The book that later church writers named The Acts of the Apostles might just as well have been described as Luke's second book about the things Jesus did and taught through the Holy Spirit. Its opening words ("In the first book") and its common addressee (Theophilus) show that it is a companion text to the gospel of Luke (compare Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1-5). The author known to us as Luke tells his story of the Jesus community with theological insight and literary agility. He writes in bold, dramatic prose, with such beautifully crafted episodes and skillful characterization that we readers can almost see ourselves there as participants in the first adventures of the early church.
Was this extraordinarily user-friendly text written to include later generations of Christians? Perhaps. The name Theophilus means "Lover of God," and while some have argued that Acts was written for an individual (some Roman official, financial supporter, or recent convert), it was not unusual to dedicate a book intended for a wide audience to a single representative figure. At any rate, the same Holy Spirit whose power drove these "acts of the apostles" and moved Luke to write about them has arranged for Christians who follow centuries later to share in the same excitement of being the Jesus community that burns through these pages. This is the story of the church on fire.
The revised common lectionary has arranged for us to hear most of chapters 1 and 2 of Acts during the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. In addition to these important introductory chapters, we are also given glimpses of the way the entire history will unfold: in the death of Stephen, the church's first martyr (chapter 7); in the speech of Peter proclaiming God's mercy upon Gentiles as well as Jews (chapter 10); and in the preaching of Paul proclaiming "an unknown God" (chapter 17) to the known world, (the oikumene or ecumenical world of the text) symbolized by his journey to Rome and imprisonment there. The open-ended character of the book of Acts is appropriately mirrored in the long season after Pentecost that follows the Easter season and our set of readings. Hearing the extraordinary story of the early church's witness to the power of God immediately before this so-called "ordinary time" may well encourage God's people to ask: What "acts" are we being called to do in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ?
Followers of the Jewish Messiah
The church's longstanding tradition of substituting a reading from Acts for the Hebrew Bible lesson during the Easter season might at first lead to the impression that with the resurrection of Jesus, the Hebrew scripture has become less important or even unimportant to Christians, but that would be a serious misreading. In fact, the book of Acts is uniquely placed between the gospels about the Jewish Jesus and the letters of Paul, the "apostle to the Gentiles," in part to show the continuing significance of Israel's history for the community of Jesus. In Acts 1 and 2, Luke imitates the literary style of the Septuagint (a translation of the Old Testament into Greek) precisely to show the continuity of the church with Israel. The narrative context of the exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylonian captivity, and the longed-for hope of the restoration of Israel frames the entire book of Acts. It begins with the disciples' question to Jesus (verse 1:6): "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus' answer to that question sets the agenda for the entire book of Acts: "It is not for you to know the times. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Indeed verse 1:8 provides a programmatic outline for the rest of the narrative. Acts 2:1-8:1a describes the mission in Jerusalem; 8:1b-12:25 describes missions in Samaria and Judea; 13:1-28:31 (the conclusion of the book) describes the mission of Paul to the ends of the earth. Acts begins in the theological center of Jerusalem, the city of the death and resurrection of Jesus and site of the second temple, which (when Luke wrote around 85 C.E.) had recently been destroyed by the Romans. The story ends with Paul's imprisonment in Rome, the center of the empire that has conquered the known ends of the earth. Just as Stephen's death in Jerusalem echoes that of Jesus (Acts 7:60, Luke 23:34), so Paul's final journey to Jerusalem and Rome echoes the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21, Luke 9:51-52).
The prologue of Acts (1:5) tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples for 40 days after his passion and resurrection. They are to re-enact symbolically the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert (Luke 4:1-2,14) before he began his mission in Galilee, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. In both cases, Luke reminds his readers of the 40 years Israel spent in the desert, preparing for entry into the land of promise. Luke understands Jesus to be "the prophet like Moses" foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15 (Acts 3:22); the community of Jesus is called to become prophets like Jesus. They wait prayerfully in Jerusalem for the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Luke is careful to tell us that along with the 11 "apostles" he names, there were some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and also his brothers (Acts 1:12-14). During that time, a replacement for Judas is chosen, bringing the number of the apostles back to 12, another hint of the hoped-for restoration of Israel. The 12 are to be witnesses of the earthly ministry of Jesus from the time of his baptism by John to the time of his resurrection and ascension.
Fittingly, the ascension of Jesus takes place from the Mount of Olives, where Zechariah had predicted that God would come as king and judge over all the earth (Zechariah 14:4-21). Therefore, the two heavenly figures in white robes can interpret the event by predicting that Jesus will return in the same way that he has departed (Acts 1:9-11). Luke expects his readers to make the connection between the Mount of Olives here and the mountain of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah (associated with Mount Sinai or Horeb) about his "departure" (literally in Greek his "exodus") which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.
The promised Holy Spirit is given on the day of Pentecost ("fifty days" counted from Passover, Leviticus 23:15-21), the traditional Feast of Weeks that remembered the giving of the law at Sinai, the time when Israel was called to be God's people. At Mount Sinai, God's powerful presence was attested when "the Lord descended upon it in fire" (Exodus 19:18) and Philo of Alexandria (contemporary with Paul) reported a tradition that angels took the words God spoke to Moses on the mountain and carried them on tongues to the people waiting below. Luke has combined these echoes of the exodus with the later prophetic writing of Joel, who had predicted the pouring out of the Spirit upon the whole people of God "in the last days." As Peter explains:
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy" (Acts 2:16-18; Joel 2:28-29).
God's dramatic reversal of the confusion of tongues and the scattering of the nations at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is witnessed to by the nations represented in the crowd gathered at Jerusalem, in a prophetic sign that "God's deeds of power" will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. At the same time, the divine destabilizing of longstanding social, economic, and political inequities described by Joel becomes the heart of the church's witness. Peter's sermon calls for repentance and self-distancing from the present corrupt social arrangement (2:38-40) in favor of the Sabbath-Jubilee lifestyle of caring for the poor and the resident alien described in Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 19. The seven of sevens (the 49/50 days between Easter and Pentecost) involves a healing of the land and its people.
This healing is immediately manifested in two ways: inwardly, as the life of the community of Jesus was characterized by their sharing of worship, study, and possessions, "for they kept on selling their possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need." (This countercultural behavior was a definite sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit among them.) Outwardly, "God's deeds of power" were witnessed to by miraculous healings, for example that of the man lame from birth at the Beautiful gate of the temple (Acts 3:1-10).
The witness of the community of Jesus is costly, however, as it usually is for those who follow the crucified and risen Lord. The activities of Peter and John get them into trouble with the religious leaders, who have them publicly imprisoned. Their defense, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (5:29), is the charter of the church's long tradition of faithful civil disobedience. It has empowered many generations of Christians, notably in the civil rights movement, to "rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name" of Jesus (5:41). The martyrdom of Stephen and the final imprisonment of Paul follow the same template. Luke sees the work of the Holy Spirit as the replication in the lives of believers of the messianic pattern enacted first by Jesus.
If Acts is the story of the church on fire, told in the framework of the exodus liberation story, then perhaps the best visual symbol for the community of Jesus is the one found in St. Catherine's Orthodox monastery at Sinai. One of the icons there depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the burning bush of Exodus 3, the Theotokos who can bear the fire of God without being consumed. The contemporary church that follows the pattern described in Acts will find itself singing her song:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise...." (Luke 1:46-55)
A. Katherine Grieb taught New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, when this article appeared.