Learning to "Do Church"
Over the next few months, we will be walking through the book of Acts bit by bit. Some weeks it'll be one chapter at a time, and other weeks it'll be larger chunks of text grouped together. With this blog series, my goal is to give people the tools and resources needed to read through the book of Acts without missing crucial literary, historical, cultural, and theological points that really make the story of the church come alive.
Over the course of the Covid-19 Pandemic, being stuck at home and unable to go to church has forced many people to find alternative ways to gather with their worshipping community. The same has been true for us here at iBelieveBible. My own family has studied through multiple books of the Bible, and our study on the book of Acts (along with Luke) has particularly brought to light so many important things about the church and its mission in the world. I want to share some of those insights with you.
A Personal Connection
I grew up in church. This is a pretty normal fact and probably a reality for many people reading this. But I became a Christian when I was first drawn to reading the scriptures for myself and discovered the incredible story of Jesus first hand. One of the books that had the biggest impact on me was the book of Acts. The first time through, I read the whole book over just two days. I was gripped by the fast pace of the story, the strange and unexpected turns, the episodes I had never heard preached or talked about in church before, and above all else the immense power at work in the early Christian community.
I felt like I was looking at something impossible: a church that was feeding, healing, and changing people in ways that seemed so foreign to my own lived experience. In some ways, I got jaded with the reality of the modern church. But the thing kept me from being completely disillusioned was the idea of having a very powerful, beautiful, aspirational back story to this thing I had always been a part of, but never fully appreciated. And ever since my first time through, the book of Acts has inspired me to continue believing in what the Church can be, even in some of the ugliest moments.
I am going to try to keep these studies concise and sometimes even point-form. I assume that people will take the time to read through each section/chapter in conjunction with these blog posts. That will be the way to get the most out of these blogs.
And so, we begin our study with Acts chapter 1. Cross-reference these study notes with the Biblical text to enhance your reading.
The Birth of the Church
Acts 1:1-11 | The aftermath of the Gospel
- Acts is the follow up to the Gospel of Luke. The opening lines of Luke's gospel are a dedication to the intended reader, a man named Theophilus. Acts 1 picks up where Luke left the story off, again with a dedication to the same reader. It's important to know the story of Luke before going into Acts, since they are clearly being presented as one continuous story.
- Note that Jesus spent 40 days - so over a month - alive on earth after his resurrection, presenting himself to people, and continuing to teach.
- Jesus reiterates John's teachings about baptism by water and by the Spirit.
- After the 40 days, Jesus is taken to heaven, promises to send the Holy Spirit, and instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for further instructions and empowerment.
- The disciples demonstrate in 1:6 that they still have some lingering confusion about the nature of the "Kingdom" that Jesus came to announce. They still wonder if Israel will receive political power over the other nations, as they expected. Jesus' response is a sort of non-answer, but does clarify that God may have a plan for their question.
- In 1:8, Jesus makes it clear that the scope of his mission will extend from their local area into all the earth, foreshadowing the scope of the story of Acts itself. The disciples will spend the rest of the book trying to understand exactly what that global scope looks like in practical terms.
- The description in 1:10 of "two men" appearing to the disciples after the ascension of Jesus mirrors appearances of angels as human beings in the Hebrew Bible, such as in Genesis 18.
- Apparently, Jesus will return in a similar way that the disciples saw him depart.
Acts 1:12-24 | Setting things right for the Twelve
- In 1:12, consider that Luke would have been writing this gospel after enough time had passed for himself and other Gentiles to become integrated into the church. And so, it would be odd for him to use "a Sabbath day's journey" as a measurement of distance unless his audience was familiar with the distance permitted for travel on the Sabbath. This somewhat implies that even Gentile Christians would have been familiar with Sabbath observance.
- Notice in 1:13-14 that there is an unspecified number of women present with the group,
- The way Peter connects the events around the death of Judas Iscariot with the Psalms is interesting. Look at Psalm 69 (which he quotes) and pay attention especially to 69:25. Also read the other passage he quotes from, Psalm 109 and especially verse 8. The connection of these passages to the events with Judas may seem somewhat indirect or unclear at first. What connections do you see? Why would Peter think of these scriptures in their situation?
- There is the lingering question of how Judas actually died. The story presented in Acts 1:16-20 seems strange and almost supernatural - with Judas almost exploding while falling in the middle of a field he had recently purchased with the money from his betrayal of Jesus. Matthew 27:1-10 tells the story a little differently, with Judas returning the money to the priests by throwing it into the temple, and then hanging himself. In Matthew's account, the priests take the money (since it would be inappropriate to put blood money into Temple storage) and buy the field that becomes known as Akaldama. There have been numerous theories about how to harmonize (or not harmonize) these two accounts. This discrepancy between the two passages has been presented as one of the main challenges for the literalistic inerrancy and/or verbal inspiration of the Bible.
- Two potential candidates are brought forward as potential replacements for Judas, and apparently they had also been around to witness the majority of Jesus' ministry. Matthias ends up winning over Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus.
- The practice of casting lots (see 1:26) is seen throughout the Bible in various places, although this is the last instance where it occurs. While we don't know for sure what the practice of casting lots looked like, we do know from the way it was used that it was some kind of game of chance, like rolling a pair of dice or flipping a coin - an attempt to come to a seemingly "random" outcome. Passages like Proverbs 16:33 suggest that decisions made by casting lots are "from the Lord," and this is probably the assumption that the disciples were working with. Look at Proverbs 16:33 and compare it to other verses in the chapter, such as 16:1, 3, 9-11, and consider how these verses speak about God's control over the future and "random chance." Does this seem familiar and practical - like something you would try today - or like a strange superstition? What do you think it means for God to have allowed so many people in the Bible to use this seemingly random or even careless method to make major decisions?
Chapter 1 of Acts feels in some ways more like a wrap-up for the Gospel of Luke. One important takeaway is that the story of the followers of Jesus is a continuation of Jesus' own story. The Gospel of Jesus continues through the people who follow him and are filled with his Spirit. Through his guidance, Jesus' followers make important decisions, build a supportive community, and prepare themselves for a mission to the world that is bigger than they can possibly imagine.