Monthly Archives: April 2018

Mis-Readings Acts: What Shall We Do?

“What shall we do?” When I hear this question, it always reminds me of Acts 2:38. After all it sets up Acts 2:38:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (τί ποιήσωμεν;) Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:37–38)

So what we generally hear as the answer to this question is that people need to be baptized. However, if Luke is consistent, he is much more interested in the repenting side of the equation. And he has some outcomes we tend to minimize or not mention at all as we prepare people for baptism. Allow me to demonstrate.

Surprisingly the question occurs more than once in Luke-Acts. And it appears to be thematic for Luke.

The question first appears in Luke 3 as a response to John the Baptist’s preaching. John preached, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The crowd responded, “What should we do then?” John’s answer undoubtedly caught his listeners off guard

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.

Again, in the very same context (3:12), tax collectors who came for baptism and asked, “Teacher, “what should we do?”

Don’t collect any more than you are required to.

Yet, again and still the same context (3:14), soldiers coming for baptism also asked, “What shall we do?

Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.

In each case, people are called on to repent relative to how they handle their stuff and the way they take stuff from others.

The questions at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel appears to parallel the same question at the beginning of Acts. John preached at the beginning of the Gospel; Peter at the beginning of Acts. They both called on people to repent. They both prepared people for baptism.

Perhaps, given Luke‘s interest to show how repenting has an impact on how we handle our stuff, Luke might have the same interest in Acts. In Acts, the people show that they repented by being baptism—the relationship between repenting and baptism is a topic for a later discussion—and by taking on other behaviours such as sharing their resources in common, including selling property to meet the needs of others (2:44–45; 4:32, 34–35). So as in Luke so also in Acts, repenting involves our stuff and how we might get our stuff.

So what should we do? Repent—and share your stuff and not take more than you need! Perhaps this teaching should be restored to what we tell people preparing to be baptized.


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Mis-Readings Acts: God Gives the Holy to Those Who Obey Him.

We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).

The text above has been read to say that God gives the Holy Spirit only to those who obey him or even God gives the Holy Spirit because people have obeyed him. However, neither of these readings quite get what Luke is actually saying.

Context. The context of this text is Peter and the other apostles explaining to the Jewish Sanhedrin why they must continue to speak in the name of Jesus despite the Sanhedrin’s prohibition. Peter explained,

We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him (Acts 5:29–32).

The point Peter makes here is that the apostles are witnesses of the life and work of Jesus to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. The Holy Spirit is also a witness and that Holy Spirit has been given to the apostles and not the Sanhedrin. [See on this point, Keener, Craig S. 3:1—14:28. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary 2. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.0. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013].

Grammar. Sometime English just won’t do. This text is more nuanced than “so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” would reveal. The phrase “to those who obey him” (τοῖς πειθαρχοῦσιν αὐτῷ) contains a present participle that might be rendered better as “to those who are obeying him.” The Sanhedrin is not obeying at present; the apostles are. (Note also that “we must obey” [πειθαρχεῖν] begins Peter’s response in v. 29).

Implication. Frederick D. Bruner (A Theology of the Holy Spirit [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997], 172) is correct when he notes that here obedience is the result of the prior presence of the Spirit in the lives of the apostolic witnesses (172). Thus consistent with Luke, the Holy Spirit empowers the believers to obey God.

Thus, God has given the Spirit to those who are currently obeying him! Does your obeying reflect the presence of the Spirit?

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Mis-Readings Acts: Promised Only to the Apostles?

A narrow reading of John’s prediction that Jesus would baptize in the Holy Spirit, as repeated in Acts 1:4–5, is that John’s prediction was specifically about the apostles. However, Luke’s presentation of John’s prediction is much broader, in fact, much broader. For example, Luke records,

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit… (Luke 3:15–16 NIV).

Luke is clear that John’s audience were people in general. John claimed that he could only baptize the people in water but the Messiah will baptize “you” (his audience) with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 13:24; 19:2–4). These words are then picked up in Acts to refer to what the apostles would soon experience on Pentecost (Acts 1:4–5). Later when Luke narrates how the Holy Spirit came on Cornelius and his household, he recalled John’s words:

Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”(Acts 11:16–17)

The “us” of this text is Peter’s Jewish Christian audience (“us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ”) and the “same gift” (ἴσην δωρεὰν) is the Holy Spirit which parallels what Peter promised to all believer in Acts 2:38 (δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος). Luke does not see the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to be fundamentally different from other “comings” of the Spirit on people throughout Acts. This topic will be treated more fully in a later blog, but for now the word “promise” through Acts 1 and 2 is my focus.

