Frequently Asked Questions – How to Read a Narrative

This blog is the sixth in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series will run through the summer of 2017. The first post on “Judgment, Paul, and Jesus” can be read HERE.

At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester, and I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice. I am excited to get to share some of those questions and answers with you. The question we will tackle today is, perhaps, the most frequent I get during my New Testament Survey classes.

FAQ #5: How Do We Read a Narrative Passage?

I’m sure our Old Testament professors get this question far more frequently than I do, and interestingly enough I rarely get this question when I teach through the Gospels. When I reach Acts 2, however, I get this question in several versions and across all my classes without fail. The question usually comes at me like this: “So, the early church lived in a kind of commune? Doesn’t that mean that Christians today should do the same? Doesn’t that also mean that capitalism is, in a serious way, unchristian?”

Those are great questions and are questions that any reasonable person would raise after reading the end of Acts 2. What follows is the structure of how I answer any question about reading a biblical narrative with my comments on Acts 2 specifically.

(1) Begin any interpretation of a narrative passage by looking for its structure. Stories in the Bible, though they are historically true, also often have characterization, plot, climax, and resolution like fictional stories. Biblical authors use these literary features to help us as modern readers understand their meaning better. Discovering these structural features will help make the passage more understandable in its context.

When we look for the structure of the final verses of Acts 2, we quickly discover that Acts 2 is not a story unto itself, nor is it the climax of the larger story. It is the resolution of a story that began in Acts 1. Jews have come from all over the Mediterranean and beyond for the holy days and are still in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Thousands of those Jews become Christians as a result of the preaching of the apostles, and stay in Jerusalem to be discipled, long after they had planned to stay. By the end of Acts 2, the church is faced with the task of housing, feeding, and discipling thousands of “tourists” who would have otherwise returned home long ago. And why are they doing this? So they can send them back home as trained missionaries! Understanding that the ending of Acts 2 sits in a particular place in the structure of a story that began in Acts 1 changes the way we understand it.

(2) Look whether the author intended his larger reading audience to understand the narrative as prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive passages are recorded for us to tell us what we ought to do and think and how. Descriptive passages tell us what people in the story did and thought and how. We respond to prescriptive passages with obedience. We respond to descriptive passages by discovering the “why” (the application the author intends) and personalizing that for ourselves.

If we scour the book of Acts for indications that Luke is teaching us specifically how the universal church ought to organize itself and how the church ought to think about economics, we find very little. We don’t, for example, have any of this teaching recorded in the sermons and speeches in Acts. We don’t see other churches organizing themselves this way. We don’t see a continuation of this behavior among the churches in Jerusalem once the circumstances change, and we don’t read any condemnation of other understandings of church organization and economics throughout the book (or the rest of the New Testament for that matter). All of the available interpretative data point to the fact that Luke is writing descriptively. He is telling us how this one community in the early church organized itself for a specific purpose. That does not mean that there is no application here. There most certainly is. But the application is not, “The only churches that are legitimate are the ones that live in house-based Christian communes.”

(3) Take some time to think through how the book’s original audience read this passage and how we as modern Christians are both like and not like them. We should always ask “What does it mean?” before we ask, “What should I do?” In many ways we are like the original audiences of the Bible. We doubt. We are fearful. We are prideful and religious. We are hypocrites, etc. But our political and religious situations are very different. We have a much fuller knowledge of Christ and Christian theology than they did. We can more fully read the Old Testament through the lens of the New than they, etc.

When we consider Acts 2, we must confess that we are not in their circumstances. We don’t as a matter of course have, as they did, thousands of new converts from other countries that we need to temporarily house and feed and disciple, so naturally we don’t do exactly what they did. So then why does Luke tell us this story? His original audience (Theophilus) wasn’t in this situation either! To answer the “why question” we must not forget how we are like the Christians in Acts 2. Those people sacrificed their homes, their time, and their property to be sure that people from all around the world heard the gospel, were discipled, and then were sent back out to the nations to preach the good news. Luke wants us to ask ourselves whether we will have within us a heart of greed in response to this call of God (Acts 5), or if we will respond in faith to the great commission God has tasked us with, even if that means our homes, our time, and our property (Acts 2). In that way, we should be exactly like them.

If we will keep these three recommendations in mind (and they are not original to me; see my “resources” post in this series for some great books on the subject), we will avoid some of the more fanciful readings of narrative passages that are out there and we will find the genuine application for narrative texts that the author (God) intends for us. And knowing that should always be our highest priority.

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