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The book of Acts as political-religious narrative

I’ve put this up for a couple of reasons. First, I’m pulling together some ideas for teaching on Acts at a mission conference in the summer, and a rough narrative outline is a good place to start, though how much use I’ll make of it remains to be seen.

Secondly, someone got in touch recently asking if I could recommend a commentary on Acts that takes a narrative-historical line. Not really, to be honest. I imagine Tom Wright’s [amazon:978-0281053087:inline] would go some way in the right direction. I’m also looking forward to Steve Walton’s commentary when it eventually appears. Robert Wall reads Acts as part of a “master” story about “what God has done to bring salvation to the world” ([amazon:978-0687278237:inline], 18). That rather downplays the “kingdom” motif, I think. I haven’t made much use of Craig Keener’s incomplete [amazon:978-0801048364:inline], but judging by the introduction it appears to take a more or less standard approach—historical-critical, on the one hand, salvation-historical, on the other.

What distinguishes a narrative-historical reading of Acts from conventional evangelical readings? Probably this. We would normally suppose that Acts is concerned with the spread of a gospel of personal salvation across Europe and the emergence and expansion of the church. So I.H. Marshall:

After describing the equipping of Jesus’ disciples for their work with the gift of the Spirit, the book goes on to tell the exciting story of the beginnings of the church in Jerusalem, its spread throughout the wider areas of Judea and Samaria, and then its rapid movement from Antioch in Syria through Asia Minor and Macedonia and Greece, until eventually the arrival of Paul in Rome symbolizes the presence of the gospel in the central city of the ancient world.1

A narrative-historical reading—as I see it, at least—understands the “gospel” to be a political-religious announcement primarily about the future of Israel, which is found to have far-reaching implications for the nations of the ancient world—not the rest of humanity. The formation of communities of people who believe this is secondary. We tend to regard it as a history of the beginning of the church because we are the church that emerged from this story. But I’m not sure that was Luke’s perspective or real concern.

Acts tells the story of how the apostles explained first to the Jews and then to Gentiles the significance of the fact that God raised his Son from the dead. It meant, on the one hand, that the future of God’s people lay with those who believed that this was true, whether Jews or Greeks; and on the other, that the form of the pagan world was passing away. It is a narrative, therefore, that works within historical horizons—the destruction of Jerusalem, the collapse of classical paganism. By contrast, to illustrate, in an excursus on the kingdom of God Keener says:

Daniel’s kingdom intervened at the climax of all earthly kingdoms, in the time of the fourth human kingdom, which ancient interpreters (at least in the Roman period) understood as the Roman Empire. (Kindle loc. 30487)

Keener appears to be working with the popular notion that the kingdom is fulfilled beyond history, and that we are still waiting for it. But the kingdom that is given to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 does not end worldly empires. It replaces hostile pagan empires with a kingdom in which “all peoples, nations, and languages” serve the figure like a Son of Man—that is, the suffering saints of the Most High. In the ancient context God’s kingdom would be another worldly empire. “Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Similarly, Wall classifies Paul’s announcement to the Athenians in 17:31 as a “prophecy of endtime judgment” which points to “God’s cosmic triumph” (25). But there is nothing “cosmic” or “endtime” about Paul’s prophecy. He speaks merely of a day when the pagan oikoumenē—the Greek-Roman world—will be judged by Jesus. Nothing suggests that Paul expected the world to end at this point.

So both the Old Testament precedents and the language of Acts point to a historical framework. But now, on with the narrative….

Ascension

The disciples ask the resurrected Jesus when he will restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6). They are not to know—the time has been fixed by the Father, which is Luke’s equivalent to Jesus’ saying in Matthew 24:36 about the timing of the revelation of the Son of Man and the deliverance of the disciples. The same approximate time span, however, would presumably apply: the kingdom will be restored to Israel within a generation. In the meantime, they are to be witnesses to the resurrection, and interpreters of its significance, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). As part of the same argument, the angels tell the disciples that Jesus will come on the clouds of heaven just as he went on the clouds of heaven (1:9-11). This further clarifies the temporal scope of the kingdom expectation and, therefore, of the narrative of Acts.

