I think the more we learn how to study the Bible, the more we see that doing this well depends largely on common sense. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how to read the stories in the Old Testament. One of the guidelines for understanding these accounts is to remember that they’re stories. Yes, they are real, historical events in the history of Israel. But we shouldn’t assume just because an event is recorded in Scripture that God is teaching us to do what the characters did. When Zimri took over as king of Israel, he killed the entire royal family of his predecessor (1 Kings 16:9-11). This doesn’t mean we should emulate him when assuming a position of leadership!
This is easier to remember when we’re reading Old Testament stories. They feel removed from us, to some extent, because they’re all about the people of Israel and the Old Mosaic Covenant. But when we come to the stories in the book of Acts, it can be a little more challenging. Suddenly the stories are all about the church. That’s us! It’s easy to slip into thinking that everything we read about the birth of the church will be true of us today as well.
I love creative, thought-provoking book titles, and one of my favorites is from Dan Schaeffer’s book The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches. He explains that we have a tendency to assume God will act exactly as he has in the past. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush—and we want the same kind of interaction. We’re even willing to set a few bushes on fire ourselves to get the conversation started. But when we look through all of Scripture, how many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Just once. Should we expect God to speak to us through a burning bush? Of course not. We’d never make the mistake of thinking this way . . . would we?
The great prophet of God, Elijah, fell into this error. After he had stood courageously against virtually the entire kingdom—and God had faithfully answered with fire from heaven before everyone—Elijah hears a threat from Queen Jezebel and he turns tail and runs. Where to? Where better but Mt Sinai, where God had dramatically manifested his presence in the sight of all the people. And do you remember what God asked Elijah when he got there? “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah went into his list of reasons for feeling sorry for himself. So the Lord gave Elijah the signs and wonders he thought he needed. He sent a mighty windstorm, an earthquake and a fire. But it says that God was not in any of them (1 Kings 19). Then he asked Elijah again, with the sound of a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
When reading the exciting stories in the book of Acts, it’s natural for us to desire the same signs and wonders in our lives today. But then we begin to look at Acts in its larger context. We realize that when we look at the entire biblical story, the great, awe-inspiring miracles are actually few and far between. This can be surprising because we tend to assume there were miracles occurring left-and-right on a daily basis. But we find long periods of time in Scripture without any overt signs or prophecies from God. And when God did act in a dramatic way, it was almost always at a highly strategic moment in the history of God’s interaction with his people. So, it makes no more sense for us to demand today the same signs and wonders we see at the birth of the church than it did for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence at Mt Sinai. When we start assuming that to do what God calls us to do today we need all the signs and wonders God performed in the book of Acts, he may just quietly say to us, “What are you doing here?”
So what can we learn from the book of Acts? Well, first we need to take the time to see what’s in the book—and what’s not.
A slice of history
A common first reaction to the book of Acts is, “This is the history of the early church.” But is this correct? Acts does contain history. But how broad a picture does it give us of the early church? What do we learn from Acts about the spread of the Christian faith into North Africa? This happened fairly early in the history of the church, but interestingly the book of Acts tells us nothing of it. What of the expansion of the church to the east of the Mediterranean region? We aren’t told of this either.
The more we carefully read the book, the more we see that its “lens” is zoomed in, and that the scene changes during the book. The early chapters of the book are focused on Jerusalem and its environs; the later part of the book is all about Antioch and the churches planted by people going out from there. At first the book is in a distinctly Jewish setting, but then we see more and more Gentiles incorporated into the church. A key figure in the beginning of the book is Peter, and in the rest of the book it’s Paul.
So it seems that Luke (the author of the book) wasn’t intending to give us a detailed history of the early church and its development. Instead, he provides for us a representative sample of what was going on in many other places at the same time. He appears to be focused on showing how the church expanded rapidly, both geographically and ethnically—from being exclusively Jewish to being open to Samaritans and eventually to any Gentiles without distinction.
Once we understand some of Luke’s purpose in writing the book of Acts, we’ll be able to distinguish between questions the book is intended to answer and those it is not. While Luke tells us a great deal about the establishment and expansion of the church, he doesn’t seem that interested in giving us many of the nitty-gritty details we so want to learn. After the churches were initially planted, how did they appoint new elders? We don’t know. How exactly did the early church observe communion? We’re not told. Just what did their regular, weekly meeting look like anyway? Luke didn’t see fit to give us a description.
Does this mean we can’t learn anything from the book of Acts that applies to us today? Not at all! But we need to be able to tell what applies to us, what was unique to them, and why. This is what we’ll explore next week.
How to study the Bible series:
Following the story: God and his people, part 2 [see above]