Acts Unfinished

In my article “The One Sermon” I brought up the Biblical view of the Gospel. What is the Gospel according to the gospels? It may seem an odd way of putting it because you would think the Gospel is what the Bible says? The Gospel is indeed what the Bible says however those who preach it sometimes misrepresent it. This misrepresentation is not new.

Believers in the ancient Roman province of Galatia had seriously gotten the Gospel mixed up. The apostle Paul wrote a very important letter to them to straighten things out. Elsewhere, Paul spends a lot of time telling his protégé Timothy to keep the message and make sure it does not get distorted. This means from the onset Christians have had to pay careful attention to the nature of the message. Peter explains they did not follow “cleverly devised fables” but they were “eyewitness” (2 Peter 1:16.)

Especially in the Western world, there is this idea that the Gospel is a legendary account that got more wild and fanciful as time passed by. From the perspective of the New Testament they had vested interesting in making sure the message was preserved exactly as it was. In this same spirit the evangelist Luke wanted to make sure his friend Theophilus got the story straight (Luke 1:1-4.) I personally do not know Theophilus (obviously) but I think he would have been pleased with what he read. The Gospel according to Luke is the longest canonical Gospel. It is rich in content and pays attention to detail. Luke wanted to give an orderly account of events (not necessarily in strict chronological order.)

As I have pointed out elsewhere the Gospel deals with real events. Nowadays the Gospel is thought of as many things other than the Good News. It’s thought of more as a sales pitch to buy into this particular way of living, a doctor’s prescription but you still can go for a second opinion or try alternative medicine.

The Gospel means good news because it is news. When you watch the news they are not telling you what to do but what is happening. They give you information which is hopefully relevant enough to you so you can make intelligent choices based on it. The Gospel is likewise not so much prescriptive as it is descriptive. All the biblical gospels describe events because the Gospel is about something that has happened in our world that is so radical, so important, that every person on the planet needs to hear it. Still drawing from the news analogy, news agencies and networks simply don’t say they are giving the public cold hard facts. They tell stories. It is not just journalistic lingo. The best reporters tell the best stories. They are able to convey human situations effectively to an audience that is removed from that particular context so that others can connect with the lives that are being spoken about. When people saw the devastation from the Earthquake in Haiti, the world’s heart went out to the people of the island nation. It is not the scientific facts of the effects of plate tectonics on land masses that moved people but rather the real stories told by the media outlets. The Gospel is a message but a particular kind, a news story. Of course the Gospel is more than this one-liner. A message that claims to be the message must have a lot of layers to it.

The Gospel Jesus preached was the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Biblical view of God is that he is a holy king and his people had been waiting for him to take charge. This is not to say that the Hebrews thought God had abdicated his responsibilities but rather God was going to establish his will on earth and set everything right according to his will. For the Jews the one true God was their King and they were waiting for him to rule in their midst and through them bring peace and blessing to the entire world. The Jewish people however were under foreign occupation and longed for the Divine King. They therefore really wanted to know when the kingdom of God would come.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” – Luke 17:20-21 ESV

Jesus claimed that this had already begun and it began in him. He was the fulfilment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. For all sorts of reasons we cannot discuss here, this was a very startling and controversial claim. Like the other gospel authors Luke chronicles the Gospel, the story of the Kingdom of God on earth. The climax of the story is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If there was a sign that showed that God was king, the conquering of death was it. The one thing common to human experience had been overthrown. Humanity had entered a new reality called resurrection. Paul argues because of what happened to Jesus though every person dies now everybody will be raised from the dead. Death is no longer the end. Hallelujah! (I got carried away there but how can you not be?)

Now every one of the Gospel accounts do not end with an empty tomb but all record encounters between the newly resurrected Jesus and his disciples. Luke in particular ends with a quick note on the Messiah’s disciples fulfilling the commission he gave them before ascending to heaven. I find it fascinating that according to Luke the Gospel begins with John the Baptist and ends with what the disciples did in the aftermath. Things become even more interesting with Luke because it is a two volume work. What is given as a short post script in Luke and Mark is expanded into a whole volume. Now if the Gospel is the story of Jesus but the story begins before him and continues after him what really is the story about?

