The Acts of the Apostles: The Great Liberating Movement

In one of the commentaries on The Book of Acts that I read in the past, I remember it saying that Acts is the single most “diverse” book in the New Testament canon in terms of the “act” of translating and parsing through all of the original manuscripts and turning it into the book that we have. This makes it not only a fun book to translate, but a fun book to read, especially because of all the added material and notes and qualifying statements that tend to fill most of our study Bibles.

While it is generally accepted that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke (the author of both books remains ambiguous) also wrote the Gospel of Acts (Luke-Acts), the sheer body of work that scholars have to sift through in the Acts of the Apostles certainly does leave some interesting questions regarding the date of its composition. The most fervent question regards the ending, which leaves Paul’s story with an open ended question and as an incomplete narrative. Depending on how one wants to read this inference (does this mean the author was aware of or unaware of the latter part of Paul’s story), the idea that the author of Luke-Acts travelled with Paul and was also connected with the author of the Gospel of Mark points to one of the strongest theories regarding date, which is that the author wrote in the midst of these unfolding events and along with these other authors.

The way the Book carries us through all these different touch-points in the story of the Apostles and the unfolding witness of the Spirit of the Gospel in their midst, crossing paths with the different letters, different characters and different pivotal events that form the New Testament as a whole carries with it a sense of drama and narrative that is unique, epic and sweeping in nature. Although a fair chunk of the book is built around a series of sermons, the book reads like an action packed novel full of movement, tension, humor and tragedy. And given how the book seems to fit well with Luke, the Book of Acts functions like a sequel that uses the Gospel’s serious cliffhanger as a jumping off point, even finding a nice cliffhanger of its own too (too bad the author of Luke-Acts wasn’t up for a trilogy!!!). The book’s central concern begins in the “waiting” (1:4) for the promised Spirit (1:8), carries through to the arrival of the Spirit (Chapter 2), and hangs on this movement to the “ends of the earth” (1:8) as it follows the “acts” of the Apostles.

A Shift in Time, A Shift in Focus- Waiting for the New Kingdom To Come
The reference to “40 days” indicates a shift in the setting we find at the end of Luke (1:3), an inference to time having passed. This gives Acts a transitional point to move from the end of The Gospel of Luke into the unfolding narrative of Acts, with the call to “wait” (in Jerusalem now carrying a dual focus (1:4).  The question asked to Jesus is, “will you (Jesus) at this time restore us and bring in the promised Kingdom (1:6)? This “waiting” for the new Kingdom to come, for this promised liberation of the Jewish people, merges with the call to now wait for the Power (the Spirit that John talked about when he said the Jesus would Baptize in fire and spirit1:5) that will carry them through this period of waiting, for what is not yet is still come, and “it is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed… but (and here is the significant part, in the meantime) you “will ” receive power.”

But here is what the waiting means in the context of their (the Jewish people) liberation. The movement from the Cross continues “to the end of the earth.” (1:8) And so, as Jesus ascends and the the Galileans are left there in waiting and wondering, the angels appear asking, why do you stand there? He will return. Liberation will come. In the meantime, get out there and start doing this liberating work (1:11), because there is a whole world waiting with you.

The Movement of the Spirit, the Jew-Gentile Relation and The Unifying Work of the Spirit
What is significant about the way Acts positions us in 1:21-26 back in Jerusalem by way of Matthias and Joseph (a Righteous Jew and the first one to go looking for the kingdom and find Jesus’ body in Luke) is how this establishes not only a framework for the movement of the Spirit (from Jerusalem-Rome-ends of the earth), but also the context for understanding the Jew-Gentile relationship in the life of the early Church.

As the Spirit moves, what becomes apparent is this growing concern for both the people of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles, and how this is (and will be) creating division in the development of the early Church. In Chapter 7, we find a shared concern for Israel set alongside this feeling that they are also the ones being judged for the rejection of their own prophetic ministry, leading to the first of two grand retelling of Israel’s story by Stephen (followed by Stephen’s judgment and death). This moment in Acts becomes a exclamation point on the idea that they (Israel) have always rejected the prophets, the preachers, the kings, and the patriarchs, even though they were always for Israel.

