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Archives for 128 – Textual Theme: The Book of Acts

33AD“We are the first century church.”

It is a claim that is made a lot in our fellowship but what does it mean? This statement has meaning on several different levels.

It can have a sectarian tone to it – “We are the first century church…as opposed to those other guys.”

This saying can also be a genuine attempt to show that we believe what God wants matters and that scripture matters and that we are doing our best to practice the ancient faith going back to its very roots.

It cannot mean that we are the first century church in that we mirror the churches that we find in all that they were doing. I say that because those churches had so many problems that there is no way we would actually imitate them in terms of the actual behaviors and even teachings of some of those early Christians. Remember, Paul wrote every single one of his letters to address problems in the churches. Remember how Paul wrote the Corinthians on at least 3 occasions? Why is that? Because even after multiple letters they still didn’t get everything right! So there is a sense in which we attempt to be the ideal first century church that would follow all of Paul’s teachings and examples to the “t” but again, even they didn’t get that perfect.

The idea that we are the early church because we imitate their practices only takes us so far because we see how many issues they had in getting it right even back then. Now, this brings up a major point in the discussion.

Our intent to be the ideal first century church is something that even the first century church didn’t live up to.

Next, we go to the New Testament itself and what it has to say about worship. Paul and Acts actually don’t say that much about corporate worship when read in context. That certainly say some things about corporate worship but they were not written or intended to be used as they are sometimes used in our fellowship – as a law book for proper worship methods. You can find proper worship methods in there but not everything we do in our worship today comes directly out of a “thus saith the Lord” even if we say we “have a verse for that.” We certainly should go to the New Testament to understand the worship God desires. It turns out it is more than form, it also has to do with the heart (it is a both/and there). But our approach of going to the New Testament (particular Acts and the Letters) to authorize worship practice can be a bit sketchy at times because we end up finding exactly what we are looking for even if Paul never meant us to get that point from that text.

Let me repeat what I think is a main point here just to drill down on it a bit. If we go looking for things the text doesn’t intend to supply,
we will find what we are looking for but we will miss the point of the text.

Just to give you an idea about how we have missed the point (at times) let’s look one of Paul’s letters to understand its occasion (why it was written) and its purpose (its intended result).

1 Corinthians – written to a church divided to bring them reconciliation with God and each other. They were divided over leaders (Paul vs Apollos vs Peter, etc). They were divided socio-economically. They were divided in the assembly, which does result in some instruction on worship in order to bring them back into unity (1 Cor 11-14). They were divided on spiritual gifts (speaking in tongues, etc) which were used in worship, resulting in some instructions on orderly worship (1 Cor 14). They were divided on pagan practices being incorporated into worship and the every day lives of Gentile converts. So we do find worship instructions in 1 Corinthians and along with that, we have to understand the context of the problem that provoked the specific issues Paul addresses (usually identity issues that led to unity issues). I hope you also see that Paul didn’t sit down to write a worship manual when he wrote 1 Corinthians…or 2 Corinthians…or Ephesians…or Colossians…or Romans. I think you get the idea.

Look at Acts…maybe they were good for a few verses…maybe Acts 2:42-47 is the ideal model of the first century church before things got messed up. Even if we take that to be the ideal then we should be selling possessions and meeting daily. Is it our example or do we pick and choose? So what does it mean to be the first century church if we take their example in some places and discard portions that don’t fit our tradition or comfortability level like in Acts 2:42-47? I know of no congregation that meets daily. It only takes 3 more chapters before Ananias and Sapphira goof things up. It only takes 1 more chapter after that before the widows are complaining and the seven were appointed to help them. No church is perfect and no church gets it right every time. There is no actual perfect congregation in the entire New Testament or today because people are involved in this thing we call church!

So what do we do with this? I think we still chase the ideal. I think we pursue righteousness and holiness. I think we still go to scripture to find approval for our practice. We just need to be humble about this and make sure that we are understanding scripture first (in context) and then move to apply what we find there to our practice today rather than forcing our traditions back on scripture to find approval for what we have already decided to do and then parade scripture to make a case for what it doesn’t actually say.

The perfect example of that is the offering. How many times before the offering have you heard 1 Cor 16:1-2a read?

Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up,

That’s our verse to show God’s approval for weekly offering/collection. But did you notice 2a instead of just 2? What does the rest of the verse say?

so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

That is exactly why no one keeps reading. If you keep reading it tells us that Paul intended the collection to be for a set amount of time and if you read 16:3 you would also see that particular collection was set for a particular purpose,

Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.

We don’t read that either. If we took it seriously we would be taking up limited time offerings to send to Jerusalem.

Here is my point. This is a prime example of using scripture to justify our tradition. The offering is tradition. It is a fine tradition. It should be continued and elders have every reason to continue this practice. People may be hesitant to teach those verses in context, maybe for fear people will stop giving? I don’t think that is warranted. We are still called to give, to support each other, to assist those who minister to others, etc. We are called to follow the direction of our elders and if this is how they have determined to meet the perfectly biblical needs of the congregation then we need to follow along and give in this manner. Just realize that is not what 1 Corinthians 16 is talking about. Hijacking a verse 1 time or 5000 times doesn’t make it mean something it never meant. We have selected the way in which we give people the opportunity to give on a regular basis that has no biblical precedent…and here is the point…that is tradition…and it is good even though we don’t have it taught in the New Testament in the form in which we have decided to do it! This doesn’t make us any closer or further from being Christians just as they were Christians.

