NTiR: Luke makes Acts bearable (Acts 1-4)

By | May 27, 2010

Bible and magnifying glassWith the completion of the Gospel of John, all four canonical Gospels are now in the can. We can now move on to fresh material. I have to say that I am not quite looking forward to the Acts of the Apostles (from here on in referred to as Acts). I remember Acts as the book that subverted Christianity. It pulled people away from the core teachings of Christ and towards what the Apostles wanted to teach. The authority for this apparently comes from Jesus saying that he was granting his disciples the Holy Spirit, and the ability to bind things on earth and heaven. I can understand why people would follow this. The question is, when you have to choose between what Jesus said and what the Apostles said, which do you choose? To me, that seems pretty straight-forward.

But I am not a bible scholar. Nor am I a believer. Nor do I really remember a lot of Acts. In the end, I might be either remembering falsehoods or not remembering Acts at all. There’s only one way to find out. On to:

The Acts Of the Apostles

Chapter 1
Hey! Hey now! Within the first sentence of the first chapter of Acts, I am suddenly filled with great joy and hope! Why? “In my first book, Theophilus…” I remember that Theophilus is someone who is lost to history, but I also remember who wrote the first book for Theophilus: LUKE! The man who wrote the most wondrous of the Gospels and one of the most magnificent books in the Bible (rivaled only by Ecclesiastes). Why didn’t I know that Luke wrote Acts? I don’t know how that escaped my attention. Of course, I only realized just how amazing Luke’s Gospel is earlier this month. So even if I had known Luke was the author, there would’ve been no attachment to make.

No matter how you slice it, though, this is a wonderful surprise!

Luke starts out by wrapping up the story of Jesus. Jesus has been back from the dead for 40 days now, and has been teaching his disciples what to do as they move forward without him. Jesus forbade the disciples to leave Jerusalem, but instead to wait for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them. Jesus then ascends into heaven in a cloud. This whole section of Acts corresponds perfectly with Luke’s tale of Jesus’s ascension in Luke 24:48-51.

The disciples rent a room in Jerusalem to await as Jesus instructed them. Luke is nice enough to give the name of the Eleven: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, Simon the Zealot, and Judas (not Iscariot). Jesus’s mother and brothers are there, as well as “other women.”

More people gather as time goes on. There are about 120 people present at this point. THE disciples are a man short, though: apparently The Eleven felt strongly that they should be The Twelve. So they nominate two men from among the 120 or so, and draw lots. Matthias is our big winner, and is officially part of The Twelve.

One other thing that I must note from Chapter One is the final fate of Judas Iscariot: “Now this man bought a field with the money he got for his crime. Falling on his face, he burst open in the middle, and all his intestines gushed out.” EWWWW!!!!

Chapter 2
In one of my previous entries, I mentioned that I went to a psycho church back in the day. Psycho is a little harsh, true, but I just like the sound of that. 🙂  It was a Pentecostal church, which is very relevant here. A huge part of Pentecostal church doctrine is anchored in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples, and suddenly the Disciples start to speak in other tongues. People from nations throughout the area hear the disciples speaking in the people’s native tongues. This is much like a meeting in the United Nations, except the Holy Spirit takes the place of the hundreds of UN translators.

The people who haven’t heard the translation trick just figure the other people had been drinking too much wine. Peter speaks up against this, though, pointing out that they can’t be drunk, because it is only 9:00 in the morning. Reminds me of a t-shirt I saw at a concert once: “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”

You know the thing I love about Luke? Characters sing in his books. I don’t mean a line or two: when his subjects get started, they can sing for a half a chapter or more. Joel 2:28 has never sounded better than when Peter stands in front of the crowd and sings:

In those days I will even pour out my Spirit
on my slaves, men and women alike,
and they will prophesy.

But it gets even better, as Peter then goes on to sing David’s prophecies of the coming messiah:

I always see the Lord in front of me,
for he is at my right hand
so that I cannot be shaken.

