Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Last week, we talked about how to read the book of Acts. [Following the story: God and his people, part 2.] We saw that we’re not supposed to model our behavior after everything some biblical character does. We’re careful to remember that stories are stories; they’re narrative in nature, not didactic (i.e. intending to directly instruct). This is especially necessary when reading the book of Acts because it portrays the early church rather than the Old Testament people of God. The inclination is going to be much stronger to pattern ourselves after what we see in Acts.

We looked at an important example of this last week. It’s no more appropriate for us to expect, in our everyday Christian lives today, the same signs and wonders we see in Acts as it was for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence experienced at Mt Sinai. God never changes, but the way he works in and through his people does. God’s character and faithfulness are rock solid, never moving, never wavering. But his methods are often unpredictable. Rather than following the same formula every time, he seems to delight in surprising us!

So does this mean we can’t learn anything from Acts? Not at all. Just as with the Old Testament stories, the accounts of the early church tell of a unique period in history. God was doing something completely new and unprecedented in the lives of his people, and it’s important for us to understand this. When we read of the birth of the church in
Acts 2, we see God inhabiting his people in a way that had never been true before. Through the Holy Spirit, we now experience an intimacy with God that transcends anything the Old Testament saints knew. This changes everything, and the letters to the churches explore this new relationship we now have with God.

But is this it? Is Acts only useful as history of what God was doing then? Can’t the stories of the early church teach us anything about how we should live as the church? Yes, they can. But we have to be careful. We need to know what applies to us, what does not, and why. To determine whether something in Acts applies to us today, we need to ask two essential questions:

1. Is this principle taught elsewhere, especially in the letters to the churches?

2. Is this a one-time occurrence, or do we see this principle consistently described through the book of Acts?

Let’s try these criteria on a couple of issues that are important for us today.

Principle to consider:
The church is to be led by a group of co-equal pastoral leaders
with no one taking a distinguished senior role.

Can we use the accounts in Acts to teach this? Well, let’s look at our first question. Do we see the principle of shared pastoral leadership taught in the letters to the churches? There is no explicit command that the churches are to be led this way. But we do find an impressive number of references to teams of elders/overseers (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:17-19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Many of these passages describe aspects of their pastoral ministry, or give instructions regarding the appointment and pay of elders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 provide the qualifications for elders.

Contrasted with these references, we find no mention of a sole church pastor or a designated senior leader in distinction to the elders, no appointment of such a leader, and no qualifications given for one. This overwhelming consistency over a broad range of New Testament authors and letters is hard to dispute. So we do find this principle implicitly taught in the letters to the churches.

What of our second criterion? Is there only an isolated example of this principle, or do we see it consistently described through the book of Acts? We find references to church elders in Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2-23, 16:4, 20:17-38, and 21:18. These references are all to groups of elders (plural), and again we see no reference to a sole or senior pastor/elder/overseer (even when we might expect such a reference). We observe Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in each of the churches they planted (14:23). We see elders deliberating with the apostles concerning requirements for Gentile believers (Acts 15). And we read instructions given directly to a team of elders (20:17-38), including the commands to pastor and keep watch over the church. Supporting this principle, in the early chapters of Acts we even see the apostles leading the church in Jerusalem as a group, with no designated “chief apostle.”

So this principle of shared pastoral leadership, with no senior elder/pastor, passes our test. There is no great cultural difference in the way we carry out this principle, so our churches today should be led in the same way. And it is entirely appropriate for us to use the stories in Acts in studying or teaching on this biblical principle. Do you see how we arrived at this conclusion? Let’s look at another test case:

Principle to consider:
Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs after salvation
and is always accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Many Christians use the book of Acts to teach this principle. But when answering our first question, we begin to run into problems. Do we find the principle that baptism in the Holy Spirit normally occurs after salvation in the letters to the churches? Actually, we see just the opposite. There is no reference at all in the epistles (i.e. the letters to the churches) to believers receiving the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and passages such as Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 1:13-14 indicate that the receiving of the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of our initial salvation.

What of the claim that every Christian should speak in tongues when they receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Here again, no passage outside of Acts suggests such an idea, and Paul pointedly opposes it in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. So not only is this principle not taught in the letters to the churches, the clear teaching we see in these letters contradicts this idea.

Then why is this teaching so prevalent? Those who support this principle do so by relying on the stories in the book of Acts. So let’s test this claim with our second question. When we look at the accounts in Acts of believers receiving the Holy Spirit, do we see consistency? There are four descriptions of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts: Acts 2:1-41, 8:4-25, 10:1-48 and 19:1-7. How consistent were these experiences? Let’s compare them:

Intentionally waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them:
Chapter 2 account: yes
Chapter 8 account: no
Chapter 10 account: no
Chapter 19 account: no

A sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

What looked like flames or tongues of fire appearing and settling on each of them:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

Hands laid on those receiving the Spirit:
Chapter 2: no
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

Receiving the Spirit after they were saved:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no (I’ll discuss this in greater detail below.)

Speaking in tongues described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: yes
Chapter 19: yes

Prophesying described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

How consistent are these descriptions? Not very. With this lack of clear consistency, along with contradictory teaching from the letters to the churches, it’s difficult to biblically assert this claim. “Still,” some might suggest, “something happened in each description that was dramatic enough to be noticed by everyone around. Maybe the principle is just that the receiving of the Holy Spirit will be dramatic and noticeable.” This does seem to be a consistent pattern in these accounts in Acts. Can we draw from this pattern to give us a normative teaching for us today? Or was there something unique happening here in the history of the early church? Let’s see what else we can observe about these stories.

