Acts - Part 1

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Acts - Part 1

 

(Note: Even though this is a continuation of the Gospels: an Introduction and survey, it is also listed as the first of the lectures & sound files used in conjunction with the textbook from Pentecost to Patmos as stated in the sound file, itself. According to the lecturer, it is taken from the course: Acts to Revelation by Craig Blomberg, the sequel to this course. The header of this lecture, however, is entitled: Acts Part 1, of which there are a total of five parts.)

 

I. Introduction

At long last, we come to the Book of Acts. Here is ‘one of a kind’ document. We don’t have to deal with the problems raised by having four separate Gospels but neither do we have the strengths of the extended information that we have when studied the four parallels. The Book of Acts is the sole work of New Testament history describing the first Christian generation from approximately AD 30 into the early 60’s. And for those churches wishing to be true to Biblical and New Testament models, there are frequent appeals to the events in the Book of Acts. Due to the fact that this is largely a descriptive rather than prescriptive narrative, we need to look for clues the narrative leaves us, to see whether any event depicted is primary a good model to be imitated, a bad model to be avoided or simply an important event in which we can learn information about the progress and growth of Christianity; without an explicit model meant to be imitated or avoided. To illustrate some of the complexities of the issue, the PowerPoint slide entitled, ‘Appling Transitional Narratives,’ let’s ask the question, ‘what would you do with …., for example, in Cenchrea, the port town near Corinth in Act 18:18, where Paul had his hair cut off because of a vow he had taken. It sounds like one of the forms of the Nazarite vow introduced and legislated for in the Hebrew Torah. Does Paul’s practice imply that he still thought this was an important ritual for at least some Christians or at least some Jewish Christians? Because these vows are often accompanies or responds to God’s sovereign intervention and rescue in answer to prayers in difficult circumstances. There is nothing inappropriate about the practice in New Testament age, even after we read all of New Testament revelation. But neither is such activity prescribed nor does any character besides Paul in the New Testament ever explicitly imitate it. This suggests that this is one of those transitional elements that do depict Paul being faithful to certain portions of his Jewish background. Perhaps, the rituals that were particular meaningful to Paul but he would not prescribe that others should or should not follow him in this matter.

Consider again, three chapters later on in Acts 21:20-24, when Paul returns to Jerusalem, many very conservative Jews and apparently some Jewish Christians have come to the conviction that Paul is actually teaching gentiles in his proclamation of the Gospel to turn away from the Laws of Moses, to forbid circumcising their children or practice any of the customary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures. If Paul was preaching a ‘freedom from the law’ message, it’s clear from books like Galatians and Romans how one can understand this changed to rumor, developed and spread. But it went clearly far beyond what Paul actually taught. So as an appeasement James and the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians suggests in verse 23 that because there are four men with them who have made a vow, was it an identical kind to what Paul made in chapter 18, we don’t know that; Paul and company should take these men (verse 24), join in their purification rights and pay their expenses so they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know that there is no truth in these reports about you, that you yourselves are living in obedience to the law. Paul agrees and goes ahead but in so doing is mistakenly accused of bringing a gentile into the court of the Jews and the Temple, leading to a riot and Paul’s near death. The Romans soldiers subsequently have to arrest him thus rescuing him as it were from the Jewish crowds. Is this simply an extreme example of Paul practicing what in 1st Corinthians 9:19-23 where he describes himself as being all things to all people?

Paul includes himself as being as one under the law, to win those under the law even though he was not under the law as such as in Jewish thinking but was under the law of Christ. If so, he did it for a different reason than the Jerusalem Christians were suggesting, namely to show people he was living in obedience to the law. Or was this a moment of weakness on Paul’s part and apply his principles beyond ways in which it should have been applied, particularly if as part of joining in their purification rites, we are to understand that Paul would have offered animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. But there are a variety of purification rites so this latter conclusion is by no means the only way to read the narrative. The story is ambiguous and transitional just like the previous one. At worst, it would appear that Luke could by his selection and juxtaposition of events be suggesting that on this one occasion Paul went too far and thus his ploy backfired.

