Musings On The Book of Acts
The Book of Acts is found in the Holy Bible and makes up the fifth book of the New Testament. It is also known as “the Acts of the Apostles.” It is twenty-eight chapters long and involves journeys between different continents, as the good news of Jesus starts to spread.
The author of the book is a doctor called Luke, and it would appear he wrote the book in Rome, under the influence of Saint Paul. The book clearly states that they travelled together so it is not unreasonable to place the book as being written in approximately 59-61 AD.
A book about G_D working through his people
The book starts when the Author Luke who addresses the reader by the title ‘Theophilus,” which means “studier of G_D.” And in this sense it is timeless, as it addresses all interested parties and reveals the way that G_D can work through his people.
In our western culture the book is not considered a full Gospel, despite being written by a Gospel author. However, in China it is the most quoted book by the church. Chinese Christians are said to have often memorized off by heart. Therefore, it is used extensively in evangelism purposes, and is sometimes even referred to as ‘the fifth Gospel.”
Alternatively: it would appear that in Africa the Book of Acts is viewed as the second of a two-part work, and therefore refer to the book as “Luke-Acts” (ABC, 2010, p.1323.) As such, one of its many purposes was to “encourage and strengthen the church by showing them that God was still acting in history” (ABC, 2010, p.1323.)
The Book of Acts starts with a Recap of Jesus returning to Heaven and the apostles being told to wait. The television series AD actually devotes two 45 minute episodes to this, and indicates just how frightening this must have been for the disciples.
The Roman Empire was known for being intolerant of insurrectionists and put down rebels ruthlessly using crucifixion as a standard punishment. They were also equally intolerant of people who opposed Caesar, and challenged his alleged Deity. The anger in Jerusalem was at an all time high, and impatience was growing with the Roman occupation.
Whilst the disciples remain in Jerusalem : waiting in fear of their lives, Jesus tells them to wait to receive the Holy Spirit as Jesus said they would. But they probably had no real idea as to what this would really mean. Then the Spirit comes and everything changes.
The NIV records that
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2.1-4.)
It was the turning point in Church history, and many would argue that the World has not been the same since. I personally believe (and my experience tells me) that it was and is the Baptism in The Holy Spirit that makes the difference to the World, through gifts, healing and miracles. This is shown as the church starts (and continues) to burst free from its bubble and work among those not considered their own. And it was inspired directly by the Holy Spirit, and not from taking a deep breath and going for it.
In fact they never stopped reaching out. helping and Caring for those in need.
To this end, many will argue that therefore the greatest miracle is love And this love is shown over and over as they take great risks to keep on witnessing even under persecution and threat of death.
My challenging journey
I just spent the last few months studying the Book of Acts. And using bible journalling techniques to bring the passages alive. It was an eye opening experience. And it affected many aspects of my life as an Xray porter, and as a science fantasy writer. I even posted many of these onto a bible journalling Facebook site.
However, I knew that it wasn't just about the cute pictures. Or even how much I thought I knew. Ultimately I had to make changes and start to refocus my efforts.
The first thing to emerge is that it is a book about living with the Kingdom of G_D. Firstly, it presents clear gospel messages of how to be saved and embrace faith, as taught from day one by the earliest Christians.
Time and again it starts with the implication that religion is never enough, and that everything depends on the crucified Jesus they knew and loved. As Peter preached “Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Therefore, the Book of Acts reminds me what it is ironic. In our age of technology that we have replaced the Messiah with buildings, and ceremonies not unlike those of first century Jewish people, and missed the whole point. The book is about Jesus, and arguably what he continues to do. This rocked the 1st century world to its hinges, and challenged many ways of thinking.
As a Sunday school teacher I was encouraged to refocus on making it about Jesus, and not about the best songs and craft materials. (although these do of course help.) Now I am more focussed on keeping it simple, and helping my young people to connect with God by loving God and their neighbour.
Prayer and forgiveness?
