And if you’re diving in to Luke and Acts, one of the best places to start is the new work from Darrell Bock, “A Theology of Luke and Acts,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2012), the second title released in the “Biblical Theology of the New Testament” series.
It may not be well known, but as Bock says, Luke-Acts comprises the largest portion of the New Testament. “Of the 7,947 verses in the NT, Luke-Acts comprises 2,157 verses, or 27.1 percent. By comparison, the Pauline letters have 2,032 verses and the Johannine writings have 1,407”. By another standard, Luke-Acts takes up 184 pages in the NA-27 (Greek) text, including 96 for Luke and 88 for Acts. The gospel of Matthew is 87 pages long; Paul’s letters are 153 pages of text (pg 27).
These two works together give us the clearest Scriptural interpretation that we have of “the church that Christ founded”.
[It’s true that Paul’s letters give us the earliest view into the church and its beliefs and worship, but Luke-Acts together are a sustained narrative, the stated purpose of which is “to write an orderly account … that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4)].
A Biblical Theology
This book implements a concept that I like a lot: a “Biblical” theology. Geerhardus Vos gave an overview of the landscape in his work “Biblical Theology”: “The usual treatment of Theology distinguishes four departments: Exegetical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology. The point to be observed for our present purpose is the position given Exegetical Theology as the first among the four. This precedence is due to the instinctive recognition that at the beginning of all Theology lies a passive, receptive attitude on the part of the one who engages in its study.” (“Biblical Theology”, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, © 1948, reprinted 2000, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, pg 4).
Of course, “exegesis” is the “making known” of what’s in the text. In John 1:18, Carson notes, “This Word-made-flesh, himself God, … has made God known. … John declares that the incarnate Word made him known (ἐξηγήσατο, exegesato). From this Greek term we derive ‘exegesis’: we might almost say that Jesus is the exegesis of God” (“The Gospel According to John, “The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©1991, pg 135).
Vos continues, “Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible. … Biblical Theology deals with revelation as a divine activity, not as the finished product of that activity. Its nature and procedure will therefore naturally have to keep in close touch with, and so far as possible reproduce, the features of the divine work itself” (pg 5).
So according to Vos, the main features of Biblical Theology are that it unfolds “the historic progressiveness of the revelation-process”. Revelation itself, the Scriptures themselves, are “the interpretation” of God’s process of redemption. “The facts of history themselves” (for example, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ) have a real significance, to be sure. But beyond this, the acts of redemption “did not take place primarily for the purpose of revelation; their revelatory character is secondary; primarily they possess a purpose that transcends revelation, having a God-ward reference in their effect, and only in dependence on this a man-ward reference for instruction. … Such act-revelations are never entirely left to speak for themselves; they are preceded and followed by word-revelation” (pgs 6-7). Thus, God gives prophecies of what he will do; then he performs the acts in history, and, especially in the New Testament, he gives us his interpretation of them in Scripture.
What this means in the context of Roman Catholic discussions is that, when Roman Catholics say that you “need an interpreter” for Scripture, they are really saying that God’s own revelation, his own “interpretation”, in the writing down of the significance of the “acts” of revelation, is not sufficient. God is incapable of telling us what He intends to tell us, and he needs their “infallible” help.
In the Scriptures, God himself posits to us (in the words of one Roman “trained philosopher” apologist), “formal proximate object of faith”.
With that said, this work by Darrell Bock on Luke and Acts is a real treasure. Bock, who had already written extensive exegetical commentaries on both Luke (2 vols, 1996) and Acts (2007), takes his own exegesis (and that of others) to the next level, and draws the threads together on a broad range of individual topics: The character of God; God’s plan, promise, fulfillment in Jesus; the person, work, and teaching of Christ; the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts; Salvation; Israel; the Gentiles; the church; discipleship and ethics; social dimensions in Luke-Acts; eschatology; and more.
One other work that I am aware of, I. Howard Marshall’s “Luke: Historian and Theologian” (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, © 1970, 1979, 1988) discusses these works together, though in the context of some of the earlier challenges to the integrity of these works brought on by modern critical scholarship. And Marshall’s work is a magnificent work, establishing that Luke is both an outstanding theologian and a superb historian. Indeed, as Bock notes in his Acts commentary, “classical historians respect Luke as a historian [in that] they use him” [as a contemporary first-person source] and that “a careful look at the details of Acts show that, where we can check him, Luke is a credible historian” (pg 6).
God’s Character, God’s Plan
But this work by Bock is a positive and forward-facing journey through Luke-Acts, at a number of different levels. The angle I’d like to look at briefly takes the trajectory through Chapters 5, 6, 12, 13, 14, and 19. These topics include the character of God, his plan, its promise and fulfillment, salvation, “the Way”, Israel, Gentiles, and “the Church”.
Bock devotes so much time to this “trajectory” because it’s one of the main themes of Luke-Acts. God is the “major actor” in these works. “It is his program that brings the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ”. Luke brings out this emphasis in Luke 1:1, as he speaks of “the things that have been fulfilled among us”(pg 99).
What things have been fulfilled? “Many of the major theological themes” of Luke-Acts “surface first in the infancy material of Luke. Those chapters have been called an overture to the two volumes, and they follow key narrative techniques for orienting the reader to Luke-Acts and presenting its theology.
Biblical narrative uses a variety of means to present its perspective. (1) It reviews or previews events. (2) It uses Scripture to work as commentary and reveal God’s purpose. (3)God’s purposes emerge through the direction of commissioned agents. (4) More commentary comes through reliable characters within the account (100).
