Excerpt from: Fernando De Angelis
Translated by: Elisa Gotta
Revised by: Philipp Limberg
FROM ADAM TO THE APOSTLES
An overview of the whole Bible based on the text itself
RETURNING TO PETER AND PAUL’S GOSPEL
Notes on the Acts of the Apostles
1. A path of publication opposite to that of reflection.
I had my first direct encounter with the Word of God in Perugia, in 1968, as a 22 year old attending the Faculty of Agriculture: first, finding the Gospel text in the cathedral, then extending the interest to the whole Bible, after a lengthy journey within the ‘Brethren’ evangelical church (specifically with the help of Alfredo Terino’s and Angelo Zolfaroli’s families). The complex events of the following 40 years ultimately led me to focus on the relationship between Bible and culture, to an increasingly independent path and, at some point, without being any longer a member of a local church.
At the beginning of 2008, however, together with my wife Gilda, we were invited to join the evangelical church of Siena (now in Via Beccafumi), where I was included in the group of preachers, offering to make simple reflections on the Gospel of Matthew. On the first verse («Genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham») I lingered on for two years, considering that if Jesus continues the work of David and Abraham, then the Gospel must be framed in a perspective of continuity with the Old Testament, not the usual schema of discontinuity.
The advocates of discontinuity rely heavily on the Letter to the Hebrews, which I, therefore, went to revisit, realising that – if observed well – the letter supports more the continuity rather than discontinuity; on that Letter I then organised a small conference in my native village (Manigi di Cascia, July 2010), in preparation of which I considered it necessary to make a brief summary of the Acts of the Apostles, so as to place the Letter to the Hebrews in its New Testament context: in the end, the “brief summary”, however, turned out to be 100 A4 pages long, developing into Notes on the Acts of the Apostles. In its apparent simplicity, the author of the Acts (that is, Luke) hides more complex messages, developing a “filigree design”, such as the one seen in paper money, when observed in transparency.
On those Notes I then had a number of useful suggestions from some friends that I would like to thank: first Bruno Burzi, Daniele Garota, Stefano Gotta, Anna and Alberto Nuzzolo, Argentino Quintavalle, Antonio Sardone, Alfredo Terino; later, Antonio Sardone also involved Francesco Grassi, with whom I have developed an in-depth discussion and from whom I have received numerous suggestions in a constructive spirit, which have greatly improved my work, leading to a second draft in December 2010: this book is strictly derived from that draft, to which I have added only some of those Links placed in evidence on specific sheets. Finally Anna Sanna Nuzzolo, as usual, wanted to pay homage to the Lord, and myself, with an excellent, and very welcome, draft revision work.
My overall view on Acts, however, remained divergent from that of Francesco Grassi, leading me to the conclusion that it is not possible to have a similarity of views on the New Testament without first having a convergence on the Old Testament. Hence, the decision to give a new beginning to my journey of reflection on the Bible, beginning… where one should start without much delay, that is, from Genesis.
These Notes on the Acts, which represent Volume II of the series, are published after the Summary of the Old Testament (Volume I). The following Volume III should deal with the book of Revelation, on which I have already prepared a first draft, in view of a special conference scheduled on October 1, 2016. Barring unforeseen circumstances, therefore, the Letter to the Hebrews should be the subject of Volume IV, with the hope of reaching eventually the Gospels. The path of publication, therefore, is converse to that of reflection.
2. The Gospels’ incompleteness and the Acts’ centrality
It may seem irrational to begin an examination of the New Testament from the Acts of the Apostles instead of the Gospels. I initially carried it out that way due to the necessity established above, but then that choice seemed to me increasingly appropriate. In fact, to define the meaning of a life it is necessary that it is concluded, therefore the overall meaning of the life of Jesus is clearer after the Gospels, that is, after his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven; the latter, incidentally, to which only Luke gets to, while the others stop at the resurrection. This applies particularly to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which focus on facts, while in the Gospel of John there are fewer facts, however accompanied by their meaning, and thus it has a greater completeness. It is precisely in the Gospel of John, however, that we find clear statements about a certain “incompleteness” of Jesus’ work. In fact, while Jesus fully accomplished his atoning sacrifice (cf. Jn 19:30 «It is finished»), there was still much to do to bring the disciples to maturity, and that work would successively be continued by the Holy Spirit: « I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come» (Jn 16:12-13).
