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February 6, 2014

On Second Look, Maybe There is a Pattern (Jan-Feb 2001)

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by Mark Black
January – February, 2001

By the time I finished the fifth grade, I could show you the pattern in Acts. After all, it didn’t take a genius to see that all those people were baptized right after they started believing in Jesus. And even though Cornelius was an exception, the normal pattern was that they received the Holy Spirit after baptism. And while only Acts 20:7 spoke of Sunday, it did seem that the early Christians came together regularly to eat the Lord’s Supper. I saw no real reason to doubt the pattern principle.

I had no idea at the time that my approach to Acts was one I had been taught. I thought it was simply the natural (and only) way to read the book. I discovered a few years later that I was part of an interpretive tradition that goes back to Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who sent us to Acts and the Epistles to find the pattern of the early church. I was more than happy to continue this tradition, hoping that my further study might contribute in some way.

But further reading made me wonder if it was ever Luke’s intention to give us a pattern for all later churches. The more time I spent in Acts, the harder it became to know when to be like those first churches and when not to. When the church voted on deacons in Acts chapter 6, was that a formula for choosing church leaders (and were they even deacons)? Or should we cast lots, as the apostles did in chapter 1? When Luke tells us on two occasions that the Christians pooled their financial resources to care for the poor, was that meant to be a pattern? Since new converts often spoke in tongues, did Luke mean for later Christians to do the same? When Luke narrated the details of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15, was he suggesting that church leaders of later generations should assemble councils to make decisions? When we are told that Paul shaved his head because of a vow, did Luke want others to do the same? Luke also informs us that early churches met in homes – must we? Just when did Luke want his readers to imitate the first-generation Christians, and when was he simply telling the story? Did Luke want us to read Acts to find the practices and beliefs of the early church for later churches to follow?

I don’t read Acts that way anymore. But make no mistake; there’s a clear patern there. After I was shown it, I saw it on nearly every page. Let me explain.

An unfortunate accident occured centuries ago when Christians began to bind the New Testament in book form. A decision had to be made regarding the order in which the twenty-seven New Testament documents would be placed. They decided, for example, to place Paul’s letters from longest to shortest. But how were the Gospels and Acts ordered? Since Matthew, Mark, and Luke were so much alike, they were kept together. Since John was written later, it was put last. Acts then followed the Gospels. It made sense on one level, but it created a minor disaster for understanding the book of Acts. Since Acts was separated from Luke, it became standard practice to read it independently.

It’s like reading Tolkien’s The Return of the King without having read The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s like seeing The Empire Strikes Back before Star Wars. It’s like trying to understand 2 Samuel apart from 1 Samuel. It’s not there is nothing to be gained from reading Acts by itself, but we fail to see the all-important connections between the two. Luke wrote a two-volume work on the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, not two separate works. In fact, this probably underlies the primary reason Luke wrote a Gospel when there were already inspired Gospels being circulated. Luke wanted to finish the story, to tell not only what Jesus did during his ministry on the earth but also what he continued to do after his ascension to heaven.

This is especially clear in a few passages: it is Jesus himself who calls Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. Later in that chapter Peter says, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you.” In 16:7 Paul and his companions attempt to enter Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them.” And in 18:9 Jesus again speaks to Paul, encouraging him to have no fear. Of course, none of this is surprising to the reader of Luke, in which Jesus had already said, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand” (21:15). It is clear, of course, that in Acts Jesus is at the right hand of God, but he is active and very much in control as he directs the new movement through his Spirit.

So there is indeed a pattern for the church in Acts, but the pattern is not rooted in the practice of the early church. The pattern is that established by Jesus. Quite simply, the early church does what Jesus did and what Jesus commanded it to do. The following are a few of many instances.

1. Just as Jesus goes about healing those who are hurting in Luke, so do his disciples in Acts. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and Paul heals the father of Publius, who also has a fever. Jesus casts out unclean spirits, and so do Peter, Philip, and Paul. Jesus heals a lame man, as do Peter and John, Philip, and Paul. At times Luke even uses the same wording in order to draw attention tot he parallels. When Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, after being brought to her house, he puts the bystanders out of the room, takes her by the hand, and says, “Child, arise.” In Acts when Peter is brought to the home of Dorcas, who has died, he puts everyone outside, and then says, “Tabitha, arise.” (Paul also raises the dead in Acts 20.) Christians are to heal the hurt in their communities not because the early church did but because Jesus did.

2. The early church is constantly on its knees in prayer in Acts: while waiting for Pentecost, when choosing Matthias, when assigning work to the seven, before taking the gospel to the first Gentile, before sending out Paul and Barnabas, and in many other instances. This is certainly a wonderful example for later Christians. However, the reader who has first read the Gospel of Luke has already witnessed the pattern in Jesus’ prayer life. It is in Luke that we see Jesus praying at nearly every major event: at his baptism, before choosing his disciples, before Peter’s confession, at the transfiguration, and on the cross. We pray over the decisions and ministries of the church not because the early church did, but for the same reason they did. We learn from Jesus how to pray.

3. In Acts, the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and then begin their ministry of preaching the kingdom of God and healing. Not surprisingly, the same has already happened to Jesus in Luke. Only after he receives the Spirit in Luke 4 does Jesus begin preaching and healing. In Acts even the practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper look back to Jesus. Just as Jesus received the Spirit after his baptism, so do Christians in Acts. That is, Acts 2:38 looks back to Luke 4. And the reason the early church gathered regularly to eat the Lord’s Supper is because of the command and example of Jesus. Acts chapters 2 and 20 look back to Luke 22.

4. The pattern set by Jesus in Luke and followed by the disciples in Acts extends well beyond “church practices.” For example, Jesus suffers in Luke at the hands of his own people, and so do the disciples in Acts. Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Nazareth and is rejected and almost killed. The same happens to Jesus’ followers in Acts. Suffering is especially the lot of Paul, whose story Luke parallels in detail with that of Jesus. The journeys to Jerusalem and treatment there of both Jesus and Paul occupy the large final sections of Luke and Acts. In 18:32, Jesus announces that he “will be delivered to the Gentiles.” In Acts 21:11, speaking of Paul, the prophet Agabus prdicts that the Jews will “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.” Of Jesus, Luke later records that the people “all cried out together, ‘Away with this man,'” and of Paul Luke writes, “for the mob of the people followed, crying, ‘Away with him!'” Both Jesus and Paul face Jewish accusers, including the High Priest; both appear before Herodian princes as well as Roman procurators; and both are said to be innocent by the Romans.

These are just a few of the instances of the early Christians patterning themselves after Jesus. If I am right about Luke’s portrayal of the early Christians as simply those people through whom jesus continued to carry out his mission in the world, there are some important implications for applying Acts to the present day. Most importantly, the primary goal of the church is not to be like the early church – it is rather to be like Jesus.

Second, the question of what in Acts is normative becomes easier to answer. For Luke, the issue of authority is an easy one. The teachings and example of Jesus are authoritative. Even that which is narrated infrequently may be normative if it is the result of following the teachings or example of Jesus. For example, the selling of possessions in chapters 2 and 4 of Acts is most often seen as an unusual activity made necessary by exreme circumstances. Before adopting that view, however, we should recall Luke 12:32-33, where not just the rich ruler but all Jesus’ disciples are told, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Having said all of this, I am not really trying to suggest that Luke had no notion of the church of his day being like the church which he writes about – he surely did. But the goal is not to replicate the church of the earliest decades; it is rather to be like Jesus, and the picture of a church that looked like Jesus could only further that goal. The intent may be very much like that of Paul, who tells his churches, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Paul knows the advantage of giving his readers an example that is easily grasped and will lead the toward the goal. Yet he also knows quite well that he has not yet reached the goal (Philippians 3:12-13), and he never makes the imitation of himself the central goal. Luke seems to have the same intent in Acts: the early church is a marvelous group, well worthy of imitation insofar as they imitate Christ.

The desire to be like the early church is a fine one, but it is not the central one. The vision of imitating the New Testament church, even in its pristine purity and evangelistic enthusiasm, is just not big enough. For Luke the church can be nothing less than those who, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, proclaim his message, continue his ministry, and expect to suffer as he did.Wineskins Magazine

Mark Black


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