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Why Study the Book of Acts?

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This is a guest post by Justin Holcomb. He is the author of Acts: A 12-Week Study in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible study series.


Author and Purpose

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physician who traveled with the apostle Paul. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. Acts is a historical account of how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything through the birth of the early church.

Geographical Expansion

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world. Nothing
is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises
a geographic expansion at the outset (Acts 1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

This is why Acts 1:8 is a key verse to understanding all of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Preaching

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

God is central to the gospel’s expansion. He is at the heart of the gospel message, the news that reconciliation with the Father is now possible through Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit is responsible for the growth of the church and its remarkable expansion.

God’s Passionate Pursuit

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace,” believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace,” and they are challenged to continue in “grace.” The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

The gospel draws people in, constitutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

Barriers, Weakness, Opposition, and Persecution

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they only fuel it.

Acts and the Rest of the Bible

Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect, but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament, God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide us with human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Acts consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. This reveals God to be the great benefactor who pours out blessings on all people. Even the opportunity to repent is God’s gift.


Justin S. Holcomb (PhD, Emory University) is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He serves on the boards of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade) and GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments). He also serves on the council board of the Biblical Counseling Coalition.

 


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July 10, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible Study,Biblical Studies,Life / Doctrine,New Testament,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Why Study the Book of Matthew?

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This is a guest post by Drew Hunter. He is the author of Matthew: A 12-Week Study in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible study series.


Making a Unique Contribution

Why do we have four different gospel accounts in our Bibles? Why do we need Matthew when we have, for instance, Mark?

The answer is, in part, because each uniquely contributes to our understanding of the glory of Christ. Four sketches of a two-dimensional object wouldn’t seem necessary. But with a glistening diamond in our hands, we don’t wait a full second before we turn it. No one perspective will do.

The diamond of Jesus’s glory is too great to be limited to one perspective. All of the gospels accomplish a few common purposes, but they do it in different ways. Matthew’s account provides a unique window through which to see the glory of Christ.

Showing the Old Testament Roots of the Gospel

Matthew stands as a hinge between the Old and the New Testaments in our Bibles, and it is well-suited for the task. Matthew begins with a backward look toward the Old Testament story, identifying Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). The genealogy that follows is no mere list of names. It is more like a genealogical story, summarizing the storyline of the Old Testament as it stretches from Abraham, through David, and into Israel’s longing for redemption (Matt. 1:1–17).

With his recurring quotations and allusions to Israel’s Scriptures, Matthew is showing us that the Old Testament is a story that finds it’s completion in Christ. Jesus arrived in the midst of this story to bring all its promises and longings to fulfillment.

Explaining the Nature of Christ’s Kingdom

The Old Testament story ends with longing for a King to come establish God’s kingdom. This kingdom will bring reconciliation to God for sinners and restoration to flourishing for creation. Matthew announces the arrival of this King and the dawn of this kingdom through Jesus’s message and ministry. Jesus’s words declare how his people will be ethically transformed (Matt. 5­–7) and his works display how his creation will be physically healed (Matt. 8–9). This is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Yet Matthew shows us, especially in chapter 13, that this kingdom does not arrive all at once. The mystery of the kingdom is that while it has already dawned in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, it will not arrive in its fullness until Jesus returns.

Drawing Attention to the Heart of Christ

That Jesus is a king means he has authority. But Jesus’s authority is exercised with gentleness, humility, and service toward those who trust him. Matthew gives numerous glimpses of the heart of Christ. Jesus tells sinners and sufferers alike to “take heart” (Matt. 9:2, 22; 14:27). He has “compassion” on the crowds (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32).

In the only New Testament text that explicitly shows what Jesus’s heart is like, we learn that he is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). It is profoundly comforting to know we have a King whose heart is stirred with affection for us, sinners that we are. In Matthew, we continually see Jesus’s sheer willingness to forgive and welcome sinners, and there is no greater evidence of this than the cross. It is there that Jesus humbly serves us to the uttermost, willingly giving his life for ours (Matt. 20:28).

