Further Instances of Kingdom and Covenant in Acts

Explaining Acts 2 with Acts 3

Further Instances of Kingdom and Covenant

The preaching of the deacon Philip in Acts 8 is described as relating to “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” (Acts 8:12), which resulted in many baptisms.  There is no reason to deny that Philip preached about the coming eschatological kingdom.  Christ has come and the kingdom of Christ will come.  The mix of telos and eschatos furnishes a strong worldview message to the sterility of religion and the hopeless vagaries of paganism.

            In Acts 8:26-40 there is the story of the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was probably a proselyte.[1]  This man was reading from Isaiah 53, a New covenant chapter.[2]  He was told that he could receive baptism (which was either by immersion or effusion) if he believed the Gospel of Jesus that Philip had expounded to him from the prophet.  It must be a no-holes-barred belief (Acts 8:37) because baptism was seen as the token of the New covenant in Jesus of which the Gospel of His death for sin and His resurrection was the content of faith.  Whether Philip explained baptism in covenant terms is impossible to say, although it cannot be dismissed since the eunuch would have been a strict adherent to the Mosaic covenant and would surely have needed to have had Christ’s shed blood explained to him in the language of the New covenant. 

            Another important consideration is the fact that the coming of the Holy Spirit is a phenomenon associated with the New covenant (e.g., Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; Zech. 12:10), and when one considers Peter’s question in Acts 10:47 in such light there is more than a suggestion that he thought of baptism in that way.  I am not saying that baptism as a sign of the New covenant is necessary (see 1 Cor. 1:17).  We know it is a sign, and that it signifies belief in Christ’s death and resurrection.  I am venturing to say that baptism and the New covenant are linked by virtue of this fact.  This would mean also that baptism has to be for believers only.  The theological construct that is the covenant of grace is a poor replacement for God’s revealed New covenant.[3]

            Coming to Acts 10 we have the episode of Peter’s vision of the great sheet filled with unclean animals and the subsequent ministry to Cornelius.  This was a watershed event for Peter which he reported upon in Acts 11:1-18 (cf. Acts 15:6-11).  The vision admonished Peter to accept what he had previously deemed to be unlawful (Acts 10:11-16; 11:7-9). This could not have occurred had Peter been under the old Mosaic covenant which forbid eating such things.  Notice then that Peter was released from the requirements of the Torah and must therefore have been under a new requirement.  Are we to believe that having been brought out from under one covenant Peter was now clear of a replacement covenant?

            In Acts 15:13-21 we get James’s proposal for how Gentile Christian’s relate to the Law.  He is responding to testimonies of Paul, Barnabas and also of Peter and their experiences.[4]  James goes to the book of Amos to prove his point.  This is what he says:

“Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:

‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;

So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the
 LORD who does all these things.’ – Acts 15:14-17.

            The passage James is citing is from Amos 9:11-12 (LXX).  If we look at the theme James has in mind it is that God is going to “call out a people for His name” from the Gentile nations.  There is nothing controversial about this.  But why go to Amos 9?  I think the answer lies somewhere with the passage’s acceptance of Gentile inclusion I salvation, and in its relative antiquity (9th century B. C.).  But there is another part to it.  The mention of the rebuilding of David’s tabernacle, which alludes the eschatological temple, is an acknowledgement of God’s marvelous work in the coming of Christ and His initiation of the New covenant and its offer to Israel.  And although Israel has remained obdurate, change has been brought about and a new eschatological process has been set in motion.  So no, the promised neo-Davidic kingdom of the Christ has not appeared (and James nowhere declares Amos 9:11-12 fulfilled), but Israel’s King has come, been rejected, and now awaits His second coming to fulfill the ancient prophecies of restoration. 

            Because of the situation that has come about where Christ has now come to Israel but has been rejected by them there is an unavoidable “incongruity” that has surfaced between what has been brought to pass by Jesus’ ministry and passion and what yet awaits to be fulfilled.  Amos 9 suffers from this “incongruity” insofar as the pieces were put in place for its realization yet ignorance and hard-heartedness have delayed important elements of the promise.                 

[1] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 685.

[2] This is said in so many words by e.g., Paul Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 159, and by Thomas Schreiner, Covenant, 102.     

[3] Although I will look more into it later, I want to say that I am perplexed by those who hold that Christians have no part in the New covenant.  Surely every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and read from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 we tacitly admit our participation in the New covenant?

[4] Peter is emphasized as the one to whom the acceptance of the Gentiles without the entailments of the Law is revealed (in Acts 10).  See Acts 11:7-10.   

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