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The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But 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.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

Walton, Steve, Thomas E. Phillips, Lloyd Keith Pietersen, F. Scott Spencer, eds. Reading Acts Today. FS Loveday C. A. Alexander. LNTS 427; London: T&T Clark, 2011. 232pp. Hb; $130.00; Pb. 39.95 (2013).   Link to T&T Clark

Loveday Alexander is Professor Emerita in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield where she has been since 1986. Alexander is well known for her monograph Acts in its Ancient Literary Context: A Classicist Looks at Acts of the Apostles (LNTS 298; London: T&T Clark, 2005) as well as an important article on Luke’s preface to the book of Acts. She is honored by a former student Lloyd K. Pietersen in a preface to this festschrift.

Reading ActsThe first set of essays are grouped under the heading “Reading Acts in its Ancient Contexts,” beginning with Richard A. Burridge, “The Genre of Acts-Revisited.” Burridge is well-known for his work on the genre of the Gospels and in this important essay he applies the same methodology to the genre of Acts. He begins by surveying several options for their genre of the Gospel and Acts, including ancient history (Hengel and Dibelius), novel and epic (Pervo), and ancient biography with affinities to a historical monograph (Talbert). It is no surprise that he settles on the genre of bios for Acts, as he did in his What are the Gospels? (Eerdmans, 2004). To demonstrate this conclusion he examines the generic features of the book of Acts and uses a computer analysis of the verbs in the book to show that Paul is the subject of almost a quarter of the total, disciples another nearly 20%. From this analysis he concludes that Luke “he picks his key actors, namely Peter, Stephen, Paul and the other disciples, interpreting what is happening as the activity of God” (15). It appears the book of acts is “closely linked to both ancient biographies and the Gospels and its motive representation, size, structure, and use of literary sources” (23).

In the second essay in the section, Thomas E. Phillips asks, “Why Did Mary Wrap the Newborn Jesus in ‘Swaddling Clothes’? Luke 2.7 and 2.12 in the Context of Luke-Acts and First-Century Literature.” He begins by surveying symbolic “swaddling” in Greek literature beginning as early as the Homeric hymns. There is in fact a remarkably large number of examples of symbolic use of swaddling clothes in Greek myth him drama and poetry before the first century. For Phillips, the swaddling of Jesus is a “culturally appropriate Lucan sign indicating the birth of the divine son” (38). While it is possible this swaddling symbolism could be read as an anti-imperial rhetoric, Phillips grounds the use of the image in Luke’s specifically Christian theological agenda: “Luke was probably cloaking his Christian theology in the generic cultural garb of the first century and not countering any specific ancient text or tradition” (42).

In “Luke’s Use of Papias for Narrating the Death of Judas,” Dennis R. MacDonald develops something of a surprising argument for the origin of Luke’s Gospel. First, he assumes a date of 60-65 for the sayings of Jesus (which he calls Q+). Second, he thinks Mark knew Q and Matthew used both Q+ and Mark. Third, he dates Papias to about 110 and argues Luke used all four of these documents in 115-120. This Q+/Papias Hypothesis could be used to determine the contents of Q: “simply by comparing Matthew and Luke and expunging Markan contamination” (44). In order to test this hypothesis MacDonald studies the death of Judas in Matthews gospel, fragments of Papias found in Eusebius, and finally Acts 1:16-26. From this analysis, he claims “Luke not only knew Papias’ version of Judas’ death, he apparently knew Mathew’s as well!” (55). This intriguing hypothesis rests on a number of assumptions, not the least of which is a complicated Q theory. The source document known as Q has come under fire in recent years, perhaps limiting the usefulness for this proposal. I find it interesting that Mac Donald argues for a very late date of Luke yet accepts the traditional date for Papias. It seems the evidence for the date of Papias is taken at face value while external evidence for the date of Luke is not. If Luke is written in the 80s, a much more common view, then this hypothesis falls apart.

