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Grasping the Message of Acts

Since Acts is narrative, we should approach it in much the same way that we approached the Gospels. The two interpretive questions remain central. (1) What is the central message of each episode? (2) What is Luke telling his readers by the way he puts the individual stories and speeches together to form the larger narrative?

To find theological principles in the individual episodes of Acts, we should focus on the standard narrative questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? These provide a simple plan for understanding any story. When looking for theological principles in a series of episodes, look for connections between the stories. How are the stories positioned? What does the length of each episode tell us about what Luke thinks is important? Above all, what themes and patterns are repeated throughout Acts?

Still, when it comes to reading and applying Acts, we face one major interpretive challenge that we did not have to deal with when reading the Gospels, even though both are narrative. In the Gospels we read about Jesus and his original disciples without ever once thinking that we will be in that same situation. We will never get into a boat with Jesus to cross the Sea of Galilee or walk with him through the streets of Jerusalem. In Acts, however, the situation is different. From the Gospels to Acts there is a major shift in biblical history from the period of Jesus’ ministry on earth to the period of the Spirit’s ministry through the church. And as believing readers, we are part of that Spirit-driven church! Here comes the tricky part.

Should we take Acts as normative, so that the church of all times should imitate the experiences and practices of the early church? Or should we read Acts as merely descriptive of what was valuable and inspiring in the early church, but not necessarily binding on us today? Without a doubt this is the most significant issue we face as we learn to interpret Acts.

On the one hand, if we read Acts as purely descriptive, then why bother reading it at all? Would a mere description of the way things were in the early church have anything at all to contribute to us? Besides, Luke gives us no clue that he understands the time of the early church as completely unique and unrepeatable. If, on the other hand, we take Acts as normative, do we have to repeat all the practices of the early church, including the rivalries, immoralities, and heresies? Do we have to make decisions by casting lots? Do we have to pool our possessions? Will God judge us like he judged Ananias and Sapphira (sudden death for lying)? Should we read Acts as normative or descriptive?

In making the Interpretive Journey in the book of Acts, we believe that a both-and approach works best (i.e., take some parts of Acts as normative and other parts as descriptive). This means that crossing the principlizing bridge in Acts is complicated by nature. The difficulty lies in knowing what is normative for the church today and what is not. On what basis should we make these decisions? Unless we think through this issue, we will almost certainly pick and choose based on how we feel at the time. We offer the following guidelines for determining what in Acts is normative for today’s church.

1. Look for what Luke intended to communicate to his readers. When we find the message Luke has intended, we find the normative meaning of the passage. In Acts 8, for example, we read about the conversion and baptism of the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch during the ministry of Philip. After reading this account we cannot help but ask several questions. What was the nature of sorcery? Why didn’t the Spirit come on the Samaritans at the time they believed? Did Simon lose his salvation or was he never really saved in the first place? How did the angel of the Lord speak to Philip? How much water is necessary for a proper baptism? When the text says, “the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away” (8:39), what does that mean exactly?

These are fair questions, but they are not at the heart of what Luke intends to communicate in this chapter. We agree with Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard concerning Luke’s intent in Acts 8.

This passage occurs in the section of his outline that concentrates on how the gospel began to leave exclusively Jewish territory. Thus, the two most striking features of Acts 8 become the reception of Philip’s message first by Samaritans and then by a eunuch, both considered ritually unclean by orthodox Jews. The main applications of Acts 8 for Christian living today, therefore, should not center on the timing of the arrival of the Holy Spirit and its effects, nor on debates about how much water one needs for baptism, or how quickly it should follow on conversion. Rather, these texts should call all Christians today to determine who the Samaritans and eunuchs are in our world. Christian ministry must not neglect today’s “untouchables” or outcasts—AIDS victims, the homeless, unwed mothers, drug addicts, gang members, and the like.[2]

We cannot always know Luke’s intent for certain, but we can look for common themes and patterns that connect the stories. Here we will discover Luke’s message to his readers (and to us). We might ask, “What do Samaritans and eunuchs have in common?” Samaritans were “half-breeds” and eunuchs were physical rejects; both groups were considered religious and social outcasts to one degree or another. The normative message from Luke is that the gospel of Jesus Christ destroys human barriers that are used to keep people from God. God accepts us not because we have developed a perfect body or have been born in a certain part of the world, but because of what he has done for us through his Son Jesus. The intent of the author should take precedence over our own curiosity when looking for what is normative in Acts.

