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Bolen, Todd. Acts: Photo Companion to the Bible. BiblePlaces.com, 2019.

Todd Bolen has been producing high quality resources for Bible teachers for many years on his website Bible Places.com. I first became aware of Bolens’s Pictorial Library of Biblical Lands at an ETS in 2003. I have used these photographs in virtually every class I teach in order to add some colorful graphics to an otherwise dull PowerPoint presentation. Even though I have some critiques of the collection below, if you are teaching the Book of Acts, then the Photo Companion to the Bible is an essential collection of images to use to illustrate your lectures and sermons. If you are a student of the Bible, you can read the text of the Bible and page through the slides in order to place the text into a physical context.

I reviewed his Gospels Photo Companion to the Bible soon after it was released in 2017. At that time Todd told me the Acts Companion was “coming soon.” But as he told me in a recent email, it took a while longer than expected. This is not surprising since the collection contains more than 4,000 photos in twenty-eight PowerPoint sets. The slide set for Acts 13 has 250 slides, Acts 20 has 180 slides. This includes every place Paul and the apostles traveled and every photograph is identified and explained. In some cases, additional material appears in the slide, such as citations to journal articles.

Along with photographs detailing the Paul’s missionary journeys, many inscriptions are included (the Gallio Inscription, the Temple balustrade, the Politarchs inscriptions, Roman calendars, etc.). In addition there are high quality photographs of coins, artifacts, models, scrolls from museums. There are maps tracing Paul’s travels created by A. D. Riddle of RiddleMaps.com.

Since these are PowerPoint slides, the editors provide annotations explaining the image and the location of the photograph. There is also a code in the notes indicating the source of the image. Many are from Bolen, but there are other contributors (and I noticed a few wiki commons images as well). This is very helpful for identifying the location of museum photographs or some of the historical photographs.

I looked over most of the data sets, but for this review I will focus on Acts 13, 250 slides in all. Each slide has a phrase from the Bible across the top, the reference is in the bottom right corner. A brief description appears in the bottom right corner, and a few lines of explanation appear in the slide notes along with the image credit. Since Acts 13 begins in Syrian Antioch, there are a few slides from the modern city of Antakya in south-east Turkey, including a photograph of the ancient hippodrome taken between 1934 and 1939. There are plenty of photographs of Roman remains on Cyprus including the gymnasium at Salamis and Villa of Theseus at Paphos.

To illustrate Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus, there are two Aramaic curse bowls,   one from Babylon and the other from the eleventh century A.D. There are two Latin inscription was found near Pisidian Antioch with the name Sergius Paulus, one is a public domain image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perge is well illustrated, including the rock-cut pass between Magydus and Perga on the Via Sebaste and later Via Sebaste after Döşeme pass. After Paul leaves Pisidian Antioch, he travels to Iconium, as illustrated by a photo of a Roman bridge on the Via Sebaste east of Yunuslar between Pisidian Antioch and Iconium. Many of these photographs of Roman roads are from Mark Wilson, one of the best sources for Paul’s travels in Asia Minor. He also contributed a photograph of an inscription mentioning Galatia and Pamphylia, from Perga. The slide cites Wilson’s recent article, “The Denouement of Claudian Pamphylia-Lycia and its Implications for the Audience of Galatians,” Novum Testamentum 60 (2018): 337–60. This is the kind of detail I appreciate in these slides, there are others with citations of journal articles, such as the God-fearer mosaic from the synagogue of Sardis (dated to c. AD 365), citing John H. Kroll, “The Greek Inscriptions of the Sardis Synagogue,” Harvard Theological Review 94/1 (2001): 9.

For Acts 13:50, “But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence” there is a photo of a statue of Plancia Magna from Perga (2nd century A.D.) followed by an inscription at Perge with her name. Plancia Magna was a wealthy and powerful women in Perge, although certainly not a believer. This statue shows there indeed were prominent women who had significant power in a city like Perge.

There are some slides which do not seem particularly on topic. “Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch” (Acts 13:1) is illustrated with a wonderful Tiberias. Why? Herod moved his capital from Sepphoris to Tiberias. Barnabas and Saul speak in the synagogues in Cyprus (Acts 13:5), this is illustrated by the synagogue at Magdala. To be fair, there are not many first century synagogues and Magdala is an excellent example, but is not a synagogue from Acts 13.

