How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth: Acts
11/14/2016 3:07:19 AM
“How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth: Acts”
Nov 13, 2016
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Acts 10:34-48
If the Bible describes something, even something in positive terms, does that mean it’s something we should do? When the Bible describes early Christians selling property and giving the money to the rest of the believers, does that means we must do it too? When the Bible describes Christians speaking in tongues, does that mean we must do that too? When the Bible describes the apostles telling the people to choose 7 leaders from amongst themselves to oversee the distribution of food to the poor, does that mean we need to let the congregation elect its own leaders?
How do we know if something described in the Bible, especially things described in a positive light, is binding on believers today? What is mandatory? How do we determine what is descriptive of the situation at the time and what is prescriptive for all believers?
A few weeks ago, when looking at narratives in the Old Testament, we considered the example of Lot’s daughters committing incest with him. This passage is clearly included in Scripture as an example of what NOT to do! Yet some fringe groups or people antagonistic to the Bible say that the Bible “promotes” incest. Clearly they are misreading the text and it is often easy to see that descriptive passages of negative or immoral events are not prescriptive, are not describing something we should or must do.
But what about passages that are describing good things? Are those things mandatory or binding upon Christians? Even if we divide between Old and New Testaments, are things described in positive ways in the NT binding on us? In particular, when considering a book like Acts which is just about all narrative, but narrative of the early church, what is binding? After all, Acts gives what we call “historical precedent.” Most Christians consider historical precedent as having some form of authority, even if we are not consistent in applying it or systematic is describing its value. What is prescriptive and what is merely descriptive? These are tough questions to figure out but that is what we are going to consider today.
First we are going to look at some general principles for reading Acts, many of which apply to all Biblical narrative or other books of Bible. Then we are going to consider one particular example in a case study. There are many examples or topics we could choose from. Church government or structure is something many denominations justify based on what they see in Acts. Some people’s decisions on where churches should meet are based on Acts- that we shouldn’t own church buildings but instead should meet in homes. Others look to Acts to defend snake handling! [Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. p. 113] Today we are going to look at baptism!
But to add a bit of a twist, we won’t just be looking at water baptism, but “Spirit baptism” too. That is, we will be looking at or considering how to apply our passage when it comes to what Pentecostals call “baptism in the Spirit” or “a second baptism.” This entire doctrine, to my understanding, is based on what is seen in the book of Acts!
Now, some of you are thinking, “Baptism? That’s it?” because you’re settled on the matter in your mind. Others of you just had a gut clench because you know you’re at a Baptist church and your background is not Baptist! Maybe you believe in infant baptism. Maybe you believe in Spirit baptism. We have a huge variety of denominational backgrounds represented here at Priory. It’s one of the things I like about our congregation. It rarely, if ever, causes problems. Usually it means we have a rich diversity of ideas and methods for carrying out the work God has given us to do.
That being said, historically denominations have not always been kind with one another when they disagree. Fighting over baptism is certainly one of those areas! I want to reassure any of you here that we will be gentle today. If you don’t hold to Baptist distinctives that’s ok. Let me remind all of us that one of the goals of this whole series is to appreciate the fact that those who disagree with us or come to different conclusions than we do on the meaning of Biblical passages are still trying to be Biblical. We can disagree with other Christians and
yet all of us are trying to uphold the Bible. In this series, we want to appreciate how people come to their conclusions, not just make people come to our conclusions.
With that in mind, let’s read our passage for today so that we have some time to ponder it in the back of our minds. Also, you may start applying some principles we talk about to the text before we tackle it together. Let’s read Acts 10:34-48.
Acts, as mentioned, is almost entirely narrative. That is, Acts describes events as a story. It is not a letter nor a law code, nor poetry, nor wisdom literature. But, even as a narrative, if we are to apply it correctly or faithfully, we must always begin by trying to determine the author’s original meaning or intent. That is why we do so much working on “exegesis” or drawing out the meaning of the text. A passage cannot mean today what it could never have meant back then. Or, another way of putting it, “We cannot make [the Bible] mean anything that pleases us and then give the Holy Spirit “credit” for it.” [Fee and Stuart] So we must do the hard work of discerning what the text originally meant to its original audience.