Do we notice anything these accounts have in common? Well, each story is about a group of people receiving the Spirit. Of course, I’m not suggesting we can only receive the Holy Spirit in groups and that an individual is just out of luck! But there seems to be something significant to Luke (the author of Acts) about these groups receiving the Spirit of God. We have no description in Acts of an individual believer being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Do we see anything interesting about these groups? Actually, we do:

Chapter 2 account: original church (exclusively Jewish)
Chapter 8 account: Samaritans
Chapter 10 account: Gentiles
Chapter 19 account: followers of John the Baptist who lacked adequate knowledge of Jesus

Does this remind you of what we saw last week regarding Luke’s focus in writing Acts? Remember he didn’t give us an in-depth history of the early church, but instead a representative sample that showed the church expanding both geographically and ethnically—from Jews to Samaritans to Gentiles. Do we see this same focus in his descriptions of the receiving of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. The book has more to tell us about the rapid expansion of the church than about historical peculiarities of the early church. In the same way, Luke seems to emphasize that this expansion was a work of the Spirit rather than giving us a definitive, normative description of how all believers receive the Holy Spirit.

When you think about it, there are very good reasons for these receptions of the Holy Spirit to be so dramatic and noticeable. As I already mentioned, God was doing something completely new in pouring out his Spirit on his people. It makes sense for this initial outpouring to be overt in its power and glory, just as God’s interaction with the Old Covenant people of God at Mt Sinai was overt in its power and glory. The Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people. Now this was finally happening, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, right in the heart of Jerusalem . . . to the followers of Jesus. It was important that the Jewish people there saw what God was doing, and so this initial baptism of Christ’s church into his Holy Spirit was obvious and undeniable to all who witnessed it.

Who were the next people to receive the Spirit? The Samaritan believers. What do we know about them? Well, they were of a mixed race, partly Israelite and partly a combination of all the surrounding peoples. And they also had a competing religion they claimed was the true, original faith, with a competing temple and priesthood. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and were suspicious of anything having to do with the other.

What would likely be the natural outcome if Samaritans accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Can you see how easy it would have been to have two competing Christianities right at the beginning—one Jewish and one Samaritan? So God didn’t immediately pour out his Spirit on these new believers. He waited until the (Jewish) apostles had come and laid hands on them. By laying hands on these Samaritans, the apostles were accepting them as brother and sister believers. And by the Holy Spirit coming to them through the apostles, the Samaritans realized they were under the leadership of the Jewish apostles and could no longer go their own way. But for this connection to be effective, the reception of the Spirit by the Samaritans (through the apostles) had to be undeniably obvious to both.

In the following chapters in Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see how difficult it was for the Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first becoming Jews. They wrestled with this for a long time. So we see the great wisdom of God in interrupting Peter’s speech to the Gentiles in Acts 10, and obviously and undeniably pouring out the Spirit on these Gentiles as they placed their faith in the Christ whom Peter was preaching. God’s method accomplished its purpose: Peter couldn’t help but notice these people experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and had to acknowledge them as genuine children of God and his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals. Many of them had been there for bits and pieces of the events we read in the Gospels, but they went home before taking in the whole gospel story. They enthusiastically shared what they had found with others, but their knowledge was incomplete. Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) was one of these Jews, and the people Paul spoke with in Acts 19 had this same limited understanding. Again, there was a danger of a competing, incomplete Christianity forming from these zealous, but unknowledgeable, followers. The receiving of the Spirit, through the laying on of Paul’s hands, showed that these people were now truly part of the body of Christ.

It’s crucial that we notice something else about these incidents of different, key groups receiving the Holy Spirit. Each one was historically unique and unrepeatable. The church will never again receive God’s Spirit for the first time. The church will never again expand to include, for the first time, a competing half-race to the Jews, or the first Gentile believers in Christ. There are no longer surviving people who experienced only partially the 1st century events recorded in the gospels (and so might pass on a truncated faith). The descriptions in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are tied specifically to the context of the original expansion of the church, from an exclusively Jewish church to a universal one. Not only should we not try to find a normative description here for how believers receive the Holy Spirit today, there’s no way for us to base such a principle on these historically unique and unrepeatable events.

So the letters to the churches teach us that we receive the Spirit of God when we place our faith in Christ and become his. And we also learn that some will speak in tongues, and some will not. [Whether speaking in tongues is a valid gift for today is a question we’ll have to explore in another post!] Should this receiving of the Spirit be an overtly dramatic, sensational experience obvious to those around us? No more than we should expect God to speak to us from a burning bush. This is not to say we won’t experience God’s presence in powerful, explosive ways. We may, and we may not. We can’t dictate to God how he will move in our lives. If we insist on the safe and sedate—he may just shake us up! But if we demand “the stuff” we see in Acts, he may answer us with the sound of a gentle whisper. Never forget who’s God . . . and that he doesn’t seem all that interested in fitting into our boxes.

I know this post was a long one. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope this will be helpful to you as you not only read and study the Bible, but seek to live out its truth in your daily lives.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we? Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today? [see above]

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

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2 Responses to Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

  1. Pingback: Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today … – speakingintonguesblogs

  2. Pingback: » Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today … Church Leadership

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