  1. The early disciples are commanded to go to Jerusalem and “wait for what the Father has promised which you have heard about from me” (1:4; cf. Luke 24:49). He then links this promise to be what John had said (1:5).
  2. In Acts 2:33, Peter, in his first sermon, explained that the exalted Jesus “has received the promised Holy Spirit and now pours out what you see and hear.”
  3. In Acts 2:38, Peter’s well-known invitation to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin is followed by “and you will receive (future tense–think about it!) the Holy Spirit.” Baptism and repentance, then, prepares the way for the Holy Spirit to come. For Luke, this is not so odd as Jesus received the Spirit following his baptism, as he was praying (Luke 3:21–22).
  4. Luke is not done yet. After noting that people who come to Jesus will “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he continued, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39 NIV). This is Luke’s way to say that the Messiah will continue to pour out his Spirit on his people. Luke gives us no reason to think that he is now talking of a different experience when it comes to receiving the Spirit of God.

This is consistent in Paul’s writings, too. In 1 Cor 12:13, Paul writes, “For we were all baptized by [in, with] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Paul see all Christians as those who have been baptized “in” one Spirit.

And then in Titus 3:4–6, Paul rejoiced that “…when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Here Paul used the language of Pentecost to speak of all those who have been saved.

Finally, from Luke’s perspective, the Holy Spirit is the certain sign that God has kept his promise.

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Mis-Readings Acts: The Case of the Missing Pronoun

In this second installment of “Mis-Reading Acts,” I focus on whether the empowering of the Holy Spirit came on just the twelve apostles or the whole community of believers numbered by Luke at “about one hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15). Scholars from the Restoration Movement have commonly argued that the Holy Spirit came only upon the Twelve on Pentecost. One can trace this from McGarvey’s original commentary on Acts (1872), through his revised edition (1892), and then to modern restorationists, such as Gaertner (College Press NIV Commentary, 1993) and Moore (College Press NIV Commentary, 2011).

Other commentators could certainly be added, but I’m most interested in the perpetuation of the pronoun-antecedent argument within this interpretive tradition that argues that if one follows the pronouns from Acts 1 to the “they” in Acts 2, the text is clear that the Holy Spirit only filled the apostles. Since McGarvey’s argument is typical, I quote him from his revised 1892 commentary (p. 21):

The persons thus assembled together and filled with the Holy Spirit were not, as many have supposed, the one hundred and twenty disciples mentioned in a parenthesis in the previous chapter, but the twelve apostles. This is made certain by the grammatical connection between the first verse of this chapter [2] and the last of the preceding [1]. Taken together they read as follows: “And they gave lots for them and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. And when the day of Pentecost was now come, they were all together in one place.”

McGarvey attached a footnote to this paragraph that amplified his understanding of Acts 1 and 2:

The supposition first advanced by Chrysostom, and adopted very generally by the more recent commentators, that all the one hundred and twenty were included, and the view advanced in modern time (see Alford in loco), that all the disciples of Jesus who had come to the feast were included are entirely without support in the context; and the only plausible reason given for either is the universal language employed in the quotation made below from Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams,” etc. But it is obvious at a glance that these words were not all fulfilled on that occasion. Nobody then present was seeing visions, or dreaming dreams. There was here only the beginning of a fulfillment which afterward was extended until all was done which Joel predicted.

First, McGarvey is wrong. Acts 2:1 in Greek does not have the pronoun “they.” The text instead reads, “all were together in the same place.” The phrase ἦσαν πάντες (“all were”) is the “to be” verb followed by its subject. And verse 4 reads, ἐπλήσθησαν πάντες πνεύματος ἁγίου, all were filled of the Holy Spirit. The subject in each case is “all.” In English translation “they” is for the sake of English sense. Furthermore, the relationship between pronouns and their antecedents in Greek differs from English.

So the pronoun-antecedent relationship upon which McGarvey—and all later interpreters—built his case does not exist in the original language of Acts.

Second, Luke’s intent is for his readers to understand that the Holy Spirit came upon all of the believers present at Pentecost. Allow me to share several lines of reasoning.

  1. The trajectory of the Old Testament is that God wants to give his Spirit to his people. In Num 11:29–30, in response to the Spirit coming upon two elders who had failed to show up at their consecration, Joshua begged Moses to put a stop to the prophesying elders. Moses responded, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’S people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
  2. The testimony of the prophets is the same as this but no clearer than in Joel 2, the text cited by Peter. On this matter, McGarvey misreads Acts by not including the testimony of Luke’s Gospel. Against McGarvey’s contention these words were not all fulfilled that day, I would agree. Some of them were already being fulfilled in the earliest chapters of the Gospel of Luke where one finds dreams, visions, and prophesy. And, of course, these phenomena continued to happen throughout the narrative of Acts.

Other points to be made include

  1. Peter says that the prophecy from Joel is that which was taking place before the eyes of his hearers: “This is what is spoken…” (Acts 2:16). This being the case, then, the Holy Spirit coming upon just the Twelve would hardly satisfy the intent of Joel’s text that the Holy Spirit was to come upon all people. Luke has conveniently informed his readers that women were among the earliest gathering of Jesus’ followers.
  2. Next John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize more than a few in the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of Luke 3:15–17 reads, “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ The “you” here has “people” as it antecedent-–if one might be looking for an antecedent argument.
  3. One last piece of evidence for the Holy Spirit coming on more than the Apostles on Pentecost is a careful reading of Acts 2:38–39. Since this text will be examined in a future blog, suffice it here to say that the gift of the Holy Spirit is best read as the Holy Spirit as the gift. And there is no compelling reason in Luke-Acts to read the Holy Spirit here as a “different” gift than the Holy Spirit is throughout the book of Acts.