This applies to all passages of Scripture. When it comes to narratives in particular, we must sift through which details are merely incidental to the story and which are there as directives for all Christians to follow. That is, which descriptions become mandatory? You see, “almost all biblical Christians tend to treat precedent as having normative authority to some degree or another. But it is seldom done with consistency.” [Fee and Stuart, p. 124] So we look at Acts, see something described and start doing it ourselves, even if it isn’t explicitly taught or commanded elsewhere in Scripture. When asked about it, we often say things like, “The Bible clearly teaches….” Is this a good practice? To be honest, at the end of it all, we need to err on the side of things described in Biblical narratives as not being mandatory unless we can show on other grounds that the author intended it to be prescriptive or it is explicitly taught elsewhere as prescriptive. [Fee and Stuart, p. 124] That means that most of the things described in narrative sections of the Bible, including Acts, are not binding!
So does that mean we can throw Acts out? Does it mean there is nothing of value in Acts for us today? No! Not at all! It just means that we need to be careful which things we draw from Acts as mandatory. Talking to Christine Gayfer the other day, about a different topic, she described a very helpful lesson. She talked about “could, good and should.” These are helpful categories when reading Scripture. Does this passage describe something we “could” do? Does it describe something it would be good to do? Does it describe something we should (or must) do?
Many times in narratives, especially when describing something in positive terms, at the very least we can see this as historical precedent for something we “could” do as believers. We must remember that it needs to be a positive description, not just a neutral description and certainly not negative descriptions! That’s how people get confused about Lot and his daughters!
Fee and Stuart themselves speak about passages in Acts giving examples of “good” things for Christians to do. Specifically, when Luke describes how the 7 were chosen in Acts 6 to distribute food to the widows there is a good precedent or a good lesson in choosing people from among the marginalized group to lead or represent that group. The 7 were all Greek speaking Jews and it was the Greek speaking Jewish widows who were feeling like they were being neglected when it came to support. This is a good principle for us to follow. That does not make it mandatory! It’s not a “should” but it is a “good.” How do we know this? Because this was not the central point Luke was trying to make in this section of Acts. It is an incidental detail that comes up as Luke is describing where Stephen and Philip came from because they are both central to how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to other regions. [Fee and Stuart, p. 126-127]
So “could, good and should” is a simple, but effective way of asking the question of what we can take from a Scriptural narrative and apply today. Does the narrative present a “could”? ie. Something Christians today could do? Does it describe something it would be good for Christians to do? Does it describe something Christians should or must do? This tool is simple enough to remember that if you get nothing else out of today’s message, please take with you “could, good or should”!
In their chapter on Acts, Fee and Stuart give a slightly more robust or complex description of how to use narrative passages. I actually wish they had included this in the chapter on narrative in the OT too, because it
applies there as well, but let me describe it for you briefly.
[grid] When reading Scripture, we are usually looking for doctrine surrounding one of three topics: theology (truth about God), ethics (how to live in relation to God and one another) or practice (what Christians do). When we come up with these doctrines, or when we find them, they usually fall into one of two categories. They are either stated directly, or derived incidentally, by implication or precedent. That is, they are either explicitly stated as propositions or commands, or they are indirectly modelled or implied. [Fee and Stuart, p. 124-125]
I’ve created a helpful table or grid for us to get our heads around this. Across the top are the three kinds of information we are usually looking for: theological statements or truth about God, ethical statements about how we relate to God or to one another as believers, and practice or what we do as Christians or religious people. Down the left side are the two forms or ways of describing how we come up with this information. On the top are explicit or direct statements taken from Scripture. The bottom row are those we derive from Scripture in a secondary way, either through implication, or models or incidental details.
Let me give you some examples to see how this grid works. Statements like “God is one,” or “God is love,” or “Jesus is fully God,” or “Jesus is fully human” are all in the top left corner. They are theological statements about God and they are directly stated in the text. How Jesus is fully human and fully God at the same time would be in that same column, but in the bottom row because the Bible does not describe exactly how his two natures interact. This is part of the mystery of the incarnation and to understand it means we have to use implication from passages describing either his divinity or humanity.
Another example would be “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This would be an ethics or relational statement, the middle column, and it is direct. Combined with a direct theological statement, “In Christ there is no Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female,” we can come up with a derived ethical statement that slavery is wrong. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that slavery is wrong! But as Christians we have come to that conclusion based on a combination of direct statements and implications drawn from them.
So how is this grid useful for dealing with narrative sections of the Bible? How does it help us with the question of historical precedent? When it comes to narrative or precedent, we are almost exclusively dealing with questions of practice. And we are almost always dealing with derived statements, not direct statements. That means that for narrative or historical precedent we are dealing with the bottom right section of the grid.
What this means is that when we read a narrative, like in Acts, and we see what early Christians did, we are usually talking about Christian practice and it is rarely a direct command. It is almost always, then, a situation where we are deriving doctrine from the narrative, not gathering explicitly stated doctrine.
This is a good place to narrow our discussion down to Acts itself. Remember, whenever we are dealing with a text we must do the hard work of discerning the author’s intent or original meaning. With Acts, this means we are dealing with Luke, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke. When asking about Luke’s intent, we must look at the book of Acts as a whole before we can look at a specific passage. Knowing why Luke wrote Acts as a whole will shed important light on why he included particular passages. It will also help us understand which parts of a passage are central to Luke’s message and which things are secondary or incidental.
Luke’s primary goal is to show how the gospel started among Jews in Jerusalem and travelled to Gentiles in Rome. His secondary goal is to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit was the prime agent behind this movement. In fact, some have suggested the book should be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than the Acts of the Apostles. Along the way, Luke has some other goals as well, but these are his primary purposes in writing. They shape how he chose material and how he shaped material.
For instance, he does nothing to describe the spread of the gospel to the east or south. He tells us nothing about the other apostles. Once Paul takes over the narrative, we don’t hear about Peter ever again either! Luke is not setting out to describe how churches should be structured or how leaders should be chosen. He is not giving a treatise on missionary technique either. That churches are planted, leaders chosen and missionary work is done are all incidental to his primary purpose of showing how the gospel came to Rome among Gentiles when it started as a movement among Jews in Jerusalem. Everything else is secondary or incidental to that purpose. [Fee and Stuart, p. 126]
Now, this has a broad meaning for us! And it’s not what we want to hear. We have a ton of questions for the early church! But the Bible does not answer all our questions. Acts does not answer all our questions. The Bible does not prescribe what form our churches should take in terms of structure or decision making. The Bible does not tell us at what age a person may be baptised. The Bible does not tell us exactly how to baptise either! Nor does the Bible tell us how to do communion, or how often. The Bible does not give a full explanation of charismatic experiences either. Yet baptism, church decisions, communion and charismatic experiences all appear in Acts. So we can look at Acts for precedent, but we can rarely find a direct command or statement that answers our questions. At best, precedent may give us a repeatable pattern if the pattern is actually repeated in Scripture, not just a one-time event. Even then, the pattern of precedent should not be seen as mandatory unless it is the intent of the author to use it as such.
Case Study: Acts 10:34-48
With this in mind, let’s turn back to our passage, Acts 10:34-48. To give a bit of context, these events take place in Cornelius’ house. Cornelius was a Gentile who was very interested in the God of the Jews.
Before coming to Cornelius’s house, Peter had his vision of a net containing all manner of unclean animals in it. He was hungry in his vision and God said, “Take, kill and eat.” When Peter refused on account of the animals being unclean according to OT law, God said, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” When he woke up from this trance, servants from Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying and asked for Peter to come share the gospel with Cornelius and his household. Peter took some fellow Jewish Christians and went to visit Cornelius.
This is where we pick up the text, Cornelius having explained to Peter his encounter with an angel. Peter gives a theologically rich speech or sermon beginning with, “Now I know it is true God does not show favouritism….” As you may recall when we looked at OT narrative the first night of the series, dialogue is incredibly important and often reveals the key to the plot. It turns out that this opening line of Peter’s sermon is the purpose of the entire passage! But we will get to that in a moment.
Keeping in mind the importance of dialogue, notice several aspects of Peter’s sermon. He starts with what Cornelius already knows- about God’s message to Israel about peace through Jesus, about the ministry of Jesus and that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Remember, Cornelius was a God-fearer, so he already knew a lot about God and the OT. It seems that Cornelius had also heard about Jesus. As you look at the sermon, Peter includes all the major points of the gospel- God sent Jesus, who was anointed by the Spirit to perform miracles. Ultimately, Jesus was crucified but on the third day God raised him from the dead! Peter and the other apostles were witnesses to these things and were commissioned to preach this message and testify to Jesus. This is a great summary of the gospel!
The end of Peter’s speech is compelling. It is as he speaks of the OT prophets “testifying about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” that the Spirit falls on all those present, including Cornelius and his Gentile household! They all start speaking in tongues and praising God! It is a literal, direct and immediate working out of what Peter is preaching! They all hear, they all believe, they all receive and they are then all baptised!