The second time we find this retelling of Israel’s story (13:6-46), we hear that “it was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you (Israel), since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life. Behold, we are turning to the Gentiles (13:46).” The Jews, then, were called to be a light to the Gentiles, and thus by nature of this light (the grace of God and liberation afforded to the whole of creation) come to “continue in the grace of God” themselves because of what this understanding of Grace without boundaries brings back to them in their rejection of the prophets (13:43).

This fits with the idea that we find in the writings of the New Testament letters of the Law existing to reveal the Powers (of Sin and Death), and Sin existing to reveal Jesus to the world. Later it is declared that the Baptism of John was for Israel, and the Baptism of the Spirit was for all nations (13:24; 19:1-10), all of which was for the sake of God’s liberating work (Grace) in and for the world.

3:11-26 repeats the claim that there is “death”, but also “resurrection” according to the Prophets we find mentioned in chapter 2, emphasizing that although the prophets were rejected, God was and is still working in the life of Israel in the same way He has been working in the world. God has never been without a witness to the Spirits movement (14:16). Although all those who rejected the prophets (in the past) were destroyed (died), you are sons of the prophets standing here now (as a witness to the movement of God’s spirit), through which all the families of the earth will be blessed (Chapter 3). The Prophets then merge with this new kingdom which has arrived in the life of Jesus and through the Power of the Holy Spirit (2:15-21). The Power of Sin and Death has been defeated (2:24), providing this sweeping and hopeful image that brings together David and Jesus as a connective and unified force.

This is what establishes a present-future dynamic to the ways in which we apply resurrection hope, bringing us back to the notion of waiting “in power”. The death of Jesus, which Peter wants all of Israel to know, was in fact the victory (2:36), all of which leads them to be both humbled (2:37) and amazed (2:43), shaping the idea of standing and waiting in Jesus’ seeming absence without the visible and physical liberation they still longed for and expected. This is the promise of the Power that is coming, and which is now here, that the Spirit is bringing together this present-future dynamic, enabling us to step out and participate in this liberation now as an undivided people, both Jew and Gentile.

The Spirit Arrives in Power and Unifying Purpose
The Power of the Spirit arrives in Chapter 2 in one of the book’s most memorable and dramatic sequences. More than just for the sake of drama, this Pentecostal event carries with it a point and intention that is able to awaken us to the grand God-Human-Creation story to which we, Jew and Gentile belong. As the divided tongues “as of fire” come to rest on the heads of the people, we get these competing visions of the division that exists in the world and the Spirit’s power to heal this division in its unifying work. The ensuing witness of the different languages (2:1-4), and the declaration that there were Jews and devout men from every nation under heaven (2:5) pushes towards this image of the multitude coming together. The image of the early community (those of the Way) is one in which “All those who believed were together and had all things in common” (2:44;4:32-37), emphasizing the Spirits intent to heal the division as a reigning theme that pushes through the whole of the New Testament. This same picture emerges again in 11:29, telling of the diversity of the growing group of disciples. This unifying work reaches from Israel, the ones who continually rejected the word of God through the Prophets and Jesus, to the ends of the earth. It is interesting that this same unifying focus informs Paul’s ongoing ministry to the Gentile world, finding him switching from the language of Christ (for the Jews) to a focus on creation whenever he finds himself speaking to a Greco-Roman audience for the sake of this unity. In Chapter 7, we find a humorous display where Paul is speaking and his hearers, an audience of philosophers in Athens, are hearing nothing but “babble”. Paul moves then to find a way to speak their language (17:22-33), and again similarly so in the story of Paul with the Ephesians and the whole Artemis narrative of Chapter 19. He does this as a way to unite those across cultures in the Power of the shared Spirit.

The Movement of the Spirit, the Movement of Jesus, and the Movement of the Apostles
As the Power (the Spirit) arrives, one of the interesting dynamics of the Acts narrative is how it begins to reflect the ministry of Jesus. Just as with the arrival of Jesus, we see this mix of amazement and mockery standing side by side. The passage in 3:1-10 is reminiscent of Jesus ministry, culminating in 4:17 with the call to “tell no one”, a claim we also find in the Gospel and that is equally partnered with healing stories. Later, as we get into the story of Paul, much of his ministry work follows in line with the ministry he shares in Christ, including a prophecy that he must suffer and die in Jerusalem, and the whole movement from accusation to being sent before the councils. This movement becomes the framework through which we can understand his shared suffering as part of God’s liberating work.

