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Role models in the Acts of the Apostles

san-diego-embarcadero-skylineI’ve been at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego. (I have been staying in the squat tower on the right.) It is an extraordinary global gathering of around 7,000 academics running over five days, and alongside are 5,000 academics meeting as the American Academy of Religion. The programme booklet giving details of all the sessions runs to 512 pages—so there is plenty to choose from! Along with the SBL sessions ‘proper’ there are also session from partner organisations, one of which is the Institute for Biblical Research, which comprises evangelical Christians in mainstream academic work.

My first full session was an IBR meeting looking at Luke and Acts. One of the 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. The theme of the session was ‘Reading Luke-Acts in the light of ancient historiography’, in other words, 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.


stephens-martyrdomSecondly, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 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.


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6 Responses to Role models in the Acts of the Apostles

  1. John Grayston November 24, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    Thanks, Ian, very helpful. But I think I’d like to raise one question. Does Luke write primarily (exclusively?) to provide examples to emulate, or is his purpose also (primarily?) to record the ongoing mission of God in God’s world?

  2. Phill November 24, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    Thanks Ian. Acts is a fascinating book, I studied it a bit at college and really enjoyed it.

    I’ve been thinking a little bit about being “filled with the Spirit” recently – mainly because we’ve been doing an Alpha course at church and Alpha makes so much of it (to the point where I think Spirit-filling virtually replaces Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, but let’s not go there now). These thoughts are mainly a result of my rather confused brain trying to work through these kind of issues!

    I find it interesting that nowhere in the Bible does anyone actually ask to be filled with the Spirit. The Spirit is simply given by God, often not in response to a human request, or sometimes in response to a prayer for a particular reason (e.g. boldness in witness, Acts 4:29, 31). The Spirit underpins and enables everything that happens in the life of the church, this is true – but I wonder whether asking to be filled with the Spirit is moving a step beyond that.

    I also find the question about whether Acts gives us examples to follow an interesting one. Should the church today look exactly like the church in Acts, and should we be expecting miracles, signs and wonders etc? In a discussion I had recently with someone a fair bit further up the charismatic scale than I am, it struck me that one of the differences between us was not theological in the sense of what we believed God *could* do with gifts and so on – it was more what we expected to be ‘normal’.

    When I was studying Acts, our tutor talked about God’s covenanted and uncovenanted blessings – i.e. what God promises to do and what God can do. I found that quite a helpful way of looking at it anyway!

    Apologies for those thoughts being slightly incoherent!

  3. David Runcorn November 24, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    Hi Ian. Stimulating. Some thoughts into the mix … There is an important issue about how we use words like role model or hero. Can we be sure that a C1 Jerusalem christian understands it the same way as a modern western believer? I note John Goldingay, from his OT perspective, is not at all keen on the language of ‘role models’ to describe our relationship to men and women in scripture. Likewise I think Brueggemann would resist the use of ‘hero’ to describe biblical characters and speaks of Hebrew narrative (such as 1&2Samuel) as deliberately ‘post heroic’ – a deliberate subverting of (usually macho) power narratives. I think both would warn out how we look to Bible characters for examples. They are models of faith and thus point us to God. but not role models.
    Goldingay writes – ‘This reflects the fact that in general the Bible is about God. It is about what God has done, more than what human beings have done. Accepting this does not come easily to us. We want to ‘make a difference’. We read the stories of Moses, Deborah and Gideon as people who made a difference and who can therefore inspire us.’ John Goldingay, Key Questions About Biblical Interpretation: Old Testament Answers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 266-271

    • David Shepherd November 26, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      David,

      While I might agree that we should be wary of lionising the apostles, St .Paul does say to Timothy, ‘Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.’ (Philippians 4:9)

      Again, to the Corinthians, he says: ‘And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.’ (1 Cor. 11:1)

      We should have no problem accepting any part of the scripturally documented apostolic tradition that they record as conclusively to be approved by God, nor rejecting those that the same witness identifies as incurring divine disapproval.

      For example, the supernatural manoeuvres that influenced Cornelius to dispatch his servants to Joppa in search of Peter also encouraged the apostle to overcome his Pentateuchal reservations about mixing with Gentiles.

      Most Christians wouldn’t expect a future ‘revelation’ pointing us away from that and urging us to return to the days of Jewish ritual segregation.

      Equally, heathen idol worship shouldn’t be encouraged as part of a paradoxically important step towards faith in the invisible God.

      I can also see no principle that should cause us to extrapolate inclusion into a trajectory of selectively and inconsistently approving some types of scripturally proscribed sexual behaviour, only to maintain the ban on others that don’t have quite the same groundswell of modern liberal activism behind them.

  4. Tony Oliver November 24, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    “Equally obvious is the fact that this proclamation consistently provokes opposition of one kind or another.”

    I was struck by this remark of yours Ian having just read an essay by Fr. Martin R. Tripole SJ on the Catholic World Report web-site. Just substitute Christian for Catholic in the following passage from his essay, and British for American, and you will have an accurate description of our current situation here in the UK. The Gospel is not PC, and we need to remind ourselves of that.

    “[W]e preach as though we don’t have enemies . . . . [we] have ignored an unpleasant truth: that there are active, motivated groups in modern American society that bitterly resent the Catholic Church and the Christian Gospel, and would like to silence both. . . . We are in a struggle for the souls of our people and our country. We ignore this at our own peril. . . .we often face enormous counterpressures to stay silent; to compromise on matters of justice; to go along with fashionable opinion. ”

    Take SSM as an example. It now has a legal status and implications for any Christian who will not go along with it. Dr. William Lane Craig has pointed this out in a blog on his Reasonable Faith web-site:

    “Since marriage is not a private institution but a civic institution – a public institution –, it carries with it certain civil rights that must be respected in the public square. What this means is that those who continue to regard marriage as exclusively heterosexual in nature are going to have their civil rights infringed or trampled upon. This is already happening. There was a court case in Massachusetts where a wedding photographer declined to film a same-sex wedding ceremony because he didn’t believe in same sex marriage. He was taken to court and had to pay $6,000 for not doing this. There is a wedding chapel in Idaho that is now under threat of being closed because the owners don’t want to perform same-sex marriages in their chapel. Their decision is regarded as civil discrimination.”

    Although he is talking about the situation in the USA I don’t think it is any different here.

    Luke does intend, in his characters, to offer positive examples to be emulated, both to his contempoary readers and to us too. We need to understand that it is going to cost us if we decide to bear witness to the truth; it is going to cost us if we decide to proclaim the Gospel in the face of secular opposition. As I said before, the Gospel is not PC and even though, like “role model”, “PC” is a term not known to Luke, he would nevertheless have understood it, and understood the consequences for those who will not kneel to this modern idol. Our “proclamation consistently provokes opposition of one kind or another”.

  5. Gill Kimber November 27, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    One of the most fascinating things I have ever read was a literary comparison between Old Testament ‘heroes’ eg Abraham and Homeric heroes. It was compelling as a way of pointing up just how different they are, and consequently, how very different the Scriptural treatment is of story. There are lots of people very anxious to tell us how much the OT owes to the pagan cultures around … what always surprises me is how very different it is. So although the comparison of NT themes with concurrent cultures is interesting, what for me is most important are the differences between them, and the reason for those differences.

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