Scott Spencer’s contribution to the volume (“Scared to Death: The Rhetoric of Fear in the ‘Tragedy’ of Ananias and Sapphira”) pays close attention to the emotional impact of the strange death recorded in Acts chapter 5. After a few comments on Aristotle’s view of fear, Spencer suggest several objects of the sphere including God or the Holy Spirit, God’s apostle Peter, God’s adversary Satan, humanity’s ultimate foe Death, or loss of honor (shame or disgrace). As Spencer observes fewer does not concern the now dead couple but “the great fear gripping the whole church.” Ananias and Sapphira were the first to die in the Christian community but they were also the first to lie. He suggests perhaps Adam and Eve are the model for the story. Ultimately, the church “lives in the fear of the Lord” but also in the “comfort of the Holy Spirit” and it continues to grow in numbers.

Barry Matlock asks “Does the Road to Damascus Run through the Letters of Paul?” Matlock confesses he is a Pauline scholar attempting to study the biographical details of Paul’s life in the book of Acts. He recognizes some of the historical problems one encounters comparing calls version of his conversion with the book of acts. In addition he briefly wonders about whether to call Paul’s experience a conversion, a call, or even a transformation. He concludes all these terms are useful and he will use both conversion and call to “indicate Paul’s dramatic reversal and his sense of being appointed to a special task” (85). After surveying and analyzing Paul’s own reports of his conversion in the epistles, Matlock considers the New Perspective on Paul’s conversion. His main dialogue partner here is James Dunn, although he leans towards Francis Watson’s recent proposal that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles develop out of a failed mission to Israel. Matt luck in finding several points of comparison between Luke’s version of his conversion and Paul’s story from his epistles. Both have a sense of dramatic reversal after a time of deadly violence. Paul’s assertion of independence in Galatians is a point of contention. In Galatians Paul clearly claims to be independent of Jerusalem yet there is more cooperation in Acts.

The second section of the book, “Reading Themes in Acts,” begins with Joel B. Green’s essay, “Luke-Acts, or Luke and Acts? A Reaffirmation of Narrative Unity.”  Since the publication of Parsons and Pervo’s Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts in 1993 there has been a great deal of discussion over the designation Luke/Acts as a literary unit. For most of the twentieth century the scholarly consensus has been the two books were intended to be read together as a unit and there are theological themes running through both books. Green summarizes the canonical approach suggested by Robert Wall. Second, Green offers a summary of Kavin Rowe’s use of reception history. Third he examines Patricia Walters’ recent monograph The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts (2009). Walters argues that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by two different people. To support this she examines the seams and summaries in both Luke and Acts, concluding there is enough stylistic difference in these seams and summaries to suggest “with a high degree of probability” the books come from two different authors (109). Green critiques this suggestion on a number of levels, the most important is the small sample size Walters used for her comparison. Since only 31 verses (and four partial verses) were used for her stylistic analysis, the conclusion must remain tentative at best (111). On the other hand, Green argues the author of Acts was consciously finishing the story begin in Luke. To support this, he compares Luke 24 and Acts 1:1-14. For Luke, Green states, there is only one story to tell: “God’s gracious activity on behalf of Israel” (117). Acts 1:1-14 is transitional, alluding to Luke 24 as well as Luke 1-2. The book of Acts is therefore a continuation of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Church.

