If Luke’s gospel is a biography of Jesus then perhaps Acts could be seen as an auto-biography of the Spirit! In any case, Acts, for me, is one of the most exciting and inspiring books of the whole bible. Everything has been building up to the events it describes. Of course Jesus’ work is central but here we begin to see the outworking and fruit of his life, death and resurrection. The long promised Holy Spirit is poured out, the mission and in-gathering of the nations begins, the church is formed with it’s body ministry and family life and so on. Basically all the Amen’s in Jesus start coming to pass.
These things also bring a different feel to reading and understanding the book of Acts. If we have been reading through the bible cover to cover so far we would have been in either the Old Testament or the gospels. While the OT is rich in truth and imagery pointing to Jesus we often find ourselves trying to understand why we don’t do such and such a thing described or prescribed. We don’t offer sacrifices, we can eat pork, we don’t need to stop work on Saturdays, and we are free to boil a kid (baby goat) in it’s mother’s milk if we so wish! These things cause me at least to rush a commentary or one of my “hard bible verses” books (Hard Sayings of the Bible, Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties).
At times, even the gospels can seem far removed from our experience today. We do not have Jesus physically present with us and we puzzle over Jesus commanding people to keep the good news quiet. Once we get into Acts, however, it’s much easier to relate to it all. If you have been following the “principlising bridge” concept of hermeneutics and have been used to crossing vast waterways from the Old Testament to the New, now it seems in places we have just to jump over a stream or paddle across a ford.
BTW, if you are unfamiliar with this hand bridge, here are the steps from the course book “Grasping God’s Word”:
- Grasp the text in their own town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience.
- Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the Biblical audience and us?
- Cross the principlising bridge. What are the theological principles in this text?
- Grasp the text in our own town. How should individual Christians today apply the theological principles in their lives?
Part of the attraction and excitement of Acts is in it’s apparent nearness. People sometime talk about “getting back to the New Testament church” or we preach through Acts as a handy blueprint of church life. However, though much of Acts seems within arm’s reach, we need to be careful. We can still get swept away if we don’t retain our diligence and apply sound principles of hermeneutics.
At the other end of the spectrum of course it has to be acknowledged that some see a bigger chasm than there actually is. Cesationism for one, seems to make much of it beyond our reach and some even argue that “you can’t get doctrine from Narrative”. You can be left wondering why God caused a book to be written detailing how he did things and then as soon as it was written, started doing things a completely different way!
So, how are we to read Acts? What is normative for us now and what still requires diligent work in order to be taken across the principalsing bridge.
To help ground our interpretations in objective reality, Grasping God’s Word encourages us to keep on asking two key questions:
- What is the central message of the passage and
- What is the author of the book saying by placing that event in the larger context of the whole book.
I would add another which is
- What is the author of the Bible saying by placing an event in the context of the whole Bible!
We would miss much of the sense of the Old Testament without coming at it from the illumination of the New.
To help us further in determining what is normative, Grasping God’s Word helpfully suggests a number of other questions we can ask:
- Look for what Luke intended to communicate to his readers
- Look for positive and negative examples in the characters
- Read individual passages in the light off the overall story
- Look to other parts of Acts for clarification
- Look for repeated patters and themes
With these things in mind I read through the first three chapters of Acts and tested the depth of the water with a few questions of my own. I will leave you with them and trust they will lead, not to a watering down, or pushing away of Acts, but a greater confidence and higher expectation of all that God has for the church today. After all, Acts is just the beginning!
- Are we witnesses in a different sense to the first Apostles?
- Was Jesus saying that no only the first Apostles would be Spirit filled witnesses or is it us to?
- Should we expect the Holy Spirit to come on us in power (like the first disciples?)
- Should we wait for the Holy Spirit like they did?
- People used to have tarrying meetings. At first they didn’t have to wait but the waits got longer!
- Speaking about the Kingdom. Should we have that emphasise that today (Acts 1:4)?
- Should we expect to see and hear from angles?
- Should we are can we choose leaders by lots? (Acts 6:1-6, Acts 13:1-3)
- Succession of Apostles? One main leader of the whole church/all churches? “Peter stood up” – Should we have a head of the church?
- There are no surviving living witnesses to Jesus resurrection. Why was it necessary to have 12 apostles who had been with Jesus all along?
- Should we observe Pentecost?
- Baptism in Holy Spirit for all believers like this? (Rom 8:9), Tongues of fire? How?
- Tongues on the street in evangelism?
- Should we preach/witness like Peter?
- Spontaneous, on the back of miraculous event
- Reasoning form the OT
- Gospel message “repent and be baptised…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)
- Baptisms straight away?
- Should we have “everything on common”? (Acts 2:42-47)
- Should we expect the church to grow by 3000 a day? Every day by some?
- Should we make sure we are breaking bread in homes?
- What’s the place of the temple today etc?
- After dawn and around mid afternoon sacrifices where made and people gathered to await the priestly blessing (Luke 1:8-10, 21f)
- Jesus replaces the temple but
- the disciples continued to join with the Jews in synagogs and in the temple.
- Should we expect miracles like this today?
- Was it mainly the apostles that performed amazing miracles?
- No, Stephen and Philip did too.
- But were these examples of one or two exceptional gifts or something to expect more generally in the life of the church?
- In what ways should our preaching be link Peter’s?
- Several hours long : it was from 9th hour (mid afternoon 3:1? to early evening 4:3 )
- Spontaneous, on the back of a miracle, on the streets
- “you handed over [and] … denied the holy one”
- Historical and Prophetic things from OT?
More food for thought and helpful insight on the bigger issues from Andrew Wilson: