Monday, April 5, 2010

Spirit, Blood and Kingdom: 8 Deleted Scenes from Acts 20

Acts 20 may be one of the most underrated texts in the New Testament. I will be preaching on it on Today…and I requested it over 18 months ago. So, unsurprisingly, I have way too much to say on it. In my defense, it is essentially an epistle within a narrative. In addition to being intensely intimate and shockingly personal it is incredibly dense. And, as Stott says, one of the hardest aspects of preaching is ‘not telling people 90% of what you know about the passage.’ Still, it helps me to let go of this stuff if I get to put it somewhere…so I’m blogging about it. Fair warning, Bill Simmons likes to say that the most interesting thing to emerge from the trend of DVD special features is that we have unequivocally learned that ‘most deleted scenes are deleted for a reason[1].’ And with that, here are my top 8 themes from Acts 20 that did not make my talk.

1. v25 "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.”

What topic did Jesus talk about more than any other? There is an unequivocal answer to this. It was the Kingdom of God.[2] If evangelicals underemphasize this theme, one might be tempted to blame Paul, whose imagination seemed to be captured by other aspects of Jesus’ words and works. But here we see that Kingdom thinking was an explicit, central organizing principle to Paul’s early synthesis.

2. v 23 “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.

This passage, like most of Acts, is haunted by the Holy Spirit. Paul describes an intimate interaction with the third person of God. But I find this interaction a bit foreign. It seems that there is something in his relationship with the Holy Spirit that makes this trip to Jerusalem not optional. But, it is of note, that the Spirit isn’t filling Paul with false hopes and daisies. Though he[3] constrains Paul to go to Jerusalem, he assures him that it will be neither fun nor nice. It is common for Christians to talk about the Holy Spirit as a comforter and as a convicter but we don’t often talk about his role in assuring us of coming hardships. There is presumably a fortifying role that comes with this assurance, but it is still pretty foreign to our pneumatology.

3. v28 “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

The NIV (and many other translations) make this sound like a shockingly Trinitarian verse. And, I think, the best manuscripts support that rendering. However, there are enough strong variants to make it a disputed reading.[4] But the power of this verse is not its cosmic Christology but the word picture of atonement. In other words, the primary function of this verse is not theological but visceral. Whether it refers to God the Son or God himself in a mysterious hypostasis with the Son…we are purchased with his blood.[5] “Thus (we) belong to God three times over, by creation, redemption and indwelling.” (Stott)[6]

4. v35 “Everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work[7] we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Verse 35 is one of the most interesting texts in the Scriptures. It is a famous saying of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Beyond the fact that this is a rock solid insight into anthropology and the elusive human pursuit of contentment, there are two things that are interesting about this saying. (1) It does not appear in any gospel. (2) It is the only saying of Jesus utilized by NT authors outside of the gospels. Much is made of the time that separated Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels. Conservative and Liberal theologians debate the fidelity of the process of transmission.[8] Regardless of how you reconstruct that period historically, it seems like this verse has to be a player.

5. v20 “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”
One of my guiding principles in teaching the Bible I heard second hand when I was twenty.[9] It goes something like: there is a strong tendency for preachers to try to fix people. That is altogether the wrong way of thinking about it. It derails your content and undermines your tone. The preacher’s job is to be helpful. The Bible (in the teaching context) is not your weapon you wield,[10] it is a resource you offer.

6. v13 “We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot.”

The first word of the passage gives us insight into why there is a sudden vividness to Acts 20. Luke is a fine author and the previous chapters are complete, artful and compelling…but there is another layer to chapter 20. The first word of v13 is ‘we’. Luke joined the party in Macedonia. Hence the vividness and tenderness.[11]

7. v 28-29 “Be shepherds of the church of God…I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”

The shepherd analogy is ubiquitous in the scriptures as a metaphor for pastoral care. So it is not surprising, at first, that Paul goes to it here…until you realize that Paul was a thoroughgoing urbanite. His illustrations tended to be of the games or the races[12] or urban commerce. Shepherding is outside of his wheel house.[13] He is contextualizing. But he uses it for its protective connotations. He is concerned that the new church will attract a wide array of world view peddlers. He had reason for these concerns. It turns out this passage has not one, but two sequels. Fist, is the book of Ephesians[14], that demonstrates that his concerns were well founded. There had been several attempts to subvert the belief system of the church in Ephesus.[15] However, we get a part III. Ignatius, the second earliest extant, orthodox, author who didn’t make the Bible, wrote a letter to Ephesus and seemed to intimate that their doctrinal struggles are behind them.

