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….
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.