Peter and the other Jewish Christians are astounded that God has poured out his Spirit on the Gentiles without the Gentiles having to become Jews first! Peter asks, “Can anyone hinder these people from being baptised?” Which is the same word, “hinder,” that the Ethiopian Eunuch used when asking if he could be baptised. [John B Polhill, Acts, p. 264] The key is that people who would not be allowed into the Jewish community are being welcomed into the Christian community.
Interestingly, in the next chapter the Jewish Christians question that Peter had non-Jews baptised into the Christian faith! They are scandalized that he ate and even stayed in the home of Gentiles! This helps shed light on our passage. It shows why the Holy Spirit arrived with such a spectacular display of gifts. It was necessary to convince the Jewish Christians that the Gentiles really should be welcomed into the church!
If you look at all of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes in power like this a few times, but not every time people come to Christ. For instance, in Paul’s missionary work there is rarely a report of speaking in tongues. There are demonstrations of the Spirit’s power at times, but rarely on the new believers. Almost always it is the Spirit on Paul. Think of Lydia in Philippi, or the jailer in Philippi. The Spirit caused the earthquake, but didn’t cause
speaking in tongues. The Spirit opened Lydia’s heart to receive the gospel, but there’s no mention of spectacular spiritual gifts.
When you examine the various accounts in Acts in which people speak in tongues, it is always in a situation in which there is a breakthrough in mission. [Polhill, p. 264] The first, in Acts 2, is when the Spirit first comes on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Next is when the Samaritans, whom the Jews hated, hear the gospel and they are converted. The Spirit comes as undeniable, visible evidence of their conversion. Then there is Cornelius and his household, all Gentiles, and the gospel makes yet another leap over a racial divide. The last example is near the end of Acts when Paul meets disciples of John the Baptist. When Paul baptises them in the name of Jesus, the Spirit comes on them as tangible evidence that the baptism of John is qualitatively different from the baptism in Jesus’ name!
So what can we apply from Acts 10? If you think of our grid, or look at it on your handout, what sorts of information can we place where? [grid] Peter’s sermon, because it is dialogue coming from an apostle, is an example of direct doctrine. We learn that God does not show favouritism. We learn about God sending Jesus, the peace he brings. We learn about the Spirit’s work through Jesus, the resurrection and the OT anticipation of Jesus, including that those who believe in him will receive forgiveness in his name. These are all top left doctrines because they are coming straight from Peter in the form of dialogue. (They also happen to be attested to in other parts of scripture just as directly.)
In terms of ethics, we see that Gentiles, non-Jews are to be welcomed into Christian fellowship. This is why Luke is telling this story! This is his whole point! This is an important step in the Spirit bringing the message of Jesus from Jews in Jerusalem to Gentiles in Rome. This is the first crossover of the Gospel to a group of Gentiles. Peter eats with them, which is not just an incidental detail, but a sign of full fellowship and relationship. A Jew would never eat with a Gentile or even enter their home, which is what Peter said when he first arrived at Cornelius’ house!
In terms of Christian practice, we see that those who believe and show evidence of conversion are to be baptised with water. Spirit-baptism does not replace water baptism! All the household heard, they all believed, they all received the Spirit so they were all baptised. It was not that Cornelius alone believed and received the Spirit and then had his household baptised. They all heard, believed and received.
Now, this is just about the limit of what we can gather as direct doctrine from the text. What we cannot get from the text is that Christians should speak in tongues. Christians could speak in tongues. It may even be good to speak in tongues. But it is not mandatory that Christians speak in tongues. How do we know? Because there are numerous other passages in which people are converted and baptised without any mention of spectacular spiritual gifts! That is, there is no pattern of speaking in tongues always accompanying conversion. Furthermore, Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 makes it clear that not everybody will speak in tongues. But from Acts we cannot establish a pattern that makes speaking in tongues a “should” for Christians.
What we can see is that Christians should be baptised with water. Why? Primarily because Jesus expressly commanded it in the Great Commission. That is, water baptism is explicitly commanded elsewhere. Here we see it being carried out in practice. There is a consistent pattern, as well, of water baptism accompanying conversion and a sign of being welcomed into the Christian community.
What we cannot see in the text is that water baptism must be by full immersion. The mode or manner of baptism is never explicitly described in the NT. From the nature of the word “baptise” which means “to dip or bathe” we can infer that it meant full immersion, but that is a second level conclusion, an inference, not a direct statement. For those of us with a baptistic background, for those of us who hold to full immersion, we must be careful not to claim it is “clear in the Bible.” It’s not clear. It’s not explicitly taught. Pouring over a person standing in water could also be “bathing.” There are a number of situations in the NT in which it seems unlikely the converts would have access to a pool, tub or river that would allow for full immersion, including Samaria and the Philippian Jailer’s house as well as our text here. It’s possible, but not explicitly taught.
Furthermore, for us Baptists who staunchly defend full immersion, we need to be humble about how we discuss it. Why? Because the other ordinance, communion, is one in which we don’t follow the NT practice at all! Nowhere in the NT is communion described as a bite of bread and a sip of juice. It is always portrayed as a full
meal with real wine! So we need to be humble and gracious when we talk about the method of the ordinance of baptism if we are going to play fast and loose with the method of the ordinance of communion!
Another thing we cannot see in the text is the baptism of infants. Some who practice infant baptism point to the “household” baptisms and conclude this must have included infants. There are a couple problems with this. First, there are many households that do not have infants! They may have children, but not necessarily infants. This reveals a common mistake when discussing baptism. The contrast is not between infant baptism and adult baptism. The contrast is between infant baptism and believer’s baptism. A child is capable of belief. An infant is not.
The second problem is that in this text, everybody heard, believed, received the Spirit, spoke in tongues and was baptised. This eliminates the possibility that infants, if even present, were included in the baptism. They would not have heard or believed. And I don’t think infants would be speaking in tongues either.
An increasing number of denominations which practice infant baptism have acknowledged that there are no examples of infant baptism in the NT. Rather, the practice is justified on the grounds of a verse in Colossians 2 in which Paul speaks of being spiritually circumcised by Christ and making a parallel to being baptised. Based on this verse, they infer that baptism is the sign of the new covenant and, based on Romans 4’s discussion of Abraham, faith and circumcision, the conclusion is that a parent may include their child in the covenant based on the parent’s faith. Thus, the argument goes, believing parents may have their infant children baptised as a sign of the new covenant predicated on the parent’s faith.
Personally, I don’t find this argument satisfying. That said, I do recognize that they are trying to be faithful to the Bible. Actually, if we didn’t have Acts in the Bible, I think the argument would be significantly stronger for infant baptism! Why? Because in Acts we have example after example of believers being baptised but no mention of them bringing their infants to be baptised. (There’s also an argument to be made from the fact that when speaking of circumcision in Galatians, Paul doesn’t say circumcision is unnecessary because they had been baptised with water, but that’s for another sermon!)
What does this mean, then, for who should be baptised? Frankly, it comes down to how you weigh the evidence. Which do you think is more important or carries more weight: Paul’s discussion in Colossians or Luke’s narratives in Acts. Nowhere does the NT tell us the exact criteria, including age, for baptism. It neither commands nor prohibits infant baptism because it never mentions it at all. If you feel that the covenantal description or meaning of baptism is its primary meaning, then based on the other covenantal practices in the OT, it is legitimate to baptise your infant children.
If you don’t see the covenantal meaning of baptism as primary, if you see baptism as an outward sign of an inward change, then baptism must be restricted to those who are old enough to believe on some level. This is a distinctive between different denominations. The fundamental or core element is that we baptise. The distinctives are how much water is used and who initiates the baptism- the recipient or the recipient’s parents?
But in either case, infant baptism or believer’s baptism, both groups are trying to honour the Bible. They just weigh the evidence differently. When it comes to speaking in tongues, we need to realize this is a “could” from the Bible, and maybe even a “good” from the Bible. But we must not make it a “should” from the Bible, we must not make it mandatory for people to either join our congregations or consider themselves Christians.
When we interact with one another, we need to realize that people all along the spectrum are dealing with “level 2” or “derived” doctrines, not direct commands. So we need to be gracious with one another, allowing for distinctions in how we try to answer questions the Bible doesn’t answer directly. If we are trying to be faithful to the text and there is no direct command, we must be patient with one another as we try to construct answers from indirect statements.
Ultimately, our salvation is based on Jesus Christ, not baptism or speaking in tongues, or even agreement on every aspect of Scripture. That which binds us together- Jesus- is far greater than what divides us- attempts to formulate biblical answers to questions the Bible doesn’t answer directly.
Benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. Amen.” [Numbers 6:24-26]
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