Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Dietary Laws

Read the Introduction, Holy Spirit, and Festival of Pentecost posts in this series.

To begin, here is a brief refresher on the narrative of the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts:

The Christian movement began as a sect of Judaism. The first disciples were Jews. There was not a neat, clean break between the Jewish faith and the new thing God was doing among first century Jesus followers. The laws and rituals that guided the Jewish faith were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church slowly branched off from its Judaic origins all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.

One of these conceptions was dietary law. Leviticus 11, “establishes dietary laws for the Israelites, specifying which animals can be eaten by them and which cannot be eaten. It is difficult to discern the reasoning behind the distinctions. For instance, clean land animals are those that have divided hoofs, chew the cud, and are cleft-footed. Any animal that meets only two of these three criteria is unclean (11:1-8). Scholars speculate that in the priestly mind-set, animals of each distinct group (land animals, fish, birds, insects) must exhibit certain characteristics emblematic of that group. For instance, a fish must have fins and scales in order to be ‘clean.’ Those water animals that do not have fins and scales (like crustaceans) are ‘unclean’ (that is, they do not fit within their category) and are therefore unlawful to be eaten (11:9-12)” (Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=23).

 

In Acts 10, Peter has an episode that causes him to throw out the window all of his preconceived ideas about the dietary laws found in Leviticus 11. Here is a dramatized version of the story:

The work of new creation begins with transformed minds. God sets into the recreation of all things after the resurrection by changing Peter’s mind about what is clean and what is not. The restrictions and condemnation that had been handed down through the people of Israel from ages before were being lifted. Only the Creator can declare what is unclean, and God was telling Peter that things are different now.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the meeting of Peter and Cornelius from Acts 10? My interpretation has to do with a small detail from the story: three visitors arrive for Peter (Acts 10:7, 19). This harkens back to an old story that contained a promise that was made. In Genesis 18, three visitors who predict the birth of a son visit Abraham and Sarah in their old age. That son would be the realization of the covenant God made with Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

The narrative of Acts tells of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Through Jesus, centuries later, all the families of the earth are finally able to be welcomed as brothers and sisters into the people of God. The veil of who was clean and who was unclean was also being lifted. The inclusivity of God’s love was breaking free from the laws that restricted it to one nation.

For further study check out:

  • Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina. Liturgical Press, 1992.
  • Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Acts. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Abingdon, 2003.
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Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Holy Spirit

 

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(Photo: Andreas Praefcke, WikiMedia Commons)

Read the Introduction

One of the most well known events detailed in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost episode and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. It continues to be a major festival day in the life of the church nearly 2,000 years later. Do you ever wish that you could have your own personal Pentecost…

In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit moved and empowered the words of the disciples on Pentecost, was God doing a new thing or continuing an old thing? If we think that the movement of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was only a new thing we put ourselves in a potentially dangerous theological position. The Holy Spirit can be thought of as a version of God that doesn’t show up until the New Testament. That can lead us to thinking God the Father was present with the Israelites in the Old Testament, then God the Son came to in first century Palestine as Jesus, and after that the church received God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Unfortunately that idea dabbles in Marcionism.

God the Holy Spirit is mentioned often in Acts as the acting presence of God. The Holy Spirit, however, is not a new thing God does in the Book of Acts. It is a continuation of God’s presence from the very beginning. Throughout the Old Testament we have references to God’s Spirit, breath, and wind (ruach in Hebrew). These references are all connected to God the Holy Spirit that empowers the disciples at Pentecost. Our impression of the Holy Spirit becomes richer and more complex through the Book of Acts, adding layers of descriptions to our understanding.

The Spirit was at creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).

The Spirit was at the anointing of King David. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).

The Spirit was the theme of Israel’s ancient songs. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:11-12).

The Spirit was with the voice of the prophets. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

“Over 25% of references in scripture to the divine Spirit (Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, etc.) appear in the Old Testament (26.5% using the NRSV). A relatively consistent pattern we find with the Spirit’s activity in the Old Testament is that it creates (e.g., Gen 1), anoints for leadership/service (e.g., Samson, King Saul), and initiates new life and movements (e.g., Ezekiel 37). Now consider what kinds of things the Spirit does in Acts. Is it much different, or more similar than not” (Forum post from Professor Troy Troftgruben, New Testament Narratives, November 16, 2017)?

The work of the Holy Spirit in the world did not begin at Pentecost. God is working and has been working in the world, through all times, with God’s own two hands, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is carried on God’s breath to redeem and renew God’s people for the life of the world.

Check out this animated narrative about how God’s Spirit was moving and working all the way through the Bible…

For further study check out:

Small churches breaking 100

Read an interesting post over at Tony  Morgan’s blog. It was about small churches that are trying to reach/break 100 folks in attendance. Since that fits our situation over at Theophilus, I found it relevant. Now, I’m not one to put a lot of value and weight on how many people show up on a Sunday. It’s easy to make a crowd (you just need the right attraction). It’s better to take that attendance number and put it next to the number of people involved in small groups, the number of people that give financially, the number of people that volunteer or serve in ministry, etc. Here are some interesting takeaways from the post:

  • It’s impossible to grow a church beyond 100 people if there’s one person who makes all the decisions and calls all the shots.
  • It’s difficult to build momentum with regular transitions in leadership.
  • Growth in churches is more about relationships than anything else.