How Are We to Use the Book of Acts?

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One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a series on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  The recent writer Shane Claiborne has popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.

Another example is the presence of sign gifts (tongues) and healings as a clear manifestation of the Spirit of God.  If you have been saved, some argue, then you will speak in tongues, since that is what the earliest form of the church did. Denominations which do not practice these gifts must explain why there are sign gifts in Acts but not in our churches today.

Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church.   This is not always the case, since it is also true that ideas develop over time.  Sometimes the earliest form is the most simple, but that does not mean it is the best.  If we look at inventions such as the car or the computer, few would say that the “best” car was the Model T!  Typically, the argument that Acts ought to be normative only involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine.  Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and other Christian thinking about who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross.

Acts certainly demonstrates development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely gentile missionary movement later in Acts. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul founds in Corinth or Ephesus.  No where does Paul suggest that people sell possessions and give the money to the common treasury of the church.   Certainly there are few people who consistently apply this sort of thinking to Acts (Ananias and Sapphira, for example!)

In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine.

  • By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea.
  • There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.
  • We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.
  • Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit!

Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.

This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book.  Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ).   We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history!  But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.

What is significant theologically is the experience of Paul and his reflection on the meaning of the cross for the present age.  Without the Pauline letters we would not have a fully developed view of the atonement, justification, sanctification, etc.   Paul’s calling to be the light to the Gentiles was unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible.  While it was clear that God’s work to redeem man from sin would include Gentiles, how that would happen is not particularly clear.  After Paul’s calling on the road to Damascus, things begin to become more clear.

We can read the rest of the Bible and observe that there are a handful of points in history where God advances his plan to redeem the world (after the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses), and in each case there is a significant body of revelation given which in some ways breaks with the previous age, although there is often some continuity as well.  For the present era, it appears that this revelation was given to Paul, as the light to the Gentiles.  Frequently it is observed that the full revelation of what the cross means was not made until Paul, both inside dispensational circles and without – often Jewish commentators say Paul “corrupted” the teaching of Jesus!

My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book.  There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission.