Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading Scripture Wisely and Well (Part 3): Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

This is the final set of steps for reading a text closely. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

7. Read each passage in its broader book context. We have used two metaphors for talking about reading the Scripture at different levels. We’ve emphasized the necessity of both an eagle’s eye view of the Scriptures and a ground level analysis of individual passages. Individual books serve as the middle ground.[1] This involves more work for the interpreter, but the payoff is immense. First, look for connections. Take time to look for other places in the same book where the author deploys the same words and phrases (or close synonyms). Such repetitions or recurrences are often purposeful and can lead to substantive insights. For example, in Philippians 3:1-16 Paul offers his own life as an example for the Philippian believers to emulate (3:17). When he is describing the zeal of his pre-Christ following life in 3:6, he boast that he was a “persecutor of the church.”[2] In 3:7-11 Paul recounts the dramatic transformation that he experienced through knowing Christ. This transformation moved Paul from a person rooted and secure in a righteousness derived from his own credentials and accomplishments to a person rooted in a righteousness through Jesus the Messiah.  In 3:16 Paul articulates a moment-by-moment orientation to life through Jesus by writing, “I am pressing on continually toward the goal to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Messiah Jesus.” The phrase “pressing on” is the same Greek word typically translated “persecute” in 3:6. Observing this connect offers a real insight into the transformation of Paul. Paul, as a Christ follower is no less zealous in his faith than he was as a Pharisee. But Paul has undergone a radical reorientation. His compass point has shifted to the Risen Jesus. Paul surrendered his pre-Christian rubric of a righteousness rooted in his own abilities and accomplishments for the ultimate prize—knowing Messiah Jesus. When knowing Jesus became Paul’s primary focus, Paul’s gifts and graces became a means of glorifying and honoring Jesus rather than a means of boasting of himself to others. Second, it is vital to make sure that we understand a discrete text’s function within the broader book. What contribution does our text play in the wider contours of the book? What would be lost or gained without it? How does it relate to the passages that precede and follow it? For example, Matthew 4:17 begins a major section of Matthew’s Gospel.[3] Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing the in-breaking new age of God’s saving reign, and by exhorting his hearers to realign themselves continually in light of the Kingdom. This verse serves as a general programmatic statement for understanding 4:17—16:20. To understand fully every discrete section requires that the reader reflect on how it informs a way of life in line with the Kingdom of heaven and that one realign one’s life in conformity to the vision of the text. In 8:1–17 Jesus models boundary-breaking acts of ministry with outsiders. This is no mere report of Jesus’ historical acts. It serves as a paradigm for shaping present and future followers of Jesus to live out the ethos of the kingdom of heaven. 

8. Read each passage within its broader canonical context. Texts do not exist in isolation from other texts. There are often multiple conversations taking place within the Bible between texts. In particular, it is vital to recognize and explore the ways in which the texts that we are studying stand in dialogue with other texts written before or after. For example, in its majestic praise of God, Psalm 8 looks back on the creation of humanity and God’s granting of dominion in Genesis 1:26–31 as a profound basis for worshiping God. As we interpret Psalm 8 it is vital to catch its connection back to Genesis and reflect on the way that Genesis informs our understanding of Psalm 8 (and vice versa). But there is more to Psalm 8. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 2 verses 5–9 quotes Psalm 8:4–6 in part of his proclamation of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, in understanding the meaning of Psalm 8 within its canonical context it is important to read it in conversation with both Genesis 1 and Hebrews 2. Likewise, this is also the case with a reading of Genesis 1 or Hebrews 2. However, not every biblical text will have explicit links to other passages as is the case with Psalm 

9. Establish a research agenda to engage secondary resources. Thus far, we have described the process of engaging a biblical text first hand through the practice of close reading. The best close readings do not provide the final word on a text. As suggested, many of our best observations raise additional questions. Some questions can be answered through the close reading process, but others will require the use of the fruits of biblical scholarship. After you have pondered over the text using your own observation skills, ask yourself: What are the key questions that remain unanswered that I need to resolve in order to understand this passage of Scripture? At this point, the wise interpreter will turn to resources such as Bible dictionaries, atlases, theological word books, grammar and syntax texts, journal articles, and commentaries. 

