16 Aug 2022

Reading Luke-Acts: Thoughts on Luke’s “Patternism”

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Mission, Patternism
One Story Part of an Ongoing Story

Growing Up with Acts

I grew up on Acts.

Actually, I grew up on selected portions of Acts. I grew up with bits and pieces of Acts cut apart, shuffled, and reassembled. Acts was a “book of conversions” as I was taught. What I did not grow up on was Acts as a coherent and unified narrative as it is presented by its author, Luke. Frankly there were large swaths of Acts that was quite literally terra incognita.

In 2021, I did a series on the Book of Acts called “Walk this Way.” For months leading up to that series, I read the book as a whole every week and then I would read Luke and Acts together. In preparing for this series I reread numerous sources. My reading of Acts is profoundly indebted to Richard Oster, Jacob Jervell (I cannot imagine doing exegesis of Luke/Acts without Jervell), Richard Bauckham, C. H. Talbert, Greg Sterling, Donald Juel, William Willimon, Mark Kinzer, and Carl Holladay. To a lesser extent it has been shaped by N. T. Wright/M. Bird, F. F. Bruce, and Willie Jennings.

I confess that my understanding of Luke-Acts is very different than what I learned in David Underwood’s (of blessed memory) Acts class in undergrad many moons ago. This is no knock on my beloved teacher rather it is a tribute to the love he instilled for the book. I have just come to appreciate that Luke’s agenda and our agenda did not always come together.

To offer a brief summary, Luke’s “agenda” is to present a continuing story, it is the continuing story of Israel. Luke’s continuing story is analogous to how Chronicles retells the same story contained in Samuel-Kings and extends it. It is:

The Same God: the God of Israel.

The Same Promises: the Promises to Abraham, David & Israel.

The Same Mission: the Mission for which Israel was created.

The Same People: Renewed.

Luke writes a fundamentally Jewish story. In fact it is incredibly Jewish. That’s right, Luke is not the “Gentile” Gospel but the faithful God of the ancestors keeping faith and promises to the fathers and people of God. It is an Israel made new story.

Ten Pointers on Faithfully Reading Luke’s Story

First. 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 continues thru what we call Acts. Thus Luke and Acts are a single, holistic, story with unifying themes in two-volumes.

Imagine a multi-volume series today: Lord of the Rings; Hunger Games; Star Wars; Game of Thrones; the Pendragon Cycle. One cannot 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. Return of the King reads different, and reads more coherently, when one connects the people, places and episodes against The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

So, Acts first of all reads differently, and coherently, when connected specifically first to the Gospel of Luke and with the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (or Luke’s copy of it in the LXX). Luke himself points to the connections between not only the two books but the umbilical cord to the Story of Israel when he narrates Mary/Miriam’s song (Lk 1.46-55) and when tells us that the resurrected Jesus spent forty days giving the disciples a graduate course on “Old Testament” theology which becomes the basis of Acts (Luke 24.44-45).

I encourage you, when you read Acts – read it in light of the Gospel of Luke. When you study Acts – study in light of Luke and the “living oracles” – which for him are only the Scriptures of Israel. Not just in light of however but as the same ongoing story.

Second. When we read Acts as part of Luke-Acts, the unified and single story, that the Holy Spirit inspired, something interesting does happen. First certain narrative patterns emerge. This is undeniable. When we read Acts 1 to 28, however, the patterns that emerge are not Roberts Rules for Doing Church. In fact as Acts is written there are considerable differences 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.

Third. If Acts is continuing the story of what Jesus the Messiah not only did but is doing, and we connect Acts to the Gospel of Luke, there is one pattern that emerges. Jesus is found praying and seeking divine guidance and power at every turn: at his baptism (3.21) at choosing his disciples (5.16) all night (6.12) when his name is confessed (9.18) at his transfiguration (9.28) at the cross (22.41). The “church” follows this “pattern” thus they pray while waiting (1.14) while seeking to replace one of the twelve (1.24) the apostles devote themselves to prayer (6.4-6) when performing miracles (8.15; 9.40) Peter “gets away” to pray at Joppa (10.9) gathering at Mark’s house (12.12) commissioning mission (13.3) and these places 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 are supposed to do.

Fourth. When we begin in Luke we notice that the Spirit is given to Jesus in prayer at his baptism (in fact unlike Matthew, Luke does not actually narrate Jesus’s baptism.). The dove descends and the voice is heard while Jesus is praying (3.22). Only then does he begin his ministry (3.22). The 120 follow this pattern. They are told to wait until they receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.5, 8 ). Only When the Spirit descends on them do they begin a public ministry. All the “characters” in Acts are, like Jesus, filled 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 did.

Fifth. The Stephen narrative is instructive. Here Luke brings together three parallel stories in fact: Moses, Jesus, and Stephen. For my purpose, I focus on Jesus and Stephen. 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 them. Both commit their lives to God. Both are killed. Both are buried by devout faithful people. What is the point of this pattern? That Jesus’s life is radically reproduced in the life of his church. The story of the church should be the story of what Jesus said and did.

