First, a brief note on translations. As some of you know, I am doing my reading from N.T. Wright’s recently released translation of the New Testament. Now Wright is clear that no translation should be considered the definitive translation, and he goes as far as to say:
“… [even if you know Greek itself, but especially if don’t] you should always have two English translations open in front of you. No one translation – certainly not this one – will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek …”
The reason I point this out is that his phrasing in certain well-known passages is actually causing me to slow down and really think issues through. And for that, I am exceptionally grateful for his work as well as for his wise counsel regarding the utilization of a multiplicity of translations.
This brings me to my first real observation on the text itself. Look at how Wright translates Acts 2:42: “They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Something about the way he opens this particular verse really spoke to me. It starts by saying: “They all gave full attention.” But “full attention” to what?
- “The teachings of the apostles.”
- “The common life”
- “The breaking of bread”
- “The prayers”
As I look at that list and consider the words “full attention”, I realize that I probably give the most attention to the teachings of the apostles, slightly less attention to the common life, still less attention to the breaking of bread, and a shocking lack of attention to prayer itself … Once again, I am struck by the same impression I had when I read through Matthew. My “discipleship” bears little resemblance to the discipleship prescribed by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and again in the book of Acts. What about you friends? Do these things get your “full attention?” Or do you give them cursory nods on Sunday and a few other occasions during the week?
My second observation actually comes out of my teachings at the Classical Consortium. This year, in Classical Rhetoric II, we took at look at various sermons preached in the book of Acts. And then we analyzed the common features of these sermons and compared them to our presentations of the Gospel today. Quite often, in today’s culture, we tend to present the Gospel as something that can be brought alongside culture. In other words, we present it in a way that causes the reader to believe that they can have “eternal life” and the idyllic, American life complete with a house, two cars, a dog and a white picket fence. If drawn out, it looks something like this:
But when we look at the bulk of the New Testament material, it becomes clear that this sort of “synthesis” between the Story of the Gospel and the story of the culture just is not possible. Because the Story of the Gospel is in direct opposition to the story of the dominant culture. If we were to draw it out, it would something like this:
“Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. “Rulers of the people and elders,” he said, “if the question we’re being asked today is about a good deed done for a sick man, and whose power it was that rescued him, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man stands before you fit and well because of the name of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. He is the stone which you builders rejected, but which has become the head cornerstone. Rescue won’t come from anybody else! These is no other name given under heaven and among humans by which we must be rescued.”
Here, in these five simple verses, you see Peter pulling out all the stops. First, he assails the Jewish leaders and charges them with crucifying Jesus and rejecting the “cornerstone.” But Peter’s work was not done. In his very next breath, he takes on the Romans who had adopted an early pronouncement by Augustus Caesar in 17 BC that “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.” So here, Peter presents the Gospel, and in doing so, he takes shots at the two leading cultures that dominated the world of his day.
So as I finished my reading of Acts, I found myself wondering: What would a radical encounter between the Gospel and the dominant culture of today look like? What “sacred cows” would have to be slaughtered in the lives of many Christians? And what would it cost us to engage in that kind of work?