Use the best resources at your disposal. In the age of information, Internet search engines can quickly inundate an interpreter with more data than one could process in a lifetime. Biblical interpreters must learn to read all reference material critically. We must also eschew the tyranny of the available and commit ourselves to using the finest resources so that we are engaging the finest exegetical minds and not merely dialoging with those resources that make it onto the first screen pages of web searches. In general, such a commitment involves resisting popular authors and the latest fads for the commentaries and articles written by biblical scholars and for works by the classic interpreters of the past (early Church Fathers, the Reformers, John Wesley among others). It is critically important to use up-to-date Bible dictionaries and atlases so that one has access to the most recent discoveries as our understanding of the socio-historical background of the world of the Bible grows annually. Given the missional reality in which we find ourselves, we need to deploy the best and most penetrating resources in order to engage the text at the level that we need in our day. I'll post some suggested resources in future blogs.

Let me know if you have any questions.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell  



[1]There is another intermediate level as well: corpus context. Books written by the same authors or redacted by the same community function in a way similar to book context in terms of helping to understand smaller passages and themes. For example, a passage in Galatians serves a role in the book of Galatians, but it also contributes to our understanding of Paul’s other letters. The same would be true of passages in Luke-Acts, John and John’s Letters, Ezra-Nehemiah, the Pentateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.
[2]Grk dioko
[3]David R. Bauer, The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Library of New Testament Studies: 31; Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1989).

Friday, May 29, 2015

Reading Wisely and Well (Part 2): Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

Continuing my tips for reading Scripture wisely and well...Read Part one here
 
5. Read multiple translations. I recommend that interpreters use at least three different translations during the process of close reading. Make sure that you choose translations from different translational families. For example, little is gained by comparing the KJV with the NKJV. Avoid paraphrases. At minimum, the deployment of multiple translations will serve as a guard against a simple misunderstanding of the English. But more importantly, comparing translations will guide you to the seams that exist between translations. By seams, I mean those places where the exegetical difficulties present in the original show up in the form of tensions between translations that otherwise remain hidden underneath the uniformity of a given English translation. Look specifically for substantive differences between translations. Make sure that you understand the interpretive options presented by the different translations. Ask: How do the differences in translation change the meaning of the passage? For example, Genesis 1:1 reads classically in the KJV, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In some modern translations, v. 1 is understood as a clause dependent on the verse or verses that follow. The NRSV is representative of newer translational approaches, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,….”[1] At stake here are questions of the biblical understanding of cosmology and its relationship to its ancient near eastern context.[2] Reflect on the ways that the differences in translation seem to resolve interpretive issues. 

6. Reflect on the meaning of individual words. A couple of warnings: a) Don’t assume that you understand the meaning of words. When in doubt, always spend the time in word study. b) Don’t abuse the principal of “Scripture interprets Scripture” in defining words. It is folly to cite the meaning of a term used by one author when we are studying the writing of another. A classic example is the definition of faith. The writer of the Hebrews explicitly describes faith (Grk: pistis) in this manner: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Without a doubt, this is one of the clearest definitions of pistis in the Bible, but it is methodologically problematic to accept this as the definition of pistis in every other context. Words have meanings in relationship to the other words around them. Moreover, each biblical author may emphasize a different nuance of a word’s meaning. c) Don’t mistake common English definitions for a word for the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew term. For example, the Great Commandment or Shema contains a number of words that can be misinterpreted in translation. Deuteronomy 6:5, which reads in English translation, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Popular interpretations read these common English terms through a matrix more in line with Greek psychology and modern romantic sentiment than with Deuteronomy’s own ancient context. Study of the Hebrew (and cognate) usage suggests that “love” is in fact a covenant term exhorting committed obedience. “Heart” focuses on the center of human volition and rationality and not on the center of emotions. “Soul” is not the spiritual aspect or the “authentic” core of a human person, but instead Hebrew nephesh is descriptive of the totality of a person including the physical body. “Strength” is really better translated “everything else” or even “and then some” as it functions to intensify the seriousness and totality of the call to love God. Moreover, rather than suggesting three parallel spheres or attributes of loving God, “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” form a concentric structure that emphasizes to a superlative degree the whole-person commitment involved in “loving the LORD.”[3]

If you missed part one, you can Read Part one here




[1]The NRSV lists two additional alternatives in footnotes: “When God began to create…” and “In the beginning God created….”
[2]For discussion of the four principal ways on construing Gen 1:1-3, see Terence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 35
[3]See the masterful exegetical study of the manifold issues present in the text by S. Dean McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27 (1973): 273-306.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading Wisely and Well: Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in its Scriptural Context (Part One)