Finally, consider, please, if you will, the best known of these three examples on this slide accusing the helpers to serve from among the Hellenistic Jews when the apostles from the Hebraic Jews were so over worked. On the one hand, it goes beyond the text of Acts, here or elsewhere to claim that this was the first of a broken series of examples of Christian fellowships choosing what would eventually become traditionalized under the label of deacons. On the other hand, when that practice did occur, it was with reference to Acts 6:1-7, the initial model that inspired a more ritualized practice. The context of Acts, the significance of the hierarchy of leadership established and more, the abiding concern of the first Christians, described already in the closing verses of Acts 2 and Acts 4 depicted again in Acts 11: 27-30 to help the poorest and neediest particularly in their mist of fellow believers. There are models in Acts showing how they met this need, including the one in Acts 6 where each model is approximate in certain kinds of circumstances and others not envisioned in this time period, much less practiced, may well be legitimate in other times and circumstances. But the kind of principle is caring for the neediest, particularly in Christian community. With this backdrop of the complexity of applying the Book of Acts prepares us for our reading of it and commenting on exegetical highlights throughout.

The slide labeled, The Time Line of the Writing of Acts, reminds us from what we discussed in our introduction in the Gospel of Luke. That Luke is almost certainly literarily dependent on Mark, thus, much depends on the dating of Luke-Acts and on the dating of Mark. If Mark can be dated to late 50’s or early 60’s, then Luke and Acts can be as early as 62 AD thus accounting for the abrupt ending of the Book of Acts which Paul anguishes in house arrest in Rome without knowledge of the results of his appeal. Luke would have written it before those results were known. If as the critical consensus is more inclined, Mark is to be dated to the late 60’s or into the mid 70’s. Then obviously Luke and thus Acts must come still later, a date in the 70’s or 80’s becomes plausible with the 80’s being the most common suggestion. There are other ways to account for the abrupt end of Luke, most notably that the abrupt end of Acts brings the Gospel to Rome, the heart and center and capital city of the Empire which is precisely the climax toward which Luke has been narrating.

II. An Outline of Acts

An outline of Acts that seems to do best justice as to the content and the structural or narrative clues that Luke leaves behind is represented in the PowerPoint slide. This begins with the instruction to the founding of the church through the events of Pentecost in 1:1-41, and then it divides the book into two main halves; the first characterized primarily by the Christian mission to the Jews with Peter being the common protagonist. The second characterized by the Christian mission to the gentiles with Paul as the most common protagonist, though there are increasing appearances of pre-cursives to than actual initial steps to the gentile mission even in part one, even with characters other than Peter. And there continued to be a reminders that neither Paul nor anyone else figures in part two ever gives up altogether on the Jewish mission.

III. Fixed Points in the Chronology of Acts

Six times in the Book of Acts, Luke pens what is often called summary statements that read as if a segment of material is coming to an end. These occur at 6:7, 9:31, 12:25, 16:5, 19:20 and 28:31. Each of them in essence refers in some aspect of the Word of God, growing and spreading in general progress of the Gospel. At first glance, at least some of these seem to be distributed randomly around the Book of Acts but on closer inspection, it seems quite reasonable to postulate that a broad geographical advance of the Gospel has come to an end with each of these summary statements as indicated by gold colored sub-headings one, two and three under both, parts 1 and 2 of our outline. If we then elaborate in more detail on the chronology of the events described in the Book of Acts, those items in white lettering represent the fixed point that can be established completely apart from the New Testament altogether; in the first three instances through the writings of Josephus and in the final instance through the Gallio inscription found in Corinth. Of course, the ascension of Pentecost also have to come the same year as the crucifixion so all of the information went into dating that event which we discussed in Jesus and the Gospels way back in chapter ten comes to bear as well.

The accession of Festus then reverts back to information that can be determined with reasonable probability from Josephus. Once we have these dates, we can then use information from the Book of Acts and begin to fill in additional details. Occasionally, data from Paul’s epistles will prove beneficial in this respect as well. Thus, Galatians 1 describes a seventeen year period of time between Paul’s conversion and the events that immediately precipitated the Apostolic Council with Paul’s first Jerusalem visit three years after his conversion and then another fourteen before his second journey to Jerusalem. This allows us to fill in the first set of gold lettering references. The amount of time required for the second missionary journey, including the one and a half year stay in Corinth as narrated by the Book of Acts, followed by the third missionary journey with a nearly three year stay in Ephesus also according to Acts and then Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his arrest and imprisonment for two years under Filex before the Accession of Festus; after which he appeals to Caesar, the ill-fated, over the winter ship wreck and lodging on the Island of Malta, leading to his arrival in Rome the next spring and staying in house arrest there for two years, enables us to round out the chart with remaining dates.

