Who are We? Perhaps it is not “Christian!” Luke’s Designations for the Followers of Jesus in Acts …Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Church, Luke, Patternism, Sectarianism
Talya is off to a gun show in Phx with her boyfriend so I rode to my favorite coffee house in Tucson, Cartel Coffee (its not Starbucks), about 7:30. You can do some serious thinking with four shots of espresso pumping thru your veins 😉
Since it is the Sabbath, I thought I would offer some controversial – yet true – notions. Just blame the espresso 😉 .
Sometimes sectarian concerns can blind us. I grew up learning Acts 11.26, “the disciples were first called Christians.” It is true that this word has become THE descriptor of the followers of the Way historically.
But there is no evidence, at all, that Luke intended that to be “the name” of the followers of Jesus. In the entire book of Acts the word only occurs twice (and only three in the entire NT it is a startling fact that Paul, James, John, Jude, Hebrews never once use the term to describe anyone. Peter uses the term but not as a self-descriptor) and neither time is it used as a self-designation. It is certainly not the term Luke himself uses to describe the Jesus people. Luke does not use “church of Christ” with a big “C” or a little “c” as either a name or descriptor of the followers of Jesus even once. We find that name as “The Way.”
“[Saul] asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way ...” (Acts 9.2)
“speaking evil of the Way before the congregation ...” (Acts 19.9)
“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19.23)
“I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24.14)
“But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off ...” (Acts 24.22)
What are People on “the Way” Called by Luke?
Luke actually uses a potpourri of terms to describe the followers of Jesus with “the Way” seeming to be the one that Paul himself latched onto. Contrary to what is so frequently assumed, Luke does not think or teach that the “church” is a different religion than that of Jesus and Israel … the church is Israel renewed. So Luke uses a bunch of terms for Israel in the Hebrew Bible/LXX to describe the followers of Jesus precisely because the followers of Jesus was Israel … or as James puts it … the House of David restored. Why did I not learn these terms? One (brothers) I did learn but did not understand where it came from. So what are these terms? Here they are … I hope you will look them up yourself to see “if it is so.”
“The Brothers” (hoi adelphoi) is used 25 or 26x by Luke. This is a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking about themselves used in numerous intertestamental works and Qumran. Luke reflects this in Acts where Peter addresses the crowd as “brothers” (2.29), as does Paul in Pisidian Antioch (13.26, 38). Even up to the very end in 28.21 the Jews are called “brothers.” This is such a characteristically Jewish way of talking that the NRSV simply glosses the term as “fellow Israelites” (see Acts 2.29, etc)
Luke, seemingly without apology, also applies this term to the messianic community some 23x. For example look at 9.30; 11.29; 14.2, 15.1; 18.27). Some believe that this indicates that Luke did not believe that there was a distinction yet between the “Christians” (I am using that term accommodatingly because it is not Luke’s chosen term for the followers of Jesus though he acknowledges that OTHERS, probably enemies, called the followers that) and the “Jews.” The Jews were still the people of God.
This is Luke’s second most used term is “hoi mathetai” or the disciples (21x). The absolute form, “the disciples” is usually used without qualification but in one instance Luke says “the disciples of the Lord” (9.1).
“In Antioch the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (11.26). The verb is in the passive tense and appears to be a term applied to the disciples from the outside. One scholar writes, “little did Luke realize that this novel designation, used in scorn by the enemies of the followers of Christ, would one day eclipse the title ‘the disciples.”
The term disciples is a constant reminder that those who believe in the Christ are his personal followers. They know his presence in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Saints, like brothers, has deep Jewish roots. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX when the band of slaves were at the foot of the Mount and entered the covenant of love they were designated a “holy nation’ (Ex. 19.5-6). The writers in the Hebrew Bible thus speak of Israel collectively as ‘the saints’ (Deut 33.3, Num 16.3, Ps 34.9, 89.6. etc). In later Jewish works the saints are the “elect” of Israel who will enjoy rewards in the messianic kingdom (Dan. 7.18-27; Psalms of Solomon 17.1; 1 Enoch 51.5, 8; 62.6, 8, etc). The Qumran community claimed the title for themselves being the “the saints of his people” (1 QM 6.6, 14.22, etc).
It seems clear that in using this loaded term for his community, Luke is claiming a theologically defined status before God. They are not “new” but they are the restored Israel.
The Church/Gathering/The Gathered People
After brethren and disciples, the term ekklesia is the next most common designation for the messianic community. It is used about 19x.
Ironically through the first four chapters of Acts Luke never “names” this group of people as “church.” They are anonymous. There is no “church” until 5.11. The believers are designated in these first chapters as
“those devoting themselves with one accord to prayer”
“all those being saved”
“the community of those who have believed” (Acts 1.14, 15; 2.1, 44, 47; 4.23, 32)
It has been argued that Luke never uses the term “church” as an equivalent to what we mean by “Christianity.” This is an accurate claim.
Luke first uses the term in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in 5.11. His next use is in 7.38 which refers to the “church” assembled before Mt Sinai (!!) as Moses delivers the torah. Significantly the people in Stephen’s speech do not listen (that is they reject) the message of Moses. Because Peter had identified Jesus with the Prophet like Moses, indeed a second Moses (3.22-23) the implication seems to be that just as Moses was with the people of Israel, the ekklesia in the wilderness, so now Jesus is with restored Israel in the eschatological age.
The People (of God)
The final collective name for believers found in Acts, I wish to look at, is ho laos (the People). This is an incredibly important term for Israel. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX it is the most exclusive designations for Israel. Luke repeatedly uses it for Israel in his Gospel and in Acts. But on two occasions he “dares” to transfer this phrase to the messianic community. In 15.14, James speaks of gentiles becoming “a people (laos) for his name” and in 18.10 we read that “the Lord” tells Paul he has many people (laos) in this city.”
These references must be associated with 3.23 where Peter, speaking to Jews, says that all those who do not recognize Jesus as the prophet like Moses ‘shall be destroyed from “the people” (laos). Just as Gentiles can be included, so ethnic Jews can be cut off (so to Paul’s olive tree in Romans).
Luke never stops using the term ho laos of the Jews however. Even as late as the last chapter of the Acts we read of this significant term being applied to them (28.17, 26, 27).
Conclusion: Embrace our Place in the Story
These are just some of the ways that Luke describes the individual followers of “The Way” (Acts 24.22, etc) … all of them connect the followers of Jesus with the people of God were read about in the “Old Testament” … another term Luke never heard of. Maybe we should embrace the words Luke uses and see ourselves in the same Story that Luke places us in … the Story of Israel.