  1. Pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is vital for engaging the Scriptures. My working assumption is that the Bible is inspired by God, preserved by God, and illuminated by God. Thus, we must pray for God's guidance. Moreover, let us pray that God may astonish us anew with the riches of the text.
  2. Assume the posture of a servant before the text. Do not read the text with the goal of mastering it. Read the text in the hope that it will master you.
  3. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. One of the causes of poor interpretation is the assumption that the reader already knows the meaning of the biblical text. Reflect on the genre of the passage. Is the text a narrative, a genealogy, prophesy, poetry, a parable, or discursive literature? If you have the ability to study the text in the original languages, do it. Reading the text in Greek or Hebrew forces the reader to slow down naturally. Regardless, ponder the words and phrases used by the author. In the popular imagination and practice, interpreting Scripture is a matter of flipping back and forth to other parts of the Bible in order to understand what a given text is saying.[1] Resist this. Stay put within the confines of the text you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Break it into its logical or thematic units. Reflect on how the narrative or author’s thinking progresses. Don’t give up. Commit yourself to being like Jacob who refused to let go of God until he received a blessing. Biblical interpretation does not really begin until you have engaged the text in a process of careful and sustained reading and reflection. The process will be generative in terms of insights and the framing of new questions. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking.
  4. Ask questions of the text. Engaged reading involves much more than note-taking. Over time I have discovered that the best interpreters of the Scripture were those men and women who asked the most penetrating questions. The process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level.[2] In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at three levels: Definition, Function, and Implications. Definitional questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” of the issue. Implicational questions attempt to probe beneath the surface to ferret out the deep meaning. Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “…you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following definitional questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance? Finally we end with implicational questions: What are the full implications of our findings for understanding the theology and assumptions of Exodus 19:4-6? What does Exodus 19:4-6 assume to be true?
I'll post the followup blogs over the next few days. 
© 2015 Brian D. Russell


[1]This is a profound misappropriation and misunderstanding of the dictum: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Of course this is true. But the principal assumes that one has already carefully studied a text within its original context and found its meaning elusive. Only then does the interpreter turn to other passages where the meaning may be clearer and instructive for understanding our first text.
[2]I have been formed immeasurably through Inductive Bible Study as taught at Asbury Theological Seminary. Seminal texts include: Robert Traina, Methodical Bible Study; David L. Thompson, Bible Study that Works; and Robert A. Traina and David R. Bauer, Inductive Bible Study:A Descriptive Guide to the Study of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2010).

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Book of Acts and Incarnation

The Book of Acts also models an incarnational mission as part of its global and cross-cultural vision. The model has three key elements that invite our reflection. (1) The mission of God is a cross-cultural one and Jesus bridged the divisions that exist between insiders and outsiders. (2) Gentiles did not have to become Jewish with respect to the Torah in order to follow Jesus. (3) The Holy Spirit deploys various methods of advancing the Gospel depending on the context of its audience including use of Scripture, miracles, and the utilization of Gentile cultural and religious symbols (i.e., extra-biblical ones).
First, Acts demonstrates decisively that the Gospel is transcultural and that it can be translated into different cultures. The gift of tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2) demonstrated the Good News could be delivered in languages outside of the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek of 1st century Palestine. Moreover, the reality of the Spirit falling on Samaritans and Gentiles served as a tangible demonstration of the Gospel’s inclusiveness. Acts 10 narrates the remarkable story of Cornelius and Peter. Both men receive visions that prepare them for an encounter that will change both of their lives. Cornelius, who is a God-fearing Roman Centurion, receives a vision in which God tells him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision in which he learns that God has pronounced the formerly unclean, clean. When Cornelius sends for Peter, Peter realizes that the vision was God’s way of preparing him for a mission to the Gentiles. He goes to Cornelius and presents him with the Gospel, which Cornelius and his friends and relatives receive. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit fills the Gentiles and, thus, marks their entrance into the people of God (10:44–48).
Second, as Gentiles became Christ-followers, the Jewish Christian leadership faced the issue of how the Torah’s laws affected these new believers. The question in its most basic form was this: Did a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to live as a follower of Jesus? In particular, there was a dispute over the question of circumcision. Did male converts to the Christ following movement need to be circumcised? Acts 15 recounts a remarkable conference involving Paul, Barnabas, and the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas shared the fruits of the Gentile mission, including all of the signs and wonders that God was doing to advance the Gospel. James, speaking on behalf of the Jerusalem leaders, discerned that God was indeed doing a great work among the nations in fulfillment of Amos 9:11–12. Gentiles did not need to embrace fully the Mosaic Law. In particular, they did not need to be circumcised. James wrote a pastoral letter that boiled down the Mosaic laws to avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality. This episode affirms that Gentile converts to the Christ following movement did not have to become practicing Jewish Christians. The key lesson here is that the Gospel can be contextualized into new cultures. Acts 15 also affirms that there are transcultural principles of moral conduct that establish a core ethos for Christ followers.
Last, Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization, or some mixture of these options.
The Book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and God-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26–40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.
The Book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16–34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God, as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.
Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16–34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens, the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Aeropaus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference to an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover, Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus, not as Israel’s Messiah, but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32–34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the Book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with the Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The Good News of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus, but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100 percent conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reading the Book of Acts Missionally: A Spirit-Empowered Advance of the Gospel

