Hermeneutics

Why Study the Book of Acts?

Why Study the Book of Acts?

In addition to writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, I also wrote Acts: A 12-Week Study.

Author and Purpose

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physician who traveled with the apostle Paul. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. Acts is a historical account of how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything through the birth of the early church.

Geographical Expansion 

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world. Nothing 
is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises
a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

This is why Acts 1:8 is a key verse to understanding all of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Preaching

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

God is central to the gospel’s expansion. He is at the heart of the gospel message, the news that reconciliation with the Father is now possible through Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit is responsible for the growth of the church and its remarkable expansion.

God’s Passionate Pursuit

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace,” believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace,” and they are challenged to continue in “grace.” The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

The gospel draws people in, constitutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

Barriers, Weakness, Opposition, and Persecution

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they only fuel it.

Acts and the Rest of the Bible

Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect, but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament, God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide us with human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Acts consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. This reveals God to be the great benefactor who pours out blessings on all people. Even the opportunity to repent is God’s gift.

Introduction to Acts

Introduction to Acts

I had the privilege of writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, which features all-new book introductions and gospel-illuminating  notes written to help readers see Christ in all of Scripture and grace for all of life.

Below is the introduction I wrote, which is included in the free sample. You can find out more here and get a copy here.


 

Author and Date

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physi- cian who traveled with the apostle Paul. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, c. a.d. 62. Many scholars assume Acts was written then because it does not record Paul’s defense, release, and further gospel preaching. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel in Acts

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world, from the cross and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Nothing is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace” (20:32), believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace” (6:8), and they are challenged to continue in grace. The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all bold- ness and without hindrance” (28:31). The gospel draws people in, consti- tutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Luke consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to enter and participate in a story that is much bigger than we are.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they fuel it.

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

All people receive the grace of God through one man, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ gospel goes out to all places and all types of people, because Jesus is Lord of all.

Outline

I. Preparation for Witness (1:1–2:13)
II. The Witness in Jerusalem (2:14–5:42)
III. The Witness beyond Jerusalem (6:1–12:25)
IV. The Witness in Cyprus and Southern Galatia (13:1–14:28)
V. The Jerusalem Council (15:1–35)
VI. The Witness in Greece (15:36–18:22)VII. The Witness in Ephesus (18:23–21:16)
VIII. The Arrest in Jerusalem (21:17–23:35)
IX. The Witness in Caesarea (24:1–26:32)
X. The Witness in Rome (27:1–28:31)
What Is Scripture?

What Is Scripture?

Is Scripture divine or human? Authoritative? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should it be used?

What is Scripture? All religious traditions that ground themselves in texts must grapple with certain questions. In worship services and public and private readings, Christians often turn to Scripture for guidance: to the stories of Abraham or Moses, to the Psalms, to the prophecies of Isaiah, to the life of Jesus, to the letters of Paul, to the vision of John. Therefore, Christians must confront their own set of questions. What is Scripture? Is it divine? Human? Both? Is Scripture authoritative? If so, how and for whom? What is the scope of its authority? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should Scripture be used? How do Scripture and tradition relate? What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible “the Word of God”? And if Jesus is also called the Word of God, how does Jesus as the Word of God relate to the Bible as the Word of God?

Helpful History

The good news is that we are not the first to try to answer these questions. In fact, 2,000 years of Christian history provide us a tradition of helpful answers as numerous Christian theologians have wrestled with these questions.

Theologians at different times have focused on different questions regarding Scripture. In the patristic and medieval eras, the focus was on relating the literal meaning of the text to allegorical or spiritual interpretations; during the Reformation, the debates focused on who had the authority to define and interpret Scripture; and after the Enlightenment, theologians tried to determine how the Bible was still the Word of God in light of historical-critical methods that seemed to challenge its historicity and reliability. However, in spite of all the various approaches, Christian theologians have been unified in dealing with a central issue: how the self-disclosure of God in Jesus relates to the Scriptures as the Word of God. A central question is always the relationship between “the Word” becoming human flesh (Incarnation) and “the Word” becoming human words.

The Word and the Christian

Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God, is without error, and does not misrepresent the facts. It is entirely trustworthy and is the final authority on everything it teaches. The Bible records the drama of redemption in the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians we acknowledge both Jesus (John 1:1–4) and Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17) as the “Word of God.” Christians should not focus solely on Jesus Christ and treat Scripture just like any other “classic text.” Nor should we focus primarily on the Bible as God’s divine inerrant Word and treat Jesus as simply a character in a small part of the texts.