Paul and Peter- From Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth
In fact, if we can section Acts into two main distinguishing parts, one would be Peter’s journey, the other Pauls. Peter emerges as the founding voice of the early Church, the very image of the Spirits movement beginning in Jerusalem, while Paul will later emerge as a symbol of it’s movement into the Gentile world (in which this movement from Jerusalem to Rome begins with his conversion story in chapter 9), with the great Jerusalem Council, which declared a Gospel for the Gentiles, standing as a centralizing force for this Jewish-Gentile reality (Chapter 15; 16:4). As these two ministries come together (with some contention), this forms a Gospel for all the earth.

As we move through these two stories, we also get these shared images of opposition to the Gospel, with the reigning image being that of the Spirit’s persistent and unrelenting movement. Just as it happened with Jesus’ death, the witness of the Spirit will move regardless of the opposition, something we see every time they try and imprison Peter (12:1-5) and Paul (that won’t stop those Angels!!12:6-19), everytime we encounter a death surrounding the Spirit’s witness, and in the declaration of those who, through the Spirits witness and the work of the Apostles, find Jesus (recalling the Ethiopian Eunuch who cries “what prevents me from being baptized… nothing!! (8:37)”, and the different healing stories that we encounter along the way).

Paul’s Conversion- The Unrelenting Movement of the Spirit

This tension between the opposition and the Spirit’s movement is perhaps no more aware than it is in the story of Paul’s conversion, a story that is retold three times in the narrative of Acts. The first time is in chapter 9 (9:1-19), a passage that positions the “evil’ that Paul has done with the declaration that Paul is a “chosen instrument of God (9:13-15). Within this tension the Church is being built up (9:31). Later, after we encounter a shift from first person (Paul) to “we” (Barnabas separates from Paul and we now find Paul with Timothy and Silas), a dramatic encounter with Paul and Silas in prison finds the Spirit moving through an earthquake that bears witness to God’s continued work in their suffering and the struggle, the declared good news of the Spirits Power to free them being that “Jesus has fixed a day upon when he will judge the world (17:31)”, a reminder that liberation is still coming as they continue to wait and walk in the present.

All I know, Paul says, is that suffering awaits me (the prophecy of Paul’s conversion), but Paul does not account his life as one worth saving for his own sake, but rather he desires to finish in the Way to which he was called for the sake of the Gospel and the Grace of God being poured out for the sake of the world (20:23-24). In 22:1-21, this is what the second account of Paul’s conversion story emphasizes, is the idea that his suffering will not stop the movement of the Spirit. God is still working.

And as we follow Paul through his story, we can see this conviction playing out in a very real way. Following his visit to James (21:17-26), Paul is arrested (21:27-36), and despite trying to use his Roman citizenship as a way to qualify his ministry as both a Roman and a Jew, and trying to show himself to be in good conscious (22:25), he ends up before council (Chapter 23) with a plot being established to kill him (23:12;15), and eventually is moved from the council to the Governor Felix (23:23-35) with the accusation that he has been starting riots among the Jews (24:5).

This eventually leads to him standing before Agrippa and Bernice (25:13-27) and following this on a journey to eventually stand before Caesar himself (25:1-12), a journey that features one of the other more dramatic stories in Acts, the grand shipwreck that ultimately sets him in Rome still awaiting Caesar in the closing words of The Book of Acts.

And yet what informs this final movement to Rome is this idea that Rome, as a more literal rendering of the “end of the earth” in this case, is actually pointing to a more final declaration, which says, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen (28:28).” As Paul sits in shackles awaiting his trial, being said by those around him to be “out of his mind” (27:24), the final word is the Spirit’s movement, a movement that Paul will ultimately continue to carry to Spain, and eventually with him to his death. The final word is a Gospel for the world, a movement that reaches from Jerusalem (the first fruits of this witness) to the more figurative (and all encompassing) ends of the earth.

