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The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.  You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

Stephen is arrested on false charges and put on trial (verses 11-15).  The false charges against Stephen concern his attitude toward the Law and the Temple.   Luke is clear that these are false charges against Stephen.  He is not against the Law or the Temple.  Dating as early as F.C. Baur in the early 19th century, it has been thought that there was an early schism among the Jerusalem community, with Stephen representing a sort of proto-Pauline movement away from the temple and Law.  Witherington cites Scharlemann’s study on Stephen as saying that the charges may be false but “not in the sense of being contrary to the fact.”  Stephen was in fact anti-Temple and Law, according to this view, even if the witnesses brought to the Sanhedrin were lying. But ultimately, we cannot know really what Stephen actually taught since he does not respond  the charges!   His speech is not a plea of innocence to the charges against him, but rather than he is speaking the truth to the Sanhedrin.

These charges are not unlike those brought before the Sanhedrin against Jesus. Ben Witherington observes that Luke is patterning the death of Stephen after the trial and execution of Jesus.  He has ten common elements, two of which only appear in Luke and Acts, that he commits his spirit to God and prays for the forgiveness of his accusers.

This is an important observation since in the Gospels the Jewish people reject Jesus as the Messiah, in Acts they are rejecting the promised Holy Spirit, the foundation for the Messianic Kingdom.  Both rejections are punctuated by an execution of an innocent man.  (This in no way says anything about Stephen being exactly like Jesus!)

Perhaps Stephen used Jesus’ statement that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, or even his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed in the near future.  This could have been used against him in the same way Jesus was accused of threatening the Temple. But Stephen (and Jesus for the matter) is in the grand tradition of offering a critique of the Temple and the Priesthood, begun by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and continued right through the Second Temple period. That a Jew would stand up and say the Temple was corrupt was not particularly revolutionary – but to say that the work of your teacher replaced the work of the Temple would have been radical.

Stephen represents a different strata of Second Temple period Judaism which has the potential to be more open to the gospel of Jesus as Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God.  But just like the Judean Jewish leadership, the synagogue of the Hellenists resist the Holy Spirit as well.  Stephen is therefore arrested like the Apostles have been before.  But in this case we will hear a lengthy condemnation on the nation for their resistence against the Holy Spirit, leading to his dramatic execution at the end of chapter seven and the equally dramatic introduction of Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church.

Just to stimulate my thinking for Sunday night I gave some though to the first few verses of Acts 6.

The end of Acts 5 read like a summary statement of the first movement of the book of Acts, and to a large extent the release from prison after Gamaliel’s speech marked an important moment for the Jerusalem community.  But there was more to that community than just the Jews from Jerusalem; many Diaspora Jews attached themselves to the apostolic movement.  The reason the apostles appoint deacons in chapter 6 is because Greek widows do not seem to be getting the same treatment as the “Hebraic Jews” (as the NIV translates 6:1).   The word “Jew” does not appear in then Greek, but Greek and Hebrew does.  Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem.

This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was.  To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish lifestyle.  There was something of a spectrum of practice, with the Qumran community on one end (extremely traditional, so that the Temple was too sinful for them), and someone like Philo of Alexandria’s nephew on the other (who totally abandoned his Jewish heritage in order to be a part of the Hellenistic government of Egypt) on the other end.  Most Jews, even in Jerusalem, found themselves somewhere between these two extremes.

What is happening in the Jerusalem community is that those who are more committed to a Jewish Christianity are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude.  This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem.  By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!  Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.  You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

In Acts 4-5 we read a description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. The success of this group bings them into sharp conflict once again with officials from the Sanhedrin. In Chapter 4 they arrested Peter and John and ordered them to no longer preach that Jesus was the messiah and that he has risen from the dead. Since they have continued the practice of teaching in the Temple, the High Priest and Sadducees respond by arresting all the disciples. This is the second step in dealing with a false teaching, from the perspective of the Sanhedrin. They have warned the apostles once, now twice. The next step will be further arrests and physical punishment.

When he hears that the apostles are preaching in the Temple again, the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” (verse 17). The High Priest and those present at the previous arrest of Peter and John. Here we are told that the group are from the party of the Sadducees. Since the apostles are teaching that the resurrection has begun with Jesus, the Sadducee party would immediately oppose them on doctrinal grounds. Since they do not believe in the resurrection, any teaching that said that the resurrection anticipated in the prophets was beginning would be considered wrong.

But there is more to this than a doctrinal difference – these are the men that killed Jesus in the first place. To claim that a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) has been raised form the dead by God is to declare that the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God.” Gamaliel will make this connection later in the passage.

“Jealousy” is the same word which may be translated “zeal,” a word Paul uses to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he as willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law. For a Pharisee to say he was a zealous keeper of the Law, the Jewish listener in the first century may have thought of Judas Maccabees, the forefather of the Pharisees himself, and his zealous defense of things Jewish in the Revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. 

1 Maccabees 2:24-29  When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there . . .

Zeal in the first century was, in the words of N. T. Wright, something that you did with a knife. (What Saint Paul Really Said, 27.) Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:10) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The unfortunate thing for the High Priest is that this zeal is misdirected, as it turns out. They are, as Gamaliel says, fighting against God! For me, this is a rather sobering thought, that I could be so convinced I am right that I oppose a genuine movement of God. For me, the words of Gamaliel are quite important: Consider carefully….

OK, I was a sluggard and did not get this post done.  My apologies!  The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.  You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure int eh book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Joseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement.”

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus. When he accompanies Paul on the first missionary journey, the first location they travel to is Cyprus, perhaps to people who knew Barnabas quite well.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth.

Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.

Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.

The word used to describe the sin (“kept back” in verse 2-4) includes the idea of financial fraud, such as embezzlement. BDAG describe it as “a type of skimming operation.” The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.

Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit.

His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just ast the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.

Remember that the community in Jerusalem is a new Israel, and like the original founding of Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.

The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, although they are in the process of migrating their data to new servers, so there may be delays (as of 10/13/08).   Once again there were a number of great questions and comments after the service, I appreciate the continued conversation.

In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time.  He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship.  While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship.  In both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible.  Both sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom.  As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people” (Acts, 189).

I want to focus here on Peter’s defense before the council.  His claims that the council has rejected the Messiah, based on the interpretation of Psalm 118:22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”   The early church did find a great deal of significance in the Psalm 118 passage, it is cited in by Jesus in Mark 12:1-12, here in Acts 4:11, cf., Rom 9:33; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:6–8 and in the early church, see Barnabas 6:2–4 , Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 36.1. The use of this verse goes back to Jesus in Mark 12:9 as a conclusion to the Parable of the Vineyard.

There is likely an intentional wordplay between “son” and “stone,” ben and eben in Aramaic. This sort of wordplay is found in the Old Testament, see Exod 28:9–10. The most remarkable parallel comes from the Aramaic Targum on Psalm 118:22, which reads “The boy which the builders abandoned was among the sons of Jesse, and he is worthy to be appointed king and ruler.”  The Jewish interpreters took the “stone that was rejected” as a son of Jesses, specifically, David.  “It is more plausible to view this as fragments of an agenda generated by Jesus, inspired by certain Scriptures, frequently interpreted in light of their understanding in the Aramaic-speaking synagogue, and passed on by his disciples”

Peter therefore states before these men that the man they condemned to death was in fact the fulfillment of Ps 118:22, the real son of David and messiah.  But Peter does not quote the same text as the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.  The verb for “to reject” in Psalm 118:22 is different than in Acts 4:11.  In Acts means “to scorn or disdain, or to reject disdainfully” (BDAG). Luke used the verb to describe the treatment Jesus received during his crucifixion Luke 23:11.  A stone cannot be despised or scorned, therefore the a verb which is more appropriate to the treatment Jesus received is chosen.

This is a subtle change, but one that would have been powerful considering his audience.  These men knew their Bible well, and they also knew what sort of torture Jesus suffered in his final day.  Peter is saying you not only rejecting the chief cornerstone, you beat him bloody and tortured him!   The fact that the Psalm refers to the builders may also be significant.  The Temple was still being rebuilt at this point in history.  The people in charge of the continued expansion of the Temple mount were the chief priests and elders, the very people to whom Peter is speaking!  (This is a stinging criticism: “You are so busy with your building projects that you could not recognize the messiah when he came!”)

What I find remarkable is that Peter, an unschooled layman, is able to use the scripture Old Testament make a point in the same general way that the teachers of the Law would have.  The sorts of observations about words and subtle shifts of wording to contemporize a text are quite common in rabbinic exegesis.  Peter is doing this because Jesus taught him what the text meant and the Holy Spirit has inspired him to do so.  It is also possible that Peter had more “training” that is often thought, since when we first meet him in the gospels he is attached to John the Baptist and looking for the Messiah.

There are a number of important points in chapter three, I want to highlight only one of theme here.  In the RCBC Evening Service we saw that Peter used the healing of the lame man to explain to the crowd that Jesus was the Messiah and that they were responsible for killing him.  This is a bold suggestion, but it is more bold yet when Peter claims that the repentance of the nation will lead to the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Even though the people acted in ignorance, the they must still repent (3:19-21).  Why are they to repent? Typically we think of repentance of personal sins, but in this context it appears that Peter has the sin of rejecting Jesus in mind.   This is the sin which appears in the immediate context.  The crowd was responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate, they were the ones who refused to release him instead of Barabbas.  Certainly personal sin needs to be confessed and repentance ought to occur, but that idea does not come from Acts 3, and perhaps not even in Acts 2.  If these two chapters are parallel, then the “repent and be baptized” of 2:38 may very well refer to the sin of rejecting the Messiah as well.

The first result of this repentance is that their sins may be wiped out. The word here is “to blot out,” as in the wiping of tears in Rev 7:17, 21:4, or the blotting out of names from the book of life in Ps 68:29. The word was used for cleaning ink from a papyri sheet so that it could be used again, which in turn became a metaphor for obliterating something and leaving no trace. There are a number of Second Temple period texts which indicate that when the nation repents, God will forgive them and establish this kingdom.  (T.Dan 6:4, T.Sim 6:2-7, T.Mos 10:1-10, 4 Ezra 4:39).   In addition, there were at least some elements of Judaism in the first century which thought that the nation ought to repent and be baptized in order to see God’s messiah come and re-establish a kingdom for Israel.  The Qumran community sounds many of these same themes.

The second result is that the “Times of Refreshing” will come. The phrase is unusual, only appearing here in the New Testament, and while the words appear elsewhere in the LXX, there is not exact equivalent phrase. The phrase has the idea of “messianic refreshment, the definitive age of salvation.” There are, however, a number of similar phrases in the literature of the Second Temple period which indicate that the language would have been well understood by the biblically minded Jews in Solomon’s Portico that day.  See 4 Ezra 7:75, 91. 95; 11:46, 13:26-29, 2 Baruch 73-74; 1 Enoch 45:5, 51:4, 96:3.  Referring to the coming kingdom as “times and seasons” is also common, especially using the Greek kaivro”.  This word for time has the idea of the right time, the appointed time.  Jesus used it in Acts one, telling the twelve it was not for them to know the “times and the seasons.”

A third result is that God will send the Christ, Jesus who will fulfill the words of the prophets. Peter claims here that if the nation repents, then the messiah will return and establish the kingdom promised in the prophets.  What is more, the ones who repent will participate fully in that kingdom, since a major aspect of the Messiah’s return (in virtually every view of the messiah) was a separation of “real” Israel from “false” Israel.  Just as Jesus described the beginning of his kingdom as a separation (wheat from weeds, clean fish from unclean, even sheep from goats.)  When Christ returns, he will restore all things (verse 21), a term which is also unique in the New Testament, yet a theologically packed term.  The word does not appear in the New Testament or the LXX, but seems to have the sense of restoring creation to its original state.  This too is a major expectation of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Second Temple period, the kingdom would be a restoration of the world to Eden-like conditions.

So, which way will the nation go in the following chapters?  Will they respond to the preaching of Peter and repent of the sin of killing the Messiah, or will they continue in their rejection of him and therefore be “cut off”?

I finally did a “pre-blog” for Sunday Evening!  I intended to do several of these, but I have been too busy to get them written.   Here are some thoughts on the parallels between the two sermons in Acts 2 and 3.  It looks to me like Luke is intentionally patterning the chapters as parallel accounts.  Perhaps this is part of a “witness” motif, since what follows is a fairly strong condemnation of Israel for their rejection of the Messiah.

There are many parallels between Acts 2 and 3.  Before the stories contained in either chapter, the discipels are gathered together and described as being in prayer.  In each God does a miracle through the disciples which is witnessed “men of Israel” but is not fully understood.  After each miracle, Peter addresses a crowd for the purpose of explaining the meaning of the miracle, and in each sermon he invokes texts from the Hebrew Bible which indicate that the miracle is an indication of the dawning of the new age of the Messiah.  In each sermon Peter accuses the Men of Israel of crucifying the Messiah, but God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him the Messiah and showing that he was the suffering servant of Isaiah.  In each sermon Peter declares the repentance is required for the Messiah to return and establish his Kingdom.  Finally, in each story many from the crowd believe the preaching of Peter and turn to Jesus as savior.

Chapter 3 is a bit more pointed than chapter two – Peter says that the people who are hearing the sermon are guilty of killing the Messiah, they shouted for Barabbas rather than Jesus! It is also more pointed in its description of what will happen when they repent – the “Times of Refreshing” will come.  It appears, then, that Peter is promising the soon-return of the Messiah after Israel repents.

What we see therefore here in Acts is a clear offer of the kingdom.  Acts 4-8 will describe the response to this offer from the majority of the “men of Israel.”  Despite large numbers of Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah and Savior, Israel as a nation continues to resist the Holy Spirit in the chapters which follow.

This Sunday Evening I will try to flesh out this sketch of Peter’s sermons in Acts 2 and 3 and show that what is happening in Jerusalem just after the ascension is, as Peter claims, “fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

I had several interesting conversations after the service on this topic.  My guess is there were people who were new to sort of thinking, and others who were “veterans.”   Understanding Pentecost is critically important to what we do with the rest of Acts.  To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net.

If the Ascension is an undervalued event in the gospel story, Pentecost might very well be so emphasized that we have lost the meaning of this very important event.  Because of the presence of tongues in the passage, Acts two is a critically important text for Charismatics (hence Pentecostal churches).  Because this event appears to be the first time believers in Jesus are given the Holy Spirit, it is associated with the beginning of the Christian church, as opposed to Judaism.

That this event is important is beyond question, but why it is important is lost in our familiarity with it and because of  over-theologized preaching.  This is a passage rich in imagery drawn from apocalyptic prophecy, imagery that would have resonated with the Jews who heard this preaching as the dramatic in-breaking of the Kingdom.

Peter associates this baptism with a few eschatological texts drawn from the Old Testament. These texts were always associated with the beginning of the Messianic Age, what we call the Kingdom today.  Peter seems to be declaring in this text that the kingdom age is beginning with the descent of the Holy Spirit.  If this is the beginning of the new age, and if this new age is the Kingdom of God as anticipated in the Hebrew Bible, then what follows in Acts is not exactly what the jews were expecting in a Kingdom.  Israel is not liberated, the Temple is not purified, the messiah does not return to rule the nations, nor do the nations recognize the God of Israel, nor do the nations come to Mt Zion to worship the God of Israel.  In fact, the opposite seems to occur: in the book of Acts, Israel is set aside and the nations are given the gospel of Jesus Christ apart from Israel!