Others strike me as unnecessary. For example, there is a picture of mist surrounding Nimrod’s fortress in Israel to illustrate “Immediately a mist and darkness fell on him” and a photo of a blind man in Jerusalem for “He went around seeking people to lead him by the hand.” When John Mark returns to Jerusalem, there are several slide of Jerusalem including the Syrian Orthodox site for the upper room. For Acts 13:17, “The God of this people Israel chose our forefathers” there is a photograph of Abraham’s well in Beersheba and several beautiful photographs from Egypt since 13:17 mentions Egypt. In fact, most of the slides illustrating Paul’s sermon are not necessary, but since the goal is to have something for every verse, they are included here. I would have rather had 75 more slides of Roman roads between Perge and Pisidian Antioch.

Evaluation. For many people, using Google Image Search to find pictures for their lectures is second nature. It is easy to do and there are often good photographs available without any usage restrictions. So why purchase this set of photographs from Todd Bolan?

First, these photographs often do not appear on the web. For most of the collection, Bolen has taken the photographs himself and he owns the copyright. These are not snapshots from someone’s Holy Land Tour taken with their iPhone.

Second, there are several types of photographs which are difficult to obtain yourself, such as aerial photography. Bolen has also included many historic photographs from the American Colony and Eric Matson collections released by Bible Places in 2009.

Third, if you are just grabbing a few photographs from the web for your teaching, perhaps you are violating copyright law. The copyright notice is as follows:

The purchaser is granted permission to use this work in face-to-face teaching, video-recorded sermons, class notes, church newsletters, and like contexts. Separate permission must be obtained from BiblePlaces.com to use this material in books, magazines, commercial products, websites, and online courses. Slide notes should be treated as any other copyrighted written material, with credit given when quoting from these notes. For copyright inquiries, please email Todd Bolen at tbolen94@bibleplaces.com.

Yes, I know we all do it and it is doubtful you will get in trouble for snagging someone’s vacation pictures from Flickr. But some universities and churches are trying to limit resources to “fair use” copyright images. The Photo Companion to the Bible allows for legal images which can be freely edited for your own needs.

If you purchase the Photo Companion, you can download it immediately with the promise of free lifetime updates as well as get a DVD copy. One important thing to consider is the copyright permissions which come with the Photo Companion to the Bible. All the images are free for use for any purpose (teaching, sermons, etc.), although if they are used in a publication, you will need to obtain permission. I have seen Bolen’s photographs in many books from major publishers, which speaks to the quality of this resource.

If you visit the website, there are samples of Matthew 4 and John 2 so you can get an idea what the collection looks like. Finally, here is a five minute video promoting the Photo Companion.

NB: Thanks to Todd Bolen at BiblePlaces.com for kindly providing me with a review copy of this resource. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

Osborne, Grant R.  Acts: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 545 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

The latest addition to the series of verse-by-verse commentaries by the late Grant Osborne is the Book of Acts. Lexham Press publishes this series simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions. Seven commentaries were published in 2017-18 (John, Romans, Galatians, Prison Epistles, Revelation), with volume on 1-2 Thessalonians and Luke coming soon.

In the nineteen page introduction to the commentary, Osborne states the book of Acts is a “historical narrative tracing how the Christ followers built ton their founder and became a worldwide force” (1). For Osborne, the book traces salvation history and the gospel-centered and Spirit-empowered mission of the church. Peter and Paul are only successful because they are commissioned by Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Like many evangelicals who study Acts, Osborne is comfortable with Acts as both history and theology. He argues in favor of a traditional view authorship. Luke the companion of Paul (Colossians 4:14) is the author of the book, although he dates the book either before A. D. 62 or after Paul’s death, A. D. 75-85. Osborne prefers the earlier date, but both are possible. Throughout the body of the commentary it is clear Osborne holds traditional views of the authorship of Paul’s letters and the consensus view on most chronological problems. For example, commenting on Acts 19:21-22, he indicates “Paul was writing 1 Corinthians at this time” (349). He sides with the growing minority position by stating Galatians was written soon after Paul returned to Syrian Antioch, prior to the Jerusalem Council (269). Given the parameters of the commentary, he simply states his conviction without extensive argument.

