Ordering Acts

In the beginning of Luke-Acts, Luke tells his audience that he intends to give "an orderly account" based on the eyewitness testimonies delivered to him. The kingdom of God figures prominently in these testimonies (the phrase appears 32 times in Luke). Despite all the events in the narrative that threaten to disrupt any sense of order in the spread of the gospel, Acts ends with Paul "proclaiming the kingdom of God." From the first sentence of his gospel to the last sentence of Acts, Luke concerns himself with order.

In recent weeks as we have looked together at Paul's missionary journeys, I have at times lost sight of the extent to which the account of Paul in Acts is a continuation of events in Luke. Just as Luke intended his gospel account to be "orderly," so he intends his account of Acts to be "orderly." And this orderliness isn't limited to the two volumes as separate wholes. Rather, order exists throughout Luke-Acts, so that what Jesus accomplishes in the gospel account makes possible what occurs in the Acts narrative.

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright expounds upon the ways that Luke orders Acts:

"Paul, like Jesus, goes on a long journey, ending up being tried before both Jews and Romans . . .

Acts 25:6, 23-25
Festus took his eat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. On the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. And Festus said, "King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here [in Caesarea] shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving of death.

Luke 23:1, 7, 13-15
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And when Pilate learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod. Pilate then called together the chief priests and rulers of the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was misleading many people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving of death has been done by him. 

 

The crucifixion narrative is echoed by the shipwreck in Acts . . . 

Acts 27:41
But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. 

Luke 23:45-46
While the sun's light faded, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." And having said this, he breathed his last. 

the resurrection [is echoed] by the safe arrival of Paul and his party in Rome . . . 

Acts 27:42-44
The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land, and the rest on planks or pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

Luke 23:47, 24:1-2
Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, "Certainly this man was innocent!" But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body of Jesus. 

 

leading to the open and unhindered proclamation of the kingdom of Israel's god, the god now revealed in the risen Lord Jesus."

Acts 28:23, 28
When they had appointed a day for Paul, the came to him at his lodging in great numbers. From morning till evening, he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. . . . "Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen. 

Luke 24:26-27, 47
Then Jesus said to them, "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. 

 

Luke's orderly storytelling provides readers and hearers with a pattern that they are invited to live into, a larger story that provides shape for their individual stories. Luke identifies a pattern in Jesus' life that leaves its mark upon Paul and, in turn, upon all those who would follow Christ. As Wright explains,

"The gospel of Jesus advances by the same means as Jesus himself had done; the cross and resurrection are stamped upon the life of the church that bears witness to them. But the work of the church derives from that of Jesus, and is not merely parallel to it." 

What might our roles be as we seek to participate in the life of Jesus, ordered as it is by cross and resurrection?

Earlier in his book, Wright suggests an analogy for how New Testament stories like these can instruct and direct readers. Imagine a Shakespeare play whose fifth act has been lost to history. To take up the first four acts and compose a final act, closing the book on the range of possible endings for the play, would be unfaithfully limiting. Another inadequate way to conclude the unfinished play would be to enlist actors to simply mimic what characters had done before. Instead, Wright proposes giving the roles "to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves."

One answer to the question of what our roles might be is to immerse ourselves in the ordering acts of the church: to know the Scripture and to pray the prayers, to follow Jesus in baptism and to come together at the Lord's table and so become the "highly trained, sensitive experienced" players who would perform fifth-act roles befitting of the previous action, even if the above description doesn't yet seem to fit us as we miss our cues and stumble over our lines.

Through participation in the drama, we reacquaint ourselves with the order of cross and resurrection that lends shape to Luke's narrative and that has been "stamped" upon our lives through Christ.

Posted on September 15, 2016 .