The initial twenty chapters of Acts give an account of the first couple of decades of the advance of the Gospel. It is worthwhile to try and date the various sections of Luke’s story, or at least to view it in relation to the Pauline letters. They tell us of three important events which as now read, not only frame our reading of the entire account, but also encourage us in our expectation of God’s coming Kingdom.
You will recall that the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit is described on three specific occasions. The first was the “birthday” of Jesus’ church – the day of Pentecost. You will recall that this was a miraculous moment when many dispersed Jewish believers heard the Galilean disciples speaking in their own local languages. The second time was when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius’ household as they listened to Peter’s explanation. The witnesses Peter had brought with him from Jerusalem heard these Gentiles in their own tongues giving evidence that the same Holy Spirit had been poured out on Gentile believers. The third time was in Ephesus when Paul baptised the twelve disciples after explaining to them that God’s Holy Spirit was freely available to all who believe. These twelve, instructed by Apollos, seem to have been dispersed disciples of John the Baptist.
This indicates that Luke was alert to Paul’s apostolic standing. God’s Spirit was pleased to bless the preaching of this servant of Jesus. This former Pharisee and student of Gamaliel had led the opposition to “the way”, to those taking this Gospel to the Gentiles. But Paul was subsequently to live out his days being hounded and opposed by his own countrymen. But his adherence to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the One he had been persecuting, did not mean that he repudiated his Jewish ancestry, and was persistent in his efforts to pass on the Good News to his brothers and sisters, the children of Israel. Paul’s “apostleship” in no way diminished, but rather confirmed, the standing of those who, during the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, were sent on their way to take the Gospel with them into all the world.
The ministry of mercy, looking after the poor and needy, has always been an integral part of the proclamation of God’s Kingdom. And Luke’s carefully crafted account of Paul’s prominence as a preacher of the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean region, is decisively and irrevocably tied to an earlier preaching of the Gospel as recounted in Acts 7. Paul’s insistence upon the Gospel being made available to Gentiles on the basis of their faith alone, has its immediate source in the Gospel preached to the Sanhedrin by Stephen, the person set aside by the apostles to “serve tables” as a Deacon. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul refers to himself, and those working with him, as those engaged in “table-service”. As a part of “apostolic work” he also expanded usage of the term “apostle” to apply to all who have been called to proclaim and serve the Good News (see e.g. 2 Corinthians 8).
Paul’s “table-serving” project, collecting for the church in Jerusalem, was a major characteristic of his visiting the small groups of believers in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Greece. He was also happy to claim his rights as a Roman citizen at a time when the Christian community was deeply embedded within far-flung Jewish communities. And Paul also developed a new teaching curriculum for Greeks and Gentiles who had hitherto had no contact with the synagogue.
For Paul, as for us, our faith in Christ involves us in reckoning with the Good News about Him as the definitive proclamation of Israel’s faith – entry to this way is still open, open to all. It is available to Jew and non-Jew alike, to all who believe. At Pentecost, and subsequently, Israel received the call to repentance, to heed God’s mercy, and to live by faith in the One who brings righteousness, the Son of God who, as Son of Man fully restores human life with all of our responsibilities before God’s throne.
This Gospel tells us, as Paul so decisively and emphatically states in his letter to the Romans, that alongside the Mosaic law (Romans 3:21) the righteousness of God has now been fully and completely displayed in this man, Jesus – in His life, death, resurrection and ascension. It is from this Man, the One who has been designated by His Father as King of all Princes, the One to whom all authority has been given, that God’s law for His entire creation receives its definitive purpose, meaning and fulfilment.
