Interpretive Challenges in Acts
This past Sunday, we began our journey through the book of Acts. As I mentioned in the sermon, Acts presents some interesting interpretive challenges, and I want to prepare us to hit them. Also, if you are aware of these interpretive challenges and know how to approach them, your reading of Acts will be much more beneficial.
Perhaps you have heard someone say, “We need to get back to the model of the early church?” The question I want to ask is: “Exactly what church do you mean? Do you mean Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, or Jerusalem?” All of these churches were different, and they all had serious problems from the beginning.
Nevertheless, I understand the desire to be a church that is faithful to God’s word. I understand the role of the book of Acts in being a church that is faithful to God’s word. I believe this is what Christians want. Yet, in order to be a church that is faithful to God’s word and especially to the text in Acts, we must correctly interpret Acts. There are some interpretive challenges in the book of Acts that we need to know about in order to read it correctly and interpret it correctly.
You see, along with the normal interpretive challenges of studying a historical narrative, we also have two more very important interpretive challenges in Acts. The first one is what is called “Covenantal Transition.” This is how covenantal transition works. The story of Acts unfolds during a period of transition from the old covenant to the new covenant.
Think about it this way. Theologically, we (you and I in our contemporary culture) understand that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection established the new covenant. It ushered in the giving of the Holy Spirit to all who believe the gospel. We understand that the new covenant establishes the church as God’s people and that they are to carry the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
We must also keep in mind, as God’s new people transitioned from the old covenant to the new covenant, the promises of the new covenant had to be understood as having arrived and then verified to know that they were correct.
If we do not understand that, we are in danger of becoming what some call “chronological snobs.” In other words, we look back, and we say to ourselves. “I can’t believe they did not see that. I would have never done that or done it that way.”
Let’s be honest; we have the benefit of looking back and understanding the inauguration of the new covenant. Thanks to Luke’s writing of Acts, we see the linear unfolding of the transition to the new covenant. We see the big picture of the history of redemption. It comes to us with fairly neat, well-demarcated lines that signify the beginnings of promises and the ending of old covenant rituals like circumcision.
However, the disciples/apostles were smack dab in the middle of the transition. For them, it was real-time, and they were learning on the fly all that Jesus was doing. It took them time. They had to make sure they understood what Jesus was doing.
The early believers did not have our vantage point of looking back. They were trying to get their minds around the fact that real people from pagan backgrounds, with spotty or no knowledge of the gospel, were trusting Jesus. They had no problem with Jews coming to Christ but Gentiles that had been living chaotic social situations with thousands of cultural issues and demonic influences going on in their lives were getting saved and receiving the Holy Spirit.
Here is my point: the lines of transition from the old covenant to the establishment of the new covenant were not clear. They didn’t have a New Testament with all of the gospels and apostolic letters. In the first part of Acts, we see the apostles trying to discern whether people had really believed the message of the gospel or was it something else. They were trying to determine if Samaritans and Gentiles could be saved and receive the Holy Spirit.
For example, look at the conversion of the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17. The Samaritans were half-Jews. After the Samaritans believed the gospel, Peter and John were sent to investigate the faith of the Samaritans. They wanted to make sure they had genuine faith in Christ. When Peter and John understood that these people had truly believed the gospel, then in front of them, Jesus gave the Samaritans His Holy Spirit.
Receiving the Holy Spirit sometime later is not the typical pattern in conversion. However, in Acts, when something new like that occurred, it was common to see covenantal transition in order to help the apostles and the early church learn how the new covenant was being applied by the Holy Spirit.
Second, and connected to covenantal transition, is one of the interpretive challenges called: prescriptive vs. descriptive. This is one of the main challenges for interpreting Acts. The dilemma with Acts is to determine whether a text is merely describing what took place or if it is implying that the event or action is meant to be repeated. In other words, is the account giving instructions to the church or instructions to believers that they should continue to practice?
Here is the principle: a prescriptive narrative will always be descriptive, but a descriptive narrative will not always be prescriptive. The reader must be careful to make sure what the narrative’s intent is even when no prescription or command is given.
So, how will we determine if a text is prescriptive or descriptive? Again, the best principle for interpretation here is the repetition of what is being taught or described.
We often say that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Repetition is the application of that principle.
There are two forms of repetition that will help us know if a text is prescriptive or descriptive. They are patterns of events and summary statements.
Acts 1 is an example of a pattern of events. In Acts 1, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle. The apostles chose Matthias by lot. However, that method of choosing a leader is never repeated in Acts. So, because there is no repetition of this event, it is unlikely that choosing leaders by lot is a prescription.
Yet, here is what we see later in Acts. After the Holy Spirit is given to all believers, prayer is the means by which they choose leaders. Prayer is often repeated in Acts, so prayer is an essential application for seeking God’s will. Thus, prayer is prescriptive for choosing leaders, and choosing by lot is not.
One other form of repetition Luke uses is summary statements. Summary statements clarify Luke’s intent as to what is important. For example, let’s look at these summary statements Luke makes in Acts:
Acts 2:46-47: And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 6:7: And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31: So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
Acts 12:24: But the word of God increased and multiplied.
Acts 16:5: So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Acts 19:20: So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
What we see in these texts is how the word of God increased in the believers and churches and how the number of disciples increased. In other words, a normal outgrowth of teaching, preaching, missions and even persecution is that churches grow in God’s word and in making disciples.
These are just two forms of repetition that help us determine if a text is prescriptive or descriptive. Using sound principles of interpretation, we become like the Bereans in Acts. We study the Scripture to make sure that these things were so.
There are other forms of repetition that we will learn about as we journey through Acts, and they will strengthen our grasp of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s aim to create lovers of God. May the Lord bless you as we study Acts together.
 Alan J. Thompson, New Studies in Biblical Theology 27: The Acts of the Risen Lord: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, Series Ed. D. A. Carson. I used lots of material from the whole book and other resources too. However, this is the main resource I cited.