Sixth. In Acts we find the disciples doing what Jesus had commanded in his ministry. Thus the disciples “rejoice” when persecuted (Acts 5.41, etc), 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 troublesome area of money and economics in Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, much more than in Matthew, Mark or John (though not absent in these Gospels) Jesus encourages a Year of Jubilee ethic. Jesus defined his entire ministry in terms of the Sabbath of Sabbaths: God’s Jubilee (Lk 4.16-19). He encourages sharing possessions and condemns greed and selfishness harshly. Stories on this theme told only in Luke’s Gospel are (and Luke knows you have read these stories when he tells these other stories in Acts): the Rich Man and Lazarus; ‘blessed are you who are poor now“; Zaccheus; parables about inviting the poor, lame, maimed, blind; the dishonest steward; and the command to sell your possessions and give alms. This 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. Negatively we read of Ananias and Sapphira, 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 Way. And Luke is inviting us to “Walk on this Way.”

Seventh. Shift gears slightly. Traditional “Church of Christ” patternism claims that “uniformity is the very thing that the Lord requires.” Acts, however, does not teach this claim anywhere. We have noted some genuine patterns in Luke-Acts however. Many resist these patterns. These patterns are in fact “hard.” But For the Luke, the Life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus the King of Israel, interpreted through the Spirit and the so called Old Testament, was the authority. 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 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). That Way is absolutely nothing like any church I have ever been in my life. This church, 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 to be part of Israel. Jews did not have to become Gentiles to be part of renewed Israel. This is the entire point of Acts 15. But Gentiles do become part of the restored House of David, the renewed Israel. The Gentiles, as Gentiles, is proof the God of Israel is keeping the promises to (cf. Acts 15.16; see 15.15-17). Gentiles live among Jews with the same “rules” as the Law says for resident aliens in the land (Acts 15.21; Leviticus 17.8,9,10; 18.6-23; etc).

Eight. The pattern of diversity canonized by Luke under Spirit guidance is breath taking. It was not uniformity of liturgy that bound the early Way together in Acts. If we ever caught the biblical vision of the Spirit 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 and has caused caused us to deny what is plainly there.

In Acts we learn that “great compan[ies] of priests” embrace the Messiah but do not cease to be priests (6.7). In Acts we learne that Paul is a Pharisee who just happened to be an “apostle” (Acts 23.6; 26.4). We learn that Paul explicitly defines “salvation” itself in terms of “the hope of ISRAEL” (28.20; 23.6). We learn that Paul takes Jewish Nazarite vows seemingly routinely (Acts 18.18; 23.23-27). We learn that the Jerusalem Way and Paul offer sacrifices in the Temple (Acts 24.11,17-18). 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, 21 and 24. Because we have, most of the time, failed to read Acts from the direction of 1) the “Living Oracles” and 2) the Gospel of Luke we have failed to notice that Paul and James are “in one accord” that 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) and now part of the same story as natural born Israelites.

Liturgically (that is how WORSHIP IS DONE) this meant diversity. Paul did not have his arm twisted to take vows, honor the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread (Acts 20.4-6), desire to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost (20.16), offer animal sacrifice in Acts 21. He says himself, that he was going to do that whether James suggested it or not (Acts 24.11-17, a text that habitually ignored by many including “traditional” Pauline NT scholarship).

Disciples, shaped by the Protestant Reformation more than we ever realize, 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). The apostle James (and our Lord’s brother), according to surviving testimony, was so Jewish that he looked and dressed like a Jewish priest as an apostle for Jesus (but it is difficult to believe that James was any more Jewish than brother, the King of the Jews!). But this belies our prejudice because Paul himself looked so Jewish he was routinely invited to teach in synagogues. Paul has his phylacteries on!

These are just some of the diversity of the early Way. Yet in spite of this Luke tells us that God’s people are one and diversity is part of that oneness. Luke notes there is in fact conflict but unless Luke is lying the conflict was not between the leadership and most of the followers of the Way. The Jerusalem leadership celebrated the Gentile mission (cf. Acts 21.20). There were rogue elements however as there always is (just read the Psalms!). The issue at contention among those rogue groups was the rumors of what Paul was telling JEWS in the Diaspora, not what he was teaching Gentiles.

Nine. When we read Luke-Acts as the Spirit gave it and not a little here and a little there (like the excess dough in those Christmas 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 in Acts until 14.23. What is significant about 14.23 is that we have already read about “elders” within a specifically Jewish context in Acts. Paul is simply using Jewish synagogue polity for his Gentile congregations. They are after all now part of the restored “House of David.” Acts shows no interest at all in how a congregation is “organized” (a question that has consumed so much of our own historic patternism), not one iota is given in the narrative to the subject. Not one worship “service” is related by Luke, unless we take Acts 2.42’s declaration they gathered for worship at the “hour of prayer/sacrifice” is Luke’s depiction. Singing is mentioned once and it took place in a jailhouse (Acts 16.25; the other example of singing is Mary’s Song, Lk 2.46-55). 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 is hard to accept … we want to “fix” Luke! But Luke loves diversity.

Ten. When we read Luke-Acts as a single unified story with an eye on how that continues the story that is related in Israel’s scriptures, 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 (in fact almost all the designations used by Luke come from Israel’s scriptures!), 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 yourself.

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 and teaching of Jesus the promised Messiah reproduced in the life of renewed Israel whether in Palestine or Greece. The hermeneutical goal is not to be like the first century church but like Christ = The King of Israel in every fashion. We know we are on Christ’s Way 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. 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. His interest or pattern is, in short this:

The Same God: the God of Israel.

The Same Promises: the Promises to Abraham, David & Israel.

The Same Mission: the Mission for which Israel was created.

The Same People: Renewed.

Be blessed.

Leave a Reply