By Robert Brow April
12, 2000 (www.brow.on.ca)
THE BOOK OF ACTS begins by explaining that it was the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven" (Acts 1:1-2). Paul called the writer "the beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14). And Luke uses the plural "we"ten times to indicate the precise point when he joined Paul's team in Troas (Acts 16:10-17, see 20:7, 13-15, 21:1-17). My guess is that Luke began collecting the materials when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea (58-60 AD, Acts 23:33-27:1). And the document seems to have been completed in 63 AD (Acts 28:30) when it was perhaps filed as part of Paul's defense before Caesar (Acts 25:27, 26:32). There is a tradition that Paul was beheaded under Nero a year later.
THE CHURCH - A year or two before the crucifixion of Jesus had told Peter that he intended to build his church (Matthew 16:18). But Luke noted that the church could not be constituted until the disciples were "clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). And that happened very suddenly on the Day of Pentecost in AD 30 (Acts 2:1-4).
This new church consisted of people who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship (koinonia symbolized by the Middle Eastern hug of peace, (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14). They also met, probably every Sunday for the breaking of bread (also called the Eucharist or Holy Communion, Acts 20:7) and prayers" (Acts 2:42). The community grew as the Lord added to its numbers (Acts 2:41, 47, 5:14, 6:1, 7, 9:31) first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then throughout the Roman Empire (Acts 1:8, see Romans 15:19). After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 churches were going to be established to "the four winds" (Matthew 24:31) of the earth.
Each local congregation was governed, like Jewish synagogues, by elders (Acts 6:1-6 - not deacons as often assumed-, 14:23, 15:4, 6, 20:17, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). Luke had seen how Paul insisted that, instead of a hierarchy, the new churches should function organically like a human body with the Messiah as their head (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-28, Ephesians 4:1-16, see The Church: An Organic Picture).
THE HOLY SPIRIT - It was the Spirit who gave life to and empowered this new church. The apostles had seen how the Holy Spirit worked in the life of Jesus (Luke 3:16, 22, 4:1, 14, 18), and they themselves had begun to learn some of this spiritual power (Luke 10:21, 11:13, 12:12). But now the whole church would be empowered to continue the work of Jesus (as promised in John 14:16-17, 26, 15:26, 16:12). So Luke wants his readers to know that all that was done in Jesus' name was the direct result of being filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18, 4:8, 31, 7:55, 8:17-19, 29, 9:17, 10:19, 44, 11:12, 15-16, 24, 13:2, 4, 9, 52, 15:8, 28, 16:6, 7, 19:6, 21, 20:22-23, 28). This is why The Book of Acts is often called The Acts of the Holy Spirit.
THE RESURRECTION - The disciples had been present when their risen Messiah appeared on the first Easter Sunday, and on four successive Sundays (Luke 24:1-43, John 20:26, 21:1, Acts 1:3, 20:7, see "Eight Sundays from Easter to Pentecost" under Sermons). Luke explains that when Judas was replaced all twelve apostles were to be personal eye witnesses of Jesus' life and resurrection. They had to be "those who have accompanied us during the time that the Lord went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21-22).
But the twelve apostles did not begin preaching about the resurrection during those seven weeks after Easter. It was only after the empowering of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost that the resurrection became the main topic of their good news for the world (Acts 2:31-32, 4:2, 10, 33, 10:40, 13:30, 17:3, 31).
BAPTISM - The proclamation of the resurrection resulted in men and women being baptized to begin learning from the Holy Spirit about the Messiah (Acts 2:38, 8:12). The practice of Christian baptism cannot have been suddenly invented on the day of Pentecost. It was obviously a continuation of what Jesus had begun to do (Acts 1:1-2). John's Gospel explains that John had begun the rite of baptism (John 1:31) to enrol his disciples to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus began enrolling his own disciples he used the same sign of enrolment. And the Pharisees soon noted that "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John" (John 3:26, 4:1). Luke makes clear that people who had been baptized to become disciples of John were baptized again to enrol as disciples of Jesus to be taught by the Spirit (Acts 19:1-5).
The word disciple means a learner, and evidently when they are first baptized the new learners know nothing. What they must grasp is entirely given to them by the inspiration of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:9-13). Teaching by the Holy Spirit therefore begins after baptism. Which is why the new learners are baptized into the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).