Pentecost and the message to Israel

The Spirit is poured out on the disciples, empowering them as a prophetic community that will see what Jesus saw—judgment coming upon unrighteous Israel in the form of war and destruction. They boldly proclaim that YHWH has raised his crucified Son from the dead, making him “both Lord and Christ”, and call Israel to repent and to wait for the coming of Jesus and the restoration of “all things”—the full restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Those Jews who do not listen to the prophetic voice “shall be destroyed from the people”, but those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved (2:1-41; 3:11-26; 4:11-12; 5:31). Stephen accuses the council of having murdered the “prophet like me” whom Moses had foretold (7:37, 52). When he is stoned to death, he affirms the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the council: the Son of Man is indeed seated at the right hand of God, having power and authority to judge and rule (Acts 7:56; cf. Lk. 22:69). This is a political narrative about the judgment of Israel.

The persecuted community of the Son of Man

Following Stephen’s death, the disciples in Jerusalem suffer severe persecution and are scattered (8:1). In Samaria Philip proclaims the same message about the future intervention of God as king in the affairs of Israel (8:12). The Ethiopian eunuch, however, is reading Isaiah 53:7-8. Jesus is the sheep led to the slaughter, humiliated, denied justice (8:32-33); but he is also, in this context, the type of the suffering disciple. The Son of Man at the right hand of God accuses Paul, the persecutor of the disciples, of persecuting him: Jesus, who suffered and was vindicated, embodies his disciples, who suffer and will be vindicated. So Paul is sent to carry the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel”, and Jesus will “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:4-5, 15-16). Paul was now convinced that Jesus was the “Son of God”—that he had been given power and authority to judge and rule at the right hand of God (9:19-20).

The Gentiles believe the good news about Israel

In Caesarea Peter tells Cornelius what God is doing for his people (10). He anointed Jesus to proclaim good news to Israel. When the Jews killed him, God raised him and appointed him “to be judge of the living and the dead. As Cornelius and his household listen to this story about Israel, they too are overwhelmed with an experience of the Holy Spirit. Peter may have meant by “judge of the living and the dead” that Jesus would also judge the nations—that in itself was part of Israel’s story (cf. Ps. 2:7-9). But he clearly did not expect these Gentiles to worship the God of Israel, who had delegated the authority to judge and rule to his Son. It takes the church some time to process this remarkable development (11:1-26; 15:1-29).

Jews and Gentiles in Asia Minor

Paul’s first missionary journey takes the story about Israel and the kingdom of God into Asia Minor. His experience in Antioch in Pisidia is typical. He tells the Jews there what Peter had told the Jews in Jerusalem. The people and rulers in Jerusalem killed the king whom God had sent to them, but God raised him up and made him judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations. Those Jews who believe that this is indeed the case will be saved from the condemnation of the Law; those who do not believe it will suffer the wrath of God (13:16-41). In the end the Jews reject this message, so Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles, who will prove themselves to be worthy of the life of God’s people in the age to come (13:46-48). But what they believe is the same: YHWH will judge his people, he has raised Jesus from the dead and made him king, he will restore his people in the age to come. Notice, also, that there is no explicit atonement theology here. The driving narrative is the political one about kingdom, judgment, and restoration, not the salvation-historical one.

Judgment of the pagan world

Paul now moves into Europe and begins to speak directly to the Greeks. The one true creator God, who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Israel, is no longer willing to tolerate the dominance of the pagan system. It is not an accident that this part of the story centres on Athens. The gods and idols of the nations are worthless objects of devotion, and God will sooner or later “judge” this whole world “by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”.  So Paul urges the Greeks to abandon their idolatrous practices and serve instead the living God (14:15-17; 17:22-31; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). The riot of the craftsmen who made shrines of Artemis of Ephesus indicates the concrete significance of Paul’s message to the Greeks.

