotation of Psalm 16:8 (“he is at my right hand”). Once Peter has established Jesus’s heavenly location (at God’s side) and explained his divine activity (pouring out God’s Spirit), he concludes, “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). God has thus kept his sworn promise to establish the throne of David’s descendant (Acts 2:30). The risen and exalted Lord Jesus rules over all nations, has poured out the Spirit in the last days, and now saves everyone who calls on his name (Acts 2:21).
Light to the Nations: Paul’s Teaching in Acts 13
After the Holy Spirit directs the church in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Paul for a new work (Acts 13:2–3), the missionaries travel to Antioch in Pisidia, where Paul offers a “word of exhortation” in the synagogue (Acts 13:15 NIV).12 In his lengthiest recorded sermon in the book (Acts 13:16–41), Paul summarizes God’s past dealings with Israel, proclaims that Jesus is the promised Savior from David’s stock, and warns his hearers not to disregard this message of salvation. The missionaries then explain their outreach to the Gentiles by appealing to Isaiah (Acts 13:46–47).
Paul offers a sweeping survey of “the Law and the Prophets” that closely parallels 2 Samuel 7:6–16. In Acts 13:17–23, he rehearses the election of the patriarchs (Genesis), Israel’s rescue from Egypt (Exodus), their wilderness wanderings (Numbers), their conquest of Canaan (Joshua), their rule by the judges (Judges), the selection and removal of Saul (1 Samuel), and God’s choice of David as king and covenant promises to David’s offspring (1–2 Samuel). In Acts 13:32–37, Paul explains that God has kept his promises to the patriarchs by raising Jesus from the dead, offering biblical support from Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16:10.
Psalm 2:7 provides clear biblical support for Christ’s resurrection. Brandon Crowe rightly calls the resurrection “the logical key” to Paul’s entire speech.13 The phrase “by raising Jesus” in Acts 13:33 parallels references to the resurrection in the immediate context:
“God raised him from the dead” (v. 30).
“He raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (v. 34).
“He whom God raised up did not see corruption” (v. 37).
The resurrection does not make Jesus God’s Son; it powerfully confirms his divine sonship (see Romans 1:4) and also marks a new era of the eternal Son’s reign as the enthroned king.14 The risen Son reigns at God’s right hand (Acts 2:30, 33–35), and he extends salvation and forgiveness to those who call on his name (13:26, 38). Paul cites Psalm 2:7 as biblical proof for the resurrection, and it is significant that Psalm 2:8 promises “the nations” and “the ends of the earth” as the royal Son’s inheritance and possession. The missionaries make this global expectation explicit in Acts 13:46–47, when they announce their turn to the Gentiles.
Paul also quotes Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10 in Acts 13:34–37 as additional support for Christ’s resurrection. The brief reference to Psalm 16 parallels Peter’s extended argument on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:24–32, discussed earlier). The “holy and sure blessings of David” in Isaiah 55:3 recall the Lord’s covenant promise to establish the throne of David’s son in 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Christ has fulfilled this promise through his resurrection and now extends blessings to God’s people through his heavenly reign.
Paul and Barnabas face strong opposition from Jewish leaders when they return to teach the following week, and the missionaries respond with biblical clarity and courage in Acts 13:46–47:
It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
They directly quote Isaiah 49:6, which summarizes the mission of the Lord’s chosen Servant to restore Israel and extend saving light to the nations. In what sense did “the Lord” command the missionaries to turn to the Gentiles? Isaiah 49:6 records the Lord God’s commission to his Servant. In Luke 2:32, Simeon rightly identifies the Christ child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, / and for glory to your people Israel,” reflecting the hope of Isaiah 49:6. In Acts 1:8, the risen Lord Jesus commissions his witnesses “to the end of the earth,” reflecting the precise wording of Isaiah’s Servant prophecy. The Lord Jesus then reveals himself to Paul and calls this zealous persecutor to be his chosen servant sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 26:16–18). Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy is God’s biblical message, which the Lord Jesus fulfills and then applies to his disciples as they share in his Servant mission. Paul and Barnabas’s quotation of Isaiah 49 clarifies that the outreach to the Gentiles is not simply a backup plan because of Jewish opposition. Rather, they turn to the Gentiles as an outworking of God’s revealed purposes for his Servant Jesus and his servant people.
Conclusion: Lord, Teach Us to Read!
Jesus and his apostles offer God’s people sound teaching and faithful guidance for understanding and applying the whole Bible. The Master Teacher explains “the things concerning himself” in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27), and his disciples do the same in the book of Acts. While we cannot claim the same level of certainty in our interpretations as the inspired biblical authors, we can and should seek to embrace their foundational beliefs about the Scriptures’ total truthfulness, binding authority, and comprehensive fulfillment through Christ in the last days. Jesus and his witnesses teach the Bible with a focus on the Messiah’s suffering, his resurrection on the third day, and the mission in his name to all nations. Luke 24 and the apostles’ teaching in Acts can enlighten our own Bible reading and encourage us to participate in the Servant’s mission to the end of the earth until his return.
James M. Hamilton Jr., Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns; How Old Testament Expectations Are Fulfilled in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 27–28. ↩
For further treatment of Luke 24, see Brian J. Tabb, After Emmaus: How the Church Fulfills the Mission of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 17–30. ↩
Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; Romans 3:21. ↩
This threefold division of the Law, Prophets, and Writings is also reflected in early Jewish writings. For example, the prologue of Sirach refers to “the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them,” and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of “the book of Moses, the books of the Prophets, and David” (4Q397 21:10). ↩
Peter appeals to Joel 2:28–32 to explain the events of Pentecost. Additionally, the phrase “in the last days” (Acts 2:17) draws on Isaiah 2:2, the great prophecy of the nations flowing to Zion and the word going forth from Jerusalem “in the latter days.” ↩
The next three paragraphs summarize material from Tabb, After Emmaus, 109–14. ↩
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 243. ↩
Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, NSBT 27 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 49. ↩
Acts 2 also brings about a redemptive-historical reversal of the confusion of languages, as explained by G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 201–3. ↩
For further discussion of Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, see Tabb, After Emmaus, 121–28. ↩
Hamilton, Typology, 4. ↩
For an expanded treatment of Acts 13, see Tabb, After Emmaus, 128–33, 149–55. ↩
Brandon D. Crowe, The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 58. ↩
Crowe, The Hope of Israel, 61. ↩