Studies and discussions on the book of Acts are often the breeding grounds for debates between Dispensational vs. Covenant theology, cessationist vs. non-cessationist theology, Baptist vs. Reformed polity and a myriad of other controversial theological debates. Of course everyone thinks the book of Acts is on their side. When these kinds of discussions become the focal point of the book they reduce its redemptive-historical message of the book. Thus, Acts is turned into a theological billy club that is used to beat over the head of ones opponent.
But the book of Acts is much more than this. It is bigger than any one theological debate (though these debates are necessary). In an effort to refocus Christians on the central redemptive message of Acts Alan J. Thompson has written The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan. This book is the newest edition to the respected New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D.A. Carson.
Aligning the Focus of Acts
Instead of coming to Acts with a debate to win, Thompson wants to let the book itself determine its main focus. For Thompson this is “an account of the ‘continuing story’ of God’s saving purposes” (p. 17). Though Thompson works with the already/not yet hermeneutic in regards to the the kingdom of God Thompson believes that Acts shows us “what the kingdom of God looks like now that Christ has come, dies, risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father” (p. 17) One of the textual ways in which this is brought out is the location of two of the eight phrases “the kingdom” and “the kingdom of God” at the beginning and end of Acts (p. 44). This is fitting given the smooth transition from the Gospel of Luke to Acts since both were written by the same author. At various points through the book Thompson shows the intertextual relationship between Luke and Acts which further help to strengthen the argument that Luke’s goal is Acts is to show the continuation of Christ’s work in the church, through the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that He has ascended to heaven to be with the Father.
Major Hermeneutical Events in Acts
The power that spreads the gospel and the growth of the kingdom of God from the first century onward to today is the resurrection of Christ.
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. The reason for this appears to be that in the resurrection of Jesus, the hoped-for resurrection age to come has arrived already, and it is because of the arrival of the age to come that the blessing of that age may now be received” (p. 79).
What Thomson brings to light is the woven nature between the promise and inauguration of the kingdom of God, the resurrection and eschatology. Thus, the hope of Israel is wrapped up in the resurrection and it is the resurrection that inaugurates, or gives power to, the beginning of the end times. This inauguration of the end times, along with the reconstitution of Israel, is birthed at Pentecost in Acts 2 with the eschatological pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all the nations.
For Thompson, Pentecost is the answer to the disciples question in Acts 1:6 about the restoration of Israel. Thompson argues that while Jesus challenged them on their wanting to know the timing of the restoration of Israel He “neither postpones that fulfillment to the distant future nor rejects such prospect for the present” (p. 105-106). That Israel has been reconstituted at Pentecost is marked out by the three references to Israel in 2:14-36 and the, at minimum inaugurated, fulfillment of Joel 2 (see p. 109-12). But Pentecost is just the beginning. From there, Thompson points out at least four more events in Acts that support this conclusion: Samaria and the restoration of Israel (8:1-25), outcasts and the restoration of Israel (8:26-40), the servant who restores Israel and brings salvation to the Gentiles (13:47) and the rebuilding and restoring and rebuilding of David’s fallen tent (15:13-18). These passages, and others, show that there is a double purpose to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2; Israel is restored and the Gentiles are being brought in in droves.
Since the promised Spirit is poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike, this points to the reality that there is one people of God under one Lord. This can clearly be seen in Acts 10-11 to which Thompson comments:
The overwhelming emphasis of the passage is that these Gentile believers are part of the same people of God as the Jewish believers who received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. (p. 137)
For Thompson it is clear that Acts demonstrably shows that as their is one Lord and Spirit sent from God the Father, there is one people of God to which they are sent to bring salvation to and one kingdom of God into which they are part of together.
Some of the later parts of the book deal with the transition or change from Old Testament functions or realities to New Testament functions and realities in light of the resurrection and inauguration of the kingdom of God. These include the more stationary nature of the temple and its leaders in the OT to their encompassing broad nature and function in the NT and beyond (chap. 5). In chapter six Thompson discusses the role and view of the law in the life of the believer and the church. The law is no longer the rule of God’s people as it has been fulfilled in Christ. However, it is not deemed useless.
In a nutshell, the main biblical theological message of Acts is that in Christ, God is fulfilling His promises to Israel in the church, which is made possible by the resurrection of Christ and made evident with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all nations as the reconstituted Israel with whom God has inaugurated His kingdom.
The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus is a great in depth study into the salvation-historical message of Acts over and above all other debates that it may be dominated by in various circles. Though rich with the history and happenings of the early church, Acts is a theological goldmine for those willing to take the book as Luke intended it to be read. This is a book for serious students of Acts, the New Testament, the kingdom of God and eschatological studies. Thompson lets the book of Acts speak to us its message rather than use it to speak to others our message.
NOTE: I received this book for free from IVP and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The words and opinions expressed in this review are my own.
This post was originally published at Servants of Grace and has been re-posted with permission.