Monday, September 7, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part One)

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles
Author: Attributed to “Luke”

Place: City of origin difficult to absolutely pinpoint but touches on most of the Eastern Mediterranean at one point or another

Date written- Placed by different scholars in a period ranging from circa 60 CE to early in the 2nd century.

This essay will reference from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament.

It’s cruel, in a way, to read the Acts of the Apostles apart from the Gospel According to Luke to which it is usually tethered by virtue of sharing an author. The historical elements at the beginning of the Book of Acts line up more cleanly with the ending of Luke’s Gospel while the book, as a whole, continues building on themes that are uniquely Lukan and is richer for the connection. Still, if the work stands the test of time then it must do so on its own merits and, through the excavation of those singular qualities that belong to Acts alone, we may better appreciate the contribution that the author commonly thought of as Luke made to the canon of early Christian writing.

Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension left early church fathers with something of a dilemma and the opening chapter of Acts addresses its two major components with startling precision. After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples in Jerusalem (unlike the Galilean setting that concludes the book of Matthew) in which, it is said, that he taught them about the kingdom of God that was to come. The common wisdom among Jews of the time was that the Messiah would come to unify them both culturally and militarily and, from that platform, they would retake their homeland that had been overseen by others for over four hundred years. How then, if Jesus had ascended to heaven, could he be the Messiah? Moreover, if Jesus’s intention was to show his divinity to the people of Israel, why did he leave the dissemination of his message in the hands of his followers instead of just taking it to the people himself, as he had done in his earthly ministry?

Luke’s author supplies both questions and most of the answers when he writes:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” [1:6-11]

The kingdom of heaven, then, was to arrive upon Jesus’s next return to Earth and, echoing Jesus’s preaching on the kingdom of heaven towards the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, the onus fell upon the believers to remain vigilant while accepting that not one among them might truly predict the hour of his return. The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God, as Luke prefers) was something more profound than just the re-establishment of this dynasty or that dynasty to rule in the stead of the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans or whomever. His reasons for leaving this leg of the ministry in the hands of his “witnesses” rather than carrying the message himself remains somewhat hidden, though perhaps covered under the banner of the plan unfolding on God’s time rather than that of mortals.

Before carrying that ministry to the people in Jesus’s name (rather than his physical presence), the disciples drew lots to fill the position in the organization left open by Judas’s suicide, choosing Matthias who had “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” and could serve like the others as “a witness to his resurrection” [1:21,22]. While this may seem like mundane housekeeping before the dinner party, the Jews had, when still in possession of their own political sovereignty, chosen their leader by lots. By specifying this method for the selection of a new peer, Luke seems to suggest that the Apostles were taking it back to the old school in defiance of monarchical or imperial methods of rule that had taken root in their culture.

Luke makes note of two basic promises that Jesus made before his ascension; first, that he would return and, second, in his absence, they would receive power from the Holy Spirit. They must have been impressed at the speed with which the second promise was fulfilled, for at the festival of Shavuot (celebrated forty-nine days after Passover to commemorate Moses’s reception of the Torah from God and also tied into harvesting traditions), they were made aware and then filled by the Holy Spirit. This momentous day in the history of the early church, known in the Christian tradition as Pentecost (translated literally, “the fiftieth day”) begins with a private miracle and concludes with a public one.

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. [2:2-4]

Luke’s goes on to tell us that “devout men from every nation under heaven” lived in Jerusalem at that time and they all heard what the Apostles were saying in the own native tongue. In listing the nations of those who heard (Parthia, Medes, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Romans, Crete, and Arabia), Luke reveals something about the world these men occupied that is rarely discussed in the Gospels where the only three ethnic players mentioned are Jews, Romans, and Samaritans. In contrast, the disciples’ newfound ability to speak to men (and occasionally women) of many nations, whether fact or metaphor, foreshadows the universal nature of Christianity’s appeal.

Peter used this platform to outline clearly the first precepts of the early church. After proclaiming Jesus as the Christ as predicted by scripture, he bluntly stated that, “Let all the house of Israel know that assuredly God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you have crucified” [2:26]. So when Peter exhorted people to repent of their sins and ask forgiveness, at least in this context, it wasn’t penance for some nebulous original sin related to the Garden of Eden. It was for having crucified the very person God had sent to free them from slavery, both mental and physical. The only remedy, as far as Peter was concerned, was to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” [2:28]. Though this baptism is the only prerequisite for salvation that Luke enunciates at the point in the book, a curious addendum on the end of chapter two provides a clearer glimpse after what happened after.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. [2:44-47]

This, in effect, was an amplification of Jesus’s own ministry except it remained in Jerusalem and, if Luke is to be taken at his word, soon resulted in a whole tribe of communally-nested followers of Christ who would attend the Temple en masse, perhaps to discourage discrimination from other sectarians. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that Peter and the others should run up against many of the same political factions that saw to Jesus’s crucifixion.

After Peter and John perform a conspicuous healing outside of the temple, they are brought before the religious authorities residing there to justify upon whose authority they were able to bring about this miracle. This is exactly the same concerns they had about Jesus, a magician of sorts who healed the sick and offered the forgiveness of sins outside of the brokered sacrifice and prayer for which the temple was responsible. Peter was obviously not trying to placate them when he proclaimed that, “this man has been healed…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” [4:10].

Faced with a miracle that they could not refute, The temple authorities were forced to let the Apostles go with a stern warning to “not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” [4:18]. This commandment was, of course, ignored and only added to their zeal in spreading the message among, by Luke’s own account, men and women of every country who dwelt in Jerusalem.

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