Jesus did not consider the apostles ready even after being resurrected since 40 days, a time in which he deepened their knowledge of God’s plan (Acts 1:3), inviting them not to act, but to wait (1:4-5). Only after the descent of the Holy Spirit (2:1-4) did the apostles begin that kind of preaching which summed up the overall meaning of Jesus’ work, indicating the future that had to be expected (2:38-40; 3:19-21).
There is another reason that makes it appropriate to begin the analysis of the New Testament from Acts instead of the Gospels, and it concerns the fact that the Gospels are addressed more directly to the Hebrews, as Jesus explicitly declares: «I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel» (Mt 15:24). In the Acts of the Apostles, however, there is the adaptation of the Gospel’s message to people of various conditions: the Apostles, for example, turned to the Jews who were at Jerusalem at Pentecost or to those of the synagogue of Antioch at Pisidia (Acts 2:14ff; 13:14ff); at the other extreme we find that the message is addressed to the pagan crowd of Lystra (14:8-18), to the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:34ff) and to the Athenian philosophers (17:22ff).
The Acts’ importance further derives from their central position. If indeed we imagine the New Testament as a puzzle, where the various parts fit together and complete one another, Acts represent the “outer frame” of that puzzle, which thus defines the spot to be allocated to everything else, particularly to the most directly theological writings such as the Letter to the Romans and that to the Hebrews, which risk being misunderstood (as it indeed happens) without having in mind the clear context from which they emerge, and which is precisely defined by Acts.
I write specifically for those who have read the previous Volume I (Summary of the Old Testament), but in a way that it can also include those who start from here. This means that I shall briefly mention the ideas expressed in Volume I, to which I shall refer later on for a more detailed discussion.
One way to dissolve the word of God is to read it “with a remote control”: you dive every day in a page and the next day you do not take much account of what you learnt previously. An accurate study of the Bible, on the other hand, requires a systematic and comprehensive learning, a method that also pertains to the book of Acts, which, with a superficial analysis, appears to be a set of significant events, but not closely related to one another: The Acts of the Apostles, in brief, would be an “objective chronicle” of facts, which are reported there simply because they happened.
With a more careful analysis we note, instead, that Luke, the inspired author of Acts, under the more conspicuous account, traces another story ‘in filigree’, as we indicated previously. This design seems to me “objective”, that is, not the result of a particular elaboration on my part, but which transpires only from a more careful observation. Luke traces it in a subtle and implicit way, thus new believers, and those who remain “children in Christ”, do not notice anything (1Cor 3:1-2; Heb 5:11-14). The more mature believers, on the other hand, have generally already long-established their theological schemes: this makes it difficult and undesirable for them to reform themselves on a teaching of Luke that upsets much of the theology accumulated in two thousand years of Christian tradition.
Another analogy: mechanics have a panel where they hang their various tools, each in a very specific place. The “filigree design” outlined by Luke resembles that panel, in which all the other New Testament writings find their proper place.
In order to find in the Bible a book focused on discourses (Deuteronomy), we must first read four of them centred on facts (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers). Those who study the New Testament’s doctrine often undermine the initial books focused on facts (four Gospels and Acts), directing their attention on those based on discourses (especially Romans and Hebrews). But if one hasn’t first absorbed the message deriving from the facts, it’s easy to mistake candles for lanterns when interpreting the discourses.
3. Some assumptions are an obstacle
The assumptions whereby the understanding of a text is approached, whether they are explicit or implicit, guide and decisively delimit its understanding. Let us then highlight three points which are an obstacle to a better understanding of Acts.
