As Luke's "sequel," the Acts of the Apostles serve as an ideal bridge between the four Gospels and the Epistles, revealing a crucial part of the Christian story. Here we follow the story of Jesus' earliest followers from their call to be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth," through their initial days of concord and numerical successes, to the challenges they faced as unfamiliar newcomers entered the scene. We discover the leadership changes that resulted from these challenges, explore a council's response to the struggles, and meet the champion who, against the odds, became the Church's chief protagonist.
Author C.K. Robertson presents a well-researched, yet highly readable exploration of the Acts of the Apostles.
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CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURETHE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
By C. K. ROBERTSON
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 C. K. Robertson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApostolic Call
Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior. COLLECT OF A MISSIONARY, THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER
Although it is an anonymous work, from the second century on the general assumption has been that the book of Acts was written by Luke, Paul's sometime traveling companion affectionately described as the "beloved physician" (Col. 4:14). It is noteworthy that the author does not appear overly concerned about being personally acknowledged. Even in those passages where the third-person narrative of the book suddenly shifts to a first-person account, as if the narrator is including himself in the story, the author's identity remains unknown, an unnamed member of Paul's supporting cast. There have been a few scholars in recent years who have questioned Luke's authorship of Acts, but since there has been no conclusive evidence to prove otherwise, we will here follow the ancient and much-accepted tradition and refer to the author as Luke. One thing is clear: Luke certainly knew how to offer his readers an exciting account.
The first and primary recipient of Acts was a character known only as Theophilus (1:1). The Greek name may be translated as "loved by God," "dear to God" or "friend of God." Whoever this Theophilus was, he appears to have been of high social standing, given Luke's earlier designation, "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3). He may have been Luke's patron or backer, helping fund the writing and distribution of his works. Certainly, Luke displays deference towards Theophilus, yet at the same time gives us a sense that this patron is also a pupil, a catechist who needs to"know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:4).
Even so, it is clear that Acts, like Luke's gospel, was intended for a wider audience. Indeed, as one New Testament scholar has noted, "Whoever Theophilus was, he is all of us." We are all beloved of God, dear to God. And we, like Theophilus and those other earliest readers, are all recipients of God's good news ... a generation removed. For neither those first readers nor we can boast having seen and heard Jesus in the flesh, and many then, like now, never encountered the Twelve and other early church leaders in person. Thus, for Theophilus and Luke's other initial readers, Acts fills in the blanks about God's work following Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.
Luke's Sequel: Story or History?
Often referred to as Luke's "sequel," Acts has long been understood as the second in a two-volume work, in which the gospel account focuses on the life and work of Jesus from before his birth to his death and resurrection, and Acts picks up the story from that point and gives attention to the exploits of the inheritors of Jesus' mission and ministry.
At the same time, it should be noted that those church leaders who put together the canon of the New Testament placed Acts not directly after Luke, but rather after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together. All four gospels were included together, forming a multifaceted genre, each piece balancing the nuances and emphases of the others. It is noteworthy, moreover, that Acts was chosen to follow all four together, thereby serving as a sequel not only to Luke but also to the entire gospel tradition.
Acts thus serves as an ideal bridge between the four gospels and the various epistles, revealing a crucial part of the Christian story. Without it, we might well wonder how a small, Palestinian-based, Jewish sectarian movement became the geographically expansive and ethnically diverse phenomenon that we encounter in Paul's letters. For that matter, Acts helps us understand how Paul, a character who does not even appear in the gospel accounts, suddenly is center-stage in the history of the Christian church. Truly, it is a bridge document.
It would be difficult, however, to describe Acts as "history" in the modern sense. It certainly does not fit into the seemingly neat category of objective reporting of facts with its descriptions of miracles, visions, and divine guidance. Of course, it is important for us to note that objective reporting as we define it today is something of an illusion. It has often been said that "history is written by the winners," and there is some truth to this. Ironically, today the field has broadened considerably, so that histories are being written from many views and vantage points. Revisionist histories are flourishing, as is the genre of literature known as "historical fiction." In an age of 24/7 news coverage, it is becoming accepted that even the best histories are in some way subjective, even if only in terms of what is included and what is left out.
