Series editor’s note: Throughout 2022, “Deeper understandings” will feature biblical scholars sharing some of their favorite books of the Bible. In May, Crystal Hall will reflect on Galatians. —Kathryn A. Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, on behalf of the ELCA’s seminaries
I love the Bible—all of it, honestly. But if I had to choose, my favorite book would be Acts because of its tangible stories about the Spirit active among God’s people.
My love for Acts started in my youth. In high school, I started testing boundaries and asking big questions about my life. As part of this search, I picked up the Bible put in my hands by my Lutheran church, and I started to read the New Testament. It blew me away. Even more, when I read Acts for the first time, I vividly remember asking, “Why have I never heard these stories before?” They captivated me. They showed me a God who called human beings to great things, a Spirit who was real and powerfully at work and a church excited about what God is doing in the world.
Though the book’s title is “The Acts of the Apostles,” theologian Justo González points out that a more accurate name is “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” After a first chapter of introduction, the narrative kicks off with the inaugural event, Pentecost. The Spirit’s dramatic arrival sends a clear message: The God of Jesus Christ has not abandoned us. God and Jesus are still present and active through the Spirit.
In fact, people often overlook just how active Jesus is in Acts. Though he ascends in Chapter 1, he doesn’t stay away. Throughout Acts, Jesus continues to appear, speak, challenge, proclaim, guide, heal and bestow the Spirit (2:33; 7:55; 9:3-6, 10-17, 34; 18:9-10; 22:7; 23:11; 26:14, 23). The opening verse of Acts calls Luke’s Gospel (“the first volume”) a story about “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (my translation). Luke’s wording suggests that, as Acts begins, Jesus is just getting started. In these ways, Acts is fundamentally a book about God, Jesus and the Spirit.
Admittedly, Peter and Paul get a lot of focus in Acts. But to me the more interesting characters are “minor” ones who embody the Spirit’s work in major ways: Lydia; the Ethiopian; Tabitha the disciple; Priscilla and Aquila; Barnabas; Cornelius; Simeon, called Niger; Lucius of Cyrene; and the Philippian jailer, to name a few. They give no lengthy speeches, but they faithfully reflect the diverse people called by the Spirit to lead church communities in Jesus’ name.
It’s a story about a church trying to keep up with the progress of the Spirit.
Something else I love about Acts is its examples of spiritual discernment at work. Two key stories show communities deliberating about the inclusion of Gentiles by listening to Scripture, one another and recent experiences (10:1–11:18; 15:1-35). In doing so, they listen for what God is up to and trust that their conclusions reflect what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28). Many other stories show similar strategies for faithful leadership and decision-making (1:14-26; 6:1-7; 8:4-25; 13:1-3; 16:6-10). In these ways, God’s people strive to be attentive to the Spirit.
I find these examples profoundly instructive to our practices of spiritual discernment in communities today. Some readers find the portrayal of church in Acts too idealistic, but they need to read past the first four chapters. Yes, the church engages in radical community, generosity and bold witness. But it also participates in deceit, injustice and an unwillingness to heed the Spirit. The church in Acts is a messy mix of sanctified sinners to which church people today can relate. It’s not a story of prize-winning church progress. It’s a story about a church trying to keep up with the progress of the Spirit.
Some readers find the miracles an obstacle to appreciating Acts. To people with limited experience of miracles today, the story seems unrealistic. I find the miracles less important for their historical truth (what happened) than for their theological message (what they mean). First, they confirm that the church and its witness belong to God. The miracles confirm God’s handiwork behind these fledgling church communities and their work. Second, miracles by believers’ hands bring their ministries more closely in line with Jesus’ ministry. Just as Jesus taught, healed and liberated in Luke’s Gospel, so do his followers in Acts. In short, followers of Jesus are called to do in his name what Jesus did. The miracles in Acts make that connection and message clear.
Personally, each time I read Acts, I’m encouraged by its vision of a Spirit who doesn’t give up on God’s people, no matter how resistant they are. Among the receptive and the hardheaded, God, Jesus and the Spirit show up, call people into community and employ flawed human beings like ourselves in witness. In these ways, I find Acts to be a word of gospel for the church today.