In this season of Easter, we are following passages from the second volume of the book of Acts, the second volume in the orderly account which, by tradition, is attributed to Luke. We have followed, in previous weeks, Peter’s speech to the crowd which had gathered in Jerusalem on the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1).
In the passage set for this Sunday (the fourth Sunday in the season of Easter), we see how Peter’s speech and the response which follows from it leads to the expansion of the community within Jerusalem. I have already reflected on the four marks of the church that we might discern from Acts 2:42. This blog continue on, to explore other characteristics of the gathering that are noted in this short but rich section of text.
There is a public dimension to what the believers are doing. Members of the community are to be found both in the temple and in their homes (2:46). Even though Luke writes after the destruction of the temple (Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24), he knows well the prominent role of the temple in Jerusalem and accurately locates the messianic community as continuing faithful to the temple cult.
Thus, their public presence in the temple (2:46) continues unabated throughout the first section (3:1,11; 5:12,20,21,42). Such a practice is continued by Paul, both in the Jerusalem temple (21:26-30, a single event which is recounted at 22:17; 24:6,18; and 26:21) as well as in other public places (for instance, in Philippi, 16:13; the Athenian agora, 17:17; and the Areopagus, 17:19). Paul tells elders from Epehsus that he was regularly “proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house” (20:20).
Roman historians who wrote in the decades after Luke’s writing described members of this community as “a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Suetonius, Life of Nero 16) and as adherents of a “detestable superstition” who were “hated for their shameful deeds” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Still later, Christian apologists defended Christians against criticisms that they were secretive, and therefore not to be trusted (Minucius Felix, Octavius 8.1-4; Origen, Against Celsus 1.1,23; 3.50,55; 4.23; 8.2,17,49).
It may be that Luke’s insistence on the public witness of the community meets this type of objection if it was already being raised late in the first century CE. The practice of private meetings in their homes is likewise continued throughout Judaea and Samaria (8:3) and, as would be expected of a religious association, in dispersion communities in Caesarea (10:30; 11:12-14; 21:8) and Philippi (16:34). Paul continues this twofold pattern, for his activities typically take place “in public and from house to house” (20:20).
The community is further described as “having grace towards the whole of the people” (NRSV “having the goodwill of all the people”, 2:47). This introduces another term which will have significance in the narrative of Acts: charis. The NRSV translates this as “goodwill”; but the usual rendering of this Greek word is “grace”. What does it mean, if we translate it in this way, in this passage?
Grace is referenced in the third summary description of the community (4:33), where it is related to the testimony of the apostles. In 2:47 it is linked with the inner life of the community as they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having grace towards the whole of the people”.
Grace is a characteristic which also marks Stephen, enabling him to perform “great wonders and signs” (6:8); in his speech, he notes that God ascribed grace to Moses (7:10) and to David (7:46). It is this grace of God which is evident in the growing community in Antioch (11:23) and continues to be a characteristic of the community in Iconium, where once again it is evident through the signs and wonders granted by God (14:3).
Such grace is regarded as the means of salvation (15:11) which enables people to believe that Jesus is Messiah (18:27-28). This same grace of God is attested by Paul throughout his ministry (20:24,32). It thus forms another of the characteristics of messianic communities in Jerusalem and beyond. And by extension, it ought also to characterise the church of the 21st century–at least, if we want to remain faithful to the intentions of Jesus, who established the movement which was initially known as The Way, and the communities of faith in ensuing decades, which reinforced and enriched the movement as it grew into an institution, which we now call The Church.
Thus, we see that in providing this careful description of the community of messianic Jews in Jerusalem from the day of Pentecost onwards, Luke has shaped it to introduce a number of key characteristics of the messianic communities that he will describe in later chapters. Along with the miraculous events of Pentecost and the speech of Peter, this summary description performs a programmatic role in the narrative. It offers us a picture which could serve as a model for how we live as church today.
For reflections on grace as central to the life of the church, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/29/gracious-openness-and-active-discipleship-as-key-characteristics-of-church-membership/
For reflections on grace as integral to the ministry of Jesus, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/10/was-none-of-them-found-to-return-and-give-praise-to-god-except-this-foreigner-luke-17/
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).