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Acts 4:32-5:16 is a vivid description of the early community of believers in Jerusalem. A text such as this provides a good opportunity to stop and think about how we ought to apply the book of Acts today.

Sometimes this group is described as living as communists since they “live in common” and seem to have re-distributed wealth.  Many traditional dispensationalists have therefore concluded that the future Kingdom will be some sort of socialist paradise with no private property, etc.  Try as I might, I cannot find this elsewhere in scripture nor am I communist so that I need to find biblical support for by economic theory!  Virtually everyone who treats this text finds some way to avoid the “living in common” aspect of Acts 4.

There is no call to sell our possessions and live “in common.”  The application is therefore rather general.  But people like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) would argue (passionately) that the earliest community of believers were putting into practice the ethics of Jesus (including economic ethics) by living as simply as possible. They did not build enormous churches and expensive structures – they simply met the needs of people. This is all true, of course, and that early community is important for how we might “do church” in a contemporary context. This earliest community is also very similar to the ideal Christian community Peter outlines in 1 Peter 3:8-12.

CommuneFrequently this text is invoked as a model for the church to follow today, with varying degrees of specific application.  For example, Allison A. Trites includes this text in her article on church growth (“Church Growth in the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 [1988]).  The reason the apostolic church grew was because the church cared for the needs of the poor and treated hypocrisy as a serious offense (5:1-11).  The point is well made – the growing church cares about the needs of people as well as the preaching of the gospel.  But does this point really come from Acts 4:32-35?

There is no question the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well. Even in the days of Justin Martyr Christians were interested in sharing possessions for the common good:  “We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have to a common stock, and communicate to every one in need” (Apology 1.14:2-3).

The big question is therefore: How do we apply the descriptions of the earliest Christian communities to the present Christian church? Or perhaps, should we try to apply these things to our church? Perhaps there is more going on here than Luke giving us a model for all churches at all times. I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity and I am by no means interested in any kind of “health and wealth” gospel – but I am also concerned with drawing ethical implications from this text.

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”?

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.

Beginning September 14, 2008, Rush Creek Bible Church begins a Sunday evening Bible study series based on the book of Acts.  In some ways my plan for Acts is ambitious.   My plan is to teach through Acts, finishing in May or June of 2009.  Some people might describe this as a very long series, others  will say I am being extremely brief! That is the way it is with the book of Acts, since there is a great deal of information in the book about how we got from Jesus of Nazareth to Paul in Rome.

My goal for this blog is to post a “teaser” for Sunday night on the Thursday before, and a reflection from Sunday evening on the Monday after.  There is a link to the audio for the series on this page, as well as a link to the notes for the evening a in PDF file.  The comments section is open for your responses, questions, and observations. I look forward to any interaction that comes out of our study together.

The book of Acts is not a sequel.  Rather it is an continuation of the project Luke began in his Gospel.  The “whole story” is Luke-Acts, and if possible, we ought to read Luke-Acts as a single work.  There are themes which run through both books and there are elements in Acts which are anticipated by the gospel of Luke.  Rather than seeing Acts as a second thought (or worse, a sequel), Acts should be read as the second half of Luke’s explanation of how the Gospel went from Galilee, through Jerusalem, and then to the whole world, including Rome.

One example of the relationship between Luke and Acts is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 3 John the Baptist says that the one who will come after him will baptize with “fire and the Holy Spirit.” This baptism of the Holy Spirit dos not occur until Acts 2 when the Spirit descends on the Apostles “like tongues of fire.”

So, why the book of Acts?  There are number of reasons, but a major motivation is the frequent mis-application of the book of Acts in the church today.  We really do not know what to make of the book, so we make it into what ever we choose, often running rough-shod over what Luke actually says in the book.  In some ways the book is about the “origin of the church,” but there is more going on in the book than this.  People often have the mistaken idea that the book of Acts portrays the primitive church as an ideal we ought to try to recreate in our congregations today.  In most cases people have a single issue in mind and do not apply Acts to all their practice, resulting in some serious difficulties.

So how are we to use the book of Acts?  We will work on this a bit on Sunday, see you there.

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Christian Theology

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