One of the perennial questions about the nature of Acts is whether it is descriptive or prescriptive—that is, whether Luke is just telling us what happened, or whether he is telling us what happened so that we might imitate it for ourselves. In other words, is Acts a particular story about what God did, or is it also (or instead) general teaching about the kinds of things God now does in the new dispensation of the Spirit? A couple of years ago, I attended a conference where one of the papers explored this question. The theme of the session was ‘Reading Luke-Acts in the light of ancient historiography’, that is, making sure we are reading it aware of the kind of expectations that Luke and his first readers would have had for these kinds of documents.
In relation to Acts, the presenter pointed out that, in the first century, there would have only really been one purpose in the presentation of ‘heroes’ of a historical story—to offer them as role models. Readers would not have given this a second thought; the characters they read about would clearly offer positive examples to be emulated. What, then, do we note about the Christ-followers and leaders of the church in Acts that we should model ourselves on? We were offered two main features.
The first is to note that prayer is a dominant and recurrent theme, particularly in the first half of Acts. Prayer or praying is mentioned 33 times in Acts; the majority, 23 occurrences, come in the first half and only ten feature in the second half, of which only six of these actually describe people praying. (It is as if, having made his point in the first half, Luke stops worrying about reporting prayer in the second half!) Quite often, we are simply told that someone prayed, but we are not necessarily told what they prayed—the words they used—whereas in the gospels we are usually told what the words are. Prayer features in a number of different ways:
- It is the regular habit of Jesus’ followers after his ascension (1.14) and of all the believers (2.42). They were in the habit of joining prayers in the temple (3.1), and was one of the key tasks of the apostles (6.4). Individuals like Cornelius are marked out by their habit of prayer (10.2).
- Prayer is central in decision-making (1.24) and particularly about the choice of leaders.
- Following this, prayer is also part of commissioning people for tasks, such as those who would serve (6.6), Paul and Barnabas as they leave Antioch (13.3) and their own appointing of elders in the first Christian communities (14.23).
- Prayer is a first response to opposition or difficulty, on the part of those facing the difficulties (4.24) as well as those concerned for them (12.5); it also includes praise (16.25).
- Prayer precedes or leads to particular healings (9.40, 28.8).
- Finally, it also marks key moments and departures (20.36, 21.5).
If Luke draws our attention to this throughout Acts, then he presumably expects all Christians to be so marked.
Secondly, and not unrelated, is Luke’s language of people being filled with the Spirit. The Spirit himself is clearly a dominant theme of Acts, not just in terms of how often the Spirit is mentioned, but much more fundamentally because the outpouring of the Spirit following Jesus’ ascension is the thing which leads to the effective witness of the apostles and other disciples, in growing circles of influence ‘in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’ (1.8).
But ten times, Luke specifically talks of people being ‘filled with the [Holy] Spirit’ or of individuals being ‘full of the [Holy] Spirit’.
- All those gathered at Pentecost are filled with the Spirit (2.4)
- Peter is filled with the Spirit as he preaches a second time (4.8)
- Having prayed with boldness in the face of opposition, all the people are filled again (4.31)
- Those who will wait on tables should be full of the Spirit and wisdom (6.3), and Stephen stands out in this regard (6.5, 7.55)
- Saul/Paul is filled with the Spirit when Ananias prays for him (9.17)
- Barnabas is known as a man filled with the Spirit (11.24)
- Saul is filled with the Spirit as he confronts Elymas the sorcerer (13.9)
- The disciples are filled with joy and the Spirit, even in the face of opposition (13.52)
This is particularly significant for two reasons. First, this language occurs hardly anywhere else in the NT, coming five times in Luke (1.15, 1.41, 1.67, 4.1 and 10.21) and once in Eph 5.18. The command in this last verse is a present imperative, having the force ‘Be continually, daily, filled with the Spirit, as a habit or matter of course’. Secondly, the notion of being filled with the Spirit has been central to charismatic renewal movements of the last several decades, and was something I was taught from Eph 5.18. So it is important to note the fact that Luke offers this is an aspect of Christian discipleship that we should emulate in the account in Acts.
In addition to these observations, I think I would also want to note two other things which are recurrent features of the portraits in Acts which perhaps Luke would have us emulate:
- It might sound rather obvious, but everyone who features, named or unnamed, at whatever level of leadership in the Christian communities, is involved in some sort of proclamation or explanation of the good news about Jesus.
- Equally obvious is the fact that this proclamation consistently provokes opposition of one kind or another.
In my early days of Bible reading, I was introduced to something called the Swedish Bible study method. In the version I was given, one of the questions was to identify from the passage ‘A warning to avoid or an example to follow.’ It looks as though Acts gives us plenty of these! But a final observation is that, for Luke, these things don’t come about by human effort; they are an overflow of the work of the Spirit. Tom Wright has observed that Paul never instructs his readers to go around telling their friends about Jesus—but it does appear to have just happened.
(This material first posted in November 2014.)
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