Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2011. 232 pp. Paperback, $24.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
Earlier this week I mentioned my interest in Baker’s Studies in Theological Interpretation series. In the series preface of each of those books, IVP’s New Studies in Biblical Theology are mentioned as an earlier, yet related project. Though it may represent an “older phase” (I don’t think it does) in biblical theological interpretation, it is still an ongoing series, and also one of my personal favorites.
On here at least, I’ve talked about G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, Robert Fyall’s Now My Eyes Have Seen You, and Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty. Now I’ll offer you a look at the most recent book in the series, Alan J. Thompson’s The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, which is 27th in the series (#28 is coming out this fall).
As you might guess from the title, Thompson’s particular focus is Luke’s account of Jesus in Acts. Books in this series either take a general topic and trace it through Scripture, or focus in on a particular book through a much neglected, or perhaps new, aspect. That is, in part, why I like them so much. I have yet to sit down with one of these books and not have my reading of Scripture either expanded and deepened or reframed in some significant way.
Thompson’s book is no different.
In the introduction, he explains his aim is “to offer a framework for interpreting the book of Acts so that the major themes highlighted by Luke may be identified and related to the book of Acts as a whole” (17). This, Thompson hopes, will lead to a paradigm shift for many readers that will allow them to read Acts within a “framework that highlights the move from the OT to what the kingdom of God looks like now that Christ has come, died, risen, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.” In other words, we should read Acts on the assumption that Luke is picking up the biblical narrative where it left off and thus continuing the story of what God is accomplishing in Israel now through Christ.
After tidying up some loose ends about authorship and audience, Thompson turns in chapter 1 to explain that the focus of the book of Acts is really on God (29). Luke intends to highlight God’s sovereignty by narrating “the unstoppable spread of the word and the strengthening of local churches in the midst of persecution and opposition.” In doing so, Luke will necessarily also highlight how God accomplishes this purpose through Jesus in the face of rejection from Israel herself. This leads to a discussion of the expansion of the kingdom of God. Though the references themselves are few, “their strategic placement and contexts indicate an importance that outweighs the number of occurrences of the phrase” (38).
In the framework of discussing God’s kingdom expansion, Thompson highlights that if Luke (the gospel) is concerned with explaining what Jesus “began to do and teach,” and Acts is self-consciously about “what Jesus is continuing to do and teach,” the latter provides a good interpretive grid for the book of Acts. This gives rise to Thompson’s title suggestion, which also is the title of his book: The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus.
After rounding out chapter 1 with a discussion of suffering, Thompson turns in chapter 2 to examine the connection between the resurrection and the last days. He surveys the teaching about the resurrection first in Luke’s gospel before turning to a similar survey in Acts. He then highlights how the gospel is preached throughout Acts and offers a very nice chart in summary. Because the resurrection “highlights the arrival of the age to come as anticipated in the OT Scriptures,” it is also integral to the outworking plan of God and represents “the fulfillment of Israel’s hope” (99).
Chapter 3 then tackles the question the disciples ask in Acts 1:6 (“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”) and insists that Jesus in fact answers the question rather than dodging it in 1:7-8. Though space doesn’t permit reproducing his argument, Thompson essentially argues that Jesus doesn’t put off their question about the kingdom being restored, but puts off their request to know the timing of its unfolding. “In all Judea and Samaria” itself points to a confirmation that the kingdom of Israel is being restore. “In all the southern and northern kingdom” is another way to put it, and implies the spread of the message is what will reunite Israel in God’s kingdom. The rest of Acts shows how the message carried by Jesus’ witness permeates Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even the Gentiles. Rather than showing how the disciples made it to the ends of the earth, the Pentecost account in Acts 2 actually recounts the ends of the earth coming to Jerusalem. Everything spreads out from there, though as Jesus said, the disciples did not need to know in advance the exact timing.
Chapter 4 turns to a more detailed discussion of Pentecost still working within the framework of an “inaugurated eschatology.” Here Thompson discusses the OT prophetic hope of the outpouring of God’s spirit, and then shows how Acts presents the fulfillment of that promise and its outworking. This leads to God’s empowering presence active in the expansion of his kingdom, which leads to a restoration of God’s people.
Then, in chapter 5, Thompson shows how Acts “highlights the end of the old temple system and law and the inauguration of a new ‘authority structure’ in the inaugurated kingdom of God” (145). The majority of the discussion focuses first on Acts 1-2, and then 3-5 before a detailed analysis of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. All of the discussion points to the conclusion that “The Lord Jesus is therefore the fulfillment of and replacement for the temple and the one through whom previous temple boundaries may now be overcome” (172).
In the 6th and final full chapter, Thompsons tackles the implications this all has for the place of the law in God’s inaugurated kingdom. In short, he argues that ” the authority of the Lord Jesus and the teaching of his apostles” are now “the direct guiding authority for God’s people now that the One to whom he Mosiac law pointed has come” (175). Key to his argument is an extended analysis of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Through his analysis, Thompson shows that “the role of the law in Acts is best understood in the context of the new salvation-historical situation brought about by the inauguration of the kingdom of God” (191).
On the one hand, this book is almost like a mini-commentary on the book of Acts. On the other hand, it is very self-consciously theological and explores Acts through the lens of an inaugurated eschatology. The value of the books lies in the ability of that lens to make sense of the overall narrative flow in Acts and help interpret areas that may not fit as well within other paradigms. Rather than being a “system” of theology imposed on the text, Thompson does the upfront work in the introduction and opening chapter to develop his lens from Luke’s writing before using it as an interpretive key.
Like the other books in this series, I think this one deserves your time and attention if you’re serious about biblical studies. Those interested in eschatology in particular may find Thompson’s perspective engaging, as will those interested in seeing OT themes and prophecies more fully developed in Luke’s account in Acts. All in all, this is a great book and continues the line of helpful contributions in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series.