In Samaria Philip the evangelist baptized the first Samaritans. . "When they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Messiah, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12 - the NRSV carelessly changes from translating Christos as Messiah in 8:5 to Christ in 8:12). But there was a delay until the apostles were able to come down and constitute a church in which the Holy Spirit would begin his teaching ministry (Acts 8:14-17).
This explains why all the recorded baptisms in the Book of Acts are immediate without any delay for instruction or probation to see if the candidates are acceptable (Acts 2:4, 8:12, 8:37-39, 9:18, 16:15). It was not what people were before baptism that counted, but what the Spirit would do in them in the new community. The Philippian jailor had an earthquake repentance at midnight, and his whole family was baptized before breakfast (16:15). And presumably Paul established a congregation of the Spirit in the jailor's home, and another in the home of Lydia (Acts 16:40). These two congregations constituted the first church in Macedonia.
This means that the second century practice of demanding a long period of probation as evidence of genuine repentance before baptism is a major departure from apostolic practice. Wherever this has been required church growth has been brought to a halt. Willingness to enrol oneself and one's family to begin learning is sufficient, and that can be done immediately. This happens in our day when people enrol without any probation or preparation for a community college course and the teaching begins shortly after. And wherever people have been baptized as soon as they are ready to begin learning huge church growth has been possible.
Admittedly, as in the parable of the Sower, the practice of immediate baptism means that some will fall by the way side, faith can dry up (Luke 8:13) and get choked. This happens whenever learners are enrolled for any kind of course, but there will also be much good fruit.
The establishment of the first church in Samaria illustrates some different functions (gifts = members) that were needed to build up the body of the Messiah (Ephesians 4:1-12 - again the NRSV slips back into using the word Christ instead of Messiah). An evangelist persuaded people to enrol by baptism for teaching (Acts 8:5). Apostles organized churches of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14,15). The Holy Spirit then gifted some as teachers in the congregation (2:42, 4:2, 11:25-26, 15:41, 17:2-3, 11, 18:4, 11, 19:8-10, 20:2, 20). Pastors were needed to shepherd the flock. And in due course prophets would be set aside for the believers' "upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3). Many less prominent functions were needed for the body to grow (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 27-28)
Luke comments that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26, 26:28), so Luke defines a Christian as someone who is currently learning and exercising a gift of the Spirit in the church. Those who think they can be good on their own apart from the Spirit have not even begun.
What is significant is that women were baptized as disciples (Acts 5:14, 8:12, 16:15). Among the rabbis it was agreed that women must not be taught the law. So this radical inclusion of women among those who wanted to learn must have been initiated by Jesus himself. Paul's picture of the church as a body animated by the Holy Spirit leaves no room for a division into male and female functions or gifts (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-28, Ephesians 4:1-16). Regrettably a reversion to an all male ministry happened very quickly. It is only in the last two centuries, beginning with the Methodist and Pentecostal movements, that the assumptions of a one male ministry began to be questioned.
MARK'S GOSPEL - The beheading of James the Apostle in AD 44 (Acts 12:1-2) and Peter's deliverance from the same fate (Acts 12:3-17) was a traumatic event. Up to that point Christians in the areas of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Antioch had expected to keep hearing the story of Jesus from the eye-witness apostles. But the church was now fourteen years old and obviously the apostles were not immortal. It seems that Mark was charged with recording the main facts that were preached by Peter and other eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry.
Mark's Gospel is a very basic answer to some key questions. The Messiah was certainly alive and active among them, but Christians wanted to know how and why his own people had crucified him. That is why Mark wrote five of his sixteen chapters about the events from the first Palm Sunday to Easter (Mark 11:1 -16:20). He describes himself as an eye-witness of the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. "A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked" (Mark 14:51-52).
The early Christians were familiar with miracles of healing and the casting out of evil spirits (Acts 3:1-10, 5:1-43, 8:6-7, 9:32-35). They wanted to know how Jesus had healed people, and so Mark recorded a dozen examples of this in Jesus' ministry (Mark 1:21-3:21, 5:1-43).
The apostles had continued Jesus' practice of telling parables (Mark 4:2, 33-34) as a means of explaining the mysterious working of the Kingdom. Mark's readers would want to know how and why did Jesus and his apostles use this method? So Mark's Gospel includes examples of the parabolic method and the reasons for teaching in this way (4:1-33, 12:1-12).