Calling Us to a Life of Missional Discipleship

As we trust Christ we’re caught up in this story, we’re a part of this kingdom, and we have his heart. Matthew also shows us that this is all meant to powerfully transform us from deep within. As those who follow Christ, we receive the privilege and responsibility of reflecting the heart of Christ toward the world. From first to last, Jesus’s words to his disciples show that mission is at the forefront of his expectations for them (Matt. 4:19; 28:19). Matthew ensures that we leave his gospel with a commission ringing in our ears to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). As we follow Christ, we follow him into the world with a mission. To be a disciple is to make more disciples.

Persuading Us of the Treasure of Christ

As we look at the diamond of the glory of Christ from Matthew’s perspective, this is what we will see. As we do, we’ll also be persuaded that it is the height of wisdom to give up everything to follow Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is, after all, “like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44).


Drew Hunter (MA, Wheaton College) is a teaching pastor at Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana. Previously he served as a minister for young adults at Grace Church of DuPage and taught religious studies at College of DuPage. Hunter is the author of Isaiah: A 12 Week Study and Matthew: A 12 Week Study. He and his wife, Christina, have three young boys.

 


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July 3, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible Study,Biblical Studies,Life / Doctrine,New Testament,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Why Study the Book of James?

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This is a guest post by Greg Gilbert. He is the author of James: A 12-Week Study in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible study series.


An Oft-Cited, Yet Challenging Book

Of all the books in the New Testament, James is perhaps the one that gives Christians the most difficulty. We simply don’t quite know what to do with it!

On the one hand, James’s letter is certainly one of the most quoted books of the entire Bible. It’s filled with famous phrases that often make their way into Christian conversation:

  • “Faith produces steadfastness.”
  • “God cannot be tempted.”
  • “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.”
  • “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
  • “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
  • “Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
  • “Faith apart from works is dead.”
  • “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

On the other hand, James is also full of passages that have left Christians scratching their heads. Does James have it out for rich people? What is the point of anointing a sick person with oil? What is the prayer of faith? Is James teaching that if you just have enough faith, God will always heal?

Then there are even larger, and more pointed questions. Why doesn’t James talk very much about the cross? Does he understand the gospel the same way the rest of the New Testament writers do? And isn’t he explicitly arguing with Paul in chapter 2 about the relationship between faith, works, and salvation?

The Key Verse

Those are all important questions. It helps, however, to realize that the primary message James is driving in this book is that a Christian’s faith in the gospel should work itself out in a life of obedience. As he says in James 1:22, believers in Jesus should not just hear the word and believe it, but they should also do what it says!

The gospel of Jesus—which James understands deeply and affirms completely—results in a new life of obedience when a person believes. That’s James’s message, and when we understand it, his book will no longer be confusing to us, but rather a stirring exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called!

Highly Practical

James is an intensely practical book, filled with exhortations to Christians about the way they should live their lives now that they have been given new life in Jesus. It is filled with allusions to and quotations of the teachings of Jesus, and it includes more imperatives per word than any other New Testament book. For these reasons, James has been called “the Proverbs of the New Testament.”

James is therefore highly relevant to the Christian life. Unlike many of the other books of the New Testament, James’s aim is not to give a theological presentation of the gospel. Rather, he writes his book to those who already believe the gospel, and his goal is to help them live faithfully as followers of Jesus.

There are many different and seemingly disconnected themes in James—perseverance under trial, riches and poverty, wisdom, the danger of the tongue, prayer, faith and works—but what ties them all together is James’s desire to take the teaching of Jesus and apply it to the Christian life.


Greg Gilbert (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior pastor at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of What Is the Gospel?, James: A 12-Week Study, and Who Is Jesus? (forthcoming), and is the co-author of What Is the Mission of the Church?.

