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Should the Old Testament Be Unhitched from Christian Faith? … (Acts 15 and Andy Stanley)

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. He is stirring controversy again, but he is also getting Christians (like me) to think about stuff that we are not always prepared to deal with.

A lot of skeptics find the Old Testament to be a problem. A lot of Christians, if they are honest, do too.

But at the first great church council, in Jerusalem, in Acts 15, you get the impression that the earliest Christians were willing to get rid of the legal requirements of the Old Testament, in order to reach more people, with the Gospel. Staunch Jewish members of the early church resisted this, wanting Gentile converts to become circumcised, as a condition for salvation. But those like the Apostle Paul convinced the church leadership to conclude otherwise:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (Acts 15:28-29 ESV)

In other words, if the Gentiles Christians were willing to adhere to these four basic requirements, they could remain in the church, without (at least the men) falling under the knife. At first, this sounds straight forward, until you read elsewhere later in the New Testament, where the exact requirement for abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, appears to be set aside as a “disputable matter,” as explained by Paul in Romans 14 and 15, where Christians can follow their consciences, as long as they do not cause other believers to stumble.

The main point seems to be that Christians should put an emphasis on unity, and that the requirements laid down in Jerusalem were more about keeping peace, than they were about adhering to moral principle.

One of America’s most influential pastors, Andy Stanley, of one of the largest churches in Atlanta, Georgia, North Point Community Church, has gone a step further, in a 2018 sermon that has caused a firestorm of controversy. Stanley lands his message by saying, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.

Andy Stanley has received quite a bit of pushback (Dr. Michael Brown at Charisma magazine, Wesley Hill at First Things). In understanding the Old Testament to be a problem, for many people today, is pastor Stanley throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

If you look at Acts 15, I find that many modern Christians have a problem with even the basic requirements adopted at the Jerusalem council. With respect to the requirement to abstain from “sexual immorality,” a lot of evangelicals are quick to lament how same-sex marriage, and other traditional, sexual immorality issues are being compromised, in certain quarters of the church.

But with equal force, we see the early church condemning, at least here in Acts 15, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, consuming blood, and eating the meat of animals that still have blood in them (what has [not] been strangled). And yet, how many Christians do you see today worrying about eating any food, in connection with idolatry?

Even more unsettling, and more relevant to modern Christians, what about eating red meat? Do you like your steak rare or medium rare? Are you violating the requirement laid down by the first great council of the church?

What are we to make of the binding force of the Acts 15 decree, for today’s Christians? How are we to relate to the Old Testament, rejecting what is an obstacle to faith in Jesus, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

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Paul’s Early Visits to Jerusalem: Does Acts Conflict with Galatians?

In Acts 15, the first great church council meeting counts as the third visit Paul paid to Jerusalem, after his conversion, according to a face value reading of Acts. But Galatians records only two visits to Jerusalem by Paul. Is the chronology within the Bible in conflict?

Skeptics of the Bible like to point out things like this as “errors,” but that judgment is premature. There is much scholarly debate, but historically there are two main theories as to how the problem could be resolved. But without descending into too much detail, there is also a more recent proposal that might better explain the difficulties.

Acts records a first visit of Paul to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-30, following his escape from Damascus, in a basket, lowered by his friends (Acts 9:23-25). The second visit is commonly called the “famine” visit, when Paul and Barnabas are sent from Antioch to deliver help to the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 11:27-30. The third visit, in Acts 15:1-29, Paul has a “public” meeting with the church leaders in Jerusalem, to try to resolve the conflict regarding the status of welcoming the Gentiles into the then Jewish-dominated church. Paul makes at least one more visit later to Jerusalem in Acts, but that visit is not relevant to this chronology problem.

Compare this to what we read in Galatians, Paul’s letter to the church there, intended to resolve the dispute over the Judaizers, who wished to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers in Jesus. Paul appeals to his authority as an apostle, called directly by God, to overrule the legalism of the Judaizers.