IV. Exegetical Notes on Acts 1-2

We now turn to the Book of Acts and begin to focus on some of the exegetical detail that is of particular significance. Jesus as he appears to the disciples and is preparing them for his more permanent departure at the ascension, echoes themes that we discussed in the Olivet Discourse. One of the disciplines in Acts 1:6 ask the question, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?’ The crucifixion and resurrection having been no doubt for them a very unanticipated, though by now appreciated pair of events. He replied, ‘it is not for you to know the time or dates the Father has set by his own authority and as we mentioned before, the words here are also translatable as ‘times and seasons’, do not refer to any set period of time but are the broadest such expressions in the Greek Language suggesting that it is every bit inappropriate to guess a year or decade or generation or even a century as the time of Christ’s return as it is to claim to know the day or the hour.

For those who want an abbreviated outline of the Book of Acts, 1:8 has been perceived as providing one. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, introductory to that of Pentecost and then a simple three fold geographical division of the expanding Gospel ministry as they will be witnesses or testifiers to Jesus and his activity, first in Jerusalem, closest to where they are at this time and then moving out into the other two provinces: first, in the province in which Jerusalem appears and then Samaria and ultimately to the ends of the earth. Jesus proceeds to ascend into heaven; theologically, the significance of this event is that he is returned to the right hand of the father so it is all now complete; thus far it has not been during the forty days of appearing and disappearing for resurrection appearances. The disciples believe on the basis of typological interpretation of Scripture that they must replace Judas and they do so by a means of decision making which thoroughly Scriptural in the Old Testament, a casting of lots, but which is never repeated and probably not coincidental that shortly thereafter, the Spirit who ultimately is behind such decision making, is now poured out on the disciples permanently in ways that it was not in Old Testament times, suggesting that listening to the guidance of the indwelling Spirit replacing the casting of lots for such decision making. A classic example of applying the principles of how to deal with transitional materials was illustrated in our first PowerPoint slide accompanying this lecture.

As only will the disciples be indwelt or baptized or powered by the Spirit at Pentecost and at that moment forward. On repeated occasions they will be described as filled with the Spirit, fully yielded to the Spirit’s power who permanently now indwells believers, in Luke and Acts in particular the numerous references to individuals being filled with the Spirit always accompanied by some reference to bold and dynamic ministry, particularly in the prophetic proclamation of the Gospel. The filling of the Spirit, if we are going to use the term biblically, it does not refer to a once or all action nor does it refer to some second special blessing after initial salvation, but it is the state which all believers are immediately amerced when they become Christians. But they remain filled with the Spirit only to the extent that we remain fully yielded to Jesus and that in fact is a state that comes and goes throughout our imperfect still sinful Christian lives. Disciples experienced the supernatural ability to speak in known languages such that numerous Jews from all regents of the Roman Empire in town for the already existing harvest festival of Pentecost are able to hear them speaking in their own languages. This is not the same as what later will be called glossolalia in the epistles of Paul that require the same person or another to exercise the gift of the interpretation of tongues. No interpretation is needed here, but neither is it what is sometimes called Zenoalalia, which means to speak in a foreign language, a phenomenon sometimes experienced on the mission field of a person speaking a language he or she had not formally studied, precisely in order to communicate the Gospel where otherwise would have been impossible. But in this context, there was already a lingua franca, Greek. Peter proceeds after this miracle to preach an ordinary sermon in the Greek language which can be understood by of the diaspora Jews so that the purpose of these tongues must be rather to capture the attention of the crowds and authenticate it as God given message which Peter subsequently proceeds with. Theologically, the central significance of the events of Pentecost is interpreted by Peter in reference to prophecies in Joel 2:20-32 at the time of the inauguration of the New Covenant when the Holy Spirit would be poured out and not only now permanently on all of God’s people (i.e. followers of Jesus), but in a completely egalitarian fashion, both sons and daughters, both young and old, both slaves and free, both male and female slaves so that wherever one comes down on the issue of gender roles in the church with respect to particular leadership offices. There should be no debate that all of the gifts of the Spirit and the full exercise of those gifts are potentially available to every category of human being limited only by the Spirit’s sovereign choice on whom he will bestow any given gift or gifts. At the end of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon in 2:42-47, we read first of four key elements of initial gathering of these fledgling believers which have characterized almost all forms of church life ever sense, appear to be therefore problematic for the core essence of what the gathered community of believers is all about. The apostle’s teachings now available more indirectly through Scripture, fellowship (Koinonia) is intimate sharing, including materials processions as anyone had need. The breaking of bread, a communal meal, probably implying a celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord’s super as well and to prayer of many different kinds. Intriguingly in 2:43-47 as this fellowship and communal sharing is unpacked, we read what became a part of Karl Marks’ famous communist manifesto, saying: ‘to give to anyone as he has needs, (verse 45) and the other half from each according to his ability. Well, later, it appears also that in Acts 11:29. Karl Mark’s mistake was not in his goals but rather, the fact that he attempted to legislate these ideals instead of seeing them as voluntary practices and no doubt, far more seriously doing so by deliberately trying to eliminate God from the picture through his atheism. Arguably, it is only people whose lives have been transformed by the living God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ that would ever voluntarily choose to live in this fashion. But as noted a few moments ago, given that other models for meeting the needs of the poor appear even in the Book of Acts. While this model should not defecate as it has sometimes been as a failure or mistaken venture. Neither is it needing to be absolutely pious; Christians in every context must seek wisdom to determine what likely is to be most successful in meeting their objectives of helping the poor.

