Missional Hermeneutics – Acts of the Apostles

The record of the Acts of the Apostles can be understood as the final unfolding of Jesus’ mission for universal inclusion. Perhaps, though, Luke saw his account as reaching further back, fulfilling the vision of inclusion that Isaiah had espoused. Looking at the mission of God as a play performed in three acts may help us to see from Luke’s perspective. In the first act, Israel made covenant with Yahweh but failed to recognize its “true vocation.” In the second act, Jesus takes the role of redemptor that Israel was to play with his followers becoming the “restored Israel.” The Acts of the Apostles represents the third act, bringing “light and salvation to the nations” (Mallen 112-113).

The third act begins with a covenant of sorts. While Acts 1:8 does not fit a typical covenantal pattern, the inclusion of a promise from God with a hope concerning the world harkens back to the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12). The promise in Acts 1:8 is that the disciples would be empowered by the Holy Spirit (ἁγίου πνεύματος). In this covenant, Jesus is clear about the expectations. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples are to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This commissioning covenant becomes a framework for Luke’s entire story of the early church. Using Acts 1:8, we will look at specific emphases in mission found in Acts, including empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the practical application of being “witnesses,” and the increasingly inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit is ubiquitous in Acts. Forms of the root (πνεῦμα) occur 70 times in Acts. First Corinthians contains the next highest number of occurrences of πνεῦμα with 40. To explain the importance of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the church, Stephen Bevans refers to the Spirit’s role in all of creation. “The Spirit creates the church, calls the church into being through mission” (10). Like the blessings of Abraham, the gift of the Holy Spirit was not for God’s people to hold for themselves. Instead, it was to be used to tell and show the world the power of Jesus Christ.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Commissioning through the Holy Spirit is an important discussion in Acts as well. Luke seems to suggest that there was either no time or no reason to set up definitive orders of ministry. In fact, it appears that the empowerment of the Holy Spirit was available to all. An early passage, in particular, gives insight to the issue of commissioning. After Peter and John witness before and are released by the court of the High Priest (Acts 4), they bring a report to the church. Upon hearing Peter and John’s report, the church, led by no one in particular, began to pray for boldness of speech (4:24-30). When they had finished praying, the earth shook, “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31, emphasis mine). The commissioning appears to be upon all believers in the Messiah (Mallen 192). A second passage that demands a great deal of study on this subject is the ministry of the seven chosen to “wait on tables” (Acts 6-8). Joel B. Green argues that Luke is not telling the story to explain how to “delegate” authority. Rather, Luke tells the story to lampoon human pigeonholing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (“New Testament Introduction”). The seven had already been gifted with the Holy Spirit (6:3). What further commissioning could be necessary? Yet, Peter commissions them to “wait on tables,” caring for the poor among the Hellenists. While Stephen certainly does the work of service on behalf of others, the reason that he is eventually martyred is his proclamation, for “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (6:10). Believers, endowed with the Holy Spirit, are all commissioned to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.

The Holy Spirit controls more than the commissioning of the witnesses. He also controls the medium of the witness. So, the gospel message is appropriated in many different ways through believers. Peter preaches to bear witness at Pentecost (2:14-36). Peter and John heal the beggar at the Beautiful Gate (3:1-10). Stephen performs “great signs and wonders” and wins the favor of many (6:8-15). Philip shares personally that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy (8:26-40). Ananaias offers hospitality to Saul (9:1-22). To some extent, the Holy Spirit enabled these examples to occur, and in each instance, the disciples bore witness to Jesus Christ. One of the mistakes made by missiologists, including David Bosch, has been to define “witness” narrowly as vocal proclamation of the gospel (116). Luke appears to define “witness” (μαρτυρέω) more broadly. It is giving an account, as Lesslie Newbigin says, “in word and deed and common life” to the justice and mercy of Jesus Christ (129). Or, as Evvy Hill Campbell says, “all three are needed: words to clarify deeds, deeds to verify the meaning of words, and power to announce the source of all good deeds” (43).

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit creates the mission and oversees the means of appropriating the gospel. The Holy Spirit also directs the location of the witness. We have established that Luke continues to unfold the inclusive vision of blessing for all nations. It is important to realize that this increasingly inclusive and universal blessing continues to be grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is the basis of the vision in Acts, Luke clearly believes that it is rooted in God’s promises all the way back to Abraham. Therefore, a witness to Jesus Christ points all the way back to God’s initial purposes.

The Widness of God’s Mercy

As the vision unfolds, the Holy Spirit guides believers to extend the blessings of God in concentric circles (Bevans 9). The door was first opened to “devout Jews from every nation” on Pentecost (2:5). Then, the door was opened to the half-Jews of Samaria (8:14-17). Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, a “wannabe Jew” (in Bevans’ words), further widens the circle (8:26-40). Finally, the conversion of Cornelius’ household (10:1ff.) and the establishment of the church in Antioch (11:19-30) fulfill God’s desire from Gen. 12. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the people of God were extending blessing to all nations.

The Apostle Paul is historically understood as the single individual who is most responsible for the extension of the gospel. While Acts tells us of much of his journeys, his very own letters may give an even deeper insight to his understanding of the missio Dei. Next, we will search the Apostle to the Gentiles.