There are a couple of options for dealing with this problem.  One is to see the church as the replacement of Israel, and that the replacement happens here in Acts two with the descent of the Holy Spirit.  The promises made to Israel are therefore understood as describing spiritual blessings rather than physical blessings; the kingdom is fully present in the ministry of the apostles in a spiritual sense and there is no anticipation of a real messiah or messianic kingdom in the future.

A second option is to see the future kingdom as postponed entirely.  What happens on the day of Pentecost is the establishment of the church more or less as we know it today. When people are first baptized by the Holy Spirit the church age begins and the Jews are set aside for a time. Using Romans 9-11, it can be argued that when these times of the gentiles are fulfilled, then God will once again work with his people and the kingdom will come, Jesus the Messiah will return as a conqueror and the nations will acknowledge his lordship.

A third option sees Peter as really expecting the kingdom as about to happen, but the Jews reject the Holy Spirit as they did in the Father in the Old Testament and the Son in the Gospels.  After chapter 3, there are a series of reports of persecution, imprisonment and eventually execution of the representatives of the Messiah, culminating in the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.  Dramatically Luke describes Saul, the man who gave approval for that execution, as persecuting these followers of the Messiah in Jerusalem and later in Damascus.  After his encounter with the risen Jesus in Acts 9, he becomes a strong witness for Jesus as the Messiah, but he is also called to be the  “light to the Gentiles,” the man who announces that Israel has rejected the Spirit and God was now turning to the Gentiles.  Some aspects of “kingdom” do persist in the present church age: The presence of the Holy Spirit, the Blood of the New Covenant, for example.  But now in Christ, Paul says, Jews and Gentiles are reconciled into a single body without respect to the Works of the Law, Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism to be saved as they did before.

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

There are a number of important things in this chapter, so I will highlight just one of them from our Sunday evening Bible Study.  Towards the end of the session I was asked about the nature of the Kingdom predicted by Jesus in this text, is this a spiritual kingdom (i.e., the Church) or is this a literal kingdom?  I believe that the disciples who asked the question were thinking of a literal kingdom and Jesus’ response does not correct that understanding.  Perhaps that kingdom is not exactly what the disciples expected, but whatever it is, it is the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as predicted in the prophets.

While in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus and the disciples gathered in their usual location on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:6-8).  Some disciples asked if Jesus was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at this time.  This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37 (cf., Mt 24-25).

In Luke 21 Jesus has offered a stinging critique of the Temple and its leadership and walked out of the Temple through the east gate to the Mount of Olives.  While walking through the beautiful buildings and gate, Jesus predicts they will be destroyed.  At least some of the disciples ask at that time about the timing of this event – is Jesus about to restore the kingdom, perhaps judge the current corrupt priesthood and replace it with a pure priesthood?  This is the same sort of question someone at Qumran might have asked, since they too thought the priesthood in Jerusalem was corrupt and would be replaced by a more pure priesthood (i.e., their sect!)

After the resurrection, it was only natural to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of the resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations.  Again, this was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity.  Beginning with the people of God themselves, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them (depending on their response or the attitude of the writer describing Messiah’s activities!)  Very often these enemies were within the nation itself.  Individual groups identified the primary enemy of a pure Jewish faith as corrupt priests, people who did not fully keep the law, etc.   The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted: Jeremiah 16:15, 23:8, 31:27-34, Isaiah 2:2-4, 49:6, Amos 9:11-15, as well as Tobit 13-14, 1 Enoch 24-25, PsSol 17-18, The Eighteen Benedictions 14.   Luke even began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (2:24-32).

Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored, but they 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. On the other hand, that the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all.  These men are quite literally the most unlikely group of people to be commissioned with the task of announcing the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

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.

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Christian Theology

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