It is clear at the start of Acts that Luke's goal is to follow up on the "orderly account" (Lk. 1:1) of his gospel, which told "all the Jesus did and taught from the beginning" (Acts 1:1), picking up at the point where the other left off. Unlike his "former treatise," however, Acts would not have three other narratives against which to check its reporting; in the New Testament, the only balancing agent to Luke's reporting of the church's early days is the collection of Paul's letters. Comparisons between Paul's and Luke's reminiscences of the same or similar events (such as the Jerusalem Council or the relationship between Paul and Peter) reveal the kind of nuanced differences that comparisons between the gospels also show about what really happened. If we want to read Acts as a kind of ancient historical account, it is important to read Paul's take on things as well. It is not that one is right and the other wrong—again, such distinctions arise from a false assumption of "objective" history—but that Luke viewed Paul and Peter and the rest of those leaders in ways that Paul himself did not. As we include Acts and the epistles together, then we begin to understand better that crucial period in the church's history.
Acts is, of course, more than history. It is also story, a very lively story—Luke's success story of early Christianity. This is obvious from the start, as Jesus predicts the ever-expanding geographical parameters that will result from the work of his "witnesses" (1:8). Almost immediately after Jesus' departure from the scene, we see impressive—no, explosive—growth on the day of Pentecost. The increasing numbers and deepening commitment that Luke details are key markers still used by parishes and dioceses today to denote success, but it is the way Luke tells the tale of such growth that makes Acts come alive. Those opening geographical parameters ("beginning at Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth") provide the direction for the movement, which Luke then couples with a momentous energy that propels the story forward in a way that most novelists would envy. Action, suspense, drama: Acts has it all, not to mention magicians, shipwrecks and, in Acts 5, a literally drop-dead approach to Christian stewardship. If Paul's letters address all the dysfunctions of later Christian communities, Luke's saga instead shows the next generation what they could aspire to be. Acts is truly a story that is hard to put down.
The Lobbyist and the Theologian
Readers throughout the years have noticed Luke's apparent desire to build a bridge between the young Christian movement and the Roman Empire in which it was born. Luke not only paints Roman officials in a positive light, especially in Paul's ongoing trial in the later chapters of the book, but also shows that Christianity was in no way considered a threat to Roman interests. In his earlier gospel, he offered significant moments of recognition on the part of Romans such as the centurion at the foot of the cross who declared at Jesus' death, "Certainly this man was innocent [or righteous]" (Luke 23:47), a different statement than that attributed to the soldier in Mark and Matthew ("Truly this man was God's Son!"-Mk. 15:39; Mt. 27:54). Although it is not Luke's primary theme, the author continuously shows in Acts how the growing Jesus movement was "innocent," a religio licita or "acceptable religion" in the empire, and one intimately connected with its Jewish "parent." Indeed, in Acts 18:12–17, the Roman official Gallio rules that any conflicts between this Christian movement and its Jewish neighbors is an internal affair, since Christianity was born out of Judaism. There is, admittedly, consistent opposition to the new faith from Jewish leaders throughout Acts, hinting at the rivalry between church and synagogue in Luke's own time following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Yet Luke will go out of his way to tie Christianity firmly in with Judaism, showing through ongoing references to and from the Hebrew Scriptures how the new faith fulfilled, not abrogated, the promises of God to Israel, even as it opened the gates of salvation to non-Jews. In this way Acts makes a strong political case for the acceptance of Christianity by both Jews and Romans.
However, the book is also an extended theological argument for the work of God in and through our spiritual ancestors, fragile and fallible like us. Yes, as in other parts of Scripture God is the chief Actor in the play, unseen but always behind the events that reveal themselves. And, yes, there are moments in Acts when otherworldly angelic beings suddenly appear, heralds of divine message. But most of the time the focus is on flesh and blood heralds and heroes, the fragile, fallible, altogether human people who carry the message and mission of Jesus forward. Acts is an utterly incarnational book. It has miracles, signs of power that point to the inescapable power of God bursting into our world, but the most profound miracle in Acts might well be the growth of the church itself, usually against the odds and in spite of opposition both within and without. Any smart film director today will tell you that it does not matter how impressive the special effects are if you do not have a solid story and strong characters. One might well argue that Luke has both.