It’s a powerful picture that arrives with the tension that has carried through the entire Book of Acts, both the tension of the Jew-Gentile relationship, and ultimately the tension of the Spirit’s promise to bear witness of God’s work in the world where the Darkness and oppression still seem very apparent.

As we encounter the third of Paul’s retelling of his conversion story (26:9-19), we find him requesting a chance to talk to the people so as to speak to this reigning tension as in fact good news, findint him standing there in the face of his own uncertainty witnessing to the hope of Christ’s liberating work (26:12-23). What God has done in him, God desires to do in all.

Peter, Boldness, and the Power of the Spirit to Reveal Christ

Near the start of the Acts account, following the pouring out of the Spirit in Power, we find Peter standing at the precipice of the Spirit’s arrival and eventual movement praying for boldness (4:23-31). If, as readers, we are aware of Peter’s journey with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, this prayer for boldness intersects with the prayer of Jesus for Peter in light of his coming denial. Here Jesus’ prayer holds true, a positive declaration that in the Spirit Peter is drawing strength from his own unwanted opposition to the ministry of Christ. His failure to fully trust in the Power of the Cross to liberate the world bears witness to the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to work above, beyond and within him for the sake of both him and the world. Later on, Chapter 11:1-18 sets up Peter’s “vision” in 10:9-33 as the “movement of the Spirit” that was first made known in his life as a follower of Christ. This is a movement that will not be stopped.

For Peter, the point of the Spirit’s movement is clear. It is not him, but rather it is to Christ that the Spirit points. The reality of the Cross and the Resurrection is what the Spirit reveals. Peter is fervently aware of asking them not to worship his ministry, but rather to worship Christ (10:26). This distinguishing of the Apostles teachings will become a problem in Paul’s letters, and here there are already followers of John the Baptist (19:1-3) that need to be reframed and refocused around the ministry of Christ as the liberating Power in this already-not yet reality.

Paul as well, as he deals with accusations of dividing the Jewish sects and the Jewish people, says that it is not Paul’s ministry or Paul that should be on trial, but rather it is his witness to the ministry of Jesus that should be wrestled with and considered. More specifically, it is the witness of the Spirit to the Resurrection that is dividing those of the Law (23:6-10), and it is through the suffering and death of Christ (the shared ministry that he embodies) that this desires to bare itself out among them. This is why the word and title “christian” in 11:26, the first use of the word we encounter in early “Christian tradition”, bears a scandalous and accusatory weight. This is the great message of the Apostles and the mystery of the Spirit that is being revealed. And the great proclamation of the Acts of the Apsotles is that this mystery is no longer just the witness of the Jews (through the Law and the Prophets) and Jesus’ ministry, but is also theirs (the whole earth’s)(10:37-43). As Paul accuses them of “making the straight path crooked” (the path that John envisions in Jesus 13:10), it is the Spirit who is making this path straight. That is the unstoppable movement of Christ’s liberating work, a movement that begins at the Cross and looks towards Christ’s return, setting this present-future reality within this ever present contest between Darkness and Light, Devil and Lord, Powers that are trying to divide what has been made straight. The great truth of the Spirits witness though, is that what is being made crooked is still being made straight. This is the Power that has been given. That is why the earlier believers in Acts were called followers of The Way. The Powers of Sin and Death have been defeated, and the Way has been made known. As God strikes Herod down in 12:23,24, a symbolic vision, the word, the liberating work of God is moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, unting Jew and Gentile in one Spirit and one language, the language of Christ and the Cross. And although this movement arrives with many exciting ups and downs, some humorous moments (the weird story about people trying to expel evil spirits in 19:11-20 and failing miserably; Paul talking so long that people are falling asleep in 19:7-92; Paul talking and people just hearing “babble”), the greatest movement the world has ever seen, this movement from Heaven to Earth and back again, this great bringing together of the New Creation, is just getting started. We might end with Paul in prison awaiting his meeting with Caesar, but because of Jesus’ Resurrection death does not get the final world. The best of this story is still yet to come, but for now, as we wait with creation in those shared shackles, the call of the Spirit is to get in on the movement, to taste and see this liberating goodness in the here and now. The Power has come, and the Power is ours, so why are you standing there looking. Get up and walk for the Kingdom is already here.

 

 

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: