The Book of Acts: A Commentary by C. Peter Wagner

When you read the Book of Acts, you can’t help but think, “Why isn’t the church today like that?” Well, maybe it can and it should.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Book of Acts: A Commentary” by C. Peter Wagner. 526 pages, published by Regal Publishers in 2008. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD16.99 but it was available for free, some time ago via

C. Peter Wagner was a Fuller Theological Seminary professor, specialising in missiology. He became famous, or infamous depending on your position, for the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a term he coined. Peter Wagner and the New Apostolic Reformation are big topics that go beyond the scope of today’s book review. My review is focused on what is written here but first, let me explain my personal relationship with this book.

15 years ago, I read this book and my eyes were opened. At that time, I had just became a Christian, having placed my skepticism aside. To my amazement, I came to believe that Christ walked on water, Christ raised the dead, Christ was crucified, he was resurrected on the third day and ascended and one day Christ will return.

In those early days of my coming to faith, I read this book. And wow! I was electrified. Who said the Bible was boring! Not the way he tells it. Spiritual warfare. Gods and demons. What was true for Paul and the apostles is still true for us today. I can still remember the thrill of knowing all these things.

That was 15 years ago and a lot has happened since. For one, I have read the Bible cover to cover, I have read more books after this one, listen to more sermons and engaged in many a great conversations on the biggest questions of the faith.

For one thing, back then I had no opinion on the New Apostolic Reformation. Now, I do. As I review this book, I know that some love this book and treasure the life and ministry of Peter Wagner, who had passed way in October 2016. I can somewhat understand the enthusiasm because I had a taste of it 15 years ago. I take today’s review as a sign of how far I have come and a wonder that I was so taken in by Peter Wagner’s book.

With that, let’s turn to the Book of Acts: A Commentary by C. Peter Wagner.

Chapter 1 is titled, “God’s Training Manual for Modern Christians”. Here he makes the case that the key verse to understand the book is Acts 1:8, which reads:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

In this chapter, he asks the question, “There are 1,398 commentaries on Acts, what will mine offer?”

He writes:

It is in these two areas—power ministry and missiology — that I feel I can make enough of a contribution to justify adding yet another commentary on Acts to our library shelves. I bring a degree of expertise in these areas that few of the biblical scholars who have produced the classical works on Acts could provide. In doing so, I have no illusions of grandeur. The classical works have a well-deserved reputation as classics.

As a missiologist, Wagner brings out the cultural aspects that we may not fully appreciate in our first reading the Book of Acts.

For example, in Acts 6, when we read how the Hellenist Jews raised a complaint against the Hebrew Jews, Hellenist and Hebrew may not mean much to us. Wagner helpfully informs us of the historical and cultural background so that we can fully appreciate the underlying tension between the two groups. By highlighting the cultural barriers, we become more sensitive, more aware, of how culture impacts our evangelistic efforts.

The second major theme is Power Ministry. Wagner writes:

How do we know that the kingdom of God is authentically among us? One way is to see healings and demonic deliverances as part of the ongoing ministry of the church.

Even the most hardened cessationist, who believes the sensational acts of the apostles have ceased, even they would give pause as Wagner brings out passage after passage of signs and wonders, miracles and healings. These are all glorious events in Acts. And no Christian should be dismissed for wondering, “Why is it that our Christian life today does not resemble the days of the apostles?”

But it can. And it does. That is Wagner’s exhortation throughout the book. What you read in Acts, the healing, deliverance, power and authority is happening in Latin America, in China, it’s happening, it’s expanding and you can be part of it too.

What Peter Wagner has set out to do with this commentary is to emphasise these two themes: Power Ministry and Missions. And he does it with style. He takes passages that we would just read through without a second thought and makes us see something that wasn’t there before.

To take a trivial, deliciously enticing, example, Wagner’s commentary on Acts 16 includes these words:

After many exciting events in Philippi, which we will see in detail shortly, the last place we find the missionaries, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke, is in the house of Lydia where they had been lodged. But when they leave Philippi, the “we” suddenly changes to “they”! Luke obviously had stayed behind. Did he stay lodged in Lydia’s house? Could they have decided to marry each other and help form the nucleus of that wonderful church in Philippi that later sent substantial financial gifts to Paul and his missionary team?

I bet you have never even considered that possibility. And you almost imagine the storyteller’s eye twinkle and a massive grin. Just to be clear, Wagner doesn’t make a big deal out of Luke’s single or married status but it is a charming way to remind readers that the people we read about, Paul, Luke, Lydia were flesh and blood men and women much like we are.

Wagner has a great imagination. Imagination is a good thing for bible readers, for us to get into the drama of the dogma. But Wagner takes it too far. The phrase “It could have been” occurs 43 times in the 24 chapters of this book.

If those “could have beens” were limited to artistic license, suggestions to invoke wonder, nothing to be taken seriously, it would be okay. But Wagner goes too far.

