This Time They Got it Right...Right?

Like last week, we’re looking again at the nature of stories in the Bible, but this week, we’re moving to the New Testament.

Whether we realize it or not, Bible stories often get interpreted like a sort of historic almanac, like their purpose was to capture and preserve pure facts about historical events.   And if Bible stories aren’t being read as historic facts, they’re read as fables, stories that give clear instructions for how to live.  

Last week, Aaron taught us that the normative truth of OT stories (i.e. events that occurred before Jesus) can be found through the interpretive lens of Jesus.  And this is exactly how Jesus interpreted the OT—through himself.   But as Christians, we face a different challenge when we read New Testament stories – we might assume that because these stories happened during or after Jesus’ earthly ministry that this time they got it right...right?

Well, it’s not that NT stories got anything wrong, of course.  But remember the difference between narrative and normative.  Narrative describes what happened in a particular time and place.  Normative describes what should or must happen in all times and places.  In order for the eternal truths of NT stories to not get lost in translation, we still have to learn to read and interpret them through the lens of Jesus.  So let’s look at one type of story that has had enormous influence– the story of baptism.  Luke gives nine accounts of baptism in the book of Acts*.

This week I compared them based on the questions:
- Who was baptized?
- What message were they responding to?
- What role does the Holy Spirit play?
- What method was used (sprinkling, immersion, etc.)
- Where did it occur?
We might be able to glean something normative out of these narratives based on the details Luke does or doesn't include.  

WHO: There is a lot of variety here, and in no particular order.  Men, women, Jews, Gentiles, young (possibly), adult, high status, low status, named, and unnamed.  

IN RESPONSE TO: Luke's account again varies greatly.  The messages include forgiveness, the reception of the Holy Spirit,  the Kingdom of God, Isaiah's connection to Jesus, physical healing, and doing God's will.  Sometimes Luke is generic: "what was said" by Paul, or the jailer just wanting "to be saved".  In all, there are some common themes, but no consistency.

HOLY SPIRIT: In three of Luke's accounts of baptism, people are said to have received the Holy Spirit (a topic worth a whole sermon series, probably!)  But in six, there's no account of people receiving it.  Luke mentions a couple of times that someone "will" receive, but then doesn't bother to narrate that they do.  This doesn't seem like a central point of Luke's.  (NOTE: It is clear that the work of the Holy Spirit is central to Acts, but not necessarily as it relates to baptism.)

HOW: This is the #1 aspect of baptism Christians have argued and even killed each other about in history.  But was it Luke's priority?  Well, it turns out that besides implication, Luke never bothers to give us specifics about how people were baptized!  Philip and the Ethiopian "go down into" "some water" but that's all Luke says.  It would be hard to argue that Luke is trying to establish a normative method for baptism.

WHERE: Now here's a detail that Luke never leaves out.  He's always sure that we know what city people were in when they were baptized.  What's more, it's almost always a different city!  And if you trace the locations, they zig zag all over the ancient near east.  

Given what Luke included and excluded, it seems that his priority in these baptism stories was to tell us who was baptized and where.  And both are marked by great variety and expansion.  

Now, how does this look through the interpretive lens of Jesus?  Did Jesus do and say things that match this pattern!  Of course he did!  Not the least of which were his last words to the disciples in Matthew 28, and his last words again in Acts 1.  

So, observations about what Luke seems most concerned about, interpreted through Jesus, lead us to what I think is the normative truth within these baptism narratives.  The Holy Spirit is empowering and calling the Church to continue sharing Jesus' good news "to the ends of the earth."  What's more, the Holy Spirit might be calling you, right now, to accept and believe that good news and finally experience baptism in his name.  

For reflection:
1) How do you tend to read Bible stories?  As historic records?  Moralistic fables?  Or something more nuanced?
2) Can you think of any other non-fiction stories (Bible or otherwise) that combine narrative and normative?
3) What do you think: is water baptism normative for Christians, or just an optional gesture?  What rationale can you now give from the baptism stories in Acts?
4) Did these observations in Luke's stories affirm or challenge any of your presuppositions about baptism?  How will you respond?
5) Do you feel led to be baptized, or to take the next step toward baptism?  If you do, be sure to schedule an appointment with a pastor to talk about it.  

In Grace,

9:10-19; 22:14-17

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