7 Sep 2017

Luke’s Pattern for the Church: Reading Luke-Acts, a Story within a Story

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Church, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Holy Spirit, Kingdom, Luke, Patternism, Unity, Worship

A Memory

I grew up on Acts. I learned that Acts was primarily a “book of conversions” and that Acts 2 was “the center of the Bible” for distinguishing between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  To quote my dad, “we have been Axed to death Robert.” Approaching Acts as a book whose purpose was, apparently, to prove the we had to be baptized lead to a concentration on only a few select texts: Acts 2.38, the conversion of the Ethiopian, and Acts 22.16.  Now it was not only these texts but those are the ones that were mentioned repeatedly.

We read Acts as we did the rest of the Bible, piecemeal. A great deal of Acts, I would even say the majority of Acts, was missed. The majority of Acts has no conversions and is not even interested in making sure all of the conversions are done exactly the same. The last third of the book narrates none.

Perhaps Acts is something other than a “book of conversions” and Acts 2 just may not be the “center of the Bible.” Luke may be following a pattern in Acts 2 but it is a pattern few want to acknowledge.  Luke connects Pentecost with Calvary and he models the Calvary-Pentecost event upon the Exodus-Sinai pattern.

Luke’s One Story, Not Two

The Holy Spirit did not inspire Luke to write Acts. The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write a single unified narrative of what Jesus began to do and say (Acts 1.1), a story that begins in Luke continuing through what we call Acts. Thus Luke-Acts is a single, holistic, story with unifying themes. Imagine the multi-volume series today: Lord of the Rings; Hunger Games; Star Wars as analogy. Or better that Second Chronicles continues the story from First Chronicles.

It is difficult to take “Return of the King” or “Return of the Jedi” as a stand alone work. To use an analogy: as Return of the Jedi shows the redemption and renewal of Anakin Skywalker, so Acts continues the “tale” of the redemption and renewal of Israel as the people of God through the coming Messiah and the Holy Spirit. The story begins Mary praises God because he,

has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to
our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever
(Luke 1.54-55)

So Paul closes the story with the same sentiment,

I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and to speak with you since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain” (Acts 28.19-20)

Return of the King reads differently, and more coherently, when we connect the people, places and episodes against The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.  Acts reads differently, and more coherently, when connected specifically to the Gospel of Luke and with the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (or Luke’s copy of it in the LXX). Some have even suggested that Luke-Acts is sort of like a Third Chronicles.

I encourage you, when you read Acts – read it in light of Luke. When you study Acts – study it in light of Luke and the “living oracles” – which for him are only the Scriptures of Israel. Read Luke and Acts as a single, unified, story within a story.

The story of Jesus takes place within God’s story of Israel in accordance with the promises to Abraham “and all his descendants.” The story of the church is part of the story of Jesus which is part of that bigger story of God with Israel.

Mary and Paul’s statements provide an “envelope” for Luke’s work, they are a frame.  There is a narrative thread that runs from Mary in the beginning to Paul in the end … and if the analogy to Chronicles is legit (and I think it is) it is even interesting that Luke ends his work abruptly and leaving us “hanging.”  Just as in Chronicles.

Opening Up the One Story: What we Do and Don’t See

Reading Acts as part of Luke-Acts, the unified and single story, that the Holy Spirit inspired, something interesting does happen. First certain narrative patterns do in fact emerge. This is undeniable. We see parallel patterns in characters and events just as when Tolkien narrates in Lord of the Rings.

Reading Acts 1 to 28, however, the patterns that emerge are not Roberts Rules for Doing Church. There is not an iota in Acts, for instance, on how Paul set up a local church in Asia. We learn that some elders were appointed but nothing is said regarding their qualifications and duties except that the Holy Spirit appointed them (Acts 20.28). There is not even a single verse on the worship of Paul’s congregations, except that we learn that they “broke bread.” Luke quite literally tells us nothing regarding the organization and worship of the Gatherings of the Messiah. There is one exception to this: the Jerusalem church. Many will quote Acts 2.42 about the Messianic community being devoted to the apostles teaching and the breaking of the bread but freely reject that church a any kind of “pattern” for how church is to be done.

