Gospel and Transformation in Acts

©David Peterson (2009)

A quick glance at the Acts of the Apostles will show that the author is interested in the transformation of individuals and groups. Luke moves backwards and forwards between groups and individuals, to illustrate the way they were impacted by meeting the risen Christ, or by hearing the gospel and experiencing the Holy Spirit. Witherington has helpfully observed that, ‘Luke is not interested, like Tacitus, in informing his audience how they can be reconciled to or live with inevitable or already extant change, but rather he is providing historical perspective for Theophilus so he will see what it means to be part of such a religious change. Change is not to be seen as a problem to be managed, but as a positive possibility to be embraced and understood in its proper historical framework.’[1] However, the change that Luke chronicles is not simply ‘religious’, but also social and political.

The focus on individuals is because of their representative function, either as converts from different racial and religious groups, or as characters from different levels of Greco-Roman culture. ‘Luke in his second volume is writing a continuous narrative about the growth and development of a remarkable historical phenomenon, early Christianity, which he believed was the result of divinely initiated social change; he is not presenting a loosely related collection of anecdotes or stories meant to reveal the character of certain human beings.’[2] These individual cameos highlight the personal implications of the great religious, social and political changes Luke records. His interest is in ‘the social and religious history of a particular group or subculture within the Empire,’[3] though he does give indications of the implications of this history for that larger culture.

Of course, Luke writes his narrative from a theological point of view and we shall be interested to explore the theological reasons for the changes he portrays. However, it is first helpful to summarise the sort of changes he articulates.

The transformation of individuals and believing communities

Acts begins with the transformation of the apostles and a wider group of disciples associated with them. As they encounter the risen Lord Jesus—through teaching and many ‘proofs’ (1:3)—they are reconstituted as a group of expectant Jewish believers, waiting for ‘the promise of the Father’ (1:4, 12-14), but waiting also for the return of Jesus himself (1:9-11; cf. Lk. 24:13-53). When the Spirit comes as promised, they are given the power of prophetic utterance (2:4), to proclaim the mighty works of God to an assembled multitude of Jews and proselytes from all corners of the Roman world (2:5-12). Peter, in particular, is highlighted as the spiritually transformed and empowered preacher, who wins three thousand converts for Christ (2:41). Luke immediately records how these individuals become a community, centred on the apostolic teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers (2:42). They existed within the framework of contemporary Judaism, but met separately in houses, while daily attending the temple prayers together (3:1). Such was the novelty of their lifestyle and impact on ‘all the people’ (2:43-47), that Luke presents a series of narratives highlighting their continuing boldness in the face of persecution from fellow Jews (4:23-31), their amazing cohesion in the face of opposition and extraordinary generosity towards one another (4:32-37), the sanctity of their Spirit-directed relationships (5:1-11), and the signs and wonders done by the hands of the apostles, leading many more to consider the claims of Christ and join the church (5:12-16).[4]

However, Luke does not paint a consistently rosy picture of the nascent Church. Ananias and Sapphira practise deceit and experience the judgement of God (5:1-11). A dispute arises between Hellenist and Hebrew Christians because the Hebrew widows are neglected in the daily distribution (6:1). This is resolved by the appointment of ‘seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’ (6:3), enabling the Twelve to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. The Seven are set apart to minister to the practical needs of the Jerusalem community. Nevertheless, in due course, Luke shows how at least Stephen and Philip from this number become outstanding evangelists and apologists, first within Jerusalem, but then in Samaria (8:4-25), and beyond (8:26-40). With this transformation of their God-given role, there begins a transformation of the Christian community to include those beyond the pale of normative Judaism.

Three times in Acts, Luke recounts the calling and commissioning of Saul, the arch-persecutor of Christians, who became a model disciple and leader of the Christian mission to the Gentile world (cf. 9:1-30; 22:3-21; 26:4-23). This is ‘a paradox so profound that it requires multiple retellings, with each version bringing out some further nuances of significance.’[5] Luke, however, is not interested in exploring the psychological dimensions of Saul’s transformation. The emphasis is on the sovereign intervention of God in his life. Like the apostles in Acts 1, he is transformed by meeting the risen Christ, though his experience is more obviously a dramatic conversion. Some would follow Stendahl in describing Saul’s Damascus road experience as a call to ministry rather than a conversion,[6] but Kern has argued that Stendahl’s definition of conversion is too narrow and that Luke’s portrait of Saul shows him to lack a right relationship with God. ‘Luke connects opposition to the church with opposition to God, and shows that Saul, in opposing the former, was an enemy of the latter. By showing the change from an enemy to one who himself suffers for the gospel, Luke indicates that Paul has entered into a relationship with God.’[7] His calling as ‘a chosen instrument’ is then to carry Christ’s name ‘before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel’ and to suffer for the sake of that name (9:15-16).

As the apostolic witness is taken to Judea, and to Samaria, and ultimately to the end of the earth (1:8), there is a continuing focus on the transformative effect of the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. For example, Luke tells how the Gentile Cornelius and his household became Christians (10:1 – 11:18). This is not a conversion from one religion to another, however, since Luke stresses the existing commitment of Cornelius to the God of Israel and the divine acknowledgement of his piety (10:1-4). The parallel is rather with the experience of the first Jewish believers in Jerusalem (cf. 11:15-18), in that Peter’s address brings him to recognise the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes in Jesus the Messiah (10:34-43), and the promised Holy Spirit is received together with baptism in the name of Jesus (10:44-8), albeit in a different order. There is also a parallel between the experience of Cornelius and that of the Ethiopian eunuch, who reveals a commitment to Judaism by journeying to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel and by reading the Scriptures (8:27-33). As a eunuch, however, he is portrayed as someone on the fringes of Judaism,[8] who is drawn into the fellowship of Jewish Christianity through Philip’s explanation of Isaiah 53 and his teaching about Jesus.

Gaventa describes the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch and of Cornelius as an ‘alteration’, rather than a conversion.[9] There was neither a change of religion nor a turning from rebellion against the true God, as in the case of Saul. Their new position as Christians grew out of prior commitments and beliefs nurtured through their attachment to Judaism. A certainty about God’s forgiveness in Christ and his full acceptance of outsiders in the community of salvation was given through an explanation of how the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus (8:32-8; 10:43). The gift of his Spirit was the confirmation of their incorporation into that community through faith in this gospel.

Luke thus presents three stories in a row about how people became Christians (the Ethiopian, Saul and Cornelius), but none of these seems to be an ideal or typical pattern. Using the term ‘conversion’ in a general way to describe this phenomenon, Gaventa argues that ‘each individual whose conversion appears in Acts represents some larger group or some thread in Luke’s narrative. No conversion, not even that of the crowd at Pentecost, establishes a pattern that is to be followed by later believers or is appealed to in preaching.’[10] Luke illustrates the sovereign freedom of God to bring about faith in Christ in a way that is suitable to the situation of each individual. However, the common theme in each case is the transformation of belief and lifestyle that results from divine intervention.

