Life in the Spirit and the Way of the Cross:
Following Jesus via Luke-Acts
By Martin Mittelstadt
Pentecostals love to pontificate on the will of God and His leading — particularly when life and ministry are going well. We often convey a dominant pragmatism that suggests any idea or act that produces good results is obviously approved by God. Conversely, when we struggle there is often at the least an implicit suggestion that we are off the beaten path, or our methods are flawed, or God is not pleased with our activity.
But do these notions resonate with the Scriptures? Further, do they resonate with global Christianity, especially beyond the comforts of North America? The growth of the movement has brought contemporary Pentecostals to a crossroads. On the one hand, there is evident maturation in our development of Pentecostal theology and praxis, particularly as we gain prominence in an ecumenical world. However, on the other hand, this maturity also brings with it a subtle comfort, a relaxed status, whereby the mission and passion of our forefathers may be threatened.
As I appraise the current status of North American Pentecostalism, I am compelled to consider the convergence of the Spirit and suffering in the Scriptures, specifically Luke-Acts, a favorite of Pentecostals. It is my purpose to examine Luke’s ability to sustain elements of triumph and tragedy, acceptance and rejection of the gospel message through Spirit-led witness in order to stimulate discussion toward a more comprehensive Pentecostal pneumatology.
The feasibility of this thesis rests on two preliminary considerations. First, a brief review of Lukan scholarship reveals a commensurate Lukan interest in the theme of opposition, which leads to rejection, suffering, and persecution. As Luke navigates his story of Jesus and His emerging witnesses, it is a story of epic proportions, from humble origins in Palestine to expansion into the Mediterranean world. The artistry of Luke is best demonstrated through his narration of the fate of Jesus, his witnesses, and the gospel message through a series of reversals and irony. His story is not merely a narration of persistent triumph, but one of consistent conflict, opposition, and persecution of God’s agents.
Second, although Pentecostals are beginning to posit impressive contributions in Lukan scholarship, a survey of their work reveals a failure to integrate Luke’s intersecting of the Spirit in contexts of suffering. In defense of Pentecostal scholars, this missing emphasis appears to be the result of our necessary defense of Spirit-baptism against earlier challenges of non-Pentecostal theologians.1
The following survey of six passages in Luke-Acts encourages contemporary Pentecostals to adopt a rigorous pneumatic discipleship that perseveres in the midst of suffering and persecution.
1. Simeon’s Preview of the Gospel Message (Luke 2:25-35)
After the impact of the infant Jesus is experienced by a host of Spirit-inspired individuals, who announce joyous words of anticipation and praise, the somber words of Simeon near the climax of the Lukan birth narrative launch the first intersection of Spirit and suffering. In Luke 2:25-35, Simeon arrives on the scene and forecasts division. Through a triple reference to the presence of the Holy Spirit as inspiration for Simeon, Luke establishes Simeon as a reliable witness concerning the infant Jesus (2:25-27). The Lukan Jesus, who brings salvation and is received by many, will also be rejected, which will lead to opposition and, in turn, suffering and persecution.
Consequently, Simeon’s words serve as a Lukan literary prophecy: God’s work in Jesus brings all people to a point of decision, namely one of acceptance or rejection. For Luke, Simeon’s inspired words place rejection and opposition to Jesus in the plan of God.
2. Jesus in Nazareth: A Preview of Jesus’ Ministry (Luke 4:16-30)
As Luke embarks upon narration of Jesus’ ministry tour, it is in dramatic fashion that the Spirit-led Jesus is met with rejection and persecution in His inaugural mission. While worshiping in the synagogue at His hometown of Nazareth, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 and, according to His fellow worshipers, presumptuously interprets the prophecy as fulfilled in himself. In ironic fashion, the Lukan Jesus, also under the direction of the Holy Spirit (3:15-16, 22; 4:1, 14), is rejected, thereby serving as Luke’s first explicit example of Simeon’s forecasting of acceptance and rejection.
These words not only offer the first fulfillment of Simeon’s words but also serve a paradigmatic purpose for Luke’s readers: future witnesses of Jesus will not only proclaim the message of Jesus, but may also experience a similar fate, namely, acceptance and rejection.
3. Jesus Prepares His Disciples (Luke 12:1-12)
As the Lukan narrative unfolds, Jesus ventures into a powerful mission expressed through miraculous deeds and potent teaching. As Jesus travels to Jerusalem for His impending death (see 9:51), several teaching discourses serve a preparatory purpose for Jesus’ disciples. Moreover, Luke’s travel narrative not only prepares his readers for the death of Jesus, but also prepares readers for the anticipated ministry of the disciples. By way of another literary prophecy, the Lukan Jesus assures His disciples that the same Spirit, which functions as the source of power for Jesus’ mission, will be available and a guarantee for the disciples in the midst of opposition that amounts to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (12:10-12). As the disciples are commissioned to carry forth the message of Jesus, they are also assured of the anointing of the Spirit in what will be a hostile world.
For Luke’s readers, all of this serves to place the disciples in continuity with their master. Pneumatic discipleship will receive a divided response!
4. The Apostles Meet Resistance (Acts 3-5)
Luke’s contribution to the story of Jesus does not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus as in the other NT gospels. His second volume continues the impact of Jesus through the lives of the disciples and other witnesses to the gospel (Acts 1:1). The tenuous experiences of the disciples continuously afford explicit fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:1-12. Through the lives of Peter, John, and the other apostles, Luke communicates the great strength of the emerging Christian movement.
In Acts 3-5, as Jesus’ followers share their newly enlightened understanding of Jesus as Savior and Lord, they are met not only with acceptance but rejection. This rejection comes in the form of hatred and persecution, similar to the lot of Jesus himself. While they are maligned, arrested, and flogged, when given the decisive choice between confession and denial, it is the Holy Spirit that inspires their actions and words as Jesus promised (Acts 4:8,31).
5. Stephen — The First Christian Martyr (Acts 6-7)
As the emerging community expands, the opposition experienced by Jesus and the apostles also extends to other witnesses. Stephen advances the convergence of Spirit and suffering in three ways: 1) Not only does Stephen experience opposition similar to the Twelve, but the opposition intensifies. The apostles are maligned and flogged; Stephen is stoned to death. 2) The death of Stephen mirrors the death of Jesus in key aspects (Acts 7:54-60). The parallel points to the continuing rejection of Jesus as experienced in opposition and persecution against his witnesses. 3) Stephen’s speech also roots rejection in salvation history.
Luke uses Stephen’s speech to demonstrate that the rejection of Jesus, the apostles, and Stephen himself finds its origin in the history of the people of God. Chosen salvific agents such as Joseph, Moses, and the prophets advance Luke’s pattern of acceptance and rejection by demonstrating its continuity with God’s activity in history (Acts 7:2-53).
It is not without significance that Stephen is a man “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3,5,10; 7:51). For Luke’s readers, Stephen’s story cultivates bold commitment in the face of opposition by suggesting that witness for Jesus may summon a similar fate as experienced by previous Spirit-led witnesses.
6. Paul — Spirit-led Witness Par Excellence (Acts 20)
The apostle Paul affords Luke a final opportunity to further his emphasis on the Spirit in contexts of suffering. Paul’s story is not only one of remarkable missionary success, but also one of immense difficulty as he is consistently rejected, abused, beaten, and often has to flee for his life. Through irony, Luke roots this persecution in divine providence. Paul’s successful journey to Rome as a persecuted witness is not accidental or simply an obstacle to be overcome but places him in continuity with Jesus. As the journey of Jesus in the third gospel is a voyage of his ordained suffering, so also, in a twist of fate, the Lukan Paul goes to Rome, not as a free man but as a prisoner in chains and ultimately “bound by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22).
While Luke’s entire presentation of Paul is one of proclamation in the midst of opposition (see Acts 9:15-16), the Lukan Paul also offers a fitting “farewell discourse” to the Ephesian elders and, by inference, all other future witnesses of Jesus (Acts 20:18-35). By implication, Paul’s life, directed by the Spirit, serves as an example to the Ephesian community. When under duress, they (and Luke’s readers) need not lose heart, for their own present and/or potential future persecution places them in continuity not only with the prophets, Jesus, the Apostles, and Stephen, but also their own pastor, Paul.
Observations from a Pentecostal Perspective
At a fundamental level, this investigation ventures into a new area, not previously explored in depth in the classical Pentecostal projects. While this is partially due to challenges for the defense of Pentecostal distinctives enforced upon the previous generation, as a new generation of Pentecostal scholars moves beyond a limiting defense, new areas of research will prove fruitful. With the emergence of literary criticism, students of Luke-Acts are less likely to settle for mere development of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Rather they will call attention to more holistic possibilities and responsibilities of the Spirit-filled life.
A brief observation of apostolic witness points to disciples with a new-found certainty that Jesus had risen from the dead and a conviction that they had received the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, sets them upon a path characterized by suffering and death. When empowered by the Spirit, the life of a witness becomes continuous with the life and suffering of Jesus (Acts 14:22).
A primary observation is that it is undoubtedly Luke’s purpose to introduce his readers to a responsible Christian life of perseverance in the course of ongoing missionary work. While numerous extended Lukan scenes close by testifying to the triumph of the church over its adversaries (Acts 4:32-37; 9:31; 12:25; 16:5), the episodes that follow demonstrate that neither the Word of God nor its adversaries will be stopped. Luke’s theology is intricately and irreversibly bound up with the story he tells and cannot be separated from it. This pattern does not disappear; it is one of positive response and rejection. Both of these threads, the triumph of the God who will not allow the gospel to be overcome as well as the rejection of the gospel and the persecution of its apostles, belong to the narrative Luke develops. To eliminate either of them is to miss something essential to the Lukan story.
A second observation is that there is a call for Pentecostals to see that suffering due to opposition to the gospel is a constant in Lukan theology. While an important Lukan interest is to celebrate the triumph of Christianity in a narrative that begins in Jerusalem and ends on the world stage of Rome, it is not one of persistent triumph from glory to glory. Similarly, any review of the emergence of the Pentecostal tradition will also celebrate its strong missionary successes. The consistent call of Pentecostal leadership is to continue writing the book of Acts, only to be fulfilled through the same empowering of the Holy Spirit and commissioning to a mission of gospel proclamation. Often lacking, however, is Luke’s emphasis on the importance of the Spirit’s work in contexts of persecution and martyrdom.
It is not accidental that all key characters in Luke-Acts suffer “for the name,” on account of their proclamation concerning Jesus. The lives of Jesus, Peter and John, the Twelve, Stephen, and Paul testify that though God will not allow the gospel to be overcome, its rejection and the persecution of its apostles is as inevitable as the moments of triumph. The oft-cited Pentecostal “triumphalism” is only half of Luke’s narrative complexity; he sustains both elements of triumph and tragedy. Luke calls for recognition of the persistent connection between persecution, Christian suffering, and Spirit-inspired mission: witnesses are persecuted because they are sent. Furthermore, persecution and suffering ironically extend the mission.
A third observation flows naturally out of Luke’s ability to sustain a narrative filled with intense conflict. Since one of the methodological implications of a literary analysis is a commitment to discern Luke’s objectives for his readers, various ethical, homiletical, and other applications of the Lukan narrative are bound to emerge. Although one can assume that Luke’s message was needed in the early church, the more difficult question rests in finding sensitive contemporary answers, which are not always easily discerned in biblical narrative. With this in mind, I proceed with caution.
It seems reasonable to conclude that readers to whom Luke writes are under pressure due to opposition and persecution and need to know that endurance is possible. Such a background calls for a theological and practical understanding of how to deal with this reality. Luke answers by narrating the struggles and survival of the emerging church, for readers who know of its origin will have confidence in its present and future survival. Luke describes how the Holy Spirit works irresistibly on, giving readers courage and confidence to take their own share in the witness to Christ, to which the whole church is called. He teaches that suffering accompanies serious ministry and the expansion of Christianity. The greatest defense of the gospel and its representatives is that it is worth dying for. These trials are not “mere annoyances” or slight setbacks, for they cost the church its best people.
While those who would kill Christ and the martyrs will always exist, it is through personal witness and sacrifice that Christianity advances. The greatest defense of the gospel and its representativesis that it is worth dying for. These trials are not “mere annoyances” or slight setbacks, for they cost the church its best people.
A Lukan view of the Spirit offers further ironic reassurance to his readers. Through the witness of rigorous pneumatic disciples, the church not only survives but also advances. While witness may lead to ostracization, imprisonment, or death, the role of the Spirit is not primarily to bring consolation and strength in physical suffering, but to inspire confession with uninhibited freedom. It is this willingness to sacrifice life and comfort that allows Luke to speak boldly to second generation Christians.
Direction For Today
The final turn of this project is to posit contemporary implications for Luke’s revelation of the Spirit in contexts of suffering. Since a benchmark of Pentecostal experience is pursuit of the Spirit-filled life as portrayed in narratives of Luke-Acts, contemporary application is not a new concept. Pentecostals are comfortable in using Luke-Acts as a story from which to learn simply because a message needed in the early church is also relevant today. This is also consistent with a literary analysis, for paradigmatic uses of Luke-Acts today are in continuity with the paradigmatic uses originally envisaged for such texts. Although careful application is required when spanning centuries and cultures, Luke does provide models for imitation, not only for first century readers, but for Christians today. While Pentecostals continue to encourage witness in the power of the Spirit, there is a noticeable lack concerning implications of the Spirit-filled life when juxtaposed with suffering.
One of the conclusions already reached is that Luke narrates why the early mission is not as successful as the early Christians had hoped. Major factors in the unfolding story include the harsh realities of resistance as faced by the emerging community. This strong experience of resistance and rejection in Acts results in a necessary tempering of the mission. Contemporary Pentecostals should learn from these struggles to have patience and faithfulness in a world we do not control while maintaining trust in God’s power and purpose. This trust ought to allow similar openness to the Spirit of God, who may even work by irony, that is, by using opponents of the mission to move the divine purpose forward. JÃ¼rgen Moltmann concurs: “Participation in the apostolic mission of Christ therefore leads inescapably into tribulation, contradiction and suffering.”2 Regrettably, this lesson has been a difficult one for Pentecostals to discern.
