Acts 18 and 19

Scripture: Acts 18:1 – 19:41

Overview:

  • Paul relocates from Athens to Corinth and meets fellow tent makers Aquila and Priscilla (Jews recently ousted from Rome)
  • Paul preaches in the local synagog until the Jews there tell him they hate him, then he shakes out his clothes and moves his base of operations next door
  • One night Paul has a vision where God tells him to keep speaking and not worry about his safety, so Paul sticks around Corinth a year and a half
  • The Jews of Corinth rally and make a formal complaint about Paul to Gallio, the proconsul in the area, but Gallio says he doesn’t care about Jewish in-fighting regarding their own religion
  • In frustration, the crowd turns on Sosthenes, the local synagog leader, and they beat him up. Gallio is like, “Whatever”
  • Then Paul, Priscilla and Aquila sail off to Ephesus, and after promising to return to Ephesus, Paul keeps going on to Jerusalem then on home to Antioch
  • While Paul sets off on his third missionary journey (from Antioch, up through Galatia), a guy named Apollo appears on the the scene in Ephesus. He’s a learned dude, but needs some help from Priscilla and Aquila to get all the stuff about Jesus just right
  • Apollos then moves on to Achaia, with lots of support from his fellow believers
  • Meanwhile, Paul makes his way back to Ephesus and runs into a dozen of John the Baptists’ disciples and baptizes them in the name of Jesus so they can receive the Holy Spirit
  • Paul preaches in the synagogs of Ephesus until the Jews kick him out, then he relocates to a local hall and preaches to the Jews and Greeks for two more years
  • Lots of miraculous things happen while Paul is there (some people are healed by just coming into contract with Paul’s work clothes), so a few locals are inspired to try casting out demons on their own using Jesus’ name
  • The seven sons of a high priest named Sceva try casting out a demon in Jesus’ name and get the tar beat out of them by the demon possessed man
  • Word of the beating gets out and everybody starts taking Jesus’ name a bit more seriously, and some former sorcerers who become Christians are inspired to burn their magic scrolls publicly
  • Paul decides to head back to Jerusalem after going through Macedonia and Achaia, then says “I need to get to Rome one of these days”
  • In Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius raises a ruckus because Paul’s teaching has led to a decline in sales of their locally crafted idols
  • The other Ephesian craftsmen get worked up and decide that Paul’s anti-idol position isn’t just hurting their pocket books but also the reputation of their awesome temple to Artemis
  • The city gets all hot and bothered and grabs Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s traveling companions, and drag them into the theater
  • Paul wants to go and help his friends, but some of his high-up friends tell him to chill
  • There’s mass confusion, and in an attempt to make sure that Jews aren’t being blamed for what the Christian are teaching, a guy named Alexander gets up on the stage, but the crowd just gets worked up all the more and starts shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for two whole hours
  • The city clerk gets up and reminds them of the “fact” that the image of Artemis fell from heaven and Ephesus is her guardian. He points out that the Christians are not robbing their temples, and that proper procedure is for everyone to take everyone else to court. Rome doesn’t like it when there’s a riot in the city and if word gets out that Ephesus is out of control, Roman troops will show up and things will be bad
  • Then the clerk sends everyone home

Historical Context:

Corinth

In 27 B.C. Corinth became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.  The city was a crucial communications center at the junction of sea lanes to the west and east, and land routes north and south. Corinth had over 200,000 inhabitants during New Testament times. Every two years it hosted the pan-Hellenic Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympic Games.

Corinth was also the “sin city” of Achaia. As is true of many port cities, it did a bustling trade in pleasure as well as goods. The classical Greeks had coined a metaphor from the city’s notorious sin — “to play the Corinthian,” or to “Corinthianize.” This referred to a person who was sexually immoral or who lived a life of lustful debauchery. The city had long been home to the worshippers of Aphrodite — the goddess of love. In classical times, her temple on the Acrocorinth had housed a thousand priestess-prostitutes. At night, they came into the city to offer their services. While such activities were vastly scaled down during Corinth’s Roman days, the city still had a reputation for moral looseness. (GCI)

Paul’s Vow

It is highly likely that Paul took a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) in which one abstained from any grape product, including wine, as well as various forms of uncleanness. Paul also would’ve stopped cutting his hair during the period of the vow. At the end of the vow, one normally shaved their hair at Jerusalem and dedicated in the temple.

According to the first century historian Josephus, if a Nazarite devotee was far from Jerusalem, then he was allowed to trim his hair and to bring the trimmings to Jerusalem to be offered with the rest of his hair when his head was shaved (cf. Josephus, War 2.309-324). This appears to have been what Paul did at Cenchrea. (Williams)

Ephesus

The Romans made Ephesus the capital of the province of Asia. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (est. population 50,000 to 250,000) (IVP) after Sardis and Alexandria Troas.

Paul the Tent Maker

Most tents in the first century were constructed of leather, so the meaning of “tent maker” was extended to refer to an artisan who produced a variety of leather articles. Many Jewish rabbis of the time were bi-vocational so that they would not have to charge for their teaching. Other traveling teachers in the Hellenistic world expect to receive money for their lectures. In Greco-Roman culture the manual labor of the artisan class was despised. (IVP)

John the Baptist’s Followers

It seems strange that there would be followers of  John the Baptist who were unclear that Jesus was the messiah. In fact, according to the Gospel of John, Andrew (Peter’s brother) was one of John’s disciples and learned of Jesus directly from John.

“This is now the fifth time in Acts that John’s role as a precursor to Jesus has been clarified (Acts 1:5; 11:16; 13:25; 18:25). The need to repeatedly take up the issue, plus the fact that John apparently has disciples twenty years after his death in places as far from the Jordan as Alexandria (Apollos) and Ephesus, supports the portrait of John as an important religious figure in his own right” (Luke Timothy Johnson)

It is highly probable that John’s disciples had heard of Jesus but not realized that the baptism of the Holy Spirit had taken place at Pentecost.  “In fact, John’s preaching of the imminent arrival of a Messiah in eschatological judgment tied closely together the baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ His followers, even if they had heard about Pentecost, probably would not have seen it as the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, for the purifying fire of final judgment had not immediately followed Pentecost.” (IVP)

Priscilla and Aquilla (and Apollos)

Priscilla is often thought to be the first example of a female teacher in early church history. Coupled with her husband, she was a celebrated missionary a friend and co-worker of Paul, and is often listed before her husband (Acts 18:18-19, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). At Rome, one of the house churches met at her and her husband’s home. Some scholars have suggested that Priscilla was the author of the Book of Hebrews (as it is the only book in the New Testament with seemingly intentional author anonymity). It has been suggested that her name was omitted either to suppress its female authorship, or to protect the letter itself from suppression. (Wikipedia)

Aquila, husband of Priscilla, was originally from Pontus and also was a Jewish Christian. According to church tradition Paul made him a bishop in Asia Minor.

Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria which has lead some to speculate that he preached in the allegorical style of Philo, a highly influential first century Jewish philosopher. Apollos became a major figure in Corinth, so much so that the members of the church identified themselves as either followers of Paul or Apollos. Apollos is another of the supposed authors of the book of Hebrews.

Artemis of the Ephesians

Artemis of Ephesus was the mother-goddess of fertility. The temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It supposedly could hold up to 50,000 people and covered an area four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens, or 400 feet by 200 feet in size. (GCI)

Artemis was most often depicted as a multi-breasted woman. She had animals on her skirt to show she had the power over them since she is the supreme “ghost goddess,”  and the signs of the zodiac were around her neck to show she could mediate between her followers and their astrological fate. Artemis was believed to have unsurpassed cosmic power. She was called Savior, Lord, Queen of the Cosmos and heavenly goddess. Each year in March or April, Ephesus hosted the month-long festival Artemisa, a time of carnival and religious celebration. Pilgrims flocked from all over the Empire to participate in the impressive ceremonies to Artemis, including offerings at her sacred grove, to enjoy athletics, plays and concerts, and to partake of great banquets and revelry. (IVP)

Worship of Artemis was part of Greek political and cultural identity, and essential to the economic life of the region.

