Acts of God (part 1)

“It was an act of God.” I’ve always found that to be a curious phrase. In the insurance world, acts of God are natural disasters over which humans have no control. If your house burns down in a fire, someone might investigate for evidence of negligence or arson. But if it gets struck by lightning, what’s the point? Apparently, God did it.

And God’s not writing anyone a check for the damage.

Pragmatically, then, acts of God are things that are nobody else’s fault. Hardly the foundation for any kind of robust theology.

As we begin an ongoing exploration of the book of Acts, however, I’d like to suggest a different application of the phrase. We normally think of the book as a chronicle of the “Acts of the Apostles,” and in some ways, so it is. But it better fits both the story and Luke’s theology to call it “The Acts of God through the Apostles.” From beginning to end, God is the real subject of the action.

Let’s begin our study with a few basics. As with most other books of the Bible, the author’s name is not part of the manuscript — but Luke’s authorship has never been seriously disputed. There is ample internal evidence (e.g., vocabulary and writing style) as well as external (e.g., early references in church documents), all pointing to Luke. Both Luke’s gospel and Acts were written to the mysterious “Theophilus,” and it’s useful to think of the latter as Part 2 of, or a planned sequel to, the former. Indeed, many scholars refer to the books collectively as “Luke-Acts.”

Why two parts? It may be because of practical constraints. Luke and Acts are the two longest books of the New Testament. As one scholar has noted, assuming that Luke’s Greek was written in a medium-sized hand, the text of each book was about all one could fit on a single jumbo-length of papyrus. (Imagine how much more of the story we might have had if Luke had owned a computer.)

Who was Luke? Who was Theophilus? And why was the book written? Luke was not one of the apostles, but a convert to the faith, probably someone with a Jewish background. He was a physician and an occasional companion of Paul on his missionary journeys (Col 4:14; Phm 24). He may have functioned as Paul’s physician, caring for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) or attending to him during his imprisonment.

Some have argued that Theophilus was not a real person, because the name means “lover of God”; thus it’s sometimes thought that Paul may have been addressing believers in general.

But “Theophilus” was a common enough name. Paul addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3, NRSV), suggesting someone of high status. The style and content of Acts suggests that Theophilus (may we call you “Theo”?) was an educated reader who was already familiar with Judaism and sympathetic to the budding Christian movement. It’s possible, therefore, that Theo was Luke’s patron, commissioning Luke to investigate the numerous gospel claims that had been made and to write an intelligent report.

And Luke, writing as a historian, did just that. The grand two-part story that he tells though, is not primarily about the so-called “acts of the apostles,” as important as these are. It’s about the acts of God, first through Jesus and then through his apostles, with the Holy Spirit active throughout (and not just on Pentecost).

But what kind of history is it? There are puzzles to the book, questions raised by a close reading of the text. How, for example, does Luke report what was said in speeches he probably never heard? And why, if Paul is so important to the story, is his fate left dangling at the end?

Much depends on what we as moderns expect of Luke, as opposed to what his contemporaries would have expected. More on that in the next post.