Acts and Mission 1

StLuke.jpgWe begin our series today on the book of Acts, a march right through this book from 1:1 to 28:31, and I anticipate it will take us months. As we march through this book, our emphasis will be on the theme of mission and what we can learn about missional theology in the Acts of the Apostles.

To help us, I will be reading Beverly Gaventa’s commentary on Acts: The Acts of the Apostles (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries)
. So join us as we look through the Book of Acts.

By the way, Beverly begins her Preface with this: “The Acts of the Apostles is a dangerous document” (17). The book takes us on a journey where, she says, “beyond domestic borders into unfamiliar territory where passports are invalid and embassies afford little protection” (25).

In pondering Acts 1:1-11 (text below), I observe these:

First, as Beverly makes abundantly clear throughout her commentary and her work (and I heard this from her in South Africa in May), the primary actor in the Book of Acts is God. This is a book about what God is doing. Mission is what God is doing.

Second, it seems to me that “began to do” suggests that what God is doing now is continuing the work of Jesus through the work of the Apostles and the earliest churches. What God did then was kingdom of God work; that entails that what God is now doing is kingdom of God work.

Third, the missional work of the Church is work empowered by God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit turns ordinary humans into witnesses — to Jesus and to God’s work in Jesus and to the kingdom and through the power of the Spirit.

Fourth, this mission work is what God is doing between two times: between the First coming of Christ and the Second Coming of Christ.

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many
convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period
of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this
command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father
promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 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.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.”Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the
sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will
come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” 

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  • T

    Yes, Scot. I think your observations are spot on, but the implications make us all nervous!
    Also, regarding this: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” I think this is something we’ve failed to appreciate, similar to your observations. Even after the resurrection, Jesus is still talking about kingdom. It’s still his topic, and could be ours.
    And I agree with NT Wright re: Jesus’ answer to the apostles question: We’ve tended to read his answer as “No.” I think it’s better understood as “Yes, but not like you thought.”
    Acts gives us the story of in what sense the kingdom is restored to Israel, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” until “this same Jesus” returns.

  • Something that I think is vital here (to go along with what you are pointing out) is that the ascension of Jesus is NOT the moment when he ‘goes away’ from the church/world. Rather, this (coupled with Pentecost) is the point in time where Jesus DRAWS NEAR to the church/world. If the ascension is the enthronement of the Messiah, then Israel has been restored (also a strong Pauline theme). If Israel has been restored, then God has returned . . . but this restoration is not what we thought it would be – it is better! Yes, Men of Galilee, the kingdom is being restored. No, you do not need to look aimlessly into the sky in order to find it.

  • I find the comment on Acts being a dangerous document very true. It is forcing a group of us in South Africa to re-negotiate boundaries set up during Apartheid … looking forward to working through this book.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot — looks like a great series! I wonder if you could recommend a commentary or some other resources for those of us who are interested in the historical-critical issues underlying the Acts text, from or helpful to a perspective that isn’t defensive but that respects the text as scripture? I guess NT Wright’s books trilogy on early Christianity does this somewhat, but I’d be really interested to see something more directly on this text.

  • Patrick Oden

    “the missional work of the Church is work empowered by God’s Spirit”
    I think this is one of the most important, and least focused on, aspect in mission. There is, I’ve found, very little interest in the Spirit among so many people–for the most part, I think, because people assume that discussions of the Spirit are always about the Pentecostal emphases of tongues or healings. The Spirit empowers mission, and the Spirit is the great missionary–going out and about, working in and among, drawing people in and together. That’s so much of the story throughout Acts–so much more than the clearly miraculous.
    Missing the missional empowerment and methods of the Spirit has, I think, pushed mission to be far too often a human led endeavor. And as such fallen into the usual human leadership problems.

  • James

    I found the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Acts by Bock to be thorough with regards to the historical-critical issues.

  • Scot –
    The point you highlight is simple, straightforward, but often missed: the main character of Act is God. It’s easy to read about the Early Church and to attempt to view it primarily through the lens of the Church – i.e. the Church being the primary character of the story. A subtle shift, but one that completely changes everything about our ecclesiology: we start with God and not the Church. The statement seems obvious, but many churches (including mine from time to time) miss the point of this dangerous document. I believe its dangerous for that very reason.

  • Rodney

    Gaventa is brilliant. Looking forward to your dialogue with the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a page-turner.

  • In wonder if there will be room for an occasional mention during this series of one of my soapboxes: the binary mission of Acts, the mission to the Gentiles and the mission to Israel, distinct yet in unity?
    It is often overlooked and Paul epistles, IMO, make a lot more sense as missives to the Gentile mission with Luke-Acts filling out the Israel side of the equation.
    Derek Leman

  • “… the primary actor in the Book of Acts is God. This is a book about what God is doing. Mission is what God is doing.”
    This is true BUT it goes completely against the grain of our practice of Christianity shaped by the lens of Western Modernism. And even in our postmodern era, it does not seem as though much has changed. So what would it look like if the church recognized and acknowledged God as the primary actor in our missional calling and subsequently, what does it look like for the church to particpate in this calling as supporting actors rather than trying to be the primary actor?
    Grace and peace,
    K. Rex Butts

  • “… the primary actor in the Book of Acts is God. This is a book about what God is doing.”
    I’m not certain why this seems so profound. Isn’t every book, Old or New, about what God is doing? There may be a main character or specific issue being addressed whether Law or Prophecy, but isn’t it all about “what God is doing?”
    Acts may have a rather unique approach because of the breadth of it’s missional impact, but all in all even that is not unusual for God. Even in His wooing of Israel, the Gentile nations were in his rearview mirror.
    Should be a good study.

  • Georges Boujakly

    Thanks Scot for starting this series. I am looking forward to learning about the nature of the danger present when God (the Trinity) goes on mission.

  • I was a college sophomore when I picked up this “dangerous document” for the first time. I encountered God and discovered my role in the wild, unpredictable Kingdom of God mission found on every page. Faith was ignited and my life was forever changed as I read the Acts of the Apostles.
    Looking forward to this journey with you.

  • Steve A

    This is interesting–I’m currently reading Acts for Everyone by NT Wright, and it is really tremendous–opening my eyes in numerous ways. The whole discussion of Stephen’s speech and stoning was particularly great, I’ll be interested when we get to Ch 8 here too.

  • Craig Querfeld

    Been away from the blog for a while… Will try to follow this study in the months to come. My first impression is that many commentators I have read got lost in the details of the human actors within Acts without seeing God’s overall mission. Look forward to seeing how this plays out. Thanks, Scot

  • Jim Martin

    I am going to love this series. Like Norm #11, I l really like the line regarding Acts being a book about what God is doing. That alone has a way of heightening the anticipation about what this “…dangerous document” will unfold.