Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reading Through Acts #1 (Chapters 1-12)

I am continuing to read through the New Testament accompanied by the commentary series The Bible Speaks Today, edited by John R. W. Stott. The fifth volume of the series, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, is also authored by Stott. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I post quotes from the commentary on my Facebook page and periodic summaries of the commentary here on my blog. I welcome discussion on these post on my Facebook page. As always, quotes from Stott are in blue font.

The book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. As the Gospel shows the kingdom work that Jesus began, Acts continues the story of what Jesus continued luke-intro_clip_image002to do, in the power of the Spirit, through the church. As Blomberg demonstrates (right), Luke-Acts that begins and ends with a world-wide (entire Roman empire) focus and revolves around the ascension of Jesus and sending of the Spirit. The church is the “body of Christ” and acts under the authority of the risen Jesus. The miracles, the teaching and actions of the disciples are all designed by Luke to show that it is Jesus acting through them. Luke wrote Acts to show show that Christianity is a movement from God which is the fullest expression of  Judaism, is legal and beneficial for Roman society, and that it was God’s plan all along for this small Jewish movement to become a multi-cultural, universal entity which would fulfill God’s plan for all creation.

Thus, the message of Acts is “The church, made up of all the people’s and cultures of this world, is God’s instrument in the present age to glorify God and bring people into His eternal kingdom.”

Acts ChartThe opening section of the book focuses on the founding of the church and its first evangelistic efforts in Jerusalem. At his ascension Jesus commissions the apostles to go from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth with the Kingdom message and promises the sending of the Spirit to empower the mission. The church chooses a 12th disciple because they must be the 12 “tribes” of the new age of God’s people.

The kingdom of God is his rule set up in the lives of his people by the Holy Spirit. It is spread by witness, not by soldiers, through a gospel of peace, not a declaration of war, and by the work of the Spirit, not by force of arms, political intrigue or revolutionary violence. At the same time, in rejecting the politicizing of the kingdom, we must beware of the opposite extreme of super-spiritualizing it, as if God’s rule operates only in heaven and not on earth. The fact is that, although it must not be identified with any political ideology or programme, it has radical political and social implications. Kingdom values come into collision with secular values. Acts 1.6-8, 42.

At the ascension Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the beginning of the church. This united all its members with Christ as members of his spiritual body in Spirit baptism. Thus, the unity of Christians is based on the internally dwelling Spirit, not creed or organization. The amazing result, thousands of converts who had recently been in favor of crucifying Jesus, showed that it was the power of God working to transform lives.

At Babel human languages were confused and the nations were scattered; in Jerusalem the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ, prefiguring the great day when the redeemed company will be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’. Besides, at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth. Acts 2.1-13, 68.

Peter focused on Christ and told his story in six stages. (i) He was a man, though divinely attested by miracles; (ii) he was put to death by wicked hands, though according to God’s purpose; (iii) he was raised from the dead, as the prophets had foretold and the apostles had witnessed; (iv) he was exalted to God’s right hand, and from there poured out the Spirit; (v) he now gives forgiveness and the Spirit to all who repent, believe and are baptized; and (vi) he thus adds them to his new community. Acts 2.22-41, 79.

No self-centred, self-contained church (absorbed in its own parochial affairs) can claim to be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit. So a Spirit-filled church is a missionary church. Acts 2.42-47, 87.

In chapters 3-4 Peter and John, just as Jesus did, perform a miracle healing of a lame man. The miracle validated their preaching in Jesus’ name and again resulted in a mass conversion. There was also opposition but the church leaders realized that this was also part of God’s plan for the spread of the Gospel.

In reply, the apostles bore witness to Jesus Christ. Whether they were preaching to the crowd in the temple or answering accusations in court, their preoccupation was not their own defence but the honour and glory of their Lord. Acts 4.8-12, 96.

We will neither describe miracles as ‘never happening’, nor as ‘everyday occurrences’, neither as ‘impossible’ nor as ‘normal’. Instead, we will be entirely open to the God who works both through nature and through miracle. And when a healing miracle is claimed, we will expect it to resemble those in the Gospels and the Acts and so to be the instantaneous and complete cure of an organic condition, without the use of medical or surgical means, inviting investigation and persuading even unbelievers. Acts 3-4, 104.