Observations:

  • About this time Paul writes his first known letters to the Thessalonians (c. 51/52 AD), and while in Ephesus he writes letters to the Corinthians (c. 54/55 AD).
  • By shaking the dust from his clothes, Paul indicated that he was breaking fellowship with the Jews. “This kind of action was performed by Jews against Gentiles, and its present significance was to indicate that in the sight of the missionaries those who rejected the gospel were no better than the Gentiles, cut off from the true people of God” (Marshall)
  • Crispus was among the few that Paul had personally baptized (1 Corinthians 1:14-16)
  • Lucius Junius Gallio, the proconsul who hears the case, was the son of Spanish orator and financier Marcus Annaeus Novatus, who, after the relocation of his family to Rome, participated in the highest and most influential circles of society. Gallio’s brother Marcus Annaeus Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, politician and dramatist, was tutor to the young Nero.  (IVP)
  • Sosthenes is mentioned along with Paul as the sender of 1 Corinthians
  • Paul mentioned a deaconess, Phoebe, as being a member of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). She had been of great help to him and others in the church.
  • Luke introduces Apollos in a way that assures he’s not a renegade preacher, but a teacher in line with Paul and his companions
  • Lecture hall of Tyrannus is thought by some to be the auditorium of a local philosopher with the name Tyrannus. Others see Tyrannus as the owner of the building, who rented space to speakers such as Paul. (Tyrannus means “Tyrant,” and it was probably a nickname reflecting the man’s personality.) We know nothing else of Tyrannus. But he was introduced so casually that it’s possible Luke’s readers (especially Theophilus) would have known who he was. (GCI)
  • The miraculous “handkerchiefs” and “cloths” that touched Paul and were able to heal others were most likely the sweat rags and aprons that Paul wore when making tents.
  • There is no record of a Jewish high priest named Sceva, though it’s possible he was part of a Jewish chief-priestly family. Some commentators speculate Sceva may have been an apostate Jew and the high or chief priest of some pagan cult.
  • Luke tells us that the value of the burned sorcerers’ scrolls was 50,000 drachmas. The drachma was a silver coin worth about a day’s wages. The average American makes $48,ooo a year (or $131 a day) bringing the modern equivalent to around six million dollars.
  • According to Paul’s letters, he was eager to get to Jerusalem to deliver a collection of money he had taken up to help the poor church members of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; Romans 15:25-32). It was a strong desire to show Jerusalem that the Gentile churches stood solidly with their Jewish counterparts, even though they did not observe the same customs. He hoped that the gift of love would increase the solidarity and unity of the Jewish and Gentile elements in the church.  (GCI)
  • Gaius may have been the man who was baptized by Paul in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14) and who was a host to him and the church (Romans 16:23). Luke says Gaius was from Derbe in Galatia (Acts 20:4).
  • Aristarchus is referred to in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24 as being a native of Thessalonica.
  •  The clerk in Ephesus reminds the crowd that the real danger they all face is to be charged with rioting without cause. Ephesus could lose status as a free city if it failed to maintain law and order through its own local authorities.  (IVP)
  • Luke seems to use the riot in Ephesus to point out that as long as Christians do not strain the social fabric of a culture through “public blasphemy of the gods,” fair-minded government officials should protect Christians from rash, illegal acts of persecutors (IVP)

Discussion:

  • Does Christianity kill culture? Note how the Jews and Greeks feel threatened by the encroachment of the gospel on their way of life. Should Christianity eradicate the various cultures it encounters?
  • Everywhere Paul went a riot seemed to break out. Should modern American Christians be bothered by how little disturbance our belief brings to our culture?