In fact as Acts is written, that is inspired by the Spirit, there is considerable diversity that he relates to us. They are not the pattern he seeks to inculcate. But first we need to recognize that the “story” does not begin in Acts 1.1. It begins in Luke 1.1 and even before that as Luke assumes the hearers of his single story are in fact saturated in the LXX as Jesus tells us in Luke 24.

If Luke tells us so little about the “doings” of the church it is a fair question to ask, maybe that was not his nor the Holy Spirit’s purpose.

What Jesus is Doing

If Acts is continuing the story of what Jesus not only did but is doing.  Reading Acts as the same story as the Gospel of Luke we do find a pattern that emerges. Jesus is found praying and seeking divine guidance and power at every turn: at his baptism (Luke 3.21), at choosing his disciples (Luke 5.16), all night (Luke 6.12), when his name is confessed (Luke 9.18), at his transfiguration (Luke 9.28), at the cross (Luke 22.41).

The “church” follows this messianic “pattern.” Thus they pray while waiting (Acts 1.14), while seeking to replace one of the twelve (Acts 1.24), the apostles devote themselves to prayer (Acts 6.4-6), when performing miracles (Acts 8.15; 9.40), Peter “gets away” to pray at Joppa (Acts 10.9), gathering at Mark’s house (Acts 12.12), commissioning mission (Acts 13.3), and in these places Acts 16.25; 20.36; 21.5; 22.17; and 28.8.

What is the point of this pattern? It is that Jesus is now living in and through his people, restored Israel. The church did not ask “What would Jesus do?” The church did what Jesus would do. Or that is what they were supposed to do. The church mirrors Jesus’s walk with God for the sake of the world.

Beginning in the beginning, as Luke calls us (Acts 1.1-5), we notice that the Spirit is given to Jesus in prayer at his baptism (Luke does not actually narrate John’s baptism of Jesus!).

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove …” (Luke 3.21-22)

Only after Jesus has been “anointed” does he begin his ministry (Luke 3.22-23).  Jesus is clothed with power from on high as he notes himself in Luke 4.18-19 (quoting Isaiah 61.1-2 and 58.6). The 120, in Acts 2, follow this very same pattern. The disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit according to the promise of the Father being clothed with “power” from on high (Luke 24.49; Acts 1.5,8). Only after the Spirit descends upon the messianic community do they begin a public ministry.

All the “characters” in Acts are, like Jesus the Anointed One, filled (or anointed) with the Holy Spirit: Peter (4.8); Stephen (6.5); Paul (13.9) and many other references. What is the point of this pattern? That the early church is lead by and directed by God’s own Spirit to do and say what Jesus said and did.  The entire church is anointed and Luke wants us to think about the “promise” given in Ezekiel 36.16-38; 37.14; 39.29; Isaiah 59.21, etc. That is the story of Jesus and the church is taking place within the larger story of God with Israel, a story within a story.

Stephen and the Jesus Pattern

The Stephen narrative is instructive. Here Luke brings together three parallel stories in fact: Moses, Jesus and Stephen. For our present purpose I focus on Jesus and Stephen for the sake of brevity. Both are spoken well of. Both are filled with the Spirit. Both are recipients of wisdom, grace and power. Both do “signs and wonders” (a Mosaic connection). Both are accused of blasphemy. Both are taken to the council. Both have the eyes of the group fixed on them. Both are cast out of the city. Both pray to God that this crime will not be held against the perpetrators. Both commit their spirit to God. Both are killed. Both are buried by devout faithful people.

What is the point of this pattern? That Jesus’s messianic life is radically reproduced in the life of his messianic community. The story of the church should be the story of what Jesus said and did.  This pattern is really there. It is not reconstructed and brought together like a jigsaw puzzle of scattered, random, and disconnected verses taken from their own setting. The story of Stephen is almost like a miniature passion of Jesus, except that it is a member of the messianic community. Jesus’s life and his death are as much a pattern for the disciples of Christ as well as his resurrection in the flesh from the dead.