When the devil could not defeat the church through outside persecution, he attempted to attack it through inner turmoil. Though the church was a revolutionary society that took care of the poor and needy there were dissatisfied people and hypocrites within it. God acted decisively to remove the hypocrisy and the church leaders acted wisely to deal with prejudice and turmoil within. The strength of the early church was that everyone took up the call to serve one another. 4-6

Calvin wrote in his commentary: We must have hearts that are harder than iron if we are not moved by the reading of this narrative. In those days the believers gave abundantly of what was their own; we in our day are content not just jealously to retain what we possess, but callously to rob others.… They sold their own possessions in those days; in our day it is the lust to purchase that reigns supreme. At that time love made each man’s own possessions common property for those in need; in our day such is the inhumanity of many, that they begrudge to the poor a common dwelling upon earth, the common use of water, air and sky. Acts 4.32-37, 107.

We have now seen that, if the devil’s first tactic was to destroy the church by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from within. He has not given up the attempt, whether by the hypocrisy of those who profess but do not practise, or by the stubbornness of those who sin but do not repent. The church must preserve its vigilance. Acts 5.1-11, 112.

As Bishop Festo Kivengere said in February 1979, on the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda: ‘Without bleeding the church fails to bless.’ Persecution will refine the church, but not destroy it. If it leads to prayer and praise, to an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God and of solidarity with Christ in his sufferings, then—however painful—it may even be welcome. Acts 5.40-42, 119.

All Christians without exception, being followers of him who came ‘not to be served but to serve’, are themselves called to ministry, indeed to give their lives in ministry. But the expression ‘full-time Christian ministry’ is not to be restricted to church work and missionary service; it can also be exercised in government, the media, the professions, business, industry and the home. We need to recover this vision of the wide diversity of ministries to which God calls his people. Acts 6.2-6, 122.

Stephen’s martyrdom and speech, though tragic, will become the catalyst for the next phase in the growth of the church. The persecution, led by Paul, that followed forced the church to obey Jesus’ command to go out to Samaria and eventually to the Gentiles. Stephen’s Christlike response to persecution must have made a great impression on Paul who would transform from chief persecutor of the church to its most influential apostle.

It is evident then from Scripture itself that God’s presence cannot be localized, and that no building can confine him or inhibit his activity. If he has any home on earth, it is with his people that he lives. He has pledged himself by a solemn covenant to be their God. Therefore, according to his covenant promise, wherever they are, there he is also. Acts 7.17-50, 139.

Change is painful to us all, especially when it affects our cherished buildings and customs, and we should not seek change merely for the sake of change. Yet true Christian radicalism is open to change. It knows that God has bound himself to his church (promising that he will never leave it) and to his word (promising that it will never pass away). But God’s church means people not buildings, and God’s word means Scripture not traditions. So long as these essentials are preserved, the buildings and the traditions can if necessary go. We must not allow them to imprison the living God or to impede his mission in the world. Acts 7.54-60, 143.

Chapter 8 records the first steps in the church moving out from its Jewish roots to becoming multi-cultural. With Philip’s ministry to the Samaritans, validated by the Spirit and witnessed to by the preeminent Jewish apostles, God's kingdom has now grown beyond just Jews. This is followed by Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian eunuch which extends the Gospel to a Gentile God-fearer. Now the stage is set for full extension to the Gentiles. Who will God raise up to do it?

Effective evangelism becomes possible only when the church recovers both the biblical gospel and a joyful confidence in its truth, relevance and power. Acts 8.1-40, 144.

Initiation into Christ, according to the New Testament, is a single-stage experience, in which we repent, believe, are baptized, and receive both the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, after which by the indwelling power of the Spirit we grow into Christian maturity. During this period of growth there may indeed be many deeper, fuller, richer experiences of God; it is the insistence on a two-stage stereotype which we should reject. Stott, Acts 8.25, 154.

He regards the Ethiopian’s conversion rather as another example of the loosening of bonds with Jerusalem (foreseen by Stephen in his speech) and of the liberation of the word of God to be the gospel for the world. It is especially significant that this African, who had gone to Jerusalem to worship, was now leaving it and would not return there. Acts 8.27-29, 160.

