How should the Modern Church use Acts?

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This post stems out of a course assignment I received as part of a “Leadership” course that I’m currently re-taking. Currently the discussion is around drawing principles from Acts. The readings were “Acts – The Problem of Historical Precedent” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, and “A Look Through Three Lenses” by Gene Getz. While the assignment was originally to write a 1-2 page essay, I felt the need to write two, this being the first. I would be interested in your thoughts.

The question which I shall attempt to answer in this essay is “How should the Church make use of the book of Acts?” While a full answer would itself require a book, I hope at least to address its primary use to the modern day Church.

I want to begin my argument as it were with the assertion that when applying any Scripture we must do so in the manner that the Author intended. To do otherwise by very definition would be to take the Author out of context. This would be akin to taking the answer belonging to one question and applying it to another. It may be the correct answer, but only incidentally.

What then was the writer’s intent? While Luke does not say explicitly, it appears to be the sequel to the Gospel of Luke (see Acts 1:1-3). As he was writing the series of events leading to Christ’s resurrection, so now he is writing an account of what happened after Jesus’ ascension for the benefit of the mysterious Theophilus (and later the other “lovers of God”- the saints).

What then was Luke’s intent? From the first three verses it appears that Luke was writing to Theophilus (and by extension the other lovers of God) to recount the events which took place after Jesus’ ascension. However, as Fee and Stuart point out, Luke is not simply recording Church history- he is being very selective of which events he includes in order to make a point. But what is that point?

I believe the answer lies at the very beginning in what Luke chooses to include from Jesus’ post-resurrection teachings. Out of all that could have been included out of what Jesus said, Luke only records Christ’s instruction to wait for the Holy Spirit, and the promise that “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.” Curiously enough, the rest of Luke’s account roughly follows this progression from Jerusalem (1:1-8:3) to Judea and Samaria (8:4-12:25) and onwards into lands belonging to the Gentiles. The book ends in Rome with Paul explaining how God’s work has progressed to encompass both Jew and Gentile.

On these and other grounds I would propose that Luke’s intent was to explain to Theophilus two things: First, how a Jewish sect spread and evolved to become the primarily Gentile religion we know today. Second, I believe that Luke wanted to point out how the Apostles’ witness had been guided by the Holy Spirit and empowered in Jesus’ name every step of the way. Third, I think that many of the stories that form this theme were selected to explain some of the Church’s “hot topics” (such as Simon the sorcerer). Nevertheless, this march from Jewish Jerusalem to Gentile Rome under the influence of the Holy Spirit appears to be the main theme of the book.

Now that we understand what this book meant to the Early Church, we must ask what it means to the Modern Church. Unlike the early Church, the vast majority of us are Gentiles and we are not so concerned with the issues that Jewish converts face (such as ceremonial cleanliness, unclean foods, and circumcision). Likewise, in the two thousand years after the writing of Acts our “hot topics” have changed many times. I am not saying that the issues Luke provides insight to are less important, but they are not as urgent or immediate.

At this point some would suggest that we look to Acts for patterns, principles, and precedence with regards to church structure, the sacraments, and the process of salvation. I will address this more fully in another post, but for now I would submit that based on what we’ve discussed so far, to look for these things in Acts would be inappropriate as Luke does not appear to be overly interested in them.

Instead, I propose the primary application of Acts for us today is encouragement.

First, Acts should remind us of our identity as representatives and witnesses of Christ. Acts begins and ends with the proclamation of God’s Kingdom, which is even more relevant in the midst of the issues the Church finds herself in today.

Second, Acts should comfort us by testifying that God is very near to us and is very involved in His Church. Luke’s account of how the Holy Spirit influenced the Apostle’s acts should blow any thought of deism out of the water.

Third, Acts should inspire us with the witnesses of the saints and the martyrs who have come before us. We may not be Peters, Pauls, or Stephens, but we are empowered by the same spirit.

With these three points in mind, let us read Acts with the knowledge that we are witnesses of the Living God who has guided His Church from the beginning, and will surely not cease to do so now. Amen?