James L. Watson defines globalization as "the process by which the experience of everyday life, marked by the diffusion of commodities and ideas, can foster a standardization of cultural expressions around the world."1
This presentation on the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles says nothing about globalization as an economic and political phenomenon, although it does say something about how earliest Christianity promoted cultural diversity within a single faith and aided globalism, if not globalization directly.
The Christian Bible has influenced western civilization so strongly that we should not be surprised to find that it helped the West to view some version of globalism as desirable and possible.
Among New Testament documents, the Acts may deserve the greatest credit for planting in the mind of the West more than a mere openness toward globalism but instead a divine motivation toward some form of it. I hope to show how Acts justifies-how it defends-the spread of the message of Jesus from the beginning, small circle of messianic Jews in Jerusalem to the mixed membership of Jews and Gentiles populating new churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Rome itself. In this way, Acts promotes a global faith that seeks unity in matters essential to that faith but, somewhat unexpectedly, decides early not to seek cultural uniformity otherwise. Thus Acts ends up promoting a globalism that tacitly encourages cultural diversity in matters of non-essentials and expressly encourages uniformity in matters of faith essentials.
The Gospel Goes Global: The Problem
Today's readers of Acts may not recognize that the spread of the gospel of Jesus to non-Jews is a problem for Acts. After two millennia of multi-cultural Christianity, it may seem self-evident and natural that Acts would announce the worldwide spread of the faith and then show selectively that very spread from Jerusalem to Rome. But the transformation of the Jesus movement from being exclusively Jewish and nationalistic in outlook to being racially inclusive and universalistic in outlook constitutes perhaps the key problem that Acts attempts to solve.
New Testament scholars agree widely that the Gospel of Luke and Acts constitute a two-volume work.3 The preface to the Gospel4 acknowledges that others have already produced narratives concerning Jesus' career and perhaps also the early work of his followers (1.1). Then it justifies providing yet another narrative: "it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly (kathexes)5 account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning [or, "the certainty of"; aspháleian] the things of which you have been informed" (1.3-4 RSV).
The author, Luke, aims to research and write an account of Jesus and of the earliest church that produces in Theophilus assurance, or certainty, about what he already knows. The key term is aspháleian (1.4), which in a different form appears at the conclusion of Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, rendered here somewhat literally to express the word-order emphasis: "Assuredly (asphalos) therefore let all the house of Israel know that both Lord and Christ God has made him, this Jesus whom you have crucified" (Ac 2.36). So Luke writes the Gospel and the Acts to create a specific rhetorical effect, to give Theophilus assurance, certainty. But why does Theophilus, presumably already a believer, need such assurance?
What is the problem, the situation in response to which Luke writes to provide his readers with such assurance? Luke Timothy Johnson, scholar of Luke-Acts, states the problem in this way:
In Torah (the Scripture shared by messianist and nonmessianist Jews alike), God's promises had been made to Israel, that is the Jewish people, through Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). If [at the time Luke-Acts was written] that historical people was now not in possession of the blessings, and other people were [that is, non-Jews who lay claim to these blessings God promised in ancient times], what did that imply about God's faithfulness to his promises?6
What the end of the Luke-Acts narrative shows is the apostle Paul in Rome, spending a day "testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince [Jews there] about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets" (Ac 28.23). "[S]ome were convinced . . . while others disbelieved" (18.24). Paul responds to this split decision with an ominous prophecy from Isaiah, "You shall indeed hear but never understand," and with this final word for the whole narrative: "Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen" (28.28). Throughout Acts many Jews become members of the church, but they are joined by an increasing number of Gentiles, Gentiles who have not first converted at all or fully to Judaism. Thus this mixed group making up the early church contains Gentiles not converted to Judaism who nevertheless claim membership in the covenant community stretching back to Abraham; and this group also contains Jews who live in full partnership with such defiling Gentiles. Both circumstances offend other Jews, who ask the kinds of questions Johnson poses. Johnson continues:
Had God utterly betrayed his people? And in so doing, had he also proven himself faithless? The difficulty here is as acute for Gentiles as for Jews. How could they rely on the things 'accomplished among them' [Ac 1.1]? If God had failed the Jews, could he not betray the Gentiles even more easily?
The issue addressed by Luke's narrative is one of theodicy. He seeks-as did Paul in Romans 9-11-to defend the word and work of God in history.7
And how does Luke answer these questions and solve this problem? We will survey the answer as it emerges in highlights of the narrative, but Johnson states the answer briefly:
Luke shows how God first fulfilled his promises to Israel, and only then extended these blessings to the Gentiles. Because God had shown himself faithful to the Jews, therefore, the Word that reached the Gentiles was also trustworthy. Thus we see how important "order" or consecutiveness is for Luke's narrative. The saving of Israel [at least a remnant among Israel] was necessary for the security of Gentile faith.8
Glimmers of Christian Globalism: Acts 1-2
Luke's showing of this answer fills the narrative of Luke-Acts, highlights of which in Acts we now turn to.9 The first two chapters of Acts portray the transfer of prophetic anointing from the prophet Jesus to his followers.10 In Acts 1, apostles of Jesus ask if now that he has risen from the dead, will he "restore the kingdom to Israel," probably referring to their desire for Jesus as messiah and king to lead a revolt for independence from Rome (1.6). The apostles are thinking in exclusively nationalistic terms about this kingdom. Jesus shifts their attention from this kind of kingdom to the spiritual anointing they need to receive to contribute to the advance of a different kind of kingdom:
He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (1.7-8).
Theophilus (and other readers implied by this text) would know that Jesus' direction about becoming witnesses to the end of the earth presumes not only a huge geographical spread of his followers but also their radical transformation from an exclusively Jewish group with a nationalistic outlook to a multi-cultural church with a universal outlook. But the apostles as characters in the narrative do not know the changes they will soon experience. The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in chapter 2 anoints Jesus' followers with their prophetic vocations.11 This vocation is expressed in the prophecy of Joel that Peter cites in his Pentecost sermon:
[T]his is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. . . . And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Ac 2.16-18, 21)
Note the double mention of prophecy and the mention of related prophetic media, dreams and visions; note that the outpoured Spirit causes such activity; and note the breadth of those who on whom the Spirit will be poured and through whom prophetic actions will occur: young and old, male and female. Peter concludes his sermon by promising that the gift of this just-outpoured Spirit "is to you and your children and to all that are afar off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (2.39). The universalism of the Christian gospel again peeks through this text, with more to come later in Acts. Theophilus and we know this, but Peter does not. He has said more than he understands.
Ancient Prophecy Points beyond Jews: Acts 3
With the restored people of God established as a Spirit-endowed prophetic community by the end of Acts 2, Luke shifts his attention from the people to the leaders of the community. They behave as prophets, following the pattern of Jesus, the prophet mighty in word and deed (Luke 24.19-20). Peter and John perform the miracle of healing the forty-year-old paralytic near the temple. In his second sermon, Peter emphasizes how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has sent Jesus to them and, despite their rejecting and crucifying him, how God is again calling them to repent of their wrong evaluation of Jesus so that they may experience salvation and all its blessings. Peter reminds his Jewish listeners of God's words to Abraham when God established the covenant with him: "And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (3.25). These words of Scripture warrant most deeply the transformation of the infant Jewish church into a global, multi-cultural church, although the narrative does not emphasize the words here; and again, Peter does not know of their soon-to-be-discovered significance. In fact, the sermon in chapter 3 concludes by emphasizing Jews: Peter says "God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you [that is, to the Jewish people] first" (3.26).
Sacred History Shows Encounters with God away from Promised Land and Temple: Acts 6-7
Stephen of Acts 6-7 exemplifies Spirit-filled leadership beyond the Twelve. His response to the double charge of blasphemy and speaking against the temple and the law forms the longest speech in the book of Acts but seems not to respond to the charges directly. But this historical retrospective does critique views that result in rejecting Jesus the prophet from God. Points pertinent to this presentation include these assertions in the speech: (1) Because key moments in Israel's salvation history occurred in places such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shechem, and the Exodus wilderness far outside of the promised land, Jews must not view as holy only the temple space or even the promised land, because, despite Solomon's having built a temple, "the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands[,] as the prophet says, 'Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord . . . ? Did not my hand make all these things?" (7.48-50) (2) Such exalting of a building, such as the temple, while simultaneously persecuting and murdering the prophets God sends, including Jesus, constitutes resisting the Holy Spirit and failing to keep the law, of which Stephen's accusers are guilty even as they accuse him of speaking against it (7.51-53).