In “Luke’s Jerusalem Perspective,” James Dunn argues Luke based his presentation of Paul’s life from the version of the relationship of Paul and Jerusalem which he heard from Jerusalem itself. It is a well-known problem that the details of Paul’s life differ slightly in Acts when compared to Paul’s letters. Dunn agrees that Paul is the great hero of the second half of the book and the book may very well be Luke’s apologia for Paul, but Luke sought seems to have wanted to “rub off the jagged edges of Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem” in order to present the church has more unified and perhaps actually was (120-1). Order to make his case, Dunn first examines the resurrection appearances of Christ. These appearances are limited to the 40 days after the resurrection, meaning Paul himself would not meet the qualifications to be an apostle from Acts 1. With only one exception, Luke does not use the title apostle for Paul, despite Paul’s insistence he was appointed an apostle by the resurrected Jesus. From Jerusalem’s perspective, Paul would not be “one of the twelve.” The second piece of evidence is Luke’s presentation of two journeys to Jerusalem after Saul’s conversion. Dunn calls this “the most out rages disagreement between Paul and Luke” and he suggests the famine visit was undertaken by Barnabas alone (127). The third thread Dunn picks up is the relationship of the Jerusalem meeting and the apostolic decree (Acts 15) to the book of Galatians 2. He argues (as he has elsewhere) Galatians 2 and Acts 15 referred to the same meeting. Here Dunn suggests Luke tells the story from the perspective of the Jerusalem leadership (129). In Galatians to Paul’s reporting the meeting from his own perspective. Another well-known problem is Luke’s almost complete omission of Paul’s collection. Considering how important the collection is in Paul’s letters it is strange to find it completely omitted from the book of Acts. Dunn concludes Luke’s purpose is to present the beginnings of Christianity as he “essentially harmonious” (130).

In “Philological and Performative Perspectives on Pentecost,” Heidi J. Hornik & Mikeal C. Parsons examine Acts the perspective of performance rather than philology (meaning of words, syntax, etc.). While philology focuses in solely on the text, a performance study focuses on “the aftereffects of the text on a variety of readers” (138). In order to do this, the authors survey several pieces of art showing the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 in order to demonstrate how later readers enacted the text for themselves.

I. Howard Marshall argues Acts 20:28 is Luke’s equivalent to Mark 10:45 in his “The Place of Acts 20.28 in Luke’s Theology of the Cross.” Marshall argues Mark 10:45 was the “victim of Luke’s decision to drop the whole of Mark 10:35-45” (170). Marshall is reacting to Bart Erhman’s Orthodox Corruption, a recent popular work that Luke consciously eliminated Atonement Theology when Luke edited Mark’s gospel. Marshal finds this an unconvincing reinterpretation of the text (156) and he attempts to show Acts 20:28 serves as a kind of equivalent to the Atonement Theology found in Mark 10:45. Since Luke omitted the discussion of purity and the healing of the Gentile from Mark, the saying in Mark 10:45 had no context (159). Marshall shows that the phrase “through his own blood” in Acts 20:28 should be understood as representing an Atonement theology analogous to Mark 10:45.

In his “The Resurrection and its Witnesses in the Book of Acts,” Daniel Marguerat argues “witnessing to the resurrection” in Acts is not simply a repetition of the events following Jesus’ death. Witnessing to the resurrection is to read “history theologically,” or more precisely, Christologically (175). Witness is also “an announcement of the restoration of human beings” as well as a guarantee of the universality of salvation. Finally, “witnessing” must involve telling the story of one’s own life (183).

The final essay in the collection is by one of the volume’s editors, Steve Walton. He is concerned with an often overlooked theme in the book of Acts: “A Spirituality of Acts?”  People engage with God in the book of Acts primarily through divine initiative. God reveals himself to humans through angelic beings, the Holy Spirit, and dreams and visions. Another avenue of this divine initiation of spirituality the interpretation of Scripture and the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit (193). Even the name of Jesus functions as a divine agent in healings signs and wonders, forgiveness of sin, even deliverance for demonic powers. While there is a human response to this divine initiative, Walton points out it is usually a slow, partial response to God (194). People do not often know what is going on when God clearly reveals himself. For example, in chapter 8 the Samaritans fail to fully understand Philip and in Acts 11 the community fails to understand fully the significance of Peter’s Gentile mission. This is a realistic portrayal of “the slowness of religious people to change” (194). Other responses to God include attention to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship around the breaking of bread and prayer.

Conclusion. This collection of essays would be considered valuable simply because it includes important articles by Burridge, Dunn, Marshall and Green. Yet virtually every chapter is a valuable contribution to the study of the book of Acts and a fitting tribute to the dedicatee, Loveday Alexander.