To make his case, in Galatians 1:11-24, Paul tells of being converted by a personal revelation from the Lord Jesus. After spending three years in Damascus, Paul goes to Jerusalem, only visiting the apostles Peter and James, meeting them for the first time.

Then, in Galatians 2:1-10, Paul writes of returning again to Jerusalem, “after fourteen years” (Is this fourteen years after his conversion, or fourteen years after his first visit to Jerusalem? We do not know). Paul took Barnabas again, along with Titus, to address the circumcision issue with the Jerusalem apostles (Click on the image below, to expand the image).

The evangelical apologist Norman Geisler champions the traditional view, namely that this second meeting in Galatians corresponds to the third meeting found in Acts; that is, Galatians 2 = Acts 15. Geisler admits some problems here: (a) Galatians 2 records a private visit, whereas Acts 15 describes a public visit, (b) Galatians mentions nothing about any council decree, whereas Acts 15 specifically mentions a council decree. On the flip side, there is evidence favoring this solution: (a) Luke in Acts 15 is emphasizing the public decision regarding Paul’s message, whereas Galatians is interested in private affirmation of Paul’s call to ministry among the Gentiles;  (b) Paul and Barnabas faced stiff opposition in both Galatians 2 and Acts 15; and (c) the persons mentioned in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 more clearly match, as well as the overall timing of the events.

The main obstacle with Geisler’s solution is that it suggests that Paul simply omitted the mention of a third visit to Jerusalem, as described in Acts. Yet Galatians specifically spells out a total of two visits to Jerusalem by Paul, and no more. Omitting the description of a third visit would probably raise some suspicion by Paul’s critics, and does not adequately remove from the reader the specter of error in the Bible. After all, Paul’s driving point is that he gets his apostolic calling directly from revelation, and not from any man, not even the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:11-12). He was basically unknown to the churches of Judea, prior to the meeting in Galatians 2 (Galatians 1:22). If Paul were to ignore yet an extra visit to Jerusalem, it would tarnish Paul’s credibility.

Dallas Seminary and New Testament scholar Darrell Bock champions a different solution, associating the Acts 11:27-30 visit with the Galatians 2:1-10 visit; that is, Acts 11:27-30 = Galatians 2:1-10. He cites three main reasons to support this view: (a) In Galatians, Paul’s second visit is instigated by a “revelation” (Galatians 2:2), and this could tie in with the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 11; (b) Paul mentions that he desired to “remember the poor” in the second visit of Galatians (Galatians 2:10), and this affirms the reason mentioned in Acts 11 for that visit to Jerusalem, namely to offer a gift to the church there, to aid in famine relief; and (c) the problem being addressed in Galatians 2 concerns having table fellowship with Gentiles, whereas the controversy in Acts 15 is about circumcision, making it less likely that the incidents are the same.

Bock’s solution does have its difficulties. It assumes that Galatians was written before the events described in Acts 15, and in general, it moves up the time table traditionally associated with the movements of Paul. Combined with some skepticism over the interpretation of the positive points of evidence mentioned by Bock, not all scholars find the assumptions proposed by supporters of Bock’s solution to be agreeable: (a) Paul’s revelation may not be related to the prophecy of Agabus. As in much of Paul’s writings, Galatians indicates more that the “revelation” had to do with Paul himself, and not necessarily something to do with another person, like Agabus; (b) there is no requirement to assume that the call to “remember the poor” be limited only to one visit; and (c) the issue of table fellowship with the Gentiles derives directly from the controversy over circumcision, as well as the Jewish food laws. It need not be separated.

More recently, Duke University New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre proposes a newer solution that should be taken seriously, in view of the difficulties associated with the previously proposed solutions. To understand Goodacre’s solution, it requires the student of Scripture to have a better understanding of the genre of the Book of Acts.