 

 


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June 27, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible Study,Biblical Studies,Life / Doctrine,New Testament,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Why Study the Book of Philippians?

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This is a guest post by Ryan Kelly. He is the author of Philippians: A 12-Week Study in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible study series.


More Than Food and Fun

When I was child growing up in church, I heard the word “fellowship” quite a lot. In our context, it seemed to mean “Christians getting together with food.” Adults would talk about “stuff” while they ate, and the kids would try to find something fun to do.

Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Christians getting together to eat, chat, and/or play. But this is far from the “fellowship” that occupies Philippians as its major theme.

Paul’s vision for fellowship is more like J. R. R. Tolkien’s in The Fellowship of the Ring.* Gandalf and his diverse cohort shared an all-consuming mission. They shared extraordinary, harrowing experiences. This, in turn, led to a deep and meaningful bond.

That’s what fellowship means—the sharing or bond of identity, purpose, mission, and experiences.

The Fellowship of the Cross

Behind the text of Philippians stands a riveting story shared by Paul and the Philippian Christians—what we might call the “fellowship of the cross.” They shared deep love and affection, even tears. We read of imprisonment, the threat of death, great sacrifice, opposition, and boldness—all springing from the joyful reality of the gospel and toward the ultimate priority of the gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Epaphroditus, a servant and messenger of the Philippian church, risked his life to get resources to Paul who was on the front lines of the battle in a Roman prison (Phil. 2:25-30). The Philippians had, on multiple occasions, supported Paul’s gospel-spreading mission with funds and prayers. Paul wrote Philippians, in large part, to thank the church for their most recent care and to update them on Epaphroditus, who was well and heading back home with the Philippian letter.

This fellowship-bond between an apostle, a church, and their messengers is practically everywhere in Philippians (see 1:5, 7, 14-19, 27; 2:1-8, 17-18, 22, 25, 30; 3:16-17; 4:1-3, 10-16). They shared the gospel of grace and they shared in the gospel-mission. Indeed, through their support and prayers, the Philippians even shared in Paul’s “imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).

The Philippian church shared the gospel and gospel-mission not only with Paul but between themselves as a church. As such, Paul urges them to live in unity, humble selflessness, and peace with each other (Phil. 1:27; 2:1-5; 4:2-3). Once again, it is because of what they share in Christ that Paul’s call to unity and peace is so repeatedly and strongly insisted.

A Unique Epistle

A few other interrelated themes are worth pointing out. Philippians is an unusually warm and deeply personal letter. Paul’s pen drips with affection and appreciation for the saints in Philippi. And yet, the Philippian letter also contains some of the most precise theology (specifically, Christology) in all the Bible (Phil. 2:5-11). It contains one of the clearest and most personal explanations of the gospel (Phil. 3:1-11), as well as the manifold outworkings of the gospel (Phil. 3:12-4:9).

Finally, Paul is deeply experiential as he frequently returns to the believer’s communion with Christ (e.g., Phil. 3:10, 20). It is this Christ that they share. Their bond and fellowship is in his gospel, his grace, his mission, his presence, his promises, and his peace.

All this in four short chapters!

For these reasons and others, Philippians is a book of the Bible that deserves not just our routine reading but our careful study and meditation.

Even now, prayerfully ponder the last few verses from the first chapter, which aptly summarize Paul’s aims and themes in Philippians:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. . . . For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Phil. 1:27-30)

*This illustration of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings has been suggested by several Philippians commentators over the years, most recently: Kent Hughes, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon: The Fellowship of the Gospel and the Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 19.


Ryan KellyRyan Kelly (PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is pastor for preaching at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and serves as a council member for the Gospel Coalition. He is the author of Philippians: A 12 Week Study.

 


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June 13, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible Study,Biblical Studies,Life / Doctrine,New Testament,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:31 am | 0 Comments »

What Did Jesus Teach About Violence and Turning the Other Cheek?

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This is a guest post by Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy. They are the authors of War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective.


