[August 22]--How Do We Interpret Acts?

Acts 4:32-35

Tomorrow we’re going to return to a systematic study of the book of Acts, but there’s one issue I want to address before we return to it. In order to do that, we need to do a quick review on interpreting and applying narrative portions of Scripture.

The first principle is really important to grasp: Narratives only tell us what happened. They don’t always tell us what should've happened. You might read about one of our heroes--such as Abraham--doing something questionable, like lying about his relationship with Sarah his wife. He had lots of qualities we need to emulate, but he displayed wretched cowardice on a regular basis, risking his wife’s virtue in order to save his own skin. But Abraham is one of the top three in the O.T. (along with Moses and David), so how do we know that what he did was wrong?

Here’s where the next step comes in: You have to interpret narratives by didactic (teaching) passages. These would include the Mosaic Laws, Jesus’ teachings, and Paul’s epistles.

When we come to the book of Acts, we have extra reason to be cautious. This is another interpreting tool which we need to keep in mind: The book of Acts is a book of transitions. It’s a record of the transition from Law to Gospel, from the Old Covenant to the New, from a virtually exclusive focus on national Israel in God’s redemptive purposes to a worldwide church, from a small group of Jewish believers to a church made up mostly of Gentiles. You need to keep this in mind any time you’re studying any portion of Acts. There are stories in Acts which will really confuse you otherwise.

Because of these considerations, the book of Acts has been used to confuse a lot of believers throughout history. Some teachers, some well-meaning and others not so much, teach that if the church did X in Acts, then we need to do so now. If the church in Acts had a certain practice, then it’s normative for all churches everywhere and at all times.

A trend started in the early church for members to sell their property and give it to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit to provide for those in need. There have been several teachers, many of them cult leaders, who've pointed to this verse and said “The early church did it, it looks like Luke is commending the practice, so we need to do it too!” They take this activity in the early church to promote a kind of voluntary communism: No one owns any property of his own, and in order to join the church you have to sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to the church leaders.

But the Bible doesn’t end with the book of Acts. Paul tells us specifically what attitude and actions people should take towards their wealth: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” There’s nothing in there about selling all your possessions and giving it all away to the church leaders.

So apparently not everything in the book of Acts is precisely normative for all believers at all times. What Paul wrote is (generally) normative for all believers at all times and in all circumstances. As the church was growing and transitioning, there were specific needs that required special action. This was not a long-term or sustainable procedure. If the church just continued to be supported by people selling their property and giving the proceeds, eventually that money would run out. There’s no way to organize or budget properly or really plan at all with this method. The norm for most Christians is to hold jobs and support the church through regular and consistent giving. God might move certain individuals at certain times to follow the example in Acts 4. But that’s not the expected norm for most believers. Make sense?

Why am I making such a big deal over this? Because if we’re going to study the book of Acts, we need to know how to study it correctly. Trust me, this will avoid a lot of confusion.

Lord Jesus, your word is shallow enough for a child to swim in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in. As we study the early records of your precious Bride, help us to interpret it correctly. All we want to do is please and obey you. By your grace.

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