Acts completes the story begun in the Book of Luke by narrating the spread of the Gospel from Jesus’ ascension to heaven to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. The Book of Acts’ contribution to understanding the missional nature of God’s people is clear. A missional reading of Acts listens to the story of the emergence of the Christ following movement in the 1st century Greco-Roman world as a guide to 21st century mission.
The central insight of Acts is the empowering role of the Holy Spirit in the advancement of the Gospel. The Book of Acts is Spirit-driven. So much so that it is more appropriate to think of the Book of Acts as “Acts of the Spirit” rather than “Acts of the Apostles.”
The Book of Acts opens with the Risen Jesus prepping his disciples for their post-resurrection mission. This is a new era for the people of God. Jesus’ words are programmatic and visionary: “But you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). This text is full of meaning.
Fundamentally, this text reconnects the mission of God’s people explicitly with the Genesis 1–11 world. If the Gospel story from Genesis 12 until the coming of Jesus focused on the creation of a new humanity to reflect God’s character in the world, the post-resurrection era of the Church shifts to a “go to” ethos in which the people of God now engage actively the nations with the Good News about God’s abundant and transforming love.
Notice the language of Acts 1:8. It is a vision for world mission. It assumes that mission will continue in the area of the disciples' current geographic reality: Jerusalem and the wider land of biblical Israel. These had been the areas in which Jesus himself had served. But now there is a push beyond these regions to the rest of the earth. The Gospel came to its initial fulfillment in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now post-resurrection, it is time for the good news to spread to the nations in anticipation of the New Creation. This reconnects the Biblical story line with God's universal mission to all Creation. This fulfills the original mission of humanity (1:26–31). Under the power of the Spirit, the Church re-engages this mission with the hope of reaching the nations with the Gospel.
The Spirit is the catalyst for this new movement of God’s work in the world. With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah, God sends the Holy Spirit into the world to empower his new humanity–the church–to serve as clues to the Kingdom of God. The sending and empowerment of the Spirit is the qualitative difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The Spirit guarantees the success of God’s mission. God’s people, the church, are people of the Spirit. The Book of Acts demonstrates this in dramatic fashion.
Acts 2 powerfully tells the story of the initial filling of Jesus followers with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Jews and god-fearers from all over the Roman world had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Jesus’ followers had likewise gathered together. Suddenly, on the morning of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of tongues of fire. All of Jesus’ followers who were present (perhaps as many as 120 cf. 1:15) were instantaneously gifted with the ability to speak one of the many native languages of those gathered in Jerusalem. They began to announce the good news about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This reality reversed the confusion of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) and demonstrated the translatability of the Gospel cross-culturally. This is a key element, as Jesus’ followers could have spoken in Greek and addressed the crowd as a whole. But the mission of God is for the nations and, thus, the followers address the nations contextually in each person’s native tongue. Peter addresses the crowd and announces that this miracle of speech is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28–32. God’s future age of the Spirit, as inaugurated by Jesus, has now come. Peter goes on to announce cogently the Gospel to all who gathered around him. The immediate result of the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection through the power of the Spirit was the addition of 3000 persons to the Christ following movement.
The Book of Acts marks the spread of the Gospel around the world by tracing the advancement of the baptism of the Spirit. Whenever the Gospel reaches a new people, the Spirit’s coming signifies the creation of a new Jesus community. Unlike in the Old Testament, in the New Testament all of God’s people receive the Spirit for empowerment and cleansing. Acts records the apostles performing miracles and preaching in the power of the Spirit. As the Gospel reaches a new area in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the Spirit fills believers in each region.
In subsequent chapters, the Gospel advances through the work of the Spirit. This will be a recurring pattern. In fact, although the full name of Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles, a better title would be “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” We will now trace briefly how this narrative thread plays out in the rest of the book. In Acts 3, Peter and John encountered a crippled man on their way to the temple. Peter heals the man and boldly proclaims the Gospel in Solomon’s portico. This scene catches the attention of the authorities who then arrest Peter and John. In Acts 4, Peter and John appear before the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The Spirit fills Peter (4:8) and enables him to boldly proclaim the Gospel before the council.
