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Archive for the ‘Acts’ Category

Scattered Thoughts on Acts: Part 2

See Part 1.

The Holy Spirit & Tongues

Many Pentecostals I have known over the years have used the book of Acts to argue that the initial sign one has received the Holy Spirit (which often in their reckoning occurs separately from salvation itself) is speaking in tongues.  In evidence of this they trot out Acts 2, Acts 10 (Cornelius & friends, which may be the name of my next fake band) and the folks in Ephesus in Acts 19.  In each case the Holy Spirit descends and people start speaking in tongues.

But what about the people in 4:31?  Or the Samaritans in 8:14-17?  Or Paul in 9:17-19?  Or even the 3000 who were saved in Acts 2?  There may even be more.  My point is that less than half the time the Holy Spirit shows up results in speaking on tongues.  For my money, I need a better percentage than that to convince me that Luke was trying to make that connection.

Now I know that some will argue, for instance, that Paul did speak in tongues; he says as much in 1 Corinthians 14.  But that’s not the issue.  All of these people could have ended up speaking in tongues.  The question is regarding Luke’s intent- was he trying to demonstrate that the initial sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues?  If that were his goal, I think we’d see a better “success rate.”

The Role of the Spirit in Acts

Now, the Holy Spirit plays an important role in the book of Acts, so much so that some have argued we should title the book “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than “The Acts of the Apostles.”  Besides tongues, the Spirit gives direction for ministry (8:29, 13:2), inspires prophecy (11:28, 21:11) and even transports Phillip (8:39).  But the single biggest role of the Spirit is to empower people to witness (1:8).

Connected to this is the theme of boldness which comes through the Holy Spirit (why isn’t this the initial sign of the Spirit?), both explicitly stated (end of chapter 4) and implicitly (Stephen is quite bold in his speech).  The point is that the Spirit is the One who empowers God’s people to witness.  The Spirit drives the mission of the church in Acts. 

The Spread of the Gospel

Whatever else one says about the book of Acts, the main point of the book comes down to the spread of the gospel.  Pretty much everything else that happens feeds into this theme.  The Holy Spirit empowers witnesses to spread the gospel (1:8).  The miracles seen accompany the preaching of the gospel.  Persecution (as noted in Part 1) is a vehicle for spreading the gospel.  The conversion of Saul isn’t simply a cool story, but catipults the Gentile mission (Acts 9).  The Jerusalem Council validates what God is doing among the Gentiles (Acts 15), and endorses the spread of the gospel to all people.  Paul’s trials get him to Rome, where he shares the gospel.  Even the episode of Cornelius and friends speaking in tongues in Acts 10 serves to demonstrate that the gospel is spreading to the Gentiles.

So I think that you must read the book of Acts through the lens of the gospel reaching beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people.  I also think it’s instructive for us.  Whatever else might happen in our churches (the manifest power of the Spirit, life-giving community, contextualizing for the sake of other cultures, etc), the goal is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and His kingdom.

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Scattered Thoughts on Acts: Part 1

I recently taught a short class on the book of Acts, something I rarely teach on.  I thought I would post some random thoughts that popped into my head, some (all?) of which will probably only interest me.

Herod, Agrippa, or Herod Agrippa

One of the potentially confusing aspects of the gospels and Acts is the use of “Herod,” which refers to 3 different men (unless I’m missing one).  The first is Herod the Great, who was alive when Jesus was born, but died soon after (see Matthew 2, where one of his sons, Archelaus, is also mentioned).  His son, Herod Antipas, is mentioned in the gospels as the one who had John the Baptist killed, as well as making an appearance in Jesus’ trial (Luke 23).  Then there’s Herod Agrippa, known as Agrippa I in non-biblical sources (“Agrippa the Great” in Josephus), who was responsible for the death of James, the brother of John and Son of Zebedee, and intended to have Peter killed as well.  He ultimately was stricken down (Acts 12).  All three of these men are referred to simply as “Herod” or “King Herod” in the Bible.

What I didn’t know was that the King Agrippa of Acts 25-26 is Agrippa II, the son of Agrippa I, the last in the line of the Herodian dynasty.  I wonder why Luke doesn’t simply refer to him as “Herod” like the rest of them.  The reason I find it interesting is that it seems the choice of the biblical writers to call the first 3 guys “Herod” was intentional and perhaps idiosyncratic, since extra-biblical sources generally refer to them using more distinct terminology.  So why wasn’t Agrippa II given the (dubious) honor of being called “Herod” like the rest of them?

Time & Dates

The narrative books of the Bible generally have an awkward way of portraying time elapsed.  That is, they will sometimes breeze over long stretches of time in a short amount of space, then dedicate a prolonged portion of the narrative to a shorter span of time.  I don’t have a problem with this, of course, because the authors have certain people and events they want to highlight and others they don’t.  It’s the author’s (or, you know… God’s) call.