In the first part of the commentary, Osborne uses the phrase “Christ follower” rather than Christian to describe the earliest community. He observes the church “has often been thought have originated at Pentecost, but that is not true. Pentecost is the launching of the church’s mission to be the “witnesses” (1:8), but not the genesis of its formation. If that can be ascertained, it would have to come when Jesus chose the Twelve” (18). Osborne wants to highlight the continuity between Israel of the old Covenant and the “new Israel of the new Covenant.” I understand what he is saying here, but it overlooks the fact the new Covenant was to be made with both the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

Even As Osborne recognizes in the same paragraph, the earliest Christ followers called themselves the Way (Acts 9:2), “considering itself the messianic sect within Judaism.” There is more to the definition and nature of the church than Osborne can attempt in a very short introduction, but if he wants to reach back to the calling of the Apostles as a “genesis of the church” then the particularly Jewish nature of the church in the first twelve chapters of Acts will be diminished.

Like the other volumes in this series, the body of the commentary proceeds nearly verse-by-verse. Since Acts is much longer than other books Osborne has covered in the series so far, he is often forced to cover paragraphs rather than individual verses. This is really not a problem, although compared to some recent exegetical commentaries, this 543-page commentary seems brief. But this is not necessarily a bad thing since the goal of the commentary is to help a pastor, teacher, or interested layperson understand the main points of the text without going into the minutia of the text.

Osborne occasionally comments on the Greek text, but all Greek appears in transliteration so all readers will be able to follow the argument. Footnotes appear rarely and deal with finer details. Since his goal is clear explanation of the text, Osborne does not interact with other commentaries or enter into arcane debates on early church history. For example, he does not deal with the possible anachronism of Paul’s appointing Elders in Acts 14, simply noting that elders “followed Jewish practice for the most part” (265). He is able to deal with the Ephesian Riot in 19:23-20:1 in a few pages, without being overly distracted with a lengthy description of Artemis and her worship (Keener, in contrast, devotes more that seventy pages to the riot, including details on Artemis and her cult).

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne certainly achieves his goal of helping pastors to “faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Although scholars may find the brevity of the commentary frustrating, this commentary will be an excellent guide for anyone who desires to read John’s Gospel with more insight and understanding.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

There are a number of similarities between events on Acts 2 and 3. Apparently Peter and John regularly went up to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah. The gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus would have been of interest to some of the Jews who were also at the Temple worship. Prior to both Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3 God did a miracle to demonstrate the messianic age has begun. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man are both based on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. Peter clearly declares Jesus was the messiah and he was crucified in ignorance. But this ignorance will no longer be overlooked and judgment is coming. After both sermons thousands of people believe Jesus is the messiah and he is returning soon to establish his kingdom.

annas-caiaphasAfter healing the lame man and preaching to another large crowd, the Temple authorities arrest Peter and John (Acts 4). As Ben Witherington comments, Acts 4 is the “beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people” (Acts, 189). For the next several chapters there is increasing tension and persecution between the ministries of the twelve Apostles and the seven deacons, culminating in the execution of Stephen at the end of chapter 7. Preaching the Gospel, as it turns out, is a very dangerous thing to do!

Peter and John are brought before Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 22:54, cf., John 11:49). The group which is gathered includes the elders and teachers of the Law, including the high priest Annas, and men from his family, Caiaphas, John and Alexander.

There is a historical problem here. Annas was high priest from A.D. 6-15, his son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18-36.  There are several explanations for this.  One possibility is that Luke lists Annas as the high priest since he is the real power behind Caiaphas (this is at least the view of John 18:13, since Jesus is brought to Annas before he is brought to Caiaphas, the actual high priest).  Caiaphas’s name has been found on a rather ornate ossuary (which does not appear to be a forgery, although Craig Evans doubts the name is the biblical Caiaphas, see Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and the Ossuaries,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13 [2003]: 39).

Since whole Sanhedrin could have been as many as seventy men, it is unlikely the whole council met to question Peter. This is probably the high priest and his closest advisers and the questioning is intended to find out who authorized the apostles to declare publicly Jesus was the messiah (4:7). For Caiaphas and the others who were involved in Jesus’ execution, the claim God raised Jesus from the dead is more than just awkward, it is an attack on them as legitimate authority. They found Jesus guilty and killed him; God found him innocent and raised him from the dead.  Since Caiaphas and his advisers are Sadducees, they reject the possibility Jesus was the Messiah and especially that God raised him from the dead.

As Craig Keener points out, preaching in the Temple was not illegal, nor was healing a lame man or drawing a large crowd (2:1135). But it was extremely dangerous to declare a man who was executed as a false messiah was in fact the God’s messiah. It is a direct attack on the Temple aristocracy who killed Jesus. If the disciples continue to preach this message to the crowds, they will face increasing persecution from the aristocratic priesthood in Jerusalem.

Why do the disciples remain in Jerusalem? Could they not simply return to Galilee and preach the same gospel in a safer place? Why does Peter insist on emphasizing the participation of his audience in the death of Jesus? He seems to be attacking the Temple aristocracy directly, why does Peter not find a less-offensive way of preaching the Gospel?

Peter healing a lame man is significant for several reasons. First, Jesus healed many crippled persons during his ministry, Mark 2:1-12 for example. Second, he was a well-known beggar who was crippled from birth. People knew he was unable to walk, and that had never walked in his life. He was not paralyzed or injured. Third, and most importantly for the point of Peter’s sermon, that the lame would “leap for joy” was a key expectation of the Messianic age (Isa 35:6). This text is similar to Isa 61:1-2, a text Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth and applied to himself (Luke 4). There is continuity between Jesus and his messianic announcement and the apostolic ministry of Peter.

Isaiah 35:4-7 … say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Isaiah looks forward to a coming age when physical infirmities will be reversed and even the desert will be a fertile. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit is “poured out” on the people, here in Acts 3 the Holy Spirit is healing physical infirmity.

Nicolas Poussin (1655)Finally, this is the first time one of the disciples does the same sort of miracle which Jesus did, albeit in the name of Jesus. This sets up a pattern in the book of Acts, as the gospel enters new areas it is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit as witnessed by miracles.

Peter calls for the man’s attention and tells him that he has no money for him, and heals him in the name of Jesus. Why does Peter call for the man’s attention? Perhaps there are a lot of people passing through the gate and the beggar is trying to beg from as many as he can.

The man is instantly healed, his ankles and bones are strengthen and his able to stand. Probably the man had stretched out his hands to take some coins from Peter, but Peter grabs his hands and helps him to stand instead. The fact that he is healed fully and completely is indicated that he walks and jumps, praising God (verse 8). The “leaping” for the formerly lame man evokes the Isaiah 35 passage indicating that this is a sign the messianic age is dawning.

This miracle, therefore, draws attention to the fact the messianic age has to some extent begun with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The coming of the Spirit on God’s people is like water poured out on a dry and thirsty land. Peter and John are representatives of the Messiah and use this healing to call a large Jewish crowd to repentance.

If this is true, then likely there are other indications the kingdom is coming/present in the ministry of Peter and John in Acts 2-5. What else do you see here that might support this idea?

Feast of WeeksThe imagery of Pentecost may be important. Pentecost is a pilgrim-holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The holiday celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest. The Festival of Weeks was the smallest of the three pilgrim festivals, falling 50 days after Passover (seven weeks), the late spring / early summer. This festival included an offering of two loaves made with the wheat given in the firstfruit offering.

The point of the festival was “to declare God’s ownership of the land and his grace in bringing forth food. According to a tradition found in the book of Jubilees, Pentecost was the day on which Moses was given the Law (cf. Tob 2:1, 2 Mac 12:32). This tradition is based on the belief that the Israelites arrived at Sinai 50 days after the first Passover (Exod 19:1). Some scholars (Knox, Snaith) have made a connection between this tradition and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since Moses gave out the Law to Israel on this day, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the church. Fitzmyer thinks Luke was aware of the tradition since there are some indirect allusions to the giving of the Law in Acts 2, not the least of which is the image of fire descending (Exod 19:18).

It is at least possible to see the idea of “firstfruits” applied to the Holy Spirit. The new age has begun and the Holy Spirit has come for the first time. But we also need to consider two other potential “Pentecosts” in the book of Acts. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, a God-Fearing Gentile, and he speaks in tongues just like Pentecost. Peter makes this point clear in Acts 10:47, the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home received the Holy Spirit “just as we have.”

But there is a third reference to Pentecost in Acts 20:16. Paul wants to return to Jerusalem before Pentecost if possible. This was a dangerous journey, especially since Paul wanted to deliver the collection from the Gentile churches at Pentecost if at all possible. Offering gifts to the poor in Jerusalem the Gentile churches indicates they too have received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s return to Jerusalem at Pentecost is calculated to highlight his “harvest” among the Gentiles. Three references to Pentecost are not unexpected since Luke repeats important events three times several times in Acts (Cornelius’ conversion, Paul’s conversion, the rejection of Israel, etc.)

