In my last post, I began to outline what I’ve called a ‘prophetic-redemptive’ strategy for reading the Bible, focusing on an extraordinary passage in Isaiah 56.
Building on the work of various scholars, I began with the notion that, due to the contextual, ‘human’ input into the production of our sacred, divinely-inspired texts, there are some ideas recorded in the scriptures that are, shall we say, less-than-ideal. Without wanting (in any way) to write-off the scriptures completely, I instead sought to let the text deconstruct itself and to allow the prophetic voice within the text to begin to reconstruct a redemptive way forward.
In Isaiah 56, the prophet dramatically overturns the very Law, calling for the full inclusion of those who had formerly been explicitly excluded from God’s people. This prophetic over-ruling offered a liberating alternative to the so-called reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, which sought rather to build up taller and wider physical and social walls of partition between the ‘elect’ and ‘everyone else.’
By this, I would suggest, we can hold together both the obvious ‘humanity’ and contextuality of our sacred scriptures, as well as seeking nevertheless to hear the divine voice of redemption and full human dignity through these same texts.
What I aim to do in this post, then, is to see if I can find this same prophetic voice of liberation/redemption at work in the stories of Jesus and the early Christians. I’ll do this specifically by opening up some passages from the book of Acts, in order to see how the first Christians seem to have understood the words and actions of Jesus, and how this shaped their understanding of who could be full members of the community of God centred around Jesus as Messiah.
I want to begin here with the extraordinary story of ‘the Council of Jerusalem’ in Acts 15.
The Apostle Paul and his team had been busily travelling around everywhere, preaching the Good News about Jesus to all who would listen: Jew, Gentile — it didn’t matter. It did matter to some, however, that the Gentile believers weren’t first becoming ‘Jewish’ before they could be recognised fully as ‘Christian’: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), they suggested (rather strongly).
Precisely at this point, the Apostle Peter stands up and speaks profound, prophetic wisdom (of the kind that Trito Isaiah would have been proud). “God,” Peter says, “who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them (the Gentiles) by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
This causes the believers to engage in what Pentecostal scholar John Christopher Thomas regards as a paradigmatic hermeneutical process. Combining an examination of the sacred texts, input from the community of faith, and a ‘startling’ reliance upon the prophetic Spirit of God, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem declare: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…!” (Acts 15:28)
Suggesting that Gentile believers nevertheless stay away from a few general practices that were considered bad taste or totally unhelpful, the Jewish-Christian believers came to see that God had acted in a way that they had initially been unprepared for, and they now had to catch up with the Spirit. Their own paradigms were shaken, stirred, or perhaps totally smashed, as the Spirit over-rode distinctions and differences that had become oppressive.
That same liberating voice we found in Isaiah 56 was still speaking, and it was useless to try to ignore it.
But what had led to this point?
In the book of Acts, it starts to become quite clear from very early on that, due to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, ‘Israel’ would never be the same again. The text begins with a focus on ‘the Twelve,’ alluding directly, I think, to the beginning of a reconstituted ‘Israel.’ The people of God had origins in the tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob (called Israel), and were now being reformed around the ministry of the Spirit through Jesus, and continued by his first disciples.
In time, the full ramifications of this renewal would be felt.
Rather than staying focused on one specific strip of land, centring on a physical temple, the people of God would instead focus on the whole of the world, centred around Jesus as Messiah, with the people of God operating together as a kind of living temple in which God dwelt by the Spirit. Rather than the traditional Jewish ‘badges of membership’ (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary regulations, etc.), the only ‘badge of membership’ to this renewed community would be faith in Jesus as Messiah and the reception of the soon-to-be-poured-out Spirit of God.
We see this begin to play out from Acts chapter 2.
When the Apostle Peter gets up to address the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes who had gathered together from all around the Roman Empire for the festival of Passover in Jerusalem, he suggests that the experience of the Spirit of God that the disciples of Jesus had was exactly what was promised by the Hebrew prophets. Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter suggests that this experience of the Spirit was knocking down all sorts of walls: walls between men and women, between old and young, and between people of high status and people of low status (Acts 2:17-18).
Everyone was now equal.
But more than this, this experience of God was not to be restricted. Instead, Peter explains, “[t]his promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Now, this is all fine and good when the people you are talking to are all ‘Jewish’ (either by birth or by fully accepting the Jewish identity by taking on things like circumcision, etc.), but things start to get very interesting as we move further through the Book of Acts.
By Acts chapter 8, the ministry of the first disciples seems to be going quite well. They are sharing their experience of Jesus and the Spirit with everyone they come into contact with around Jerusalem — but that’s part of the problem: the disciples aren’t really moving out any further than Jerusalem itself.
In Acts chapter 8, however, things start to change.
Firstly, the deacon Philip, responding to the leading of the Spirit, pushes out into the region of Samaria. Ministering powerfully in the region, and eventually attracting the attention of the leaders of the bourgeoning church in Jerusalem, Philip preaches the ‘Good News’ to the people of Samaria. And they accept it. And they receive the Holy Spirit.
