- BRUCE C WEARNE
These 20 chapters give an account of the first two decades of the advance of the Gospel. It is worthwhile to try and date the various sections of Luke's story. But there are also three important events that can now be taken as a frame for the entire account. You will recall that the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit has been described on three specific occasions.
The first was the "birthday" of Jesus' church - the day of Pentecost. This was the miraculous moment after Jesus' ascension when many dispersed Jewish believers heard the Galilean disciples speaking in their own local languages.
IN A NUTSHELL
Jesus' work flourished. Luke tells us how the Word was sown indiscriminately throughout the Mediterranean world. Those who went forth to proclaim the Kingdom of God started out from Jerusalem, but the Gospel reached out to Syrian Antioch, Galatia and Asia. Its impact was felt throughout Macedonia and Greece. In two decades, it grew churches in Egypt, Rome and ever since the message of God's love has been carried by teachers like Paul, Apollos, Prisca and Aquila. It also needs story-tellers like Luke.
The second time was when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius' household as they listened to Peter's explanation. The witnesses Peter had brought with him from Jerusalem heard these Gentiles in their own tongues, giving evidence that the same Holy Spirit had been poured out on Gentile believers.
The third time was in Ephesus when Paul baptised the 12 disciples after explaining to them that God's Holy Spirit was freely available to all who believe. These 12, instructed by Apollos, seem to have been disciples of John the Baptist, and were the witnesses of this endorsement of Paul's "apostleship".
Luke was alert to Paul's apostolic standing. God's Spirit was pleased to bless the preaching of this former Pharisee. This student of Gamaliel was also a former terrorist commander. Having been called by Jesus to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, he kept to his calling despite being hounded and opposed by his own countrymen and by Gentiles who rightly heard that his message challenged their idolatrous commerce. His adherence to the teachings of God's Son meant he remained a faithful and loyal Jew who was passionate to pass on the Good News to his brothers and sisters, the children of Israel, and to anyone else who would attend to his teaching. Paul's "apostleship" in no way diminished, but rather confirmed, the standing of those who, during the last days of Jesus' earthly ministry, were given His summons to take the Gospel with them as they went into all the world.
The ministry of mercy, looking after the poor and needy, has always been an integral part of the proclamation of God's Kingdom. Paul's project, collecting for the church in Jerusalem, was a major characteristic of his visiting the small groups of believers in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Greece. He was also happy to claim his rights as a Roman citizen at a time when the Christian community had deep communal connections within far-flung Jewish communities. Paul developed a new teaching curriculum for Greeks and Gentiles who had, hitherto, no contact with the synagogue.
For Paul, as for us, our faith in Christ involves us with reckoning that this Gospel is the definitive proclamation of Israel's faith - entry to this way is still open, open to all. It is available to Jew and non-Jew alike, to all who believe.
This Gospel, tells us that, as Paul so decisively and emphatically stated in his letter to Romans, that alongside the Mosaic law (CHÓRIS NOMOU - Romans 3:21), the righteousness of God has been fully and completely displayed in this man, Jesus - in His life, death, resurrection and ascension. This righteousness is totally and utterly dependent upon the Lord God who ascribes it to the person who receives it, who has faith. And that is the point from which Paul's teaching became initially so contentious to Jewish believers who were content to accept that yes, Jesus may be accepted as God's Messiah to Israel, as their own Messiah, because He is the One who proclaims the Torah as the universal law that needs to be proclaimed as the way of life, the way of walking, the pathway, for all those who believe both Jew and Gentile. Such a view seems so appropriate. There's a logic in it. But in Paul's terms such a logic becomes a departure when Torah is viewed as a way for determining who belongs to the Messiah who in His Ascension is now the ruler of all the princes and peoples of the earth. The letters of Paul are preoccupied with explaining in detail why this is so.
Paul's view of the Messiah meant that such Jewish believers were indeed presuming to take a place in the divine scheme of history as Paul so pertinently describes in Romans 2:17-20. This approach to one's Jewish heritage does not just modify the teaching of Holy Scripture, it radically undermines the teaching that God's judgement is upon all who have sinned. Such a viewpoint takes the coming of Christ as a justification for zealot believers presuming upon their own pre-eminence among the peoples of the earth. On the contrary, the Gospel tells us that simply faith, belief in the pre-eminence of Christ Jesus, raised to rule at God's right hand, is justification before the throne of the Almighty. Much of the New Testament is thus the outworking of this Gospel challenge to the Jewish people, particularly to believers in Christ from among the people of Israel, after Jesus' ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit.
Luke's second book is therefore the account of how and why the Christian church did not take the zealot option - how and why the story of the Christian church as given by Luke is about the response to Jesus' final teaching before His ascension, His earthly departure (Acts 1:6-7).
And so, yes the outpouring of God's brooding Spirit, which has always been part of His creational and redemptive purposes (Genesis 1:1-3) was indeed able to revive the ancient celebration of Pentecost and give it a new and refreshing focus among God's people. This is the birth of the church, the outbreak of the fount of Jesus Christ, from which Jew and Gentile are brought to drink, to be baptised into One Spirit. But the outpouring was not and is not confined to some mysterious simultaneity with an ancient Jewish festival - the church was also shown to be inaugurated with the Spirit's outpouring in the house of Cornelius the centurion at Caesarea, as well as at Ephesus where disciples of Apollos and John the Baptist also were to receive God's paraclete from the ministry of Paul himself.