Whatever the intended imagery, the day represents the largest crowd in the Temple area after Passover. Peter and the other apostles are able to preach to large crowds of biblically-minded Jews gathered to worship God in the Temple (Acts 2-3). Is there anything in Peter’s sermon that makes some use of this Pentecost imagery?  In other words, why is Pentecost the time God chose for the outpouring of the Spirit?

Bibliography: W. L. Knox, Acts, (NCB, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 80-84; N. Snaith, “Pentecost, the Day of Power,” ExpTim 43 (1931-32): 379-80.

When asked if he was about to restore the Kingdom to Israel, Jesus reminds his disciples that “it is not for them to know” when the kingdom will be restored. Rather than knowing the “times and dates” God has planned, the disciples are to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected. The Holy Spirit will fall upon people and they will speak the Word of God in power in the Temple itself.

Acts 1_8These men are to be witnesses, a very important word in Luke-Acts and this command is in many ways programmatic for the chapters which follow. In the chapters which follow, the 12 disciples are called witnesses 8 times, and the Holy Spirit bears witness on their behalf (Acts 5:32). Both Paul (22:15, and 26:16) and Stephen (22:20) are called witnesses in Acts.

The disciples are to give testimony of who Jesus was (the messiah) and what Jesus did (died for the forgiveness of sins) and what he intends to do (return to establish his kingdom). They are all eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and they will be witnesses to the coming of the Holy Spirit (in Acts 2). They are Jesus’ own personal representatives sent to report to others what Jesus said and did.

As in the modern use of the word, a ‘witness” often functioned in a legal context, giving testimony in a court case. As the disciples give their testimony in various speeches, sermons or other teaching opportunities, they are offering evidence concerning who Jesus is. This evidence can be corroborated other eye-witnesses. In Luke 1:2, the author claims to have done this already, confirming the events of his Gospel by eyewitnesses. That Luke himself is a part of the story after Acts 16 indicates that he is an eyewitness himself and can confirm the truth of his document.

This is an important historical point, since what accounts for evidence for a first century historian differs from that of a modern writer. As Keener points out, to call upon witnesses is common in other Greco-Roman histories. An eyewitness was the most important evidence a writer could give. Polybius, for example claimed that “sight is, according to Heracleitus, by far the truer; for eyes are surer witnesses than ears” (Hist. 12.27). As I suggested in a previous post, Luke can be both historical and theological, since the two are virtually the same in the literary world of the first century.

This commission to be the witnesses of the Messiah in Jerusalem is based on the activity of the Holy Spirit. They are verbally commissioned, but it will be the reception of the Holy Spirit which empowers them to preach and confirms the words of their preaching (through signs and miracles).

How does this theme of “witness” work out in the Book of Acts? How are the disciples witnesses for the Messiah? To what extent is “eye-witness” important in modern evangelism? (Or, is it?)

After the resurrection, Jesus gives many “convincing proofs” of the resurrection (1:3). The word Luke selects for “proof” (τεκμήριον) in this opening paragraph is word associated with other historical texts in the ancient world. The word is different than witness (a key word in Luke’s introduction to Acts) since “proof” refers to “evidential proof credible on its own merits” (EDNT, 340). Keener says the phrase “many proofs” appears in Hellenistic  historiography (1:666). The Greek historian Thucydides, for example, makes a statement the offers proof for the assertion using this word (2.39), and he used the verb in his introduction of his history with the sense of “prove positively” (1.3). I am not sure Luke would have intended this word to be understood in the same sense as Aristotle, who used the word in contrast to fallible signs (σημεῖον). For Aristotle, the word refers to “demonstrative proof” (LSJ).

Another way of understanding of the word is as a “confirming sign.” When Josephus created a speech for Joshua just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, he described the miracles Israel experienced in the wilderness as “many signs” (Ant. 5.39 διὰ πολλῶν τεκμηρίων). This is intriguing; perhaps Luke refers to Jesus doing things to prove he was actually alive (eating with the disciples, Luke 24:41-43) or miracles (John 21:4-8). The “signs” were proof Jesus was indeed alive.

