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Like the Gospels, Acts is an anonymous book. No author is mentioned, though church tradition has ascribed authorship to the Luke who is mentioned in some of Paul’s letters. For a variety of reasons, which I will not mention, no serious objection has been raised concerning this tradition.
The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts form a two-volume work as seen from the prologue of Acts. Luke’s Gospel, probably written around AD 75, is the longest book in the New Testament. As seen in the first slide, Acts, authored around AD 80, is the second longest book in the New Testament.
The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are both addressed to Theophilus. This was a common Greek name meaning “lover of God.” It is not certain if Luke had in mind a specific person with that name or was merely addressing a generic Christian as being one who loves God. However, there are many parts of both Luke and Acts that seem to require knowledge of the functioning of the higher classes of Greek and Roman culture. This seems to indicate that Luke was addressing a specific person, most probably a cultured Greek who served as Luke’s patron—that is, the person who sponsored the production of such books as Luke would have written, including the Gospel and Acts.
Now in order to understand Acts, we must place ourselves as much as possible in the cultural milieu within which it was written. Let me make four brief observations. First, all the action in Acts happens within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. This is important to keep in mind, especially when we consider the spread of the Gospel that Luke records in Acts. As can be seen in the next slide, in the first century AD the Roman Empire extended to almost all the Mediterranean lands.
Second, many of these lands contained Jewish communities. This is seen in the next slide. The purple regions are those in which there were Jewish communities in the first century AD. These Jewish communities played an important role in the spread of the Gospel for, in almost all the places to which Luke takes us in Acts, the Christians went first to the synagogue and only later to Gentiles.
Third, the majority of the action in Acts 1-12 happens in the land of Israel-Palestine. As seen in the next slide, the Romans had divided the land into a number of regions over which they placed three vassal kings known as Tetrarchs. Archelaus ruled the blue region that included Judea and Samaria. Herod Antipas ruled the purple regions—Galilee in the North and Perea in the South. Philip ruled the orange region known as Iturea. The rest of the regions were controlled directly by Roman governors. Because of the almost arbitrary division of the land, a significant amount of political rivalry comes into play in the Gospels and in Acts.
Fourth, apart from the first eleven verses of chapter 1, the first seven chapters of Acts are situated exclusively in Jerusalem. The next slide shows a map of Jerusalem during the first century AD. Many of the places mentioned in the first seven chapters of Acts are on this map and we will come back to it as and when necessary.
So now let us go to the first chapter of Acts. The action begins on the Mount of Olives, seen on the next slide. It is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascends. From there, as I mentioned earlier, the disciples go to Jerusalem, seen on the next slide. In Luke 19, Jesus had wept over Jerusalem because the city had rejected him. However, in Acts he sends his disciples back to the same city. Later in Acts 1 we read about the famous apostolic-lot-casting scene. The next slide shows us a typical Jewish die that the apostles might have used, though they could well have used two simple stones.
Having briefly touched on some background issues, we might ask, “What does God have to say to us today?” In order to answer that question, I have asked Lauren to read for us the Scripture for today.
I recently came across a tract—actually from the size of it I should call it a manual! I still have a copy. It contains all sorts of instructions. For example it insists that believers should be baptized head forward rather than head backward. And it permits infants to be baptized. One need only wonder how we can baptize an infant with his or her head forward without causing permanent hydrophobia. Anyway, there are other wonderful practices—all of which have a bunch of scripture references that supposedly support the position. After going through it, I had to conclude that some sort of cult was behind this tract. Far from portraying a life this side of the resurrection, it made people all the more slaves to rules and regulations, denying them the freedom Jesus purchased at so high a price.
As an aside I must confess that I had come across real tracts—you know, the small pocket sized ones—printed by the same cult. That was a few months back and I disposed them all in a trashcan in the hope that these enslaving practices would not ensnare people. During the course of the sermon judge for yourselves if I did right or wrong.
At the start of Acts, Luke takes us to the top of the Mount of Olives. Jesus has gathered his disciples there for a final meeting before his ascension. Jesus commands the disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait.
Quite naturally the disciples probably asked themselves, “Why wait?” To this perpetual question, Acts 1 provides a challenging, yet encouraging answer.
Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples to wait but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he equates with the baptism with the Spirit. They are to wait because a promise is about to be fulfilled.
It is like being in the period between engagement and wedding. There is a promise waiting to be fulfilled but neither the woman nor the man should pressure the other to make the fulfillment come sooner because coercion is counter-productive to love.
The disciples hear Jesus mention the promise and immediately conjure images of a messianic kingdom in which they would hold prestigious offices. They ask Jesus if he were now going to restore Israel’s kingdom.
That was a valid question—but for an era that had closed. For the era that was about to begin, it was invalid. Not only was the time frame for God’s plan not their concern, as Jesus indicates; but also they had to learn that the new phase in God’s plan required some changes. Rather than sitting on thrones and lording it over others in some messianic kingdom, they were to be witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection, not only in Jerusalem, but also in wider Judea, hated Samaria, and the distant ends of the earth. Was Jesus a king? Assuredly! Did he have a kingdom? Every legitimate king has a kingdom. And so did Jesus. However, his kingdom was going to work differently. His high-ranking men would not sit on thrones. Rather, like their king himself, they would go out to bring the message of his reign to the ends of the earth. And his reign would also be different. Yes, there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled. But the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living.