References:

 

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Acts 17

Scripture: Acts 17:1-34

Overview:

  • Paul and Silas pass through a few towns until they come to Thessoalonica
  • After a few weeks preaching in the synagogs, Paul converts some Jews, God-Fearing Greeks and prominent women
  • However, some other Jews are miffed, so they round up a bunch of unsavory characters from the town square and start a riot
  • When the mob can’t find Paul and Silas, they nab Jason (at whose house the missionaries were likely staying/meeting) and drag him before the city officials
  • The mob accuses Paul of preaching that Jesus will replace Caesar, and so Jason is forced to pay bail on their behalf
  • Under the cover of night, the Thessalonians send Paul and Silas along to the next town, Berea
  • Berean Jews eagerly dive into the scriptures to verify Paul’s claims about Jesus
  • Jews from Thessalonica learn that Paul is in Berea, so they rile up some trouble there as well
  • Paul gets sent by himself to Athens to avoid further trouble
  • In Athens Paul stirs up some trouble by debating the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers
  • Paul is brought before the local council (called the Areopagus) and asked to explain his teaching
  • Paul starts his speech saying that he’s observed that Athenians are seekers of religion but they know not the God whom they seek, and that his task is to enlighten them on the subject of God
  • According to Paul, God made everything in the universe and doesn’t live in temples. He doesn’t need anything from people, rather people need everything from him.
  • God made all nations from one man and purposely directed the diversity of the nations so that mankind would seek after him
  • Paul quotes Greek poetry to remind them that they themselves believe man was made like God and so it is foolish to try and make God like a man via idols
  • Then Paul concludes by telling them that though God overlooked ignorance of himself in the past, he has now revealed himself in Jesus (as proven by his resurrection) and that judgement was a’ comin’.
  • Paul’s speech didn’t go over super well, but a few people became believers

Historical Context:

Paul’s basic sermon structure to the Jews vs. the Gentiles

Paul’s Sermon to Jews Paul’s Sermon to Non-Jews
  1. Jesus’ life corresponded with the prophecies about him:*
    • He was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), in the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10)
    • He was descended from Jesse, and of the royal line of David (Isaiah 11:1,10)
    • He came at the time predicted (Daniel 9:24-27)
    • His appearance, character, work, etc., corresponded with the predictions of Isaiah 53
  2. Jesus’ miracles proved that he was the Messiah, for he professed to be the Messiah and God would not work a miracle to confirm the claims of an impostor
  3. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead conclusively proved that he was the Messiah.
  4. Don’t dismiss what God has done through Jesus, or else you will be judged like our ancestors were when they didn’t listen to God.

*Barnes commentary

  1. There is one true God who created the world through one person and is now reconciling the world back to himself through one person.
  2. God is, and always has been, evident in nature. He’s been close (knowable) all along, and now he’s revealed himself to be fully known.
  3. Worshiping idols is foolish. Mankind is modeled after God, not the other way around. Also, God cannot be contained by man (like in a temple). Nothing can contain the ruler over all creation.
  4. God has been tolerant in the past, overlooking wayward behavior, but now judgement is coming as proven by the resurrection of Jesus. Ignorance of the one true God will no longer be tolerated.

 

Athens:

Athens is a legendary city, and one of the world’s oldest. It was founded by Cecrops (a mythical king) and called Athens in honor of Minerva, who was chiefly worshipped there, and to whom the city was dedicated. The city was distinguished for philosophy, learning, and the arts. The most celebrated Grecian warriors, poets, statesmen, and philosophers, were either born or flourished there. However, during Paul’s time, the city was in decline and had a population of only 10,000 (GCI).

Athenians were particularly religious, as attested to by many ancient authors: Pausanias says, “The Athenians greatly surpassed others in their zeal for religion” Lucian says of the city of Athens,” On every side there are altars, victims, temples, and festivals.” Livy says, that Athens “was full of the images of gods and men, adorned with every variety of material, and with all the skill of art.” And Petronius says humorously of the city, that “it was easier to find a god than a man there.” (Barnes)

“It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together.” (Barclay)

Alter to an Unknown God

Once when Athens was plagued by pestilence in the sixth century B.C. and the city rulers had exhausted all their strategies to abate it, they sent to Crete, asking the prophet Epimenides to come and help. His remedy was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. The plague was stayed, and Diogenes Laertes says that memorial altars with no god’s name inscribed on them may consequently be found throughout Attica. Wycherley proposes, with some archaeological justification, that such altars may also have been raised to appease the dead wherever ancient burial sites were disturbed by the building projects of later generations. (IVP)

A few ancient authors attest to similar alters: Philostratus says, “And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods.” Pausanina says, that at Athens”there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones.” (Barnes)

Areopagus

The Areopagus (or in Greek, Areios Pagos, “Mars’ hill”) was the city council of Athens, and in Roman times the chief judicial body of the city. The court had 30 members and was responsible for culture, education and religion. They also evaluated the competence of visiting lecturers to speak in their city. (GCI)

Epicureans 

Epicureans were followers of the teachings of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). Epicurus’ philosophy grew in popularity and it became, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space. (Wikipedia)

Epicurus taught that all good and bad derive from the sensations of what he defined as pleasure and pain: What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. Pleasure was the chief good, and that virtue was to be practiced only as it contributed to pleasure. By pleasure, however, Epicurus did not mean sensual appetites, and vices, but rational pleasure, properly regulated and governed.  His teachings were more about striving for an absence of pain and suffering, both physical and mental, and a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods.

The Epicureans denied that the world was created by God, and instead that all matter was eternal and the world was formed by a fortuitous combination of atoms. Like other Greek philosophers before him, Epicurus thought that the fundamental components of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms) flying through empty space. However, he didn’t think the atoms always moved in straight lines (which promoted determinism), instead he thought that they “swerved”, thus creating “free will.” In the end, though, everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.

Epicurus’ view was that there were gods, but that they were neither willing nor able to prevent evil. Gods are “far off,” with little or no interest in the ordinary lives of people. This was not because they were malevolent, but because they lived in a perfect state of ataraxia, a state everyone should strive to emulate; it is not the gods who are upset by evils, but people.

Epicurus ultimately advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. To Epicurus, the social contract was not between men and gods, but just between men. Justice was an agreement that people were to “neither to harm nor be harmed”.

To the Epicureans, knowledge was sought only to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, the two primary fears to be eliminated being fear of the gods and of death.

Epicurean philosophy had a profound effect on the development of scientific thinking with their insistence on experiencing something before declaring it true; and on modern America through Thomas Jefferson, author of such phrases as  “all men are created equal,” and men are endowed with certain “inalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” who considered himself an Epicurean. (Wikipedia)

Epicureans often had this epitaph on their tombs: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.”

The poet Horace, an Epicurean, illustrates the gist of the philosophy with his famous statement, Carpe Diem, “seize the day.”

Stoics

Stoics were members of a school of philosophy founded by  Zeno (340-265 B.C.), and named from the Greek  stoa, or “porch” from which Zeno taught.

The doctrines of the sect were, that the Universe was created by God; that all things were fixed by fate; that even God was under the dominion of fatal necessity; that the fates were to be submitted to; that the passions and affections were to be suppressed and restrained; that happiness consisted in the insensibility of the soul to pain; and that a man should gain an absolute mastery over all the passions and affections of his nature. (Barnes)

God was the animating principal or soul of the world (the Logos). The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul, thus all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another.

For the Stoics, everything is subject to the laws of Fate, for the Universe acts according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter it governs. The souls of people and animals are emanations from this primordial fire, and are, likewise, subject to Fate. The soul would exist only until the destruction of the universe then be absorbed back into the Divine Essence and become a part of god.

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (Logos).

The principle idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia, or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion’). The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute ‘askēsis‘ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. (Wikipedia)

Stoic ethics stressed the rule: “Follow where reason leads.”

Paul vs. the Philosophers

What Paul Said What the Epicureans Believed What the Stoics Believed
You are religious people, eagerly pursuing truth, but you are, in fact, ignorant of the truth you seek as proven by your alter to an unknown God We have figured out life and have a well developed philosophy based on reason that started 300 years ago We too have figured out life and also have a well developed philosophy based on reason that started 300 years ago
There is one God who made everything and rules over everything, and he can’t be contained in temples Everything in the universe, even the gods, were made through the random assembly of atoms. There is no purpose behind the universe. There is a singular animating principle of the universe, the Logos, and all things are related to it, part of it. Peace comes to man when he can understand the Logos, the reason, behind the universe.
God doesn’t need human help, rather it is man who is dependent on God for everything We shouldn’t depend on the gods, because they don’t care and ultimately don’t matter. Rather, we should depend on each other.  Everything is subject to Fate, even the gods.
God created all mankind through a single person and directed where each nation should go throughout history in hopes that they might seek him out, for God is near to all of us The gods are far off, distant beings who have achieved a perfect state of peace and freedom from fear. They are unconcerned with human affairs. God is in all of us, part of all of us and we will all return to our original state as part of him when we die
 As your own poets have said, “we are like the gods” not the other way around, thus worshiping idols is foolish Everything we see is the result of impartial, impersonal atoms randomly colliding, combining and rebounding, so all things are equal.  All people are a manifestation of the one universal spirit.
God let foolishness like idol worship go unpunished in the past, but now judgement is coming, and God has appointed the world a judge, Jesus, as proven by his resurrection from the dead  The goal of life is find freedom from fear of the gods and from death. Whatever happens to us is directed by Fate, so our best bet is to accept our fates without emotion and see it through the lens of pure reason.

 

Observations:

  • Jason is mentioned in Romans 16:21, alongside Timothy and a few others as “my fellow Jews” as sending greetings to the church in Rome. His home was likely the location of the church (similar to Lydia’s)
  • Thessalonica is a large city of perhaps 200,000 people. (GCI)
  • Thessalonica represents Paul’s fifth hasty departure from a city:  previously Paul fled Damascus (9:23-25), Jerusalem (9:30), Antioch of Pisidia (13:50-51) and Lystra (14:20). (GCI)
  • Berea is considered an out-of-the-way place, of little historical or political importance.
  • When Paul is accused by the philosophers of advocating foreign “gods” the word translated gods (daimoniwn) denotes the genii, or spirits who were superior to men, but inferior to the gods. They naturally supposed, therefore, that he of whom Paul spoke so much must be a god of some other nation, of a rank similar to their own divinities. (Barnes)
  • Note how the Epicureans mocked Paul, “What is this babbler trying to say?” whereas the Stoics were curious, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”
  • Paul is called a “babbler” a word that means a poor person (or sometimes a bird) who collects seeds, often noisily. It’s used to describes teachers who have only bits and pieces of learning, but who are trying to sound learned.
  • When Paul says that in the past “God overlooked  such ignorance,” he didn’t mean that God was excusing it or failing to notice it, but rather that God didn’t punish it as it deserved.
  • Note how Paul does not use anything from the Jewish Scriptures in his speech to the Athenians. Paul is not trying to prove that Jesus is the Messiah.
  • The concept of resurrection was foolish to the Greeks as they would have endorsed the sentiments of the god Apollo, expressed on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” (Bruce)

Discussion:

  • The Bereans were applauded by Luke for their independent verification of Paul’s claims about Scripture. How often do we question our teachers/preachers? How often do we look at the texts of their sermons by ourselves to verify that what they have taught is true?
  • How similar are the Epicurian and Stoic philospher’s view points to some modern day beliefs? Is science the new stoacisim? Is American pluarlism the new epicurian belief? Does Paul’s style of aruging still apply? Would his sermon work today?

References:

Acts 16

Scripture: Acts 16:1-40

Overview:

  • While in Lystra, Paul picks up a new traveling companion, Timothy
  • Timothy isn’t circumcised, so despite what we learned about it’s unimportance in the previous chapter, Timothy is circumcised (more on that below)
  • Paul and co. are kept from going into to the province of Asia and Bithynia by the Holy Spirit
  • Paul has a vision that a man from Macedonia is asking them to come and help them, so they go there
  • When they get to Phillipi, they meet Lydia, a wealthy woman, who becomes a convert
  • One day they run across a slave girl who can predict the future. She harangues Paul by continually saying that he’s a servant of the Most High God
  • Annoyed by the slave girl, Paul casts out the spirit in the girl
  • The slave girl’s owners are annoyed that Paul just ruined their source of income, so they get Paul and Silas thrown into jail
  • Despite enduring a severe flogging and being locked up in stocks, Paul and Silas sing some praise songs that night in jail
  • There’s a big earthquake and all the chains fall off the prisoners and the jail doors are opened
  • Sure that all the prisoners have escaped, the jailer is ready to kill himself
  • Paul assures the jailer that no one has left the prison and the jailer becomes a believer
  • The newly converted jailer is hospitable to Paul and Silas and feeds them and washes their wounds
  • The next day, the local officials say that Paula and Silas can go free
  • Paul tells them that he’s a Roman citizen and that he should get a personal apology for what happened to them
  • Given this information, the officials are eager to appease Paul, so they come and escort him out of jail and ask him politely to leave the city and never come back
  • Paul and gang say goodbye to the church in Phillipi

Historical Context:

Fortune-Telling Slave Girl

Paul was followed by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future, which is literally translated: “a Python spirit.”

Python was one of the names of Apollo, “the Greek god of the fine arts, of music, poetry, medicine, and eloquence. The name Python is said to have been given him, because, as soon as he was born, he destroyed with arrows a serpent of that name.” (Barnes)

“The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus…  Later the word python came to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke — even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly.” (Longenecker)

Apollo had temples all around, but most notably at Delphi where the priestess would become violently agitated during her oracles. Every priestess who served at the temple was called a Pythia. “The usual theory has been that the Pythia delivered oracles in a frenzied state induced by vapors rising from a chasm in the rock, and that she spoke gibberish which priests interpreted as the enigmatic prophecies preserved in Greek literature.” (Wikipedia)

Some commentators have pointed out “a somewhat humorous pun in Luke’s Greek at this place. He said, ‘That when the evil spirit WENT OUT, the masters saw that the hope of their gain WENT OUT.'”  (Coffman)

Philippi

Philippi was a city conquered by Alexander the Great and renamed after his father, Philip II of Macedon. Later it was made into a Roman colony to serve as a home for retired army veterans. “Bearing witness in Philippi was the closest thing to preaching in Rome without actually being there.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

A decade after visiting there, Paul would write his letter to the Philippians from prison. It is notable that the church seems to be filled with women of societal influence, starting with Lydia, a seemingly wealthy and powerful widow (also, often considered by most to be the first European convert), and Evodia and Syntyche, two women who Paul considered to be former co-workers with him in spreading the gospel and now whose quarrel was disruptive to the church’s unity.

The Christians in Philippi also maintained contact with Paul by sending him aid: twice while he was in Thessalonica (Phil 4:16), once (most likely) in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:8) and once in Rome (Phil. 4:10-14).

Timothy

Timothy’s father was Greek, and his mother (Eunice) was a Jewish Christian. His grandmother was also a believer (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy was likely pretty young when he joined Paul on his missionary journey because a decade later when Paul wrote his letters to Timothy he still refers to him as a young man and advises that no one should disrespect him because of his age. There is a suggestion by Paul in 1 Cor. 16 that Timothy may have been naturally reserved (“When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord…”) and that Timothy may have been subject to ill health (1 Tim. 5:23, “use a little wine for your stomach’s sake…”)

Timothy would eventually be put in charge of the church at Ephesus, and is credited as the co-author of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Paul thought very highly of him. He told the Philippians “I have no one like him,” he called him “my son whom I love,” (1 Co. 4:17) and when Paul was in prison, awaiting martyrdom, he summoned Timothy for a final farewell.

It is interesting that Paul would have Timothy get circumcised so soon after arguing successfully at the Council of Jerusalem that it was faith alone in Jesus that saved people, not following the Law. Paul strongly advocated that “circumcision is of no value” (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6) and that if Gentiles got circumcised that “Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). Paul would say that real circumcision is “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Rom. 2:25).

