A Conversation with Alan Thompson
Interview by Matthew Claridge–
The New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) continues to churn out exceptional and accessible volumes demonstrating what it means to “read the Bible on its own terms.” Thanks to the careful and trustworthy editorship of D.A. Carson, it is nearly impossible to go wrong when picking up the latest addition to this series. Alan Thompson’s The Acts of the Risen Lord is no exception. He breathes a fresh air into Acts studies by giving the reader a view of the theological structure, not simply the theological flash-points, of Luke’s follow-up historical sketch of the early church. Credo was given the opportunity to ask Dr. Thompson some questions about his contribution to NSBT.
What would you say is the core thesis of your book?
The short answer is that it aims to show that the book of Acts is about the reign of the Lord Jesus in the kingdom of God in this age. This is indicated by the first verse of Acts which connects it with Luke’s Gospel (1:1) and the “framing” references to the kingdom of God that Luke provides in the opening and closing verses of Acts (1:3, 6; 28:23, 31).
A slightly extended answer is that my book aims to show that Acts is meant to be read in light of Old Testament hopes for the arrival of God’s salvation in the age to come and the inauguration of that saving rule in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus described in Luke’s Gospel. So, Acts is about what Jesus is continuing “to do and teach” as he continues to administer God’s saving rule—hence the title, Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus! My book, therefore, isn’t meant to comprehensively treat all that Acts has to say. Rather, it aims to provide a biblical-theological framework and show how the major themes in Acts are integrated and relate to this framework.
Well meaning or not, Acts has often been used in a polemical way to score points in modern theological debates over the role of the Spirit, the continuing validity of prophecy, tongues, etc. You are trying to approach Acts differently. How so?
Debates like these are obviously important for church life and practice and Acts obviously has something to teach us about these things. A basic rule of interpreting Scripture, however, is that we ought to find out what the author is saying and what his primary arguments are first before we relate these to our own questions. This basic rule, unfortunately, is often forgotten when Acts is approached. So, at a popular level, often the first things that come up when Acts is mentioned are these issues of tongues, etc., or how we may follow the example of various characters in Acts. Rarely does the assurance and encouragement that comes from seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises in the ongoing reign of the Lord Jesus come up first. Yet providing such assurance is why Luke wrote his books! I seek merely to highlight the main themes of Acts and try to communicate some of Luke’s excitement at the fulfillment of God’s promises through the acts of our Savior, the risen and reigning Lord Jesus!
Though your book is not concerned with these modern intramural debates, you nonetheless provide a very helpful “rule of thumb” for determining what is prescriptive in Acts for the church today. Could you explain and illustrate this rule?
Some have plucked events in Acts out of the narrative and made them normative. Others have reacted to this by shying away from the idea of taking anything normative out of Acts and have insisted, for instance, that doctrine should come only from the teaching of the epistles. Luke does have points that he wants to make, however, and thus there are a number of emphases in his narrative. One way to determine what Luke is emphasizing in the narrative of Acts is to notice how he uses various forms of repetition (summary statements, “framing” references, narration of events, key terms, etc). When we keep coming across something he mentions again and again we’re meant to think, “Hmm, I think Luke is trying to say something about this!”
So, to take one example that I touch on only briefly in my book, Luke is clearly making a point about material possessions since it keeps coming up across Luke and Acts. Although there has been some debate over what it is that he is emphasizing, basically, he is illustrating in various ways Jesus’ teaching that “you cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). In contrast to this, the appointment of a leader (Matthias) by lot in Acts 1 is unlikely to be “prescriptive” for appointing all church leaders just because Luke “describes” it once (again, Luke is emphasizing the sovereignty of God and the continuing reign of the Lord Jesus here).