2. Look for positive and negative examples in the characters of the story. It makes sense that Luke would want us to imitate positive characters, like Stephen, Barnabas, Lydia, and Silas, but not want us to follow in the footsteps of people like Ananias and Sapphira, Simon the sorcerer, and King Agrippa. Luke probably intends that most of what is done by the Christians in the story of Acts should be taken as normative for future generations of Christians. This will not always be the case (e.g., John Mark’s desertion of the mission team in 13:13; cf. 15:38), but it’s a good rule of thumb.

This guideline of following positive role models and avoiding negative ones raises an important issue when it comes to the apostles. With the exception of Acts 14:4, 14, where Paul and Barnabas are called apostles, Luke restricts the term apostle to the original twelve men chosen by Jesus. Peter explains the qualifications for an apostle in Acts 1, where Matthias is chosen to replace Judas, who had abandoned his position:

21Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection. (Acts 1:21–22)

In this sense apostleship is unique and not something we can repeat. Remember the phase of the Interpretive Journey where we identified the differences between the biblical audience and us? Apostleship is part of the river of differences. Simply put, we are not apostles. We would expect the Lord to do unusual signs and wonders through the apostles at this special stage of salvation history, and indeed this is the case, as most of the miracles in Acts come through the hands of the apostles.

But the Lord also enabled Stephen (6:8), Philip (8:6), and Barnabas (14:3; 15:12) to perform signs and wonders, and these men were not members of the original twelve (although Barnabas is called an apostle in the broader sense). Our aim here is not to restrict the work of the Spirit through an overly narrow interpretive method, but we do not see Luke demanding that every character in Acts must perform an “apostolic” miracle in order to qualify as a faithful follower of Christ. There are many characters in Acts who offer a positive (and we suggest normative) example without performing “signs and wonders.” You also get the distinct impression when reading Acts that Luke views the greatest miracle as the supernatural work of the Spirit on the human heart, as people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

3. Read individual passages in light of the overall story of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. In some cases the progression of the whole story will offer clear boundaries for determining what is normative in specific passages. We should not claim as normative any interpretation that fails to honor the overall movement of the story. Let’s say, for example, that you are studying Acts 19:1–7 and are wondering about Paul’s question in verse 2: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

1While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied.

4Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all.

Should we interpret this text to support a two-stage conversion as normative for all Christians? In other words, should we expect all Christians first to believe in Jesus (stage 1) and later to receive the Holy Spirit (stage 2)?

The framework of the larger story suggested by Acts 1:8 (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, ends of the earth) argues that we should not interpret a two-stage conversion as normative. As you can see from the following diagram, the story of Acts shows the Spirit being poured out on believers in national and racial stages: first Jews, then Samaritans, and finally Gentiles. This is simply the way the story of biblical history unfolds.

Acts 2 Acts 8 Acts 10
Spirit comes on Jewish Christians at Pentcost Spirit comes on Samaritan Christians Spirit comes on Gentile Christians

Once we move past Acts 10 there are no more ethnic barriers to overcome. From that point on, believing in Jesus and receiving the Spirit seem to be part of a single experience (Acts 11:17; Rom. 8:9b). On closer inspection, the same holds true for the passage in Acts 19. Paul’s questions indicate that the “disciples” he encountered at Ephesus were not yet believers in Jesus, but rather followers of John the Baptist. They were unaware of Pentecost, and they had received John’s baptism of repentance rather than Christian baptism. In short, they still needed to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah and receive the Holy Spirit—which is exactly what they did. We encourage you to let the overall story of Acts set the boundaries for what is normative in individual passages.

4. Look to other parts of Acts to clarify what is normative. When you read in Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–35 about the early church selling their possessions and sharing the proceeds, you may wonder if Acts teaches that Christians should give up their individual property, pool their resources, and join a commune (a Christian one, of course). There is something about their sensitivity to the needs of others, their radical generosity, and their spirit of surrender that causes us to want to follow their example. Does Acts suggest that communal living should be normative for a real New Testament church in every age? Sometimes you will find your answer by looking in another part of Acts.

Walter Liefeld notes how Acts 5 sheds light on our questions about Acts 2 and 4.[3] In Acts 5:3–4 Peter confronts Ananias about lying to the Holy Spirit regarding the sale of some property:

3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

According to Peter, the property belonged to Ananias before the sale and the money belonged to Ananias after the sale. He didn’t have to sell the property, nor did he have to give the money from the sale in order to be a full-fledged member of the community. Acts 5 makes it clear that sharing possessions in the early Christian community was completely voluntary. Consequently, we cannot conclude that communal living is normative for all churches. What does appear to be normative is the radical generosity that led to meeting physical needs of other members of the Christian community. Occasionally the context of Acts itself will clarify what is normative and what is merely descriptive.