V. Patterns of Salvation

We now return to the climax of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon, itself. Perhaps the most famous verse in chapter two is Acts 2:38 when in response to the question, ‘brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied, repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ This is what may be called a Pentecostal package of belief, baptism and the forgiveness of sin as indicated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This indeed is a consistent collocation of events throughout the New Testament from this time hence forward, including the Book of Acts, with three apparent exceptions: Acts 8 where there appears to be a gap between belief and baptism and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10, there appears to be a gap in the reverse direction and then in Acts 19, where John’s disciples were baptized in the Name of Jesus. Here the baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit seem to be separated from belief. I entitled this slide, ‘Patterns of Salvation in the Book of Acts’ as they appear at first. I believe when we get to each of the three passages on closer inspection, it will become clear that the drawing in this slide isn’t the best way to chart what is happening. But they are a common way as each have been interpreted and so we put them up here for the students to be thinking about how they might revise those diagrams if at all. On the next slide, we have this collocation of belief, baptism and the forgiveness of sins, symbolized by which appears in the circle of the drawing on the slide and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is therefore the moment of salvation for a new believer. Are we to assume as many have in the history of the church across various denominations that baptism is a prerequisite to salvation? Probably not! Peter’s next sermon in chapter three is similarly structured with reasonably parallel content, a similar climax but only repentance and not baptism as mentioned. The entire Book of Acts and Luke’s theology interwoven into it, agrees with the rest of the New Testament that salvation is by grace through faith and that alone and not of works, particularly the kind of rituals that seemed to have characterized the boasting that occurred in first century Palestinian Judaism. But it would be highly contra if Peter himself would turn around and insist on an initiatory rite like baptism, having the very function that later in Acts 15 some would insist circumcision has only to be defeated in debate by Peter, Paul and James.

VI. A Chiasm in Acts 2:38?

What do we do with Acts 2:38? The next slide suggests that we have a probable chiasm or an AB / BA structure here. Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. While there is nothing theologically inappropriate with the expression, ‘repent in the name of Jesus Christ’, it is not an expression found in the New Testament or in early Christian literature, whereas baptism into the name of Jesus is common place. That suggests that Luke understands repentance as referring solely to the forgiveness of sins and then in the next sentence, the gift of the Holy Spirit. After the introduction, we proceed to what may be called the first panel or subsection within part one that narrates the account of the church still in Jerusalem. We repeat the outline slide for students to remember where we are in our overall line heavily indebted to Richard Longnecker’s Expository Bible Commentary on Acts.

VII. Exegetical Notes on Acts 3

Exegetical highlights of that panel which the final PowerPoint slide in this lecture, includes the events which leads to Paul’s second sermon, namely the miraculous healing of a man crippled from birth which in 3:6-10 affords Luke an opportunity to narrate a very telling and fascinating interplay between physical and spiritual wholeness. The man simply doing what he is doing everyday begging for money; Peter doesn’t meet his need at that level but offers physical healing which will enable the man to work and provide for himself. But the results are not only instantaneous physical healing but praising God in verse 8. Thus the physical miracle gives way to the still greater form of healing for this man namely his praising God and having a spiritual encounter with the Lord of Israel and now with the one who is revealed through Jesus.

As Peter continues, 3:31 counters extreme forms of the claim that Jesus believed that he would return immediately and set the stage for what some have exaggerated in the opposite direction, namely the belief that Luke envisioned a long delay in Jesus’ return. Luke says that Jesus must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything as he promises long ago through his holy prophets. In chapter 4, verse 12, another famous verse where it says that salvation is found in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given to people by whom we must be saved. On the one hand, this is a highly an exclusive claim. There are no other individuals, religions, powers, ideologies or worldviews by which salvation can be guaranteed. What this verse doesn’t address, contra those in the restricted camp with respect to the fate of the evangelized and the problem there of. While no one who is ever saved is saved apart from substitutionary atonement of Jesus whether or not, they have heard of this atonement is another matter. Clearly, prior to the coming of Jesus, not a single faithful Jew or any gentile who became associated with the God of Israel had any knowledge of who the Messiah would be much less the fullness of details about the nature of his ministry which the New Testament discloses and of course they were saved by their faith in God to the extend they had access to his revelation.

It may be that this is the paradigm we should apply in the New Testament. Those who try to merit God’s favor through good works as happens so often in the religions of the world and also within distortions of the Christian faith as well will find no exit there. But those who recognize their unworthiness and cast themselves completely on the grace of God to the extent that God has revealed himself to them. The mandate has always been to point people toward the assured way of salvation through Jesus Christ. We can tell people that faith in Jesus guarantees salvation and if they have genuine faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Chapter 4, verse 13 is often used to say that Jesus and the disciples were illiterate. The terms in the Greek are agrammatos and idiotes which means literally unlettered on the one hand, and this leads to the word idiot in English, but both are misleading translations as root meanings change over time. Rather we should understand the fact that none of these men had any advanced education under a rabbi such as those who prepare for ordination. But most likely they did have the elementary school education that did teach reading and writing, memorization and discussion of large parts of the Hebrew Bible from around ages five through twelve.

Not surprisingly after the amazing beginning of the young church in Jerusalem, expanded to five thousand people. The Sanhedrin who not long ago, had crucified Jesus could not contain their anger any further. They arrested the apostles, threatening them and then released them. On their release in 4:23-31, comes a remarkable prayer, not what we might have imagined such as thanksgiving for being released and nothing else happening to them, but rather an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God, of the impotence of faithless rulers to fight God’s sovereign purposes, applied to situation that they have just encountered and a prayer that they may continue to be able to speak Jesus’ Word with great boldness and to continue to perform the accompanying miracles which attest the truth of this message.

Chapter 4 ends with another summary paragraph with respect to the communal sharing of the early church, including a positive example by Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus the son of encouragement (i.e.) with giving the proceeds of a field he sold to the apostles, but then turns to a more troubling and with respect to the narrative, a more detailed example of the abuse of this system by Ananias and Sapphire in chapter 5. This seemingly leads to God striking them down dead. Our text gives a large list of factors to help us try to make sense of the severity of this incident. Perhaps the first and the last are the most important. This is a case of conscious embezzlement and the fact that it happens at the very outset of the church, except the recorded example that occurs during the time of Joshua at the beginning of the first covenant community that if not dealt with immediately, the disease of disobedience could easily have afflicted large numbers and led to the extinction of these communities before gaining any long term experience. But from a more theological perspective, we have a reminder that the wages of sin is death as Paul would put it in Romans 6:23 and therefore it is a magnificent testimony to God’s grace that such death does not happen every time people sin. But it is perceived as so rare as to be striking in instances like this.

The Apostles are arrested again; Peter is imprisoned. This is the occasion which he miraculously escapes. The Sanhedrin is bewildered as to know what to do and God providentially uses the respected Rabbi, Gamaliel, who also taught Saul (Paul), to be lenient in this case less this movement is of God and promising that if it is not of God, it will die accordingly. Here again, in a narrative like the Book of Acts that the only inerrant speakers are God and Jesus. Those who are faithful followers are likely, most if not all of the time, in what they say that the evangelist record is likely to be telling the truth, though as we have already noted that it is possible that Paul’s experience with fellow Christians in Acts 21 was a little different. Those who are opponents of the church, however lenient in this case, must remind ourselves that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture simply means in this case that Luke has accurately recorded the contents of what Gamaliel has said, not that what he said was inerrant. Many ideologies and world religions; the largest today being Islam, has for too long been neglected by Christians and sometimes under the guise of applying Gamaliel’s word here, Christians haven’t applied themselves. And then we have already discussed the timeless verses timely principles with respect to the choice of the deacons in chapter six to avoid what might well have been perhaps the first church split. But notice as well that it is by inviting the Hellenistic Jewish community to exercise the congregational form of church government by choosing their leaders, some among themselves with names that are Hellenistic even include proselytes to Judaism, suggesting the principle of leaders coming from the language group of those to whom they minister, in general the most effective. We might call it the indigenous form of ministry. Thirdly, the criteria for choosing the deacons are as spiritual as the criteria for any other church leader as they must be people who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. Although, there seems to be a precedence for some kind of distinction between a more practical and a more spiritual ministry in the two groups of leaders described here. The criteria for choosing the second group are no less spiritual in nature, it is never a good idea to choose someone to be a church leader, and even if it is a tradition in that it seems devoid of spiritual responsibility such as a treasurer or accountant or business manager unless that person is wise and spiritually wise person also.