Acts is no different.  The book as a whole covers nearly 30 years of history, ending around 62AD, but starting either 30AD or 33AD, depending on when you date Christ’s death & resurrection.  The first 9 chapters or so take up only 3 years or so (either 33 or 36).  Chapters 10-20 get us up to 58AD, give or take a little.  Then the final 8 chapters cover only a 4 year span. 

Persecution

It’s interesting to note that persecution in the book of Acts helps propel the spread of the gospel.  It’s after Stephen’s death that many were scattered and the gospel is spread outside of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria (8:1).  Even Paul’s mission to Rome (representing the “uttermost parts”) is accomplished by his arrest and trial in Jerusalem and Caeserea.  What strikes me about all this is that the assumption held by the early Christians was that you share the gospel wherever you go.  Circumstances were secondary influencers (if they influenced decisions at all). 

We see this, of course, in Paul’s letters, too.  In Philippians, Paul mentions that the whole praetorium guard has heard the gospel (Philippians 1:13).  Why?  Because jail is simply a new church planting ground.  In the same way, Phillip didn’t hide or sulk when he had to escape Jerusalem in Acts 8.  He went with the plan to bring the gospel wherever he went- no matter the circumstances.

The Martyrdom of Stephen

I jotted down some quick notes on Stephen’s trial and death, noting the similarities to Jesus’ trial and death.  Here’s a quick list I came up with, with references in Acts and Jesus’ life:

  • His opponents couldn’t stand up to his wisdom (6:10; Luke 20:26, 40- see also Luke 12:11-12, 21:15)
  • Trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin (6:12; Luke 22:66-71)
  • They produced false witnesses to testify against him (6:11-14; Mark 14:55-59)
  • Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, the Temple, the Law and God (6:11-14, Matthew 26:57-65 & other places)
  • Stephen accuses the people of not truly following the Law, killing the prophets, etc (7:51-53; Matthew 21:33-46, 23:29-36)
  • “Son of Man at the right hand of the Father” echoes Jesus’ words (7:55-56; Luke 22:69)
  • Stephen gives up his spirit (7:59; Luke 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God not to hold their sin against them (7:60; Luke 23:34)

Anything I missed?

It should be no surprise that those who choose to follow Jesus really will have to follow Him (Luke 9:23).

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1 Corinthians & Acts

As I’m studying the BIble, I find it helpful to tie together different sections of the Bible to show how the writings complement each other. With Paul, it’s good to go back to Acts as you read his letters and see if there may be any helpful information that Acts provides. So, in Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19), you learn that Ephesus has a strong community dedicated to the cult and magic. When you read Ephesians, you notice that Paul, more than any other letter of his, uses language of our victory in Christ in the “heavenlies” and strong language of “spiritual warfare” (Eph 6:12-20). No coincidence. 

I’ve noticed a few parallels between its account of Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18) and Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, some are minor, some helpful.

1. Acts 18:3 says that Paul worked in Corinth as a tentmaker, which fits with his account that he worked rather than have the Corinthians “pay his way” (1 Cor 4:12; 9:6, 18- see also 1 Thess 2:9- this seems to have been Paul’s modus operandi).

2. Acts 18:5-6 notes that Paul’s ministry to the Jews in the synagogues was largely unsuccessful, so much so that he declared “from now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Sure enough, it seems reasonably obvious that Paul’s Corinthian audience is mostly Gentile.

3. Luke tells us that “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized” (18:8). Paul mentions baptizing Crispus in 1 Cor 1:14.

4. While Paul was in Corinth, “the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attach and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). It isn’t a stretch to assume, then, that Paul was afraid. In Paul’s own words, “I came to you in weakness with great and trembling” (1 Cor 2:3).

5. Luke also records the beating of Sosthenes, another synagogue leader, at the hands of an angry mob (18:17). He was, presumably, a believer, and eventual “cowriter” (using that term loosely) of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:1- I wonder if he left Corinth because of the beating?).

6. Finally, after they all leave Corinth, Priscilla and Aquilla, Paul’s coworkers, meet Apollos in Ephesus. Luke tells us “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures…and he spoke with great fervor” (Acts 18:24-25), who was then taught more thoroughly by Priscilla and Aquilla. After this, Apollos ministered in Achaia and Corinth (Achaia is the overall region where Corinth was located) and “vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate” (18:28).

Interestingly, this seems to have caused some unintended problems within the church at Corinth. We learn that some chose to follow Apollos, while some chose to follow others (1 Cor 1:12). It seems that some of the Corinthians had rejected Paul on the basis of his lack of “wisdom” and “eloquence” (1 Cor 1:18-2:16; see also 2 Cor 10:10). Could it be that after experiencing Apollos’ rhetorical abilities and his knowledge that some had placed Apollos higher on the “spiritual” scale than Paul? It would seem that their love for wisdom and persuasive rhetoric would certainly make this possible, if not probable (1 Cor 1:22; 2:1-5). Of course, Paul doesn’t blame Apollos; he was, after all, doing his job of watering the seed that Paul had laid down (3:6). And it’s clear that Apollos was no longer in Corinth when this letter was written (16:12), so the divisions probably happened after his departure.

