You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
- An Introduction
- Augustine’s Two Cities
- Two Kingdoms in Luther
- The Reformed Confessions (Part I)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part II)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part III)
- Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper
- Redemption and Creation in Kuyper
- John the Baptist
- The Prophet Amos
- The Incarnate Lord (Part I)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part II)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part III)
After examining the continuities and discontinuities associated with the incarnation of our Lord, we will now further ground our discussions on public theology by examining the behavior of the apostles in the book of Acts.
In Luke’s first book (i.e. the Gospel of Luke), Luke reported “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (cf. Luke 1:1); therefore, the implication is that Luke’s second book (i.e. the Acts of the Apostles) will carry the narrative forward, showing what Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension to heaven. He continues to act through the presence of His Holy Spirit and through the ministry of His apostles (cf. Acts 1:2). This means that the book of Acts is a retelling of the continuation of redemptive history, in which the ministry of the apostles was done openly (cf. Acts 26:26).
Background: Roman Empire and Christianity
Because of the expanse of the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire became a very pluralistic society in which numerous religions existed alongside each other peaceably. During the apostolic period, the non-Roman religions were divided into religio licita (“licensed worship”) and religio illicita (“unlicensed worship”). However, while this distinction officially existed, the Roman Empire was generally very tolerant to other foreign religions. Generally speaking, any people settling at Rome were permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mystery religions, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism towards the religion of the state. Consider the commentary from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae, they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religions illicitae, while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of an emergency … Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods…
This is the background into which the Holy Spirit was poured out among the church at Pentecost. In some respects, our current society’s attitude toward religion is similar to the Roman Empire. Practically, all religions are socially permissible in our society as long as it does not disturb the public order. Perhaps, more accurately, any faith is permissible (or even commendable) as long as it is fully privatized. This is the concept of the “freedom of worship” that has become popularized with the past decade.
Despite the general toleration of religions within the Roman Empire, it was well-known that Christians were persecuted within the Roman Empire. This persecution initially began with the Jewish authorities which providentially forced the apostles to take their message to the Gentiles. The persecution then grew locally and regionally in Gentile regions until it became officially mandated in the reign of Domition. This background and this concept lead to the following question: if the Roman Empire instituted such a universally mild and tolerant policy toward various gods and cults, why was Christianity strongly persecuted? It could not be because it was a religio illicita because other unlicensed religions grew in the empire without persecution. It could not be simply because Christianity believed in proselytism because other religions (like Mithraism) were militant and aggressive and yet were tolerated. In my view, the answer to this question is based on the content and proclamation of the apostles’ message.
The Message of the Apostles
First, it should be noted that the apostles were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a kingdom. Note that Luke summarizes the forty days of final instruction from Jesus to His apostles before He ascended: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (1:3). Moreover, this is the content of the teaching by Philip in Samaria (8:12) and Paul in Ephesus (19:8; 20:25). Luke ends the book of Acts with this account of Paul’s stay in Rome:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30-31)
It’s important that we don’t forget how dangerous such a message was in the Roman Empire. This point wasn’t missed by an angry crowd in Thessalonica who complained that the believers were causing trouble all over the world and that they were defying the decrees of Caesar by proclaiming Jesus as king (17:7). Much like the apostles did initially, the Roman Empire likely interpreted the Kingdom of God primarily in political terms rather than in redemptive and eschatological terms.
Second, the apostles refused to render formal obedience to the religion of the state, which incensed the Roman governors. This was done by proclaiming Christ as both Lord and Christ (2:36; 5:30-31; 10:36; 11:20; 17:7; etc.). Calling Christ Lord was an affront to the religion of the state (which required the confession Caesar is Lord). Like the prophets before them (such as Daniel), the apostles refused to privatize their faith; rather, they must “speak of what we have seen and heard” (cf. 4:20). Coupled with the preaching on the Parousia of the Lord, this led many (including some Christians) to believe that a new society as a kingdom was to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king, which would in essence overthrow the Roman government.
Third, the apostles were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship – they also actively assailed the pagan cults by proclaiming that the worship of idols is vanity (cf. 14:15-17; 17:16; 17:23-21; 19:25-27). The apostles clearly disturbed the cozy relationship between all of the various religious cults based on the content and claims of their message. From the Roman point of view, the Christians were considered atheists and since religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of the gods. Thus, when disasters began to fall upon the Roman Empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. This is part of the reason why Paul was expelled from various Gentile cities.
To summarize what has been said, the apostolic ministry is a ministry of witness. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ Jesus and were recipients of the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. This witness was spread worldwide (i.e. to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth), was inclusive of all kinds of people (i.e. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, Samaritans, pagan Gentiles), and was often accompanied by various signs and wonders. The witness to the gospel always called for a response and this is why the ministry of the apostles was a public witness. Because of the claims of the gospel and because of the public nature of the apostolic ministry, it would have been impossible NOT to have the opposition from the surrounding the world.
The same essential message applies to the Church today. When the Church performs the Great Commission, it is always a public ministry. In other words, it is impossible for Church to maintain its faithful witness and character while retreating from the public sphere. We must never assimilate into the religious customs of our day – in which we called to privatize our faith If we are to follow in the footsteps of the apostles, then we must proclaim His Word publicly.
In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of the apostles in their public ministry.