According to New Testament scholar, Michael Licona, most scholars today recognize that the Gospels, as well as the Book of Acts, can be shown to take the literary form of Greco-Roman biographies, the “bios” genre. Greco-Roman biographers were concerned about chronology, but not in the same manner as modern biographers and historians are today. Unlike modern biographies, Greco-Roman biographies do not share the same degree of precision when it comes to narrating the chronology of historical events. Greco-Roman biographies were known at times to sacrifice certain precise details of chronology, in order to achieve other literary aims, namely, to highlight the character of the person or persons being studied. In other words, the writers of the Gospels and Acts were not required to follow the literary standards of doing biography and history that we would require today. Instead, they would follow the literary standards commonly accepted in the Mediterranean cultures of the first century.

Licona’s thesis in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography gives examples of how the New Testament authors would use various compositional devices in order to achieve the literary aims of those authors. Perhaps there is a Greco-Roman compositional device associated with Acts that can help relieve the chronological problems reconciling Acts and Galatians.

Mark Goodacre finds agreement with the positive case, presented by those like Norman Geisler, that the so-called third visit in Acts  to Jerusalem, in Acts 15, is the same as the second visit in Galatians, in Galatians 2. There is a long history of accepting this view, going back as early as the church father of the 2nd century, Irenaeus.

However, Goodacre proposes that the first visit in Acts (Acts 9) is actually the same as the second visit in Acts (Acts 11). In other words, Acts 9:26-30 and Acts 11:27-30 are in reality the same visits to Jerusalem, narrated twice. This is the proposed chronology that is offered by Goodacre’s solution, starting from the end of Paul’s time in Damascus:

  • Paul (then Saul) escapes via the basket from Damascus (Acts 9:23-25).
  • Paul then makes his way to the area of Tarsus, his home town, and eventually arrives in Antioch, to receive the gift of the believers there, to be given to the elders of the Jerusalem church to aid in famine relief (Acts 11:25-30).
  • Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem, the first visit described in Galatians 1:11-24.
  • This is also the same visit described in Acts 9:26-30.
  • Paul is then brought to Caesarea, and then sent off to Tarsus, per Acts 9:30.
  • Years later, after Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas, along with Titus, go to Jerusalem for both a private meeting with the apostles, to affirm Paul’s call to ministry, as well as to participate in the public church debate over the Jewish/Gentiles controversy, leading to the decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Therefore Acts 15 and Galatians 2 describe the same incidents.

Goodacre describes Acts 9 as a type of “flash forward” of the events described in Acts 11. But it might be better to think of Acts 11 as a “flashback” to the events of Acts 9, which might fit in well with the use of such compositional devices found in other Greco-Roman biographies.

It would be reasonable to suggest that Luke effectively repeats the story of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem, between Acts 9 and Acts 11, to tie those passages together. In the interim, Luke in Acts 9:32 to Acts 11:18 picks up the story of Peter, specifically focusing on the story of Cornelius, the Gentile Roman military officer, and his conversion to Christ. Once done with the story of Peter and Cornelius, Luke recalls where he earlier stopped off with telling Paul’s story, and to bring things back to Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem.

Why does Luke do this? We can not be completely certain. It is quite possible that Luke’s objective in Acts is to narrate how the church grew from being a Jewish-only movement to becoming a Jewish-Gentile movement, centered around the mission of Paul, a converted Jew to Christ, to share the Gospel with the Gentiles. In other words, Luke selects material from the history of the early church, to focus first on Peter, and then to transition to the character of the apostle Paul. It would only be fitting for Luke to build up the story of how the church overcame the problems between Jew and Gentile, by temporarily highlighting the background and story of Peter’s interactions with Cornelius, before returning to his main narrative, following the apostle Paul.

Those who object to this solution might complain that Acts 9 only makes mention of Paul’s movements from Damascus to Jerusalem, with no intervening travels. But this objection is no more a difficulty than the fact that Luke also makes no mention of Paul’s time in Arabia in Acts 9, while operating out of Damascus, as mentioned in Galatians 1:17. It simply was not a concern of Luke’s to mention all of those precise details in his narrative.

