Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Acts

The People of God and Nationalism

The question that the apostles pose to the risen Jesus just before his ascension—“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6)—raises key political questions concerning “national” interests and “imperial” rule. We consider the first issue here, the second in the next entry.

It may appear that the apostles are preoccupied with the fortunes of the Israelite nation, which they hope Jesus will “restore.” “Is it finally time that Israel be free of foreign rule and prosper as an independent, self-governing nation?” Such a perspective, however, reads too much of our political context back into the first century.

The modern concept of nation-states with strict territorial boundaries does not map perfectly onto ancient Mediterranean geopolitics. At various times, city-states, such as Athens, Rome, and Carthage, dominated the region. But there was little sense of a “league of nations,” let alone “united nations,” or of “favored nation status” in a global world economy (see World Trade Organization, “General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT 1947).”

The biblical Greek term ethnos commonly rendered “nation” more accurately denotes an ethnic people sharing cultural histories, traditions, and values. Though Israel approximated a nation-state during its monarchic period, the biblical ethnos of Israel primarily identifies a historic people chosen by God (Genesis 12:1‒2).

The plural “nations” (ethnē) often designates non-Israelite peoples—the Gentiles—ethnically, but not essentially, distinguished from the Israelites. God’s first “chosen/favored” people were so chosen to “bless all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) and be a saving “light to the nations [ethnōn]” (Isaiah 42:6 LXX; cf. 49:6; Luke 2:31‒32; Acts 13:47). Election and initial favoritism does not entail isolation and protectionism. 

In Acts, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all make clear that “no one nation” exceptionally enjoys God’s favor or exists alone “under God.” The risen Jesus responds to the apostles’ query about Israel’s status by commissioning his Jewish apostles to share the good news of salvation to all peoples extending out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8—a blueprint for the Acts narrative). In the house of the Roman officer Cornelius, Peter announces, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation (ethnei) anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34‒35). Speaking to a Greek audience in Athens, Paul affirms that the one God “made all nations [lit., ‘every nation of humans,’ pan ethnos anthrōpōn] inhabit the whole earth” and to seek after God, “who is not far from each one of us” (17:26‒27). Acts strikes a strong “international,” “multiethnic” note—“preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (10:36‒37).

The Realm of God and Imperialism

Acts begins and ends with “kingdom” (basileia) concerns: “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:30‒31). “Kingdom” language is inherently political, evoking notions of power, conquest, empire, and territory under monarchic authority: kingdoms ruled by kings!

The Bible, however, remains wary of earthly kings. God’s people have God as their one true King who rules justly, rightly, and mercifully. God finally grants Israel’s longing to have its own earthly sovereign like other “nations,” but it comes with a grave warning for Israel’s king to humbly serve God’s and the people’s interests and not exploit the throne for personal gain (Deuteronomy 17:14‒20; 1 Samuel 8:1‒22). Unfortunately, even David and Solomon, Israel’s greatest kings, succumbed to the allures of power and fortune, and Solomon goes so far as to worship other gods. The failings of Israel’s monarchs often contributed to the people’s conquest, exile, and oppression by more powerful rulers, such as the Roman emperors in the New Testament era. 

Into this political environment God calls Jesus as Messiah/Christ, God’s anointed king (viceroy) of Israel and all creation. It is scarcely surprising, then, that Christ and his followers caused a political stir. As opponents charge Paul and his missionary associates in Thessalonica, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also . . . . They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). That’s partly right. Though igniting an “upside-down”** effect on the present world order, they were not directly seeking to depose or disobey Caesar. But neither were they merely promoting Jesus Christ as “another king.” Rather, they proclaimed him as the only true king/viceroy of an entirely different “kingdom”—God’s “kingdom.”

God’s basileia is not a demarcated region with borders and walls but rather a dynamic realm or sphere of life (biosphere) encompassing the whole universe (heaven-and-earth) and stretching across the world (around the globe, we would say) from Jerusalem to the “ends of the earth” (1:8). It is the realm in which all people “live and move and have our being” as God’s children (“offspring”), the realm where God rules in “righteousness” (17:26‒31). It is the restorative, right-making realm of God. 

** For audiences today, the “upside-down” may evoke Alice through the Looking Glass and (more likely) the popular Netflix series, “Stranger Things.” 

The Community of Faith and Socialism

The pooling of all possessions and properties in the early Jerusalem community of believers described in Acts (2:44‒46; 4:32‒37) seems too close for comfort to “socialism” (or worse, “communism”) to many American Christians with a toxic allergy to anything that remotely smacks of “socialist” policy, interpreted as government control over private lives.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the “Social Gospel” movement spearheaded by the German-Baptist pastor, scholar, and teacher Walter Rauschenbusch, among others, drew many adherents and opponents.** Adherents believed that Christians, as a matter of top priority, must put their faith into action to improve the social conditions of increasing numbers of poor and destitute people in an age of rampant industrialization and urbanization. Opponents argued that, while charitable aid had its place, it was not the essence of the gospel, which primarily focuses on personal salvation from sin and eternal death. In various ways, the debate still swirls today in Christian circles (apart from the wild offshoot of the “prosperity gospel” that promotes private wealth and health with little worry about sin or service).

Of course, the earliest followers of Christ knew nothing of Marx or Lenin and were not launching some national-political crusade for proletarian or authoritarian rule. They were simply a community of faith and fellowship seeking to meet needs “together,” as “one heart and soul” (2:44; 4:32). They took seriously Jesus’s self-giving ministry to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13, 21; cf. 4:16‒21; 7:21‒22), including his mandate to “sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33; cf. 14:33; 18:22). That might work well in the short run, but what happens when the resource pool runs dry? Critics point out that later in Acts, during a time of famine, the now poor and struggling Jerusalem congregation receives financial relief from the wealthier believers in Antioch (11:27‒30). 

The book of Acts is not an economics manual but rather a testimony to the dynamic development of Christ-centered communities in challenging times across the eastern Mediterranean world. In this context, the Acts narrative reflects ongoing tensions between “ideal” principles and “real” practices.

**See Christopher H. Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History (2017); and for one Lutheran perspective, Donald Heinz, After Trump: A New Social Gospel (2020)

Women’s Ministry and Feminism

Modern feminism takes many forms across a spectrum of viewpoints and interests. Here the use of the term is in its most basic sense of promoting women’s full equality and opportunity in all spheres of life. While sowing promising seeds of liberative, egalitarian potential, the Bible in general, and Acts in particular, still reflects the dominant patriarchal, stratified culture of its era. It is thus not surprising to discover tensions between “ideal” and “real” perspectives on women’s lives.

Acts begins with a marvelous inclusive vision of the whole believing community “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” (1:14) and everyone, female and male, receiving the full gift of the Holy Spirit, with the prospect of all people, both “sons and daughters,” all God’s servants, “both men and women,” preaching (“prophesying”) God’s word in Christ with boldness and power (2:1‒4, 17‒18). Unfortunately, however, throughout the balance of Acts, the dominant preacher-prophets and miracle-workers in Christ’s are all men (Peter, Paul, Stephen, Philip). The Pentecost ideal in Acts 2 is not wholly realized. 

Women ministers are not totally effaced in Acts. Tabitha/Dorcas, Mary the mother of John Mark, and Lydia seem to have leadership roles in prayer groups and house churches (9:36‒42; 12:12‒17; 16:11‒15, 40); Priscilla takes the lead, accompanied by her husband Aquila, in teaching the charismatic missionary Apollos “more accurately” (18:26), and Philip the evangelist’s four unmarried daughters are said to have the gift of prophecy (21:8‒9). But these women never speak for themselves in the narrative. Acts is still very much a man’s world. But it is not a closed world. It spurs Christ’s followers to live up to the Spirit-inspired ideal of equal opportunity fellowship with and ministry to God and one another.  

See Linda Maloney and Ivoni Richter Reimer, The Acts of the Apostles (Wisdom Commentary, 2022).

F. Scott Spencer, Dancing Girls, “Loose” Ladies, and Women of “the Cloth” Women in Jesus’ Life (2004), pp. 144‒91.

Social Identity and Intersectionality

Various critical approaches to human identity focus on a single factor, such as race, class, or gender. An “intersectional” perspective, pioneered by the African-American legal theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the late 1980s (and continuing to spark much interest and debate in the 21st century), stresses the multifaceted identities of individuals across various lines of social distinction. Humans are complex beings, irreducible to singular traits and stereotypes.

The book of Acts features a wide array of characters across the social spectrum. Perhaps the most unusual character is the one commonly identified as the Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26‒39 (see the analysis of this passage, “The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch”). In fact, however, Acts distinguishes this fascinating figure not only in terms of his ethnic and geographic background (Ethiopian) and ambiguous sexual status (eunuch, a stigmatized “no-man” in most ancient societies), but also his religious orientation (God-fearing Scripture-reader), political office (chief finance minister for the Ethiopian queen) and economic advantage (travels long distance to Jerusalem in a chariot). 

This character embodies evangelical (gospel) inclusion in Acts: he believes in Christ, is baptized in Christ’s name, and incorporated into the spiritual body of Christ in toto: as a whole person, with all his being in all facets. Salvation in Acts is inclusive both individually and interpersonally—in other words, “intersectionally.”  