In Acts 7–8, an intense time of persecution erupts against the earliest Christ following movement. However, human power cannot quench the Spirit. Instead of stopping the Gospel in its tracks, the persecution has the opposite effect of helping to advance the Gospel by pushing it out of Jerusalem into surrounding regions. This is an important insight for a missional reading. The arrival of persecution does not mark the end of Christian witness, but instead it often enhances Christian witness (e.g., Philippians 1:27–30). The persecution in Jerusalem forces Jesus’ followers to flee, but in the process, they are carrying the Gospel to new people and new places. The inhabitants of Samaria are the fist beneficiaries. Jews and Samaritans had a shared history but also much animosity with each other. This does not stop the Gospel. Acts 8:4–25 reports the missional work of Philip among the Samaritans. They receive the Gospel. Reports of the reception of the Gospel by the Samaritans make it back to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem. They appoint Peter and John to travel to Samaria in order to equip the new believers there. The believers in Samaria had received water baptism, but they did not yet have the baptism of the Spirit. Peter and John pray that God would send his Spirit upon the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit (8:15–17). The Spirit’s arrival marks the advance of the Gospel to a new place and new people.
Next the Spirit empowers the Church to bridge the cultural gap between Jew and Gentle. In Caesarea, the first Gentiles receive the Gospel (10:44–48). The book of Acts marks the acceptance of the Gospel by a new cultural group with a report of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the believers. In due course, the Spirit baptizes Jews (Acts 2), Samaritans (Acts 7), and Gentiles (Acts 10). This continues the fulfillment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). The gift of the Spirit is for everyone. The artificial boundaries of humanity dissolve: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.
God’s Spirit is the driving force in the expansion of God’s people from the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) to Paul’s house arrest in Rome (Acts 28). The early apostles and witnesses were open and sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings. For example, in Acts 8:26–40, the Spirit leads Philip (8:29) to engage an Ethiopian eunuch in a conversation that leads to the man’s conversion. The Holy Spirit fills Saul (9:17) after his Damascus road encounter with the Risen Jesus (9:1-9) and he becomes Paul. Paul’s encounter transforms him. He shifts from being a persecutor of the church to being the person whom God uses to carry the Gospel to the Gentile world. His journeys ultimately bring him to Rome.
Acts 13–28 describes the forward advance of the Gospel from the regions of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Syria into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, and eventually Rome itself. Acts 13:1–4 narrates how the Spirit selected Paul and Barnabas to serve as ambassadors of the Gospel. We often think of Paul as a man with a driven personality. But Paul is not merely an ambitious and visionary missional leader; his exploits are the product of the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls Paul (Saul) and Barnabas to preach the Gospel in these new lands. Eventually, Paul and Barnabas separate to pursue different calls (Acts 15:36–41), but Paul continues to carry the Gospel to cities that have not yet heard the name of Jesus. Under the guidance of the Spirit (16:6–10), Paul leaves Asia Minor to evangelize Macedonia and Greece. Paul continues to proclaim the Gospel until Acts ends in Acts 28 with Paul preaching about Jesus in Rome, the capital of the empire. This is significant because it represents a partial fulfillment of Acts 1:8. The Gospel has now moved from Jerusalem, the spiritual center of God’s people from the time of David to Rome the center of the dominant empire of the first century.
Provocatively, Acts concludes in an open-ended fashion. Acts 28 reports that Paul arrived in Rome and lived under house arrest for two-years. During that time, he taught openly about the Kingdom of God and Jesus. Interestingly, the Book of Acts ends abruptly. The reader does not learn the outcome of Paul’s stay in Rome nor of any additional advance of the Gospel. Scholars do debate the ending of acts.[1] But is is clear that the reader is left to wonder what happens next. This invites the reader to create his or her own ending. In the absence of an Acts 29, we must imagine the next chapters in the advance of the Gospel and even to see our own day as part of the ongoing story of God’s people. The story of Acts 29 and beyond remains one to be written by Jesus’ followers today.
The Book of Acts serves an important role in developing a missional hermeneutic through its emphasis on the work of the Spirit. God advances the Gospel through the Spirit’s empowerment. Our hermeneutical reflection is vital but the Good News is that the Spirit continues its work.




[1] The issues turns on the meaning of “ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8 and the extent to which the Gospel reaching Rome represents the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.