By Stephen Pimentel
The Book of Acts is a work of both history and theology, an account of God’s self-revelation within the course of human history. Hence, to understand what Luke intended to communicate in Acts, one must set aside the false dichotomy between history and theology. In Luke’s biblical theology, history itself is a framework created and governed by God through which He reveals Himself to man. Thus, Acts must be read with a critical realism that seeks to discern the author’s intention as recorded in the canonical writing itself (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, no. 12). Luke unfolds his narrative of the Holy Spirit’s action within the apostolic Church in a manner that gradually reveals the relation between the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ and the covenants of the Old Testament.
Luke’s covenantal theology is therefore intrinsically historical in its outlook, focusing as it does on the sequence of covenants by which God has progressively redeemed His people, beginning with the covenants of the Old Testament and culminating in the events that Luke himself records.
The book that we call the Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke as a sequel to his Gospel and, like that Gospel, is a work centered on a mission. Whereas the Gospel of Luke describes the mission of Jesus the Messiah, Acts carries forward the narrative by describing the mission of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Apostles. Luke depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as inaugurating the New Covenant foretold by the prophets and thus restoring Israel from her exile. Far from being in discontinuity with the covenantal history of Israel, the New Covenant is a new chapter in that history.
For Luke, the fulfillment of prophecy does not merely serve as a source of apologetic proofs for the teaching of the Apostles. Rather, the fact of such fulfillment lies at the heart of his message: What God had promised through the prophets to do for Israel, He has now done through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Luke sets forth this understanding of the New Covenant in the course of his narrative through his account of the Apostles’ ministry.
To grasp the beliefs and intentions of the Apostles, one must realize that almost all the leaders of the early Church were Jews. While Gentiles are converted beginning in Acts 10, not a single Gentile leader of the rapidly growing Church is mentioned throughout the whole of Acts. All the leaders of the early Church were shaped by Israel’s covenantal history. God dealt with mankind’s sin by calling Abraham and eventually the twelve tribes of Israel to serve Him as an elect people through whom all the peoples of the earth would one day be blessed. Israel then violated her covenant and fell into sin, for which she was suffering the curse of Gentile domination (Deut 28:15; 30:1). However, God promised through the prophets to send a royal descendant of David—the Messiah—who would lift the curse and restore Israel to covenantal relation with God, and thereby allow Israel finally to fulfill her appointed task of bringing covenantal blessing to all the peoples of the earth. The Apostles believed that Jesus was this Messiah, vindicated as such by God through His Resurrection from the dead. In like manner, God would vindicate all His people in the end through the resurrection of the dead, which would occur when Jesus manifested Himself in glory.
The leaders of the early Church considered themselves the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. This belief in the Abrahamic covenant was held as strongly by the most enthusiastic proponents of the Gentile mission, such as Paul (Gal 3:7-8, 14-16, 29; Rom 4:13, 16), as by those who were more cautious toward the Gentiles. Indeed, God’s covenantal oath to Abraham of blessing for all the nations (Gen 22:16-18) undergirded Paul’s conviction that the Gentiles were to be incorporated into the People of God.
However, there was uncertainty—and at times sharp disagreement—about the ongoing status of the Mosaic covenant. Was the New Covenant brought about by Jesus superimposed on the Mosaic covenant, leaving the latter unaltered, or did it bring the Mosaic covenant to its culmination? This was the theological question at the heart of the dispute over whether Gentile converts should be circumcised and required to obey the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1-2, 5).
In answer to this question, the Apostles came to teach that the New Covenant was not an adjunct to the Mosaic covenant, but the miraculous fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant by the anointed heir of David, as promised in the prophets (Acts 15:14-18). Through the prophet Nathan, God had promised David a descendant whose “kingdom shall be made sure forever” (2 Sam 7:16). Yet Israel had fallen into sin and been afflicted with the covenantal curses (Deut 28:15-68), the most prominent of which was exile. The temporal political power of the Davidic kingdom was destroyed. Thereafter, the great hope of Israel, resounding throughout the prophets, was for the restoration of the kingdom, understood not merely as a temporal political entity, but as God’s rule on earth extended from heaven (Isa 52:7). This restoration would be brought about by a new covenant in which God’s promise to Abraham of blessing for all the nations would be fulfilled (Jer 31:31-34).
The Apostles believed that Jesus had inaugurated this restored kingdom (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23). Jesus had proclaimed the good news of the kingdom’s arrival, but even more, He had brought it about through His ministry. In His exorcisms and healings, He had shown that the restoration foretold by the prophets had indeed arrived. By demonstrating His power to forgive sins and thus restore Israel to covenantal relation with God, Jesus had shown that He possessed the authority previously reserved to the temple. Jesus is the son of David “greater than Solomon” (Matt 12:42) who will build a new Temple for His kingdom (Matt 16:18-19). Jesus is the king, and the kingdom has been inaugurated by His works of power, culminating in His Resurrection and Ascension.
Throughout history, covenants were the means God used to choose a people who would receive His revelation and serve Him in accordance with it. The New Covenant was no exception to this pattern.
Stephen Pimentel is a writer and speaker on Catholic apologetics and Scripture. His book Witnesses of the Messiah: On Acts of the Apostles 1–15 offers a valuable history of the Church’s earliest evangelists.