5. Look for repeated patterns and themes. Perhaps the most important principle for identifying what is normative for the church today is to look for themes and patterns that remain constant throughout the changing story of Acts. Earlier we identified a number of general themes in Acts: the work of the Spirit, God’s sovereignty, the role of the church, prayer, suffering, the gospel for Jews and Gentiles, and the power of witness. These represent normative realities for the church throughout the ages. Let’s look at a few examples of what is involved in looking for consistent patterns as a guide to what is normative.

Consider how the believers chose Judas’s replacement in Acts 1:23–26:

23So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Dare we say that since they chose Matthias by casting lots that we should choose church leaders using that same method? Since this method of discovering God’s will shows up in the book of Acts, should we take it as normative for Christians today? According to our principle, casting lots would be a normative method of discerning God’s will only if it is used consistently throughout Acts. In fact, this is not the case.

Acts 1:23–26 is the only place in the entire book that a church leader is chosen by casting lots. As the story of Acts progresses and the Spirit is poured out on the followers of Jesus, leaders are chosen in other ways (e.g., 6:1–6; 13:1–3; 14:23). This does not mean, we might add, that choosing Matthias was a mistake and that Paul should have been picked—a popular position without scriptural support. The fact that making decisions by casting lots does not appear in the rest of Acts (or the rest of the New Testament) does suggest, however, that it should not be considered a normative method for finding God’s will.

How does God make his will known to believers in Acts? Is there any one repeated pattern? A careful reading of Acts reveals that God uses a variety of means to guide his people. He uses angels (8:26; 12:7), his Spirit (8:39; 10:19; 16:6–7), visions (9:10–12; 16:9–10), the Scriptures (1:20; 8:30–35; 18:24–26), circumstances (3:1–10; 8:1), prayer (13:1–3), discussion (15:1–21), and other believers (6:1–6; 9:17–19), just to name a few. What is normative is not so much how God guides his people, but that God guides his people. The one constant is that God directs our paths in a variety of ways—of this we can be confident!

Another example of looking for repeated patterns as a guide to what is normative relates to what happens when people receive the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:4 we are told that after receiving the Holy Spirit the people spoke “in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Can we conclude that Acts teaches that a person who truly possesses the Holy Spirit must speak in tongues? Our interpretive principle reminds us to ask whether the pattern in question is repeated consistently throughout Acts. Here is what we find when we look at what happened to a person who received the Spirit:

1:8 witnessed of Jesus
2:4 spoke in other tongues (languages)
2:17–18 prophesied
4:31 spoke the word of God boldly
8:15–17 (no description)
9:17–20 preached that Jesus is the Son of God
10:44–46 spoke in tongues and praised God
19:6 spoke in tongues and prophesied

When people received the Spirit, they spoke about their experience, but they did not always speak in other tongues. They might witness or speak the word of God or preach or prophesy. The constant in this picture (with the possible exception of Acts 8:15–17, where no result is mentioned) is that people who received the Spirit of God spoke about their experience. We would say that Spirit-empowered speech of some kind is normative. People who experience God talk about it.

One final example of the principle of finding repeated patterns concerns the nature of evangelistic preaching in Acts. Is there anything about the sermons of Acts that is normative for Christian missions and preaching today? Yes, we see three central features that appear consistently throughout Acts. (a) The message is constantly spreading. Like the ripples in a pond, the gospel progresses in everwidening circles of influence. According to Acts we can expect that the one, true gospel of Jesus Christ will permeate societies and change lives.

(b) The gospel of Jesus Christ remains constant. The message remains the same: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ followed by an invitation to respond (2:22–24, 31–33, 36–39; 3:13–21; 8:34–35; 10:36–43; 13:23–39; 17:29–31). Acts 10:39–43 is typical:

39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

(c) The message is shaped to specific audiences. This does not entail changing the message, but tailoring it to ensure the greatest possible acceptance. In cross-cultural terms this is known as contextualizing the gospel. When preaching to Jews, the preachers usually use Scripture and the history of Israel as the basis of the appeal (chs. 2, 3, 13). When preaching to Gentiles the preachers build a bridge by appealing to God as Creator (chs. 14, 17). On the topic of evangelistic preaching we can say that Acts teaches us to hold fast to the core message of the gospel, but we must be willing to tailor our presentation depending on the nature of our audience.

As important as it is to look for repeated patterns and themes when it comes to identifying normative principles in Acts, even this guideline can be abused. For example, some might say that since Paul traveled by ship on some of his missionary journeys, all missionaries should sail rather than fly. A closer look reveals that Paul did not always travel by ship; sometimes he walked. (Sometimes Paul had no choice in the matter—Acts 27:1.) Ship travel represented the fastest, most modern means of travel for the people of that time. The principle that emerges from Acts, then, is not that we must walk or sail, but that we should use the most appropriate form of travel in serving the Lord.


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