Acts (Belief Series) // Willie James Jennings.

What prophetic roar, what fiery witness! This, Willie James Jennings’s commentary on Acts, is without a moment’s hesitation one of the best theological works I have ever read.

“The revolution of the intimate is here!”

Jennings heralds. And how profound is this unseemly way of flipping the world right-side. It is not one of violence, forcing the Kingdom of God like the Roman Empire (or any other empires). It is also not one of cowardice, succumbing to the fears—real fears, nevertheless—of diaspora. No, the revolution of the intimate is just that: intimate yet powerful, gentle yet assuring. Intimacy settles and unsettles, comforts and discomforts. Ultimately, it is the way of the Spirit, poured out on all flesh to join what humanity has disjoined. The Spirit of God is Intimacy herself because she is the power of Jesus—God and humanity in eternal, unbroken intimacy.

The Book of Acts is really the acts of the Spirit, not of the apostles—though their bodies and agencies are undeniable and irreplaceable, lest we feign anti-semitism. We must, therefore, always keep these Jewish apostles—Jewish bodies—in mind as we read Acts or any portion of Scripture. We must also keep in mind Jewish diasporic fears, for they are real and infect bodies in many ways that go unsaid. Diasporic fears are like but also unlike many refugee fears: on the brink of extinction, surrounded by a strange world, desperate to hold one’s composition in tact. It is through these kinds of bodies—fearful, broken, yet particular—that the Spirit always works in and through. The Spirit uses people to reestablish proper intimacy. Not the kind of intimacy we foolishly relegate to couples, but a deeper intimacy than that: an intimacy of spirit, tuned to divine frequencies graciously placed in us all.

It is an intimacy that cannot wait for the right place, the right time, or the right spark. It is hurried, a kind of rushed and reckless intimacy—the kind that puts itself on the cross. It is hurried, however, not because it is thoughtless or tactless but because intimacy of that stature frightens us. Who would dare to love us that much? Left on our own, we would never dare to love one another or even ourselves that much. But God makes ways out of no way. More specifically, God joins without destruction, except what humility sheds.

That is why critical junctures in Acts testify of the Spirit moving in and through bodies towards a joining. The Spirit-filled Stephen joined Hellenistic Jewish widows; the Spirit-struck Saul joins with Spirit-led Ananias and becomes Spirit-infatuated Paul; the Spirit-induced Peter dreams of joining clean and unclean things; the Spirit-shocked Cornelius and his Roman family joins the baptism of the Spirit; the Spirit-inspired council at Jerusalem joins Jewish and Gentile flesh (though imperfectly); the Spirit-beckoned Paul joins Jerusalem under persecution. The Spirit moves to join!

Often when two or more parties joins, they are negotiations, compromises, and, not surprisingly, subjugations. Usually, one is always dominant, and he does not allow other joining members to forget. But a joining of love, an intimate joining, not only submits unconditionally but also accepts unconditionally. And a joining must be continuous—it must progress as divine humility sheds both parties of sin, pride, and selfishness. A joining that does not blossom unto abundant life for all will deteriorate—and eventually to a disjoining.

See how profound this revolution of the intimate is! It alone can dismantle the powers of hatred and disunity, while assuaging the fears of diaspora. The powers of fears must be addressed with the same seriously as with the powers of death. The Jews in diaspora in Acts operated differently than, say, “assimilated” Jews in Rome. They feared genocide, cultural eradication, religious extinction, and ethnic cleansing. To these people, a joining with the Gentiles is blasphemous and dangerous. It’s not just because they rejected the gospel of Jesus; it’s also because accepting such a gospel will cost them dearly. Some knew the cost and resisted—like the religious leaders; others braved the cost—like the nameless thousands who received the Spirit.

Acts concludes with Paul en route to Rome. A lone prisoner of the Roman Empire, Paul received unexpected warmth and hospitality from unlikely sources: Julius the centurion and Publius the chief official of Malta. Two Gentiles, one a Roman soldier who heard of Paul’s “revolutionary” activity and another who most likely never heard of Paul, leave listeners stunned. The Spirit moves, often unnoticed, towards a joining. Will we also join the revolution?

Jennings’s Acts exemplifies what great theologies always exemplify: it is lucid; it is eloquent; it lingers in the mind; and it is generative. Jennings’s characteristic prose thunders and soothes in all the right places. If one has heard him speak, then one can hear his voice with all its vivid clarity. And if my humble review shows anything, it is that Jennings has left me both speechless and enflamed. Acts lingers in the mind, mixing with and fertilizing my own theology. It makes me want to sit in silence and write my half-baked thoughts. That’s good theology.
Read this book, please.