A Commentary by John Stott
Introduction. b. Luke the diplomat.
The writing of history cannot have been Luke’s only purpose, for the history he gives us is selective and incomplete. He tells us about Peter, John, James the Lord’s brother and Paul, but nothing about the other apostles, except that James the son of Zebedee was beheaded. He describes the spread of the gospel north and west of Jerusalem, but writes nothing about its progress east and south, except for the conversion of the Ethiopian. He portrays the Palestinian church in the early post-Pentecost period, but then follows instead the expansion of the Gentile mission under the leadership of Paul. So Luke is more than a historian. He is, in fact, a sensitive Christian ‘diplomat’ in relation to both church and state.
First, Luke develops a political apologetic, because he is deeply concerned about the attitude of the Roman authorities towards Christianity. He therefore goes out of his way to defend Christianity against criticism. The authorities, he argues, have nothing to fear from Christians, for they are neither seditious nor subversive, but on the contrary legally innocent and morally harmless. More positively, they exercise a wholesome influence on society.
Perhaps this is why both Luke’s volumes are addressed to Theophilus. Although the adjective *theophiles*, meaning either ‘loved by God’ or ‘loving God’ (BAGD), could symbolize every Christian reader, it is more likely to be the name of a specific person. And although the adjective *kratistos* (most excellent, Lk.1:3) could be just ‘a polite form of address with no official connotation’, or the ‘honorary form of address used to persons who hold a higher official or social position than the speaker (BAGD), the latter seems more likely because it occurs later in relation to the procurators Felix (23:26; 24:3) and Festus (26:25). A modern equivalent might be ‘Your Excellency’ (NEB). Some scholars have gone on to suggest that Theophilus was a specific Roman official who had heard anti-Christian slanders, while B.H.Streeter thought the word was ‘a prudent pseudonym’, in fact (he guessed) ‘the secret name by which Flavius Clemens was known in the Roman Church’,
In any case Luke repeatedly makes three points of political apologetic. First, Roman officials were consistently friendly to Christianity, and some had even become Christians, like the centurion at the cross, the centurion Cornelius, and Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus. Secondly, the Roman authorities could find no fault in either Jesus or his apostles. Jesus had been accused of sedition, but neither Herod nor Pilot could discover any basis for the accusation. As for Paul, in Philippi the magistrates apologized to him, in Corinth the proconsul Gallio refused to adjudicate, and in Ephesus the town clerk declared Paul and his friends to be innocent. Then Felix, Festus and Agrippa all failed to convict him of any offence – three acquittals corresponding to the three times Luke says Pilate had declared Jesus innocent (Lk.23:4, 14, 22).
In the third place, the Roman authorities conceded that Christianity was a *religio licita* (a lawful and licensed religion) because it was not a new religion (which would need to be approved by the state) but rather the purest form of Judaism (which had enjoyed religious freedom under the Romans since the second century BC). The coming of Christ was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and the Christian community enjoyed direct continuity with the Old Testament people of God.
This then was Luke’s political apologetic. He produced evidence to show that Christianity was harmless (because some Roman officials had embraced it themselves), innocent (because Roman judges could find no basis for prosecution) and lawful (because it was the true fulfilment of Judaism). Christians should always be able on similar grounds to claim the protection of the state. I am reminded of a statement made in 1972 by the Baptist believers of Piryatin to Mr. N.V.Podgorny, Chairman of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and Mr.L.I.Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party. Quoting articles of the USSR constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, together with particular laws and juridical interpretations, the Evangelical Christian Baptists of Piryatin claimed the right to freedom of conscience and confession, and declared that they did not break the law ‘because there was nothing harmful, nothing opposed to the government, nothing fanatical in our activity, but only that which is spiritually useful and healthy, just, honest, peaceful in accordance with the teaching of Jesus Christ’.
The second example of Luke’s ‘diplomacy’ is that he was a peacemaker in the church. He wanted to demonstrate by his narrative that the early church was a united church, that the peril of division between Jewish and Samaritan Christians, and between Jewish and Gentile Christians, was providentially avoided, and that the apostles Peter, James and Paul were in fundamental agreement about the gospel.
Tomorrow: b). Luke the diplomat (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.