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

In a previous post, I sided with the consensus view that there were God-fearing Gentiles in Synagogues in the first century, although I am hesitant to describe this as a semi-official class, nor do I think there was a significant number of these Gentiles. Part of my reason for this is the controversy which developed as Paul’s mission began to have success among the Gentiles.  If there was one or two Gentiles who wanted to worship in the Synagogue with the Jews that was manageable.  But by the time Galatians is written, there are so many Gentiles accepting Christ that some begin to wonder about their relationship to the Law.

Cornelius, however, is described as a pious Jew.  He performs “acts of kindness” not unlike Tabitha in Acts 9:36.  Since the Angel tells Cornelius that these acts of kindness have come before the Lord, it appears that there is some connection between his efforts and his vision.

The giving of alms was thought to atone for sin in Second Temple period Judaism, (in addition to the Sirach texts below, see Tobit 14:10).  This is important since he is unable, as a Gentile, to worship in the Temple. His only access to an “atoning sacrifice” is through prayer and alms – the equivalent of sacrifice for a Jew (Witherington, Acts, 348).

Sirach 3:14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins,

Sirach 3:30 As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.

Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, but as a second command he said “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:28-34).  This reflects the common thinking of first century Judaism.  The importance of charity and love as a practical outworking of the shema is seem in the many commands in the Old Testament concerning treatment of the poor.

As Ed Sanders points out, this love of neighbor and stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions: do not slander, oppress, rob, etc. (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 231).  If one’s heart is right before God, then one will take care of the poor; alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious there is a heart-problem.

This story resonates with the Hebrew Bible in many ways. Like Elijah or Elisha, Peter is going to a righteous outsider. Cornelius’s righteousness is expressed in terms of the Hebrew Bible and the Covenant with Israel. Cornelius is on the boundary between what it means to be Jew or Gentile.  He is a “model Jew” compared to Herod Agrippa or Simon the Tanner, except he is a Gentile!

 

 

 

Craig Keener asks an intriguing question in his section on the arrest of Stephen. The crowds at the Temple held Peter and the Twelve in “high esteem” as they taught daily at Solomon’s Porticio (Acts 5:13). When the High Priest sends guards to arrest them in Acts 5:26, they “were afraid of being stoned by the people” so they did not use force to bring Peter and John to the Sanhedrin. But where is the crowd when Stephen is arrested?

Keener suggests the content of Stephen’s reaching is the reason people do not support him quite the way they supported Peter. Peter directly confronted the High Priest, but did not condemn the Temple or worship at the Temple. Luke is clear these are false charges (μάρτυρας ψευδεῖς), but it is possible Stephen preached something which could have been taken as blasphemy “against the temple and the Law.” He offers an example another prophetic voice who attacked the Temple during the First Jewish Revolt. Jesus ben Annanias publically declared the Temple would be destroyed and was arrested and flogged (Josephus, J.W. 6.300-309, Keener 2:1322). Later Paul is under threat for challenging the authority of Artemis in Ephesus (Acts 19). To attack a central cultural symbol like the Temple will result in violent reprisals.

By way of analogy, a political commentator might offer a scathing critique of the President or Congress. They might question policies and decisions, accuse them (often falsely) of all sorts of “crimes and misdemeanors” in op-ed pieces or the daily talk shows. Most of the time Americans will tenaciously defend their right to free speech, even if they disagree with the content of the speech. But if a political commentator attacks the idea of America or burns a flag on TV, or crosses some politically correct line in the sand, their support will erode rapidly.

This appears to be the issue with Stephen. Everyone in Second Temple Judaism could complain about the High Priest, everyone thought the aristocracy is corrupt. But Stephen is saying the worship in the Temple is not acceptable to God (and perhaps has not been acceptable for a very long time). This is an attack at the most important cultural symbol in first century Judaism—the Temple.

the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1604The non-reaction of the crowds might reflect their belief that Stephen too far in his prophetic condemnation and they simply ignored him. (This is often the best strategy when a political commentator “goes too far,” just ignore him!) Another factor that should not be overlooked is the location of Stephen’s ministry, the Synagogue of the Freedmen. He is not teaching this in the Temple courts, standing with Peter in Solomon’s Portico and declaring the Temple is no longer a valid place to worship God. He is in a Hellenistic Synagogue.

