The Book of Acts, Prescriptive or Descriptive?

The Book of Acts carefully describes the emergence of the primitive early church following the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The 28 chapters of Acts convey the activity, issues, personalities, teachings and sermons of various apostles, including detailed narration of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit working through Peter and John manifesting itself in a variety of miracles, the wisdom of James, and the travels and episodes in Paul’s ministry. Roman rulers are mentioned by name, as are cities and geographic areas.

Thus Christians reading the Book of Acts today are given a good description of the beginnings of Christianity as lived through the emergence of the early church. We read of the issues surrounding the Gentiles being given the Holy Spirit in a climate of Jewish opposition. We read of Jewish insistence for new converts to be circumcised and the resulting Jerusalem apostolic conference that discussed the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles and their resulting edict. We read descriptions of various Roman rulers who encountered the gospel via Paul’s testimony. We wonder at the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through numerous amazing miracles, such as Paul and Silas, and well as Peter, being freed from prisons, of healings, and of accurate prophecies such as given by Agabus. We weigh in on the problems and issues of the church some 2000 years ago, and cannot help but ponder how the Acts narrative might edify the modern church today.

Do the times and circumstances of some 2000 years ago as recorded in Acts, the incidents that occurred and resulting judgment calls, as well events tied to an ancient calendar, help us navigate our theology today? If Acts is purely descriptive and belonging entirely to another age, then we can simply see the book purely in a more or less a historical focus. Viewing Acts through an exclusively historical lens would then help us understand that Luke’s recording of the remarkable miracles of healing, freeing from prison, visitation by angels, and visions from God only existed in the context of those times, and are not necessarily to be expected in the Christian experience today.

And yet, we’re also confronted by the issue of being edified by what the early Christians believed, and how they applied their understanding to everyday life. Do the overall experiences and outcomes of early Christian practise and theology as cited in Acts carry any prescriptive weight for us today – in the light of Paul’s prescriptive comment in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when he said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”?

I believe that Acts is not only a descriptive historical narration containing elements that cannot be repeated in today’s Christian experience, such as witnessing Jesus’ ascension, or worshipping at the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Elewell, Yarbrough Encountering the New Testament, Baker Academic, 2008, 212), but that it also speaks to us on a prescriptive level that mirrors core doctrinal teachings supported elsewhere in scripture. For example, Paul’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus and his actively preaching of the resurrection is supported elsewhere in the New Testament.

The challenge is: how far do we apply the prescriptive element contained in Acts in our faith and practise today? For example, many in our community of believers acknowledge Luke’s interesting inclusion of certain usually-relegated-as Jewish days of worship. The modern reader of Acts notes that the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, which we believe was a Sunday morning. Why were the disciples gathered in a meeting place on that Sunday? Had the weekly day of worship and fellowship changed from Sabbath to Sunday? The disciples were indeed gathered in “holy convocation” on this Holyday known as Pentecost, as they had perhaps always done. Of note is that God chose to use the significance of this day, historically believed to be when God originally gave the ancient Israelites the Ten Commandments, to now abundantly pour out the Holy Spirit on all who believed.

Luke also mentions Paul’s insistence to keep a certain feast:

When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing. “And he sailed from Ephesus. (Acts 18:20-21)

Can we take any bearings from Paul’s insistence on keeping this feast, be it Unleavened Bread or Tabernacles? Is this simply descriptive, or is it prescriptive? Luke also mentions the Fast, a reference believed to be the Day of Atonement (Acts 27:9). Elsewhere, Luke also importantly mentioned that they sailed after the Days of Unleavened Bread (Acts20:6) and from this the reader can understand that there were presiding reasons not to sail until Unleavened Bread was completed. The next verse (7) refers to an assembly [correctly translated] “the first of the Sabbaths”. This was not a Sunday assembly, but an assembly on the first of the seven Sabbaths (or weeks) counted from Unleavened Bread to Pentecost. [New Testament Greek does not have a word for “week”; the word for week occurs in the Septuagint and in modern Greek].

Theologians acknowledge that the interpretive understanding gleaned from the above examples are often hotly debated, especially by those who disagree with the implications that these Holydays bear relevance to the Christian today, it nonetheless demonstrates the interpretive challenges that Acts presents. (Elewell, Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, Baker Academic, 2008, 213)

The Book of Acts is a necessary part of the Biblical canon. It details the early church as it tried to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ; it documents firstly the work of the Peter, John and James, and devotes the final two thirds to Paul’s journeys and experiences; it documents the entrance of Gentiles into the faith, and it also gives us a good insight into what our Christian forefathers believed and how they applied that understanding. In this Acts still speaks to us today, not only as a historical narrative, but also fleshing out the prescriptive element, instructions on how to live the new life in Christ.


John Classic
Written for LifeSpring

John Classic
By John Classic