Work and Christian Identity (Acts 8-12)
The next section of Acts moves the Christian community, by the power of the Spirit, across cultural barriers as the gospel of Jesus Christ is extended to foreigners (Samaritans), social outcasts (the Ethiopian eunuch), enemies (Saul), and all ethnicities (Gentiles). This section tends to introduce figures by giving their occupation (roughly rendered). In this section we meet:
- Simon, a sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24)
- An Ethiopian eunuch, who is an important economic official for the queen of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27)
- Saul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians (Acts 9:1)
- Tabitha, a garment maker (Acts 9:36-43)
- Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10:1)
- Simon, a tanner (Acts 10:5)
- Herod, a king (Acts 12)
Issues of work are not Luke’s main concern in this section, so we must be careful not to make too much of the naming of occupations. Luke’s point is that the way they exercise their vocation marks them heading either toward the kingdom or away from it.
Those headed into the kingdom use the fruits of their labor to serve others as witnesses of God’s kingdom. Those headed away from the kingdom use the fruits of their labor solely for personal gain. This is evident from a short summary of some of these characters. Several of them seek only personal gain from their work and its accompanying power and resources:
- Simon offers money to the apostles so that he can have power to bestow the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-19) —a clear effort to maintain his social status as a “man [who] is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10).
- Saul uses his network of relationships to persecute followers of Jesus (Acts 9:1-2) in order to protect the social status he enjoyed as a zealous Jew (Acts 22:3) and Pharisee (Acts 26:5).
- Herod uses his power as Rome’s client-king to bolster his popularity by killing James the apostle (Acts 12:1-3). Herod later allows himself to be acclaimed as a god, the ultimate patronage status claimed by the Roman emperors (Acts 12:20-23).
The consequences of these acts are dire. Simon is strongly rebuked by Peter (Acts 8:20-23). Saul is confronted by the risen Jesus, who identifies himself with the very community Paul is persecuting (Acts 9:3-9). Herod is struck dead by an angel of the Lord and eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Standing in counterpoint to them are several people who use their position, power, or resources to bless and bring life:
- Tabitha, a garment maker, makes clothes to share with widows in her community (Acts 9:39).
- Simon, a leather worker, opens his home to Peter (Acts 10:5).
- Cornelius, a Roman centurion already known for generosity (Acts 10:4), uses his connections to invite a great number of friends and family to hear the preaching of Peter (Acts 10:24).
Though he was introduced prior to this section, Barnabas—who we know from Acts 4:37 is a Levite—uses his position within the community to graft Saul into the apostolic fellowship, even when the apostles resist (Acts 9:26-27), and to validate the conversions of Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:22-24). We should note that Acts 11:24 shares the secret of Barnabas’s ability to use his resources and position in such a way as to build the community of Christians. There we learn explicitly that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit.”
The message in all these examples is consistent. The power, prestige, position, and resources that arise from work are meant to be used for the sake of others—and not only for the benefit of the self. This, again, is modeled on no less a figure than Jesus, who—in Luke’s Gospel—uses his authority for the benefit of the world and not only for his own sake.
Acts 11:27-30 gives a community example of the use of resources for the good of others in need. In response to a Spirit-inspired prophecy of a worldwide famine, “The disciples determined that according to his ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Here we see the use of the fruit of human labor for the benefit of others. And here we see that this sort of generosity was not merely spontaneous and episodic but planned, organized, and deeply intentional. The collection for the church in Jerusalem is discussed further in the section on "1 Corinthians 16:1-3" in 1 Corinthians and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.
Acts 11:1-26 begins an account of how the Christian community resolved a deep dispute about whether Gentile must convert to Judaism before becoming followers of Jesus. This dispute is discussed in an article on chapter 15.