This prophetic rebuke enrages his accusers. They stone Stephen, making him the first Christian martyr (7.54-60). The important effect of his speech, for this presentation, is that it emphasizes God's saving activity among non-Jews, far away from the temple and promised land. This emphasis lays the conceptual ground for the spread of the gospel of Jesus beyond Jerusalem and Judea into places where Jews would be a minority and Gentiles would hear and be invited to believe the gospel and be added to the church.
The Gospel Spreads to Mixed-Race Samaritans without Apostles: Acts 8
Immediately following Stephen's death, persecution against the church in Jerusalem scatters believers. Philip, another prophetic leader not part of the Twelve, travels north to Samaria, where he proclaims Christ to an accepting audience of mixed-race Samaritans. Despite their belief and Christian baptism, the Samaritans do not receive the promised gift of the Spirit until Peter and John, members of the Twelve, visit Samaria to view this new work.
This episode in Acts 8 contributes to the defense of the spread of the faith because it shows that (1) the faith spread beyond Jews involuntarily. Despite Jesus' direction of Acts 1.8 that the apostles would witness to him in Samaria and unto the ends of the earth, it took persecution to push the church beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond an all-Jewish membership. (2) While the apostles had to visit Samaria before God gave the Spirit to the Samaritans (and in this way secured human approval from the highest level of churchly authority and guarded against the splitting of the church into two, based on race), the episode shows that the apostles had not pioneered the mission to the Samaritans. They were in effect dragged along by the sweep of events beyond their control. Thus this partial transformation of the young church from membership by Jews only to membership including Samaritans, who combined Jewish and Gentile ancestry, resulted not from the decision of the apostles but from God's doing apart from their initiative.
Saul's Conversion Entails Divinely Willed Mission to Gentiles: Acts 9
Following the order of the Acts narrative, the next event crucial to this presentation is the conversion or, as some suggest, the prophetic commission of Saul in Acts 9. The text makes abundantly clear that Saul was utterly opposed to the church and, humanly speaking, no candidate for membership. He converts involuntarily, to say the least. The text reads:
As he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (9.3-6)
Saul obeys and, temporarily blind and hungry, learns from one Ananias, another initially unwilling participant (9.10-14), what plans God has for him: "he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (9.15-16). This episode emphasizes God's will's determining human will in both the call of Saul, soon renamed Paul, and in his later mission to the Gentiles.
Peter Resists, Then Submits to God's Will in Embracing Gentiles: Acts 10
That mission begins in the next chapter of Acts, 10. It dramatizes pious Jewish resistance to taking the gospel to Gentiles and emphasizes that such a mission is God's will. Peter exemplifies the resistance, and the narrative reports three vision-prayers through which God overrules Peter's Torah-based scruples about eating common or unclean food by telling him that "what God has cleansed, you must not call common" (10.15). The divine communication prepares Peter to submit to the soon-arriving request from the Gentile centurion, Cornelius, to visit him with the gospel.
When he arrives at Cornelius' home, Peter again expresses his natural resistance to such a meeting: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (10.28). Then Peter begins and concludes his proclamation with assertions of the multi-cultural intention of the gospel: At the beginning, "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10.35). At the end: "To [Jesus of Nazareth] all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (10.43). With this declaration, Peter has discovered just how "afar off" persons may be (using his language from Acts 2.39) whom the Lord God would call.
But the narrative does not stop simply with Peter's testimony that he now understands God's universalistic will. Instead, Acts reports a divine event: All in Cornelius' house receive the Holy Spirit "just as" the apostles and the one-hundred-twenty did on the Day of Pentecost, that is, accompanied by "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (10.46).