Luke then gives a wider perspective on how the gospel went to the Gentiles, with ordinary believers making converts in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (11:19-26). This is a remarkable fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy about all the sons and daughters of restored Israel prophesying (Joel 2:28-32, cited in Acts 2:16-21). There are further echoes of Acts 2 in Luke’s portrait of the newly formed church in Syrian Antioch, suggesting that the same work of God is taking place in this Gentile city as originally occurred in Jerusalem. Thus, ‘the hand of the Lord was with them and a great number who believed turned to the Lord’ (11:21; cf. 2:41, 47). They were then devoted to the apostolic teaching (11:22-6; cf. 2:42), as presented by Barnabas and Saul, and exhibited a practical generosity which, in this case, involved the sending of relief aid from Antioch to the believers in Judea (11:27-30; cf. 2:44-5). Such two-way ministry across ethnic, racial and religious barriers is nothing short of miraculous in the context of the Greco-Roman world. It suggests a mighty work of God in changing values, attitudes and commitments.

Luke continues to focus on individuals and groups once he begins to recount the missionary journeys of Paul. Thus we are told of the impact upon the proconsul in Cyprus (13:4-12), before hearing about the impact of the gospel on the Jews of Pisidian Antioch collectively (13:13-43). In the face of intense persecution, Paul makes a decision to turn to the Gentiles, viewing this as a responsibility in the light of the Servant’s task in Isaiah 49:6 (cf. Acts 13:44-52). Although the church in Syrian Antioch appears to have comprised both Jewish and Gentile converts (11:19-26), Luke makes much more of this turning to the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch, because of Paul’s use of the text from Isaiah 49:6. However, this is not a decisive, once-for-all turning to the Gentiles, since he immediately resumes the pattern of preaching to Jews first, when he visits other places (14:1; cf. 16:13; 17:1-3, 10, 17). It is rather the first of several dramatic turnings that result from Jewish resistance to the gospel in various contexts (cf. 14:1-20; 18:1-8; 19:8-10; 28:23-31).

There is a theological reason for this turning to the Gentiles which relates back to the prediction of Jesus in 1:8. Israel’s task of being God’s witnesses to the nations (Is. 43:10-12) is to be fulfilled by the restored Israel, at the centre of which is the apostolic group. Their specific witness to Jesus is designed to bring Israel back to God and to be a light for the nations, so that God’s salvation may reach to ‘the end of the earth’ (Is. 49:6, alluded to in Acts 1:8). Paul could not have qualified to be a witness to Jesus in precisely the way the Twelve could (cf. 1:21-2). However, his encounter with the risen Christ involved a commission to carry his name ‘before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel’ (9:15). He was chosen to bear witness in his own way and, in a sense, to complete the task of the Servant of the Lord given first to the apostolic group (cf. Col. 1:24-6).[11]

A mixture of Jewish and Gentile converts in these new communities of faith is the norm after Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch. Synagogues are normally the place where the seed of the gospel is first planted and growth of belief in Jesus as Messiah takes place. However, when the number of converts becomes significantly large, there is a rejection of this mixed community, usually by the leaders of the synagogue. The Christian preachers seem to be particularly successful in reaching the so-called ‘God-fearers’ and Jewish proselytes (e.g. 13:43; 16:14-15; 17:4).[12] The emergence of these new Christian communities creates theological and pastoral problems which need to be resolved at the Jerusalem Council (15:1-21). But Luke soon presents Paul driving forward again into new areas of mission, led by the Holy Spirit (16:1-10). Stories of individual transformation are once more given (e.g. Lydia, 16:14-15, and the Philippian jailor, 16:25-34), but the focus is also on the emergence of new churches (e.g. Corinth in 18:5-11; Ephesus in 18:19-19:20).

The wider social and political impact of Christianity

Luke is also concerned to give indications of the wider social and political impact of Christianity and its representatives in his world. Consider first the correspondences between the political and social stance of Jesus, as revealed in Luke’s Gospel, and that of the earliest Christians. Cassidy notes the primary importance of their acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God in preaching and prayer.[13] Although he does not link this clearly enough with the theme of the kingdom of God and the messianic kingship of Jesus, he certainly indicates that there are theological reasons for the correspondences he outlines. These cannot simply be explained in terms of Luke’s redactional activity nor in terms of the early Christians’ following the example of Jesus. Cassidy specifically notes their concern for the sick and the poor, their use of material possessions, their affirmation for women, Samaritans and Gentiles, their service and humility, their opposition to injustice and corruption, and their rejection of violence against persons.[14]

The leadership of Israel is challenged by the preaching and lifestyle of Jesus’ followers, resulting in mounting opposition and persecution. Peter and John are arrested because they presume to teach ‘the people’, even though they are ‘unlettered’ (ἀγράμματοι) and unskilled ‘laymen’ (ἰδιῶται,4:13).[15] They particularly provoke the Sadduceean leaders by ‘proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead’ (4:2). Public speeches about Jesus are prohibited (4:18), but the apostles refuse to follow the Sanhedrin’s order (4:19-20). Their response indicates that they have a prior commitment to obey God and to speak of what they have seen and heard. Cassidy rightly suggests that, ‘inasmuch as the primary justification for their stance is that they are listening to God, the apostles’ position seems potentially open to application in other situations as well.’[16]

By the time the second trial before the Sanhedrin takes place (5:17-32), they have actually defied the original ruling (vv. 27-8), and their justification for this is stated more deliberately in terms of an obligation to ‘obey God rather than men’ (v. 29, using δεῖ, ‘it is necessary’). Again Cassidy comments, ‘Not only is the apostles’ reply sharper and more direct at this trial, the principle they enunciate is also more encompassing in its frame of reference.’[17] This principle could be seen as an echo of the teaching of Jesus in Luke 20:21-6, where there is a call to evaluate ‘the things of God’ in relation to ‘the things of Caesar.’ However, there is a particular obedience to God articulated in 4:19-20; 5:29-32, relating to what has been ‘seen and heard’ of God’s plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostles were divinely authorized witnesses of these events, empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s function in this whole process is important to articulate. First, through the ministry of Jesus to them (1:1-2), then through the promised outpouring of the Spirit upon them (1:4-5, 8; 2:1-41), they were enabled to give a bold and convicting testimony to the crucified and glorified Christ. The Spirit’s witness to the significance of all this in the prophetic scriptures is also highlighted in various contexts (e.g. 1:16; 4:25). However, most particularly in these early chapters, Luke draws attention to the extraordinary boldness of the apostolic witnesses in Jerusalem (2:29; 4:13, παρρησία),[18] which is clearly identified as the Spirit’s gift (4:29-31).

Stephen is arrested because he is heard to speak ‘blasphemous words against Moses and God’ (6:11), namely, speaking against ‘the temple and the law’ (6:13-14). There is little in Stephen’s speech to justify this accusation. He condemns his accusers for their own attitude to the temple and the law and points them to the glorified Son of Man (7:39-56). However, like Jesus himself, Stephen’s prophetic denunciation of Israel’s unfaithfulness, combined with his Christological and eschatological emphases, were taken to mean that the temple would be destroyed and the law changed (6:14).[19] Comparison with the false charges against Jesus and Paul (cf. Lk. 23:2; Acts 21:28) suggests that the witnesses against Stephen distorted or deliberately misrepresented what they had heard. Their charges may have contained elements of truth, but they were polemically exaggerated.[20]Caution is therefore needed in using these charges as a basis for determining what Stephen actually believed and taught. From a sociological perspective, Stephen was distancing himself from the religious community from which he came and renouncing the values which they considered most important. From a theological point of view, his speech implies divine judgement at the hands of the very Jesus whom the leaders of Israel ‘betrayed and murdered’ (7:52).[21] Meanwhile, the general populace in Jerusalem remained positive about the new movement (cf. 4:4, 21; 5:13-16, 26; 6:1, 7), at least until the persecution arose in connection with Stephen (8:1-3).

In the early chapters of Acts, Luke is not so much concerned with the Roman government, as with the high priestly rulers and Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:9 – 7:60; 8:1-3; 9:1-2). However, in Acts 12, the chief threat to the Jerusalem church is Herod Agrippa I (reigned AD 41-4), to whom the emperor Caligula gave the tetrarchies formerly held by Philip and Lysanias (cf. Lk. 3:1), and who allowed him to be called king. Claudius, the next emperor, then added Judea and Samaria to his kingdom, allowing him to rule over the area formerly governed by his grandfather Herod the Great. Herod Agrippa did his best to ‘win the favour of the Jews and especially cultivated the Pharisees.’[22] Despite his Roman and Greek interests, he sought to live as a faithful Jew (cf. Sotah 7.7; Josephus, Ant. 19.292-4, 331), and so might naturally have been concerned to put down an heretical sect. Indeed, he appears to seek approval for his actions from the high priest and temple authorities (v. 3, ‘the Jews’), and wants to bring Peter out of prison before ‘the people’ (v. 4).[23] However, his use of the sword, rather than any other means of execution, suggests that Herod may have seen the Christian movement as being also a political threat to his regime.[24] Executing one of the twelve apostles was a deliberate attempt to destroy the church by systematically removing its leadership. Herod’s close personal concern about Peter’s escape from prison is stressed in 12:19. In the final section of the chapter (12:20-3), Luke links Herod’s end with his arrogance towards God and the people of Tyre and Sidon. By implication, his treatment of James and Peter was another expression of that same attitude and behaviour. Herod arrogantly asserted his majesty and importance in Caesarea, where Caesar was the real political power. Adulation of kings was common in the ancient world, but no faithful Jew could accept divine honours as Herod did. He refused to give God the praise that was due to him and allowed it to be ascribed to himself.[25]

In Acts 16-19 there are four particular narratives which show the impact of Christianity on the Greco-Roman culture. Luke is interested in demonstrating how the wider world perceived the Christian mission and the effect those perceptions had on Christians.[26]

In Philippi, the economic and social implications of a slave girl’s liberation from the powers of evil come into focus (16:19-24). She is described as having a ‘spirit of divination’ (v. 16, πνεῦμα πύθωνα),[27] which enabled her to bring her owners ‘much gain by fortune-telling’. Most of the girl’s contemporaries would have considered this spirit beneficial or neutral, but Luke indicates its evil nature in two ways. First, the participle he uses (μαντευομένη, ‘by giving oracles’) points to something prohibited in scripture (e.g. Dt. 18:10; 1 Sa. 28:8; 2 Ki. 17:17; Je. 27 (LXX 34):9; Ezk. 12:24).[28] Second, as in 8:4-24; 19:11-41, Luke shows a close connection between ‘magic, pagan or false religion, and the profit motive of humans.’[29] No clear indication is given about whether she became a Christian, but her deliverance from demonic powers was such that her owners perceived that ‘their hope of gain was gone’ (v. 19).

Somewhat surprisingly, Paul and Silas were brought before the civic authorities on the charge of being Jews who were disturbing the city and advocating customs that their accusers claimed ‘are not lawful for us as Roman citizens to accept or practice’ (v. 21) The Philippians were proud of their Roman citizenship and customs and it was easy to present this new teaching as a threat to the existing social order. Judaism, however, was a ‘legal religion’ in the Roman Empire at this time and no objection was made in Rome itself to religions that did not offend against public order and morality. Anti-Jewish feeling on the part of some Roman officials is suggested elsewhere (18:2, 12-17), but ‘it is perhaps characteristic that it is in an isolated Roman community in the Greek half of the Roman Empire that the basic principle of Roman “otherness” should be affirmed, whereas in Italy the usual custom prevailed of treating alien cults on their merits.’[30] It is also ironic that in this city, so proud of its Roman privileges, the missionaries should be beaten and imprisoned without proper trial (16:19-24), leading them to confess their Roman citizenship for the first time in Luke’s narrative and to seek an apology (vv. 35-9).

Paul and Silas do not appear to have an explicit social agenda. The slave girl was set free from her demonic possession because she kept on troubling the visiting preachers and acting as an alien voice for their message (vv. 17-18). Yet Luke shows that the preaching of salvation and the practice of exorcism and healing in the name of Jesus had profound economic and political implications.

In 17:5-9 there is a replay of the public accusation-type scene presented in 16:19-24. The motive for attack here is religious jealousy, rather than anger over economic loss, though the accusation is once again framed in social and political terms. Certain Thessalonian Jews are distinguished from the previous antagonists by the way in which they handle the attack. A sense of desperation on their part is suggested by the fact that they found it necessary to seek the help of some bad characters from the market-place (cf. 13:50; 14:2). The term τῶν ἀγοραίων ͗άνδρας designated common labourers, artisans, and people who traded in the town centres.[31] It is ironic that the Jewish leaders ‘formed a mob’ and started a riot in the city, but then accused the missionaries of being trouble-makers (v. 6)! They were trying to create the impression that Paul and Silas were responsible for social disorder on a wide scale, charging that, before coming to Thessalonica, they had ‘turned the world upside down’ (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες).[32] More specifically, they had been ‘acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus’ (vv. 6-7). Normally, Caesar’s decrees were not binding on the magistrates of a free city like Thessalonica.[33] However, in this case the reference may have been to a special edict, such as the decree of Claudius (about AD 49), banishing Jews from Rome because of their rioting ‘at the instigation of Chrestus.’[34] Alternatively, the reference may have been to ‘edicts against predictions, especially of the death or change of rulers, first promulgated by the aged Augustus in AD 11 (Dio 56.25.5-6) and enforced through the local administration of oaths of loyalty.’[35]

In one sense, of course, Paul’s opponents were right. He was advancing ‘a truly world-changing mission’,[36] with the proclamation of Jesus as the promised messianic ruler at its heart (v. 3). The Roman emperor was called βασιλεύς by his Greek-speaking subjects. It would not have been hard to interpret the proclamations of Jesus’ kingship as ‘predictions of a change of ruler.’[37] However, at another level, these accusations missed the mark, since Paul ‘never aligned his messianic mission with plots to overthrow Roman rule or incite public disturbances.’[38]

Accepting the lordship of Christ meant new priorities and loyalties for those who became disciples. It led to the transformation of personal relationships, business and personal ethics, social structures and ambitions, new attitudes towards other religions and changed ways of relating to Caesar and his representatives. The Holy Spirit progressively brought about these changes in various localities as Christians reflected together on the implications of their new life in Christ and received guidance from leaders such as Paul (e.g. Romans 12-14) and Peter (e.g. 1 Peter 2). But the preaching of the gospel itself was fundamentally disturbing to the social and political status quo, wherever it was taken seriously. Sometimes it had seriously negative consequences for believers in the public arena.

In Corinth, Paul experienced another accusation before a Roman official, here the proconsul Gallio (18:12-17). However, ‘rather than being beaten and put in prison (as in Philippi) or having to put up a bond (as with Jason in Thessalonica), Paul is released when the accusation is rejected out of hand, a turn of human events that appears as the Lord’s providential care in the light of 18:10.’[39] In this case, Paul’s Jewish opponents charge him with ‘persuading people to worship God contrary to the law’ (v. 13). Although some have argued that this meant ‘giving religious teaching not countenanced by Roman law and forming his adherents into a collegium illicitum,’[40] it seems more likely that the Jews were appealing to Gallio for protection of their own religious community ‘against a disturbing intruder.’[41] Gallio certainly saw the matter as a dispute amongst Jews (v. 15). They themselves spoke of worshipping God in the singular and were affirming their right under Roman law to worship the one true God according to the dictates of the law of Moses (cf. Jos. Ant. 14.190-5 [probably relating to Judea]).[42] Paul was perceived to be challenging that practice and the theology undergirding it. He was creating a situation in which Jewish identity might be lost and the security of Jews in the Empire might be compromised. Recent events in Rome had confirmed that theological debates between Jews and Christians could have serious social and political consequences (cf. v. 2). When Paul arrived in Jerusalem for the last time, he had to respond once more to accusations that he was teaching against the law of Moses and therefore threatening the ethos of Judaism (21:21, 24. 28; cf. 22:3; 24:14; 25:8; 28:17).

When Gallio dismissed the charge as ‘a matter of questions about words and names and your own law’ (18:15), he told the Jews to resolve the matter among themselves. Thus, in Thessalonica (17:8-9) and Corinth, the missionaries received fairer treatment from the authorities than they did in Philippi. But Luke’s overall portrait of Roman rule is qualified and cautious. Gallio’s indifference to the public beating of Sosthenes (v. 17) makes him a poor model for encouraging trust in the Roman system of justice.

Towards the end of Paul’s extensive ministry in Ephesus (19:25-9) there is another disturbance about ‘the Way’ (v. 23), though Paul himself is the main source of contention (v. 26). A large-scale turning away from idolatry and the magic arts has a detrimental effect on the market place in this important provincial capital (vv. 18-19, 23-7). Even though Demetrius the silversmith does not make his case directly before the city officials, his role is similar to that of Paul’s accusers in previous passages. Angry protests follow the claim that Paul’s preaching has had a profound economic and religious effect ‘in almost all of Asia’ (v. 26).[43] In particular, there is a concern about the honour of the goddess Artemis and her temple (v. 27). The reputation and economic future of Ephesus was tied up with this, because of the city’s role as ‘temple keeper’ (v. 35). The term νεωκόρος was used by pagan and Jewish writers to refer to those responsible for the administration of a temple and its sacrifices. When Ephesus applied this term to itself, it was ‘affirming its divine appointment as the keeper and protector of the religion and cult of the goddess, and as the recipient of the privileges and blessings which go with that office.’[44]

A speech by Demetrius incites the riot in Ephesus and a speech by the city clerk brings it to an end (vv. 35-41). ‘The first says Paul is a danger; the second says that these Christians are no real threat to Ephesus’ importance as cult center for Artemis.’[45] Although the clerk recognizes the innocence of Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s travel companions, and declares the riot to be unjustified, he naively assumes that the Christian criticism of idolatry has no great significance. This flies in the face of the evidence that Luke has presented. Seeking to calm the situation, this city official plays to the crowd and reinforces the confidence of the Ephesians in their city and its god.

So Jews are the accusers in Thessalonica and Corinth, but Gentiles in Philippi and Ephesus. Although Paul has frequent disputes in synagogues, in these four passages the dispute does not begin or does not remain in the synagogue, but ‘spills over into the public sphere and is brought to city officials, the provincial governor, or the public assembly.’[46] Paul is caught between what Tannehill calls ‘two suspicious communities’. ‘Both Jews and Gentiles view the mission as a threat to the customs that provide social cohesion, to the religious basis of their cultures, and to political stability through Caesar’s rule.’[47] Witherington adds that they were right to do so—‘Paul and his coworkers are those who turn the religious world upside down, offering one God and saviour instead of many (and also instead of the emperor), one way of salvation instead of many, one people of God that is not ethnically defined.’[48]

Word and Spirit as the dynamic for transformation

Seeking now to review what brought about such changes to individuals, formed Christian communities, and impacted the surrounding culture, we can confirm that it was either a direct encounter with the risen Jesus or the preaching of the gospel about Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

The Word of God

The noun εὐαγγέλιον is not used in Luke’s Gospel and only occurs twice in Acts (15:7, ‘the word of the gospel’; 20:24, ‘the gospel of the grace of God’). However, the related verb (εὐαγγελίζω), is extensively used in both volumes of Luke’s work, together with other terms of proclamation and persuasion. This linguistic choice suggests Luke’s concern to highlight the importance of the activity by which God addresses people and draws them to himself. Nevertheless, the message itself is the key to this divine engagement. Luke regularly uses the noun λόγος in a variety of combinations to describe the ‘word’ proclaimed by Jesus,[49] and by his disciples.[50] This linguistic choice suggests the continuity of the Christian message with the prophetic scriptures and the divine origin and authority of the gospel as ‘the word of God’. When it is called ‘the word of the Lord’, it is likely that the stress is specifically on Jesus as the source of the apostolic message. When other qualifiers are used (‘the message of this salvation’, ‘the message of his grace’) the focus is on the content of the revelation received and communicated.

Consistent with certain OT reflections on the nature and power of the word of God (e.g. Ps. 33:6-11; Is. 55:10-11; Je. 1:9-12; 23:21-9), Luke presents the gospel as a dynamic force at work in the world, transforming lives and growing the church. Three particular references in Acts provide this perspective. They are contained in passages which are clearly editorial and are part of a series of summaries of church growth (2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 11:21 [24]; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). In 6:7 the point is made that a remarkable growth in the number of disciples took place in Jerusalem because the ministry of the word continued unhindered (ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ η͗ύξανεν). But the preceding verses suggest that, if decisive action had not been taken to deal with the social issue confronting the church, this growth may not have continued. The decision to appoint the Seven, to take care of the ‘daily distribution’ and release the Twelve for prayer and the ministry of the word, had a positive outcome for the growth of the church in maturity and in numerical strength.

In Acts 12 the enemies of the gospel attempt to hinder its progress in Jerusalem, but God enables his word to ‘grow’ and ‘multiply’ (v. 24· ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ η͗ύξανεν καὶ ἐπληθύνετο). The second of these two verbs is used in 6:7 with reference to the growth in the number of disciples. Putting the two verbs together with ‘the word of God’ as subject in 12:24, Luke indicates that gospel growth means church growth in terms of conversions.

In 19:20 ‘the word of the Lord’ is the subject and slightly different language is used to describe its impact (ο͑ύτως κατὰ κράτος τοῦ κυρίου ὁ λόγος η͗ύξανεν καὶ ͗ίσχυεν).[51] Perhaps κατὰ κράτος (‘in power’) is added because of the immediately preceding narrative (vv. 17-19): the gospel brought about the kind of repentance illustrated there, with the social consequences outlined in the following passage (vv. 23-41). The power of the gospel to transform lives was associated with, and illustrated by, healing, exorcism, and the confounding of false religion and magic. So each reference to the word ‘growing’ concludes a narrative about the overcoming of some great difficulty, either in the church or in relation to unbelievers.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 8:4-15 forms a background to this usage, since it highlights the dynamism of the word of God. However, Kodell rightly points out that the growth of the word in the parable is ‘individual and personal’, whereas the growth of the word in Acts appears predominantly ‘external and communitarian: the church is growing numerically.’[52] There is a ‘materialization’ of ‘the word of God’ in 6:7; 12:24; 19:20, so that the meaning appears to be ‘the whole Christian enterprise’ or ‘the living community of believers.’[53] This is suggested by the verbs that are used (αὐξάνειν, ‘grow’, and πληθύνειν, ‘multiply’), which are employed together in the LXX to express ‘the promise and realization of the growth and expansion of God’s covenant People.’[54]

Nevertheless, this identification of the word with the church is not Luke’s principal meaning for either λόγος or ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. Fundamentally, he sees the word as the message of the gospel by which Jews and Gentiles come to Christ and become part of the fellowship of believers that is growing across the world. Identification of the message with the fellowship it produces and sustains is ‘consequent both on the ecclesial nature of salvation and the preaching mission implied in Luke’s Christianity that acceptance of the word is acceptance of the community. The decision to believe is a decision to share with the believers, so that—to press the logic—rejection of the community is rejection of the word.’[55] But what is that word?

One way of answering that question would be to look at the comprehensive way in which the gospel is identified and described in Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders (20:17-35). Here Paul recalls the extensive ministry that he had in Ephesus, teaching publicly and from house to house, ‘testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’. The wider framework of his teaching is described as ‘the gospel of the grace of God’ (2:24), ‘the kingdom’ (20:25) and ‘the whole counsel of God’ (20:27). It is interesting to see how these various expressions relate to gospel presentations in the rest of the book.[56]

Looking back to the preceding chapters, we may note several key references to the message of the kingdom (1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8). Looking to the end of Acts, we can see Paul ‘proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance’ (28:31). This climactic bringing together of the kingdom theme with the Christological focus of the many sermons in Acts is significant. The heart of the gospel is the message about the resurrection of Jesus and its implications. This can be proclaimed in simple terms to people without any biblical background (17:18, 30-1). However, the kingdom perspective, which is largely expounded with quotations from or allusions to Scripture, provides the breadth and depth that is necessary to understand and fully benefit from God’s saving plan. The kingdom teaching includes the eschatological restoration of Israel, with the promised consequences for the nations (cf. 1:1-8; 3:22-6; 13:46-7). It is focussed on the exaltation of the rejected Messiah, whom God has made ‘both Lord and Christ’ (2:36;3:13-15; 4:10-12; 5:30-2; 10:36, 39-41; 13:26-37). In the present, it involves a definitive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit for those who turn to Jesus (2:38-9; 3:19-20; 10:43-6; 13:38-9). Ultimately, it involves a share in ‘the restoration of all things’, when the Christ returns in glory (3:21). Another way of describing this total picture of salvation is ‘the whole counsel of God’ (20:27, πᾶσαν τὴν βουλὴν τοῦ θεοῦ).[57]

A definitive forgiveness of sins is necessary because Jesus is ‘the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead’ (10:42; 17:30-1). In this connection, Luke reports an interpretation of Jesus’ death that regularly portrays it as the fulfilment of Scripture or the divine plan (e.g. 2:23; 3:13-15, 18; 8:32-5; 10:43). In some of these contexts, Jesus is identified with the figure of Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song, providing a framework for viewing Jesus’ death redemptively. When the offer of forgiveness is announced, it is normally preceded by a declaration of Jesus’ innocence, followed by the proclamation of his shameful death on the cross and his vindication through resurrection (Acts 5:30-1; 10:39-43; 13:28, 38). Sometimes there is even the hint that he was cursed by God because he hung upon a tree (5:30; 10:39; 13:29). In the final analysis, Paul talks about the church as the community which ‘he obtained with his own blood’ (20:28).[58] This is the foundation for what Paul calls ‘the gospel of the grace of God’ (20:24; cf. Peter in 15:11).

The Spirit of God

What precisely is the role of the Holy Spirit in the transformation of individuals and communities in Luke’s presentation?

Some scholars have argued that, in contrast with Paul, who identifies the Spirit with conversion-initiation and growth in Christ-likeness, Luke’s view is that the Spirit is only given for prophetic empowerment and mission. So Menzies argues that the Spirit is given to those already saved as a source of prophetic inspiration, not principally for the benefit of its recipient, but ‘rather it is directed towards others.’[59] Although Penney agrees that the Spirit is given at conversion-initiation, he still maintains that Luke’s primary interest is in ‘the work of the Holy Spirit in initiating, empowering, and directing the church in its eschatological worldwide mission.’[60] Penney’s approach is more salvation-historical than Menzies’, so that he rightly claims that the power which comes at Pentecost is for more than prophetic witness, since ‘the Spirit-empowered word confers salvation.’[61] However, Penney fails to investigate the broader soteriological and ethical functions of the Spirit amongst believers and outside the church.[62]

There is no denying the prophetic paradigm of Peter’s interpretation of the gift of the Spirit in Acts 2:16-21 (citing Joel 2:28-32), nor various examples of the Spirit at work in this way in later chapters, enabling believers to proclaim the gospel and win many for Christ. However, Luke also provides evidence to demonstrate the Spirit’s transformative work amongst believers. Most obviously, prophecy takes place amongst believers for the edification of the church (e.g. 11:27-30; 13:1-3; 15:32; 21:4, 10-12). The Spirit is involved in the decision-making of the Jerusalem Council (15:28), and more generally in comforting and maturing congregations (9:31). This last text is an important summary verse, at the end of a section in which Saul has been converted and widescale persecution in Judea, Galilee and Samaria has come to an end.

English translations of 9:31 vary because of the complexity of the Greek syntax. NRSV (followed by ESV) attaches the first participle to the preceding verb (‘had peace and was built up’) and then begins a new sentence (‘Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers’). An alternative would be to attach the two participles to the preceding verb (‘had peace, being strengthened and going in the fear of the Lord’) and then begin a new sentence (‘And in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers’). Luke tells us how the end of persecution brought church growth. The church was ‘built up’ (οἰκοδομουμένη, cf. 20:32; 1 Cor. 8:1; 10:23; 14:4, 17; 1 Thes. 5:11; 1 Pet. 2:5), meaning that it was strengthened in terms of size and maturity.[63] The passive voice implies that God was the agent and the present tense implies that this was an ongoing divine activity. Then an active sense is conveyed by the use of a deponent middle participle (πορευομένη) to stress that believers, for their part, were ‘going’ or living in the fear of the Lord. The concluding clause summarises all this by saying that ‘in the comfort/encouragement of the Holy Spirit’ (τῆ παρακλῆσει τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος),[64] the church ‘was being multiplied’ (ἐπληθύνετο, cf. 6:1, 7; 7:17; 12:24). Παράκλησις is linked with preaching, teaching and prophecy in 13:15; 15:31. The cognate verb is used extensively in Acts in the same way (e.g. 2:40; 11:23; 14:22). Growth in size and maturity resulted from the work of the Holy Spirit, enabling leaders and people to minister to each other and to live in a godly way, fearing God rather than their persecutors.

Like the word of God in other contexts, the Spirit of God is clearly linked with church growth in 9:31, though the focus of the Spirit’s work here is the comfort or encouragement of the church, rather than mission. As in 6:1-7, growth in numbers took place because effective ministry was taking place amongst believers and there was freedom to minister to unbelievers. The terminology employed in connection with the Spirit’s ministry in 9:31 is reminiscent of Paul’s usage in his letters. This verse is a warrant for understanding the Spirit’s work in other contexts, where a divine work of transformation is indicated, without specific mention of the Holy Spirit (e.g. 2:42-7; 4:32-7; 11:19-26).


Luke demonstrates in various ways that the gospel, proclaimed and received by the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, transforms individuals and grows congregations. Luke portrays church growth as a divine work, both in terms of increasing numbers and in terms of personal and corporate maturation. He is particularly keen to show how gospel and Spirit can unite Jews and Gentiles in faith and fellowship—a miracle in the context of the ancient world, with its religious and social divisions. Luke’s portrait of the churches shows them to be imperfect, and sometimes struggling to survive, but overall a testimony to the truth of the gospel and the power of the Spirit.

The wider social and political implications of the gospel emerge as the story of Acts progresses. Although the gospel offers the hope of change, it challenges and judges human societies and their values. Individuals are released from captivity to those values and the structures that maintain them by turning to Christ. But the animosity of those who remain unmoved is regularly expressed against believers. So the social and political effect of Christian witness is not always constructive, viewed from the perspective of unbelievers. The transformation experienced by those drawn into Christian communities is shown to fulfil biblical ideals and the best human aspirations. But Luke does not present Christianity as a program for changing the world and creating a paradise on earth. Human sin remains a stubborn and persistent reality, even in the face of God’s gracious offer of salvation. So Acts reflects the apocalyptic perspective of the preaching about the kingdom of God it records. God’s intervention into world history in the person and work of Christ makes forgiveness and renewal possible for those who repent and believe: these present blessings anticipate the promised restoration of all things that will occur when the Messiah returns (3:19-21) and fulfils his role as ‘judge of the living and the dead’ (10:42; cf. 17:31).

[1] B. Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 12.

[2] Witherington Acts, 21.  Witherington, 34-5, notes how Luke-Acts resembles the kata. ge,noj style of arranging history, ‘whereby the work proceeds along geographical as well as chronological lines.’ Luke is trying to explain how his is ‘a universal religion, inclusive of all ethnic groups.’

[3] Witherington Acts, 31. Witherington, 38, argues that, ‘Luke envisions a radical social change initiated by God, not a critical historical developmentwith normal historical antecedents.’

[4] The word evkklhsia is used for the first time in 5:11, when the holy and distinct character of this Spirit-indwelt community is so dramatically exposed. This is significant considering the use of the term in the LXX for Israel (cf. Acts 7:38). The implication is that the new community of believers in Jerusalem is the nucleus of the true, restored Israel.  Cf. D. Seccombe, ‘The New People of God’, in I. H. Marshall & D. Peterson (ed.), Witness to the Gospel. The Theology of Acts (Grand Rapids MI/Cambridge UK: Eerdmans), 349-372 (358).

[5] L. T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina 5, (ed.) D. J. Harrington (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 166.

[6] Cf. K. Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles—And Other Essay (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 7-23. Stendahl defines conversion in terms of a change of religion, and says that Saul never abandoned his previous loyalties to God and to Israel.

[7] P. H. Kern, ‘Paul’s Conversion and Luke’s Portrayal of Character in Acts 8-10’, TynB 54.2 (2003), 63-80 (63). Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (2 vols., Clark: Edinburgh, 1994, 1998) I, 442-3. Kern establishes his case by showing how Luke contrasts the pre-conversion Saul with Stephen, the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius. Luke then compares the post-conversion Paul with Stephen and Peter, while Bar Jesus and the Philippian gaoler are portrayed in ways that recall the earlier portrait of Saul and ‘inform how we are to understand him pre-conversion.’ (p. 63)

[8] The prohibition against admitting eunuchs into the assembly of the Lord (Dt. 23:1) makes it unlikely that he was a Jewish proselyte in the full sense. He is a ‘God-fearer’ like Cornelius, who is brought to experience the messianic salvation through the preaching of a Jewish believer. Cf. Kern, ‘Paul’s Conversion’, 65-8.

[9] B. R. Gaventa, From Darkness to Light. Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament, Overtures to Biblical Theology 20 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 107, 122. Her explanation of the term alteration is given on p. 40. G. N. Davies, ‘When was Cornelius saved?’, RTR 46 (1987), 43-9 (44), similarly argues that we should speak of ‘the transition of a godly believer (dependent upon OT revelation) into the new age of the Spirit, rather than the conversion of an unbeliever.’

[10] B. R. Gaventa, From Darkness to Light, 124. I would argue that, despite its location and time-specific elements, Acts 2 provides a normative account of how Jews became Christians. It is Luke’s most complete narrative in this connection and its position in the unfolding narrative suggests this, with various subsequent allusions to aspects of Acts 2 indicating that this is how Luke saw things.

[11] Cf. P. Bolt, ‘Mission and Witness’, in I. H. Marshall & D. Peterson (ed.), Witness to the Gospel, 191-214.

[12] For a discussion of scholarly opinion about the terms ‘God-fearer’ and ‘proselyte’, see Witherington 1998, 341-4, and I. Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Volume 5 Diaspora Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster,1996), 19-126.

[13] R. J. Cassidy, Societyand Politics in the Acts of the Apostles (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 21-3.

[14] Cf. Cassidy, Society and Politics, 24-38. In connection with the last two points, Acts shows ‘the apostles and Stephen becoming steadily more direct in charging the chief priests and their allies with the death of Jesus.’ (p. 33) In recounting the harsh treatment they themselves suffered, ‘Luke does not indicate that the disciples undertook any retaliatory actions or even allowed themselves to harbor vengeful attitudes.’ (p. 37)

[15] For the use of such terms in Greek literature and for possible Hebrew parallels, cf. Barrett, Acts I, 233-4. Here they mean that the apostles were not trained as interpreters of Scripture and the Rabbinic tradition

[16] Cassidy, Society and Politics, 42.

[17] Cassidy, Society and Politics, 43.

[18] In ordinary Greek usage, this terminology described the right of citizens to say anything in the public assembly, openness to truth, and the courage of openness or candour. For Luke, however, the underlying notion is that of a prophetic compulsion (v. 20) and a divine enabling (vv. 29, 31) to speak the truth about God. Cf. H. Schlier, TDNT 5:872-3; W. C. van Unnik, ‘The Christian’s Freedom of Speech in the New Testament’, BJRL 44 (1961-2), 466-88 (477); S. B. Marrow, ‘Parrhēsia and the New Testament’, CBQ 44 (1982), 431-46.

[19] Jesus’ own predictions about Jerusalem and the temple being destroyed as an act of divine judgement (cf. Lk. 21:5-6, 24; Mt. 24:1-2; Mk. 13:1-2) were distorted by false witnesses at his trial to signify that he himself would destroy the temple (cf. Mt. 26:61; 27:40; Mk. 14:57-8).

[20] Cf. G. N. Stanton, ‘Stephen in Lucan Perspective’, Studia Biblica 1978 III: Papers on Paul and Other New Testament Authors, JSNTSS 3 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1980), 347-8.

[21] Some scholars have argued for the existence of a radical, Hellenistic Christian theology in the early church, that goes back to Stephen and is later developed by Paul, but Witherington, Acts, 259, rightly argues that this involves ‘a significant distortion by overmagnification of what little evidence there is.’

[22] I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles. An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1980), 207.

[23] The implication here is that public opinion had largely turned against the apostles and the early church by this stage. Just as rulers and people conspired together to destroy Jesus (cf. 4:27), so there might be collusion to eliminate his apostle. Yet God intervened to deliver Peter from this fate (12:6-11).

[24] Cf. Cassidy, Society and Politics, 47-8; Barrett, Acts I, 574-5.

[25] F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles. The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 1990), 288-9, and Barrett, Acts I, 588-92, discuss the relationship between Luke’s account and that of Josephus regarding this event.

[26] Cf. R. C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary InterpretationVolume 2 The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 202.

[27] Luke means that the girl was possessed by an underworld spirit, who spoke through her. Python was originally the name of the snake or dragon that inhabited Delphi (originally Pythia) and in Greek mythology was killed by Apollo. This snake became a symbol or representative of the underworld. Apollo was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire ‘pythonesses’ as his female mouthpieces. Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum 9.414E, called such soothsayers ‘ventriloquists’, because they uttered words beyond their own control.  Cf. Johnson, Acts, 1992, 293-4; Barrett, Acts II, 784-5

[28] Cf. T. Klutz, The Exorcism Stories in Luke-Acts. A Sociostylistic Reading, SNTSMS 129 (Cambridge: Cambrige University, 2004), 215-217, on the use of this verb in the LXX. The practice of divination is associated with falsehood and deceit in scripture. If Luke had wanted to present the girl’s activity in a more positive fashion, he could easily have labelled it ‘prophesying’.

[29]Witherington, Acts, 494. Cf. Johnson, Acts, 294, who also draws attention to Lk. 12:21; 16:1-9, 16, 19-26; Acts 1:6-21; 5:1-11. Klutz, Exorcism Stories, 210, observes that Paul and his companions are portrayed in 16:16-21 as ‘Torah-observant Jews, who not only stand firm against the forces of paganism but also subvert the most acquisitive and immoral elements of the same system.’

[30] A. N. Sherwin-White (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 82.  Barrett, Acts II, 790, adds that, the reference to Paul and Silas as Jews may be significant: ‘Roman policy was to be tolerant towards Jews in the practice of their religion, but there is some ground for thinking that there was at this time a reaction against any kind of proselytization.’ Johnson, Acts, 302, simply speaks of Judaism’s susceptibility to sudden surges of anti-Semitic fury at the local level.

[31] Witherington, Acts, 507, says they may have been unemployed day labourers, who had been ‘marginalized by the highly stratified society of the ancient world and reduced to catch-as-catch-can work, when someone needed temporary help.’

[32] Noting the use of the same verb in 21:38, Barrett, Acts II, 815, suggests that the meaning is much more like ‘led [the world] into revolt’. Cf. Johnson, Acts, 307 (‘subverting the Empire’). Barrett asserts that οἰκουμένη (used 8 times in Luke-Acts and 7 times elsewhere in the NT) means ‘the whole civilized world’. However, within the present context it clearly refers to the realm in which Caesar is supposed to be supreme.

[33] Cf. Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 96.

[34] A. Ehrhardt, The Acts of the Apostles (Manchester: Manchester University, 1969), 96, argued this case, based on the evidence of Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4. Cf. Acts 18:2. If the riots in Rome were caused by the preaching of Christ (‘Chrestus’ in the Latin source) amongst Jews, the implications in a place like Thessalonica might have been that the Jewish leaders stirred the mob ‘to side with that party which was loyal to the Emperor.’