1. Anyone who perceives the New Testament as a kind of “New Civil Code”, in which coordinated rules are set out from the beginning, cannot grasp, in the description of Acts, the gradual and profound transformation of the Church. Better than “prescriptive” and “systematic”, the New Testament is “historical” (as is the whole Bible after all), that is, it reports what has been done in certain circumstances and that we must certainly apply this to our own, however bearing in mind that ours are never identical and therefore do not allow for a “mechanical” application.
2. Anyone who conceives a Church with fundamentals opposed to the Old Testament will read the first 14 chapters of Acts as concerning a transitional time that prepares the complete maturation of the Church, which in Acts 15 would finally be rid of Moses. The trouble is that, without having first understood Moses well and, therefore, not even the first 14 chapters of Acts, the decisions made at the meeting in Jerusalem are often understood backwards, or nearly: there, in fact, Moses was not abolished, but applied (as we will see).
3. Another blinding factor is the “logic of belonging”: for those well-established within a religious group, it is understandably painful to feel marginalised and therefore, when listening to some notion that is differing in respect to their environment, their mind becomes hindered and argue in a one-way manner like football fans; a true follower of Jesus, however, cannot make his own tradition prevail over the Word of God, nor love the glory of men more than that of God (Mt 23:5-7; Mk 7:9; Jn 12:42-43).
In these notes of mine the bibliographical references almost never appear, but there is actually a great number of them, because what I wrote is the result of dialogues, which I have been working on for forty years and which have also occurred with people very different from one another: from simple “regular readers” of the Bible to university or bible-school professors; from believers belonging to my own local church to others with a very diverse positioning (for example Adventists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses); without excluding some non-religious or atheist friends.
There are other matters that need to be clarified, but it is better to dwell on them as we go along. When appropriate, however, we will open two series of ‘worksheets’: one concerning the ‘Further insights’ and the other concerning the ‘Links’ between Acts and the other parts of the Bible, so as to better understand the place of Acts within the general context of the revelation. Further insights and Links will be signposted both in the general Index and in a relevant list placed at its end.
Link No. 1
THE OLD TESTAMENT AS THE FOUNDATION OF THE NEW
We have already mentioned the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments in the Introduction and we will see it in several parts of the Acts; here we just want to add some specific considerations, which frame the issue in a broader perspective.
I listened to a preacher who boasted that he had brought “just the New Testament” to the pulpit, thus neglecting the fact that it begins by presenting Jesus as the 43rd representative of a dynasty begun with Abraham and passing through David (Mt 1:1), with the implicit meaning of introducing Jesus as a continuator of that story, certainly not as one who wants to replace it with another.
When Jesus then repeats, «You have heard that it was said […] but I tell you» (Mt 5:21-44), only those who know little of the Old Testament can imagine that Jesus is opposing Moses, when, actually, he wants to give a correct interpretation of that, in contrast to the distorted explanations that contemporaries had heard from scribes and Pharisees (5:20).
John too begins the Gospel in a manner similar to Matthew, showing that Jesus, by his birth, fits into a history that is much older; indeed, John immediately states that the world itself was created through him (1:3,10; cf. Col 1:16-17; Heb 1:2; 1Cor 8:6) and in 1Peter 1:20 is written that Jesus had been preordained by God «before the creation of the world».
Despite the belief of many Christians, in the New Testament the full validity of the Old Testament, which was the only Bible for the writers of a New Testament still in development, is continually reaffirmed. Paul, for instance, invited the Corinthians to apply to themselves the events that occurred in Exodus (1Cor 10:6); then writing to Timothy, who had been educated in the Old Testament, he invited him not to abandon those teachings, but to persevere in them, so as to be «complete and well prepared for every good work» (2tim 3:14-17).
To conclude, let us consider that, at the time of Jesus, there were different circumstances from those present at the time of Moses; Jesus and the apostles adapted the message to their circumstances but, for example, the Letter to the Hebrews reiterates that God had not become less severe (10:26-31;12:25) and Revelation stands in continuity with the Old Testament prophets (10:7). The New Testament, in short, is not to be considered in contrast to the Old, but as its development and follow-up.