Paul in Jerusalem

Paul’s intention is to travel to Rome, to the political centre of the pagan oikoumenē (19:21), but he must first return to Jerusalem, “constrained by the Spirit”, for a showdown with the Jews. At the heart of his defence before the Jewish council, the governor Felix, and king Agrippa is Paul’s claim that God raises the dead: “It is with respect to the hope of the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (23:6; cf. 24:14-15, 21; 26:6-8). The “resurrection of both the just and the unjust” is a reference to Daniel 12:1-3: it expresses a Jewish hope regarding the fate of Israel at a time of historical crisis. The claim, therefore, that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that the risen Jesus sent Paul to the Gentiles, is consistent both with Jewish hope and with the scriptures (26:22-23).

The journey to Rome

Protesting that he has committed no offence against the Law of the Jews, against the temple, or against Caesar, Paul nevertheless appeals to Caesar for judgment, and is accordingly sent to Rome. The disproportionately long account of the voyage and shipwreck (27) is meant to underline the fact that it is God’s sovereign purpose that Paul should stand before Caesar: “For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar” (27:23–24). The work concludes—somewhat anti-climactically—with Paul in Rome once more trying to convince the Jews that God is about to act as king in judging and restoring his people. Again he is frustrated by their lack of belief. He dismisses them with the words: “let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (28:28).

  • 1. I.H. Marshall, Acts (IVP, 1980), 17.

Comments

A couple of thoughts came to mind while reading this:

1 - The narrative approach is used to a large degree in Tannehill’s Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts Vol 2. You might find that helpful. N.T. Wright does a really good job hitting the major themes but Tannehill does more directly what you are looking for.

2 - I agree 100% that Acts demonstrates the authority of Christ over all creation including any competing principalities and powers that would stand in opposition to Him. However, I don’t think it is all an either /or…that Luke was either about the powers in their day or about us (the church today) to the exclusion of caring about his own audience. I think both are present but I think the points you are making are the dominant points. Luke does mention, through Peter that future generations will be impacted by this kingdom movement in Acts 2:39.

3 - I can’t help but think of Ephesians when I read this and how Acts and Ephesians and even the ministry of Jesus showed Christ as the one who has authority over everything…political powers (of course) but also spiritual powers like sin, death, and anything else in creation that might stand in his way. In the Gospels this is demonstrated through the teachings of Jesus (over and over it says the people saw he spoke with authority) and the miracles of Jesus and his followers (sending the 12 and 72 for instance). In Acts it is demonstrated through the acts and words of the apostles and early Christians as their message of the resurrection ran counter to the powers that be and endlessly got them persecuted. In Ephesians, over and over we hear how Christ is supreme over all powers and authorities, especially spiritual ones (Eph 1:19-23; 2:1-2, 14-17; 3:7, 14-21; 6:10-17).

Thanks for putting all of this together. You put a lot of time into this post!

Very helpful, Matt. Thanks. I have Tannehill’s book but have never really looked at it. Once I’ve read C. Kavin Rowe’s [amazon:978-0199767618:inline], which comes highly recommended by Steve Walton and others, I’ll get on to it. Maybe.

However, I don’t think it is all an either /or…that Luke was either about the powers in their day or about us (the church today) to the exclusion of caring about his own audience. I think both are present…

That seems a reasonable position to take, on the face of it. But how would you demonstrate that Luke was in some sense writing for the church today? Where are the cosmic themes in Acts, for example? What reason do we have—from the text—for thinking that he was concerned with a situation beyond the horizons of judgment on Jerusalem and judgment on the pagan oikoumenē?

It seems to me that whatever the scope of Acts 2:39, the context is still the restoration of Israel in the foreseeable future:

For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Does Peter really have in mind more than the children of his hearers—after all, it would be more than 30 years until the outbreak of the war—and the Jews of the diaspora? The Gentiles certainly are not in view.

The comparison with Ephesians is a good one. I would recommend, though, reading Ephesians in the light of the more clearly political outlook of Acts rather than assimilating Acts to the apparently cosmic outlook of Ephesians. Ephesians is still oriented towards an “evil day” when the church will have to stand against intense persecution (Eph. 6:10-20; cf. Rom. 13:11-12) and an inheritance in the age to come (Eph. 1:11-14).

I did a similar outline of Ephesians here, for those who are interested.

