Recently I read aloud Acts of the Apostles. When I first read Acts seven years ago, I was struck by its psychological power, with the earnest reader having the same character as Paul in the beginning.
He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
I still believe that is the most moving interpretation of Acts. While reading Acts of the Apostles out loud, I was more struck by how the explicit narrative of Christ’s replacements as Christ’s new co-operators.
The New Christs
Both Peter (who Christ knew personally and previously named as Christ’s “Prime Minister”) and Saul/Paul (a new character) are presented as successors of Christ.
Paul the New Christ
Paul and Christ are feared by demons (greater even than Solomon supposedly was!):
Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying,
“We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.”
Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.
And the evil spirit answered and said,
“Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”
They raise the dead:
There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said,
“Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.”
Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted.
And even are believed, by some, to be the incarnation of the Divine!
And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice,
“Stand up straight on your feet!”
And he leaped and walked. Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language,
“The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!”
And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying,
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.
And both defeat the chaos in chaos – Christ was tempted in the wilderness; Paul defeated a serpent across the sea:
Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. And the natives[ showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another,
“No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.”
But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
Peter the New Christ
But while Paul presents what seems an entirely new type of Christ. In some cases, the parallels are exact: Peter also raises the read:
At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. Then Peter arose and went with them. When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said,
And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.
Though overall, Peter is a closer, more Hebraic repetition. He takes from Christ His ability to interpret the Mosaic Law more deeply (with the clear implication he is speaking in place of God:
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him,
“Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
But Peter said,
“Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
And a voice spoke to him again the second time,
“What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
As well as seeming to supersede circumcision with baptism, acting as if he were a lawgiver, as Jesus did:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.
Then Peter answered,
“Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
The Loss of the Earthly Life of Jesus
I don’t think I’m the first to note that Acts primarily chronicles the fading away of “miracles” in Church History. Acts begins with incredible and supernatural wonders, including the living-again Christ:
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said,
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
the Holy Spirit giving the Apostles tongues of fire
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.
Yet while miracles continue, gradually, they seem to fade away. God begins to act in history instead of seeming to invade it.
But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying,
“Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
The world has seemingly become so mundane that even those who arrest and persecute our heroes do not know the hero’s prosaic identity. In one instance, for instance, the Romans believe that Paul is an Egyptian-speaking rebel!
When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out,
“Away with him!”
Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander,
“May I speak to you?”
“Can you speak Greek? Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”
But Paul said,
“I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.”
So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying,
The Enchantment of the Whole World
The same author wrote Luke and Acts of the Apostles, and the introduction to Acts explicitly states it as a sequel to Luke. So it’s worthwhile to remember who we are dealing with.
The author of those books uses humor to make the reader re-evaluate what he believes he knows. As I wrote before:
In Matthew, primarily, Jesus is Legislator, King of Israel, and Prophet — the Son of Man In Mark, primarily, Jesus is God of All. In Luke, primarily, Jesus’s lives in the world of sarcasm, women, and food.
“The Gospel of Luke,” Alectionary, August 2015.
The author references miracles strategically to make a point and not to provide evidence:
I mentioned Luke’s descriptions of miracles are striking. The Sermon on the Mount is a good example of it. While the chapter divisions in the Bible date from the middle ages, the sixth chapter of Luke is still a good example. Miracles of healing on the Sabbath occur after Christ declaring himself Lord of the Sabbath…
Luke uses the miracles to illustrate a theme or point of the narrative.
“Reading aloud the Gospel According to Luke,” Alectionary, December 2021.
So now consider the story the author is presenting. It’s ironic and pointed. The drama that once unfolded for the Jews is not unfolding for the Greeks, which is a turn. Even the trial is itself turned on its head, as now once again a Jew stands before a Governor unjustly accused of blasphemy, but the trial ends completely differently:
And after some days King Agrippa and Bernice came to Caesarea to greet Festus. When they had been there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying:
“There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, about whom the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, when I was in Jerusalem, asking for a judgment against him. To them I answered,
‘It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver any man to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.’
Therefore when they had come together, without any delay, the next day I sat on the judgment seat and commanded the man to be brought in. When the accusers stood up, they brought no accusation against him of such things as I supposed, but had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters. But when Paul appealed to be reserved for the decision of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I could send him to Caesar.”
Though, during the trial, the Defendant’s words sound as if they came from Christ Himself:
’Go to this people and say:
“Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand;
And seeing you will see, and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.” ’
I think that is the key of Acts – it is the story of the incarnation, but translated for gentiles instead of given to the Jews. Christ was given to both:
“For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.”
But the focus of this narrative is the gentiles. Paul, the final protagonist of Acts, makes this point:
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.
On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said,
“It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us:
‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles,
That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”
Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
Luke’s Gospel emphasized the outsider – foreigners and women chiefly among them. In Acts, he shows how many imitate Christ, but we end with an imitation of Christ ready-made for the gentiles.
Acts of the Apostles continues the story introduced in the Gospel of Luke, presenting two successors to Christ: Peter and Paul. This is done in the context of the “disenchanting” end of the Scriptures being folded into a newly enchanted Scripture, open to the whole world.