By: Ellen Nimmo
A narration of history. A story. An account of lives lived and deaths died. A worldview. But truths made possible by a higher power? I hadn’t really considered that…
The Bible, though religious in nature, has also given us many historical clues as to the practices and beliefs of the people that lived during the time its contents were written. The book of Acts, in particular, is rich in historical evidences, supporting other archeological finds and supplementary writings. Addressed to Theophilus as a narration of the development of Christianity, especially with respect to the Apostle Paul, the book was read and believed by many.
That was the bulk of an introduction to a history paper I wrote in college exploring the Book of Acts, from the New Testament. Don’t even ask me why I still have stuff like that. Anyway, it’s important to note that I was an atheist at the time and pretty staunch in my stance, but school work is school work and surely an atheist can appreciate a good look into a historical text, even if it is religious. History is history and history and science were the frameworks that governed the cosmos – as far as I was concerned.
The five page paper explored themes, symbolism, the relationship between the emerging Christian community and Judaism, and the importance of witness as it relates to the Christian faith.
Witnesses of Acts claimed Jesus to be the fulfilling prophesy of God. The long awaited Messiah.
Take a look at Acts chapter two where Peter, an apostle of Jesus, addressed a crowd saying:
“Fellow Israelites, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:
“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’[e]
29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’[f]
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
Peter’s witness makes a invitation: Be assured. Have faith. Believe.
“The persona of the witness recorded in Acts was of an exemplary personage and the stories are told with theology in mind” – I wrote.
The persona of the witness.
An exemplary personage.
Theological spin, I thought. Poppycock.
I read brief commentaries and excerpts of historical and anthropological articles. No one could accuse me of not doing my schoolwork, no sir. But did I consider what it was I was reading? Not any further than I considered vegetables after I finished eating them.
Yesterday, a series of reading and discussion through the Book of Acts with a small group of friends wrapped up. We discussed the conversion of Paul from zealous Pharisee to a witness of Christ, the remarkably fast growth of the early church, the amazing signs and wonders recorded by Luke, the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles, the perseverance of the apostles under intense pressure from government and religious groups and the Holy Spirit of God moving, orchestrating it all.
Having an entirely different view of the Bible and Jesus now than I had back in those college years, I was reminded of a certain section of that old five-pager I wrote so long ago:
If the audience believed the stories as truths made possible by a higher power, God, then it made it easier to understand why they might choose to join the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), that is the followers of Christ.
If being a key word. When I think about that history class and studying the text of Acts as a young woman so firm in my belief of unbelief I think of Paul in Chapter 26 as he recounts the story of his meeting the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (one of three times recorded in the Book of Acts alone). He describes a bright light from Heaven stopping him in his tracks, knocking him to the ground and then a voice saying “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
The goads. The nudging, prodding stick used to move a wandering sheep in a desired direction, home.
Had I been kicking the goads too? Am I still?
“But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen,” the voice of Jesus continued.
Could he have said it “so that you would live as a witness by becoming a servant”? Perhaps so. Paul encountered Jesus and found there was no escaping him. But it certainly wasn’t the first time he had heard of Jesus or his teaching. Far from it. He simply needed another, truer look.
The stories recorded in Acts remind me that Christianity is a narration of history. It’s a story, a worldview that gives us a lot to consider and asks us, in no uncertain terms, to relent of our goad-kicking and get up, go. Paul’s journey, as well as my own, says to me – even the firmest of stances needs a little shaking up and bright light now and then.