Jesus Is The Ultimate Word

Jesus is the central message—God participating in human life, coming near to us, bringing his good news, expressing God’s love for us, dying as our substitute, rising as the victor over death, and building his church as a community of grace. Jesus is not just the main character in one of many events in the story of God’s people. Jesus is the final revelation of God’s drama of redemption. Humanity sees God in full light in Jesus. Jesus is God’s ultimate word about human life, and the Bible is God’s word about God’s self-revelation through human life. This is what Christian theologians have been saying in various ways for 2,000 years. In answering the question “What is Scripture?” theological giants like Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, and others have given us many categories to use, concepts to ponder, and doctrines of Scripture to consider and wrestle with. Yet in spite of their differences, they are unified in that their doctrines of Scripture are all surprisingly Christ-centered.

The Story About Grace

The deepest message of the Bible and the ministry of Jesus is the grace of God to sinners and those who are suffering. That is the story of the Bible. The problem of the human condition is that because of sin, we are guilty and we suffer. Throughout the Bible, we constantly see God taking the initiative to bring his grace to sinners and sufferers, from his gracious dealings with the people of Israel to the climactic redemptive work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. By taking us through the story of God bringing his grace to sinners and sufferers, Scripture reveals the heart of God and the heart of the Christian faith.

4 Quick Questions About Studying The Bible

4 Quick Questions About Studying The Bible

BIBLE STUDY MAGAZINE: WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY METHOD?


Justin Holcomb: I prefer to go through the books consecutively, which helps me focus on the message of each book. Reading book by book helps me understand how the text fits together. This way, I’m able to follow the Bible’s themes and ideas from beginning to end. I also don’t want to overlook details. Reading one book at a time helps me get into the texture of each passage and helps me locate themes that repeat.

BSM: WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO READING THE BIBLE?


JH: I think the big idea is: What is the Bible? Is it a to-do manual? Is it just a classic text? Do we read it so that we can find a few commands that we should follow, or is it saying something else?

Since I think the big idea of the Bible is “God saves sinners,” that is the theme I’m generally looking for. When I teach the Bible, I want people to be looking for what God has said about Himself, while also being fully aware of who we are or can be: redeemed sinners.

BSM: HOW DID YOU TEACH CHAPLAINS IN SUDAN TO STUDY THE BIBLE?


JH: In Sudan, we taught army chaplains who served without weapons on the front lines. They ministered to the southern army, northern prisoners of war and Sudanese civilians. In this instance, biblical literacy was our main concern. After visiting Sudan for the first time, I realized that these chaplains loved Jesus and they loved the Bible—but they didn’t have Bible training or resources, so they didn’t know it that well.

We went through the entire Bible and taught them how it all hangs together—dates, biblical writers, basic structure. They had such an eagerness to learn.

BSM: CURRENTLY, YOU’RE TEACHING THE BIBLE IN SEVERAL DIFFERENT CONTEXTS. WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT CHURCH AND AT REFORMED THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY?


JH: I enjoy helping pastors develop sermons. I want to make sure pastors are teaching with their eyes fixed on holiness and the grace of God. I have them ask themselves: Am I giving each person the good message of “repent and believe the gospel,” or am I giving them heaving burdens that they can’t carry?

With my seminary students, I focus on a “gospel-centered” hermeneutic. I want them to see the weight of the holiness of God and the response of repentance. I want them to understand their continual dependence on the grace of God and the message of the Bible, both for themselves and for the people they’re going to be leading and evangelizing.

 

Justin Holcomb is featured in the current January/February 2012 issue of Bible Study Magazine. This Q&A is available on their site where he talks with the magazine about studying the Bible and equipping leaders.

Now & Not Yet

Now & Not Yet

The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the Day of the Lord—a divine visitation to purge the world of sin and evil and to establish God’s perfect reign on the earth. With the ministry of Jesus, the Day of the Lord began, and something cosmically significant happened.

Jesus came as the God-man to bear his people’s judgment on the cross, to rescue sinners from their enemies of sin and death by his resurrection, and to inaugurate his kingdom. Mark tells us, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Mark 1:14-15).

The Kingdom Is Here

Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, eternal life has already begun in one sense. In the midst of sin, death, and decay, there is real life right now. For those who trust in Christ, our future is now. Those who trust in Christ already have so much:

  • We have new hearts (2 Cor. 5:17)
  • We have been made alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5)
  • We have received a spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15-16)

The knowledge that softens the blow of grief is not an abstract platitude but the real resurrection of Jesus.

 

More To Come

But there is more to come that has not yet been fully realized:

  • We will have transformed bodies, not just hearts (2 Cor. 15:50-55)
  • We will be resurrected like Christ (Rom. 6:5)
  • We will experience the fullness of being adopted by God (Rom. 8:23)

Already But Not Yet

We live now in the overlap between the “already” and the “not yet.” This means that the sufferings of now do not compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). This means creation groans now but will be liberated (Rom. 8:20-22). This means we now dwell in a temporary earthly tent but will have eternal heavenly bodies (2 Cor. 5:1). This means we are saved in hope (Rom. 8:24) but will be saved from wrath (Rom. 5:9).

