Reflections on Acts

I wanted to post some of my reflections on what the book of Acts has to teach us as American Christians living in the 21st century.  This is actually an answer to one of our take-home quiz questions. To my cohort brothers from seminary– I’m trusting you to not read this until AFTER you’ve finished your quiz (if any of you are reading this post right now).

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In a paragraph or two, and in contrast to other NT books, what do you think Acts has to teach or challenge our contemporary American context? What are some practical ways in which you could use the book to do so?

There are (at least) three themes that stand out in reading the book of Acts. The first is the church in conflict. This theme is clearly important to Luke, as he puts the Jerusalem Council in the center of the narrative. As the Gospel spreads and the diversity of the growing group of believers multiplies, conflict increases over issues of praxis. What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Does it look different for different ethnic groups? Are there things all Christians everywhere do or don’t do? While conflict is addressed elsewhere in the NT (such as in some of the Pauline letters), the issue of ethnicity and the conflicts that arise due to ethnic differences is unique to Acts. Certainly it is an issue churches continue to struggle with today. Acts has much to teach us about how to grapple with issues that threaten to divide Christian groups.

Another theme that could speak powerfully to American evangelicals is citizenship. A careful study of the various interactions between the apostles and those in authority reveals an interesting balance between submission/respect/participation in society and claims of loyalty to Jesus and His Kingdom alone. Peter and John are bold and steadfast, but not disrespectful to the Jewish council (chapter 4). Paul preaches about one true Lord, Jesus Christ, and His Kingdom; yet he also takes advantage of the privilege of being a Roman citizen (see chapters 22-25). It should be noted that he is clever in playing his enemies against one another, too (also in those chapters). In a nation such as ours, with uneasy claims to a Christian heritage, a study of Acts could challenge us to rethink what it means to place our full allegiance with Jesus Christ, yet live peacefully and charitably in this society. Are there times and places to stand against American authority and what the government may ask of us, gladly bearing the consequences for the sake of Christ? Are there appropriate times to appeal to the advantages of American citizenship, for the sake of the Gospel? Paul addresses similar issues in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13, but the issue is played out in the Acts narrative in a unique way and in more depth.

One last theme that is unique to Acts is contextualization of the Gospel. In this NT narrative alone do we see the movement of the Gospel from culture to culture, the expression of church evolving as the message spreads. We have examples of sermons preached to different groups of people, to Jews in the early chapters and to Greeks later (chapter 17). As our culture changes, as postmodernism takes hold more fully in our communities, how can we contextualize the Gospel as the apostles did? What about our language and symbols need to change, so that people can hear and receive the Good News? Acts speaks to these issues very well.

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