The Unique and the Normative in Acts
The book of Acts is the sequel to the record of the history of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Rather than recording what Jesus did and taught during His earthly ministry, Lukes gives us the record of the history of the ascended Jesus through His apostles for the advancement of the Kingdom in the fullness of redemptive history. Acts is, in short, the history of the extension of the Messianic ministry through His Apostles--and two in particular, Peter and Paul. As Richard Gaffin has explained, "Acts documents a completed apostolic history." The Gospels and Luke give us the history of the facts of Jesus and, by way of Messianic extension, to His Apostles. The New Testament Epistles give us the divinely inspired interpretation of those facts. If we want to understand how to read the Acts of the Apostles as we are intended to read it, then we need to do so in light of the full revelation of the New Testament epistles. As we do so, we learn that there is much in the book of Acts that was extraordinary and uniquely crafted by God for that time and for a specific purpose. At the same time, all of it has a bearing on our Christian lives today.
It is important to note that Acts begins in the period between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is vastly more important than most people recognize. By focusing on the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Luke fixes our attention on Jesus rather than on the Apostles. In fact, even though the book of Acts will go on and focus on the ministry of two of the Apostles, it is essentially "the acts of the risen and ascended Jesus through the Apostles for the foundation of the New Testament church throughout the world." Lukes tells us that Jesus taught the disciples the things concerning the kingdom of God during the forty day period. Much has been written in church history concerning the probable content of our Lord's teaching during this period. Whatever the precise identification of the teaching, we can conclude that Jesus was giving the disciples the fuller revelation that would form the essence of the foundational revelation that we find throughout the book of Acts and in the New Testament epistles.
Since this epoch was foundational, many of the events recorded in it have a once-for-all nature to them. A brief consideration of opening events in the book will help guide through the process of determining what was unique and what is normative for us today:
In his Perspectives on Pentecost, Richard Gaffin has done us a great service by explaining that Pentecost was as unique as the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Pentecost was, in fact, part of the once-for-all saving work of the ascended Jesus. Christ was pouring out His Spirit as He had promised He would do--but was doing so in an extraordinary and unmistakable way so that His disciples would know that the Kingdom of God had truly come. Jesus was again breaking into time and space--this time by the promised Holy Spirit. Pentecost was the ascended Jesus' grand re-entrance, the inauguration of what He had promised the disciples (John 14–16) and fulfilled by His death and resurrection. Jesus was bringing the end time epoch to inauguration in the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost.
To be fair, there were smaller scale experiences that were similar to that of Pentecost in Acts. For instance, in chapters 8, 10, 11, and 19, we find outpourings of the Spirit on Gentiles--accompanied by signs and wonders. We need to learn to conceptualize what appear to be Pentecostal experiences as extensions of Pentecost among the Gentiles. What we have in these passages is an expansion or spreading of the scope of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They are extensions of the dominion of the Spirit in the manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The significance does not lie first of all in the empowering of a number of believers; rather, these events have their significance in the redemptive historical context--namely, the Gospel going to the Jew first and also to the Greek. This is highlighted by the Apostle's reference to the pronouns "we," "us," "they" and "them." Peter says, "God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us" (11:17). It is a visible confirmation of the benefits of the Gospel going, for the first time, to the Gentile nations--just as it had come to the Jewish people. This also belongs to the historia salutis (i.e. the history of salvation). It is part of that once-for-all non-repeatable work of the ascended Jesus in the fulness of time.
The message of Pentecost
The preaching that accompanied these redemptive historical signs also tell us something important about the event itself. In his sermon on Pentecost, Peter alluded to Joel 2. He said, "This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh'" (Joel 2:16–17). The phrase "the last days" carries with it a world of theological meaning. Jesus brought the beginning of the end with Him. He ushered in the powers of the world to come...
G.K. Beale explains that understanding the contextual background of the prophecy of Joel is vital to understanding Pentecost. He writes, "Joel 2:28–32 is a continuation of the narrative about Israel’s future restoration that began at 2:18..." When the prophets spoke of a future restoration of Israel, they were predicting the ingrafting of the Gentiles into a renewed people. This is why Luke focuses on the twelve at the beginning of the book. As the twelfth Apostle--and replacement for Judas--Matthias was rounding out the number of the disciples to indicate that they were the representatives of the new Israel. We actually never hear anything about Matthias after this. The point is that he serves the unique purpose of completing the representative leaders of the Christ–reconstituted Israel. When the Spirit falls on the believers at Pentecost, He comes down and rests on each on like a tiny pillar of fire. This, of course, carries our minds back to the pillar of fire by which God lead Israel through the wilderness. God was coming down on the new temple--those Christ had redeemed to lead them forward as the new Israel of God. When Peter ties Joel's prophecy to the experience of Pentecost, he is speaking of a eschatological fulfillment at the inauguration of the new Israel in the last days.