I conclude this piece with a minority voice among Restorationists Barton W. Johnson who in his People’s New Testament commented on Acts 2:1:

They were all… in one place. Not only the apostles, but the hundred and twenty disciples. They probably had an intimation that the promised day had come.

And again on v. 4:

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. All the disciples present. To be filled implies that the human spirit within was overwhelmed by, or immersed in, the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit was not a sprinkling, but an outpouring that overwhelmed the human spirit.



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Mis-Readings Acts: Restoring the Kingdom to Israel

With this piece, I’m beginning a series for those who love the Acts of the Apostles. Acts has been a favorite book among my tribe, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, primarily because of it’s value in establishing certain soteriological and ecclesiological norms. And because of this, those of us so trained naturally interpret Acts to say what we thought the text needed to say. I have become quite taken with the number of times Acts really does not say what I was taught that it did. So here we go.

A traditional reading of Acts 1:6, for example, is that the apostles were still naive about Jesus’s intent to restore the kingdom to Israel because they were still hoping for a physical kingdom.

Lord, are you at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?

To which Jesus answered,

It is not yours to know the times and seasons which the Father has established in his own authority but you . . .

Jesus does not tell them “no” but instead that what they were asking depended on God’s timing.

There are several reasons to suggest that the apostles asked a very pertinent question and one consistent with what Jesus (and Luke) taught.

  1. Jesus had just spent some 40 days teaching them, have “given instructions (commanding) through the Holy Spirit to them” (1:2) and speaking to them about the “kingdom of God.” This raises the question as to what Luke means by the kingdom of God in relationship to the kingdom of Israel. Why ask a question about the kingdom of Israel if Jesus had just spent forty days speaking about the kingdom of God?
  2. The people of Israel are quite important to Luke. Just do a word search on Luke and Acts to see this. A few examples of this focus include Simeon’s waiting for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), the apostles will “judge the twelve tribes of Israel” (22:30), and the disciples on the road to Emmaus “hoped that Jesus… would redeem Israel” (24:21). In Acts, one finds from Paul’s sermon that from Abraham’s descendants “God brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus as he had promised (13:23)” Later Paul stated for the “hope of Israel” that he was under house arrest (28:20). These texts are enough to show that Luke’s sees his narrative to be about God’s continued relationship with Israel.
  3. What if Luke saw the early church in Jerusalem as the beginning of the restoration of Israel. Let’s take a closer look at how Luke guides us to understand the events leading up to Pentecost and then Pentecost itself.
    1. Repentance and forgiveness of sins will reach to all nations beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47; cf. Isa 66:20; Jer 3:17; Ezek 5:5; Mic 4:2: Zech 8:22).
    2. The “royal” family has assembled among those praying as the early disciples waited for power to come on them from high (Acts 2:14)–after all, we do have a coronation coming soon.
    3. Replacing Judas is driven by the need to complete the Twelve, a number symbolically connected to the twelve tribes of… Israel.
    4. Pentecost is the Jewish celebration of feast of weeks during which God is given the first fruits of the harvest. And who are these first fruits? None other than Jews gathered from among the nations (Acts 2:8–11; cf. Deut 4:27). By the way, Pentecost always occurred on the first day of the week.
    5. And about those Jew from the nations. God had promised repeatedly that he would gather his people from among the nations (Ezek 39:28; Hos 8:10; Zech 8:3; et al.). Again, we have another item connected to the restoration of Israel.
    6. Acts 2:21 stops Joel 2:32 short. In Joel, the text continues, “for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.” The original audience of the text is Israel.
    7. According to Peter, Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David (Acts 2:25–31). What difference would this make if the “kingdom of God” had nothing to do with the “kingdom of Israel”? To bring David into view is to emphasize that Jesus is the rightful heir to Israel’s throne. But now as Peter portrays Jesus, he is both Lord (YHWH) and Messiah (YHWH’s representative or king). If this is not saying that God has restored Israel, from Luke’s perspective, what else would be required?

For good measure, one more example seals the deal. James, the Lord’s brother, is clearly the leader of the law-observant Christians. As he asserts that Gentiles do not have to become Jewish in their practices to become believers in Jesus, he affirms that the prophets agree that the influx of Gentiles is God’s plan when he cites Amos (9:11–12):

After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ — things known from long ago. (Acts 15:16–18 NIV)

This phenomenal text places the rebuilding of the fallen tent of David as a pre-condition to the Gentiles seeking the Lord. In other words, James saw the early church (both Jews and Gentiles) as the rebuilt, restored kingdom of Israel.

So did those apostles before the Ascension really asked a misguided question? How do you read it now?

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