On Crenshaw’s work, see https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination

On the Ethiopian eunuch’s intersectional identity, see Sean D. Burke, “Ethiopian Eunuch,” Bible Odyssey. https://bibleodyssey.org/people/related-articles/ethiopian-eunuch-from-a-queer-perspective/

True Worship and Idolism 

Faithful to the first three of the Ten Commandments (worship God exclusively; make no crafted representations of God; do not misuse God’s name) and the Shema dictum (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” Deuteronomy 6:5), the book of Acts frequently shows devotees of Christ—the Son of the one Most High God who “does not dwell in temples made with human hands (Acts 7:47; 17:24‒25)—resisting the worship of multiple Greco-Roman gods through various manufactured images and idols (see 7:39‒43; 14:11‒18; 15:19‒21, 28‒29; 17:17‒25; 19:23‒27; 21:25). To follow Christ is to turn away from idolatry, from human-made idols of wood and stone.

But idolatry can also focus on human beings themselves who seek godlike status, craving to make a big name for themselves, to be idolized by millions. The term “idolism” is used to refer to this broader tendency to idolatry across history and cultures. In America today, we may not be inclined to worship objects as gods; but the tendency to idolize superstars in entertainment, sports, politics, business—and religion, too—remains alive and well (the popular television show, “American Idol,” is still going strong after 20-plus seasons).

Acts has no patience with such narcissistic idolism. Power- and glory-hungry figures like Simon Magus (who claimed to be “the power of God that is called Great,” 8:10), Herod Agrippa (who basked in the crowd’s acclaim that he spoke with “the voice of a god, and not of a mortal,” 12:22), and Sceva’s seven sons, a group of opportunistic exorcists (who misappropriated Jesus’ name) were all exposed and judged as frauds (see 8:9‒24; 12:20‒23; 19:13‒16).

By contrast, when awe-struck witnesses of Peter and John’s and Paul and Barnabas’ miracles clamor to deify these servants of Christ, both pairs adamantly refuse to accept the people’s adulation or to claim credit for the work they performed through God’s power, in Christ’s name alone (3:1‒16; 14:8‒18; cf. 10:24‒26; 28:6). Peter speaks for all true ministers of Christ after healing a disabled man in the temple compound in Jesus’ name (“In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk,” 3:6): “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus. . . . And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong . . . and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all” (3:12‒13, 16).  

Mixed Responses to Christ and Anti-Judaism

A marked stain on the religious historical record, despicably persisting to the present day, is the tendency among some Christians—even periodically representing the “official” Christian position—to despise “the Jews” as a vile, venal people threatening the supremacy of the “master race.” Such decidedly racist and un-Christian prejudice has a complex history but draws some of its venom from skewed (mis)appropriations of New Testament characterizations of “the Jews” as Christ-killers and violent opponents of Christ’s emissaries.

The Book of Acts admittedly provides fodder for such anti-Jewish vitriol. For example, in one of his major speeches, Peter thunders, “You Israelites . . . rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of Life [Jesus Christ], whom God raised from the dead” (3:12, 14‒15).

Stephen follows suit in his provocative defense speech before the high priest and associates: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.” For these barbs, Stephen was promptly dragged out of town and stoned to death (7:51‒60).

Upon arriving in a city, Paul routinely preaches the crucified-risen Christ first to fellow Jews in the local synagogue, some of whom vigorously reject his mission. Some antagonistic Jews trail and harass Paul from city to city, even dragging him outside the city on one occasion to stone him (though he survives, 14:19‒20). Such mistreatment prompts Paul to turn against his people and turn to the Gentiles, who will prove more receptive: “Since you [Jews] reject [the gospel] and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (13:46; cf. 28:25‒28).

Such language is undoubtedly extreme and incendiary. But it does not reflect the whole of Acts. It must be interpreted in a more balanced context. Consider the following mitigating factors, which do not deny the “anti-Jewish” aspects but provide a critical framework for negotiating them.