This righteousness is totally and utterly dependent upon the Lord God who ascribes it to those who, by faith, receive life from God’s Son by walking in His ways. And that is the point from which Paul’s teaching became initially so contentious to Jewish believers. They may have been content to accept that yes, Jesus may be acknowledged as Israel’s Messiah, the God-sent Saviour, but if He is indeed Messiah “according to the Scriptures” then He is also the One who came in order that the Torah be fulfilled. Thus it was assumed that because Torah places specific duties upon the children of Israel, those believing in this Jesus must therefore receive entry into the Jewish community by circumcision. How else will Torah be maintained as the universal law for all nations? The Messiah’s coming is for the rule of all peoples and therefore Gentile believers must be incorporated into this way of life, this way of walking, this pathway which is set for all who believe both Jew and Gentile. And hence it was all too easy for Jewish believers to assume that all those male Gentiles who believe in Jesus must therefore receive entry into the Jewish community, by circumcision. Such a view seems so appropriate. Is there not a strong logic in this approach? Would it not give a young, tender Gentile convert the benefit of a strong, communal ethic within which his faith could develop and flourish? Would it not also provide a firm social support to all women and girls found within the community of faith? Indeed, it may sound plausible, and historically sensitive. But from the standpoint of the New Testament, such a teaching about Israel’s Messiah is a departure from the righteousness of faith; Paul’s letters are preoccupied with explaining why it is so.
Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman and Greek father was taken by Paul and circumcised. But we do not read that Timothy’s father was similarly incorporated into Jewish communal ways, even though he was fully respected by the Christian community in that place (Acts 16:1-5).
Such an accommodative viewpoint meant that such Jewish believers were presuming to take a place in the divine scheme of history as Paul so pertinently describes in Romans 2:17-20. This approach to one’s Jewish ethnic heritage does not just modify the teaching of Holy Scripture; this would radically undermine the teaching that God’s judgement is upon all who have sinned. Such a viewpoint takes the coming of Christ as the God-given justification for zealot believers to insist upon their own ethnic pre-eminence among the peoples of the earth. On the contrary, the Gospel teaches that faith alone, belief in the pre-eminence of Christ Jesus, who was raised to rule at God’s right hand, is indeed justification before the throne of the Almighty. Jesus came as Messiah to restore the Image-bearer of the Lord God. In the Risen Christ, both Jew and Gentile are now called to find themselves in God’s restoration of the human race. Much of the New Testament is therefore the initial record of the ongoing outworking of this challenge to Jewish people, particularly to the believers in Christ among the people of Israel. The New Testament is a record of a movement, a way of life, which gathered pace immediately after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit.
The struggle among believing Jews (of whom there were, we are told, many Pharisees and priests) was indeed concerned with what to do about the “zealot option”, the interpretation of the coming of Jesus Christ that presumes, contrary to Jesus’ word (Acts 1:1-11), that the primary task of the people from amongst whom He came is to constitute a “New Israel”. Paul’s writings are the definitive declaration against that interpretation of the Christ’s coming. The people who believe are the people of His making; the people He makes are a holy people,
Luke’s book of Acts is therefore also the account of how and why the Christian church has taken a path that refused to consider itself as a part of the long-term reconstitution of Israel. The apostles did not take the zealot option – even if this was what Gamaliel’s intended with his divide and conquer policy of a cordon sanitaire around the Apostles (Acts 5:33-42). And it was that policy that held among the Jewish authorities just as the persecution led by Saul got under way. The story of the Christian church as given by Luke is about the response to Jesus’ final teaching before His ascension, before His earthly departure (Acts 1:6-7).
And so, yes, the outpouring of God’s brooding Spirit, which has always been part of His creational and redemptive purposes (Genesis 1:1-3), meant a revival of the ancient celebration of Pentecost, giving it a refreshing focus among God’s people – this is the birth of the church, the one fount of Jesus Christ, from which Jew and Gentile are brought to drink, to be baptised with One Spirit. But the outpouring was not and is not confined to its initial simultaneity with an ancient annual Jewish festival – the church was also shown to be inaugurated with the Spirit’s outpouring in the house of Cornelius the Centurion at Caesarea, as well as at Ephesus where disciples of Apollos and John the Baptist were to receive God’s paraclete thereby giving confirmation to Paul’s apostolic ministry.
But with the account of Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-26), Luke’s account tells how the young church of Jesus the Messiah struggled to find a new and fresh path upon which to travel. This was Luke’s initial experience of the internal manoeuvring and politicking amongst the Jewish community in Jerusalem in which the Apostles seem to have been very much involved. As a Gentile in Jerusalem, Luke came face-to-face with entrenched Jewish opposition to the Messiah in whom he had come to personally believe. The Apostles were on the defensive. They were between a rock and a hard place. Luke had experience of similar resistance to Paul’s message in Gentile lands, but this event was specially significant for him and it had to be somewhere in his thoughts when he came to write up his account of the “Jerusalem justice” meted out in Jesus’ trial (see Luke 22-23). Though he had not been an eye-witness to that travesty, by being present on this later occasion, his insight was deepened into what he had been told about those earlier events. He saw first-hand the renewed spiritual perception of the leaders of the Jerusalem church who were seeking to respond obediently to the Lord’s teaching in a very fraught situation.
Would it not have been natural for these leaders of the Jerusalem church to blame Paul for intensifying intra-Jewish opposition to the Gospel? This is the problem Luke addresses.
Jesus’ word had already put the Apostles on a distinct path. They had gone forth observing His advice to them. Specifically after the resurrection they sought His aid to overcome their confused uncertainty about the meaning of it all (Acts 1:6-7).
So, in Luke’s account, we encounter the possibility that the Apostles were teaching in order to assist those who believed, some of whom would have instinctively adopted the zealot option. They were concerned to pastor Jews who, like themselves, had come to believe in Christ, but who had not had the benefit of Jesus’ personal instruction. They were concerned that their own, and Paul’s apostolic mission which they had previously endorsed (Acts 15), would not be further misrepresented and misunderstood. They clearly wanted their fellow Jewish believers to grow wise about the Messiah’s rule of all people. That meant deepening their appreciation for the spiritual resistance to His rule, their own inner resistance as well. This clearly seems to have been the motive for asking Paul to proceed in this manner. And Paul also wrote about this same struggle in the famous chapter 7 of his letter to the Roman church. This interpretation then leads us to the conclusion that that chapter shows Paul’s deep sensitivity to this matter.
Those who believe in Jesus have to learn that their belief in Him is but their own response to God’s love for all the world. Faith does not elevate the believer above his/her neighbours. In fact it indicates a restoration so the believer can serve the neighbour just as God has always intended. The Apostles, Jewish believers, were here seeking to show solidarity to others of their fellow Jews who, though believing in Jesus, were concerned that Paul had compromised their solidarity with the law and their own people.
The New Testament gives us an account of how Paul, John and Peter, the three most prominent leaders of the church, received the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. And so we have to face up to the fact that the New Testament presupposes the outworking of the mercy of the Lord to those He called display mercy in their “going into all the world”. They had been called to “deal” with zealotry in Jesus’ teaching of Sermon on the Mount, and by Jesus’ own example, for example, with the crowds that were fasting in order to raise a rebellion and make Him their king. That account reveals how Jesus avoided a “head-on” clash with that strategy and the Gospel accounts of these miracles tell us how Jesus succeeded in sending them home. He ended their fast by feeding them.
We might say that what Paul tells us about God’s giving of Torah to His own ancient people (Romans 5:13), where previous sin was not taken into account, provides the definitive guideline, the merciful conduct which Christ’s disciples are called to emulate. Likewise in Athens, Paul says something similar: “Yet as regards the period when people were ignorant of God, He deals with it as though it had never been” (Acts 17:30). God deals with it as though it had never been and thus Jesus calls on His disciples to take on a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And on the basis of that mercy Paul boldly called to whomever was listening that they might “repent of their deeds” and live instead mercifully in awareness that God’s judgment will come in God’s own time.
Luke tells us again and again that Jewish believers stood in need of the special unction of God’s Holy Spirit to accept their Messiah. This meant they had to face the fact that He did not come just so that, once He had finally made His Messianic appearance, they could sit back and enjoy God’s historical elevation of them above all the “others”. Hadn’t He visited them in order that the uncircumcised, the non- Israelites, the proselytes, the Gentiles would show the respect that His mercy called forth from them? Indeed, they too are sinners.
But a zealot re-reading of the Gospel would transform the message of God sending His rain and sunshine on just and unjust alike as a confirmation of their noblesse oblige, their elevated status among all the peoples of the earth. But that was (and is) to misread His coming in a fundamental way. Yes, Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Yes the people of Israel are thereby honoured but with His coming the Messiah’s Own People are now to be drawn from all the nations and tribes of the earth. Simeon had it right:
Lord and Master, this very day you are setting your servant free,
And he can go on his way in peace,
As indeed you have promised.