I think your point Andrew about reading Ephesians in the light of Acts rather than the other way around is spot on (though I don’t know yet whether Matt is doing that or not – btw, disclaimer here: Matt is the preaching minister at my church and I posted your blog on my Facebook wall that’s how he found it). I would also add that reading Acts in light of the OT especially Deuteronomy and the Prophets is critical for understanding the transition of the “this age” Jesus spoke of being the age of Moses that ended at the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and the “the age to come” he spoke of being the consummation of the new covenant age that began its full reign in AD70. This also connects the holding of Jesus in heaven until the prophets are fulfilled and restoration of all things (that Israel was seeking) in Acts 3 also with that generation coming to an end.

Like you, I agree that Acts 2:39 has nothing farther than Israel in that generation. I think the key phrase is “be saved from this perverse generation.” A thorough search of the Scriptures reveal that this phrase was exclusive of Israel, and finds its roots in Deut. 32:5, 20. Jesus also identified his generation of Israel as that final, wicked and perverted one Moses saw, in Matt. 17:17. The salvation being offered by Peter IMO was salvation from the coming wrath against old covenant Israel by Rome within that generation. I do think there are other soteriological aspects to salvation than this but I’m just strictly sticking with what I see as the context of Acts.

The phrase can have its roots in the OT and at that time be only applied to the Jews but can also be appropriated in the NT to have broader meanings, including the Gentiles (ultimately). That is true of other things like “children of God” - an OT term for Jews but in the NT used of the church collective (Jewish and Gentile Christians). As revelation progresses through the scriptures and mysteries are revealed (like Paul talks about in Ephesians and that we read about historically in Acts) meanings become more fully evident as we get more and more revelation from God, in scripture over time, as to what He is up to in the world.

Matt,

I can’t see how “this generation” meant anything other than that generation of Jews Jesus and Paul lived in.

Consider for example: “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:31-36)

I agree that revelation expands as we progress through Scripture, especially how the NT enlightens us as to the meaning of the Law and Prophets (see Peter in 1 Pet. 1:10-12). But when paying careful attention to context and the historical narrative, the progressive revelation argues even more tightly for my point.

Dig deeper into the Song of Moses in Deut. 32. The whole song is about the last generation of Israel, the most wicked and perverse of her history, coming it its “latter end” (vs. 29). Notice how many times Paul quotes from Deut. 32. He saw the generation he was living in as the fulfillment of the Song of Moses. In Deut. 32:7 Moses was speaking to the last generation to look back on their days of old and all their prior generations; the word “generation” in verse 5 does not mean race as many evangelicals are claiming today. Deut. 32:20-21 is what Paul quotes in Romans 10:19 and applies it to the Gentiles provoking the generation of Jews of his day to jealousy. Finally verse 43 connects us with Matt. 23:31-36 and the “generation” of Jews of Jesus’ day.

Thanks for the dialogue, I enjoyed it, hope you did too!

Thanks for your response. I ordered Rowe’s book last week and look forward to reading it. Someone else recommended it to me and it makes me even more excited to read it hearing you mention it here as well.

Peter certainly has an immediate context and audience for his sermon and that audience is the crowd of Jews gathered that day for Pentecost. He has no idea just how prophetic his words are but in light of the rest of the book of Acts, “all who are far off” meant a lot more than Peter realized when he said it. What he said has layers (even if Peter doesn’t immediately understand that - like Isa 7:14 had an immediate context/fulfillment in Isaiah’s day and a later fulfillment through Christ): Peter’s orignial intention in saying it is specifically to those Jews present in front of him but then, as we see later in Acts, those who are far off goes all the way to Gentiles in Rome and the “ends of the earth”.

Acts 1:8 is another one of those statements but unlike Peter, Jesus knew the full meaning of what he said in that verse, that ultimately the gospel would go to the Gentiles. That is the mystery Paul is explaining in Ephesians and it is a mystery that God and Jesus understood from the beginning but was just being revealed in Paul’s day.

I don’t think Luke was directly writing with the 21st century church in mind. He had no idea how long it would be until Jesus made good on his promise of a return. Again, immediate context is very important and has to be understood. At the same time we do have those words today and we do read them from a 21st century Christian perspective and try to understand what it means to us today through the lens of what it meant to them then.