It is quite clear that we should not consider the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles as separate works but a two-volume master piece. I earlier pointed out that the canonical Gospels all go beyond the resurrection. In this light I want us to consider the Book of Acts as part of the Gospel. When we think of the Gospel we think of Matthew to John but I want us to consider it as Matthew to Acts. It was very clearly the intention of Luke that you had to read the “former account” before you tried Acts (Acts 1:1, 2.)

It is very difficult to say John the Baptist is not an essential part of the Gospel story. Luke records that as part of the criteria to replace Judas Iscariot you had to have been present from the Baptism of John (Acts 1:21, 22.) All the canonical gospels speak of the role John. Even though John was not Jesus he was a key part of the Jesus story. Likewise I think what the disciples of Jesus did during, and also after, his earthly stay are equally important. Though the disciples are not Jesus what the disciples did in the wake of his resurrection is also a key part of the Gospel narrative.

The ascension of Jesus into heaven directly fulfilled a prophecy given by Daniel which Jesus reiterated at his trial before his crucifixion.

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. – Daniel 7:13-14 ESV

And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven,” – Mark 14:62 ESV

The ascension was the coronation of Jesus as King. God had installed Jesus as the new regent of the cosmos. Before Jesus’ literal ascension to power in all the four gospels, he commissions his disciples, particularly the Eleven. In the light of the new regime they had a job to do. The very mission he had accomplished on earth the disciples were his legacy, the very continuation of his work. The ascension was not a full stop in the gospel accounts but rather the ushering of the next phase in the Kingdom initiative. If the Gospel is understood in this way it is no surprise that Luke does a detailed second volume. Jesus came to make an impact on this world so it is only natural to record what that impact was.

It is not only Luke who has this long view of the Gospel. Paul mentions and affirms an early Christian hymn of sorts which says,

He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. – 1 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Paul along with early Christians thought of the mission to the world as part and parcel of the Gospel.

The Book of Acts tells a very interesting story. Like the gospels before it, it is a complex multi-layered story. I particularly enjoy reading Acts because of its tempo and emotion among other things. (When Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian elders in chapter 20 is particularly moving to me.) One thing that puzzles me with Luke in particular is the ending. In my view it is not a proper ending. After all the excitement of the adventures of Paul it ends on a rather blasé note. It’s not that I don’t like the fact it ends with Paul ably fulfilling his ministry. The story tells us Paul want’s to preach to Caesar in Rome. We do reach Rome but we do not see any encounter with Caesar. All the drama, all the peril, to preach to one man and there is no emotional pay off, so to speak. The ending is abrupt. It’s like watching a football match and your favourite player has dribbled into the 18 yard box looking for goal and there’s a power cut (which is incredibly common in our part of the world.)

Whatever the reasons are for Luke giving this ending we will probably never know. Perhaps, he wrote right up to the point in time he was at and therefore he could not write about whether Paul did meet his target. If this is really an unfinished story, how was it meant to continue?

The Gospel is not an open ended story like superhero mythos where subsequent writers can do whatever they want with it. The Gospel holds a linear view of history and offers us the conclusion of the Kingdom project, a whole New Creation.

It is not only how the disciples fulfilled the commission that is important to the Gospel. He was “believed on in the world.” Jesus prayed in John 17 for his mission, those who would carry on his mission i.e. his disciples, and future participants in the mission. They are those who would believe in him through the preaching of his disciples. Jesus’ mission was global. He wanted the world to know and believe in him. I, sitting and typing these things right now, is a product of this millennia long task.

The thing is every believer is a part of the Gospel story. The Book of Acts ends abruptly but the story itself has not ended. In fact Luke, apart from the obvious fact that he is the author, is very much justified in concluding that way. After all, if you have stuck with him for two volumes, you must be convinced by now that you have a role to play in the Divine story. The ending of Acts tell us we have an act to follow, things to be done. Whether our lives as believers are chronicled like the great heroes of our tradition or not, we too must make our contribution as co-actors with God in the living drama of the Gospel.

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