The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology (Martin W. Mittelstadt)

The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology Book Cover The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology
Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement (Book 26)
Martin W. Mittelstadt
Bloomsbury Academic; 1 edition (October 12, 2004)

Reviewed by Robert P. Menzies

Kunming, China

Pentecostals the world over celebrate the presentness of the Kingdom of God. God’s awesome presence in our midst, his gracious willingness to bestow spiritual gifts, his desire to heal, liberate, and transform lives – all of these themes, so central to Pentecostal piety, highlight the fact that God’s reign is now present. Pentecostals proclaim a God who is near, a God’s whose power can and should be experienced here and now. This element of Pentecostal praxis has, for the most part, served as a much-needed corrective to traditional church life, which has far too often lost sight of the manifest presence of God. As traditional churches in the West have increasingly lost touch with the supernatural elements of the Christian faith, Pentecostals have reveled in their worship of an immanent God, a God who is truly with us. Although many in an increasingly secular West struggle to understand this kind of faith, Pentecostal churches around the world are growing with such rapidity that one scholar recently suggested the Pentecostal movement should be identified as “the most successful social movement of the past century.”[1] Yet, in the midst of this growth and exuberance, Pentecostals face a very present danger. The emphases that have enabled Pentecostals to make a unique contribution, also render us susceptible to an unbalanced triumphalism. Our vision can (and often has) become so fixated on God’s power and triumph that we lose the ability to see his hand in the midst of suffering, rejection, and opposition. Our emphasis on the present-ness of the Kingdom is easily twisted into an arrogant and unbiblical over-realized eschatology, where there is little room for weakness. Luther named it well: a ‘theology of glory’ that had little room for a ‘theology of the cross’.[2]

In view of the obvious strengths and vulnerabilities of the Pentecostal movement, Martin Mittelstadt’s recently published book must be seen as significant. The book’s title, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts, points to the significant thesis that it develops. Mittelstadt argues in a compelling way that a thorough reading of Luke-Acts reveals that Spirit-inspired ministry consistently encounters rejection as well as acceptance, and that the suffering and opposition that result from this rejection are part of God’s divine plan. Ultimately, they serve to advance the gospel. Mittelstadt argues that the narrative of Luke-Acts is not a story of triumph upon triumph, but rather an account of “acceptance and rejection, triumph and tragedy.”[3] There is throughout the story a persistent connection between Spirit-inspired mission and persecution. The link between suffering and Spirit-led ministry is an important part of Luke’s narrative and closely linked to one of his chief aims: he wants to encourage Christians facing persecution and opposition to persevere and, in the face of hardship, to boldly bear witness for Christ.

Mittelstadt employs the method of literary analysis in order to develop his thesis, arguing that the theme of opposition to Spirit-inspired ministry is prosecuted throughout Luke’s two-volume work in an intentional and consistent manner. Mittelstadt focuses on six texts crucial to his thesis, three of which center on Jesus and his ministry and three of which feature Jesus’ followers. Texts which highlight the relationship between the leading of the Spirit and rejection in the ministry of Jesus include Simeon’s Spirit-inspired pronouncement (Lk 2:25-35); Jesus’ programmatic sermon at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30); and Jesus’ instruction to his disciples (Lk 12:1-12). Passages that develop this same theme in the experience of the early church include Peter’s encounter with opposition (Acts 3-4), Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 6-7), and Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:18-35).

Mittelstadt’s analysis is filled with interesting insights, both in terms of the exegesis of individual passages and uncovering literary connections in the larger narrative. He points out the significance in Luke’s scheme of an often overlooked passage, Simeon’s prophetic words in Luke 2:34, “This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.” Mittelstadt correctly notes that this prophecy finds fulfillment in the preaching of John the Baptist and in the increasingly intense opposition which the Jewish leadership direct toward Jesus. Indeed, it sets the pattern for the entire narrative that follows.[4]