If a movie were made of Acts, some of the key casting choices predictably would be for recognizable figures such as Peter, James, and John. The title of the book is, after all, the Acts of the Apostles, and the stage has already been set in the first half of Luke's two-part series for these leaders to rise to prominence. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that it is not the names of Peter and the rest of the Twelve that appear again and again as the story progresses, but rather unexpected and previously unknown figures like Barnabas, Stephen, Philip, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, and Paul of Tarsus. The plot twist here is that the "stars," the designated apostles, disappear altogether by the time the tale has barely reached its midpoint, while these other apostolic workers become the true protagonists. Even Luke himself seizes some time on the boards, as his use of the third person plural, "they," shifts in the latter part of the story to the first person plural "we," as he describes the shipwreck of Paul and his followers on the island of Malta and includes himself among them (28:1ff). And as in some avant-garde production, by the time the curtain falls that "we" even includes us, as Luke's open-ended finale suggests that the apostolic commission pronounced by Jesus all the way back in chapter one will only really be fulfilled when we, the audience, become co-participants in the mission.
One final thing that should be noted about the theological dimension of Acts is the prominent place given to the speeches and sermons, which together comprise almost one-third of the book. Whether it is Peter, Paul, or Stephen speaking, the various monologues offer strong summaries of the essential points of faith for those earliest Christians, always focused on Jesus and the salvation that comes through his death and resurrection. Repetition is also used to strengthen readers' awareness of certain key points or events; for example, the story of Peter's encounter with Cornelius and Paul's conversion on the Damascus Road are both repeated three times.
The End is the Beginning
Matthew's gospel concludes with the command to "go and make disciples of all the nations," along with the comforting though enigmatic promise that Jesus somehow would be with his followers "to the end of the ages." Luke instead ends his gospel with a command to "stay" and with an intriguing hint of something else still to come, as he says to the disciples on the road to Emmaus:
"These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:44–49).
"Wait," Jesus commands. A specific gift is going to be given. The full nature of that gift is only hinted at here, but clearly the disciples are told not to go yet, not until they have been "clothed with power from on high." Only then will it be time to go and be Jesus' "witnesses." So ends Luke's gospel, and so begins the Acts of the Apostles.
The book of Acts opens with Luke's introductory greeting to his reader/patron, Theophilus. Here he summarizes his first account in which he "wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning" and goes on to reiterate in slightly different words what he previously said at the end of the gospel:
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (1:1,4–5).
Now he is more specific about the nature of the promised gift: "You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." The timing, also, is not some vague "forever and ever" or "to the end of the ages," for it is clearly stated that this baptism will occur "not many days from now." There is no prolonged interim period, no sabbatical for these closest friends of Jesus. There is promise, and fairly soon there is fulfillment and accompanying action. It quickly becomes clear why this book would soon become known as the Acts of the Apostles, for though it contains many lengthy speeches and sermons,, it really is a book of action, movement, and progress. Things are never dull in Acts. Following the fulfillment of Jesus' promise in Acts 2, the pace of the narrative conveys the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes harrowing, but always frenetic life of the early church and its leaders, the apostles.
The Greek word apostolos is an important word for Luke, who uses it more than any other New Testament writer, most often in the plural, describing those twelve disciples whom Jesus calls out of the multitudes to be his closest companions. Apostolos means "one who is sent (forth)" or, more simply, "sent one." As with most of the key moments of decision in Luke's writings, Jesus' selection of the Twelve followed a night of prayer (Luke 6:12–16):
And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Their number recalls the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve sons of Jacob for whom the tribes are named. Of the Twelve, we are told that at least four were Galilean fishermen (the two pairs of siblings), one was a tax collector (Levi/Matthew), and one was most likely a member of a political party committed to the overthrow of the occupying Roman Empire (Simon the Zealot). Most, if not all, lived their entire lives in that small, neglected corner of the empire. None had Greek names and the likelihood is that Aramaic, not Greek, was their native tongue. They were provincial in their experience and in their vision, and yet to these unlikely candidates Jesus gave "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases" and commissioned them "to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal" (Luke. 9:1–2). Proclamation accompanied by deeds of power—this was to be their apostolic work. This is what these "sent ones" were sent to do. But how would they learn to do this work? What would be their instruction guide?
Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURE by C. K. ROBERTSON Copyright © 2010 by C. K. Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the Series ix
Autobiographical Note xiii
Chapter 1 Apostolic Call 1
Chapter 2 Apostolic Concord 17
Chapter 3 Apostolic Challenge 31
Chapter 4 Apostolic Change 45
Chapter 5 Apostolic Compromise 57
Chapter 6 Apostolic Colleagues 69
Chapter 7 Apostolic Champion 85
Study Questions 97
Suggestions for Further Reading 113
About the Author 114