The Holy Spirit made the church grow by crossing boundaries

Written by webmeester on . Posted in Multikulturaliteit

The Gospel of Luke and Acts

1.  Luke tells the story about Jesus and the spreading of the gospel in two more or less equal parts, The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostels.  The Gospel focuses on the ministry of Jesus to the Jewish nation and Acts on the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the believers to the nation of the world.

The two parts of his story correspond to one another in an ingenious way:

  • Luke 1-9 tells about the spreading of the Gospel as does Acts 1-12 – the geography is just turned around: in the Gospel Jesus starts and works mainly in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, whereas in Acts the Spirit leads the church from the city Jerusalem to the rural areas of Galilee and Judea.
  • Luke 10-19 tells a travel story as does Acts 13-20 – in the Gospel Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the consummation of his mission and in Acts Paul takes the gospel to Asia and Europe on three missionary travels.
  • Luke 20-24 tells the story of a hearing as does Acts 21-28 – Jesus and Paul appear before the same three tribunals, the Jewish Sanhedrin (Luke 22 – Acts 22), the Roman governor (Luke 23 – Acts 25) and one of the Herod kings (Luke 23 – Acts 25).

Luke’s Gospel thus focuses on the spreading of the gospel to Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish nation, and his Acts focuses on the spreading of the gospel to Rome, the heart of the Roman empire.

The implication for a missional theology, of this way the gospel spread in the first century, is that in its focus on the locality of people in the community, it must always also reckon with the communities across geographical boundaries, the Judea’s, Samaria’s and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Going local should never stand against going global.

2.  Another interesting fact in comparing the two halves of Luke’s story, is that this spreading of the gospel across geographical boundaries, always went across sociological boundaries as well, which included language, economic, culture, ethnic, religious and  intellectual boundaries.

In Luke the gospel spreads in a vertical manner through every level of society and reached the rich and the poor, the men and the women, the healthy and the sick, the Jews and the (in the eyes of the Jews) half-breed Samaritans.  The Gospel invites all Jews into a living relationship with Jesus.

In Acts the gospel message does the same but spreads also horizontally across all national boundaries, Africa, Asia and Europe.  The Gospel invites all peoples and all cultures into a living relationship with Jesus through His Spirit.

This makes the different sociological boundaries that divide people in one nation and also in different nations almost irrelevant in terms of the gospel.  All people from whatever group or nation are welcome in the kingdom of God.

This is thus also a key element in the developing of a missional theology.  The spreading of the gospel and the inclusion of people into the kingdom across sociological boundaries are more important than the identity concerns of any specific sociological group, whether they are believers reaching out or not.

3.  This sociological crossing of boundaries also entails that the dominant space where the presence of God is encountered changes.  In Luke’s Gospel the temple is still quite important – it begins and ends with scenes in the temple.  In Acts this changes and at first alternates between temple and the houses of believers, but after Acts 3-4 and the opposition of the Jewish Council, the household of believers become the dominant space where the presence of God is encountered.  Acts ends with Paul  in a house, albeit under house arrest, but unhindered in spreading the gospel to those that visit him.

Elliot[i] shows how in Acts the tempel becomes “an alienating form of collective institutional life” while the household shows “a creative form of integrative group life”.  The temple takes life (Stephen) and the household gives life.  And this we find right through Paul’s ministry, where, although the synagogues stay the main starting point for his ministry in the different cities and towns, it is the households of believers that become the lifeblood of the congregations that begin to grow in the various locations across the world.

The implication of this for a missional theology is that the crossing of boundaries will always entail some form of institutional destabilising  that will ensure that deep relationships can be formed between a diversity of peoples and groups.

4.  This crossing of boundaries, although linked in the Gospel mainly to the work of Jesus  and to the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, is always also Trinitarian in character.

The impression that one gets right through the book of Acts, is that the spreading of the gospel stands under the authority of the Trinity:

  • It is the Father that knows the times and dates that He sets by His own authority (chap. 1) and is linked with the Son to the gift of the Holy Spirit (chap. 2). In the rest of the book the He is not called by the name Father. The believers uses the name God and Lord in their prayers.
  • It is Jesus Christ that sets the agenda for the Great Outreach in chapter 1 and to whom is prayed with the choice of a 12th disciple (1:24) and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father (2:33) and pours it out on the disciples. He also talks with Saul at various times and once with Peter and Ananias respectively.
  • It is the Holy Spirit that is the leader in the practical business of the crossing of boundaries, that gives the conviction and inspiration right through the story of Acts, which could be more fittingly named The Acts of the Holy Spirit. But then, He is not self-referential, giving the honour to Jesus and the apostels and spreading His gospel to all nations, even being named once the Spirit of Jesus.

