The modern-day fragmentation of Christianity is stark against the Christian unity portrayed in the Book of Acts. Borrowing an image from politics, the ancient church was a “big tent.”

Although the ancient church had ample opportunities for division, it somehow withstood centrifugal forces that could have easily destroyed it. More amazingly, it actually grew. Against all odds, the once demoralized disciples of a Jesus assimilated potential rivals, recruited ancient enemies, and welcomed alien races into their fellowship while at the same time facing intense persecution from their own kinsmen. They obviously had God’s help. Time after time, God’s Spirit miraculously intervened at crucial moments to facilitate the entry of additional groups into the body of Christ. The Book of Acts is a record of that intervention. The purpose of this post is to pay tribute. The motive is one of gratitude to the One who has created the Body “in whom…[we] also are built together… [by the Spirit] into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:22, NRSV)

In the Book of Acts, God’s dwelling place is like a “big tent,” built upon a message that spoke to all men. Politicians sometimes use the image of a “big tent” to promote broad platforms that can attract many different groups. Although the wisdom of this in politics is debatable, the image of a “big tent getting bigger” is entirely appropriate to describe the New Testament church in the Book of Acts. The major difference is that the “tentmaker” in the latter case is not some politico, but the Holy Spirit who fashioned the body of Christ into a “tent” big enough to encompass the followers of Jesus along with the disciples of John the Baptist, the Samaritans, and even the Gentiles.

In New Testament times, the Spirit’s supernatural intercession was crucial because the good news of Jesus Christ had radically redefined the nature of God’s kingdom. The religious world had been “turned upside down,” and for that reason, good people stood on opposite sides of critical issues. So the Holy Spirit intervened on pivotal occasions to silence human opinions and remove all doubt about God’s will. These occasions were (1) the ingathering of Jews at Pentecost, (2) the inclusion of the Samaritans in chapter eight of Acts, (3) the conversion of Cornelius and other Gentiles in chapter ten, and (4) the assimilation of John’s disciples in chapter 19. This post will analyze each of these events, but first, some New Testament background is in order.

The subtitle for the entire New Testament could easily be “Who are the children of God?”– a question that centers on the tense dichotomy between the earthly reality of ancient Christians and the heavenly reality of their theology. In heaven, there was neither Jew nor Greek, but on earth the story was quite different. On earth, Jewish Christians continued to participate in the Temple cult for a full generation after Christ had fulfilled it. The effect on Jew and Gentile was to create an interim period in which the Christian dispensation was coming into existence while the Jewish dispensation was fading away. Apparently God’s intent was to give Jewish Christians time to adapt their sentiments to Christian traditions before bringing the Temple cult to an end during the Roman-Jewish War.

At that point, God’s fleshly kingdom was finally dead, but out of the carcass of that kingdom arose His spiritual kingdom, the church. The same historic event also confirmed the identity of God’s kingdom as the church– not Judaism. That verdict of history has been so definite that modern Christians do not really appreciate the intense “identity” problems of early Christians who faced the splendor of Judaism first-hand without knowing how the face-off would end. Thankfully, they did not confront Judaism unaided– God gave them the comfort of His Holy Spirit. The Jews had their Temple, Law, priesthood, genealogies, etc. as their seal of God’s favor, but Christians had something even more compelling– they had God’s Spirit.

God put his seal of approval on ancient Christians through miraculous manifestations of the Spirit. This unique feature of early Christianity is obscured by many misunderstandings: A common mistake is to transform the Spirit’s work from (1) a once-for-all, objective demonstration upon representative individuals into (2) a subjective illumination that is normative for Christians throughout the ages. Another mistake is to assume an almost mechanical relationship between experience and meaning as if the same experience must always have the same significance. (An example would be the baptism of Spirit on Pentecost versus the baptism of the Spirit on Cornelius.) A third mistake is to confuse the application of a scripture with its interpretation– a mistake that (1) encourages an inconsistent hermeneutic, especially with respect to the Holy Spirit and (2) often leads to the rejection of a passage’s historical meaning if it interferes with a favored application. A fourth mistake is to ignore legitimate discontinuity between the apostolic and post-apostolic church. The record of the church in Acts is the record of an institution coming into existence. Although the practice of primitive Christianity is a worthy goal, the restoration of its miraculous foundation is both illogical and impossible. A fifth mistake is to minimize the deeply charismatic nature of the early church. Within that church, the Spirit gave miraculous gifts that inspired every facet of life and worship from singing to praying to giving. “The gift[s] of the Spirit which the apostles receive[d]…[were] an investiture with the prophetic Spirit of Jesus their Master.” 1 Although these gifts pre-figured a deeper indwelling of God’s Spirit in His church throughout the ages, they often functioned in the early church as temporary figures to unify God’s people through undeniable expressions of His will. That is why the gifts of the Spirit are prominent in the Book of Acts at exactly the times and places where knowing the mind of God was crucial to the church’s success. The first time was 50 days after the death of Jesus, the day of Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, God “added” three thousand souls to His church. The word “added” is significant because it recognizes the existence of a small, but important church prior to Pentecost. Although this church was small in number, Jesus had selected its twelve members to symbolize “all Israel.” On Pentecost, God opened “all Israel” to all Jerusalem in an epiphany of fire and sound reminiscent of Sinai. The outpouring of God’s Spirit on that day was not mediated by the hand of man because the intent of the event itself was to tie the church firmly to the will of God. Peter may have explained the phenomena, but it was God’s Spirit who took the three thousand souls who responded to the divine invitation and built them upon the foundation of the twelve apostles. Peter’s promise of the Spirit to “all whom the Lord our God will call” telegraphed the instrument God would continue to use in building His church. 2 Pentecost is significant because it was the first of four such “building projects” in which the Spirit acted to enlarge the house of God by including an external group. The second occasion involved the Samaritans.

