WHO WAS THEOPHILUS? WAS HE A JEW OR GENTILE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Firstly, the name “Theophilus” is Greek; it means “friend/lover of God.” Only appearing twice in the Bible text (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), Theophilus was the recipient of these two Bible Books. The Gospel Record of Luke and the Book of Acts have been called “Volume 1” and “Volume 2,” respectively. Just a cursory examination of their introductions demonstrates Acts to be the “sequel” to Luke. Theophilus’ name binds them.
Luke 1:1-4: “ Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,  Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;  It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,  That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.”
Acts 1:1-3: “ The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,  Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:  To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:….” The “former treatise”—or previous detailed, written account—sent to Theophilus is what we know of as the Book of Luke. Whomever the Holy Spirit used to write Luke, He also chose him to write Acts later. This writer is generally assumed to be Luke.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WRITER OF THE BOOK OF ACTS
The language of Acts is that its writer was a close companion of the Apostle Paul during his second, third, and final apostolic journeys. Notice the first-person pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our:”
- Acts 16:10: “And after he had seen the vision, immediately WE endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called US for to preach the gospel unto them.” (This is written from the perspective of someone traveling with Paul’s group, rather than someone repeating second-hand information. The same is true of the succeeding verses as well. Whomever it was, the man stayed with Paul’s party for some time, then departed, and later rejoined.)
- Acts 16:12: “And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and WE were in that city abiding certain days.”
- Acts 16:14-17: “ And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard US: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.  And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought US, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained US.  And it came to pass, as WE went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met US, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying:  The same followed Paul and US, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.”
———— (The writer leaves Paul’s company here and returns.) ————
- Acts 20:5: “These going before tarried for US at Troas.”
- Acts 20:13-14: “ And WE went before to ship, and sailed unto Assos, there intending to take in Paul: for so had he appointed, minding himself to go afoot.  And when he met with US at Assos, WE took him in, and came to Mitylene.”
- Acts 21:5: “And when WE had accomplished those days, WE departed and went OUR way; and they all brought US on OUR way, with wives and children, till WE were out of the city: and WE kneeled down on the shore, and prayed.”
- Acts 21:11: “And when he was come unto US, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”
- Acts 21:16-18: “ There went with US also certain of the disciples of Caesarea, and brought with them one Mnason of Cyprus, an old disciple, with whom WE should lodge.  And when WE were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received US  And the day following Paul went in with US unto James; and all the elders were present.”
———— (The writer leaves Paul’s group here and returns.) ————
- Acts 27:1-2: “ And when it was determined that WE should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.  And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, WE launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with US.”
- Acts 27:6-7: “ And there the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy; and he put US  And when WE had sailed slowly many days, and scarce were come over against Cnidus, the wind not suffering US, WE sailed under Crete, over against Salmone;….”
- Acts 27:27: “But when the fourteenth night was come, as WE were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country;….”
- Acts 27:20: “And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on US, all hope that WE should be saved was then taken away.”
- Acts 28:2: “And the barbarous people shewed US no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received US every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.”
- Acts 28:7: “In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received US, and lodged US three days courteously.”
- Acts 28:10: “Who also honoured US with many honours; and when WE departed, they laded US with such things as were necessary.”
- Acts 28:15: “And from thence, when the brethren heard of US, they came to meet US as far as Appii forum, and The three taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage.”
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THEOPHILUS
As noted, the writer of the Book of Acts traveled extensively with the Apostle Paul. Romans 11:13 says that Paul conducted a “Gentile” ministry. Technically speaking, in this context, “Gentile” applies to both non-Jews and lost/unsaved Jews. With the fall of Israel in Acts chapter 7, and the raising up of Paul in chapter 9, God thereafter considered all unsaved Jews just as worthy of hellfire as all the unsaved non-Jews. We conclude that the writer of Acts, associated with Paul, would thus have a ministry geared toward Gentiles as well. Theophilus was most likely a Gentile/non-Jew; we do not know the date of his conversion (as in pinpointing a chapter of Acts), or exactly who in Paul’s company led him to Christ. He never actually appears in either historical narrative.
Luke and Acts were both written for a Gentile/non-Jew to learn about Christ’s earthly ministry to Israel, as well as the 30 years that followed (Acts chapters 1-28—Israel’s renewed opportunity of repentance, her rebellion against the Holy Spirit, her national fall and diminishing, salvation going to the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry, and so on). In fact, the noticeable shift in the language of Colossians 4:10-14 indicates, to me anyway, that Luke himself was a Gentile. This would explain his close affinity to Paul’s ministry. Furthermore, Luke was evidently one of Paul’s converts. As with Theophilus, though, we do not know exactly when this occurred. The Book of Acts was written near the end of Paul’s ministry, after his two years under Roman house arrest (Acts 28:30-31). Luke was written sometime prior to the penning of Acts.
By the way, although omitted in Acts 1:1, there is that interesting title given to Theophilus in Luke 1:3—“most excellent.” Curiously, this was the designation of Judaean Governor Felix in Acts 23:26; a similar expression (same in Greek) is “most noble” (Acts 24:3). It was also applied to “most noble” Festus, another Judaean governor, in Acts 26:25. This has led some to suppose that Theophilus was a high-ranking politician, perhaps in Rome (where Paul was under house arrest at the time, remember). While possible, nothing is definite here. We just point this out in passing, before we close.
We know very little about Theophilus because he is only mentioned in two verses in the whole Bible. But, using the Scriptures associated with him, we can make some observations:
- Theophilus’ name means “friend/lover of God.” The Books of Luke and Acts were written to him. Theophilus was not a general name for just any friend/lover of God, as some claim, but an actual person.
- Whoever wrote Acts was a close companion of Paul during his apostolic journeys (which, of course, involved Gentiles). Whoever wrote Acts also penned Luke. Paul mentioned Luke in Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11, and Philemon 24, as a close friend of his. Luke is our “best guess” as to the authorship of Luke and Acts.
- Considering that his name is Greek, and that he was connected to Luke (who was a close friend of Paul, “the apostle of the Gentiles;” Romans 11:13), Theophilus was likely a Gentile.
- Perhaps he was a dignified statesman or other prominent official.
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