This must be so, for my eyes have seen him
The One who is to accomplish your work of deliverance,
Which you have made ready for all the nations to see.
A light will appear, coming to the Gentiles to shine on them
And it will be cause for glory to your people Israel.
So, Luke tells us, the Jerusalem church was “pulling out all stops” to help those zealous for Moses’ law to hear and understand that Paul’s message of the Jewish Messiah was not at all anti-Jewish. It was in fact the fulfilment of what being a Jew was all about.
The zealot option had been effectively undermined for the Apostles when Jesus, in response to their request, explained how His parable gave them guidance about the focus of their work. He prevented any confusion by describing the land-owners instructions to the labourers lest they dig out the weeds. That parable teaches that the labourers would not be required to purify the harvest (Matthew 13:36-43). The teaching is clearly that Jesus’ disciples are to tend the fields so that if it be possible there will be even more abundant growth in the wheat that has been sown by Christ’s word. Jesus has sown the Word of God in its definitive form. The task of His disciples, His servants, is not to focus upon that which will eventually be gathered and burnt. Perhaps the weeds cannot be completely ignored by the workers in the field, but their task is not to sort the harvest. That is reserved for others.
Read in terms of what we call the “great commission” (Matthew 28:18-20), this is similar to the reply Jesus gave to the His disciples’ question just before he left. It is recorded at the beginning of Acts: “Lord is this now the time when the Glory of God’s Kingdom is to be restored to Israel?” Jesus’ answer, however, speaks of how the true Israel in its Glory is to be restored to God’s Kingdom. He indicated a different path: “You’re not to think of yourself in charge of the Kingdom’s timetable. Instead, you are to stay in Jerusalem for the sending of the Spirit that my Father shall send and then you shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7).
So, zealotry is not the way, but this is a Gospel that is just as much available to those caught up in zealot movements as it is for anyone else. Luke tells us emphatically that at least one who was identified with the zealot “way” was numbered among the twelve (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). And so we can glimpse what was of concern to the apostles. They were seeking to live according to Jesus’ advice and yet many Jewish believers seemed content to accept this Messiah as long as this meant a strict adherence to what the Torah required of the sons of Israel. The New Testament affirms the rule of Israel’s Messiah over all nations. The New Testament people of God are to be characterised not by their elevation, by their ascent to “top job” – that is merely the Gentile understanding of authority. Rather, their lives are to be characterised by self-denying service (Mark 10:35-45).
But read Acts 21:27-39 and try to imagine Luke’s emotional roller-coaster. Try to imagine Luke’s experience, or that of any other Christian, had they been there to witness this rampaging mob. Time was almost up. The seven days were almost complete and a sacrifice was about to be presented. Our imagined eye-witness holds his breath. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, it all goes “pear shaped”. A mosh-pit forms in one of the temple’s precincts and manoeuvres Paul outside the temple gates. The doors are shut.
The thoughtful scheme of the church’s leaders has been nipped in the bud. The carefully devised attempt to provoke Jews to “emulation” (see Romans 11:11, 31) by the sacrificial gifts of Gentiles, to be presented with their prayers for the well- being of Jewish believers, seems to have been dudded. Some fanatical zealots from Asia had recognised Paul and wanted him executed on the spot. The Roman administration had presumably given legal room for Jews to kill within these sacred precincts those judged guilty of desecrating the temple. It was with this provision that those who had arrested Jesus sought his execution, but their witnesses gave conflicting testimony (Matthew 26:59-60; Mark 14:55-59). On this occasion, Luke tells us the mosh pit got Paul outside the gates. Any execution would have to be done according to the Roman civil law. By writing “and immediately the gates were shut” Luke tells us how Paul escaped death.
Paul, beaten to within an inch of his life, stayed spiritually alert to what was taking place. He spoke to the Tribune. He was not the terrorist the Tribune initially has suspected him to be. And so. an opportunity arose for Paul to address the crowd.