The fact remains however, that while the book of Acts may be seen as insurrectionist towards religious authority. I was also deeply moved by some of the prayers in the book.
Primarily for me, there was the deeply moving prayer of Stephen as he was stoned to death. The words “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7.60 NIV) echoed the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. (Matthew 6.12)”
I became aware that I tend to harbour a lack of forgiveness towards others, and hold on to grudges. This has caused me ill health and many sleepless nights, as I have stewed in my own juices.
I then reflected on the church, that I know and love. I realised that as a collective body, it has come across as being unkind, and at times full of judgements it has no authority to give. I have seen people and institutions vilified because a particular church / group doesn’t agree with them. Their criticisms have been vocal.
I am not convinced that this is the Jesus way. It is my suspicion that if we all practiced a bit more love, kindness and forgiveness, then the church in the UK would start to explode with growth again. So I will work on my desire to forgive, and forgive anyway in the meantime.
Thirdly, the Book of Acts is a Book of inclusiveness. According to the ABC (2010, p.1323), the author “Luke provides strong evidence that the community of believers transcends all racial regional and social barriers.”
The Gospel as a Social Construct
It is odd to think that much of the story took place in territory that is now considered Arabic or Muslim in origin. Ironically the people the West now has the most problems getting along with. But that is where it went too.
But it didn't stay in those regions, as it also sees the Gospel enter into areas of great academia (Athens), dubious morality (Corinth), and religion (like Jerusalem and Ephesus).
As the story progresses, you can imagine people with a variety of skin shades from black to white all mixing together, and enjoying fellowship meals. Social classes of slave, freemen, and Citizens were all dismantled by the desire of the early disciples to learn and grow together. Within their group, they even erased poverty.
The disciples made their mistakes, and these are recorded in detail. But they continue to lead the church as they seek to work out how to live the Jesus way. We even get to witness how they handle the big debates that effected them at the time.
The biggest of the debates was over circumcision, and how much of the Jewish law to observe.
In the Western Twenty-First Century it is hard to imagine this issue, as the church today is mostly Gentile. However, this was not so true in the first century AD. In fact, many of the early disciples were Jewish, and the inclusion of gentile (non Jewish) people into their ranks would have come as a bit of a surprise.
In the end, it is addressed with much prayer and common sense application of the basic belief that only Jesus saves. Their verdict started by saying that “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15.11 NIV)
It went onto say that the gentiles or non-religious raised folk were “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues (now churches) on every Sabbath.” They were also told to remember the poor.
The Way of the Spirit vs The Letter of the Law
I believe that this is timely advice in regard to many of the LGBT, feminist and hot issues being addressed today by major denominations. The challenge being to accept while presenting a clear message of repentance, in ways that show love. It is assumed that the Ten Commandments are known and practiced, but will have to concede the point that it doesn't actually define what is or isn't moral?
There would however have been assumptions based on traditions. These traditions followed the letter of the law. But the tone of Acts is that we are now mainly under the ways of the Spirit. The general tone of the letter was to tell off those who had caused division, and were losing their focus on what mattered. Practising Love. Again I repeat, the primary priority of this crucial recorded letter was to practice love towards others before all else.
Acts is about overcoming Persecution
Finally, the Book of Acts is the story of overcoming in the face of severe persecution. It reminds us that Stephen, Peter and Paul were all persecuted, and that at times it got so bad the church was forced to scatter. However, wherever they went they took the Gospel with them. And by effect, they took Jesus with them too.
Perhaps it was the mixture of common sense and courage, when combined with the spiritual gifts that lead to their success. But succeed they did. They must like us have been terrified at times, and yet they found ways to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to do amazing things.
To Love more than us.
To heal more than us.
To prophesy more than us.
They almost certainly trusted God more than us.
The early Christians experienced challenges many Christians today never will, and yet they kept going. So must we. It is perhaps fitting therefore that the book has no “happily ever after ending”, as it leave the story open for us to continue.
May the LORD bless you and keep you as you journey on with him. Amen.