The work of God is therefore done in a Trinitarian community.  And it is this God that works in the lives of individuals and groups to cross the boundaries to Him in faith and to the world in witness and calls us to also spread this community to all peoples and cultures.

Crossing boundaries in Acts

Acts can be divided into 6 broad movements that closes each time with a few summarizing redactional comments from Luke concerning the growth, spreading and eventual establishment of the Word of God in a certain area or group of people.

It is as if Luke creates a pause with those comments, before the story moves in a new direction, whether geographically or ethnic or ethically or culturally.

And each time these movements are linked to the work and witness of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter 1:1 – 6:7 – jewish boundaries

The good news of Jesus spreads to Jews in Jerusalem through the proclamation and ministry of Peter and John and the other apostles.

  • This includes a list of “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” (2:5) Each one hears the apostles in his or her own language: “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs. (:9-11)
  • The news also spreads to the Jewish Council who vehemently opposes the spreading of the gospel by the apostles in two different sessions, but in the end decides to suffice only with threats and flogging.

Luke ends this movement with the remark in 6:7:

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

The first internal Jewish boundary to the Jewish Council is thus breached by the church with at least some of the priests that enters into the faith.  The first external albeit still Jewish boundary is also breached alongside with the breaching of the language boundary with the proclamation on Pentecost by the apostles to all the God-fearing Jews from other nations.

And although God leads this movement also through the work of angels, the focus is on the Acts of the Holy Spirit who filled the believers on Pentecost and enabled them to proclaim the gospel (2:4).

  • We see it in Peter’s interpretation of the experience to link it to God’s promise to pour out His Spirit (2:17) and to the gift of Jesus: “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.” (2:33)
  • We see it in the response of Peter, accompanied by his quiet companion John, to the Jewish Council that is also linked to being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8)
  • We also find this in the gathering of the believers after the hearing: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (4:31)
  • And when the apostles are questioned at the second session with the Jewish Council about their audacity to disregard the command not to speak about Jesus, they respond by saying that they cannot but witness, as indeed the Holy Spirit does: “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (5:32).
Chapter 6:8 – 9:31 – geographical boundaries

The good news about Jesus spread further geographically, after the persecution that started with Stephen’s martyr death, mainly by ordinary believers witnessing to other Jews in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Assyrian-Jewish people) as well as Africa (Ethiopian official who could have been a God-fearing Jew).  “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (8:4)

Special mention is made in two boundary-crossing stories of the Greek-speaking Philip, one of the seven, that leads the way into Samaria and Africa.

Luke closes this geographical  movement with specific mention of the Holy Spirit in the remark in 9:31:

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

The Horizontal growth of the gospel begins its advance although the boundaries crossed are still mainly to Jews or Samaritans in the cities and towns of Judea, Galilee and Samaria.  We are not told what happens in Ethiopia, although from church history we know that a church was established there very early with links to the church that eventually began in Alexandria. This is thus also an ethnic boundary that is crossed.

This movement is also intrinsically linked to the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Luke tells us specifically that in the growing opposition, that arose from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, who were Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia, that these men could not “stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” (6:9)
  • Stephen also castigates the resultant hearing of the Jewish Council for resisting the Holy Spirit, as their fathers did also. (7:51)
  • And when he ends his speech by looking up to Jesus standing at the right hand of God, Luke describes him as full of the Holy Spirit (7:55).
  • The crossing of boundaries to Samaria also includes the specific prayer ministry of the apostles so that the believers there could receive the Holy Spirit (8:15).
  • And in the crossing of boundaries to the Ethiopian, it is the Spirit that tells Philip to go to the chariot and stay near it (8:29) and takes him away afterwards (8:39).
  • The movement closes with the observation that the church was encouraged by the Holy Spirit, as indeed Saul was in receiving the Holy Spirit by the ministry of Ananias (9:17-19).
Chapter 9:32 – 12:24 – gentile boundaries

The first intentional religious boundary crossing to gentiles – Cornelius was an Italian soldier – takes place in Caesarea through the ministry of Peter.  Just before his visionary paradigm shift he was working very effectively amongst Jews in Lydda, Sharon and Joppa: “ All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” (9:35)  But this movement of the Spirit to include gentiles from Caesarea in the kingdom changed the face of the church radically.  And in accepting Peter’s explanation of the events back in Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians had to let go of their exclusive understanding of who God includes in His kingdom.