Mark also recorded Jesus words about the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem in the generation of the apostles (Mark 13:30), and the Jewish church vineyard being given to others (Mark 12:9, 13:1-30). The signs in the heaven in Mark 13:24 are an exact quote from Isaiah's words about the day of the Lord when Babylon fell (Isaiah 13:9-10, 13). Just as the sun and moon (the emperor and queen) were darkened, the stars (the dignitaries of the empire) fell, and the powers were shaken, so the Jerusalem religious establishment would be toppled in that generation (Mark 13:2, 24, 30).
When Mark wrote this was still in the future. But already the early Christians had been warned this would happen in their generation (e.g. Romans 11:11-12, 1 Corinthians 7:26, 29, 31, 2 Corinthians 1:14, Philippians 1:10, 2:16. 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 19, 3:13, 5:2-3, 23, 2 Thessalonians 2:-1-2, 8, Hebrews 10:25, 37, 12:27, James 5:7-8, 1 Peter 1:13, 4:7,13, 2Peter 3:4, 1 John 2:18). Mark's Gospel reiterates this (Mark 12:9, 13:30)
Mark also noted that Jesus had spoken of a first going out of the good news before the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem (Mark 13:10) and this happened through the work of Paul and the other apostles. After AD 70 there would be a much wider spread of the Gospel among all nations "to the four winds" (Mark 13;27). And in fact there were Christians in India and China, and no doubt many other places, by the end of the century.
Mark would have remembered how Jewish Christians had been shaken by Peter's announcement of the termination of the Jewish kosher food laws (Acts 10:9-16, 11:1-10). Mark adds an interesting note about this. Jesus had said "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" Thus he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). People with all sorts of food habits were now welcome.
MATTHEW'S GOSPEL - It seems that Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9) was chosen as one of the twelve apostles. As he listened to Jesus he may have made notes of sayings of Jesus (often designated by scholars as the document Q). When Mark's Gospel began circulating, and the need for more written accounts of what Jesus had said and done, Matthew perhaps decided to insert his list of sayings in the structure that Mark had provided.
Jesus' right to be recognized as the rightful heir of the Davidic line needed a two chapter introduction. Earlier translations (KJV, RV) had transliterated the Greek word Christos as Christ. But when the NRSV used the original Hebrew word Messiah in the first chapter of Matthew's Gospel, it became easy to see that Matthew begins and ends his genealogy with the statement that Jesus is the Messiah (Matthew 1:1, 17, 18). The Hebrew word mashiakh means anointed, and the term Messiah means an anointed king. So Matthew makes clear that the person who was born as Jesus was already known as the anointed King Messiah Lord of the Old Testament (Matthew 2:2, 4, 6).
By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel the parables of Jesus and the vivid metaphors he used were already familiar by being told again and again in the Christian gatherings. Mark had gathered some of these, and Matthew added some others (e.g. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-52, 18:23-35, 20:1-16, 23:37-39).
By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel many were wondering how the ethical teachings of Jesus related to the Jewish Old Testament law? This was settled once for all in Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount. Using the contrast "You have heard that it was said" as opposed to "But I say to you" six times Jesus rejected the way the ten commandments were interpreted by the Jewish rabbis (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Matthew gives us a whole chapter exposing the hypocrisy of their Pharisee mentality (Matthew 23). The chapter announces that this harsh mentality had resulted in the death of many righteous persons, and all that innocent blood would be vindicated in the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation (Matthew 23:29-36).
We might add that the Christian churches, as they grew all over the world, were able to apply Jesus' "But I say to you" to the traditional social norms and legal systems of their own nation. This allowed Paul to say that Christians could submit to the governing authorities of each nation (Romans 13:1-5) and at the same time point out how ethics must be continually corrected by love (Romans 13:8-10). Wherever Christians churches have been established this by-product of their reading of the Gospels has acted as leaven to correct the brutality of traditional social and legal systems.
Many critics assumed that the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in AD 70 cannot have been predicted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They decided that the synoptic Gospels were therefore written after the event, and John's Gospel appeared very much later at the end of the century. Bishop John Robinson demonstrated that there is not a shred of evidence for this late dating (Redating the New Testament, London: SCM Press, 1976).
