Yesterday, we began a series in Acts, looking at its genre (type of communication). We saw how it was part two of a two-part work written the way ancient writers wrote history. And we ended with the question: so what? How does knowing this help us read and apply Acts?
Firstly, it tells us how not to read Acts. Because often we tend to read it like it’s a church manual. As though Luke began like this:‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the way things are done, just as they were handed down to us by those who were foundation members of our particular denomination. Therefore, since I myself have carefully confirmed my own prejudices from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write a prescriptive handbook for you, most excellent twenty-first century reader, so that you may know for certain that you are right in how you do church*.’ [*Some authorities add: ‘and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong’, here and everywhere else throughout their ecclesial practices.]
Although this may be an unfair caricature, it never ceases to surprise me the number of times I hear Acts read as though it were primarily a manual for how we should do church. An issue of practice or strategy arises, and we thumb through its pages to find out how they did it back then – often with the unchallenged assumption that this will tell us precisely how we should do it, too. Unless, of course, it doesn’t fit with our own cultural preferences, denominational heritage, or the latest strategy in church growth to emerge from North America – at which point we mumble something about ‘cultural context’ and try our luck in the pastoral epistles.
Even if we are able to shed the lenses of our own ecclesial prejudice and come to the text as impartially as possible, is the Acts of the Apostles intended to be the definitive guidebook for how all future generations organise and conduct themselves as the people of God? More simply, is Acts prescriptive as well as descriptive? Entire denominations have been built on this premise, but is the premise itself valid?
Firstly, if Acts is history, then we should read it as history. It’s the story of God’s unstoppable Gospel as it spreads from the relatively obscure backwater of Jerusalem, all the way to the heart of the empire in Rome – and all this through the initial testimony of some uneducated Galilean fishermen, by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. God is the central actor, the apostles are the supporting cast, the spread of the Gospel is the key theme, and how we might do church and mission 2000 years later is much further down the list than we often admit. It should, first and foremost, be read with wonder and amazement at what God did to bring about a radical transformation in his world – a transformation the effects of which reach to every part of the world today.
Secondly, if Acts is history, then we should apply it as history. Luke tells us he wrote to Theophilus ‘that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’. He did not write so that Theophilus would know how to organise his church, the appropriateness or otherwise of speaking in tongues, or effective evangelism strategies for reaching the culturally diverse urban populations of Asia Minor. He wrote both Luke and Acts in order to reassure Theophilus that his newly-embraced faith was indeed certain and based on rational conclusions rather than mere superstition. His first volume focused on the person of Jesus – his claim of divinity, and the various evidences thereof, culminating in the resurrection appearances. His second volume then looked at the expansion of this faith in Jesus, son of God, as a worldwide phenomenon, bringing many to faith both through the power of the Holy Spirit and the persuasive and reasoned appeals of the apostles. Clearly, then, this should direct what we “do” with Acts. It’s about reassuring us of the certainty of what we’ve been taught – both through rational argument as well as by simply reading the stories of individual lives and families and cities as they are transformed by the gospel.
Thirdly, if Acts is history, then we should read what happens as historical examples to inspire and inform us – but not prescriptive patterns that we need to replicate. This was how history functioned in the ancient world: to record what happened, and to show by example that how a person lives can have an impact on the world. By reading the examples of great heroes of history who were virtuous, courageous, self-controlled, etc. it inspired people to act similarly. Not the same, but to exhibit those kinds of values in their own lives. So what we have in Acts, then, is not a way of doing things that we slavishly copy, but examples of how to live in tune with God’s values as they played out in the first century Mediterranean world. From this, we work out how we might also live in tune with God’s values in our own context.
That’s where we’re heading as we start working through the text of Acts, beginning tomorrow.