I was personally challenged by Mittelstadt’s interpretation of Jesus’ words concerning blasphemy against the Spirit (Lk 12:10). He argues that in this passage “blasphemy against the Spirit” should be understood as the “persistent rejection of the gospel witness” by nonbelievers.[5] Elsewhere I have argued that “blasphemy against the Spirit” refers to Christians who resist the leading of the Spirit and, in the face of persecution, renounce Christ (i.e., Christian apostasy). It seems to me that the immediate context, with its warnings against denying Christ (Lk 12:9), with its distinction between “a word against the Son of Man” and “blasphemy against the Spirit” (the former committed by non-Christians, the latter by Christians), and with its promise of pneumatic aid in the face of persecution (Lk 12: 11-12), all point in this direction.[6] Yet Mittelstadt makes a strong argument for his interpretation by pointing to the larger context of Luke-Acts. He correctly notes that, while Luke offers no examples of disciples blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, “it is a major motif of his work that opponents do so.”[7]

Finally, I found Mittelstadt’s discussion of Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesians elders (Acts 20: 17-38) to be full of insight and marked by a devotional quality.[8] He correctly highlights the fact that Acts 20:22 refers to the work of the Holy Spirit and not Paul’s personal conviction (or his spirit). Thus, the text should be translated “compelled by the Spirit” (NIV), not as a reference to Paul’s personal conviction as do some translations (e.g., the Chinese Union Version). Mittelstadt’s literary analysis, in a very helpful way, gets the reader into the text and serves as a useful aid for preaching. This characteristic marks much of his work and gives the book a pastoral tone.

One of the great strengths of the book is Mittelstadt’s method. He exemplifies how literary analysis can produce fresh and constructive contributions to our understanding of the text. This is no small feat and one filled with promise for Pentecostals, whose distinctive themes are often rooted in the narrative of Luke-Acts. One weakness of the book is also linked to Mittelstadt’s method. On numerous occasions his analysis might have been strengthened by a judicial use of redaction criticism. A simple comparison of Luke’s gospel with the rest of the synoptic tradition could have shed light on the uniqueness of the ‘rejection’ material in Luke’s gospel and thus on Luke’s purpose. Dr. Mittelstadt originally produced this work as a Ph.D. thesis at Marquette University. The rules of the academy can, at times, be rather inflexible. In the current climate, hostility towards the historical-critical method often makes it difficult to employ and benefit from methods such as redaction criticism that are rooted in understanding the past.

Mittelstadt might also be chided for exaggerating the neglect of the ‘suffering’ theme in recent Pentecostal scholarship. For example, he fails to note my emphasis on ‘staying power’ in Spirit and Power:

Although “signs and wonders” have been a prominent part of the Pentecostal message, the focal point of Pentecostal missions has always been the “staying power” made available through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This Lukan focus on inspired witness in the face of opposition was undoubtedly shaped by the context of suffering and persecution in which the early church flourished.[9]

Nevertheless, Mittelstadt highlights an important dimension of Lukan pneumatology that certainly deserves more consideration than it has received in the past. He does so in a thoughtful, passionate, and pastoral way. His work will challenge many, especially those in the West, to re-read Luke’s narrative with fresh eyes. Indeed, it may help bridge the gap that often separates Christians in a stable and affluent West from our brothers and sisters in the Two-Thirds World. One Chinese house church leader recently put it this way, “When Chinese believers read the book of Acts, we see in it our own experience; when foreign Christians read the book of Acts, they see in it inspiring stories.” His point was clear: our experience of opposition and persecution, or our lack of it, impacts how we read Luke’s narrative.[10] Perhaps Dr. Mittelstadt’s book will enable us to read Luke-Acts a bit more like our Chinese brothers and sisters.


[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 8.

[2] See Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Theology of the Cross: A Stumbling Block to Pentecostal/Charismatic Spirituality?” in Wonsuk Ma and Robert Menzies, eds., The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honour of Russell P. Spittler (JPTSS 24; London: T&T Clark International, 2004), pp. 150-63.

[3] Martin W. Mittelstadt, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology (JPTSS 26; London: T&T Clark International, 2004), p. viii.

[4] The Spirit and Suffering, pp. 35-45.

[5] The Spirit and Suffering, p. 79 (quote); see pp. 75-80 for his discussion of this passage.

[6] Robert P. Menzies, Empowered for Witness: The Spirit in Luke-Acts (JPTSS 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), p. 193.

[7] The Spirit and Suffering, p. 79.

[8] The Spirit and Suffering, pp. 119-26.

[9] William W. Menzies and Robert P. Menzies, Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 153.

[10] Luke Wesley argues this thesis with reference to the Chinese church in his book, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPS 2; Baguio: AJPS Books, 2004).

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