Defense of Ministry to Gentiles: Acts 11
Then, to further emphasize this crucial event in the transformation of the young church, Acts 11 is nearly filled with Peter's defense of his actions before critics in Jerusalem, during which he recites his vision-prayer and his experience at Cornelius' house. His conclusion again highlights the supremacy of God's will: "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" (11.17)
Immediately following Peter's defense at Jerusalem, the narrative describes another mission to Gentiles. The narrator summarizes without any direct discourse: "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews" (11.19). Many scattered by the persecution focused only on Jews in spreading the gospel. These did not intend to broaden their mission to include Gentiles. The narrative continues, "But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord" (11.20-21).
The narrative does not relate the time of Peter's visit to Cornelius to the time of the mission to Greeks in Antioch. Because the Antioch ministry was caused by the same persecution that sent Philip to Samaria (Acts 8), the Antioch outreach to Gentiles may have occurred before Peter's mission to Cornelius, and it certainly occurred before Paul's mission to Gentiles. Yet the narrative treats the Antioch outreach in brief summary and places it after the idea of a mission to non-Jews has been dramatized, tested, and approved by the twelve in Jerusalem. In this way, the narrative prepares readers to accept a Gentile mission without resistance, including specifically Paul's mission, which fills the remainder of Acts, chapters 13 through 28.
Paul's Pattern-First to the Jews, Then to the Gentiles: Acts 13-28
Paul's mission manifests a dependable pattern with some variation in Acts 13-28. He enters a city, attends the synagogue on the Sabbath, and launches his ministry there by speaking first with Jewish worshipers, showing from the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus, rejected, condemned, and crucified, has been raised from the dead by the power of God, through whom God forgives sins. Then some Jews will believe Paul's proclamation, while others will not, and Paul will turn from ministry exclusively among Jews to ministry also among Gentiles. Acts 13 exemplifies this pattern and includes this typical justification for the Gentile mission, spoken to Jews:
Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you [who do not believe the proclamation] thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth" (13.46-47).
An Apostolic Decision-Unity in Essentials, Liberty in Non-essentials: Acts 15
Acts 15 narrates the consideration of the Gentile question, but not simply the mission to Gentiles. The propriety of this mission is established on the highest churchly authority by the end of Acts 11. Instead, Acts 15 considers whether Gentiles must follow the Jewish way by submitting to circumcision and the full law of Moses in order to complete their conversion and be saved as Christians. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas speak against this view, citing their own experience of God's favor toward Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ. Then James, leader of the Jerusalem church, cites Peter's testimony that "God . . . visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name" and joins to it "words of the prophets" that agree, namely, an edited form of the Septuagint version of Amos 9.11-12:
"After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from old" (15.16-17).
James and the assembled council decide that Gentiles do not have to submit to circumcision and the full law of Moses but instead to a much shorter list of prohibitions including idolatry and sexual immorality.
This finding shows regard for Jewish heritage by not discouraging Jewish Christians from continuing to observe Jewish law and custom more fully and by exhorting Gentile converts to observe the core of Jewish tradition that the council judges pertinent to all, Jew and Gentile. Moreover, this decision injects into early Christianity a discernment between essentials and matters of conscience that are important to those so convinced but not required of all believers, what later theologians will call "adiaphora." This distinction surfaces in Paul's letters, especially in Romans 14-15, and pertains importantly to early Christian understandings of divine grace, liberty, and responsibility. Christianity would not impose a single Christian culture governing details of daily life but would permit and even encourage pluralism within the core, or soon-developed rule, of faith.
Summary & Conclusions
By the end of chapter 15, we have seen the episodes and patterns pertinent to this presentation from Acts and may now summarize, without surveying further how these patterns replicate in the final thirteen chapters.
Acts justifies the globalizing of Christian faith by . . .