Sergio Quinzio notes that, sadly, «the misunderstanding of the religion of Jesus has consisted in the negation of its apocalyptic and eschatological character, and therefore coincides with the uprooting of its Jewish roots», concluding with the remark that «Christianity is the dis-inherited religion of Jesus» (S. Quintius, Christianity of the beginning and the end, Adelphi, 2014, p. 118).
Link No. 2
THE REVELATION OF THE “KINGDOM OF GOD” BEFORE ACTS 1
At the beginning of Acts we are told of the kingdom of God and, on the latter, ideas are often vague or imprecise, so it is necessary to dwell on it briefly. Let us begin by asking three questions, so as to guide the questions that arise.
1. Is “Kingdom of God” synonymous with “kingdom of heaven” and with heaven, where God is and where we believers will go immediately after death?
2. Are “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of Israel” two connected or separate realities?
3. Are the “Kingdom of Israel” and world evangelism two connected or separate realities?
As it often happens, “the kingdom of God” has a meaning already defined by the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:6 Israel is indeed called to be a kingdom of God. Later, in the time of Judges, God considered himself the “invisible king” of Israel (1Sam 8:7). The meaning that the “kingdom of God” has in the New Testament, however, derives more directly from Daniel, which in place of the kingdom of Israel now finished, announces a more glorious one for the future (as usual, when a plan of God seems to fail, God re-launches it higher).
Daniel saw before him five kingdoms (or empires, Dan 2:37-44; 7:17-27). The first was Babylon, which God initially considered to be at his service (Jer 27:4-11). The fourth empire would have been particularly wicked, for «the saints will be delivered into his hands», but then «the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the saints of the Most High» (Dan 7:25-27). The “saints”, in the context of Daniel, are represented by a purified people of Israel, therefore “the kingdom of the saints”, “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of Israel” tend to be synonymous.
Besides announcing this fifth universal kingdom of saints, Daniel also says something about his king, referred to as a “son of man”, called by God to present himself in heaven to receive the investiture and to whom were given «authority, glory and sovereign power; that all nations and peoples of every language might worship him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away» (Dan 7:14).
In the “Messianic” Psalms, a “Son of David” (Messiah) similar to the “Son of Man” is outlined (cf. Ps 2:2-8; 18:43-50; 72:8-17; 89:19-37; 110:1-2). Solomon, Son of David and Son of God (1 Chronicles 28:6), in some way anticipates the type of kingdom of his descendant Jesus. Solomon ruled politically within, more or less, the borders of Abraham’s Promised Land; with a universal cultural domain, as people from all over the world came to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 4:34); and with the Temple, which was conceived as a religious reference for all peoples (1 Chronicles 16:23-31; 1 Chronicles 8:41-43).
Isaiah, in 49:6, sums up this perspective: «It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob […] I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth». Among the promises of the Father, which the apostles rightly awaited for (Acts 1:4), there was also that of rebuilding the “tent of David”, that is, the kingdom of David, as reiterated in Acts 15:16. It is therefore not by chance that Jesus, after his resurrection, placed the teaching of the “kingdom of God” as central (Acts 1:3). Especially since, as expressed by the above passage of Isaiah and many others, restoration of the kingdom of Israel and universal evangelism were seen as interconnected and later inserted into a more direct presence of God on earth (kingdom of God). This makes Jesus’ response in Acts 1:7-8 more understandable, whereby he confirms a restoration of the kingdom of Israel sooner or later, however prioritising the other aspect of God’s work, namely world evangelism. National and world promises to Abraham were, after all, closely related (Gen 12:1-3); this double perspective is also present in Romans 11:25-26.
A biblical scholar told me that the question about the kingdom of Israel, posed in Acts 1:6, reflects a negative Jewish mentality that the disciples had not yet overcome. He believed to understand the kingdom of God better than the apostles chosen by Jesus and with whom the Lord had spoken for 40 days after he had risen (Acts 1:4). A way of thinking that shows the serious consequences of a negative anti-Jewish mentality, exposing the difference there is between reading the New Testament ignoring the Old, or reading it in light of the Old.
Further considerations on the kingdom of God will be placed at the end of the book.