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All the events in the NT occurred against the historic background of the Roman Empire. Throughout the NT, we find and feel the presence, sometimes center stage, sometimes more peripheral, of Rome, its agents and its influence. At least four Roman Emperors are mentioned in the Gospels and Acts, three by name (Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius). One issues a decree that is unwittingly crucial in fulfilling a Hebrew prophecy made seven centuries earlier (Micah 5:2; see Luke 2:1). One orders Jews out of Rome (Claudius) and one is the Caesar to whom Paul appealed his criminal case (Nero), and about whom history records that he began the systematic persecution of Christians and who, tradition has it, executed both Paul and Peter.
Roman governors rule in Judea (Quirinius, Pilate, Felix, Festus), and elsewhere. Jesus, who had instructed His listeners to “render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” was condemned by to death by a Roman governor, beaten, then crucified by Roman soldiers, who also guarded His tomb in hopes of preventing His departure from the grave. Roman soldiers are found in Judea, and in Galilee, some being converts of John the Baptist, and others respectful and appreciative acquaintances of Jesus. A Roman centurion was among the early converts in Acts; Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the Jerusalem mob, and escorted him safely to Caesarea. Another spared his life after the shipwreck on Malta. Some of Caesar’s own palace guards became converts in Rome. Paul’s (and Silas’) Roman citizen plays an important part in the narrative in Acts. Something over 20 Latin words are borrowed into the Greek NT, nearly all being words associated with government and rule. Everywhere in the NT, there is Roman government, Roman law, Roman commerce, Roman coins, Roman culture and custom.
“Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, …” Acts 16:6, KJV
I have heard with my own ears more than one preacher quote this verse as certain proof that “if the Holy Spirit hadn’t stopped Paul from going to Asia, we’d have had to get the gospel from the Chinese.” The one instance that stands out most of these several involved the featured speaker at a missions conference a decade ago. This man was a Bible college graduate, had been 20 years in the ministry, and was (and is) a denominational bigwig.
Why this incident stands out is that a man of such training and experience should have known that the assertion he made was completely devoid of any basis in fact, as even a meager amount of study and thought would have immediately shown. The truth is, Paul later did preach in Asia, and for a period of more than two years. Not only so, he evangelized the whole of it and saw many churches started there, all without coming in contact with a single Chinese.
The problem involves the meaning of the name Asia. Of course, today the term includes that great land mass east of the Ural Mountains in Russia in the north, and east of the Caspian, Aegean, Mediterranean and Red Seas further to the south. This, the largest of the seven continents, is also the most populous. But what a geographical term means today and what it meant in Bible times may have little or no connection, and “Asia” is one glaring example of this.
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Last year, under the editorial direction of Andreas Kostenberger, Zondervan began the Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series. The first installment was Kostenberger’s contribution A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. The BTNT series seeks to provide a biblical theology of the entire NT in eight volumes with a biblical/thematic approach.
This year the next volume is A Theology of Luke and Acts by well known Luke commentator Darrell Bock. Darrell Bock has written a few other books on Luke and Acts: Luke (IVP), Luke (NIVAC), Luke (BECNT), and Acts (BECNT). A Theology of Luke and Acts is not a commentary but rather a thematic look at the biblical theology of Luke and Acts as a literary unit.
The essential purpose for Luke-Acts is “to show that the coming of Jesus, Christ, and Son of God launched the long-promised new movement of God. The community that has come from his ministry, the suffering these believers experienced, and the inclusion of Gentiles are part of God’s program promised in Scripture” (p. 29). According to Bock, Theophilus needed assurance that this new movement (Christianity) was a legitimate work of God given the amount of persecution it underwent. Luke assures him that the persecution is not a judgment of God but rather part of the plan of God to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations.