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Introduction to Personal Bible Study - Videos (2007)

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Saturday, March 30, 2024

Is the Book of Acts Descriptive and Prescriptive for the Current Age?

 An Objection

In our most recent study (Is Acts 2 a Pattern for Today? How About the Red Letters?) we looked at the clear prescriptive instructions of the Lord in the gospel accounts as well as in Paul's epistle to the Romans (the "duty" of Gentile believers to support Jewish believers in Jerusalem). But we will gladly address the legitimate claim that Acts 2 and Acts 4 are merely descriptive. But we won't stop there. In our quest to be CONSISTENT in our interpretation and application, we will expand our look at the Acts and beyond. 

Some will argue that they do not hold the actions of believers in Acts 2 or Acts 4 to be for all believers. They will say that the passages are "descriptive" and not "prescriptive." That is, all the passage is telling us what they did, not revealing a command that must be obeyed. 

Whereas we can see the reasoning, it doesn't quite explain what we see in Acts 5 in regard to the sale of property by Ananias and Sapphira. 

Now a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. He kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. (5:1)
The Geneva Study Bible assumes sin from verse 1:
Luke shows by contrary examples how great a sin hypocrisy is, especially in those who under a false pretense and cloak of zeal seem to shine and be of great importance in the Church.

They seem to be assuming a "cloak of zeal" and a desire to be seen as "of great importance in the Church." This isn't a wild assumption nor does it do violence to the text, but it is not based on the text itself. This is not necessarily an illegitimate way to interpret certain verses or passages, but it must be done carefully. As assumption of greed is reasonable as well, but we don't want to lose the focus of the actual series of events and the implications therein. 

We must also pause to ask of what "Church" do they write? Do they not hold that the "church" of Acts 5 is the "Church" of today and every day since Pentecost? If so, we have a consistency issue. As we will ask: what has changed, why did it change, when did it change? 

Looking to verse 3, the Geneva Bible makes a rather stunning argument:

For when they had appointed that farm or possession for the Church, they were foolish to keep away a part of the price, as though they were dealing with men, and not with God, and therefore he says afterwards that they tempted God.

Form the text we can glean that they were foolish to lie to God, but Peter clearly states they were under no obligation to either sell the property or to give the proceeds to "the church." 

Remember, the writers and theologians behind this commentary believe "the Church" of Acts 5 is the same church to which they belong. We keep reiterating because it is essential if we want to interpret scripture consistently. They must therefore believe that when we deal with "the Church" today we are dealing, not with men, but directly with God as they were in Acts 5 and, thus, we are subject to the same punishments. If that is not the case: what has changed, why did it change, when did is change?

While it remained unsold, was it not your own? And when it was sold, was it not under your authority? Why have you conceived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to men, but to God.” (5:4)


I don't want to wander off into the weeds here. We know thus far that Ananias and Sapphira were not obligated to sell their property and not obligated to give all the proceeds to the Apostles. But even one hold that this passage is merely descriptive, he has to explain the direct act of God. If God does not act in the same way today, what has changed, why did it change, when did it change?

Peter tells the couple in verse 4 that they were apparently under no obligation to sell the property and that even if they chose to do so, the proceeds are 100% theirs. Right here, we can toss out any idea of a  "pattern" set for all believers of all ages from Acts 2 and Acts 4. The argument for "Church Socialism" is therefore not a command or even expectation of God. We solidify both the "descriptive" argument and our conclusions from our previous study.

But that is not the argument we are addressing in this section. The authors and theologians behind the Geneva Study Bible are conceding that. This is their commentary on verse 4:

By this is meant an advised and purposeful deceit, and the fault of the man in listening to the devil’s suggestions.
OK. The couple did plan to deceive. They very well could have been tricked by Satan. My sense is that it simply was an act of the flesh. The flesh (the old nature) can be used by Satan, but it is certainly evil and greedy and full of lust on its own. So, let's say that, in general, I have no problem with the larger assumption here: they purposefully and selfishly lied. Let's even concede for now that the couple listened to the devil's suggestions. Do we then limit that possibility to then and there? If so: what has changed, why did it change, when did it change?

On hearing these words, Ananias fell down and died. And great fear came on all those who heard these things. (5:5)... About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for this amount?” She said, “Yes, for that much.” Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” At once she fell down at his feet and died. (5:7-10)

Here is where we're going to run into the "pattern" problem. If selling the land and not giving all the proceeds was not a command, but the decision to tell "the Church" that was your plan makes you bound to your word upon the threat of immediate death at the hands of God: what has changed, why did it change, when did is change? I ask assuming we all can see this is hardly what happens today. Even if not "prescriptive," the results of their decision are surely possible today. Surely many believers lie to God. Prescriptive or not, we do not see God acting this way today. Something has changed.

Are we thus arguing that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira are simply "descriptive?" One could certainly argue that. But where do we stop with this interpretation in looking at the Book of Acts and even in the epistles? Do the actions taken by the Apostles (approved by the Holy Spirit) and given in "prescriptive" form in other parts of the Acts and Acts epistles no longer apply today? If not: what has changed, why did it change, when did it change?

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to put on you no greater burden than these necessary things: Abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from strangled animals, and from blood. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

-Acts 15:28-29


These commands (taken from the Law in regard to Gentiles living among the Jews) are reiterated in Acts 21. We are now in the Acts  ministry of Paul and well into the Acts age. In Acts 21 Paul is accused of teaching Jewish believers not to circumcise their sons. This appalls the Apostle. Paul then he clearly states, under inspiration, that Jews would continue in the non-ceremonial law (as the perfect sacrifice was complete) and Gentiles would continue to observe the instructions (prescriptive) from Acts 15, which were taken from the Law of Moses. If these prescriptive teachings are no longer applicable, what has changed, why did it change, when did it change?

Take these men and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may have their heads shaved. Then all will know that what they were told concerning you is nothing, but that you yourself [Paul] live in observance of the lawAs for the Gentiles who believe, we have written and concluded that they should observe no such thing, except that they abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from strangled animals, and from blood.”

-Acts 21:24-25

This is not simply describing voluntary acts. The Jewish believers were to "live in observance of the law" (prescriptive) and gentile believers were to "abstain" (a command) etc. If this is no longer applicable: what has changed, why did it change, when did it change?

The Geneva puts forth the common argument that Paul's conformity to the law and the separate instructions were to appease the unlearned among them.

In things indifferent (of which sort the traditions of the Pharisees were not, but rather the ceremonies of the Law, until the time when Christian liberty was more fully revealed to the Jews) charity exhorts us to conform or apply ourselves willingly so far as we may, to our brethren who do not stubbornly and maliciously resist the truth (but are not thoroughly instructed), especially if the question pertains to a whole multitude. (21:20)

The appeasement argument would then teach us that appeasement is approved and seems good to God.

The idea they proffer is that some were not ready for the deeper truth of full liberty in Christ. That may seem reasonable, but Paul's gospel was taken solely from the Law and the Prophets. That is, there were truths there concerning the eventual blessing of Gentiles through Israel (this is the thrust of Romans 15) and that the Messiah and his ministry was prophesied. 

So these truths were clearly in the revealed texts of what we call the Old Testament, but not clearly seen. They are given in picture form in the Law but not clearly understood. No other truths were revealed. The focus is still the plan for Israel and the plan for the land/earth.

The gospel of Ephesians, the blessings in the far above the heavens, and the pulling down of the wall of separation ("the middle wall of partition") between Jew and Gentile (revealed to Paul alone, Eph 3) was not yet made known.

Paul testified truthfully as late as Acts 26:


Therefore having obtained help from God, I continue to this day, testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would happen: that the Christ must suffer, that He would be the first who would rise from the dead, and would announce light to His own people and to the Gentiles.”