Luke knows nothing of the old dispensational hermeneutic that relegates Jesus’s life and teaching to the “old covenant” and thus “not binding.”  For Luke, Jesus is what God was doing to and for the renewal of Israel for the sake of the whole world.  The anointed Christ is therefore the pattern for living, for dying, for praise, for worship, for the kingdom, for the “hope of Israel.” For more on Acts 2 not as the beginning of a different and new covenant but as a renewal of the covenant, See my article here: Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, The Day God Renewed His Covenant.

The Church Obeys the teaching of Jesus

In Acts we find the disciples doing what Jesus had commanded during his ministry. Thus the disciples “rejoice” when persecuted (Acts 5.41, etc) and they “shake the dust” off when rejected (Lk 9.3-5; Acts 13.51; 18.6).

This pattern of doing as Jesus directed is most evident in the that troublesome area of money, economics, and koinonia in Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, much more than in Matthew, Mark or John (though not absent in these Gospels) Jesus proclaims the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4.18-19).

In fact, Luke tells us, Jesus defined his entire ministry in terms of the Sabbath of Sabbaths – God’s Jubilee. He encourages sharing possessions and condemns greed and selfishness harshly. Stories on this theme told only in Luke are (and Luke knows we have read these stories when he narrates Acts. Its like reading in Return of the King and remembering the Fellowship of the Ring): the Rich Man and Lazarus; ‘blessed are you who are poor NOW”; Zaccheus; the widow and her coin in the temple; parables about inviting the poor, lame, maimed, blind; the dishonest steward; and the command to sell your possessions and give alms to the poor.

Jesus’s Jubilee pattern shows up in Acts. Both positively and negatively. Thus the early church “sells” their possessions and no one claimed their property as their own (Acts 2 & 4); we are told of Barnabas’s generosity, Dorcas caring for the poor, Paul and the Antioch church. And Paul brings “alms to my nation” (Acts 24.16-17). Negatively we read of Ananias and Sapphira holding back, Simon, Felix and even Judas.

What is the point of this Pattern? That the early church became what Jesus taught … Year of Jubilee people. The ministry of Jesus was the pattern for the life, thought and teaching of the early church. For a fuller study of Jubilee see my article here: Jubilee and the Story of God: Our Task and Identity in the World.

Luke was a physician, author, and a Jedi knight

Pattern of Sanctified Diversity

Shift gears slightly. Traditional patternism in Churches of Christ claims that “uniformity is the very thing that the Lord requires.” Acts, however, does not teach this claim anywhere. We have noted some ingrained patterns in Luke-Acts however. Ironically many know nothing of these patterns and want nothing to do with them.

These patterns are in fact “hard.” But For the Luke, the life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus, interpreted through the Spirit and the so called “Old Testament,” was the authority and pattern for the messianic community.

But reading from Acts 1 to 28, we are hard pressed to find “churches” that are “uniform.” That oft quoted text in Acts 2.42 of continuing “steadfastly in the apostles doctrine” (KJV) is simply not believed, though quoted. That text refers to assembling and worshiping in the Temple at the daily hours of sacrifice. That text refers to selling possessions and sharing all things in common (v.45, what Luke means by “fellowship”).

That apostolic church, in Acts 2, is absolutely nothing like any church I have ever been in my life. The community described in Acts 2.42 is the same church, that is “the mother church” when we are through 75 percent of the Book of Acts (that is by Acts 21). It is clear – on every page nearly of Acts – that churches in Jerusalem, Joppa, and Samaria, are quite different than those in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia and other places. Ironically this is in fact a “pattern.” It is a “pattern” of diversity. Gentiles did not have to become ethnic Jews, did not have to look like Jews, did not have to worship like Jews to be part of Israel. Conversely, Jews did not have to become Gentiles to be part of renewed Israel.