Road to Emmaus Robert_Zund_ZUR010Most likely the “evidence” Jesus gave was scriptural proof drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus explained to the disciples the key texts about the messiah and demonstrated to them Scripture anticipated a suffering messiah who would die and rise again. Certainly the disciples needed to be convinced Jesus had really died and was not alive (John 20, Thomas), the bulk of the proof took the form of opening the disciples minds to the idea that messiah came to suffer and die before judging and ruling the nations. This is exactly how Luke ended his gospel, the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

Why would Jesus need to provide “convincing proofs”? In Second Temple Period Judaism, no one expected the messiah would die, let alone rise from the dead. A possible exception is 4 Ezra, but even in this book the messiah establishes a kingdom and dies after a very long reign. There was no Jewish expectation the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55 would die, and no one read that text as messianic quite the way Christians do.

Jesus gives these proofs or signs to draw his disciples to the conclusion the messiah had to die and be raised from the dead. This claim demands a decision from disciples but also the reader of Acts. If Jesus was who he claimed, then what is going to happen at Pentecost?

When we read Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3, there are several passages from the Hebrew Bible which could qualify as “convincing proofs.” What does Peter claim about Jesus in these sermons?

It might seem strange to even ask of the book of Acts ought to “apply” to the modern form of the Church. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The real question is whether the Church in the book of Acts is a model for the modern church to follow. Is the book of Acts normative for Christian practice today? To draw an application from the narrative of Acts is no different than applying a story from the David. But few Christians would advocate David’s experience as the way we ought to do church today (presumably only harps for music in the church, and a strict no-giant rule). Acts is different because it does present the origins of many church practices still used today.

242Some 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. Someone like Shane Claibourne would want to apply Jesus’ life of voluntary poverty followed by the earliest forms of Christianity. Often this is narrowed to just Acts 2:42 as a model for the ideal church (teaching, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread).

On the other hand, most Christians dispense with Acts as a guide for how to “do church” today. This may take the form of a liberal Christianity which ignores Acts as authoritative for the church, but more often how we do church has little to do with Acts and we make no apology for this. The “Acts 2” community did not have elders and deacons, they did not have church buildings and they certainly did not baptize or take communion in ways even similar to modern practice. There are no youth groups, choirs, praise bands, hymnals or Sunday School.  They did not even take an offering before the sermon! In fact, if you think about the things modern churches spend most of their time doing, the earliest forms of the church did none of them.

It is almost impossible to know exactly how the earliest church services were designed, how they worshiped, when they took communion (or how they took communion), etc.  In most denominations, how we practice these things are based on developing traditions since the reformation or even later!  Few people make the effort to say “this is how they did it in Ephesus, and that is all we ought to do today.”

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.

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, and that shift will result in some difficult times for the early church.

Is there any way to decide what practices we read about in Acts ought to be “normative” and practiced in the church, other than “that is the way I was taught in my church”? Why do we cling to some practices (teaching and fellowship) but reject others (voluntary poverty)?

Theo LukeThere is a third element of the book of Acts which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has wide variety of theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books and there are dozens of books on Luke as a Theologian.

Luke’s theological agenda is the main reason he writes Acts. While he does preserve history in an appealing and entertaining fashion, his main point to present a particular theological agenda. Does recognizing the fact a biblical writer has a theological perspective mean he is “non-historical”? Not necessarily, but there are some thinks Luke simply never addresses which are a matter of historical interest because they are not helpful for his theological agenda. For example, Galatians 2 seems to indicate a great deal more tension between Paul and Jerusalem than Acts 15. If all we had was Acts 15, then we might assume Paul and James worked through some minor differences and found an equitable solution. Galatians indicates Peter and Barnabas were both pressured by James to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles. Luke emphasizes the unity of the church at the time of the Jerusalem council; Paul emphasizes his independence from Jerusalem in his letter to the Galatians. Both are accurate, albeit both men write with different theological and apologetic reasons.

I want to suggest here at the beginning of a long series on the book of Acts that the final verses of the book may very well be the “theological statement” for Luke/Acts as a whole. In Acts 28:31-31 we are told Paul taught “freely and with boldness” because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. The disciples of Jesus all endure trials and persecution as the boldly proclaim the gospel, including two who are killed on account of their testimony (Stephen in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12). Paul spends quite a bit of time under arrest in the book, often in Roman custody but occasionally he is subject to mob-rule (he is beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the mob at Thessalonica, the riots in Ephesus).