Let’s look at the heart of the book, the two themes that he draws from Acts 1:8, namely power ministry and missiology.

I appreciate how Wagner brings his expertise in missiology, the study of missions, to bring out the cultural aspects of Acts but he has allowed his expertise to bring his interpretations into the realm of fantasy or historical fiction.

It starts out innocently enough. Remember the Hellenist and Hebrew Jews in Acts 6? The common understanding is the apostles appointed Stephen and other Hellenistic Jews to minister to the widows and all ends well. Everybody stayed together in harmony right? Right?

Wagner writes:

Although the term “church split” is harsher than Luke would use, this passage is an account of the first major church split.

Now, it is a good church split. A harmonious one according to God’s will. Stephen and the Hellenistic believers are now separate from the apostles. They have control over their own finances. They are free to minister to their own culture.

Wagner justifies this church split idea from the word deacon. He names scholars like Derek Tidball, John Stott, Hans Conzelmann who each say what Stephen and friends did is more than waiting at tables.

At this point, I did something which I did not do 15 years ago. I looked up the references. Sadly, two of the references were not available as ebooks so I couldn’t get them with a click of the button. But I have John Stott’s commentary on Acts. Without going into the details, Stott refutes Wagner’s conclusion. At the end we still have one church.

Wagner has a tendency to read his own experiences of multi-cultural missions into the text such that he exaggerates the tensions between cultures so that it can only be reconciled with a split.

And he draws the lesson that the biblical way to do missions is to establish indigenous leaders to lead their own church. That is certainly a desire of every missionary but is that what happened in Jerusalem between the apostles and Stephen’s group?

And it doesn’t stop at Jerusalem.

Consider Antioch in Acts 13:1-3. Let me read from Acts:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Do you detect any tension in Antioch? I can’t see any.
Would you describe it as a united church? I would even wonder why you would suggest it.

You will note that there are foreigners named in the list.

Let’s use our imagination of how that passage would look like. Maybe it would be something like how your church gathered together, everyone, rich, poor, young, old, men, women, black, white and every colour in between coming together to bless your church’s mission team before they go off. There is a good chance someone would say you are doing the same thing that the church in Antioch did when they sent off Paul and Barnabas.

Except according to Wagner, that’s not what happened.

The listing of foreigners in the passage gets Wagner to wildly speculate. He imagines these foreign missionaries served in the Cyprus and Cyrene Mission, or CCM for short. Because he can’t seem to imagine two different cultures in the same church or mission organisation. He writes:

… it is inaccurate to say, as many attempt to do, that Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church at Antioch.

Enough about culture. Let’s hear what Wagner has to say about the other big theme of his book: Power Ministry. And we should, we must, hear what he says because God told him to say it.

In an earlier chapter, when he comments on God commissioning Paul, Wagner writes:

I myself can testify that receiving such commissioning words as these, directly from Jesus, brings powerful spiritual sustenance later on, especially when difficult times arise. Jesus told Paul “how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (9:16). In 1989, at the massive Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, Philippines, God spoke to me in as clear, although less dramatic, a way as He spoke to Paul. He said, “I want you to take international leadership in the field of territorial spirits.”

I want to say upfront that I don’t believe Wagner is saying, “Thus says the Lord… This is what God says about spiritual warfare…” But I also want to say that by making such a big claim, it’s not easy for Christians who want to be faithful to what the Lord says to ignore him. Or to question him.

And question him, I must.

Wagner says that Paul failed in Athens because there were so many idols there.

He writes:

I believe that Paul’s experience in Athens, although far from a success in evangelism and church planting, would have been a valuable learning experience for him, and by application for us as well. Paul learned important lessons about (1) the awesome power of the enemy, and (2) missionary methodology.

None of the commentators I have checked raises the question of whether the demonic powers behind the idols and the festivals and the sacrifices in Athens could have been strong enough to frustrate Paul’s evangelistic intentions in the city. I personally believe they could have been and they probably were more than Paul could handle. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ ministry in His hometown of Nazareth. It is said, “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:58). Neither Jesus nor Paul did anything particularly wrong; they simply encountered powers that, at that particular time, were fortified enough to hold their position and to prevent the fullest penetration of the kingdom of God.

Oh boy… I am so upset by the suggestion that Jesus encountered powers that were too strong for him but this is a throwaway statement from Wagner so I won’t spend time here. But the fact that he doesn’t substantiate this, he just throws a remark like that without needing to defend, just shows how he plays fast and loose with basic doctrine. He throws the King of Kings out the window to fit his spiritual warfare narrative, which is often informed by what he sees, what his friends sees and goes beyond what the Bible actually says.

So anywhere, Athens is a failure because evil powers were too strong.

Paul goes to Corinth. He succeeds there. Wagner lists the differences between Athens and Corinth, he points to Acts 17:16 “[Paul’s] spirit was provoked within him when he saw the city [Athens] was given over to idols.”

