30 May 2012

review: the acts of the risen lord Jesus

Alan J. Thompson. The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

A Brief Review:

Who is the central figure in the book of Acts?  The more formal title of the book (which was given after its composition) is The Acts of the Apostles, to emphasize the early church's activity - most notably under the leadership of Peter and Paul.  The Dean (F. F. Bruce) once referred to The Acts of the Holy Spirit, for it is divine spiritual empowerment lies at the heart of the narrative.  But if Acts is intended to be a continuation of Luke then should it not also be considered the continuation of the gospel story itself?  In light of the recent discussions surrounding The Bishop and McK it would appear that we ought to return to a reading of Acts which makes an intentional connection to the gospel with Jesus' activity at the center.  Although published before these other two works, this is the assertion which Alan Thompson makes in his investigation - Jesus is the central figure of the Book of Acts.

The internal emphasis of the Acts narrative, according to Thompson, is that Jesus is currently reigning from heaven as the ascended Lord of the world.  Drawing this out of the opening statements, he asserts: "Acts 1:1 indicates that the book is going to be about what Jesus is continuing to do and teach; therefore, the 'Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus' would be a better title" (49).  This will take some rethinking for many people who have a tendency to understand the ascension of Jesus as his departure from the church, rather than his drawing near through the giving of the Holy Spirit.  Thompson also indicates this line of thought, "The focus here is not on his 'absence' and consequent 'inactivity,' but rather on the 'place' from which Jesus rules for the rest of Acts" (49).  Thompson's foundational argument is that Jesus - as enthroned Messiah and Lord - is actively reigning from heaven and is presently involved with the affairs of the church.

The ascended reign of the Lord Jesus makes him "the bestower of God's blessing for God's people, sending the Holy Spirit, God's enabling presence for his people" (51).  Building on this, Thompson emphasizes how much of the narrative of Acts also points to Jesus as an active participant in that which is happening in and around the early church (e.g., Acts 2:47, "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved").  The conclusion here is that, "Luke is showing that the kingdom of God, inaugurated in the person of the Lord Jesus, is continuing to be administered through him (67)."

Chapter Two then points to the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, and its emphasis in the narrative of Acts.  Thompson's overall assertion here is that Jesus' inauguration of the kingdom of God and his present reign from heaven are the primary reasons why Luke places the resurrection prominently within the narrative.  Beginning with an examination of Luke 24, the author discovers a repeated emphasis on the totality of Scripture - the whole of Israel's storyline - coming to its climax in the resurrection of Jesus.  Thus, the outworking of this new reality will play a prominent role in the continuation of the Jesus story - the church's activity as described in Acts.  "In Acts the resurrection is the climax of God's saving purposes, and it is on the basis of the resurrection that the blessings of salvation may be offered" (79).

This is a good and logical approach to reading Acts in the context of the gospel narrative, for if death-resurrection-ascension is central to gospel, then history must work up to it and be driven by it as the fulfillment of God's kingdom.  The preaching and teaching of Acts emphasizes God's salvation, and keeps in focus the reality of resurrection which has broken forth the new world.  (An interesting comment here, "For a book called 'acts' much of it is 'teaching'" (89).)  Though often driven by occasion, it is the bold declaration given by the Spirit that characterizes the message of Acts.

Chapter Three points to the Gentile inclusion as the kingdom of God and the restoration of God's people in connection to the Lordship of Jesus; ". . . it provides further evidence that Acts is about the inaugurated kingdom of God in this age" (103).  Beginning with the programmatic statement of Acts 1:8, there is every reason to believe that the kingdom of God and the restoration of Israel have been brought together with the ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit.  Luke develops this geographic/ethnic progression in ways that are probably more in-depth than we have unpacked in recent overviews, and Thompson brings this out in the various sections within the chapter (e.g., Samaritans, outcasts, Gentiles).  This is seen also the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, which plays a prominent part in Acts 15 (see 120-124).  In these themes throughout the narrative, "Luke emphasizes that God is keeping and fulfilling his saving promises and his kingdom has been inaugurated" (124).

Chapter Four turns to the gift and work of the Holy Spirit.  It is viewed here as an eschatological and prophetic gift, bestowed by the risen and exalted Lord Jesus.  "Thus in Acts the Holy Spirit is both the eschatological promise of the Father and is also evidence (being poured out by Jesus himself) that Jesus is the hoped-for Davidic King, is reigning now and by his resurrection has inaugurated the last days and the restoration of Israel" (131).

Thus, the Holy Spirit is the empowering presence of God upon the church, now given as a constant empowerment rather than an occasional and selective force (cf. 132).  It is the whole church which receives the Spirit, to be at work for the kingdom of God at all times.  The Holy Spirit is also viewed as transformative, restoring God's people and bringing unity among the believers.  "There is only one people of God" (137).  The giving of the Holy Spirit (with those rather odd passages within the narrative) are also discussed here, to the conclusion that ". . . in Acts the norm is that the Holy Spirit is received by all believers at conversion and that baptism is associated with the response of conversion as an outward display of an allegiance (trust and repentance) to the Lord Jesus" (142).

Chatper Five examines the transition from the era of the temple to the era of the church, where the Holy Spirit and the reign of the risen Lord Jesus is at work for God's kingdom.  Thompson's view is that the temple has now reached its fulfillment, and therefore gives way to the reign of Jesus through the leadership of the church.  He finds no contradiction in the early believers going to the temple, for he does not see evidence in their participating in the sacrifices per se - "It should be noted, however, that the only activity Luke records the believers doing in the temple in this context is proclaiming Jesus" (152-153).  Although the discussion surveys the entirety of Acts, there is not enough space to review it all here.  Of special interest to many would be Stephen's speech in Acts 7, where his witness declares that God cannot be contained by a temple made with human hands, thereby emphasizing the fulfillment of the covenant (cf. 168-172).  "The Lord Jesus is therefore the fulfillment of and replacement for the temple and the one through whom previous temple boundaries may now be overcome" (172).

Chapter Six then speaks of the law as no longer holding direct authority over God's people.  Thompson reminds us that there is no anti-law sentiment in the Acts narrative, even though the one to whom the law pointed has now come.  If the temple had authority, Jesus now has a universal authority (179).  The earthly execution of this authority rests with the apostles, a function given to them by the Spirit of Jesus as empowerment to the task.  This new era does not constrict as the law once did, but gives opportunity for the Gentiles to experience the blessing of the kingdom of God by participating in the people of God and receiving the Spirit.

In his Conclusion, Thompson reminds us, "The introduction of this 'new era' of 'last days' fulfilment, however, also has implications for the 'old era'" (194).  An important note indeed.  Further he states, "Thus, according to Luke, believers such as Theophilus may be assured that God's plan of salvation is being carried out according to his promises through the continuing reign of the risen Lord Jesus" (195).

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