Just one other brief example: Although my book emphasizes the primary arguments Luke is making concerning the Holy Spirit, I mention in passing that some think there is a two-stage pattern in Acts of believers receiving the Spirit subsequent to conversion. After the salvation-historical event of Pentecost, however, the only occasion in which there is a delay for believers in Jesus to receive the Spirit is that of the Samaritans in Acts 8 (the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household in Acts 10 and the disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19 receive the Spirit in conjunction with belief in Jesus). Again, the unique situation of the delay of the Spirit for the Samaritans as a corporate group in Acts 8 is not meant as a paradigm of a “second blessing” for individual believers. The emphasis here is on the unity of God’s people under the rule of the Lord Jesus. (These things are developed a little further on pages 26 and 140 in the book.)
In what ways does Acts unfold the “already” aspects of God’s Kingdom for the present age?
In the Old Testament the resurrection of the dead was associated with the onset of the age to come and the promises of blessing for God’s people. In Luke and Acts the Lord Jesus in his life, death, resurrection and ascension has inaugurated the Kingdom of God and in Acts the resurrection of Jesus highlights especially the arrival of the age to come. So it is upon the basis of his wrath-bearing death and death-defeating resurrection that the blessings of the age to come are offered to all who come to him in faith and repentance. In Acts, therefore, the “already” aspects of the age to come are seen especially in the provision of the new covenant blessings of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit for all who come to the risen Lord Jesus in repentance and faith. As I mention briefly below, the opening verses of Acts indicate that the arrival of these blessings shows that God is fulfilling his saving promises for Israel and the Gentiles (as found especially, but not exclusively, in Isaiah).
In what ways does Acts unfold the “not yet” aspects of God’s Kingdom for the present age?
As I noted above, Acts is “framed” with references to the kingdom of God. In light of this, the reference to the kingdom in 14:22 is especially important for the theology of Acts: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” The reference to the kingdom here has a future orientation; it has yet to be entered and there “must” be suffering beforehand. Thus the fullness of the kingdom is still “not yet” as the reign of the Lord Jesus remains contested. The emphasis on suffering and persecution therefore is a dominant theme in Acts and is closely connected with the spread of the word and the planting and establishment of local churches (on pages 63–67, I place the reference to suffering in 14:22 in its literary context with reference to the strengthening of believers in local churches through elders who faithfully proclaim God’s word). More broadly, Acts highlights the spread of the gospel in the midst of a world in which there is famine, injustice, storm, and shipwreck. Luke wants believers to be reassured, however, that despite opposition and suffering that is characteristic of this “not yet” era before the consummation of the kingdom, the risen Lord Jesus is reigning and continuing to accomplish God’s saving purposes through spreading the gospel to the nations and establishing local churches.
Does Acts, in your opinion, say anything definitive about the “consummation” period of the Kingdom?
Due to the genre of Acts as a “biblical history,” there isn’t as much emphasis on the consummation period as there is on the continuing rule of the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, Luke emphasizes the certainty of the consummation in the opening verses of Acts: “this same Jesus … will come back” (1:11). Jesus remains in heaven until the completion of the saving promises of God in this age (3:21). The Lord Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead (10:42) and the one who will judge the world with justice (17:31). This also fits with other warnings of judgment in evangelistic speeches (e.g., 2:21, 35, 40; 3:23; 13:40). As mentioned above, the resurrection of Jesus anticipates the end (17:31), and so Jesus is the “first” to rise from the dead (26:23), anticipating the resurrection of “both the righteous and the wicked” (24:15). So, broadly speaking, in Acts the consummation of the kingdom is brought about by the return of the Lord Jesus; it will involve the resurrection of believers and unbelievers; and there is a judgment to come. For believers in the Lord Jesus, the consummation of the kingdom means the end of suffering, and forgiveness of sins means salvation from the judgment to come.
The speeches in Acts are clearly of great importance, as you state: “Luke is interested in showing how the gospel is proclaimed as well as documenting the spread of the gospel”(89). It would seem Luke’s interest should be ours as well. Describe for us some of the important features of “how” the gospel is proclaimed in Acts.
