The Chronology of Acts 6

One of the frustrations of studying Acts is Luke’s tendency to offer only a few chronological clues for the events after the resurrection until the death of Herod in Acts 12. To complicate matters, Luke presents the story thematically in the early chapters, creating an overlapping chronology. The events of chapters 2-5 are a unit with a clear conclusion. Chapters 6-8 probably do not following immediately, but take place at about the same time. The difference is in the social and cultural location of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Luke does not say there is a shift from the Aramaic speaking Apostles to the Greek-speaking Hellenists. As I read Acts, the activities of Peter and John are more or less parallel to that of Stephen and Philip in the months after Pentecost.

Deacons Acts 6 Angelico,_niccolina_17The situation in Acts 6:1 occurs after Pentecost, although there is nothing to indicate how long. The Jesus movement is “living in common,” selling property and distributing food to the poor members of the community. The phrase “In these days” is used by Luke occasionally to signal significant stages in the story. In Luke 6:12 the phrase appears before the appointment of the 12, and in Acts 11:27 it appears as a reference to the prophets going from Jerusalem to Antioch.

The preaching of Stephen at least must pre-date Paul’s conversion since he is instrumental in the death of Stephen. Luke places his section on Philip between the introduction of Saul / Paul in 8:1 and his conversion story in chapter 9 in order to create narrative tension. The reader only knows there is a great persecution and the Hellenistic Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem.

Given these factors, James Dunn suggests that Stephen’s ministry began no less that 18 months after the resurrection (Beginning at Jerusalem, 257).  Perhaps this range can be narrowed a bit.  I am inclined to think that the appointment of the Deacons must have taken place fairly early since there are thousands of followers of Jesus after the two sermons Acts 2 and 3.  Luke tells us that the initial crowd included Diaspora Jews from every part of the Empire.  This means the group which turns to Jesus as the Messiah in Acts 2 and 3 undoubtedly included people from the Diaspora who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost. Some of these people chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than return home after accepting Jesus. This explains the need for believers live in common almost immediately (2:42-47).

How does this compressed chronology effect the way you read Acts? What changes in your perception of the persecution if there is only a matter of months between Pentecost and Stephen?

Acts 4:32-5:16 – A Christian Community

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.

Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 2)

[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

romans-1-16Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.

Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?

There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:

Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)

Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).

Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?

 

Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52

Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 1)

[This is the third set of guest posts from my Advanced Studies in Acts class. John Caprari is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries to walk this earth. The fruit of his labor is convincing enough! I’m sure Paul would suggest that he was simply a vessel. And a vessel he was. But, what does that mean? Some might say he just went wherever the Spirit led him. I might add, we should always be obedient to the direction the Spirit guides us in. With that being said, Paul did not just sit around and wait for anything supernatural happen.

Missionary ChurchRoland Allen is one of the classics of our era who have written on Paul’s missionary methods that many look to for understanding. He believes Paul’s ministry strategy was more a lack of strategy than anything else. He calls it spontaneous expansion: “This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the exhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church…” (Allen 10).

In his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church Allen argues that the less control we have over the church, the more growth we will see. The more freedom we allow the Spirit to work, the more expansion of the Church will happen. For Allen, no type of organization is important. The pre-requisites of a great missionary are: 1) faith and 2) dependence on the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit’s influence on Paul’s ministry is not only evident, but also vital. It’s the Spirit that called Paul and Barnabas out: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit who led them where they were to go: “The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). Just a few chapters latter in the narrative of Acts, Luke again shows the presence of the Spirit in these missionary journeys: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, have been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). I wonder what Paul was thinking after this: “Come on! There is so much potential in the province of Asia. The gospel needs to be preached there!” But, God had other plans.

These are just a few examples telling of the influence of the Spirit in Paul’s ministry. Surely, there are many more that communicate the Spirit’s guiding and also the importance of the Spirit’s ‘hand’ on the fruit of our work.

Can you think of any passages, especially in the book of Acts that communicate the absolute need of dependence on the Spirit in our ministry? Is Allen right in suggesting that we should drop all ‘control’ we have and allow more freedom for the Spirit to expand the Church? Is there room for organization and strategic planning in missions? Why or why not? Was Paul more strategically oriented in his ministry or was he completely dependent upon spontaneous expansion?

Acts 18 – Success Breeds Jealousy

After several very difficult experiences in Philippi and Thessalonica and an unfruitful visit to Athens, Paul finally experiences some good success in Corinth. After preaching in the synagogue he establishes a church that includes several key converts. Luke lists Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue.  Both of these were leaders in the synagogue and would have been valuable to Paul as leaders in a new church. A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. If Erastus was a convert at this time he would have brought some wealth and prestige to the church. In addition to these converts, Aquilla and Priscilla were in Corinth and eventually the teacher Apollos

art-thou-jealous-muchPaul may have been concerned his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before.  The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution.  He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.

1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure.  He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him.  Athens likely did not result in a church.  Will Corinth go just as badly?  Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.

In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.”  There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.

If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, to remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12).  But like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles.  Even if this means he will be persecuted.  This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth. He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.

An important observation here is Paul’s success was met with increased jealousy and persecution. Paul was obedient to his calling yet he was still suffering. Why is this? To what extent is Luke describing a successful ministry as a persecuted ministry? Compared to what some modern Christians seem to think, this is the opposite of what to expect. Yet for Paul, suffering confirmed he was doing exactly what God called him to do.

Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?

homer missionaryPaul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?

The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?

Homer College DegreeA second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.

While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well).  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.

Bob Dylan GospelDoes this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.

If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.

Acts 17:6 – Turning the World Upside Down

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed.

Upside DownFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.”  Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

All this leads me to wonder how we can present this “radical” the Gospel to the world today. Does the message of the Grace of God really appear to be “turning the world upside down”?