This outreach to gentiles also occurred almost simultaneously in Antioch.  Those believers who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen spoke to Jews as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.  But some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, began to speak to Greeks also when they came to Antioch and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (11:19-21).  Thus the church in Jerusalem sent them Barnabas: “full of the Holy Spirit”. (11:24)

The movement to the gentiles in these chapters closes with the remark in 12:24-25:

“But the word of God continued to increase and spread. When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.”

The first religious boundary crossing to gentiles in these chapters changes the whole way the church operates and becomes the main theme for the rest of the story of Acts.

This movement is also intrinsically linked to the work of the Spirit.

  • When the three men arrive at Joppa, just after Peter’s vision, it is the Spirit that says to him to go with them.
  • And it is the outpouring of the Spirit that clinches the paradigm shift for Peter that gentiles are included into the body of Christ: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (10:47)
  • And in his explanation to the church in Jerusalem he links the gentile outpouring of the Spirit to the promise of Jesus: “‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?'” (11:17-19)
  • The Spirit is also seen at work in the life of Barnabas (11:24) and Agabus, the prophet (11:28).
Chapter 12:25 – 16:5 – Religious, Ethnic and ethical boundaries

The next movement of the Gospel is to Asia when Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the church in Antioch on the first of three missionary travels.  A wide range of peoples are reached including the governor Sergius Paulus in Cyprus (chap. 13), the priests of Zeus in Lystra (chap. 14), and a number of ordinary people in Lystra, Derbe and Iconium, although the Jews made it very hard for them at various points on this journey.

The most important outcome of this missionary outreach for crossing boundaries was the way ethical questions came to the fore that had to be settled by the church in Jerusalem (chap. 15) before the church in Antioch could extend their missionary endeavours.

On the one hand the questions were related to the identity of the Jews linked especially to the necessity of circumcision, and on the other hand related to the identity of the various gentile people, especially with regards to eating and sexual habits.  The church made the far-reaching decision to let go of circumcision as a necessary identity signature, and to only forbid the drinking of blood, the eating of strangled animals, the eating of food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality.

With this decision the church crossed the ethical-religious boundary that not only affirmed their inclusivity but also guaranteed the sustainability of the further outreach of believers across other boundaries.  It also included the crossing of ethnic boundaries.

Luke closes this section with his remark in 16:4-5:

“As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”

The Holy Spirit is again the principal inspiration and motivation not only of the outreach as such but also of the church’s ethical-religious decision.

  • In Acts 13 it is He that tells the congregation in Antioch during prayer and fasting to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work He has called them (13:2).
  • And when they obey this calling and set out for Cyprus, Luke again tells us that they were sent on their way by the Spirit (13:4).
  • Saul ministers in the witness to Sergius Paulus “filled with the Holy Spirit” (13:9).
  • Even when they encounter radical opposition, Luke tells us, that they were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (13:52).
  • At the church’s meeting in Jerusalem to decide on the religious-ethical issues, one of the arguments raised for a lenient approach towards gentiles, is the fact of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on gentiles(15:8).
  • And when a decision is reached, and sent by letter to the church in Antioch, it is attributed firstly to the Holy Spirit (15:28) in combination with the church.
Chapter 16:6 – 19:20 – socio-economic, ethnic and intellectual boundaries

The good news spread even further into Europe through two subsequent missionary journeys by Paul that leads to the situation that the church have more and more gentile believers.

  • In Philippi (chap. 16) the church starts with people from different ethnic groups (Jewish, roman and a slave girl from an unknown group) and also from different socio-economic groups (Lydia, a business woman, a middle-class jailer and a slave girl from the bottom of the social ladder). This causes the authorities and magistrates to take notice of the spreading of the gospel to their city, resulting in a time in jail for Paul and his companions.
  • In Thessalonica a number of Jews, even Jason that came from Tarsus (Rom 16:21), as well as a number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women (chap. 17).
  • In Berea a number of Greeks, men as well as prominent women came to faith with even more eagerness than in Thessalonica.
  • In Athens Paul engages the philosophers, Epicureans and Stoics, at the Areopagus (chap. 17) that leads to one of their members, Dionysius, coming to faith, as well as a women Damaris and a few others.
  • And then in Corinth another Jew, Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his house comes to faith.
  • On the third missionary journey Luke tells the story of Ephesus, where a few believers receive the Holy Spirit, having previously only received the baptism of John (chap. 19). In the lecture hall of Tyranus Paul proclaimed the gospel so that Luke reports, so that “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (19:10)

This movement into Europe with the last bit back into Asia closes with the remark:

“In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” (19:20)

On this wide-ranging journey a wide number of boundaries were crossed: religious, ethnic, economic-social and intellectual.