Unique and Normative
This of course helps us better understand the place and function of Pentecost in redemptive history; however, we are still left with the question about what is normative and what was uniquely redemptive historical in the book of Acts. In his book The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, Dennis Johnson explains the challenge that the reader faces when reading the book of Acts. He writes,
"Our dilemma has been called “the problem of historical precedent.” How is the historical portrait of the early church in Acts a normative precedent for the church today? Two extreme answers might be given to this question:
(1) Everything in Acts that the Lord approves should be reproduced in the church today. Some Pentecostal and charismatic portions of the church have talked as if everything that is good in Acts would be seen in today’s church, if only we would take the Bible seriously...I know of no one who applies this answer consistently. If we did, we would have to conclude that all of the following should be found in every church..the Spirit coming in an earthquake and the roar of wind...and church discipline by instantaneous, divinely administered capital punishment.
But the real problem with this extreme answer is not our pragmatic in- consistency. The real difficulty is that the “everything” answer is itself in- consistent with the theology of the New Testament. Acts, along with the rest of the New Testament, indicates that there is something special about the apostles who were chosen by Jesus to give evidence that he had been raised (Acts 1:2–3, 22; 2:32; etc.). Together with the prophets, the apostles formed the church’s foundation (Eph. 2:20). Therefore, their testimony was confirmed by God himself through signs and wonders (Heb. 2:3–4; 2 Cor. 12:12). We should expect, then, to find some of the marvelous events associated with the apostles to be unique. They are visible “signs,” which, like the miracles of Jesus’ earthly ministry, unveil a salvation that goes deeper and farther than the eye can see. These acts of power in the visible world illustrate the hidden healing of the heart and provide a preview of the cosmic renewal that will accompany Jesus’ return. Therefore, a church today that does not exhibit these foundational power-signs that we see in Acts is not defective or unspiritual. Rather, it may be a church that focuses on the uniqueness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and respects the special role of the apostles as witnesses to that redemptive turning point.
On the other hand, the uniqueness of the apostolic period should not be stressed to the point that Acts is denied any role at all in forming our life today as Jesus’ disciples, as in the error at the opposite extreme:
(2) Nothing in Acts is normative for the church today. Again, it is doubtful that anyone holds this extreme view consistently. But when the vitality of the early church’s life challenges our own status quo, we may be tempted to argue that, although Acts accurately describes the church’s in- fancy, this description is not supposed to guide our lives today. Some, for example, would attribute the early Christians’ pooling of resources exclusively to the unusual circumstances of the days just following Pentecost, when pilgrims who had believed Peter’s sermon stayed on after the feast for instruction—thus, no challenge here to Americans’ infatuation with their private property! Others have critiqued Paul’s apologetic strategy at Athens as a misguided use of intellectual argument, even though Luke and God’s Spirit include Paul’s speech on Mars Hill as a positive example of gospel proclamation.
This extreme answer, invoked to let us off the hook when something in Acts makes us uncomfortable, violates the purpose that emerges from Luke’s writings. Luke is concerned to write history, to be sure, but he is not writing to satisfy dispassionate historical curiosity. He writes to Theophilus and those like him, who have been catechized in the message of Jesus, but who need a thorough and orderly written account to confirm the life-changing message they have heard. Among the New Testament Evangelists, Luke alone has written a sequel to the earthly career of Jesus. This may be because he is writing for people who lacked person-to-person contact with the apostolic eyewitnesses themselves.
At any rate, Luke takes his stand in the tradition of biblical narrative—that is, prophetically interpreted history. He writes history that must make a difference to our faith and life, just as his mentor, Paul, described the purpose of Old Testament history as ethical instruction (1 Cor. 10:11) and teaching (Rom. 15:4; see also 2 Tim. 3:16). Certainly the foundational, apostolic period may have some unique features about it, just because it is foundational, but the foundation also determines the contours of the build- ing to be constructed on it."
While the reflections above may not answer all of the questions one might have as he or she reads through the book of Acts, they help us form a framework by which we may approach our study of it. There are myriads of events and experiences in Acts unique to the foundational period of the New Testament church. There are also descriptive and prescriptive acts and statements that continue on in the life of the New Testament church. We must proceed cautiously as we seek to delineate between them--comparing Scripture with Scripture, and allowing the full light of the rest of the New Testament lead us to sound conclusions.
Here is a brief talk in on Acts in redemptive history that I recently gave.