Thus, in these first two chapters, the major players are introduced and commissioned: John the Baptist and Jesus, and their roles are described by other minor players: Gabriel, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna. “All these characters comment on God’s work that moves from John the Baptist to Jesus and the kingdom program he brings … John paves the way; Jesus is the Way. But God directs the action” (100-101). “God uses a wide array of means to bring the plan to fruition. He uses agents, creation, Scripture, events (both good and bad), and visions” (119).
God is directing Israel’s story of promise to be a blessing to the world. The seemingly new faith is really quite old since salvation is the product of a plan and promise that have come to fulfillment in Jesus. He is bring in the promised new era of God’s kingdom rule (120).
“Luke primarily speaks of the fulfillment of four themes predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures: Christology, the message of repentance/turning and forgiveness of sins, Israelite rejection/Gentile inclusion, and justice at the end” (131).
Throughout Luke-Acts, Luke examines such questions as, “Who is this Jesus who saves (Christology)? How does Jesus bring salvation and the new era? How does one respond to the message of the sent one (soteriology)? Through which institution does God work, and what is that community’s structure and task (ecclesiology)?” And Bock examines Luke’s treatment of these questions and answers as well.
Fulfillment of the plan
“… and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Bock notes that this concept of “the Way” is introduced here in Luke 1:17, which alludes to both Isaiah 43:7 (“everyone who is called by my name”) and Malachi 3:1, 4:5 (“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me” and “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes”). “John opens up a great way of salvation that elevates people to a new status before God” (305).
It’s important to keep in mind, and Bock reiterates, “God is the primary actor” in this, and “it is his way that is being prepared”.
The role of Israel and the Gentiles is discussed. Bock adds the reminder of the context for this is Ephesians 2:11-12 talks about the “new man”, where “the bringing together of Jew and Gentile starts something new and fresh, even though it is connected with Israel and her promises” (306).
This is “the church”. For Luke, “the church is a new entity with connections to old promises. What he highlights in describing it, however, is not its roots but its dynamism”. “The early churches were engaged in active mission. There were internal dynamics that kept them active, even as they looked outward to mission” (310).
1. They sat at the feet of solid teaching from the apostles and Scriptures
2. They engaged in meaningful community and fellowship.
3. They worshiped and broke bread together.
4. They supported one another across locations.
5. They prayed [together] when they faced pressure.
6. The leadership kept a careful watch over their spiritual health.
In Bock’s words, “they were a community that formed a new household of God”. Bock spends some time discussing how these elements took shape in real life. Summarizing, he says, “The ethics of the church community find expression in discipleship. At salvation, a believer becomes a disciple, but discipleship is a walk that lasts the rest of one’s life” (323).
The church in Luke’s thinking relates to some things old and new. It is tied to old things because it shares in promises made in the Hebrew Scripture and offers that old promise to the world. It is tied to things new because God is now working through an entirely new structure. The apostles proclaimed in the synagogues that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise of the Hebrew Scripture, including the law, so any Jew responding to promise and believing in the law should come to Jesus. The apostles’ contention was that the natural end of Judaism is to be found in Jesus (372).
On the other hand, that did not mean the apostles separated from Israel. They continued to go to the temple; Paul preached in synagogues, even after he had traveled widely and made disciples of many Gentiles throughout “the nations”. “The point of continuity is the message of promise-fulfillment, whose roots reach back into the Hebrew Scripture and the nation of promise” (372).
But the church was a new thing: a “spirit-indwelt community”. “This indwelling is not limited to her leaders and is not something that comes and goes. Instead, it includes the entire membership and continues permanently, just as Joel said [cited by Peter] the spirit would do ‘in the last days’.”
Ultimately, the church is ruled, not on the earth, but from heaven.
The Spirit’s indwelling comes because of Jesus’ rule “in absentia” which means that the Messiah is ruling now from God’s side in heaven, not on earth from a national throne. A future, earthly rule is not excluded by this new dimension, as Acts 3:19-21 shows. Peter’s remark about “times of refreshing” (καιροὶ ἀναψύξεως) of all that the OT prophets promised shows that the development of OT promise in Jesus’ ministry does not cancel out what had been promised earlier. The program of promise as presented, explained, and expanded by Jesus and the apostles complements earlier Hebrew Scripture revelation and anticipates the decisive rule of Christ on earth (374).
Key to this indwelling by the Spirit, in Luke’s mind, however, is that Gentiles are included as well. This was “a new detail”, confirmed by Peter (upon God’s own initiative, Acts 10, pg 378).
“Warnings to Israel are also frequently given … in the parable of the barren fig tree Jesus threatens to cut down the tree of Israel, which had not borne fruit (Luke 13:6-9)”. This threat is carried out … (citing Jer 22:5) … However, this does not mean that Israel is permanently rejected, just as the exile was not permanent. But those in the period of judgment will have no hope unless they respond to the Lord.”
The Apostles are aware of this threat, and continually, they preach first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. “The offer to enter into participation in the promise is always made to the nation Israel, despite her rejection of Christ. Nowhere is that offer withdrawn in Acts”.
And that is how the book ends, with Paul speaking to the Jews, who continue to reject, and with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
Together, the works of Luke and Acts show “realized promise in prophecy and pattern” (450). God is the primary actor in these works, and these promises “express God’s lovingkindness and grace”. It is grace to all humanity: first to the Jews then to the Gentiles. “This is the story of reassurance that Theophilus needed to hear”. It is one that brings certainty. “People need to come to God through Christ to meet, both now and forever, the mighty God who saves” (451).
Zondervan was kind enough to provide me with a complimentary copy of this book for the purpose of this review. But I greatly enjoyed the book and its message, and I have benefitted greatly from Bock’s insight into the grand sweep of what Paul’s travel companion was eager to share with God’s people.