- showing how the earliest leaders did not think of it and even resisted it;
- showing how the broadening of church membership to include non-Jews fulfilled various ancient Hebrew prophecies that all early Christians would hold to be authentic and authoritative;
- so that the globalism of early Christianity was not a human decision or action but the expression of God's clear will, beginning for Acts with the promise of God to Abraham (that through his posterity all the families of the earth would be blessed) and concluding with Jesus' commission to the apostle Paul (that Paul would be "a chosen instrument . . . to carry" the witness of Jesus "before Gentiles and kings"; 9.15);
- and showing, as chapter 15 does, that global Christianity aimed for unity in the essentials of the faith but approved of diversity in many other matters, thus embracing cultural diversity within a single faith from a very early time in the history of the religion.
The narrative of Acts, held by Christians worldwide as holy Scripture, warrants their efforts to share their faith, seek conversions, and embrace the cultural diversity within a common faith that Acts portrays.
To what extent does a foundational religious narrative of western civilization, such as Acts is, account for the historic openness - even assertiveness - of the West toward the largely secular economic and political globalization we witness today? Given the importance of the Christian Bible within western civilization as a whole, I believe that much of the West's pursuit today of a largely secular globalization arises from the globalism that the New Testament book of Acts expresses and justifies as good and willed by God for the benefit of all the families of the earth. This religious perspective, diffused throughout the foundation of western civilization from late antiquity onward, shapes the western outlook toward intercultural relations, an outlook that endures even when the West secularizes in the way it has from the Enlightenment to the present.12
1. "Globalization." Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 26 Mar, 2003 http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=369857.
2. Cf. Acts 1.8: Jesus speaking to the apostles: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Rome is the location of the final chapter: "And so we came to Rome" (28.14b).
3. "[V]irtually all contemporary scholars think that the Gospel and Acts were conceived and executed as a single literary enterprise, which they have come to call Luke-Acts," Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina 3, Daniel J. Harrington, Editor (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1991): 1.
4. Commentators routinely compare Luke's prefaces in the Gospel and Acts with those in other Hellenistic Hellenistic historical monographs: E.g., Johnson, Luke, 27-30, cites Polybius' History (1, 15, 11-12); Lucian of Samosata's How to Write History (23, 47, 55); Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (1:1-17); see also his references to contemporary secondary studies. This study does not examine these sources in order to compare them with Luke's prefaces.
5. "Luke . . . emphasizes that he is relating events 'in sequence' (kathexes, 1:3). From his use of this last term elsewhere, it appears that Luke considers the narration of events 'in order' to have a distinctively convincing quality (see e.g., Acts 9:27; 11:4; 15:12-14). The development of the plot itself has a persuasive force. Luke shares the perception of Hellenistic rhetoric that the narration ("narration") is critical to historical argument or personal defense. Notice, for example, the construction of Paul's 'defense speeches' (Acts 22:3-21; 24:10-21; 26:2-23)," Johnson, Luke, 4.
6. Luke, 10
7. Ibid., 10
8. Ibid., 10
9. In the interests of space, I pass over a survey of the Gospel of Luke and simply assert the demonstrable claim that Luke portrays Jesus primarily [and, among the other canonical Gospels, distinctively] as a prophet par excellence: like but greater than Moses, Elijah, and David; and fulfilling the servant of the Lord and ideal prophet envisioned by the prophet Isaiah.
10. Note the similarity between the action of the eleven, who keep looking up into heaven after the risen prophet Jesus has ascended, and that of Elisha, who had to see his master Elijah be received up into heaven in order to receive the double anointing that Elisha desired (2 Kg. 2.10).
11. The Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit is a theophany, a divine manifestation that evokes earlier prophetic theophanies: first, the theophany at Mt. Sinai, at which God established his covenant with Moses and Israel, accompanied by thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke (Exod 19.6-18); secondly, the theophany the prophet Elijah experienced on the same mountain, renamed Mt. Horeb, accompanied by a great wind, earthquake, and fire (1 Kgs 19.9-12). But the Pentecost theophany establishes the spiritually restored people of God with their vocation: not to be a kingdom of priests, as God called Israel to be at Sinai; but a community of prophets who would communicate God's salvation in ways comparable to the words and deeds of their founding prophet, Jesus. See Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke's Charismatic Theology, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 16 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999): 35-53.
12. This argument needs another study to develop it more fully.