Bearing in mind that Luke abbreviates the speeches and selects representative speeches given to different audiences with some variation in different settings, I think it is nevertheless true that he intends us to notice what he is saying about the way the gospel is proclaimed. In this regard, there are common themes across the evangelistic speeches.
First, they are all God-centered in the sense that they all emphasize God’s initiative, who he is, how he is active and personal and that we are accountable to him. Then the situation of the audience and what they need to know about Jesus are explained in this context. In other words Jesus is not presented in abstraction or isolation from a broader understanding of God (the Father) and his purposes in the world.
Second, the speeches are audience-conscious in the sense that what they say about God varies from context to context. This is indicated in a variety of ways but most obviously in the various ways in which the speeches describe God and his purposes. For example, God does not show favoritism (for Gentile “God-fearers” in Acts 10 who already know the Old Testament promises and about the life of Jesus); God graciously led and provided for Israel throughout Israel’s history (for a synagogue audience in Acts 13 who also know of God’s promises); God is sovereign over and distinct from all creation, so humanity is accountable to him (for an audience in Acts 17 that does not have a biblical framework but has heard Paul speak about Jesus).
Third, they are all Christ-focused. They all transition from these descriptions of God and how we need his provision to focus on the person and work of Christ. They emphasize the righteous life, wrath-bearing death and death-defeating resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of the saving purposes of God. In Luke and Acts the death of Jesus is a representative and substitutionary sacrifice for his people, and Jesus’ death and resurrection are inseparable as the basis for the resulting offer of forgiveness of sins (on pages 83–88 I respond to those who think that Luke downplays the significance of the cross or has no theology of the atonement).
Fourth, the evangelistic speeches are always response-oriented in that they include warnings (of judgment) and promises (of salvation, forgiveness, justification, eternal life) and urgent appeals to respond to the good news of God’s saving action in Christ with repentance and faith (demonstrated in baptism). In the face of constant hostility and opposition, the Spirit empowers this bold preaching. Gospel messages are not abstract announcements of Jesus’ lordship but impassioned appeals to find forgiveness of sins in the Lord Jesus on the basis of his life, death, and resurrection (cf. Acts 2:40).
Pervasive to Luke’s record and interpretations of the events in Acts is the background of Isaiah and Ezekiel (particularly ch. 37). Could you, as briefly as you can unpack for us the importance of these OT scriptures for the theology of Acts?
The opening verses of Acts highlight the fulfillment of God’s saving promises for Israel and the Gentiles as found particularly in Isaiah. The language of “witness” and “ends of the earth,” as well as the reference to the coming of the Spirit all reflect these promises. Since these opening verses anticipate the rest of the narrative of Acts, these promises are obviously fundamental to what the rest of Acts is about: the fulfillment of God’s promises in restoring Israel and including Gentiles under the saving reign of his suffering Servant. So, Isaiah keeps coming up throughout the narrative of Acts. For instance we find explicit quotations of Isaiah at major turning points such as when outcasts (the eunuch in Acts 8 ) and Gentiles (in Acts 13) are included, and we see regular allusions to Isaiah in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, who is the righteous, yet suffering, Servant who bore the punishment for his people (cf. Luke 22:37; Acts 3:13, 18, 26; 4:27).
Ezekiel is also prominent throughout Acts. Ezekiel 37 in particular anticipates the resurrection as the onset of the age to come in which God’s new covenant promises are fulfilled as he dwells among his people and there is restoration for “the whole house of Israel.” God’s people have God’s Spirit; they experience cleansing from sin; the Spirit enables them to keep his commands; the northern and southern kingdoms are united again under the reign of the new David; their numbers increase; and the nations are instructed. These promises are fundamental to the emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus in Acts and his rule as the Davidic King. In Acts 2 these hopes form the backdrop for the appeal to “the whole house of Israel” to repent and receive from the resurrected and enthroned Davidic King forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. The emphasis on including Samaria (which recalls promises for the northern kingdom) under the reign of the Davidic King in the kingdom of God also highlights this.