Assimilation of the Samaritans into the early church was a major test for the emerging fellowship of believers. Jews and Samaritans despised each other. The Jews had treated the Samaritans with contempt while the Samaritans had betrayed the Jews to their enemies. Worst of all, these sentiments had been solidifying for hundreds of years. Without the Spirit’s help, there would have been no way to avoid the deepest sort of “denominational” split in the early church. Although the promise of the Spirit extended to Samaritans, an outpouring of the Spirit on the Samaritans (as on the Jews during Pentecost) would have implied the wrong kind of equality with the Jerusalem church. Yet, the Samaritans needed spiritual gifts just as much as the Jews. So, how could the Spirit meet this need without perpetuating the longstanding feud between the Samaritans and the Jews? The answers came during Philip’s missionary trip to Samaria. During that trip, the Spirit manifested itself in just the right way to prevent the formation of a Samaritan “denomination” within the body of Christ. It did this by delaying its appearance upon Philip’s converts until the apostles came down from Jerusalem and laid their hands upon them. Calvin said that God “could have finished that which He had begun by Philip; but to the end the Samaritans might learn brotherly fellowship with the first Church, he meant…to grant the apostles…this privilege, that they might the better all grow together into one faith of the gospel….” 3 The effect on the Samaritan church must have been dramatic in convincing them of their oneness with the body of believers in Jerusalem. The question of how and when the Spirit was manifested on other Samaritans is irrelevant. As Lenski notes, “What was done in the case of some counted for all; this was not a matter that pertained to individuals but to this entire body of Samaritan believers and to all others who might yet come to faith.” 4 In one miraculous moment, all Samaritan Christians were representatively joined together by the Spirit into a dwelling place for God, just as the Jews had been joined earlier to the Twelve. In turn, they would soon be followed by yet another group– after the Samaritans, came the Gentiles.

Fellowship with Samaritans was a major step for Jewish Christians, but inclusion of Gentiles was even more so. In the latter case, the Samaritan religion was a variant and competing form of Yahwism 5 that, left alone, would naturally perpetuate itself in a variant and competing form of Christianity. For this reason, the Spirit precluded further competition between Jew and Samaritan by mediating itself to the Samaritans through the apostles in Jerusalem. The relationship of Jews to Gentiles, however, was not characterized by competition, but by outright exclusion. In their case, the Spirit operated, not to exalt the apostles over a restive constituency, but to insulate them from any responsibility in admitting a totally alien group into the fellowship of believers. It did this by supernaturally orchestrating messenger, recipients, and witnesses into an encounter that culminated in a miraculous demonstration of God’s will. This crowning event was the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Through it, the question of “whether Gentiles can be preached to or even baptized [was]…settled rather quickly.” 6 As Peter stated, this baptism did not differ from Pentecost in its physical manifestations; it did differ, however, in terms of its purpose. On Pentecost, the baptism operated to confirm the words Peter had not yet spoken concerning the good news of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the baptism operated for Cornelius to confirm the words Peter had already spoken concerning the acceptability of all races as God’s children. In neither case was the baptism normative for all believers or instrumental in living a Christian life. Instead, it functioned as a sign on representative individuals to express the mind of God toward entire groups. Lenski correctly notes that, “the Spirit’s manifestations…had their own special purpose, and this by no means concerned just those who received gifts miraculously but extended far beyond them.” 7 Surprisingly, the final group to be assimilated into church in Acts was not made up of Gentiles, but of Jews.