None of these 6 points, mind you, are necessarily crucial to understanding Paul’s letter. In fact, it seems to me that numbers 3 and 5 are purely incidental, number 1 confirms what we already know in other letters, number 2 gives us a good understanding why Paul’s audience in this letter seems so Gentile (and also confirms what we know from other letters- he was the apostle to the Gentiles, after all), and numbers 4 (on Paul’s fear) and 6 (on Apollos’ abilities) give us some interesting background that proves to be more helpful- especially the last point.

Note: this is a slightly revisted version of an older post.

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Not Knowing God

Every few months I receive a newsletter from my brothers and sisters at the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, MA.  In addition to current events and lecture schedules,  director Dick Keyes always begins with a brief essay.  For this autumn’s newsletter, Keyes, taking a cue from Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” of Acts 17, reflects on three patterns which he believes are common ways people do not know God.  Since Danny and I will be blogging through Packer’s Knowing God for the next few weeks (months?), I thought Keyes’ observations were apropos.  You can read his short but insightful essay here.

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This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday on the church calendar.  It’s the day when we celebrate the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2.  Our pastor did a great job of pointing us to the background in the OT for this Sunday, reminding us that Pentecost didn’t start in Acts 2 but goes back to Exodus 19.  It is there where God falls in power at Mt Sinai, and this day is commemorated with a festival (Leviticus 23:15-22).  Since hearing the sermon a couple days ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the OT background for the celebration of Pentecost.

The falling of the Spirit in Acts is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32; it’s clear why Peter choose that text.  But we can’t forget that Joel 2 was one of a group of eschatological texts, some of which predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would be given “in those days” (or some phrasing like that).  So, when Peter says “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit” he is claiming that Joel 2 is fulfilled, but not only that passage.  The expectation of the Spirit that was talked about elsewhere is no longer an expectation but a reality.

But as I was thinking about Acts 2 and the fulfillment of prophecy, I kept asking the question: why Pentecost?  Is there something significant about this particular day that God chose to send His Spirit on the church?  Is it simply it’s proximity to the Passover?  Is it merely because it was slightly over a week after Jesus’ ascension?  It seems to me that any day could have potentially worked, so why Pentecost?

Going back to Exodus 19, God falls in power at Mt Sinai and commences to give the law of the covenant to Moses and Israel.  This is the day that comes to be celebrated as Pentecost.  In Acts 2 God falls in power again, but I can’t help but think there’s still a law connection here that is not explicit.  I haven’t finished fleshing out all my thoughts on this, so I welcome any feedback that can help us think through this biblically.

In some OT prophetic texts, there are promises of a day when God will write His law on the hearts of His people.  Jeremiah 31 :31-34 is one of these, and is important for the writer of Hebrews.  There’s another passage, in Ezekiel 36, that explicitly connects the giving of the Spirit and the internalization of the law, using similar language to the Jeremiah 31 passage.  Ezekiel 36:26-27:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

So there was the expectation of the day when God will give His Spirit, not in a generalized sense but in an internal way, and enable His people to follow His commands.  He has given a new covenant and a new law, the “law of the Spirit who gives life” (Rom 8:2), the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), the “law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12).  I think the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 connects these strands.  Let me attempt to lay it out plainly:

  • God falls in power on Mt Sinai and goes on to give the Law for His people to keep (Exodus 19f).  This day comes to be celebrated as Pentecost.
  • The prophets tell of a day when God will give His Spirit, who will internalize the law and enable them to keep His commands.
  • The Spirit, the very presence of God, falls on Pentecost in Acts 2 in a way reminiscent of Exodus 19.

My point is that the Acts 2 Pentecost is the day when God falls in power again by power out His Spirit.  His Spirit, dwelling within the believer, empowers the believer to live rightly (see Romans 8:1-8).  Now, I realize that this gets into a whole host of issues- the role of the Law in the believer’s life, etc.  I’m not as concerned at this moment about how all that works out (nor do I necessarily have it all figure out).  My main point here is to make the connection between the first Pentecost, where God comes in power and gives His Law, and the Pentecost in Acts 2, where God gives His promised Holy Spirit, who writes the law on the hearts of God’s people.

So, Pentecost is more than just a day when God gave His Spirit and miraculous signs, such as tongues.  It is the day when God gives His Spirit to fulfill what He had promised all along.  The Spirit is the mark of the eschatological new covenant and the new covenant people, whom God gives new hearts and empowers to live for Him.

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