Friday, November 20, 2015

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The Theological Purpose of the Book of Acts: Part 1

I grew up in a branch of the Christian church that placed great emphasis on the Book of Acts in the New Testament. As a Pentecostal group, it was natural that it should gravitate to a document that emphasized the Holy Spirit (though the Pentecostals largely seemed to miss the fact that Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke, equally emphasized the Holy Spirit, using much the same language as found in Acts but not so easily coerced into supporting certain favored theological themes). Especially, they gravitated to a document that was easy to interpret experientially. To up the ante, they also added the corollary that the basic purpose of this book was to describe the way to be saved. Four passages, in particular, they singled out as primary: Acts 2:38; 8:12, 17; 10:44-48; 19:1-5. Here, they alleged, was all the necessary elements for a three-step plan of salvation, repentance, water baptism by immersion using the shorter formula, and the gift of the Spirit as authenticated by the phenomenon of other tongues. Some were even more insistent that not only did the Book of Acts detail how to be saved by this three-step process, it was the ONLY book in the New Testament where one could discover how to be saved. Twenty-six of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were inadequate to answer this basic issue.

The more foundational question, what was Luke’s theological purpose in writing the Book of Acts, is a critical interpretive issue. Because Acts is a narrative, average readers tend to approach the book as though it were an objective account by a disinterested reporter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Greater or lesser degrees of objectivity can be debated, but there is no reason to think that Luke was a disinterested writer. He was unabashedly Christian, wrote out of his concern and support for the Christian movement, and intended to tell the story of Christian origins with particular goals in mind that would be compelling to his patron, Theophilus, and to the larger Gentile world. He was both a historian and a theologian.

Any careful reader will easily observe that his primary goal, far from being a manual on how to be saved, was to show how the good news about Jesus Christ and the Christian movement became international as a fulfillment of God’s ancient purpose. I. Howard Marshall makes the cogent observation that in the opening of the book, Luke’s description of “things brought to fulfillment” (Lk. 1:1; cf. Ac. 2:23) is in the passive voice, suggesting that it is not only the distant past, but also the present that is a fulfillment of what God intended. What was true about the story of Jesus was equally true about the beginnings of the early church, for what Jesus “began to do and teach” is carried on through the apostles as directed by the Holy Spirit (Ac. 1:1-2). In fact, the opposition to Jesus (Ac. 4:27-29), the outpouring of the Spirit (Ac. 2:16-17), the mission to the Gentiles (Ac. 13:47), the expanding boundaries of God’s people to incorporate non-Jews (Ac. 15:13-19), and the general refusal of the Jewish constituency to accept the Christian message (Ac. 28:25-28) all were fulfillments of the Scriptures as directed by God.

Luke’s manner of approaching this history addresses a profound problem. How was it that God, who chose Israel to be his special people and gave them profound promises for the future, now had fulfilled those promises to those who were not from the Jewish community? Could God’s promises be trusted, especially if the group to whom these promises were made ended up largely on the outside, while those who had no certainty of the promises from the start were on the inside? In one sense, at least, Luke’s approach is very much along the lines of Paul’s statement, the gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Ro. 1:16b; Ac. 3:26; 28:25-29). In his gospel, Luke intends to show how God indeed fulfilled his promises to Israel in the life and ministry of Jesus (Lk. 1:54-55, 68-75, 80; 2:25, 38), but especially, he wants to demonstrate how the fulfillment of these promises spilled over beyond the Jewish circle (Lk. 2:32, 34; 24:46-47). Similarly, in Acts he shows how the Jerusalem church, which was entirely Jewish at the first, through divine providence began to reach beyond its confined circle. Acts 1:8 is programmatic toward this end: the message spread from Jerusalem to all Judea to Samaria and to the larger Roman world.

 The first half of the book describes the birth of the Jerusalem Church and its struggle to break out of the confines of Jewry and exclusive Judaism. Given the life, ministry and death of Jesus, the disciples of the Lord could never go back to “business as usual.” They had been forever changed by the teachings of Jesus, and even more, by the atoning crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Still, there was both continuity and discontinuity between the past and the future. In the earliest period, Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem made no attempt to break completely with Judaism nor reject their standing in the Jewish community. Some of the early Christians still claimed to be Pharisees (cf. Ac. 15:5; 23:6), and to varying degrees they participated in the temple and Torah observation (Ac. 3:1; 21:20-26). On the other hand, the gospel of Jesus widened their scope, both theologically and ethnically, beyond anything they had ever experienced in their native Judaism. What the prophets had promised had now happened! The Messiah had now come, and this affected everything!

Luke details how this widening vision occurred, first in the dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebraists (Ac. 6:1-7), then in the outreach to Samaria (Ac. 8:1-25), then in the conversion of a Gentile proselyte (Ac. 8:26-39), then in the conversion of Saul, who was marked to be a missionary to the Gentiles (Ac. 915; cf. 22:15, 21; 26:17-20, 23), then to a Gentile God-fearer (Ac. 10) and finally to the Antioch missionary church that sent missionaries to Asia Minor and Greece (Ac. 13-20). The heart of this mission to the non-Jews of the world occupies the last half of the book, detailing the missionary work of Paul. In particular, it describes his final trip to Rome, which was at the very center of the empire. The closing words of Acts are particularly telling in the Greek text. What seems to be an unfinished conclusion is Luke’s artful way of intentionally suggesting that the proclamation about Jesus would be ongoing until the consummation of the kingdom of God. The very last word in the Greek text of Acts is akolutos (= “unhindered”), a suggestive ending implying more than just the freedom of Paul to preach. The story that began in Galilee, proceeded to Samaria and Judea, and climaxed in Jerusalem with the passion of Jesus in the Third Gospel now had followed the reverse pattern in the Book of Acts. It went from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and now to the ends of the earth. Paul’s arrival in Rome becomes a symbol of the gospel to the nations of which Rome was the capital.

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