Posts Tagged ‘Acts’

We say a lot by the little words we choose as short-hand for large and complex things.

The biblical Book of Acts spins out its eventful story of the early Jesus movement, pausing from time to time to summarize. It abbreviates with the dense little expression the word of God.

But the word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:24 ESV)

Murder and intrigue, desperation and redemption, bold public confrontation and the quiet joys of new family formed and flourishing. Luke the historian compacts this into five syllables, just four in English: the word of God.

How, a careful reader might wonder, can he get away with this kind of egregious reductionism? Who does he think we are, we erudite fans of multiple causation and plot complexity?

But Luke knows exactly what he is doing. This is no merely human social movement, no activist energizing of small masses of humanity towards a craftily focused goal. Instead, Luke purports to describe the catalytic, unpredictable, risk-laden dynamic that is unleashed by a powerful message from heaven.

All that Luke has narrated—the full panoply of moving parts and re-purposed personalities, all this drama—is for him sufficiently described as the word of God. He is clear on the root and clear about the branches, so he does not confuse them.

If the entire tree can be described by these four words, so in a more focused way can the root.

When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. (Acts 13:6–7 ESV)

If the reader inquires into this Lucan abbreviation—what it stands for—one comes away with a message about persistent divine attention to the fate of created humanity, newly manifest in space and time; of a divine redeemer sent to love, die, and return to life for that same humanity; of ancient, Israel-bound promise bursting its boundaries and flowing out into the lives of the unwashed, the ill-formed, and the untrimmed; of many-colored skin washed clean of toxic guilt and shame; of an unstoppable movement laced through with courage and care that were not among such common folk just yesterday; of lame men dancing, outcasts welcomed home, orphans and disposable children embraced; of an open rather than a closed future, redolent of purpose and praise.

In short, the word of God.

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When Stephen, on behalf of the early Jesus movement, delivers the speech that would cost him his life, he reaches back twelve centuries or so to the experience of Israel’s undisputed lawgiver.

And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. (Acts 7:22–24 ESV)

Because the New Testament Book of Acts necessarily abbreviates such speeches, it is curious which details of Stephen’s summarized grand narrative survive the cut.

He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. (Acts 7:25 ESV)

The biblical witness demonstrates great affection for selfless and principled leadership. Indeed, one of the strongest commendations that the biblical literature allows a person is that he has shepherded YHWH’s flock. One of its severest condemnations is that he has been a ‘bad shepherd’. (more…)

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Our skeptical Zeitgeist makes it easy for us to recoil from awkward metaphysical talk.

We prefer to live our lives, without comment upon the Greater Wars that may surround us, within narrow and convenient parameters.

‘Live and let live’, we say.

‘This shop serves everybody.’ (more…)

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From wartime survivor’s guilt to thanksgiving prayer before a table laden with food—or graced with just enough of it for the day’s demand—the question ‘Why me and not some other guy?’ rises to the mind and lips of the fortunate.

The answer is never obvious. (more…)

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It was inevitable, as the early Jesus movement spread from one city to the next, that people would covet its power without loyalty to its source.

One imagines that the movement’s leaders were as surprised as anyone to see the power of Christ flowing through their words and hands to liberate the mad and heal the sick. Happily, the Book of Acts provides more than one glimpse of the earliest stewards of such remarkable power fending off the misguided adulation of the crowds. But sometimes the threat of corruption reared its head via the jealousy of impressed onlookers who stood outside the immediate circle of the Jesus community. (more…)

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Great historical moments, when one knows the outcome, seem almost destined to have turned out the way they did. The participants in such critical junctures in the flow of human events, however, seldom or never have the luxury of such confidence. For them, there are many ways that things might turn out. Some might be dire. Some might cost them their lives.

Often wisdom takes a granular, tactical form that in the moment looks merely opportunistic. Seldom does one glimpse a guiding hand in history as one makes snap decisions while time’s a-wastin’ and the mob is getting itself up into full howl. Adrenaline plays at least as large a role as strategy. Tactics become the order of the day, even when there has been no time for these to descend in orderly fashion from a neat and overarching strategy.

Take Paul’s return to Jerusalem, pockets stuffed with news of Gentiles worshiping Israel’s messiah. It was, by and large, an unforeseen event. That is why it is worthy of such comment. Such massive movement of the morally unwashed in the direction of Torah and the God of Jacob who stood behind it was not in the playbook. (more…)

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Jerusalem must have throbbed with the potentialities of conflict as the city fathers struggled to cope with the relatively unlettered but highly motivated followers of yet another dead messianic pretender.

Put simply and in words easily understandable to those tasked with administering the status quo, these men could not be stopped.

It was not so much that they were assertively dismissive of the authorities. One senses that they were not.

Rather they were so convinced that YHWH had restored the crucified Jesus to life and was even now pulling off similarly unconventional stunts like making a man who hadn’t walked for decades stroll around the city’s streets like you or I would do. The crowds are stirred in the direction of sympathy and enthusiasm. The text has even the religious and civic authorities recognizing that no one can plausibly deny the miracle. (more…)

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