That is why my heart is glad
and my tongue rejoices

Unfortunately, the lusciousness of the lyrics are used to hide some rather specious logic.  This is kind of hard to follow, mostly because it is crap. Peter says that David proves that God rescued Jesus from the pains of death. David was a prophet, of course, and so far, this holds up okay. A prophet prophesying the Messiah would be raised from the dead holds logic, even if one doesn’t believe in prophesy or resurrection. However, in his prophecy, David is not talking about the Messiah, he is talking about himself (“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades). Peter gets around this minor issue by saying that since David provably died, David could not be talking about himself. So David had to be talking about the Messiah.

I am not making this up! I can hear the cries of logicians throughout the centuries, their whimpers saying “There’s no logic here, none at all.” This speech does show one important fact, something that we must be certain to remember: Peter is not above distorting scripture to get his point across.
Chapter 3
I just noticed a slight bias in what I wrote in the previous chapter. I am assuming that Luke wrote everything that happened, and that included Peter’s logic bending, scripture twisting speeches. So I am attributing all of the things I like about Acts to Luke, and all of the things I don’t like to Peter. I know, that is definitely biased. I will try to be a bit more level-headed about this. The bias could be Luke’s own, and he could be quoting Peter out of context. (However, in my defense, Luke is quoting long swaths of Peter’s speech. And Peter’s topics don’t sound like anything out of Luke’s Gospel.)

This chapter starts out with one of those stories that Luke excels at telling. There’s a crippled man who sits outside the Beautiful Gate every day begging for food or money. Peter and John walked by the Beautiful Gate and the man stopped them. The man stops Peter and John and asks them to give him something. Peter says he does not have gold or silver with him, but will give the man something even more valuable. Peter grabbed the man by the hand and says “In the name of Jesus Christ.” The man is healed, of course.

Instead of saying thanks or telling everyone around him to look at him, the no-longer-crippled man starts walking, then running and jumping to the temple, praising God the whole way. People in the town who knew that the man was crippled stand in amazement. They ask how this was possible. Peter and John have an answer for them: Jesus.

But not in the way that you might imagine. Instead, this is about Jesus the servant.
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you betrayed and rejected in the presence of Pilate, even though he had decided to let him go. [..] It is his name, that is, by the faith of his name, that has healed this man.”


Peter kinda continues in this vein, talking about Jesus as a prophet. Which is interesting, only because of how he isn’t talking about Jesus. e.g. as the Messiah.

Chapter 4
The Sadducees make their return, showing that they are still in the mood to be pricks. Even though Jesus is dead, they are still raging against what he said and did, and they are infuriated that the apostles are continuing to teach as Jesus did – even if the disciples are starting to change the message. The Pharisees high priest Annas and underlings Caiaphas (who we’ve met before), John and Alexandar have Peter and John arrested, then interrogate them.

The Pharisees want to know how the disciples healed the crippled man. Peter goes all old-tyme preacher on them, saying that all of Israel must understand that it is in Jesus of Nazareth’s name that the man was healed. The Pharisees had no answer to this, especially since they saw Peter and John as uneducated morons. But the Pharisees couldn’t persecute them for being uneducated, so they are forced to let them go. First, though, they gave Peter and John a warning, that they would be arrested if Peter and John did not stop talking about Jesus.

There is one thing rather confusing in Acts, and it isn’t something that Luke did in his Gospel: we can’t tell for certain who is talking. In his Gospel, John gave pretty much all of his characters a name, and specifically told us who was speaking when there was dialogue. In Acts, Luke keeps saying that “Peter and John said..” I don’t know which of the two are doing all the talking. Does this mean that Luke isn’t sure who was delivering the speeches? Or that they took turns while delivering the speeches, like Peter saying one paragraph then turning it over to John to say the second? Confusing. I’m just going to assume that Peter did all the talking, and John was his wingman. Note that I have no basis for this assumption. 🙂

Peter takes umbrage at the veiled threat, and delivers an excellent zinger: “You must decide whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God…” There’s no better way to insult a supposed man of god than that!

Of course, that royally ticked of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But they could still find no reason to arrest the disciples. Peter and John return to where the rest of the disciples are staying, and proceed to give a group choir version of Psalms 2:1. Peter pays just a touch of revising history, saying that Herod and Pilate met against Jesus. Astute readers will remember that Herod and Pilate did their best to release Jesus, but in the end were forced to turn Jesus over for crucifixion.

Up next: Everyone goes a little nutso

New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.

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