8. v17 “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.”
I have argued several times on this blog that I believe the Bible intentionally gives us very few prescriptive guidelines on how to organize and arrange church polity. But, one thing I believe is clear is that Pauline churches, though diverse in structure and culture, shared on prescriptive characteristic. Leadership was plural. If this story was about an evangelical or Catholic church, it would be the story of Paul meeting with one man who was in charge of the Ephesian church. But Paul was too good a student of human nature to leave behind an ecclesiology that entrusted so much to a single individual. Paul gives his pastoral charge to a group of men who were to lead the church TOGETHER in this city. New Testament leadership is, without exception, done in community.

This post was written while listening to the Thrice Pandora Station

[1] In the case of these themes, the reason is generally that it is far too technical and not nearly practical enough.
[2] While the answer is unequivocal and unanimously agreed upon, his meaning of ‘the kingdom’ could not be more contested. Most evangelicals get it totally wrong. Sadly, most Christians of more Liberal associations get it wronger. It is neither a synonym for a future eschatological state nor a call to this-worldly social action (though it includes both those ideas)…it is the entire realm of God’s rule (past, present and future) parallel to and intersecting with our fractured reality.
[3] I follow John in utilizing the personal, male, pronoun to refer to the Spirit. For a full discussion of the horses in this race, see Pinnoch’s Flame of Love.
[4] It is of note, that so few texts are disputed that when one is, it is a story.
[5] I thought about ditching the talk I did and just doing a good Friday talk (since the message was during holy week) on this verse.
[6] It is also of note that the context of this verse is the exhortation to pastoral ministry. It is as if Paul is saying to these new leaders whose hands he is putting the young church into, ‘Just make sure you don’t forget whose church it is.”
[7] I had a whole point on ‘hard work’ and Paul’s ‘secular’ vocation in my talk that got cut. It is in the manuscript on my preaching page (link upper right)
[8] Count me in the camp that the methods of oral transmission in first century Jewish culture were optimized to high fidelity transmission. We need to be careful projecting a culture of memory from our seat in the ‘I don’t need to know anything because I can just google it’ generation (a generation, incidentally, that I love being part of).
[9] I heard it attributed to Jeff El by Mark Machia.
[10] The scriptures refer to themselves as a weapon in the context of struggles with malevolent SPIRITUAL realities, not people you care about.
[11] I also find it interesting wrt Pauline authorship of the epistles attributed to him. Luke is a fine historian. Most of his information that can be independently verified has held up very well (Bock). But this is an eye witness account…and it sounds exceedingly close to the Paul of the letters that bear his name.
[12] Like he does in v 24 of this passage.
[13] I owe this insight to one of the commentators (Boyce or Stott I think) but can’t remember who.
[14] Also Revelation and 2 Timothy (Bruce)
[15] Klosteman cites Empire Strikes Back as the best of the Star Wars Trilogy (agreed) and generalizes the insight to all trilogies. He argues that a trilogy is actually a three act story, and the second act of any story is where all of the conflict is. The same is true with the three act story of Ephesus.


Dave Everson said...

Stan, this was a great peek into your studies on this chapter. A couple of instant reactions: for a handful of specific reasons your comment about the Spirit's role in assuring us of danger and hardship was oddly comforting. Thanks.

Also, regarding urban Paul: what an excellent point! This will probably influence my reading of him for a while.

Finally, if Acts 20, Ephesians, and Ignatius are the Ephesus Trilogy, then the letters to Timothy are the character-driven, CGI "Episode 2.5" that gets good reviews but appeals to a much smaller audience.

Joel said...

I disagree with Klosterman about the second act always being the strongest in a trilogy. For evidence, I offer "Scream 2", which has flawed logic and is weaker than either the first or the third movie. It could be an exception that proves the rule, though, as I cannot think of another example.

JMBower said...

In terms of Empire, yes, this is of course the strongest of the three/six.

However, I have to (lightheartedly) agree with Joel, that trilogies don't often follow that trend:)

Temple of Doom. The Two Towers. Matrix: Revolutions. For a Few Dollars More. Etc.

Sometimes the story gets royally flubbed in the second chapter.

This of course, is my comment because I have nothing but praise for the rest of the post:)

stanford said...

Dave, The charecter driven episode 2.5 thing made me laugh out loud. Well done.

Joel and Justin, I can't adjudicate on the Scream series, but I think for Klosterman's hypothesis to be tested we have to deal with actual trilogies, not good movies that cashed in twice more on the franchise.

For example, the first Matrix was the best one because, the other two never actually happened.

So what are we left with?

Star Wars IV-VI

I think those three fit the model. Yes/No? And am I leaving out important data?