[35] C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, (ed.) C. Gempf (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1989; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 167, summarizing E. A. Judge, ‘The Decrees of Caesar at Thessalonica’, RTR  30 (1971), 1-7.

[36] F. S. Spencer, Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 171. Witherington, Acts, 508, highlights the politically-charged language in the Thessalonian letters as further proof of the political impact of Paul’s teaching in the city.

[37] Judge, ‘The Decrees of Caesar’, 3. As in Lk. 23:2, with the use of the word basileu,j, the confession of Jesus as Messiah is put in ‘the most politically inflammatory form’ (Johnson, Acts, 307).

[38] Spencer, Acts, 171. Nevertheless, Spencer, 133-6, provides an interesting survey of the way in which Paul’s missions disrupt conventional social-symbolic systems, but not always in the same way among the same people. Cf. J. H. Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts: “They Turn the World Upside Down’, in J. H. Neyrey (ed.). The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 271-3.

[39] Tannehill, Narrative Unity II, 226.

[40] F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, Third Revised and Enlarged Edition (Leicester/Grand Rapids: Apollos/Eerdmans, 1990), 396.

[41] Tannehill, Narrative Unity II, 226. Barrett, Acts II, 872-3, concludes that ‘perhaps the Jews wished to prove that Christianity was so different from Judaism that it could not be regarded as a religio licita.’ H. W. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul.  A Juridical Exegesis of the Second Half of Acts (Tübingen: Mohr, 1989), 56, suggests that ‘there was a deliberate and conscious ambiguity in the accusation which demonstrates a certain cunning, but also the weakness of the plaintiffs’ case against Paul.’

[42] Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 99-107, suggests that the Jews may have been appealing to an edict of Claudius guaranteeing them the quiet enjoyment of their own customs.  Paul was interfering with this right.

[43] The note about Paul’s impending journey to Jerusalem before this disturbance is not incidental (vv. 21-2). It acts to tie later events in Jerusalem with the scene in Ephesus. In both cases, a riot is instigated by a small group of people who provoke others (19:23-8; 21:27-9 [‘Jews from Asia’]). Each time the accusation refers to the negative effect of Paul’s teaching, the great extent of its influence (19:26; 21:28), and its harm to the local temple.

[44] R. E. Oster, ‘Ephesus as a religious Center under the Principate, I. Paganism before Constantine’, in ANRW II.18.3 (1990), 1702.

[45] Tannehill, Narrative Unity II, 243-4.

[46] Tannehill, Narrative Unity II, 202.

[47] Tannehill, Narrative Unity II, 203.  Thus the narrative shows awareness of ‘the culture-shaking power of the mission.’

[48] Witherington, Acts, 500.

[49] E.g. Lk. 4:32; 10:39, ‘his message’; 5:1; 8:11, 21; 11:28, ‘the word of God’; 9:26; 21:33; 24:44, ‘my words’.

[50] E.g. Acts 2:41, Peter’s message; 4:4; 8:4; 10:44; 16:6; 18:5, ‘the word’; 4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 44, 46, 48; 16:32; 17:13; 18:11, ‘the word of God’; 8:25; 13:49; 15:36; 19:10, 20, ‘the word of the Lord’; 13:26, ‘the message of this salvation’; 14:3; 20:32, ‘the message of his grace’.

[51] The text says literally, ‘Thus the word of the Lord grew mightily (taking κατὰ κράτος with η͗ύξανεν) and prevailed’ (NRSV).  ESV (‘So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevailed mightily’) takes κατὰ κράτος with  ͗ίσχυεν (as TNIV apparently also does), which seems less likely in view of the word order  in Greek.  The Alexandrian witnesses are divided, with the majority having the unusual word order τοῦ κυρίου ὁ λόγος.  So an alternative translation might be, ‘by the power of the Lord the word grew and prevailed.’  Cf. Barrett, Acts II, 914, for a discussion of secondary readings in this verse.

[52] J. Kodell ‘“The Word of God Grew” – The Ecclesial Tendency of Logos in Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20’, Biblica 55 (1974), 505-19 (517). Kodel continues: ‘The flourishing of the early Christian community was proof positive for Luke that the word had fallen on good soil and was bearing fruit.’

[53] Kodell. ‘The Word of God’, 509. It is far less likely that ‘the word of God’ here means ‘the person of Christ himself’, despite Lk. 2:40.

[54] Kodell 1974, 511.  The language of the creation mandate (Gn. 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1, 7) becomes the basis for the promise that God will grow and multiply his chosen people (Gn. 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4; Ex. 1:7; Lv. 26:9; Je. 3:16; 23:3).  Luke takes up this formula from the LXX ‘to fit his presentation of the growth and expansion of the New Testament People of God.’

[55] Kodell, ‘The Word of God’, 517.

[56] Cf. D. Peterson, ‘Kerygma or kerygmata: is there only one gospel in the New Testament?’, in C. Green (ed.), God’s Power to Save. One Gospel for a Complex World? (Leicester: Apollos, 2006), 155-84 (esp. 162-73 on the gospel in Acts).

[57] Cf. J. T. Squires, ‘The Plan of God’, in I. H. Marshall & D. Peterson (ed.), Witness to the Gospel, 19-39.

[58] For a discussion of the specific difficulties of this text, cf. D. Peterson, ‘Atonement Theology in Luke-Acts: Some Methodological Reflections’, in P. J. Williams, A. D. Clarke, P. M. Head and D. Instone-Brewer (ed.), The New Testament in its First Century Setting. Essays on Context and Background in Honour of B. W. Winter on His 65th Birthday (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2004), 56-71 (62-4).

[59] W. W. & R. P. Menzies, Spirit and Power. Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 90. This view is base on the argument that Luke represents a pre-Pauline, Jewish pneumatology derived from intertestamental expectations. Cf. R. P. Menzies, The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology with Special Reference to Luke-Acts, JSNTS 54 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1991); Empowered for Witness. The Spirit in Luke-Acts (London: Clark, 2004).

[60] J. M. Penney, The Missionary Emphasis of Lucan Pneumatology, JPTS 12 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 15.

[61] Penney, Missionary Emphasis, 89.

[62] Cf. J. Read, ‘More than the Spirit of Mission? An evaluation of whether Pentecostal paradigms adequately articulate Luke’s presentation of the work of the Spirit in the book of Acts’ (MTh Dissertation, Oak Hill College Library: London, 2006).

[63] Cf. D. Peterson, Engaging with God. A Biblical Theology of Worship (Leicester: Apollos, 1992; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 206-21, 247-50.

[64] The noun  παρακλῆσει and its cognates have a range of meanings well illustrated and discussed by O. Schmitz & G. Stählin, TDNT 5:773-99. While ‘comfort’ may be an appropriate translation in view of the persecution context, the broader sense of ‘encouragement’ might be better, linked as it is with the positive notion of progressing in the fear of the Lord, and with church growth.


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