After reading the Gospels last fall, we’re now going to look at the rest of the story: how the church came into being. We’ll be reading a chapter of Acts most days in January and February, and you can find the reading schedule here.
The Book of Acts
You have to admit, “Acts” is an odd name for a New Testament book. Orginally, Luke’s second manuscript circulated without any title at all. Around 100 years after it was written a church leader named Irenaeus referred to it as “The Acts of the Apostles” and the name stuck. The “apostles” he was referencing were Jesus’ original small group of followers who became leaders of the early church. Some have contended that a better title would be “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” given the prominent role the Holy Spirit plays in Luke’s narrative. We’ll refer to the book as simply Acts.
As you’re reading there are some things you’ll want to be aware of. For instance, keep in mind that the 120 followers of Jesus mentioned in 1:15—the founding members of the original church—were all Jews. They lived in Jerusalem. They worshiped in the Temple. They followed Jewish dietary laws. Acts describes the struggle to open the Christian faith to other races. And it was a major struggle.
The last word in Luke’s manuscript is “unhindered.” Frank Stagg points out that while it was not unheard of to end a Greek sentence with an adverb, it is highly unusual. By ending the last sentence of his 28 chapter story with the word “unhindered,” Luke is calling attention to how the good news of God’s love had to break free from human prejudice. The struggle eventually split the church into the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Christians the rest of the world.
You will want to notice that Luke has not written a PR piece. He does not shy away from stories that put the church in something other than a favorable light. Take Peter’s reference to Judas (1:16-20) for example. As William Willimon explains, “the church meets no failure or deceit in the world that it has not first encountered in itself—even among those who founded and led the very first congregation.” Luke writes of how the earliest Christians argued, disagreed, and sometimes parted company. They were humans who made mistakes, just like we do.
Keep a close eye on how Luke describes God working in the world. God, shrouded in the mystery of “Holy Spirit,” encourages, empowers, knocks an enemy off his horse, engineers escapes from prisons, and shields a messenger from harm during a shipwreck. Be careful not to assume that God used to take this kind of active role in the lives and mission of Christ Followers, but no more. Because I promise you this God who scripture teaches is “the same yesterday, today and forever” is still miraculously pulling the church into God’s own future.
Even the church that meets at 3121 Moss Side Avenue.