It is like the day after the wedding. You realize that you are single no more; that now you have to share the bathroom; that—for crying out loud—there’s a beautiful woman lying next to you. Life is not the same again. And one would be a fool to want or even hope that things would remain unchanged. No! As Paul would say of a different context, “the old has passed away, behold everything is new!” Yes indeed, there is a new way of living.
A new way of living? Just saying that implies there was an old way of living. What was the old way? The Old Testament gives us a glimpse into this in many places. Since here in Acts the immediate issue is one of decision-making concerning Judas’ replacement, let us consider the issue of decision-making in the Old Testament. One example is Numbers 27.21 where God says about Joshua, “He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord.” Decision-making was left to the casting of lots because of the conviction that, as Proverbs 16.33 puts it, “the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.”
If this was the old way of making decisions, what was the new going to be like? There was no way of knowing. The disciples could have tried to guess. But they could only guess from their experience. And so they cast lots to choose between Barsabbas and Matthias. Peter names one overarching qualification Judas’ replacement had to have: the person had to have been a companion of Jesus during the entirety of his ministry. Sounds quite prudent. After all, we don’t want some new upstart who knows nothing about what the real Jesus was like to be an apostle! But here Peter and the other ten apostles made two grave mistakes: first, they presumed that it was up to them to choose Judas’ replacement when right from the start Jesus had been the one doing the choosing; second, they relied on the old way of making decisions.
Now Jesus wasn’t around to make decisions. So the apostles were justified in thinking that he would choose Judas’ replacement through humans. However, they had not glimpsed what the new way was going to be like. So they did not know exactly how Jesus would choose this twelfth apostle. Nor could they entertain the thought that Jesus could possibly choose a man who had never encountered Jesus prior to his death and resurrection. How would this person know what the real Jesus was like? Ah! But to answer that would be to jump ahead of the story.
So Peter and the ten apostles cast lots and chose Matthias. And we hear no more of him in the entire bible. In fact, even the Roman Catholics, who are so thorough about traditions concerning the apostles and other saints, only have the tradition that Matthias went to Armenia—a tradition that is also ascribed to Matthew, albeit with greater vigor. This leads to the conclusion that the tradition about Matthias developed because of the similarity between his name and Matthew’s. Indeed, Matthias is mentioned in Acts only to be placed in the sidelines because Luke wants to show Theophilus that there is a twelfth apostle—but he is not Matthias. And this twelfth apostle is essential to the task of Jesus’ church. So Jesus’ apostles had to learn—and they learnt through an arduous process—that there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled and that the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living and that the new way of living was essential to the task at hand.
Consider the situation when the French sent a warship to the Sandwich Islands to force the local government to repeal a tax on French brandy that was imposed to reduce drunkenness among the citizens of the Sandwich Islands. Faced with the prospect of war with a then super power and the task of saving his people, the king of the small colony… ah, but let’s read a contemporary report that begins after the captain of the warship gave the government a few hours within which to do away with the tax.
[Here read Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers 252-253. The book can be purchased from Amazon outside India or from Flipkart inside India]
The task of saving his people drove the king to employ new tactics—here nonviolence instead of violent retaliation. As Walter Wink comments, “If the Sandwich Islanders had been in possession of an army of one hundred thousand men, they could have mounted no better defense, with fewer casualties (which were zero) or less damage (which was only to a fort they proved they no longer needed).”
Coming back to Acts we may ask, “What in the world was the task at hand?” In response to the disciples’ question, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus tells them that they are to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. In the Old Testament, worshippers of Yahweh had to make their pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the disciples would need to go to the ends of the earth rather than stay in Jerusalem. But how would they know that they are bringing with them the very presence of the living God? Again the answer lies in the new way of living. When Jesus’ disciples live in this new way, Jesus, the new temple, goes with his followers to the ends of the earth. Here is a marked reversal of what we could call the old time religion.
Another marked difference is the focus. While the gospel is still proclaimed to the Jew first, it is not for the Jews only. No! God has rather purposed that the Gentiles would also believe in his Jewish Messiah. God has purposed that the Gentiles would also come to recognize the immense depth of God’s love. And God has purposed that the Gentiles would also be counted among those who return that love.
Going to the ends of the earth would necessitate coming in contact with Gentiles. And some of the Gentiles would want to know more about this Jesus who is proclaimed to have been killed by humans and to have been raised by God. But this is not to be a cause for worry because God has purposed that Gentiles would also be saved.
The disciples knew there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled. But they did not know that the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living and that the new way of living was essential to the task at hand and that the task at hand was a part of God’s purposes.