But perhaps the biggest objection to be raised is the assumption that Luke is rearranging, if not repeating, his chronology in Acts, with respect to Paul’s travels in Acts 9 and Acts 11. It is true that a face value reading of Acts would suggest the presence of three visits to Jerusalem, by Paul, by the time of the Acts 15 Jerusalem council, and not two. Nothing in Acts specifically would indicate otherwise. It is only the desire to reconcile the chronology of Galatians that causes concern.

On the other hand, if indeed the Book of Acts is a good example of the Greco-Roman biographical genre, then it should not surprise us to find Luke using compositional devices often associated with that genre. In fact, we should be surprised if Luke did not use such compositional devices in his writing.

Mark Goodacre’s solution is not without criticism, and it would be wrong to dogmatically assert this as the only possible answer to this chronological difficulty. The other proposals have their strengths as well. But in light of the growing scholarly consensus as to a common understanding of the first century, Greco-Roman literary context of the Book of Acts, it might be well worth considering Goodacre’s approach as a legitimate solution.

This situation causes frustration for some contemporary readers, who desire a resolution to chronological problems, for the sake of preserving biblical inerrancy. For those who wish to defend the Scriptures, some probably wonder why the Scriptural text does not spell things out more clearly. Some might complain that if Luke really wanted us to believe that the so-called first (Acts 9) and second (Acts 11) visits of Paul to Jerusalem were really the same, then the Bible would explicitly come out and say that!

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes the narratives of the New Testament should behave in the same manner as modern histories and biographies. Sadly, this misguided expectation mirrors a type of cynical and crass skepticism, that encourages critics to dump all of the Bible, simply because the Bible supposedly fails to measure up to “our” modern expectations of what good history and biography should look like.

When we are reading the Bible, we must keep in mind a basic principle of Bible interpretation: The Bible was written for us, but not to us.  “Face value” readings of Scripture often ignore the context in which the biblical writers originally wrote. Confusion over what interpretation of the Bible is best, often arises, because not enough attention has been paid to literary and historical context. The presuppositions of believers and critics alike must take into account the evidence for the prevailing literary practices of the first century, and resist the tendency of anachronistically imposing certain standards on the Gospel writers, that they had no conscious intention of ever meeting.

Norman Geisler’s views are published in his Galatians introduction, as found in A Popular Survey of the New Testament. Darrell Bock’s views are published in his Act: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Aside from his New Testament blog, I am not aware of where/if Mark Goodacre has put his ideas into print.

 

 


Does the Prophet Amos Predict a Literal Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem?

Plumb LineWhen Donald Trump was running for the office of President of the United States, one of his campaign promises was to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a symbolic act would have huge geopolitical ramifications, but why? It all boils down to how you read the Bible.

Look at the prophet Amos. The Book of Amos is mostly a rather devastating prophetic critique of the ancient, northern kingdom of Israel. After discussing all of the problems with Israel’s neighbors, Amos launches into a scathing attack on Israel, and how they are in many ways worse than their neighbors. God pronounces judgment, showing how God’s people do not pass the standard set by God’s plumb line (Acts 7:7-8), and the prophecy came true when Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. It is a rather sober message for a disobedient people.

But at the very end of the book, Amos gives the people a message of hope:

“‘In that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
    and raise up its ruins
    and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
    and all the nations who are called by my name,’
    declares the Lord who does this.
“(Amos 9:11-12 ESV)

Many Jews and Christians today understand “the booth of David” to be a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the center of worship for the Jews, and with the destruction of the first temple, built by King David’s son, Solomon, not many years after this prophecy was made, it gave hope to the Israelites that God would one day restore God’s people to the land, along with a rebuilt temple. A second temple was eventually built but subsequently destroyed in 70 C.E. With the reconstitution of modern Israel, partially centered around Jerusalem, there are many who still hope for the rebuilding of yet a third temple, and the full restoration of Israel promised by Amos.

