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Friday, February 12, 2021

The Book of Acts Tells Christians How to Be More Inclusive

In a course entitled 'Critical New Testament' that I'm taking in seminary we recently covered Luke and Acts. I was struck by how the writer of these texts was concerned more with theology than historical accuracy. His aim was ultimately theological. In particular, I see two primary and interrelated theological themes at work: fulfillment of scripture, and ever-widening inclusion. This is less evident in Luke, but plainly obvious in Acts. The earliest believers in Jesus didn't have the luxury of quiet reflection about the full implications of their faith. Instead, as the message about Jesus and the kingdom of God went out, the issues were forced on them directly. One of the keenest points was that of inclusion, and it's instructive to see how Luke portrayed them as managing the seismic shifts required of their worldviews. 

Acts has Jesus telling us the following prior to his ascension: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In this we find the basic literary skeleton of the book. The message first disturbed the peace of Jerusalem, then all of Judea and Samaria, and then on to the rest of the known world. It seemed big news that both Palestinian Jews and Hellenistic Jews in the Diaspora were included, and then that the Samaritans could be part of the movement, but when Gentiles started coming in a great deal of rethinking had to take place. 

We find in the sermon of Peter on the day of Pentecost one of many references found throughout the book to fulfilled scripture. “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:15-16). Fulfillment of scripture is a very big deal in Luke-Acts, and it seems clear that the writer saw this as a primary means for reinterpreting established Jewish beliefs to make sense of so much change in ways that people could find satisfying. In Luke the fulfilment had to do with Jesus, while in Acts it can be Jesus but also the Christian community itself fulfilling the words of the prophets.

Luke has a different perspective. We have already seen that some of Luke’s predecessors and contemporaries (e.g., Mark and Matthew) claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. In the book of Acts, Luke takes this view a step further. The entire Christian movement after Jesus is a fulfillment of scripture as well (Ehrman 325).

Luke-Acts is an account of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of the early church told as the fulfillment of prophecy (Talbert 1982, 234-40). What is being actualized in the various prophecies' fulfillment is the plan of God that stands behind the events narrated (Talbert xv).

Repeatedly in Acts we find God (or ‘the Spirit’) taking the lead in expanding the reach of the gospel. In 2:39 Peter says that this promise is to those listening at the time, to their children, “and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” In 2:47 it was ‘the Lord’ who added people to the church each day. The Samaritans receive the message and in 8:14-15 the apostles go to them simple to confirm it with the laying on of hands to “receive the Holy Spirit.” The apostle Peter explained to the church in Jerusalem, as related in 11:15-19, the conversion of Cornelius’ household by saying it was done on God’s own initiative, and “who was I that I could withstand God?”

Acts 15, which recounts the events of a council in Jerusalem intended to determine the religious requirements for Gentile converts, gives us an end-to-end view of the theological methodology of the early church in adapting to new circumstances. 

In verses 1-5 the traditionalists make their case for circumcision and keeping the law of Moses. 

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.

In 6-12 Peter, Paul, and Barnabas tell of witnessing the conversion of Gentiles, complete with the reception of the Spirit. 

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

In 13-21 James then caps it off by quoting the Septuagint rendering of Amos 9:11-12 that ‘refers to God’s act of restoration of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles” (Levine 229). 

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, 

After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will set it up,
that the rest of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ 

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”

It is extremely important to note that it was the Septuagint that James quoted here. The Hebrew would have had it that the nations were possessed by the restored Israel, not that the Gentiles would seek out the Lord. It would be odd for James to be quoting the Septuagint, I suspect, so this could be a later reworking of events to align better with the argument the writer is making in Luke and Acts. Namely, that all humanity is to be included. 

A challenge was raised, events on the ground were heard out, and a theological explanation from established canon was cited to make sense of it, resulting in a policy. This is the method that the writer of Luke-Acts presents to readers for handling dramatic change in the church. An analog I could find today would be the inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ+ folks. Rather than keep arguing from the scriptures why they are to be excluded, following what we find in Acts the Christians of our time could be observing that there are very vibrantly believing LGBTQ+ people, look to the scriptures to make sense of how it is that they are included as equals, and move on. 

Acts is a work of theology first and foremost. The narrative is driven by the need to make sense of Christian beliefs and practices through received scripture interpreted via the lens of faith in Jesus as the Christ. The implications of what it has to tells the Christian church are farther reaching than I think most give it credit. 

References


Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2018.

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. New York, NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1952.