Chiasms and the Trajectory of Christ’s Kingdom Reign
Have you every noticed how the Book of Acts just kind of….ends? It’s almost as if Dr. Luke got an emergency call while working on chapter twenty-eight and had to quickly bring it to a close. I mean we find Paul in Rome, teaching and preaching, handing out but another rebuke to some unbelieving Jews and then:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30) The end.
Talk about leaving the reader hanging!
But then again, maybe not.
One commonly accepted explanation is that Luke’s last sentence is really more of an ellipsis than a conclusion, suggesting that more can and will be said about the advance of the kingdom of God. The baton is being passed from the apostles to the Church that has been birthed by the Holy Spirit through their faithful efforts. In other words, it’s a big to be continued…
To which every Christian should say a loud “Amen!”
But there may be another reason Luke ended his account to Theophilus (can it be a mere coincidence that his name means “Love of God” or “Friend of God?”) on this note. He very likely was employing a common literary device—particularly for his time*—in order to sound a loud cymbal as he ended his two-part (Luke and Acts) symphony. The purpose of the cymbal crash? To put a strong emphasis on the inexorable advance of Christ’s Kingdom reign.
The device is called a chiasm or chiastic structure. The term derives from the 17th century term chiasmus, which refers to a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order. In essence, a chiasm is a repetition of similar words or ideas in a backward sequence. A simple example would be ABBA, where the second word or idea (B) becomes the first word or idea in the following clause or sentence. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” (Hesitations 3:33) follow this pattern. But chiasms can be more complex (Joel 3:17–21 would be diagrammed as ABCXCBA) and sometimes encompass broader themes that can span an entire book or body of work.
Such is the case with Luke’s two books; his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. All manner of chiastic structures are found therein. But the one I want to emphasize here is how the beginning relates to the end of the overarching narrative.
Luke’s Gospel opens with an overture. The advent of Messiah is described and celebrated amid a chorus of prophesy and worship – with chiasms everywhere. Of particular note—because with chiasms the center letter (word, phrase or idea) is often the emphasis of the passage—are the following:
1. Gabriel: the Lord is with you (vs. 28); the Lord God will give Him the throne (vs. 32); son of God (vs. 35)
2. Elizabeth: mother of my Lord (vs. 43)
3. Mary: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones. (vs. 51,52)
4. Zacharias: The center point is the covenant (vs. 72) and the oath (vs. 73) but is surrounded on both sides with promises of Messianic dominion; of God’s people being delivered from their enemies: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us (vs. 71); that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies (vs. 74).
Then, with all these promises of Messiah and His godly reign sounding throughout Luke’s overture, it ends with this most pregnant of sentences:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance (anadeixis: showing, exhibition, revealing) to Israel. (vs. 80)
Let the show begin!
Act 1, verse 1: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
We open then with a snapshot of the fallen world as it was at the time: under the dominion of a pagan emperor cult, one that John would later identify as the beast.** So the first line sets the stage. Babel appears to have won. Man, not God, seemed to be ruling over the earth.
Fast forward. How does it all end? With the son of man taking on the full wrath of the Roman imperial system and defeating it through His resurrection from the dead. With Jesus ascending and sitting down at the right hand of God, enthroned as the true Lord of heaven and earth. As the book of Acts winds to a close, with Paul freely preaching Christ as Lord on Malta, an island off the coast of Italy that served a major naval base for the Roman Empire. The leading citizen of the island (Publius, a very common name that essentially means “public,” an everyman in other words) hosts God’s apostle for three days and a healing revival breaks out, no doubt leading to any of number of Roman citizens being converted and acknowledging Jesus, not the emperor, as the true kurios (Lord). And finally with Paul receiving something of a celebrity’s welcome as he arrives in the capital of the world, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”…under the very nose of Caesar himself.
There is evidence to suggest that Luke finished the second half of his two-book narrative after Paul arrived in Rome but before A.D. 64, when a great fire burned down much of city and Nero used it as a pretext to begin his persecution of Christians. Similarly, it’s likely that Paul’s epistle to the Philippians was written during this same period of imprisonment. If this is true—and it almost certainly is and further that Luke would have been aware of the events described therein—we’re granted in Paul’s letter even more evidence of the prevailing power of the Gospel and the grand reversal that at that point was well underway. The world was slowly being turned right-side up again!
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Phil. 1:12-14)
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (4:21-22; emphases mine)
And so Luke’s saga opens with the City of Man and its fascist leader “large and in charge.” But it ends with the City of God being built and the emperor’s power being incrementally conquered by the Gospel, a counterinsurgency of love and faith. In this chiasm, the essential message of the entire Bible is writ large. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot contain or comprehend it.
*Oral literature—which ruled the roost until the invention of the printing press—particularly relied on chiasms, both as art but also as a mnemonic device (aid for memorization). For example, two of the most memorized and performed works of ancient literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have a chiastic structure “of the most amazing virtuosity” that permitted the oral poet to better recall the basic formula of the composition during performances. (Cedric M. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) Much of the Bible is like this.
** This is according to the many scholars who see John’s last book as describing what Jesus promised the generation then living would see: a great tribulation that ended with the destruction of the temple and the Old Testament world. (For the reader who may consider this approach absurd (likely because they have never heard it before and have further been marinated in the “Left Behind” worldview), consider that twice in the first three verses John notes the imminence of the events he is about to describe (1:1, the things that must soon take place; vs. 3, for the time is near). And there are number of other places (21:12; 22:6; 22:10) in Revelation where there are strong suggestions its prophecies were going to unfold near the time of their composition.)
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