Luke devotes all of Acts 15 to this matter. But Acts 15 has specifically been denied being a “pattern requirement.”  But the entire anointed community comes together to seek the Lord’s will, and a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem in Israel was offered that “seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.” The solution was diversity. The apostle James, Jesus’s brother, explicitly notes this in another regularly hidden text, Acts 21.

They have been told [James refers to rumors circulating among some Jews started by Jews from Asia] about you that you teach all the JEWS living among the Gentiles [in the Diaspora] to forsake Moses that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.  So do what we tell you. We have four men under a vow [cf. Acts 18.18; Numbers 6]. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know there is nothing in the rumors they have been told about you, BUT THAT YOU YOURSELF OBSERVE AND GUARD THE LAW. But as for the GENTILES WHO HAVE BECOME BELIEVERS, we have sent a letter [cf. Acts 15.23-29; 16.1-5, note v.4] that it is our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from fornication. Then Paul took the men and having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification WHEN THE SACRIFICE WOULD BE MADE for each of them” (Acts 21.20-26).

It is difficult to find a clearer text than Acts 15 and 21. James is adamant that Gentiles are not bound to certain measures of the Law. This is clear in the Council and its letter in Acts 15 and 21.17-20.  Paul and James are on the same page here.  At the same time the Jerusalem church, including James and Paul, believed that Jews did not become Gentiles and cease being Jews in their walk with God, including worship.  Gentiles, to use Pauline lingo, are grafted into the tree of Israel by the grace of the Jewish King and join Israel, as the nations, to worship the Creator of all the Diversity of Creation (cf. Romans 15.7-13, 16). Renewed Israel is paradigmatic for the entire renewal of creation itself. Diversity is a must. For more on Jewish character of early Christianity in Acts see my article: Acts, A Jewish Story: James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice.

The pattern of diversity canonized by Luke under the Spirit’s guidance is breath taking. It was not uniformity of liturgy that bound the early church together in Acts. If we ever caught the biblical vision of the Spirit given diversity of God’s renewed Israel it would save us a lot of trouble.

The Jerusalem church was as “authentically” on The Way as the disciples in Galatia. Our false assumptions have quite literally blinded us at times to the pattern that Luke actually gave us, while causing us to deny what is plainly inscripturated.

In Acts, we learn that Paul is a Pharisee, who just happened to be an “apostle” (Acts 23.6; 26.5-6). We learn that Paul explicitly defines “salvation” itself in terms of “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28.20).  We learn that Paul takes “Old Testament” vows (acts of worship) on are regular basis.

We learn that James and Paul are both concerned that liturgical diversity not undermine the oneness of God’s renewed Israel. The early church, liturgically, participated in the Temple. This is crystal clear from Acts 2-5 and 21 (for more on Acts 2.42 see my article: They Continued Steadfastly … Acts 2.42.)

Because we have, frequently, failed to read Acts from the direction of 1) the “Old Testament” or “living oracles” and 2) the Gospel of Luke, we have failed to notice that Paul and James are “in one accord.” Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be part of God’s renewed Israel. But Paul and James did in fact think Gentiles were bound to Torah instruction regarding “aliens” in the midst of Israel (the Apostolic letter in Acts 15 contains the gist of that Mosaic instruction in Leviticus 17-18. “For Moses has been proclaimed“, Acts 15.21).

Liturgically … that is how worship is done … this meant diversity. Paul did not have his arm twisted to offer animal sacrifice in Acts 21. He says himself, that he was going to do that whether James suggested it or not for that was his purpose in coming to Jerusalem (Acts 24.11-17).

Disciples shaped by the Protestant Reformation, more than they ever realized, are often surprised that in the early church James was more influential that Paul (Paul is the “go to guy” in Protestantism … I try to avoid a canon within a canon though I probably have not succeeded in that). James, according to surviving testimony, was so Jewish that he looked and dressed like a Jewish priest as an apostle for Jesus. This is just some of the diversity of the early church, and it all right there in Luke’s story in Luke-Acts. Yet in spite of this Luke tells us that God’s people are one and diversity is part of that oneness.

