There are myriads of events and experiences in Acts unique to the foundational period of the New Testament church. There are also descriptive and prescriptive acts and statements that continue on in the life of the New Testament church. We must proceed cautiously as we seek to delineate between them.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the record of the history of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Rather than recording what Jesus did and taught during His earthly ministry, Lukes gives us the record of the history of the ascended Jesus through His apostles for the advancement of the Kingdom in the fullness of redemptive history. Acts is, in short, the history of the extension of the Messianic ministry through His Apostles–and two in particular, Peter and Paul. As Richard Gaffin has explained, “Acts documents a completed apostolic history.” The Gospels and Luke give us the history of the facts of Jesus and, by way of Messianic extension, to His Apostles. The New Testament Epistles give us the divinely inspired interpretation of those facts. If we want to understand how to read the Acts of the Apostles as we are intended to read it, then we need to do so in light of the full revelation of the New Testament epistles. As we do so, we learn that there is much in the book of Acts that was extraordinary and uniquely crafted by God for that time and for a specific purpose. At the same time, all of it has a bearing on our Christian lives today.
It is important to note that Acts begins in the period between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is vastly more important than most people recognize. By focusing on the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Luke fixes our attention on Jesus rather than on the Apostles. In fact, even though the book of Acts will go on and focus on the ministry of two of the Apostles, it is essentially “the acts of the risen and ascended Jesus through the Apostles for the foundation of the New Testament church throughout the world.” Lukes tells us that Jesus taught the disciples the things concerning the kingdom of God during the forty day period. Much has been written in church history concerning the probable content of our Lord’s teaching during this period. Whatever the precise identification of the teaching, we can conclude that Jesus was giving the disciples the fuller revelation that would form the essence of the foundational revelation that we find throughout the book of Acts and in the New Testament epistles.
Since this epoch was foundational, many of the events recorded in it have a once-for-all nature to them. A brief consideration of opening events in the book will help guide through the process of determining what was unique and what is normative for us today:
In his Perspectives on Pentecost, Richard Gaffin has done us a great service by explaining that Pentecost was as unique as the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Pentecost was, in fact, part of the once-for-all saving work of the ascended Jesus. Christ was pouring out His Spirit as He had promised He would do–but was doing so in an extraordinary and unmistakable way so that His disciples would know that the Kingdom of God had truly come. Jesus was again breaking into time and space–this time by the promised Holy Spirit. Pentecost was the ascended Jesus’ grand re-entrance, the inauguration of what He had promised the disciples (John 14–16) and fulfilled by His death and resurrection. Jesus was bringing the end time epoch to inauguration in the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost.
To be fair, there were smaller scale experiences that were similar to that of Pentecost in Acts. For instance, in chapters 8, 10, 11, and 19, we find outpourings of the Spirit on Gentiles–accompanied by signs and wonders. We need to learn to conceptualize what appear to be Pentecostal experiences as extensions of Pentecost among the Gentiles. What we have in these passages is an expansion or spreading of the scope of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They are extensions of the dominion of the Spirit in the manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The significance does not lie first of all in the empowering of a number of believers; rather, these events have their significance in the redemptive historical context–namely, the Gospel going to the Jew first and also to the Greek. This is highlighted by the Apostle’s reference to the pronouns “we,” “us,” “they” and “them.” Peter says, “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us” (11:17). It is a visible confirmation of the benefits of the Gospel going, for the first time, to the Gentile nations–just as it had come to the Jewish people. This also belongs to the historia salutis (i.e. the history of salvation). It is part of that once-for-all non-repeatable work of the ascended Jesus in the fulness of time.