We’re starting a new adult Bible class series at my church on Acts of the Apostles, called “God on a Mission.” The first suggestion was “The Church on a Mission,” but Acts is much more about what God does than the church. God often acts through the church, but the primary character in Acts is God. And God mainly acts in Acts through his Spirit.
Over and over, Luke credits the Spirit with prompting this or that action. Sometimes God. Sometimes Jesus. But it’s always divine action at work.
I’m writing the lesson material and, for the first few weeks at least, teaching a teacher prep class on Wednesday nights. I’ll be posting lesson notes here.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the readers comment less on my lesson materials, but these posts will generally be as substantive as the other posts.
Preface for Teachers
Acts is the second volume of Luke-Acts. It’s essentially a sequel to Luke and reads better if we remember what Luke covered in his Gospel. We taught a quarter on Luke back in 2007. We didn’t get nearly finished, and we won’t get nearly finished with Acts. But the goal isn’t to finish — it’s to learn whaever portions of Acts we have time to cover very well. I’d rather cover three chapters well than cover the entire book and teach next to nothing.
The strategy will be to suck every drop of teaching from Acts we can, avoiding the usual, sometimes-trite lessons and instead looking at the deeper, richer lessons that are so often overlooked. And this means we’ll go very slowly at first.
I’ll be using several commentaries, but the ones I’m finding particularly helpful are Beverly R. Gaventa’s commentary on Acts from the Abingdon series. It’s scholarly but not academic. The introduction is excellent and far superior to most commentaries. I think the author really gets what’s going on.
Also, I’m working from William H. Willimon’s commentary in Acts. This is the same Willimon who co-authored Resident Aliens. He’s an excellent writer and the Methodist bishop for North Alabama. I really like this book. It’s a convenient length, and it brings out the missional elements of Acts very well and very readably. I mean, it’s a commentary you can sit down and read like a novel. He does a careful job of tying Acts to Luke, which I like a lot, especially since we covered Luke in our classes not too long ago.
However, Willimon is like William Barclay, in that he enjoys inserting issues that distract from the text — such as suggesting that Luke’s theology differs greatly from Paul’s. These are not the sort of issues we want to cover in Sunday school class. And I just plain disagree regarding Paul and Luke. To me, we gain the deepest insights into the nature of God’s dealings with his people when we wrestle with, say, Paul’s baptismal theology and Luke’s, seeking the common, shared truth rather than dismissing the apparent differences as contradictions and so avoiding the need to dig more deeply into the text.
I also commend to the teachers this very brief article by N. T. Wright explaining the political themes of Acts and tying Acts to the contemporary church. Very nice.
Luke is not writing a secular history but he is writing history, but for theological reasons. He is selective in his choice of materials and does not cover many obvious questions, such as what the other apostles did after Paul left Jerusalem. Luke’s point isn’t merely to tell the story of Paul but to tell God’s story as seen in the work of Paul and others. It’s not just that Paul was God’s missionary to the Gentiles but that the true stories Luke tells further the gospel presented in Luke. This is Jesus’ gospel as experienced by the early church.
Therefore, we should take much of Acts as being about how to live as a Christian — not as a textbook or rulebook but as a story that illustrates how the gospel transformed lives in its setting and time.
God’s Promises Realized
To truly understand Acts, we must understand its place in God’s grand story. Many of us were taught that the Old Testament is a dead letter — useful only as a source of moral lessons for children. This “dispensational” view of God’s story creates a church without a history. It fails to fully respect God’s work for thousands of years and edits most of the Bible out of our Bibles — which is why so many of us carry New Testaments to church, leaving the useless, obsolete Old Testament on the coffee table.
Now, if your Sunday classes growing up were like mine, you were taught to see prophecy as a kind of Christian evidence, that is, we were to be amazed at God’s knowledge of the future — which is true and powerful, but not really the foremost point of prophecy and certainly not the point that Acts covers. You see, prophecy to a First Century Jew was all about God’s promises. The point of prophecy was to know what God had promised and to therefore pray in earnest anticipation of the fulfillment. They thought of Old Testament prophecy much as we think of the end of the Revelation — a promise of a better future on which we may rely, indeed, a promise that gives the meaning of life.
Therefore, the story of Acts is the story of fulfillment — of realization of ancient promises that defined Jewish yearnings and expectations. And therefore Acts is a story of excitement and hope realized. What God had promised was finally happening! The events recorded in Acts were not seen as the beginning of history, but as the culmination.
Jesus announces the themes
I think the primary themes are announced by Jesus early in the book —
(Act 1:7-8 ESV) 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
There are two explicit themes here — God is about to send the Spirit to transform the world and the gospel will be spread from Jerusalem to the entire world. Both of these fulfill ancient prophecy. Indeed, implicitly — and expicitly in Peter’s Pentecost sermon — what is happening throughout Acts is seen as the fulfillment of God’s promises made in the Torah and the Prophets.
We’ll cover this in more detail as we get to particular passages. For now, we should focus on this particular promise —
(Gen 12:2-3 ESV) 2 “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God promised to use Abraham’s descendants — Israel — to bless all families of the earth over 2,000 years before Pentecost. This is, of course, a major theme of the scriptures, and the angel’s announcement explains how this would happen.
Luke does not explicitly refer to Abraham here (he waits under Acts 3:25), but any Jew would have seen the connection as completely obvious. The angel is announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise! And Acts follows this outline.
Imagine the apostles’ reaction to this. An angel told them that God was finally about to fulfill his promises to Abraham, and they’d be God’s instruments for this very purpose. The dreams of a nation, prayed over for over two thousand years, were coming true. God was keeping his promises! And not only were they there to see it, God would honor his promises through them.
This is one reason Jesus chose 12 men — symbolic of the 12 tribes. The promise was to bless the world through Israel, and the numerical symbolism was no small thing. These men stood as the sons of Jacob, that is, Israel. They were doing the work God had given the 12 tribes — to be a light to the world. And here they stood, on top of a mountain, as an angel from heaven assured them God would make it all happen.
Acts does not follow the apostles in general. After chapter 1, only Peter, John, and James are even mentioned among the original twelve. And once the Samaritans are converted, Luke shifts quickly to the story of Paul’s journeys, but as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul’s story is the story of the angel’s announcement and the story of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
The outline of Luke is driven, therefore, not by heroes or personalities or even apostles, but by the story of God, the fulfillment of promises and God pushing his Kingdom outward from the Jews to the entire world.