Three Questions for Interpreting Acts

I am nearing the completion of a series going through Acts and wish to reflect a bit on three questions which help to interpret the book. My hope is that answering these questions will provide an apt review for those who have been able to hear the messages, or catch up to speed those who may not have been with us through this series.

How is the OT understood in Acts? What passages are cited most frequently? Acts uses the OT with creativity but always in light of Christ. In Acts 1:20 Peter cited Ps 109:8 as grounds that Judas should be replaced and the number of apostles returned to 12. Peter quoted Joel 2:28-32, Pss 16:8-11 and 110:1 in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2). These texts, respectively, offer an eschatological explanation of the phenomena associated with the coming of the Spirit, and relate the arrival of the Spirit to the resurrection of Christ. When the lame man was healed in the Temple complex in Acts 3, Peter presented Deut 18:15 as Moses’ prediction that God would raise up a prophet like him, and had done so in Jesus Christ. Peter, like Jesus (Matt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Luke 20:17), cited Ps 118:2 as a reference to the Jews rejection of God’s offer of salvation in Christ (Acts 4:11). The unified church recognized Ps 2:1-2 as a reference to God’s power in Christ’s resurrection. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 is a succinct review of the history of Israel, citing multiple OT texts—especially those related to Moses. Moses’ prediction in Deut 18:15 was (again) understood as fulfilled in Christ. When the Spirit sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, the apostle helped him understand Isa 53:7-8 as a prediction of Christ’s suffering for all nations.

Paul cited the OT many times in his sermons, especially those describing Jesus in light of David—and how Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates His superiority to David (Pss 2:7 and 16:10 in Acts 13). The Jerusalem Council understood the arrival of the Spirit as confirmation that in Christ’s death and resurrection God had rebuilt the house of David, fulfilling the promise of Amos in Amos 9:11-12. The logic of the Council seems to be that since God had fulfilled His word there was no longer a need to worry about building the house of Israel by making Gentiles adopt Jewish boundary markers like Sabbath-keeping, food laws, and circumcision; the Gentiles were seen as God’s people even though they had not descended from Abraham.

Among the OT texts of special emphasis in Acts, Moses’ prediction that God would raise up a prophet/leader like him (Deut 18:15) was cited by Peter in Acts 3:22 and Stephen in Acts 7:37. Both Peter and Stephen understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of Moses’ word, and urged their audiences to heed Jesus no less than they would Moses. Peter and Paul cited Ps 16:11 as a prediction of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:25-31 and 13:35 respectively). So Acts uses the OT in light of Christ, emphasizing His authority and resurrection.

What, then, is the Christology of Acts? Acts portrays Christ as God’s anointed Son who was crucified for the redemption of Israel and all nations, and raised from the dead in power—as predicted in the OT. The apostolic sermons emphasized these themes. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 described the coming of the Spirit as inextricably related to God’s activity in Christ in accord with Pss 16:8-11 and 110:1. The lame man of Acts 3 was healed for the display of Christ’s resurrection power, and a testimony that in Christ’s resurrection Israel’s hopes had been fulfilled. Stephen’s history-of-salvation sermon in Acts 7 concluded with the note that the Jewish leaders had killed the Righteous One.

Resurrected, Christ appeared personally to Saul and commissioned him to take the message of the gospel to the Gentiles, and to suffer for it. Peter’s message to Cornelius in Acts 10 reviewed Christ’s earthly ministry noting that Christ’s death and resurrection provide forgiveness of sins according to the OT prophets. Paul’s missionary sermons (e.g., Acts 13:16-41) emphasized Jesus’ humanity and deity, and that in His death and resurrection Christ fulfilled the hopes of Israel and opened the way of salvation to all nations. In his defense speeches in Jerusalem and Caesarea (Acts 21-26) Paul argued that Christ’s resurrection is the point of contention between himself and the Jewish leadership. In Rome also, Paul preached faith in Christ by appealing to the law and the prophets (Acts 28:17-27).

What was the purpose of the Jerusalem Council, and what was the result? Next to Pentecost, the Jerusalem Council may be the most important event recorded in Acts. The meeting was necessitated by the vigorous dispute concerning the role of the law of Moses (especially the Jewish boundary-marking commands like Sabbath-keeping, food laws, and circumcision) for Gentile Christians. Upon Paul’s return to Antioch following his first journey such a great dispute ensued that leaders from Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to the leaders in Jerusalem to come to a conclusion on the matter. Peter, Barnabas and Paul described how the Spirit had come upon Gentile believers, marking them as God’s people even though they had not participated in the Jewish markers of Sabbath-keeping, food laws, and circumcision. James, the Lord’s brother, concluded that Gentiles need only abstain from eating food offered to idols, from blood, from strangled flesh, and from sexual immorality. The Council resulted in an official recognition of the distinction between Christianity and Judaism and impelled Paul to set out on his second missionary journey, encoring the Gentile believers to stand strong in the Lord.

Examining the use of OT in Acts, the Christology of Acts, and the events surrounding the Jerusalem Council provides a frame for identifying the purpose(s) of Acts and establishing a frame for interpreting the NT epistles as well. Happy reading!

Comments are closed