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The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption Paperback – January 1, 1997
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"Johnson's elegantly written book on the themes of Acts... keeps the big picture always in view, yet unfailingly and perceptively speaks to interpretive and pastoral difficulties. I am exceedingly glad this book is finally available." --Reggie M. Kidd, Reformed Theological Seminary , Orlando Campus
About the Author
Dennis E. Johnson (ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, author of Triumph of the Lamb, and contributor to numerous books and theological journals.
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I am not shocked to see that Dr. Johnson's first person thanked under "Acknowledgments" is none other than Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. While I strongly disagree with Gaffin's contribution to Zondervan's Counterpoint Book, "Are Miraculous Gifts for Today", I very much appreciate his redemptive-historical hermeneutic, which I actually think is consistent with a Charismatic hermeneutic.
Anyhow, everything that I appreciate about a Covenantal, redemptive-historical approach to Scripture, which Dr. Gaffin holds to, is seen in Dr. Johnson's approach to the book of Acts. I must admit that while growing up a Charismatic, one weakness in the approach to Acts is that it was seen first and foremost as a blueprint or manual for the contemporary church. While I very much appreciate the relevance of Acts for the contemporary church, it must first be read in its context as Luke's contention for a realized "eschatos", which is rooted in Covenant promise in the Old Covenant. Such a reading will only enhance ones understanding of God's actions in the early church as a fulfillment of previous promises. This appreciation will then yield greater relevance for God's continued working in the church today as seen in her in-breaking on Pentecost.
Some of the insights I found particularly helpful in Johnson's book are the following:
- It is imperative to read Acts in light of Luke's Gospel. It would be best to see both as chapters which complete a full volume. There are paradigms present throughout each that are better appreciated when reading the sum total. Luke's gospel records Jesus' final directives to His disciples to stay in Jerusalem until "clothed" with power from on high. The beginning of Acts picks up on this "promise" theme and sets forth to continue the narrative of Redemptive history where such promise finds fulfillment.
- Dr. Johnson sees "Structural Signposts" in Acts that arguably provide the framework for Luke's narrative. Acts 1:8, which promises the global expansion of the Gospel is seen in Jerusalem (chps. 1-7), Judea and Samaria (chps. 8-12), ends of the earth (chps. 13-28). Johnson (1997:8) comments,
o Things begin in Jerusalem, `the city of the great king' (Ps. 48:2), the site of the sanctuary, the center of Israel's worship of the living God. By the close of Acts, Paul, bearer of the Lord's word, has reached Rome, the city of Caesars, the center of Gentile world power.
The other signpost, Acts 9:15, helps flush out the nature of expansion. Ananias is told by the Lord to tell Paul that he is ordained by God to share the gospel in the presence of "Gentiles", "kings", and "sons of Israel". This paradigm is seen in Paul's focus on Gentile ministry (chps. 13-20), speeches before kings/rulers (chps. 24-26), and lastly in his ministry to his own kinsmen (chps. 22, 28).
Luke is not some disinterested historian who is simply divulging his journals in chronological order of entry. I find it helpful that Luke has arranged his material with intentionality. I appreciate Dr. Johnson's shared insights on this point as well.
- I personally want to jump to Peter's sermon as being the first usage of Old Testament promise themes in Acts, whereas Dr. Johnson finds many Isaianic allusions even before the Pentecost event, as well as beyond it.
o Acts 1:8 links to scattered passages of Isaiah (32:15, 43:10, 43:12, 44:8, 49:6, 45:22)
o The 3 major themes of connection relate as following (1997:36):
' 1. The Spirit of God is poured out upon God's people.
' 2. God's people are his witnesses, testifying on the basis of the saving acts that they have seen that he alone is God and Savior.
' 3. Their witness extends to the ends of the earth, calling pagan nations to abandon their idols and turn to the Lord for salvation.
o The Lord has a lawsuit against the pagan gods and calls Israel as an eyewitness. There is a major problem, however--Israel is blind (Isa. 42:18-19).
o The courtroom scene of Isaiah 42 has an assembly of Gentiles called to testify on behalf of their blind and dumb gods. The Lord then subpoenas His own people as His witnesses, "whose eyes and ears he has healed and whose darkness he has turned to light....Healed of their own blindness, they in turn will guide the idol-blinded Gentiles out of darkness and into light" (1997:39).
o Isaiah records life-giving water in chp. 44, resulting in agricultural blessing. This is an image of the outpoured Spirit, which brings life and restoration.
o There is a singular servant, Jesus, who alone is successful in testifying against false idols and pagan gods (Isa. 53, 61), able to actually heal the blind and set the prisoner free.
' This Jesus declares to His disciples that they, too, will become his witnesses (Acts 1:8), signifying a transfer of ministry and necessary empowering to be the restored witnesses of God on earth for all the nations. Johnson (1997:44) says, "The Spirit is sent to empower us to testify to the divine glory that the Son deserves".
o It is interesting to note that the Lord blinds Saul before restoring his sight and changing him into Paul. I wonder if the Lord is confirming his inward blindness through the physical blindness and then giving His sight as a sign of the real sight restored within, which enables him to be a "witness" to the Gentiles.
o Dr. Johnson (1997:49-50) concludes his thoughts on Isaiah's connection with Acts by stating,
' Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 points us to the Father's promise in Isaiah, that he would send his Spirit to heal the blind eyes and deaf ears of his servant people, so that they could be his witnesses among the nations. Jesus, the faithful Servant, suffered and was glorified, and by his faithfulness he brought healing not only for failing Israel, but also for the Gentiles. He is the Lord, who restores sight to the blind through the gift of the Spirit. Empowered by the Spirit, we at last can see the Lord's mighty acts of redemption and bear witness that he alone is God and Savior.
- Johnson connects the "last days" with the "day of the Lord", which would then link to a multitude of promises anticipating such a day. Johnson (1997:55) comments,
o The coming day of salvation would bring a new creation (Isa. 65:17-25), a new exodus (Isa. 40:3-5), a new day of judgment on God's enemies (like the Flood and the Conquest of Canaan - Isa. 66:14-15, 22-24; Mal. 4:1-3), a new gathering of nations to worship at a new temple in the city of God (Isa. 4:2-6; 25:6-9).
- The promised repair of our fallen-ness would occur in two phases. On this point, Johnson (1997:55) points out that:
o The initial infection of the created order also came in two phases. First came the `death' that separated Adam and Even from their God on the day of their disobedience (Gen 2:17). Then this spiritual and relational death worked itself out in the death of their bodies, which returned to the dust (3:19). Similarly, the cure comes first to deal with the hidden, spiritual source of the decay, our spiritual and relational alienation from our Creator and each other; and then, in the end, it will become visible in the reversal of the body's death through resurrection.
- This is known as the great eschatological "already, but not yet". The Holy Spirit has been given as a down payment or a foretaste of sorts. Johnson (1997:56) quips "...he whets our appetite for the full feast". But with the arrival of Jesus, restoration has begun, and with the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, it continues to advance. The Spirit is also breaking into the physical dimensions as well, with signs and wonders attesting to God's restoration.
- As for the signs of the Spirit's coming on Pentecost, Johnson (1997:57) observes three significant noteworthy descripts:
o Three observable signs attest the Spirit's arrival: (1) the roar of a rushing wind from heaven, (2) "tongues" of fire distributed over the heads of the believers, and (3) the spoken tongues through which believers declared "the wonders of God" in the dialects of the Mediterranean world. These signs are echoes of new beginnings in the Old Testament, displaying the new creation, the new exodus, the new revelation, and the new resurrection that the Spirit initiates at his coming.
' The illustration of a mighty breath and wind from God would summon many thoughts in the mind of the observer and hearer.
* One such illustration would be the wind that brought rainstorms eastward across Palestine, making the earth fruitful. Johnson (1997:57) observes, "...so also the Spirit would come like life-giving water on dry ground, restoring Israel's children to fruitful witness (Isa. 44:3)".
* The image of breath would also connote God's life-giving power. He breathed life into Adam, and so also breathes life within His covenant children, bringing a different kind of life.
* The windstorm at Sinai when the law was received would also prove a vivid reminder of God "breathing" the law out in a way. Pentecost is now a sequel of sorts where the rushing mighty wind alerts the audience to a renewed word from the Lord, which comes through differing dialects of the gathered disciples.
' Tongues of purifying fire would also summon various images.
* "The flames announced the glorious presence of God, just as the lightning on Sinai (Ex. 19:18) and the fire and cloud over the tent of meeting made the holy glory of God visible in the midst of Israel (Ex. 40:34-38). But when the risen Christ poured out the Spirit, each believer was marked by a miniature `pillar of fire,' indicating that each was a temple in which God dwelt by his Spirit..." (Johnson 1997:58-59).
* John the Baptist had also forecast that the baptism Jesus was bringing was one of the Holy Spirit and fire. This imagery of fire in this context speaks of a judging, sifting work of God's Spirit. Johnson adds, "Fire pictures the consuming holiness of the true and living God. His presence `burns away' all that is in conflict with his purity....When God comes to his temple, says Malachi, he shall burn as a refiner's fire, purifying true worshipers and consuming the false (Mal. 3:2-5; 4:1)" (1997:59).
' The tongues spoken in all the gathered dialects of the assembly would attest to the restoration of previous redemptive events:
* Babel actually isn't a redemptive event, but rather an event illustrating our fallen-ness and need for repair. God broke the people's pride by humbling them in language and thus scattering a unified people. On Pentecost, God speaks in all of the languages gathered, signifying His unifying desire to bring people unto Himself. Johnson (1997:60) aptly points out that "Pentecost signaled the reversal of this judgment, a drawing together of people `from every nation that is under heaven' (Acts 2:5), not to erect a monument to their own pride, but to glorify God for his salvation".
* Rabbinic traditions seem to indicate that the celebration of Pentecost was also linked with the giving of the law on Sinai. Pentecost was sort of a celebration of the law of sorts and covenant renewal. God covenanted with His people on Sinai through the law, whereas this particular Pentecost manifests the saving work of God in Jesus being extolled in all tongues for the people to hear. This would signify a covenant with all the nations, showing clearly that God wishes to speak in all of the languages to attest to salvation in His Son.
Lastly, I wish to simply critique Johnson's treatment of Peter's sermon on Pentecost. I am grateful that he recognizes the inauguration of the "last days" in Peter's emphasis on "last days" himself. I much prefer a Covenantal hermeneutic which is quicker to acknowledge the reality of fulfillment of last days' wonders and signs in Christ and on Pentecost, whereas Dispensational folks either see a foreshadowing or simply a prophetic mentioning of what is to come in the future. I think that Peter was clearly talking about the present when he told the gathered people that, "This is that..."
The Spirit has come upon this "last days" community in power so that we might be "witnesses" to His glory to all the nations and fulfill what God promised He would do through His people long ago. On this point, Johnson draws heavily upon Moses' desire that all people would be prophets as a backdrop behind Joel's promise that such would one day be realized. I agree with the parallel; however am confused Johnson's application of the significance of prophetic speech. Johnson (1997:62-63) says,
In Numbers 11:25, it is noted that the Israelite elders prophesied only at their initial reception of the Spirit: "They did not do so again." Similarly in the New Testament, Paul insists that, whereas all Christians have received the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), only some have received the power to prophesy as a constant gift (vv. 29-30). Thus, this initial outpouring of prophecy is a sign that the Spirit, who fills all who trust in Jesus, brings our speech under the control of the God of truth, so that we declare his wonderful, redemptive achievements. This prophecy comes in the diverse languages of the nations to point forward to the spreading witness of the Spirit "to the ends of the earth".
I take Johnson's emphasis that the elders under Moses only temporarily prophesied as being a parallel to the early church's experience since Johnson draws upon Paul to show that not all exercised each of the gifts; thus his conclusion that "only some have received power to prophesy as a constant gift" (Johnson 1997:63).
Right after limiting the ongoing use of prophecy in the life of the church to only select members, Johnson then goes on to signify that the "initial outpouring" of prophecy is a "sign" for "all who trust in Jesus" that our speech is brought under the control of the "God of truth", so that "we declare his wonderful, redemptive achievements". It is here where I am confused. When Johnson refers to "initial outpouring", does he mean what took place on Pentecost? If so, then he says we should look back to Pentecost for a broad, unclear universal application that affects "all who trust in Jesus". It sounds as if Johnson is qualitatively distinguishing the "initial outpouring" from a universally applied "speech" that fills us all. This would be confirmed by Johnson's earlier point that not all prophesy. I find the application weak on Johnson's part if he is saying that the lesson learned from Pentecost is to be more mindful of our speech and share the Gospel with others. While such things are indeed true, I think Pentecost signals that the Spirit has been "poured out" to empower all in our witness. While all may not indeed prophesy, I would contend that the eschatological people are "endued" people, empowered from on high. Consequently, we would indeed experience the Spirit's empowering in our own midst and speech.