This was a little bit mind-blowing. The animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the first century was extraordinary, as these ethnic ‘cousins’ bickered ceaselessly in regards to their differing and competing versions of the true YHWH tradition. But these distinctions were overcome in a moment when ‘they’ received the same Spirit. These Samaritans, through their experience of the Spirit, became fully part of the one family of God. The genetic arguments no longer held sway, for the two groups both had the same badge of membership. No distinctions would stand.
But Philip goes even further.
Including Samaritans could, sort of, perhaps be explained, because they were in a way related to the ‘full’ Jews. But ‘Gentiles’ were another story. Eunuchs were another story again. And Gentile eunuchs were really pushing things as far as could be imagined!
But in Acts 8:26-40, we see Philip meeting with an Ethiopian eunuch who wants to find out about what the prophet Isaiah was talking about (that pesky, prophetic voice of Isaiah’s just keeps on popping up). Philip, being the good evangelist that he was, spoke with the eunuch and carefully showed how Jesus of Nazareth was the one to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, and the Ethiopian eunuch believes and publicly symbolises his belief through the act of water baptism. And right at this very moment, we have a direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 56 that I wrote about in the last post. A foreigner. A eunuch. One man who symbolizes perfectly all those people who had been formerly explicitly excluded by the very Law — now part of the people of God.
The Spirit, it seems, over-rides these human distinctions, and does the unthinkable. But this is illustrated no better than in Acts 10-11.
The narrative of Acts 10 and 11 is, I think, another one of the most important passages in the whole of the scriptures. It starts by introducing a Gentile, Cornelius: a Roman centurion (who was thus something of a symbolic representative of the great oppressor of Israel), in the most Hellenized (or ‘Greco-Roman-ified’) city in the whole region. Cornelius, the text says, was quite a devout man, and God let’s him know that he will soon be in contact with Simon-Peter, and to send messengers to bring him to Cornelius’ house. At around about the same time, we are told that Peter sees an extraordinary vision: a bunch of traditionally ‘unclean’ animals being lowered down on a sheet, which he was ordered to kill and eat.
This, of course, must have seemed like a sneaky trick to Peter (especially due to the fact that he was hungry!) because, as a Jew, he could only eat what was prescribed as ‘clean’ by the Law. For a Jew, everything in creation was neatly ordered and categorized — indeed, one of the very first acts of the man in Genesis 2 was to name and categorize all of the animals of the earth. Any animal that crossed over the strict borders of these categories was ‘unclean,’ and could not be consumed by the devout Jew (for fear that the person would thus also be made unclean).
Each time Peter saw the vision and protested about his sure defilement should he partake of the feast, a heavenly voice answered very clearly: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Precisely at this point, Peter is confronted by the messengers from Cornelius, inviting to take him for a visit. Sensing, it seems, the direct application of the vision to his meeting with Cornelius’ family, Peter enters the very Gentile house in a very Gentile city and, after making it clear that his Jewishness should have prevented him from coming, says, “God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Then, just as he is launching into a full-blown sermon, God, it seems, interrupts Peter by pouring the Spirit out on Cornelius’ whole household. What a shock!
The text says as much, as the “circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished” that the Gentile believers had the same experience. ‘They’ were not ‘them’ anymore, but part of ‘us’! And all of this is confirmed in Acts 11.
When Peter goes to explain just what had happened to the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem, he puts it quite clearly: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:7). And the Jewish-Christian believers agree with him: “So then, God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
This was a profound event, with profound implications. God had over-ruled, it seems, former understandings of how it all worked. Previous partial revelation about God was swept aside, as a fuller revelation of the redemptive, barrier-demolishing love of God was made known. Former distinctions were no longer valid — and this revelation changed everything.
Drawing the Threads Together
To conclude this post, I’d like to try to draw a few loose threads together in summary form:
- Firstly, then, we note that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. That prophetic voice that we found in Isaiah 56 was unleashed through his own ministry, and continued on by his earliest followers. Old structures were (in some cases entirely) over-thrown, and even some of the most sacred traditions were not safe from the radical transformation of the community of God from the ground up (in a resurrection kind of way).
- Secondly, we have seen that the Spirit of God pushed out in ways that the community of faith was simply not at all prepared — even in ways that seemed to contradict former understandings of God. It was surprising. It was uncomfortable. It was necessary.
- Thirdly, the believers played catch up with where the Spirit led. Instead of coming to a place where they believed that everything was now under control, the earliest believers lived their lives seeking first to see where the Spirit was already active. They did not spend their time telling God where or how God could or could not be active.
- Fourthly, we have seen how God endorsed who God wanted to endorse. God, by the Holy Spirit, included and empowered all sorts of people, sometimes in surprising ways. The early Christians concluded, however, that to try to oppose God’s apparent endorsement was to try to ‘stand in God’s way.’
- Finally, we have uncovered something of a paradigm for the process of communities seeking to understand what God is up to. Using Acts 15 as paradigmatic, as John Christopher Thomas suggests, we find a powerful example to follow — one that incorporates a deep respect for the sacred scriptures, the experience and wisdom of the community of God, and a strong reliance on the recognition of the prophetic Spirit of God at work in the world.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! In my next post, I’ll try to draw these last two posts together with a kind of ‘case study’ to help illustrate the approach.