At the risk of oversimplifying Pentecostal demographics, I would propose two strains of Pentecostal Christians to which this study might find suitable application. The first grouping consists of Pentecostals in the global north (North America and Western Europe). The challenge in applying these findings to such Pentecostals generally concerns lack of awareness and/or indifference. The dominant worldview of the global north is one that replaces objectivity with subjectivity, reason with feeling, and conviction with opinion that culminates with an inherent right to happiness. Unfortunately, this worldview also penetrates Christian thinking and praxis. Since Pentecostal Christians expect “the blessing of God,” suffering seems to infringe on this right to happiness, causing an increasing gap between the success and suffering connected with God and/or godliness. Contemporary Pentecostals, far from being immune to this trend, are exhibiting growing similarities to the secular mindset of the common populace. A common criticism of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is that it “springs from a theologia gloriae that does not wrestle with a theologia crucis. The consequence is that it concentrates primarily on the triumphs of Easter and Pentecost and does not sufficiently take into account that they can only be reached by way of the cross.”3
It seems that the adopted paradigm for the Pentecostal tradition is one that does not relate to the kind of conflict, resistance, and opposition that was so much a part of its formative years. Instead, it is being replaced with a tradition, which fits comfortably into the status quo, as opposed to a movement with a mission that sees itself with a message at odds with its culture. Given this mindset, contemporary pursuit of the Spirit is often relegated to a personal, self-empowering experience which gives further impetus to “the blessing of God” measured in terms of secular power and success. This form of pneumatic pursuit is far removed from the pages of Luke-Acts from which Pentecostals originally found their reason for existence.
Fortunately, this does not exemplify broader global Pentecostalism. In contrast to the experience and theology of the first strain of Pentecostals in the global north, developments in the second strain in the global south (South America, Africa, Asia) tell a different story. According to David Barrett, the explosion of worldwide Pentecostal growth, now at more than 500 million, has a new ethos including more urban than rural (active in 80 percent of the world’s 3300 largest cities); more Second-Third World (70 percent) than Western (30 percent); and more impoverished (87 percent) than affluent (13 percent).4
Furthermore, a growing number of these Pentecostals experience various forms of persecution on account of their Christian beliefs, which leads to a very different response to their reading of Luke-Acts. As these Pentecostals continue in their pursuit of the Spirit, emphasis should and will continue to encourage divine enablement. However, upon reception of the Spirit, recipients are not all powerful. Moltmann states: “The number of martyrs in the ‘young’ missionary churches meanwhile exceeds the number of martyrs in the early church. There are many countries in which the apostolic witness is predominantly heard in prison, and nowhere so distinctly as there.”5
Their close reading of Luke-Acts is a vivid reminder of the limitations that follow Spirit-enablement. Global Pentecostals learn to work within the limits of witness. They must do so while maintaining trust in God’s power to reach the ultimate goal. Such trust is supported by a perception of God as a God of surprises or reversals, indeed, a God who works by irony, often using opponents of the mission to move the divine purpose forward. Faithfully serving in life and mission while trusting in a God whose exact moves cannot be anticipated is part of the ongoing struggle of faith. Pentecostals, who remain confident in the validity and importance of the mission and continue in Spirit-empowered witness, are in fact continuing Luke’s story of acceptance and rejection, triumph and tragedy beyond the end of Acts.6
As this study demonstrates, the lives of these Christians may in fact be a closer representation of the readers Luke had in mind when writing in the first century. One can only hope and pray that God would give them courage as well as arouse a seemingly indifferent and secularized West to respond to their increasing need for encouragement and support.
Martin Mittelstadt is associate professor of New Testament at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. He is a former PAOC credential holder.
1. See further my monograph, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology. Journal of Pentecostal Supplement Series 26 (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 12-20.
2. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 361.
3. Thomas Smail, “The Cross and the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Renewal,” The Love of Power and the Power of Love, eds. Thomas Smail, Andrew Walker, Nigel Wright (London: Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1993), 15.
4. See David Barrett, “The Twentieth-Century Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal in the Holy Spirit with Its Goal of World Evangelization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12 (1988) 119-29. See also various categorical articles on the shifting demographics in contemporary
Pentecostalism in The Globalization of Pentecostalism: A Religion Made to Travel, eds. Murray Dempster, Byron Klaus, and Douglas Petersen (Oxford Regnum Books, 1999), particularly the essay by Dempster, entitled “Issues Facing Pentecostals in a Postmodern World” (261-396).
5. Moltmann, 361.
6. Several excellent surveys of modern persecution of Christians include: Derek Davis, “Thoughts on Religious Persecution Around the Globe: Problems and Solutions,” Journal of Church and State 40 (1998) 279-87; James and Marti Hefley, By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs in the Twentieth Century (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996); Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who are Dying for Their Faith (Dallas: Word, 1997).