These are just some of the ways that Luke highlights the fulfillment of the promises of God in the saving reign of the Lord Jesus, though there are many more in Acts. As Peter says, “Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days” (Acts 3:24).
How does this Scriptural horizon explain some of the “iffy” NT uses of the OT as in the case when Paul applies Isa. 42:6, a text evidently intended for Jesus as the “Suffering Servant,” to himself and his companions in their gospel ministry?
Isaiah prophesies a Servant will restore Israel, but that doesn’t nullify the servant-role of restored Israel. Thus (to summarize my discussion on pages 118–20), in Isaiah it appears that God will extend his salvation to all peoples through the Servant (who restores the people to God) and through his restored people (who announce his salvation to the nations). It is this understanding of including the restored people of God in the mission of the Servant that enables us to understand how Paul and Barnabas can apply to themselves a commission that is given to the Servant. Paul and Barnabas are a “light for the Gentiles” and bring “salvation to the ends of the earth” because they identify with the perfect Servant, who enables his followers to carry out his mission (in light of Acts 1:2 and 1:8, the Lord who commands them in 13:47 is the Lord Jesus). They are a “light to the Gentiles” because they preach the good news about Christ, who is the righteous, yet suffering, Servant. Or to put it another way, Christ continues to be a light to the Gentiles as he proclaims light to them through his servants as they preach the good news about his saving work in the midst of opposition and persecution (cf. Acts 26:23)!
One thing not directly covered in your book is the relationship between Christianity and Rome as recorded in Acts. There’s been a growing trend to read Acts and Paul in light of a “gospel vs. empire” hermeneutic. The clarion call, “Jesus is Lord” should not be restricted to theological discourse alone, but must be seen as political discourse as well. Any comment on 1) Acts’ view of Rome and 2) inaugurated eschatology in light of this “anti-imperial” hermeneutic?
I think there are two things to keep in mind here. On the one hand, Luke and Acts use terms like Savior, kingdom, Lord, salvation, peace, etc., with their Old Testament contexts firmly in view. These Old Testament contexts and the teaching of the Lord Jesus define what Luke means by these terms and why he uses them. In Acts, salvation is forgiveness of sins, not freedom from the empire. Jesus reigns on the Davidic throne as Lord in fulfillment of promises about a king in the line of David that were made long before the Roman Emperor arrived on the scene.
On the other hand, it is clear that Luke is writing his account of salvation history in the setting of Roman history. For instance, he regularly refers to emperors (Luke 2:1; 3:1; Acts 11:28; 18:2); contrasts are made between Jesus’ kingship and the kingship of Caesar (Luke 23:2; Acts 17:7); and of course, Acts ends with Paul proclaiming the reign of God and the Lord Jesus Christ in Rome itself—the heart of the empire (28:31). References such as these have occasioned a long term debate over whether or not Luke is trying to portray Christianity favorably to commend it to Roman authorities or whether Luke is portraying Roman authorities favorably to commend them to Christian readers. More recently, as you indicate, the emphasis has turned to a more explicit “anti-imperial” reading in which everything is set in contrast to Rome. My own understanding is that Acts emphasizes the lordship of Jesus in contrast to all other claims of authority. This is the case whether the claims for authority come from the temple authorities and Jewish religious leaders, “kings” such as Herod in Acts 12, or various other Roman authorities. Emphasizing the lordship of Jesus is part of Luke’s argument to provide assurance for believers such as Theophilus who face persecution (in various ways from Jews and Gentiles) for their allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Luke seeks to provide assurance that Jesus is the true Lord and that his people are the true people of God. Thus, God’s people can know that the word of his grace will continue to spread and that local churches will continue to be formed in spite of, and even because of persecution, because the Lord Jesus is continuing to accomplish his saving purposes.
Alan Thompson is lecturer in New Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Croydon, New south Wales, Australia.