(Acts 15:7-11) After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
(This sounds just like Galatians.) Paul summarizes the gospel —
- It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved
- The receipt of the Holy Spirit confirms God’s acceptance of a person
Paul on Mars Hill in Athens
(Acts 17:18-31) A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?”
Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
In this gospel sermon, Paul takes a different tack. The gospel is —
- God created mankind so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us
- God commands all men to repent
- God will judge
- God proved all this by the resurrection of Jesus
We don’t often think of the resurrection as proof of God’s purposes, God’s closeness to us, God’s judgment, and God’s command to repent, but this is Paul argument.
Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders
When Paul left Ephesus, he spoke to the elders passionately about the gospel and kingdom.
(Acts 20:24-35) However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
The “truth” is the “gospel of God’s grace” and “the kingdom.” Wolves will distort the gospel that Paul had been preaching.
32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”
Christians receive an inheritance (the kingdom) by “the word of his grace.”
Paul tells them it is more blessed to give than to receive — his point being that he worked with his own hands to make money not only to support himself but to give to the “weak,” which would be better translated “sick” or “afflicted.”
Paul’s lesson on giving was on the importance of work to help the needy — so important that even an apostle would take time from preaching to do this.
In Acts, the words “gospel” and “kingdom” are largely found in the preaching of Paul and in descriptions of the spread of the kingdom. We don’t see Luke saying: “This happened because it’s the nature of the kingdom.” But if we go back to the Gospel of Luke and see how “kingdom” and “gospel” are used there, we readily see that Acts shows the early church being the kingdom.
(Acts 2:42-47) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
While Luke speaks of breaking bread in his account of Jesus’ instituting communion, he uses the same language in Luke 24:30 and later in Acts 27:35, both of which appear to be a common meal. It’s hard to say with any confidence that Luke intended his readers to take “breaking of bread” as necessarily referring to taking communion.
(One could argue, with some force, that all the meals at which bread was “broken” are eucharistic. One cannot, however, simply pick the meals he prefers with no justification other than a desire to reach a pre-determined conclusion.)
The main point of the references to breaking point seems to be to exemplify v. 44: “All the believers were together …” Their hearts were so closely knit together that they shared with those in need, ate in each other’s homes, met in the temple courts, and praised God.
This is not a lesson about Sunday morning worship so much as a radically changed lifestyle — one that modern church has largely missed.
(Acts 4:32-35) All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
You see, Luke once again notes that the believers “were one in heart and mind.” Unity characterized the kingdom, but not so much unity in doctrine as unity of purpose and heart. They were so united that “there were no needy persons among them.” The wealthy freely gave up their investments to support those in need.
Why does Luke make such a point of this? Why does Paul conclude his talk with the Ephesian elders by saying it’s more blessed to give than to receive? Because this is an important part of the good news — going back to the Magnificat and Isaiah and even the Law.
Just so, when we take “break bread” to mean “eat a crumb; sip some juice” rather than to enjoy hospitality in one anothers’ homes, so much so that we give to help support each other, we miss the point of Acts 2:42-47. You see, we start by assuming this is about the rules and so we find rules. But looked at from a non-legalistic perspective, this is about how “love one another” is realized in a church — making the rest of the passage stand out as equally important.
We also see the apostles and missionaries suffering persecution but overcoming opposition from the governmental and religious officials and from the wealthy to preach the gospel. You see, the gospel challenged the power structures and the comfort of the rich — and they preached anyway.
But they didn’t seek to overthrow those in power or to take power. Rather, they obeyed God rather than man, God protected them (not all, but enough to preserve the growth of the kingdom), and they defeated the powers.
Now, none of this is to dismiss salvation by grace through faith. That is certainly part of the gospel — and the focus of the gospel in some, but not all, of Paul’s sermons. The point is that salvation is salvation into a community and kingdom in which we share in God’s purposes.
That is, Christians are called to be Christlike, and Christ is Godlike. And God exists in relationship as a being that seeks relationship in love. And we entirely miss the point of the gospel when we separate it from God’s purposes and Story.
(PS — I’m not arguing against weekly communion. I’m quite in favor of weekly communion. I just think the notion that weekly communion is somehow sufficient to bind a church together as we see happening in Acts is, well, very far removed from reality. How we do better is for another day — but the answer isn’t to argue over what the rules are.)