Nonviolence and the Sermon on the Mount

Does Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek” and not resist evil require pacifism on the part of Christians?

Since most religious pacifists ground their convictions in a purported nonviolent “love ethic” of Jesus that is understood to be the teaching of Matthew 5:38–42, it is imperative that the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount be assessed.

Matthew 5:38–42 is one of six case illustrations of Jesus’s teaching on the law (Matthew 5:17). With the other five, it is Jesus’s affirmation of the ethical requirements of Old Testament law—requirements that are enduring. And in similar fashion, it begins with the formula that Jesus has already used four times in this body of teaching—“You have heard that it was said, . . . But I tell you . . .”

While some students of the biblical text interpret these particular words as referring to Mosaic law, such a reading does not fit the context. To introduce his teaching, Jesus has just reiterated that the law as revealed in the old covenant, continually reaffirmed by the prophets, is not to be set aside (Matthew 5:17); it is binding.

Jesus cannot be contradicting himself. What the context does require, however, is that contemporary notions— indeed, contemporary distortions of the law—need adjustment. One such illustration of contemporary error concerns retaliation.

Jesus and the Lex Talionis

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not setting aside the idea of restitution itself, nor the “law of the tooth” (the lex talionis) as a standard of public justice.

Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners to consider their attitudes so that they respond properly to personal injustice or insult. That insult (personal injury) rather than assault (public injury) is at issue here is suggested by the mention of the right cheek being struck. And it is clarified by the further illustration, “If someone wants to . . . take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Handling insults and matters of clothing (a basic human need) are not the realm of statecraft and public policy.

In truth, all four illustrations of nonretaliation—turning the other cheek, offering the shirt off your back, carrying someone’s baggage an extra mile, and lending to the one asking—correspond to the private domain. These are issues of personal inconvenience or abuse, not matters of public policy; they bespeak insult and not assault.

Personal Injury, Not State Policy

Thus, Jesus’s injunction not to resist evil (Matthew 5:39), contextually, must be located in the realm of personal injury, not state policy. Matthew 5–7 is not a statement on the nature and jurisdiction of the state or the governing authorities; rather, it concerns issues of personal discipleship. Its affinities are most closely with Romans 12:17–21, not Romans 13:1–7.

In the sphere of the personal and private, justice does not call for retribution. In the sphere of the public, where the magistrate is commissioned to protect and defend the common good, justice demands retribution. This is the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament and not the supposed “compromised” thinking of imperialism or Constantinianism, so called.

Help from C. S. Lewis

In his fascinating essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” C. S. Lewis considers Jesus’s injunction regarding “turning the other cheek,” which he believes cannot be intended to rule out protecting others. “Does anyone suppose,” he asks, “that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” (1)

If Jesus is calling for absolute nonviolence based on Matthew 5:38–39, then we would be under obligation to turn the cheek of a third party. Lewis prefers to accept the plain reading of this text.

Jesus’s audience consisted of “private people in a disarmed nation,” and “war was not what they would have been thinking of” by any stretch of the imagination. (2) Lewis’s understanding proceeds on a plain reading of the text.

Called to Resist Evil

In the end, the Christian is called to resist evil when and where it is possible, as saints past and present always have understood. And the apostle Paul states in no uncertain terms that the magistrate exists precisely for this divinely instituted function:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)

Even when Jesus forbids the sword as a means to advance the kingdom of God, the New Testament does not teach an absolute or principled pacifism. Nor does it forbid the Christian from “bearing the sword”— or serving as a magistrate, for that matter—in the service of society and the greater good of the community.

Notes

(1) “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 86.
(2) Ibid., 50.

This post was adapted from War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (excerpt) by J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy.


J. Daryl Charles (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is director of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice and author of ten books.

Timothy Demy (PhD, Salve Regina University), is an associate professor of military ethics at the U. S. Naval War College and a retired U. S. Navy commander.


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