After the Gentiles were “built by the Spirit” into the body of Christ, Paul had a strange encounter with some disciples of John the Baptist as recorded in Acts 19:1-7. The fact that Luke portrays John the Baptist as a precursor to Jesus on five occasions in the Book of Acts bears witness to John as a major religious figure in his own right with a following that understood themselves as separate from Christians 8. Many commentators see the encounter between Paul and John’s disciples as problematic because it contradicts their notion of the relationships between water baptism, spirit baptism, salvation, sanctification, etc. 9 For example, a major difference in the interpretation of Acts exists between those who view Christian conversion as a one-stage or two-stage process. Stott provides a convenient summary of how the proponents of these views interpret Acts. 10 Such problems disappear, however, when the Spirit’s work is interpreted as the representative incorporation of various groups within the body of Christ. 11 In this light, Paul did not ask a casual question, as Lenski suggests, 12 when he queried John’s disciples, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Instead, his question carried the same import as his question to the Galatians when he asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” In both cases, Paul cut through what would otherwise be a rather academic discussion by appealing to some tangible proof of his assertions. When confronted with this challenge, John’s disciples admitted they had not received the Spirit through their adherence to the teachings of John. Indeed, they had “not even heard that there…[was] a Holy Spirit.” Convinced that John’s gospel was incomplete, they repudiated its continuing validity by allowing themselves to be rebaptized in the name of Jesus, In response, the Spirit validated their decision by mediating itself to them through the hands of Paul, thereby confirming the gospel of Jesus Christ as superior to the gospel of John the Baptist. Conzelmann says that “here it becomes clear that this episode…tells of an annexation to the church (not the correction of a type of Christianity). 13 In this way, these disciples of John were, along with the Samaritans and Gentiles, fashioned by the Spirit into their rightful place in the house of God.

CONCLUSION:

The preceding example of John’s disciples, along with those of Cornelius, the Samaritans, and the Jews at Pentecost, support a useful model for understanding how and why the Spirit operated in the early church. As with all good models, it accounts for all the data by transforming what would otherwise be useless or even irritating irrelevancies into useful information. Other models are inadequate. Bruce, for example, says the “belated baptism of the twelve disciples [of John, who]…had not heard of the Spirit, is recorded as an anomaly.” 14 The International Critical Commentary says, “Luke appears to have had no hard and fast views on the relation between baptism and the Holy Spirit….” 15 In contrast, the model described in this post shows that the baptism of John’s disciples was not an anomaly and that Luke did see a relation between baptism and the Holy Spirit. More specifically, Luke saw Christian baptism as the entry point for all men into a kingdom established by God and unified under his apostles. In every case, the Spirit in the Book of Acts operated in defense of this view. Many scholars grasp this to some extent. Lenski says of the Spirit’s work that

Not two or more churches were to be established: one that was Jewish, another that was Samaritan, others that were Gentile; no, only one, in which all believers were to be on the same level. 16

Stott makes a similar point by saying,

The laying-on of apostolic hands, however, together with tongue-speaking and prophesying, were special to Ephesus, as to Samaria, in order to demonstrate visibly and publicly that particular groups were incorporated into Christ by the Spirit…. 17

This thought is the key to understanding how the Spirit operated in the Book of Acts to make God’s big tent even bigger.

— historeo.com

historeo.comhistoreo 2

NOTES

1 Leo O’Reilly, Word and Sign in the Acts of the Apostles: A Study in Lucan Theology, (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 1987) 51. >

2 Confusion of application with interpretation is common with regard to Peter’s promise of the Spirit in Acts 2:28. This promise can certainly be “applied” to all Christians, but its interpretation (historical meaning) is much more limited. In the later case, the promise involved the miracles of Joel as fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. On that day, Peter extended the gift of miracles to as many as God would call. These gifts were evidential of God’s calling, not instrumental. Accordingly, Peter later visited the already converted Samaritans to impart miraculous gifts, thereby providing evidence of their inclusion in God’s kingdom. Nowhere in Acts do we find a non-miraculous Spirit or non-miraculous gifts. All of this argues against an eisegesis that inappropriately injects these latter-day concepts into Peter’s sermon on Pentecost.

3 John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Christopher Fetherstone, ed. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 336-7. >

4 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1944), 327. >

5 Luke T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), vol. 5, 151. >

6 Idem, Decision Making in the Church: A Biblical Model, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 69. >

7 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1944), 326. >

8 Luke T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), vol. 5, 338. >

9 Many commentators misinterpret Acts by forcing questionable theology onto the events it describes. A better approach would be to give the Book of Acts equal influence in reaching theological conclusions. In other words, use Acts as a lens in understanding Romans for example, not vice-versa. >

10 John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 152-159. >

11 Note the number of John’s disciples was twelve. >

12 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1944), 781. >

13 Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 159. >

14 F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 63. >

15 J.A. Emerton, C.E.B. Cranfield, and G.N. Stanton, eds., The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 399. >

16 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1944), 325. >

17 John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 305. >

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruce, F.F. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Calvin, John. Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles. Translated by Christopher Fetherstone and edited by Henry Beveridge. Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1844.

Conzelmann, Hans. Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Emerton, J.A., C.E.B. Cranfield, and G.N. Stanton, eds. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.

Johnson, Luke T, The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 5. Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992.

________. Decision Making in the Church: A Biblical Model. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1944.

O’Reilly, Leo. Word and Sign in the Acts of the Apostles: A Study in Lucan Theology. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 1987.

Stott, John. The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990.

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