This brings to mind a colorful character from the Old Testament: Gideon. An angel appears to him and gives to him the task of freeing the Israelites from the Midianites. There was no doubt of the task at hand or of God’s approval. Yet Gideon had to ask for three signs before he was convinced. But that’s not where I’d like us to focus. Once he is convinced, he gathers thirty-two thousand men. God says that these are too many. So Gideon orders those who are faint-hearted to leave. When they do, he is left with ten thousand people—still too many for God. So God has the ten thousand demonstrate their water drinking skills. All but three hundred kneel and drink by cupping one hand. That is how humans would drink from a stream. The three hundred, however, lap at the water like dogs. Can you imagine it? See how ridiculous it looks? So inconvenient! In order to choose this way of drinking, these men would have to have had extremely bad coordination! And God chooses the three hundred who are so badly coordinated that they choose to drink water in a strange way. Then God arms them with trumpets, jars, and torches—which would require three hands, mind you. In other words, God chooses a handful of uncoordinated men and gives them way too much to handle. And the Midianites were defeated.
What this tells us is that God’s purposes include both the vision and the means of its fulfillment. The means may seem utterly strange to us—as it must surely seem in the case of Gideon I have just cited—but that is no excuse for going with what is tried and trusted. Not after Jesus’ resurrection! The task at hand for the disciples was to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. They may not have seen how this would be possible. But it was God’s purpose and their job was to trust he would provide the means for its fulfillment.
Now Gideon is best known for putting out fleeces. It is another example of making decisions by casting lots. That was okay for Gideon because he was not the recipient of the promise Jesus made to his disciples. For the disciples, having received the promise of being baptized with the Spirit, and having received Jesus’ command to wait for it, casting lots was not a sign of faith but a regression to a familiar habit that had no place in the new life of the Spirit. And because of this regression the Twelve, as they are called in the Gospels, in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, could not easily accept Jesus’ legitimate twelfth apostle once he had been revealed. And this is one reason why the divide between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity grew, as it need not and indeed should not have.
We see the same thing in the life of Abraham. Rather than rely on the creative powers of God—as he certainly does later—he initially relied on the then common and accepted practice of concubinage. And to this day—as the bible foresees—there is enmity between the descendents of Ishmael and those of Isaac. Abraham and the apostles failed because they were unable to imagine a new way and because the wait was excruciating. But waiting is the true measure of faith. For to wait implies a willingness to give God the time to act in the manner he chooses.
So what in the world does this mean for us? We are no longer in the situation of waiting for the promise, for the Holy Spirit has already been poured out on us. How do we make decisions beyond the wait of Acts 1?
We can certainly rely on old ways that have stood the test but by doing so we might only be severing the possibility of the Spirit’s leading us along new paths. In other words, we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit.
In the early sixties Bob Dylan wrote a song “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Last year he wrote “Things Have Changed.” And indeed, for bearers of the message of the gospel, things have changed. Some of us may bemoan the rise of relativism and postmodernism. But we are faced with the fact that people think and act from a commitment to relativism or postmodernism. Ignoring this fact will be to behave like an ostrich that sinks its head into a hole. However, once we acknowledge this fact, we are faced with the task of changing. We do not change our message. But we change the way we present our message.
We are living in a world that is much different from the one in which our parents grew up. Human nature has not changed but possibilities open to humans and expressions of human nature have changed. And we are even more distant from the world of the apostles.
For instance, in the LA area, life is rushed. People barely have the time to have a meaningful conversation. It would seem then that quick evangelistic methods that rely on tracts would be most appropriate. However, sociological studies show that people are increasingly craving deep friendships and not finding them. In fact, many such studies indicate that the rise of gang membership among youth is related to the need to have friends and meaningful relationships in a society that elevates individualism above everything else. In such an atmosphere presenting the gospel in a few minutes will be to consign the persons concerned to the fragmented, friendless, relationship-less hell they are already suffering. Rather, we should find out what it is about gangs that attracts youth to them despite the inherent dangers. Then we need to design strategies to reach youth—strategies that provide meaningful relationships without diminishing the fact, which we ourselves have perhaps forgotten, that being a bearer of the gospel is dangerous business.
This is why we are seriously thinking of ways to reach the people in this community and your suggestions are welcome. And your collaboration in this task to which Jesus has called NUPC is invaluable. Remember, Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador. As he told his disciples “you will be my witnesses” so he tells us.
Now you may find this application too vague. “Give me something concrete” may be the cry of your heart. But I cannot give blanket applications because Jesus sends each of us with a different task—though the tasks may overlap. In fact, if I were to give you a handful of application points, I would be denying each of you the joy of spending time with God and waiting for his Spirit to prod you in the direction he wills. I am certainly willing to spend time with you before God to unearth the wonderful treasure that is his will for you. Indeed we cannot accurately understand God’s will without the assistance of other Christians. But that means that each of us needs to be willing to bare ourselves before God and in that soul-searching nakedness to find the path the treading of which would lead us to the warmest embrace God has for us.
We still are living in that new era ushered in by Jesus when he poured out his Spirit. It is the same Spirit that was poured out on the apostles that is now poured out on us. But, as we will see in the weeks to come, the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns; in which what worked yesterday might not work today; and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel—the one message that there is salvation only in the name of Jesus.
With that intense commitment to listening to the Spirit, let us prepare ourselves for communion. Let the eating of the bread and the drinking of the juice be, for all of us, a celebration of the new life for which Jesus as saved us.