Paul also faced opposition from Jewish Christians who want to impose the Law on Gentile converts. From the letters, Paul sees these threats from “insiders” as potentially more damaging to his churches than persecution from civil authorities. Galatians makes it clear that if the Gentiles accept this “other gospel” then Paul’s efforts have been in vain. Divisions and factions in Corinth threaten to destabilize what was potentially Paul’s most successful established church!

But at no point in the book of Acts is the gospel itself restrained.  Peter might be put in prison, but the Gospel is still free. Stephen and James may be killed, but the Gospel is still free. Paul may spend years under house arrest, yet the Gospel is still going out to the whole world.

By looking at the last line of the book of Acts we see how Luke wanted to end the story.  The idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books. Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” The gospel of Luke concludes with the same idea: Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture (Luke 24:44-49).

Acts begins with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming Holy Spirit which the Father promised to send (Acts 1:4).  This promise appears in Luke 3:15-17, but is drawn from the Hebrew Bible as well (Joel 2:28, Jeremiah 31:31-33). Acts is the story of how the fulfillment of God’s promise works its way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, ultimately to Rome itself.

I think this “theology of mission” holds the book of Acts together and may explain why Luke omitted some details we would have liked to have known about. Since unity of the church is important for Luke’s view of Gospel spreading throughout the world, he is less likely to give all the details of factionalism in the early church. Are there other illustrations of this theological agenda to be found in the book of Acts?

In the previous post I briefly discussed the problem of Luke as real history. I used the analogy on a film based on historical events. Luke was forced to select from a wide range of events those which fit his over all agenda and adapt what he did choose to fit the format of a short book.

It is obvious that Luke writes his story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists. These rhetorical elements are not simply flourishes added as an after-thought; they are essential to the way Luke “does history.”

LukePerhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book. At the end of Chapter 7, Saul is introduced as “approving” the stoning of Stephen. Luke then drops him from the narrative for a chapter to create tension.  The reader knows show this shadowy figure is, but Luke wants to build anticipation for Saul’s introduction. In chapter 9 Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he will be the “light to the Gentiles,” yet the plot line is dropped. Luke tells a series of stories about Peter before picking up the thread of Paul’s ministry in chapter 13. This is the work of a story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.

This way of writing history employs a number of rhetorical principles common in history writing in antiquity. Philip Satterthwaite lists elements such as selection and arrangement of material as methods common in Greco-Roman histories. Luke selected some material and ignores the rest. For Luke, who Paul is and how he came to be a part of the Jesus Movement is important, what Thomas did after the resurrection is of no interest at all. By arranging the stories as he has, Luke highlights the importance of Paul for his overall agenda.

In fact, Craig Keener points out that rhetorical techniques were pervasive in ancient historiography (1:131). Although historians sought to restrain themselves, no one opposed good rhetorical technique in history writing. While Polybius was accused of over-using rhetoric to stress the importance of his topic, ancient writers all used literary conventions in order to write a history that was pleasing to the reader.

This makes sense, since no one really wants to read the raw facts of history. A history writer always struggles to find a way to fairly present dry facts in a compelling way. This is why children learn more about history from educational cartoons than their history textbooks. Telling a story of a child who witnesses the events of the American Revolution is more compelling than memorizing a list of facts drawn from American history.

There is some range of opinion for how well Luke was trained in rhetoric. While scholars like Satterthwaite think Luke was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions (337), but Richard Pervo thinks Luke’s use of these styles would be considered rather unrefined to most educated Greek readers (Keener, 139). Keener explains Luke’s use of rhetoric by observing that his target audience is not necessarily the elite historian. In fact, there was no “professional historian” in the first century who would have naturally read a book like Acts. No one will place Luke’s book in the same category as the classic Greek historians, but he does work very hard to create a compelling story in order to present the expansion of Christianity.

One implication of Luke’s use of contemporary Greco-Roman conventions for writing “history as story” is that his original readers would have understood his presentation as a legitimate history, even though it might not qualify as history in the modern sense of the word. I suspect one’s faith commitment to Scripture will have a bearing on this issue, but to what extent does this view of “Luke as Historian” differ from contemporary understanding of history writing? Does it limit (or exclude, some would say) the book of Acts as a source for understanding the church in the first century?

Bibliography: Satterthwaite, Philip. “Acts Against the Background of Classical Rhetoric.” Pages 337-80 in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Volume 1. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

 

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Christian Theology

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