I imagine Matthew was encouraged to write his Gospel after the Council of Jerusalem (AD 48, Acts 15:1-35) and the scroll would have been completed about AD 50. The war of AD 66 -70 that would end with the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem (AD 70) was still twenty years ahead. But Matthew has no hesitation in confirming Mark's account of this imminent event (Mark 13) in the generation of the first apostles (Matthew 23:36, 24:1-34). But he adds some very significant words. "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven" (Matthew 24:30). People imagine a great cross in the sky. But what Matthew is saying is that the metaphorical portents of the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13 & Matthew 24 will be the sign or evidence that Jesus is the same Lord as in the fall of Babylon in Isaiah 13.
LUKE'S GOSPEL - Luke begins the Book of Acts by saying he had written a previous book. And he begins Luke's Gospel by saying that "many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events . . . as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eye witnesses and servants of the word" (Luke 1:1-2). Probably while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea (58-60 AD, Acts 23:23-27:1) he sent his companion Luke to investigate carefully (Luke 1:3) the events surrounding the life of Jesus. This may have been to gather materials for Paul's defense before the emperor in Rome. But it would also help to fill out information which was not given in the earlier Gospels.
Perhaps from Mary the mother of Jesus, there was an account of the annunciation, the Magnificat that she sang, the songs of Zechariah and Simeon, and the trauma of her son being left behind in Jerusalem (Luke 1 & 2). Like Matthew, Luke uses Mark's outline of the events but he often locates Matthew's sayings in different contexts. Luke then gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:29-37) and the account of the meal at the home of Martha and Mary (Luke10:38-42). And what would we do without the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son and the lost brother, (Luke 15)? Luke left his hearers to puzzle about the unjust steward and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-3, 19-23), the unjust judge and the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:1-14). Luke also bequeathed for posterity the priceless stories about the ten lepers and Zacchaeus (Luke 17:11-19, 19:1-10). Finally we have Luke's account, which again could only have come from eye witnesses, of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-53). Without Luke's careful investigations, the churches would have been ill equipped to cope with the terrible events of the fall of Jerusalem and the vicious persecutions that followed.
JOHN'S GOSPEL - Bishop John Robinson demonstrated that the supposed evidence for the late date of this Gospel is non-existent. Many of the motifs which were thought to point to about 100 AD are found among the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls which preceded the birth of Jesus. But John's Gospel is certainly structured in a quite different way. He obviously knows that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are circulating among the churches. But alone in exile on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9) he goes over all he remembered of conversations with Jesus, and sets his picture in the light of his Lord's divine origin.
He begins with the Prologue that presents the eternal Son of God as the light of the world. The light of the Messiah had been continually reaching all people in every part of the world (John 1:9, see 8:12, 9:5, 12:36, 46). Often the light was clouded over, and on occasion too bright to be looked at by people used to the darkness. But the world is ultimately divided into light lovers, however dimly they turn to that light, and those who choose to prefer the darkness (John 3:19-21).
Back in the call of Moses by the burning bush the Lord had called himself I AM WHO IAM. And if Moses was asked who had sent him he was to say "I AM has sent me to you" (Exodus 3:14). The Hebrew word for I AM is ehiyeh and from that time onwards Jewish people knew God as iheye (Jahve, Jehovah). The name was too sacred to pronounce so it was pronounced as Adhonai (Lord). But in his Gospel John remembers occasions when Jesus called himself I AM (John 4:26, 5:45, 8:12, 58, 10:7, 9, 11, 14, 11:25, 13:19, 15:1, 18:5-6 ) It is possible for an ordinary person to say ego eimi to mean "I am" in Greek (e.g. John 9:9), but to say that in Hebrew would be blasphemous unless the person was the I AM who came to Moses.
In describing Jesus as the Lamb the Greek words are "Here is the Lamb of God who keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, the KJV, RV and NRSV miss the force of the Greek present continuous tense. As the eternal I AM, long before his incarnation, the I AM was not only light but continually absorbing human sin. And John remembers that Jesus also called himself the Son of God, the life giver, the bread of heaven, the light of the world, the liberator, the good shepherd, the resurrection life, the king of the Kingdom of Heaven (John 5:17-18, 5:45, 8:12, 36, 10:11, 30, 11:25, 15:1-11, 18:36).
Jesus did not become all those metaphorical names after he took birth
among us. John's point is that the Messiah (anointed king) was already
known by all those names in the Old Testament period. And the Gospel gives
us seven great signs that this was indeed the case (see John
2:11, 2:23, 4:54, 20:30)