Future Hope

The kingdom of God and salvation is real now, but not yet fully realized. Why does this matter?

The loss that causes grief is very real, but is temporary. The knowledge that softens the blow of grief is not an abstract platitude but the real resurrection of Jesus. Our grief now is in the context of a future hope (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The hope of the new creation frames (though it does not erase) our present mourning: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

 

Mercy & Merit

Mercy & Merit

The clearest message of Jesus and the deepest message of the Bible is “God’s mercy, not our merit.” When it comes to our salvation we are neither saved by our merits nor justified by works. We are justified—declared righteous before God—solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s mercy and Christ’s merit Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leading figure of the English Reformation, describes justification by faith in his sermon entitled A Sermon of the Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ Our Saviour from Sin and Death Everlasting:

    This justification or righteousness, which we so receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits, embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and allowed of God for our perfect and full justification… For all the good works that we can do be imperfect, and therefore not able to deserve our justification: but our justification doth come freely, by the mere mercy of God; and of so great and free mercy that, whereas all the world was not able of their selves to pay any part towards their ransom, it pleased our heavenly Father, of his infinite mercy, without…our…deserving [it], to prepare for us the most precious jewels of Christ’s body and blood, whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the law fulfilled, and his justice fully satisfied. So that Christ is now the righteousness of all them that truly do believe in him. He for them paid their ransom by his death. He for them fulfilled the law in his life.

Cranmer died for this belief. At age 66, on a rainy Saturday morning, March 21, 1556, he was taken down from the pulpit at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford as he was preaching and driven to the center of town where he was burned at the stake for his convictions. Our justification is due solely and completely to the mercy of God, a mercy Cranmer described as “great,” “free,” and “infinite.”

Follow Your Heart?

Follow Your Heart?

The Human Heart

The popular mantra, “follow your heart,” assumes that we have inherent goodness deep inside us that we just need to express to others. John Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affection and the truth of imagination.” This is a modern version of the “Care Bear Stare” used to overcome “Dark Heart”—make sure to watch this video; you will not regret it.

 

 

Actually, Jesus has some bad news regarding what comes out of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, false testimony, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Matt 15:17-20; Mark 7:20-22). He concludes, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). In Galatians 5:17-21, Paul follows Jesus’ lead and tells us that inherent within us is sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

The Fruit of the Spirit

After Paul makes his list of sinful desires, he follows it with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit is not inherent in us but worked into us by the Holy Spirit. The natural human heart produces one kind of desires, and the Spirit produces another kind by giving us a new heart. And they are opposed to one another. Thorn bushes do not produce oranges. Weeds do not produce apples. And the human heart does not naturally produce the fruit of the Spirit.

Misconceptions

Unfortunately, some Christians treat the fruit of the Spirit like a new Law—expectations that we must strive to attain by our own effort. This is not Paul’s point. The fruit of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit, not us. This is a message of great hope, not pessimistic resignation. The fruit of the Spirit is what we can ask and hope that God does to us. The fruit of the Spirit is hope for the work of God in us; not duty. The fruit of the Spirit is anticipation of what God may do to us; not moral expectation with the threat of punishment. The fruit of the Spirit is God killing parts of us to transform them—cutting in order to heal, destroying for the purpose of rebuilding. The fruit is not our dedication to our pious intentions. If it is God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), then why do we begin with the Spirit but really try to attain our goals by human effort (Galatians 3:3)?

  • How do you conjure love when you hate your ex? Or the person who slanders you? Or your self-absorbed friend?
  • How do you make yourself joyful when you are paralyzed by fear and insecurities?
  • How do you summon peace when you are flooded by worries about your past, or present, or future?
  • How do you make yourself patient when your anxiety wakes you up at night or you can feel the anxiety in your body?
  • How do you invoke kindness when there are so many people who act like your enemy?
  • How do you strive for gentleness when you know that the meek are treated like doormats?
  • How do you stir-up goodness when badness erupts so naturally and feels more immediately fulfilling?
  • How do you enact self-control when your desire for quick pleasure is so out of control?

Transformation

Left on our own, we cannot do any of these because the fruit of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit, not our action plan for managing sin and achieving holiness (read Luther’s Bondage of the Will). What we need is not assistance by the Holy Spirit mixed with our spiritual effort. We need the Spirit to transform us. We need the Spirit to give us a new heart with new desires and affections: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of faith and repentance, not spiritual self-determination. The fruit of the Spirit is the hope that God may do what he promises to do: to restore that which has been destroyed, to be faithful when you are faithless, and to show up in your weakness with his strength.