Chapters 9-12 record the preparation for the great missionary outreach to the Gentile world which will proceed from Antioch and be the main focus of Acts 13-28. The first step in this is the conversion and commissioning of Paul who would become the “apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul had been specially chosen by the Spirit for this task.

The risen Lord had appeared to Saul. It was not a subjective vision or dream; it was an objective appearance of the resurrected and now-glorified Jesus Christ. The light he saw was the glory of Christ, and the voice he heard was the voice of Christ. Christ had interrupted his headlong career of persecution and had turned him round to face in the opposite direction. Acts 9.3-9, 170.

The cause of Saul’s conversion was grace, the sovereign grace of God. But sovereign grace is gradual grace and gentle grace. Gradually, and without violence, Jesus pricked Saul’s mind and conscience with his goads. Then he revealed himself to him by the light and the voice, not in order to overwhelm him, but in such a way as to enable him to make a free response. Divine grace does not trample on human personality. Rather the reverse, for it enables human beings to be truly human. It is sin which imprisons; it is grace which liberates. Acts 9.3-9, 173.

It is not only that converts must join the Christian community, but that the Christian community must welcome converts, especially those from a different religious, ethnic or social background. There is an urgent need for modern Ananiases and Barnabases who overcome their scruples and hesitations, and take the initiative to befriend newcomers. Acts 9.26-31, 178.

But we should never be satisfied with a person’s conversion. That is only the beginning. The same grace which brings a person to new birth is able to transform him or her into Christ’s image. Acts 9.26-31, 180.

The next step was the opening of the Gospel and power of the Spirit to full Gentiles. The story of the conversion of Cornelius is told from multiple perspectives so that there can be no doubt that the inclusion of Gentiles within the church, without them becoming Jews, was the plan of God from the beginning. There are no more racial boundaries within the Kingdom. Jesus is Lord of all.

The emphasis is that Cornelius’ Gentile nationality was acceptable so that he had no need to become a Jew, not that his own righteousness was adequate so that he had no need to become a Christian. For God is ‘not indifferent of religions but indifferent of nations’. Acts 10.23-48, 190.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus were more than significant events; they also constituted the gospel, which he commanded us (the apostles again) to preach, in the first instance to the people, i.e. the Jews. But the scope of the gospel was universal. So the apostles were also to proclaim him as ‘Lord of all’ (36), as judge of all and as Saviour of all who believe.  Acts 10.23-48, 191.

The fundamental emphasis of the Cornelius story is that, since God does not make distinctions in his new society, we have no liberty to make them either. Yet, tragic as it is, the church has never learned irrevocably the truth of its own unity or of the equality of its members in Christ. Acts 10, 197.

Chapter 11 records the aftermath of the conversion of Cornelius. The Jerusalem church needed to be prepared for the mission to take the Gospel to all the world. First, the objections to Gentile inclusion needed to be removed. Peter’s main response to the objectors was that “God did it,” “How can we oppose God?” The outcome: Not only does the church cross over to accept Gentiles, but they are received without first converting to Judaism. This would be the wedge that would break the church from non-Christian Judaism.

Is it because the word ‘Christ’ was constantly on their lips that the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch (26b)?...Although it does not seem to have caught on initially, since elsewhere it appears only twice in the New Testament (Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet. 4:16), it at least emphasized the Christ-centred nature of discipleship. For the word’s formation was parallel to Herodianoi (Herodians) and Kaisarianoi (Caesar’s people); it marked out the disciples as being above all the people, the followers, the servants of Christ. Acts 11.25-26, 205.

Chapter 12 records the final preparation of the Jerusalem church to take the Gospel to the nations. James is killed and Peter imprisoned. It looks like outside persecution will destroy the church. But God intervenes and frees Peter in answer to the fervent prayer of the church. The point is that nothing can stop the gospel from spreading. The rest of the book of Acts will record the powerful movement of the Gospel all the way to Rome.

Here then were two communities, the world and the church, arrayed against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which the powerless possess. Acts 12.5-19, 208–209.

The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place. Tyrants may be permitted for a time to boast and bluster, oppressing the church and hindering the spread of the gospel, but they will not last. In the end, their empire will be broken and their pride abased. Acts 12, 213.

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