The Book of Acts - What's the Story?


Purpose: To offer some hermeneutical suggestions for the problem of Biblical precedents.

Objectives: To help the student ask the right questions and look at the book of Acts in terms of Luke’s interests in writing to a specific audience rather than as a book of historical precedents. 

Video content

What kind of book is Acts?  It is an example of a form of writing called Hellenistic Historiography. This writing was used to both encourage and to inform or offer an apologetic. The OT has also informed Luke and so they influence his writing. The OT kind of divinely inspired religiously motivated history is evident in his telling of the Christian story. 

The most common misuse of the book of Acts. What is a Biblical precedent? Most people come to the book for purely religious or devotional reason, wanting to know what the early Christians were like so that they may inspire us or serve as models. What are some of the different theological positions that have used the book of Acts as a biblical precedent? (Speaking in tongues as a sign of conversion, Acts 6 as a precedent for the office of deacon, infant baptism & immersion baptism). To use Acts as a precedent when it was not the purpose of Luke to do that is to miss-read the book. Acts, like the OT, illustrates many doctrinal precedents but we need to go to other scriptures to set a precedent.   

What was Luke’s purpose in writing Acts? According to Fee the major purpose is to “show the movement, orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, of the Gospel from it Jerusalem-based Judaism-oriented beginnings to its becoming a worldwide, Gentile-predominant phenomenon.” (Fee, pg. 100) It is not interested in the lives of the apostles, that is biographies of the apostles, nor in church organization or polity nor the geographical expansion of the church. 

What questions do we ask the text when reading Acts?   

1.      What is the point of this narrative or speech?

2.      How does it function in Luke’s total narrative?

3.      Why has he included it here? You can usually provisionally answer that question after one or two careful readings of the text.

Some general principles in the hermeneutics of Acts.

In doing any interpretation we need to keep in mind the intention of Luke in showing how the church went from being a Jewish Jerusalem based church to a predominantly Gentile church. We must distinguish between what is incidental to the purpose and what is the intended purpose. This does not mean that what is incidental is false, nor that it has no theological value.  The following are principles for the Hermeneutics of historical narrative:

1.      The Word of God in Acts that may be regarded as normative for Christians must be related to the intent of what the narrative was given to teach. 

2.      What is incidental to the primary intent does not have the same value as what the narrative was intended to teach. What is incidental must not become primary but may serve to illustrate or as additional support to what is taught elsewhere. 

3.      If it is the intent of the passage is to establish precedent then it becomes normative for the church today. 

4. It is never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent as giving biblical authority.

5.      Biblical narratives do have illustrative value and it usually illustrates a principle regarding a clear teaching elsewhere. 

6.      Biblical narratives may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns even if they are seen as not being normative. 

a)      if one pattern can be found, but this must be a strong case

b)     if it is repeatable elsewhere in scripture and,

c)      if it is not culturally conditioned or cannot be translated to a different cultural setting.  

Small-group content:

1.      Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and they should be seen as a 2 volume set. Have the group look up the following:  2 Chr. 36:22-23 & Ezra 1:1-3a. Have the group then look at Luke 24:47 & Acts 2:38 to see the similarities. What are the similarities?

2.      Read out loud from Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-4. How are these two books related?

3.      Do you think they were intended to be two separate books or one single book?

4.      What can you take from the introduction in Luke and his purpose statements when you read the book of Acts?

5.      Regarding the problem of precedent, what do we do with baptism? What about immersion baptism? What about infant baptism? What about the baptism of the Holy Spirit evidence by tongues as a second work of grace? When is the Holy Spirit given, before or after baptism? Are all baptism stories supposed to be as dramatic as Paul’s baptism and conversion? Have your group look up the following Bible verses and pay attention to how the baptism occurred.

a)      Acts 2:38-39, 41 Who was to be baptized? In whose name were they to be baptized? How many were baptized?

b)     Acts 8:14-16, 36-38 How was the Holy Spirit given? Before or after baptism? In whose name?

c)      Acts 10:44-48 When was the Holy Spirit poured out? Before or after baptism? In whose name were they baptized?

d)     Acts 16:13-15, 29-34 Who was baptized? Were they all believers?

e)      What conclusions can you make from these descriptions?

i)        At what age should one be baptized?

ii)      What mode of baptism should be used?

iii)    In whose name should they be baptized?

iv)    Is there any specific instruction on how people are to be baptized? Why or why not?

f)       With all these unknowns we must go back to the reason Luke wrote what he did and use the principles of interpretation for Luke. What do you think is the principle that Luke is trying to present regarding baptism? If the practice of baptism is so different throughout the book what does that mean about how we practice baptism?

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