Thus, Wagner concludes:

Even a novice spiritual mapper in the first century would have been able to recognise that darkness lingered over Athens more than either Berea, Paul’s previous stop, or here in Corinth.

In short, Corinth is a success because the evil powers there were weak.

Okay, then Paul goes to Rome.

Wagner describes the strong Christian presence in Rome:

How many house churches might have been located in Rome by this time we have no way of knowing exactly, but it is likely there were quite a few. In the Epistle that Paul wrote to these Roman believers a few years previously, he mentioned some house churches by name.

Wagner describes Rome as “known for its extraordinary political power over a large part of the world.”

And finally let me get to my spiritual warfare question. Wagner says that in spiritual warfare just as in normal swords and shields warfare, victory is won by the stronger army.

The Apostle Paul failed in Athens because the evil powers were too strong. The Apostle Paul succeeded in Corinth because the evil powers were too weak. Then how is it that a bunch of no-name Christians which suggests people without apostolic authority could have succeeded in establishing house churches in the very centre of Imperial religion.

Wagner does not explain. He does not even see Rome as the counter argument to his thesis.

And speaking of thesis, the central thesis of this book is flawed.

Early in the book, Wagner asserts that the theme of Acts is seen Acts 1:8.

Let me remind you of what it says:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Right after this, Wagner writes:

Very simply, in His last recorded words spoken on this earth, Jesus highlights two themes: power ministries and missiology.

That seems to me an unshakeable fact. Then Wagner does the most peculiar thing. He skips over a third of Acts.

And he knows it.

According to my calculations, I am devoting only 8 percent of my full commentary on Acts to chapters 20 to 28, which in turn comprise 32 percent of Luke’s original work.

He explains why as follows:

Five years pass from the time Paul is arrested in Jerusalem to the end of the book of Acts. In the seven-and-one-half chapters Luke uses to tell of this experience (about 27 percent of Acts), explicit accounts of power ministries are few and far between in comparison to the other three-fourths of the book.

Wagner’s commentary on Acts is short on last seven and a half chapters of Acts because it has too few power ministries. What does that tell us about the starting thesis of this commentary?

Does Acts 1:8 describe a central theme for Acts? How can it be a central theme when it does not fit with the last 32 percent of the book?

Let’s say that it is the central theme because it is true. These were the last recorded words of Jesus. Let’s read it again:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

You shall be witnesses in Jerusalem to the end of the earth does fit with missions.

But let’s re-look at what it means to receive power. Wagner understands Holy Spirit power to mean signs and wonders, miracles and healings, angels and demons.

I put to you that the power of the Holy Spirit also includes the power to preach.

Wagner does not give Paul much credit for his Mars Hill sermon. Sorry, I got it wrong, Wagner gives the Holy Spirit no credit for Paul’s Mars Hill sermon. Wagner puts it like this:

In Athens Paul displayed brilliance in human wisdom; in Corinth he ministered with public displays of supernatural power.

Likewise, Wagner does not see Holy Spirit power in Paul’s defence in his trials. After all, nothing miraculous happened.

But do you remember what Jesus said? Luke 12:11-12:

When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.

Rather than see Athens as a failure, it should be seen as the Holy Spirit’s work through Paul.

And how do I know all this? Because the Holy Spirit told me. Wagner claims God spoke to him. I, too, say that God speaks to me.

I’ll tell you now what the Holy Spirit is saying to you. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Word and this is what the Word says, in Acts 17:11:

Now these Jews [in Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

The Holy Bible commends believers to refer to the Holy Scripture to see if what is taught by others are true. So when I say the Holy Spirit speaks to me, the Holy Spirit speaks to you too, through illumination of the Bible.

And I put to you, if you read through Acts and if you consider that power from the Holy Spirit includes signs and wonders, yes, but also spiritual power to teach and receive the Word, if you do this, you will conclude as many Christians have, that we too live in the days of the apostles.

If you are looking for a book that takes the Book of Acts as a source material for “it could have beens”, speculative non-fiction, then Wagner’s commentary is one of a kind. The best I can say is Wagner makes vivid the reality of spiritual warfare and inter-cultural missions but he does it by over-reaching.

This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Book of Acts: A Commentary” by C. Peter Wagner. 526 pages, published by Regal Publishers in 2008. It’s available in Amazon Kindle and

Speaking of, they have another free commentary for this month:

It’s the NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC) Letters of John by Gary M. Burge. In Burge’s comments on 1 John, he writes:

… the problems in the church are essentially pneumatic. They stem from prophets who, under the alleged inspiration of the Spirit, are teaching false things. John’s first response when faced with such teachings is to train his followers that theology must be anchored objectively or else it will be shaped by any whim or inspiration.

Thanks for listening. Bye bye.

Book List

  • “The Book of Acts: A Commentary” by C. Peter Wagner. Amazon. Logos.