This week began with a class on Acts in Nottingham and ends with a three day theological forum in Glasgow on healthy sexuality and the LGBT debate. Here I attempt to track the route between the two topics—to show how Acts sets the eschatological frame for Paul’s condemnation of sexual immorality and of homosexual behaviour in particular in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
The standard (evangelical) way to think about the missional narrative in Acts runs roughly along these lines: Jesus ascends to the Father, the disciples are filled with the Spirit thus becoming the church, they preach a gospel of salvation from Jerusalem into Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, and so the church grows. Something like that certainly happens, but I don’t think it gets us to the heart of the “mission” that drives Luke’s narrative.
Neither salvation nor the church are especially important in Acts; Luke makes virtually nothing of the saving significance of Jesus’ death. The task of the disciples was to be witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:8, 21-22), first in Israel, secondly to the Greeks, then, at least implicitly or prospectively, to Rome as the ruling power of the oikoumenē. It was a public announcement with political ramifications and meant different things in different political contexts. Salvation and the growth of the church were secondary to this—and I would suggest that we suffer today from getting our priorities wrong in this regard.
What the resurrection meant for Israel
What the resurrection meant for Israel was that YHWH had vindicated the “Son” whom he had sent to them and whom they had killed, and had “made him both Lord and Christ”. That is, he had given him supreme authority to judge God’s people, deliver them from their enemies, and rule over them as their king (Acts 2:32-35). The disciples in Jerusalem simply bore witness to this new state of affairs (2:32; 4:1-2, 33). They further made it clear that this was the only way of escape that YHWH had given to his people (Acts 4:12); continued rejection would mean catastrophe, the end of second temple Judaism.
What the resurrection meant for the Greeks
What the resurrection meant for the Greeks of the eastern empire emerges in two stages.
First, there were those who overheard and believed the story about what the God of Israel was doing to resolve the crisis faced by his people. We see this most clearly in Antioch in Pisidia. Paul preached to the Jews in the synagogue exactly the same message that Peter and others had proclaimed to the Jews in Jerusalem: God sent Jesus to Israel with a word of salvation; he was rejected by “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers”; God raised him from the dead and gave him authority to rule as king; forgiveness of sins is now proclaimed in his name; but if the Jews reject this message, they will suffer the fate that Habakkuk had predicted for Israel—war and devastation (Acts 13:16-41; cf. Hab. 1:5).
A number of Greeks overheard what Paul had to say to his own people and were intrigued by it. When in frustration he announced that the apostles would turn to the Gentiles, they began to rejoice and glorified the word of the Lord—and of those, as many as were appointed to the life-of-the-age-to-come believed (Acts 13:46-48).
Secondly, the resurrection meant for the ancient Greek world more generally that the age of classical paganism was coming to an end. The argument of the apostles was:
- the living and true creator God cannot be reduced to man-made images or human forms (Acts 14:15; 17:29; 19:26; cf. Rom. 1:22-23);
- in the past God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16; 17:30);
- something could have been known of him in providence and in the wonder of creation but for the most part the Greeks had failed to acknowledge this (Acts 14:17; 17:27-28; cf. Rom. 1:19-20);
- God he is no longer willing, however, to overlook the times of ignorance and has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30; cf. Rom. 1:18);
- therefore, the Greeks “should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).
For those Greeks who believed, therefore, that the God of Israel had raised his Son from the dead the resurrection meant two things: first, that Jesus was the benchmark or agent by which the one true living creator God would judge the whole system of pagan belief and practice; and secondly, that this Jesus would rescue them from the collapse of paganism and establish a new future. So Paul writes to the little community of converts in Thessalonica: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10).
What the resurrection meant for Rome
What the resurrection meant for Rome is less obvious in Acts. Rome is not encountered as the locus of paganism. Rome is an overarching political authority, in many respects an arbitre in the various disputes and conflicts that the apostles got themselves into. Paul appeals to Caesar for a final judgment on his actions (Acts 25:10-12). Before the tribune in Jerusalem, the governor Felix, and later Festus and king Agrippa in Caesarea Paul argues that what is fundamentally at issue is the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6; 24:15, 21; 26:8). Felix is alarmed by Paul’s argument “about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25), but otherwise the resurrection of the dead is presented to him as an intra-Jewish controversy.
That is as far as it goes. Acts ends in Rome with a re-run of the events in Antioch in Pisidia: the Jews are for the most part unconvinced by what Paul has to say about Jesus, their hearts have grown hard, their ears can hardly hear; so salvation has been sent to the Gentiles.
By the time we get to Revelation, however, it is apparent that Rome has become the supreme pagan political antagonist of the people of God. John’s “gospel” is the good news that Babylon the great—“she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality (porneias)”—will soon be defeated (Rev. 14:6-11).
Judgment and sexual immorality
In the context of John’s denunciation of Rome “sexual immorality” is probably to be understood metaphorically, but the metaphor reflects the fact, nevertheless, that the corruption of sexuality is a major factor in the New Testament condemnation of the pagan world. The thought is familiar from second temple Judaism:
Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the idols of the nations, because, though part of the divine creation, they have become an abomination, a stumbling–block for the lives of human beings and a trap for the feet of the foolish. For the invention of idols was the beginning of fornication (porneias), and the discovery of them the corruption of life. (Wis. 14:11–12; cf. Jer. 10:1-15 LXX)
Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-31 differs little from this. There will be wrath against the Greeks because although the true nature of God should have been evident from what he has made, they have instead worshipped manufactured images in the likeness of the creature. This became a “trap for the feet of the foolish”, for Paul, in the sense that God handed them over, in the first place, to dishonourable passions and the abandonment of “natural” sexual relations (Rom. 1:24-27).
What is “wrong” with these behaviours is not that they are unethical—unethical deeds are listed in 1:29-31—but that they dishonour the body. The nature of the “shameless act” (aschēmosunēn) is essentially that a man exposes himself to another man. Consider these very different passages: “And you shall make for them linen undergarments to hide the shame (aschēmosunēn) of their flesh; from hip to thighs they shall be” (Exod. 28:38 LXX); “…and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts (aschēmona) are treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23).
But Paul regards such dishonouring of the body as integral to a worldview that systemically repudiates the creator but is now subject to the wrath of God and is passing away. Therefore, catamites (malakoi) and men-who-lie-with-men (arsenokoitai), along with the sexually immoral and idolators, will not inherit the coming reign of God over the nations (1 Cor. 6:9-10).