Saturday, May 19, 2012

B, Ascension Sunday – Acts 1:1-5 “O Theophilus”

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Theophilus is the person to whom the doctor, Luke, writes. Is Theophilus a real person? Or is he an archetypal fictitious character representative of all who have a fondness for God? After all this is the meaning of the name, Theophilus. The first thing we can observe is that this conversation stands out from others in the bible because Luke and Theophilus are Greeks and not Hebrew. So firstly we note this is a record from the gentiles and therefore it's focus differs somewhat from the Jewish perspective.
You can hear the two words that make up the name, Theophilus. Theos is the Greek word meaning god or divine being. From it we get words like theology, meaning "words about God", theocentric, "God-centred", or theocracy, "a form of government where God is recognised as the supreme authority.
And Philos means, friend, neighbour, associate, or someone to whom one is endeared, or of whom one is fond. Words like philosophy, meaning "fond of wisdom", Philadelphia meaning "brotherly love", paedophile "lover of children", or philanthropist "fond or friend of humankind" all are derived from Philos.
So Theophilus is one who is fond of God – a friend of God. He could have been a specific person with this name or Luke may have been writing to those who were Gentile Christians.
If he was writing to a single person we might ponder the situation Theophilus finds himself in at this time. Luke has written him two letters. In the first, the Gospel of Luke, Luke writes…
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4 ESV)
Here we find the purpose of Luke writing to Theophilus. He addresses this person as "most excellent", a noble, dignified, or very honourable person. But this soul is not just highly esteemed; this character is also a student — one who's being taught. So Luke writes, so Theophilus may have certainty concerning what's been taught.
Part two is the book of Acts. In it Luke continues the account of what happens when Jesus is no longer present in sight but through faith in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the pivotal point of Luke's narrative is Jesus' glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father. We hear…
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." (Acts 1:1–5 ESV)
The key is hinted at from the outset of Luke's second letter. Luke had written both of his letters to Theophilus sometime after these events had happened. The book of Acts could have been written as late as, or even later than, 70 AD, when we consider the last of the events in Acts occurred in about 63 AD. But the hint comes in Luke's first line to Theophilus — that Jesus had only "begun" to do and teach. Jesus' ascension was not the end but only a time of transition. The student Theophilus was living in the times after the transition and was still being taught by Jesus, but now in a special way.
He is encouraged in the faith because Jesus was alive from the grave. He had risen from the dead and was seen for forty days, before being "taken up" from them. In fact being taken up to a heavenly place is Greek thinking. But rather, in reality, Jesus was lifted up to a certain place and then hidden. We would better understand Jesus as being enthroned in heaven or glorified to the right hand of the Father. He is still present but unseen in the heavenly realm outside of time and our minds being bound by time find that difficult to understand.
This is all good news for Theophilus, because he still has access to God, through the work Jesus began while on earth and now continues out of sight in heaven and in us. The second part of Luke's narrative lays out how Jesus continued this work. Jesus was now to be revealed, unhidden, by the Holy Spirit whom he and the Father would send to continue the teaching so certainty in Jesus' promises would continue.
The teachings are in fact these letters from Luke, among others, and the certainty in the teaching which comes through hearing the accounts of Jesus' work on earth and in heaven is faith. Faith was given to give sight to Theophilus to further increase the certainty that God was still with those who were friends of God — that God had not abandoned them. This teaching was to be made most effective when the Holy Spirit would use it through the mouths of Apostles to reveal Jesus Christ to his faithful ones. In other words that God was still faithful to those in whom he had placed faith through the message of Christ preached by man and revealed by the Holy Spirit.
So if Theophilus was in fact an individual to whom Luke wrote this would have been very reassuring. But if Theophilus was a name to address all the followers of God then it is equally reassuring for all who are one in their fondness of following Jesus Christ, now revealed from the hidden realm of heaven as being the faithful head of the one true hidden church on earth.
Whether Theophilus was in fact an individual or a church of gentiles is really not worthy of our concern! However, what is worthy of our meditations and thoughts is this: Am I Theophilus? Am I a friend of God, am I letting Jesus Christ be my friend?
Do you believe Jesus Christ continues his work in heaven before the Father for you? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, that he brings you to Jesus and Jesus to you through the teaching of the gospel? Do you believe when you received the Holy Spirit he made you one in the great congregation, that's seen and unseen? See that Jesus seeks to continue his work in and through you!
You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, living around the world and called into glory out of this life. They are hidden for the most part, but in prayer they're encouraging you to endure in letting Jesus carry you through this life.
Aren't you one of the witnesses too? Called to join Jesus in his work and pray for those who are friends of God so their certainty may be strengthened? As well as those who are not friend of God in the hope they too will share in the great victory?
Friends of God, friends in Christ, we are in the first chapter of our lives and there is another to come. When this chapter of your life is closed, O Theophilus, be confident the second eternal chapter of heaven will continue. So let the Holy Spirit give you the eyes of faith, hold fast to the teachings of Christ, and encourage this in me through your prayers too. For Jesus' sake! Amen.