-Acts 26:22-23

As late as Acts 28 Paul declared he was in chains "for the hope of Israel" (Acts 28:20). The hope of Israel is how the Book of Acts opens (Act 1:1-8), the risen Lord teaching the enlightened Apostles (who were promised to sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, Matthew 19) for forty days about the coming Kingdom. They asked one question after 40 days of Kingdom teaching by the King, "will you, at this time, restore the Kingdom to Israel?

Those Apostles were still dealing with a plan for Israel, God's plan for the earth. They knew nothing of a Gentile church. Those apostles never went to Gentiles save once (Peter with the Keys of the Kingdom to graft in Gentiles for STATED purpose of "making Israel [ not "the Church"]  jealous"). After Peter reported that Gentiles received the same spiritual gifts as the Jews, they were astonished and went out a "preached to Jews only." 

When they heard these things, they were silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then God has granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto life.”Now those who were scattered by the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, preaching the word to no one except Jews...
-Acts 11:18-19

If the distinction today between Jew and Gentile has changed: what has changed, why did it change, when did it change? 

The apostles in Jerusalem waited for prophecy concerning Israel to be fulfilled. This is Peter's testimony in Acts there wherein he promises "You men of Israel" that if they repented, the Father would send back Jesus "to the restoration of all things." (Acts 3). Peter knew of no "New Israel" called "the Church." Paul certainly knows of no such thing when he speaks of Israel in Romans.

Peter and the twelve were commissioned as "Apostles to the Circumcision." They never went to Gentiles (except the one time by Peter as noted). James wrote his epistle to "the twelve tribes scattered abroad" and Peter wrote his epistles to "the dispersion." 

Peter's words to Israel in Acts 3 (after Pentecost) were not merely "descriptive." The offer was very real. The hope of the Book of Acts (and the Acts epistles and the Gospels and the Revelation) was and is the restoration of Israel, the cleansing of the Virgin of the New Covenant, and the fulfillment of all the words of the prophets in regard to a faithful Israel.

The Apostles knew nothing of some spiritual Gentile Church becoming "spiritual Israel."  

Prescriptive Isn't Always Prescriptive

And just one final note along these lines. We've shown how even prescriptive verses from the New Testament are no longer prescriptive  today and we've tried to answer the "why" and "when" questions. I'd like to address briefly how modern theology often gets close to the truth while failing to see the final step. That is, they stop short of a consistent interpretation of scripture, often without even attempting an explanation. 

To wit: I watched a video on a YouTube channel which rightfully exposes false prophets of today. These false prophets of prosperity often claim the words of the Lord and randomly grab verses and passages from anywhere in the Bible. We're never told why one can't do that. He does expose how some verses are ripped from their contexts, but often fails to explain why some verses used areen't applicable to believers today, especially those from the red letters.

Several times he uses red letters to contradict what a "prophet" has used from the red letters. 

They will quote (for example):

Give, and it will be given to you: Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will men give unto you. For with the measure you use, it will be measured unto you. (Luke 6:38)

And he will respond, as he did on one occasion, with:

Give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)

Both are clearly true. Just quoting from the so-called "Lord's Prayer" doesn't explain Luke 6. It doesn't explain other very prescriptive things in Matthew 5-7 either! 

The YouTuber is right to expose these charlatans. But as part of his condemnation of them he quotes on several occasions Deuteronomy 18:

But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die. And you may say in your heart, “How can we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not occur or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.

There is no doubt that this passage is very prescriptive. God commands that the false prophet must die. The YouTuber does not call for the death of these false prophets of today (after exposing the failure of their prophecies, given in the name of God, fail to come to pass). By doing so, he rightly acknowledges that even clearly prescriptive passages in scripture are not for all people of all ages.  

As with all these things, we ask again: 

  • what has changed?
  • why did it change? 
  • when did it change?