Are we the first century church?

I think the better point to make is this – we are Christians just as they were Christians and “Christian” should be enough.

There was a church established in 30 AD (those plaques need updated!). That church lives on today in all who are the children of God and the basis begins in our faith in Jesus Christ, our connection with the resurrection of Christ and deliverance from our slavery to sin in our baptism and in our receiving of the Holy Spirit. We live in unity with all of the believers who have gone on before us, not matter what century they were a part of.

We are not defined by what century we belong to but by WHO we belong to, Jesus the Christ. In the words of Rubel Shelly, “I just want to be a Christian.”

In that sense, we aren’t just the first century church or the 21st century church. Being Christian should make us particular enough and peculiar enough. Being Christian means we are the people of God and that we are acceptable to God. Since we are Christians and part of the gathered/assembled people of God (church), let us then do the best we can to do what we know pleases God in our churches, our worship, and even in our morality. If you pay close attention to Paul he was more concerned about their morality than he was about their worship practice and yet I see more fear in Christians of going to hell over improper worship than I do over moral lapses in their lives. Both are important. Let us just keep things in proper perspective!

The book of Acts starts with the phrase, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” It is common knowledge that the former book Luke mentions is what we call the Gospel of Luke and uncommon knowledge exactly who Theophilus was. The Gospel of Luke is anonymous as is the book of Acts. Luke has been pegged as the author based on several things including the “we” passages (Acts 16:11; 20:6, 13, 15; 21:1-3) that indicate the author of Acts was a traveling companion of Paul on the 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys. That has traditionally pointed people to Luke as the author of both books.

In the Gospel of Luke, Luke tells us that he gathered the information to write his Gospel from witnesses. Acts, however, was written at least in part from first hand/eyewitness experience (again, the “we” passages.)

We don’t know who Theophilus was. He was either a real person or a symbolic name. The name means “friend of God” or “Loved by God” and if intended to be symbolic by Luke would then by intended by Luke to address all who are friends of God rather than for a particular individual named Theophilus. I believe he was a real individual but the books were certainly written for a broader audience than just one person.

The books of Luke and Acts are a 2 volume set and Luke wants to make sure we (at least all friends of God) remember that. I enjoy studying Luke-Acts with seekers and new Christians because it gives the whole story from start to finish without having to jump to another author. There is continuity as you go from one to the other that is helpful in understanding the broader story.

In Jesus and the Gospels (p.162), Craig Blomberg points to one detail of Luke’s arrangement of these two books that I find compelling. It is a technique used many times in scripture called chiastic structure where an author works makes several points toward a central/main point and then makes similar points in his initial points in reverse order to conclude the thought. Sometimes you will see commentaries label this with letters like

A

—B

——-C

—B

A

In case you were wondering, this is where the term chiastic comes from, the form of the letter chi χ. Here is Blomberg’s chart on the structure of Luke-Acts as a whole.
JesusGospelsLuke-ActsByBlombergThe key verse in pulling this together is Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That is the backwards order of the Gospel of Luke which ends in Jerusalem backing out through Judea, Samaria into Galilee and starting with Luke’s giving details about the larger Gentile world in the circumstances of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-3 for instance).

The problem with “verse of the day” theology is that you miss the big picture. You don’t see the flow of the story or the connecting pieces. There is much that is missed by atomizing the scriptures down to chunks that might make for an inspiring plaque or t-shirt but don’t necessarily inform you theologically or make the point that the writers of scripture were making.

Luke and Acts are very purposefully connected and it is clear that Luke himself wants those who read Acts to understand that. Luke reminds us that Acts will be tough to follow unless we remember all that happened in the Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel and Acts are both more difficult to comprehend well if you don’t know your Old Testament. My next post will address Israel’s scriptural story being played out in the pages of Luke-Acts.

IMG_0994Growing up in the Church of Christ I remember hearing on a number of occasions that we are the church that is found in the book of Acts. It seemed to me then and it seems to me know that Acts has a lot to say about what it means to be the community of faith.

Here is a novel question that shouldn’t be so novel – what if we actually lived out what we find in those 28 chapters?

What if we took seriously our call to go from wherever we find ourselves to the ends of the earth?

What if we broke down racial barriers and served as a light to the world of what racial reconciliation looks like through our common faith in Christ?

What if we took church planting seriously?

What if we assembled more regularly?

What if fellowship meant spiritual connection and mutuality?

What if we hurt and bled for the Gospel?

What if we re-envisioned our priorities and possessions around King Jesus and His followers?

What if we had the zeal had…the vision they had…the passion they possessed?

The world is waiting on us to change it.

It might just happen if we truly embraced the message of Acts in what it looks like to be the community of faith.

So this month’s theme is a textual theme. Let us explore Acts together and what that means for us today.

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