Final Thoughts: Patterns that Exist and Patterns that Do Not

When we read Luke-Acts as the Spirit gave it, not a little here and a little there, while ignoring this and that inconvenient text (like the excess dough in those holiday cookie cutters!) we see an interesting and very significant fact. Luke, unless I’m missing something, relates a grand total of zero stories of the appointing of elders, or relating advice on how a church was to be “organized.” We learn that the church in Antioch had elders (11.30) but we do not read of the actual appointment of elders until 14.23.

What is significant about 14.30 is that we have already read about “elders” within a specifically “Jewish” context in Acts. Paul is simply using Jewish synagogue polity, which goes back to the elders in the city gates in Israel, for his Gentile congregations. This makes perfect sense since Paul believes (like James and Luke) that Gentiles are now part of Israel!

No worship “service” is related by Luke. The only singing in the entire book of Acts is a duet in a jail cell. The songs sung are almost surely the Psalms (Acts 16.25). What we know is that some disciples followed Temple liturgy and we know that some disciples followed more of a diaspora synagogue pattern – like in Troas. This pattern of diversity is hard to accept … we want to “fix” Luke!

Reading Luke-Acts as a single unified story with an eye on how that continues the story that is related in Israel’s Scriptures (as Jesus taught the apostles to do in Luke 24.27, 44-49), we learn that “ecclesiology” is not unimportant to Luke. But what Luke means by ecclesiology has nothing to do with five acts of worship, almost nothing to do with the “name” of the group, virtually nothing to do with the organization of the church and almost nothing to do with liturgy.

Just read Luke-Acts yourself from beginning to end and see. For Luke what we call ecclesiology is derived from christology. The goal of Luke’s narrative is to reproduce a pattern of sorts. But he is not trying to make churches like those in Palestine nor like those in Galatia.

The Pattern for the church is none other than the life, ministry, teaching and resurrection of Jesus reproduced in the life of renewed Israel whether in Palestine or Greece. The pattern is that we are to become and do what the God of Israel did in Jesus the Anointed One for the sake of the whole world in accordance with the promises to “Abraham and all his descendants.”  Abraham’s descendants include all the Gentile believers that Paul and others bring into Israel. Abraham is the father of many nations.

The hermeneutical goal is not to be like the first century church but to be like Christ in every fashion. We know we are Christ’s church when a historian has a hard time telling if what we do is what “we” do or if it is what “Jesus” is doing.

The Pattern for the “church” in Luke-Acts is the church reproducing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit among us believers. That pattern not only recognizes the diversity of God’s renewed Israel but, like James and Paul, we are willing to go the extra mile to protect it and affirm our oneness because that is what Jesus did … he got a tax collector and a zealot to sit at the same table!

The church that Luke writes about does the same thing.

Be blessed.

A Few Recommended Sources

Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God

_______, The Unknown Paul: Essays on Luke-Acts and Early Christian History

Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity

Howard Marshall, “Israel and the Story of Salvation” in Jesus and the Heritage of Israel: Luke’s Narrative Claim Upon Israel’s Legacy, edited by David P Moessner.

2 Responses to “Luke’s Pattern for the Church: Reading Luke-Acts, a Story within a Story”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Bobby, we in the church community are what I would like to call “churchcentric”, meaning all that we think and do flow through the church structure. Acts as in Luke is concerned with God’s people and not church structure, unless that structure is people joining to Jesus. In every real sense, the church isn’t the structure, but rather the people. The church structure didn’t go out and convert, the people did.
    Our life must flow through Jesus, not the structure of the church. Assembly was for edification, Christ is for life and the congregation/church are all those connected to Christ.

  2. Charlie M. Says:

    Do you think Luke might be trying to create a Christian Aeneid or Iliad/Odyssey–in other words, a Christian epic?

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