Johnson (1997:63) also stated that, "This prophecy comes in the diverse languages of the nations to point forward to the spreading witness of the Spirit "to the ends of the earth". While interpreted tongues is of the same value of "prophecy", and that Peter is responding to the "tongues" as being that which was promised by Joel, which spoke of prophecy, I don't think we should equate tongues with prophecy as I am assuming that Johnson is here doing. Joel also spoke of dreams and the such, which didn't take place on Pentecost and therefore the promise is really of a "charismatic age". As such, I would contend that the Holy Spirit empowers God's covenant people in diverse means to be a witness to the ends of the earth. While tongues on Pentecost did indeed have a hugely significant redemptive-historical purpose in God's intention to spread His witness from Jerusalem outward to all nations, it also points to that expansion being accompanied by Spirit uttered speech, signs, wonders, and the Spirit's observable ministry. In this respect I read Acts as redemptive history, but also pick up on Luke's intent to show the church throughout the ages where she lives within redemptive history...which is in "the last days" and empowered by the Spirit to ever advance God's kingdom with much the same experience of the early church. To Johnson's credit, he recognizes the role of the Spirit in God's expanding dominion, "In these last days, the Messiah has taken the throne at the Father's right hand, and he is extending his dominion on earth through the power of the Spirit" (1997:63).
While Johnson would recognize certain powerful aspects of the Spirit's ministry, namely salvation and repentant hearts, which are miracles indeed, I think that Charismatics express more fully what God's people look like in "these last days" as a community empowered by God's Spirit to carry out the witness of Jesus in accompanying "signs and wonders". While I don't advocate an exalting of "signs and wonders" over and above the miracle of circumcised hearts, I do feel that God is evidencing His kingdom in "these last days" with BOTH repentant hearts and Spirit-empowered ministry. I am also safe to point out that any sign of healing and gracious workings of the Spirit point to God's somewhat already hand in the physical restoration of all things, which we all agree will not consummate until His second advent. God will sovereignly distribute gifts according to His will and for our edification.
(4) Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
(5) and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;
(6) and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.
(7) To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
(8) For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
(9) to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
(10) to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
(11) All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
I would hate to deny God's sovereign will in empowering His church and neglecting the edification that derives from such. It is here where I would submit that all Covenantal theologians should embrace what their hermeneutic actually leads to: The present and ongoing work of the Spirit in the church in "charismata" until His appearing.
(4) I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
(5) that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge--
(6) even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you--
(7) so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,
(8) who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the Covenant foundations of people like Richard Gaffin, Jr., Geerhardus Vos, and Dennis Johnson that actually confirm in me that God's covenant expression in "these last days" is "charismatic".
I don't know of this book is assigned reading anymore at the "King's College" where I attended, but it once was while I was a student there. It was no surprise to me that a Pentecostal/Charismatic college would assign Johnson's work on Acts...confirming in me that even Pentecostals/Charismatics unknowingly see the riches of a Covenant hermeneutic as being consistent with their very own Pentecostal/Charismatic Theology.
All in all, I am grateful for Dr. Dennis Johnson's "The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption". It is indeed rich and exudes a love for Scripture and God's miraculous workings throughout redemptive history.
Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption.
In the opening chapters of Acts Johnson describes the role of the disciples as Spirit-repaired men who have their eyes opened and spirits' healed. Jesus is the Servant of Isaiah who will be rejected by his people but bring healing to the nations. In fact, Chris empowers his disciples to be delegated servants under him. The promise of the spirit that they will go to the ends of the earth parallels the Isaianic promises to send the Servant to the ends of the earth.
The Servant(s) prosecutes a lawsuit against the futile pagan gods of the day. Again, this parallels Isaiah. Unfortunately, Israel has become blind, like the pagan gods. They stand in need of healing. Therefore, the Spirit must open their eyes so that they, too, may be witnesses. Doing so, they will turn the idol-laden gentiles out of darkness and into light.
This is the context in which the book is written. Johnson's book starts off quite slow and the style is annoying at first. Neverthless, it does pick up steam. Further, the parallels between old testament events and new testament fulfillments are brought out masterfully. Case in point: Acts 22:6 notes that Saul was blinded about midday. This recalls Moses' prophecy/curse upon disobedient Israel: The Lord will strike you with blindness...you will grope at midday (Dt. 28:28-29; quoted on p.111)." The book is full of interesting parallels like this, and these insights redeemed any faults the book may have had. And although I criticized the rather pedantic style at first, the book is a gold mine of relevant endnotes that draw out further arguments. While not everything is readily applicable in the book, certain sections do shine forth.
The Book is written in a semi-thematic approach. He follows a general chronological narration of Acts, *however,* he will not--and this is good--merely comment on what Paul is doing next. He shows how many actions/sequences in Acts are thematically related, plus their Old Testament parallels. This makes for a much smoother, unified read.