President Trump’s campaign pledge would imply a type of endorsement to this hope. Yet setting aside the geopolitical issues, there is a major question as to how we are to read the Bible on this point: Is this really how we should read the prophecy of Amos today, regarding a future rebuilt temple in Jerusalem? Continue reading


The “Breaking of the Bread” … or Whatever You Call It

“This is my Body… This is my Blood.”

One Sunday of every month, and after the sermon, two ministers from my church, stand in front of a decorative wooden table, and instruct the congregation to receive the elements, in remembrance of Christ’s death upon the cross. But what to call this ceremony remains a subject of some debate.

At the first Pentecost, following the Resurrection, that signaled the birth of the church, we read that:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”(Acts 2:32 ESV)

Many Christians still speak of “the breaking of (the) bread” to express what goes on at that table, though by association, it also includes the partaking of wine, or grape juice, as is done in my church.1 A long standing debate in the church at large, over what this means, invites rigorous discussion among believers. Does the bread and wine/juice merely symbolize the presence of Christ, as a memorial, or do they somehow point to a real, even physical(??), presence of the Lord Jesus, at that very moment?

We have explored some of the details of this controversy some time ago on Veracity. But for the moment, I have a simpler question: What do we call the whole thing, with the bread and the wine or juice, to begin with?

One of most original terms was the Greek “eucharist,” meaning “thanksgiving.” The terminology of “eucharist” goes back to the late 1st century, or early 2nd century worship manual of the early church, the Didache, to reference this most sacred meal. The term has biblical precedence behind it:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”(1 Corinthians 11:23-24 ESV)

Nevertheless, a number of terms have arisen since then to describe the sacred meal, not just “eucharist.” So, what is the best terminology? Eucharist? The Divine Liturgy? The Blessed Sacrament? The Mass? What else? Continue reading


When the New Testament Writers Quote the Old Testament, … Uh… Are They Crazy?

Saint Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot among the original 12 apostles, following Judas' death, as described in Acts 1. The Bible tells us nothing more about Matthias, but one tradition says that he founded the first Christian community along the Caspian Sea (credit: Simone Martini, Wikipedia)

Saint Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot among the original 12 apostles, following Judas’ death, as described in Acts 1. The Bible tells us nothing more about Matthias, but one tradition says that he founded the first Christian community along the Caspian Sea, before being martyred. (credit: Simone Martini, Wikipedia)

Have you ever wondered why the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, the way they do? Sometimes, it looks rather strange, if not outright crazy. Is there an explanation for this? Let us explore an example from the Book of Acts.

In Acts 1:15-22 (ESV), we have come to the point in Luke’s story, just after the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The disciples are waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, when Peter stands up and convinces the rest of the group that they must replace the position, among the apostles, vacated by Judas Iscariot, after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Luke records what happens, as follows:

(v.15) In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, (v.16) “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. (v.17) For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (v.18) (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. (v.19) And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (v.20) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
and

“‘Let another take his office.’

(v.21) So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, (v.22) beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

Let us ignore the whole question of how Judas died, and instead, focus on what I have highlighted, namely Peter’s statement, “the Scripture had to be fulfilled,” in v. 16. In v. 20, Peter quotes from two psalms, Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8.  But if you read either of those Psalms in the Old Testament, say Psalm 69, you will notice that this psalm says absolutely nothing about Judas Iscariot, and nothing directly about Jesus as the Messiah. How does this have anything to do with replacing the apostolic position left open by the death of Judas? How can prophecy be “fulfilled” in Acts, when neither psalm appears to be predicting anything?

So,… Is Peter’s use of the quotations from the Old Testament, a bit…. uh…. crazy???? Was Peter suffering from some form of “post-Ascension” stress?

The answer to that is “no,” but it requires taking a closer look at the original context of the Biblical speakers, writers, and their audience.

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