As was the case in all the other movements of the gospel, this movement into Europe is also linked to the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • It starts off with the report that the Holy Spirit made very sure that they crossed the boundary to Europe. Luke writes that Paul and his companions had to travel through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they thus came to the border of Mysia, and they tried to enter Bithynia, the “Spirit of Jesus” would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas where Paul had the vision of a man of Macedonia asking him to come over. Luke reports this in the first person: ” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
  • The movement into Ephesus was also accompanied by a few disciples of John receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
Chapter 19:21 – 28:31 – political boundaries

The last movement starts while Paul is still busy with his third missionary journey, when he decides to go back to Jerusalem and departs from Ephesus.  When in Jerusalem, things went against him and he ended up in jail and were finally brought into contact with the political leaders of both the Romans and the Jews.  And the book of Acts ends with him in Rome, the capital of the empire, where he stayed for two years preaching the gospel.

This movement across political boundaries closes with the remark in 28:30-31:

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The boundary towards the political rulers of his time was thus crossed with ample time for witnessing, although it had happened a few sporadic times previously.

This movement towards the political leaders of his time is also linked to the work of the Spirit.

  • In Ephesus he explains this to the elders: “”And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. ” (20:22-23) He urges the elders to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” (20:28)
  • In Tyre they stayed with a few disciples who “through the Spirit” urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem (21:4), presumably because of the hardships that Paul himself explained previously and Agabus also voiced: “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'” (21:11)
  • Interestingly enough the Lord Himself also appears to Paul at different times (9:5; 18:9; 23:11) as also to Peter (10:14).

Concluding remarks

I conclude this paper by making a few summary remarks in closing.

I think the way Luke tells the story of both his Gospel and Acts shows that the crossing of boundaries is a key element in understanding the way the gospel works.  In Acts it is one of the most important ways the Holy Spirit grows the church.

From Luke’s Gospel we learn that the salvation of Jesus Christ impacted all levels of Jewish society in a vertical manner and that this remains a foundational aspect of the way God works in any society.  All people are welcome in the kingdom of God and therefore in the church.

This is thus also a key element in the developing of a missional theology.  The spreading of the gospel and the inclusion of people into the kingdom across sociological boundaries are more important than the identity concerns of any specific sociological group, whether they are believers reaching out or not.

From the book of Acts we learn that the Holy Spirit inspired the believers in various ways to cross horizontal boundaries.  We read of the crossing of language, economical, sociological, geographical, cultural, ethnic, religious, intellectual and political boundaries.  And those terms are just a selection – the truth is, there is no boundary that the Spirit would not urge us to cross, if that could mean that the kingdom could come for a few more people unto the ends of the earth.  All cultures are welcome in the church.

From the point of view of Acts, this far-reaching horizontal boundary crossing forms an integral aspect of the dynamics of a missional understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and indeed of the way the Trinity works.

The implication for a missional theology today, is that in its focus on the locality of people in the community, it must always also reckon with the communities across geographical boundaries, the Judea’s, Samaria’s and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Going local should never stand against going global.

This also means, as was shown by Elliot in the sociological paradigm shift from temple to house, that the crossing of boundaries will always entail some form of institutional destabilising  that will ensure that deep relationships can be formed between a diversity of peoples and groups.

The promise that Acts gives us in encouragement, is that nobody can stand in the way of God crossing boundaries: not the Jewish leaders (5:39), not the unbelieving Jews (9:1 – Saul), not the church in Jerusalem (11:17), not the Jewish king (12:23 – Herod was consumed by worms), not the Jewish conservatives (15:10), not the religious and secular opposition of the Greeks (chap. 16; 19) not even shipwreck or poisonous snakes (chap. 27-28).

 

Chris van Wyk

acv.vanwyk@gmail.com



[i] Elliott, J. H. “Temple versus Household in Luke-Acts: A Contrast in Social Institutions”. Pages 211-40 in The Social World of Luke-Acts. Edited by J. H. Neyrey. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.

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