I suggested earlier the Diaspora, Hellenistic Jews who worshiped in this synagogue may have been “more conservative” than those worshiping in the Temple Courts. At the very least, they appear to be far more sensitive to attacks on the Temple. Stephen does not have the tacit support of the Pharisees and priests in the Temple not the popular support of the crowds who may have enjoyed Peter’s jabs at the High Priest and his cronies. He is attacking a central symbol of Judaism in front of the people most likely to violently defend those symbols.

To what extent is Stephen’s speech a kind of prophetic condemnation of the Temple? But does he actually speak out against the Law or Moses? It is hard not to read later Paul into this sermon, but we have to keep Galatians out of Acts 7. Just how far does Stephen push the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews, and neither is numbered among the Twelve. It is possible these men were not followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost. Perhaps they were among the crowd who hear Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

This section is sometimes cited as an example of Luke creating a story in order to describe a smooth transfer of leadership from the Jewish followers of Jesus to the Hellenistic Jewish followers. But things are not as smooth as they appear. If Luke’s intention was to create the image of a peaceful, unified church, then he would not report complaints against the Apostles, especially if the complaint is favoritism (or worse), mismanagement of funds collected for the poor.

Hebrew and GreekActs 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). 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. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

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 language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

Aside from historical accuracy, does this matter for reading Acts?  I think it helps understand that the community of earliest believers were far more diverse than Acts 2-5 would imply. If Peter and John represent the only form of the early followers of Jesus, then it is hard to explain the violent suppression of Stephen. This diversity is less a “development” in the earliest church, but a factor present from the beginning.

I am teaching the book of Acts this semester, so starting this week will be actually reading Acts on Reading Acts. To celebrate I finally registered the domain for Reading Acts (so no more .wordpress in the URL, no ads and faster load times). They tell me I can use video now, although I doubt anyone really wants to see me blogging.

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

In the first week or two of the series, I will be working through some problems for reading Acts as a historical and theological document, then I will work my way through the book chapter-by-chapter. I will often use Craig Keener’s massive commentary on Acts as a discussion partner, but there are several new books in the last few years on Acts what will pop up over the next several months.

There will be several reoccurring topics in this series. First, I will often interact with Acts as a generally accurate description of the westward expansion of Christianity. This view is not without problems and my intention is to wrestle with the questions and see where that goes. Part of this struggle is the always problematic relationship of Paul and Acts. (I am reading Doug Campbell’s Framing Paul and his work may crop up from time to time.)

A second reoccurring theme will use of Acts by the contemporary church. One of the real problems for teaching or preaching Acts is the application of the book to how we “do church” today. Some recent writers want to embrace an “Acts 2” lifestyle and try to be the church like it was in the earliest days. This is not without theological or practical problems. Using Paul as a model for doing ministry is another popular application, but is the presentation of Paul’s ministry intended as a “how to guide” for planting and organizing churches?

A third thing I intend to do in this series is “ask good questions” even if I do not answer them. Since Luke cannot tell us everything about everyone, there are some real gaps in the book of Acts. What happens in those gaps may be as important as the story Luke tells. For example, where does Peter go when he leaves Mary’s house in Acts 12? We are not told, but the way Luke presents the material seems like a transition from Peter to James as the significant leader of the Jerusalem community.  This “gap” in the story seems extremely to me in the overall history of early Christianity.

This leads me to a fourth reoccurring theme. I do think Acts provides a framework for understanding early Christianity, not just in what he says but also in the direction in which he points. There are several places in the narrative foreshadowing where the story goes “beyond Acts.” For example, Paul’s speech in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders strikes me as looking forward to the problems the church faced in the latter third of the first century. It is no coincidence that the book of Luke would have been circulating at the time.

So that is the plan for the next few months, I hope you enjoy the series and I encourage you all to participate as fully as you would like.

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But 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.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

[On June 10, I preached at Bethesda Church in Prior Lake, Minnesota. Here are a few notes on my sermon on the last words of the book of Acts.]

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But 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.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

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Christian Theology

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