Since different debates and denominations have risen out of different interpretations of the book of Acts, the church has a tendency to bypass the book to glean how the church is to operate and read it as simply a record of what happened in the early church. What will result from this perspective is simply to look at the story in Acts as a description of the good old days of the church—the golden years that sound so thrilling, but are so far away and so lost.
On the other hand, some study the book of Acts through an underlying perspective to look at the early church’s activity and mimic everything that occurred in the book today. They see no limits to the activities that occur and would categorize them as prescriptive and normative.
The questions we need to wrestle with this book are—does Acts simply record a history of the good old days? Is it intended to be only descriptive? If not, are there intended instructions in the book? If there are intended instructions, how closely do we copy the first century church’s activity? Does it set a precedent? How far do we go?
To attempt to find that razor’s edge, we need to think carefully through the authorial intent of the book. Luke does not hide his reasons for writing the book and declares them in Acts 1 just as he has declared them for his previous volume in Luke 1.
In Acts 1:1-8, Luke reminds the reader that he has written before of what Jesus began to do and teach and the promise of a mission that the Holy Spirit would accomplish through Jesus’ followers after He left. Luke encapsulates this mission in verse 8 and builds the whole book on this verse: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Luke then selects and shapes the material that follows in the book to reflect 1:8. Everything that happens in the book of Acts can be traced back to that verse. The strategies and patterns he shares with the reader are intended to show how the mission was carried out. Luke divides the book into six panels that end with a summary statement that tells how the movement was advancing from Jerusalem to Rome. Each of these panels have very intentional keys embedded in them that propelled the advance of the Gospel. The major character is the Holy Spirit who uses flawed people to carry out the Father’s will and design for His Church.
The movement begins with a very Jewish church in Jerusalem and expands to all ethnicities as it infectiously spreads to the major Roman cites of the day. Luke wants the reader to see the Holy Spirit’s action in using the message of the risen Christ to change lives and communities and form former rebels into changed lives that create a new covenant community that can grow in spite of apparent hindrances.
In order to see what aspects of Luke’s book are normative for the church, we must connect the stories with the overall intent of the author. Each panel and the stories that make up the panel need to be read with the question of what is the point Luke is trying to make by including this material and how does it function in the overall story? When we push up the authorial intent of the narrative, we won’t get lost in the forest.
For the reader to be able to show how the purpose of the story is to establish a precedent that continues throughout the book, there would need to be a repetition of a pattern that occurs in the book of Acts. That pattern must connect with the drumbeat of the author in order to lend itself to be considered as normative for the church through all ages. If the activity in the book seems to be limited to a certain culture and time and would not be transferrable to all cultures and ages, then it would be difficult to see that practice as normative.
However, if the practice connects to the purpose of the book as an activity that would contribute to all cultures for the advancement of the Gospel in the church, then serious consideration needs to be given to the prescriptive value of it. The repetition and its ties to Luke’s intent needs to be a crucial factor in determining what is carried over from Acts to the present.
Also, in addition to the repetition in the book of Acts itself, attention needs to be given to the confirmation in the rest of the New Testament—Christ’s instructions in the Gospels and the Apostolic material in the letters. What is mandated in the New Testament for believers in any culture will not oppose what is prescriptive in the book of Acts. The New Testament epistles were written out of the context of Acts, so where they touch on the same matters, they will reinforce what the Spirit deems prescriptive in Acts in harmony.
Finally, we need to look in the book of Acts for the function of the activity and then determine if the form the function was delivered in is normative. To do this we need to ask the question of why did they do what they did, and can we do that same thing with the same answer to the why question. The functions should be transferrable to every generation, but the forms may change from culture to culture. When the function is attached to a form in Acts, we need to ask if the form portrayed is described partially and incompletely, and if it varies when the function is given in other situations. But if the function with the form has appeared consistently in the New Testament, there is great precedent for it. The function, principle, organism, truth, and message will not change from culture to culture, but the form, organization, tradition, and method may.
The science of studying Acts is determining where freedom in form is so that we can effectively carry out the advance of the Gospel. Scripture is our foundational tool, and a study of church history and the specific culture we are in to implement the functions in Acts will lend wisdom for the function for today.