After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and told them to wait in the city of Jerusalem until they were clothed with the power of his Spirit. He would go with them to expand the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but they couldn’t start without his help. So they waited. And sure enough, the Spirit of God came to the disciples just as Jesus promised. When the disciples received God’s Spirit, thousands of people witnessed God’s power through them and joined the movement that day. But where did they go from there? What were Jesus’ followers specifically empowered to do in order to help fulfill God’s plan for the growth of the Church?
Four Acts of Devotion: Luke’s Literary Design in Acts 2:38-47
Luke described the life of the early Church in the book of Acts, and he intentionally shaped his writing by using literary devices. In this blog, we’ll look at one example found in Acts 2:38-47. Here we see that Luke used a patterned structure of repeated ideas to identify four specific acts of devotion for which the early Church was designed:
- Attention to God’s word and works
- Shared participation and resources
- Breaking of bread
- Prayer and worship
Let’s observe how these things appear in the literary structure of Acts. As you read, notice how often the four practices occur in the text.
Notice the two main sections of the above text. The first (verses 38-41) tells us that followers of Jesus repent, get baptized, and receive forgiveness for their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The second section shows that there are four key practices that follow a forgiven, Spirit-filled life. Those are outlined in verses 42-47. Verse 42 is a summary list of all four practices, and then the following lines (verses 43-47) expound on each one.
Notice also how Luke intentionally framed these four actions by repeatedly mentioning the extensive growth of the Church. This is a common literary device known as an inclusio. The inclusio functions like the boundaries of a magnifying lens to show us what the author wants their readers to focus on. So let’s zoom in and talk more about why this literary structure matters.
Why Does the Literary Order Matter and How Does It Relate to the Growth of the Church?
Luke’s literary design helps to explain God’s design for the growth of the Church. The topics of repentance, baptism into Jesus’ family, the forgiveness of sin, and receiving the Spirit of God come first in the literary design because these also come first in the life of a Jesus follower. Before someone can practice a radical new way of life, they must be empowered by God. And how does someone receive God’s power? To receive God’s Spirit, a person can repent—a word that simply means to turn or change one’s mind about who God is. When someone turns toward Jesus and away from their own solutions for life, they show that they believe who he is and they become a part of his family. This turning point is meant to be celebrated with the sign of baptism, a concrete way of showing that God has forgiven them and given them a new life in him. So the first section flows together in order to empower the elements of the second section.
In the second section, Luke shows that with their new life, followers of Jesus spend their time devoting themselves to four things: God’s words and works, shared life with each other, the celebration of the true source of his community through the breaking of bread, and worshipful prayers. We discover that the list of these practices also has a certain logic to it. For example, the teachings and the displays of God’s power give the Church a foundation of security from which they can generously share their resources. And when resources are shared in a community, everyone has the relational and physical support they need to break bread and worship Jesus for what he has done to unite them.
These four practices, empowered by God’s Spirit, resulted in so much freedom and joy within the early Church that thousands of people wanted to join the movement. To emphasize this, Luke uses an inclusio to frame the two connected sections with the fact that God added more and more people to the Jesus movement every day. These four aspects reflect God’s design for healthy church functioning and growth even today. Let’s look deeper into the significance of this inclusio.
Why Did Luke Repeatedly Refer to the Growth of the Church?
When an author uses an inclusio, they intend to alert their readers to an important concept or theme. The content of the two bookends (or repeated phrase) highlights the theme, and the material inside of the bookends often relates to that theme. So why does Luke highlight the growth of the Church in Acts 2:38-47? What's the significance of this concept across the storyline of the Bible?
Let’s start with the first pages in the Bible, where most biblical themes find their origin. When God created humans in his own image, he taught them to “be fruitful and multiply.” He generously shared his resources and gave them food to fuel this work, and then he celebrated all that he made, calling it “very good” (Genesis 1:27-31). As we turn the pages of the Hebrew Bible, we read about the flood waters washing the earth and Noah and his family getting a new start. They too are blessed and taught to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:1-7). As we keep reading the story of the Bible, we discover Abram and Sarai, an old, childless, couple who were unable to multiply their family line without God’s miraculous help. God assured them that he would “greatly multiply” their descendants. They are given new names, Abraham and Sarah, and the promise that through their descendants, God would bless all the nations (Genesis 15:5, 16:10, 17:2, 26:4, etc.).
With this background in mind, we can see that Acts chapter 2 marks the beginning of a new creation where God’s people can bear the fruit of his Spirit and multiply like never before. God was fulfilling his promise to Abraham—the nations were being blessed through his descendants. More and more nations joined the Jesus movement as they heard his good news spoken in their own language. They saw the works of God and were amazed! They turned to God, allowing him to wash away the old so they could start anew. With their new start, they continued to pay attention to Jesus’ words and works. They shared their resources, broke bread, and worshiped together. And as they did, God added to their number and they multiplied even more.
Growing and multiplying the good work of God has been the call for humans since the beginning. It was true in Eden, ancient Israel, and the early Church, and it’s still true today. But how can we “be fruitful and multiply”?
The four practices are key to answering this question. When followers of Jesus devote themselves to these four things, the life of the Church multiplies. And Luke’s use of the inclusio magnifies this point.
The Life of the Church Explored
Luke’s literary design in Acts 2:38-47 helps us to see God’s original and ongoing design for the growth of the Church, spreading his good work to the whole world. As people turn to follow Jesus, they receive a powerful new ability to live in God’s design for humanity. This new ability empowers God’s people to multiply his heavenly design on earth. Heaven on earth continues to expand as followers of Jesus devote themselves to the teachings and works of God, to sharing their lives and resources with the community, to the breaking of bread, and to worshipful prayers.
In the coming months, we will continue to explore the significance of each practice mentioned above in a blog series we’re calling "The Life of the Church.” Next up, we will focus on baptism and trace its presence throughout the whole story of the Bible.