  1. Peter, Stephen, Paul, and other preachers and missionaries in Acts are themselves Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah Jesus. None of these renounce their Jewish heritage but rather claim to be the most truly Jewish, the most faithful to God’s way. The debates are thus intra-Jewish, which does not lessen their rhetorical force (family conflicts can rage hot and heavy). But it does undercut their anti-Jewish misappropriation by Gentiles.
  2. Prophets in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament sharply critiqued their own people when they strayed from God’s way, calling them in no uncertain terms to repent or else! Luke and Acts portray John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Stephen, and Paul as bold prophetic challengers of God’s people in the train of Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and company, typically rejected by most of the people (see Acts 3:17‒25; 7:37). Far from being anti-Jewish, prophet-critics care passionately about the people’s well-being rooted in their covenantal faithfulness to God.
  3. Historically, Jesus’ execution resulted from the combined judicial actions of Jewish priestly leaders and the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, with a possible assist from Herod Antipas. Further, the Jewish rulers perhaps whipped up a small mob to help call for Jesus’ crucifixion. But by no means were all “the Jews” (or “Judeans”), all Jewish people, stirred up against Jesus. Primary blame for Jesus’ death falls at the feet of Roman and Jewish power brokers, with Pilate making the ultimate call: the cross was the quintessential Roman means of capital punishment. Acts acknowledges this chief responsibility of Gentile and Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death via the Jerusalem congregation’s prayer to God after Peter and John’s release from the high priest’s custody: “For in this city [Jerusalem], in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (4:27; cf. 4:23‒26) 
  4. Most significantly, Acts overall presents Jewish response to the message of Christ as mixed, resulting in a divided people, not a demonized Jewish population polarized against an idealized Gentile one. The last chapter succinctly sums up this reality in connection with Paul’s debates with the “local leaders of the Jews” in Rome: “Some were convinced by what he said, while others refused to believe” (28:17, 23‒24). The “unhindered” gospel mission of Christ keeps reaching out to Jews throughout Acts and beyond (28:30‒31). Christianity has not yet separated from Judaism. “Christians,” as they are first called in Antioch of Syria, include both Jewish and Gentile disciples of Christ (11:19‒26).      

See the classic set of essays by Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts (Augsburg, 1972).

Joseph B. Tyson (editor), Luke-Acts and the Jewish People: Eight Critical Perspectives (Augsburg, 1988).

Paul and Philosophers of Eudaimonism

In the anxious opening decades of the 21st century, Americans and other Westerners have become increasingly obsessed with living “the good life.” Although we have it quite “good” by the rest of the world’s standards, it’s not good enough for us. An insatiable lust for more money and goods continues to permeate our society. At the same time, however, a counterview is gaining strength, as more people acknowledge the futility and emptiness of crass materialism and long for more meaning in life, more genuine happiness. Increasingly, modern seekers of a truly “good life” are turning to the wisdom of ancient Greek practical philosophies that concentrated on “eudaimonism,” that is, living virtuous, vibrant, fulfilling, flourishing lives. 

As it happens, two popular Hellenistic schools of thought enjoying a revival today—Epicureanism and Stoicism—are precisely those Paul engages in first-century Athens in Acts 17. The first readers of Acts would have been well-acquainted with these philosophical worldviews.

Epicureans** sought to experience pleasure and joy in life’s daily pursuits. They were not, however, as commonly mischaracterized, unbridled hedonists (“if it feels good, do it”). They aimed, as much as possible, to avoid and alleviate pain,  to do no harm and to promote the common good. Their ideal milieu was a pleasant garden in which all, women and men, enjoyed friendship and fellowship—but not in traditional religious terms. Epicureans dismissed speculations and superstitions surrounding capricious gods who controlled people’s fates and required constant placation in praise, prayer, and sacrifice. Such imagined gods fueled people’s fears and anxieties. Who needs them? Moreover, why fear death, which only results, in Epicurean thought, in non-consciousness and reabsorption of one’s “atoms” into the fabric of the universe? One will be no more aware of by post-mortem than prenatal experience. Certainly no hades or hell to worry about. 

Stoics***, by contrast, regarded the world as controlled by rational divine Providence. Logical Reason (Logos) runs the show as it wills, and human peace of mind (tranquility) depends on reasoned acceptance of whatever befalls (fate), good or ill. What use is it to kick against inevitable events, except to generate frustration? Stoics were not entirely dispassionate or anti-emotion, as often assumed. But they subordinated emotion to reason and sought to overcome affective disturbances with cognitive deliberations (precursing today’s prevalent cognitive-behavioral therapies). The eternal mind (nous) and spirit (pneuma) were what really “mattered,” more than body and feeling.    

In his speech at the Areopagus (Mars Hill), Paul does not lay out his philosophy of the “good life” per se but rather sketches his basic worldview in terms his Greek audience would understand. After commending the Athenians for “how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul argues his case for the truest religious way rooted in the one Creator God who “does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” In the ecosphere of this Creator, “we live and move and have our being” (17:24‒25, 28). In line with the Stoics’ acceptance of providential fate, Paul regards the Creator God as setting the “times” and “boundaries” of human existence and “fix[ing] a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness” (17:26, 31).

Paul ultimately cuts across all Greek philosophies, however by announcing that God’s final reordering of the world will be accomplished by God’s supreme judicial agent: “by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (17:31). Though Paul opts not to name this “man” in the present setting, readers of Acts instantly recognize this risen figure as the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s philosophy of life in Acts (and his letters) revolves around his relationship with Christ. For him “living is Christ,” Amen and Amen (Philippians 1:21).

**Catherine Wilson, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019).

Emily A. Austin, Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life (2023).

***William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009).

Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (2017).