Luke was also telling a personal story here about the renewal of his love for God as Jesus continued His work in the social context of the Roman Imperium. Jew and Gentile were discovering themselves thrown together, relying upon each other’s faith and hope as Jesus’ disciples. Acts 21:40-22:22 tells us how the situation was turned around. Paul was able to give his story. He addressed the Jews in their own language (Aramaic). In all likelihood the tribune may have needed an interpreter in order to assess what Paul was saying. He realised that Paul was no terrorist, but a Jewish Roman citizen. Did he perhaps catch a glimpse of the Messiah, of His teaching that explained Paul’s refusal to take up the “zealot option”? Paul had spoken to him in Greek. But would Paul’s message get through to the crowd? Reading it again, we must wonder whether Paul thought he was close to convincing them. Wouldn’t they want to believe that the Messianic promises from Moses and the prophets had come true? The Messiah had come and many Jews, Paul says, will attest to what I say. So then, to push home his advantage, Paul gets personal.
Paul tells how he had hounded the followers of The Way in the same way that this mosh-pitted frenzy had bashed him to within an inch of his life. He tells the crowd that he was completely complicit in Stephen’s judicial murder, and the murderous work that he helped to engineer following his death. This was a confession of sin that sounds very much like Stephen’s pointing the Sanhedrin to the Scriptures themselves where they reveal the complicity of God’s own people in the death of God’s own Son. Paul then gets even more personal, telling them how this Messiah, Jesus, appeared to him. It is as if there is a pause and then:
And Jesus said to me: Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!
This is Paul’s explanation of the context. This is the key point: Messiah Jesus, God’s Chosen One, had sent Paul to proclaim the Gospel to the non-Jewish world, those who had not yet heard of God’s favour and how His promises to Israel were now poured out upon the world. But the crowd erupts in total antagonism. This fury is driven by a presumption that the Lord God, the God who revealed Himself to Israel, is and remains, now and forever, the possession of the twelve tribes. Since Israel is the Holy One’s possession, the Holy One is Israel’s possession. However, Paul’s message counters that presumption. God’s Messiah has decisively widened Israel’s tent (Isaiah 54:1-3).
When Paul claims to have been sent as an emissary, indeed as an Apostle of the Lord who inhabits the heavens of heavens and rules over all, the crowd merely reads this as Paul’s self-condemnation.
Recall once more that Luke’s aim is to tell the story of what Jesus continued to do after His ascension to Glory (Acts 1:1). He is the One who, by His word, got the Apostles and Paul and those living in Jerusalem who believed in Him, into this fearsome jam. It’s part of His work. We also read this as Luke’s account of the strengthening of his own faith through the ongoing support and encouragement of the Spirit, the story of how Luke became part of “what Jesus continued to do”. Paul’s confession that the Messiah had sent him to tell the news to all Gentiles might have been fiercely resisted by people from the Messiah’s own nation, but Luke hears this as a message of inestimable benefit.
And how grateful those who believe, Jews and Gentiles both, have been ever since for this account Luke wrote to explain all this to his friend Theophilus!
And lest we are tempted, taking leave from this fellow Gentile, to self- righteously preen ourselves – “Lord I thank Thee that we humble Gentiles are not like those zealous Jews” – we must hear the word of the Lord recorded in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus taught that the child of Israel who had repentant faith, even if in his everyday life he was a tax collector who may have become indistinguishable from the Gentile, was the one with right-standing before the Most High. The poor in spirit are those whom the Lord will personally lift up and present as His own gift to those who dwell secure as citizens of His Kingdom. It was after all Jews like Paul, Jews who had once been so zealous for the law who, in response to the Lord’s mercy and commands, proclaimed the Good News to Gentiles (Isaiah 55:5; 60). And that is how, historically speaking, we Gentiles now partake of this story of God’s righteousness ascribed to all those who believe (Romans 3:20), who have heard of God’s merciful love toward us in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, so that in making us fit to stand before Him, He considers the time of rebellion before we had heard of His forgiving love, when we were indeed ignorant of God, and by our own fault remained so, as though it had never been (Acts 17:30).