So why did Paul have Timothy get circumcised?

“By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of a Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy.” (Bruce, 304).

Paul likely had Timothy circumcised so  that he could continue his process of witnessing to Jews first in synagogues without undue resistance, not so that Timothy could be “saved.” As he says in 1 Corinthians, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.”

Roman Citizenship

“A Roman citizen had a status in the Empire not unlike that of a British citizen in India in the days of the British Empire. In theory he could travel anywhere without problems, being everywhere protected by the Roman law. He was not subjected to the local law… and he could take matters into his own courts when these were sitting. He owed allegiance to Rome and Rome would protect him.” (IVP)

Also, a magistrate risked losing his job and damaging his political connections if he mistreated a Roman citizen. No Roman citizens were to be punished without a proper trial.

Observations:

  • This is the first instance in which Luke refers to himself as being in company with Paul (“we got ready to leave”), thus it is assumed that Luke was from Troas (nearby to ancient Troy). Since the “we” sections of Acts stop after the Philippi episode and do not pick up again until Acts 20:5, again at Philippi, many have conjectured that Paul leaves Luke here to strengthen the church. (IVP)
  • the Jews often built their synagogues near water to accommodate the numerous washings before and during their religious services. It is natural that Paul should look for Jews by a river.
  • Places for prayer were erected by the Jews in the vicinity of cities and towns, and particularly where there were not Jewish families enough, or where they were forbidden by the magistrate to erect a synagogue. These “proseuchae” or places of prayer, were simple enclosures made of stones in a grove, or under a tree, where there would be a retired and convenient place for worship. (Barnes) It took ten men to constitute a synagog. The fact that Philippi had only a place of prayer was indicative of how few Jews lived there.
  • Purple was a most valuable color, obtained usually from shell-fish. It was chiefly worn by princes, and by the rich; and the traffic in it might be very profitable. (Barnes)
  • In ancient Greco-Roman society the household was the basic social, economic and religious unit. The typical household was large, including nuclear and extended family, slaves and economic retainers. “Roman households were united in a common religious cult irrespective of age or personal beliefs” (Green).
  • Jailers are often retired army veterans, and their military skills are helpful in controlling inmates and preventing prison escapes. (GCI)
  • “Care was taken among the Athenians and the Romans, that no one should introduce new religions. It was on this account that Socrates was condemned, and the Chaldeans or Jews were banished from the city.” Cicero says, ‘No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.’ The Romans would indeed allow foreigners to worship their own gods, but not unless it were done secretly, so that the worship of foreign gods would not interfere with the allowed worship of the Romans, and so that occasion for dissension and controversy might be avoided. Neither was it lawful among the Romans to recommend a new religion to the citizens, contrary to that which was confirmed and established by the public authority, and to call off the people from that. It was on this account that there was such a hatred of the Romans against the Jews. Tertullian says, that ‘there was a decree that no god should be consecrated, unless approved by the senate.'” (Coffman)
  • When Paul and Silas had their feet put in stocks, it would’ve been “necessary for them to lie on their backs; and if this, as is probable, was on the cold ground, after their severe scourging, their sufferings must have been very great. Yet in the midst of this they sang praises to God.” (Coffman)

Discussion:

  • How do we know when God is stopping us from going somewhere/doing something? How do we know where he wants us to go?
  • Why do you think Paul asked Timothy to be circumcised despite the fact that he was on a journey delivering the Council of Jerusalem’s decision that Gentiles need not be circumcised to be saved?
  • How did Paul and Silas keep up such a good attitude “singing praises to God” in prison despite the unfairness of the situation? What would our response be?
  • Why do you think the jailer asked “what must I do to be saved?” after seeing the prisoners still in their cells? What was it about the situation that sparked his interest in faith?

References:

 

Acts 15

Scripture: Acts 15:1-41

Highlights:

  • Trouble comes to Antioch in the form of some Jews who think Christians need to be circumcised to be saved
  • Paul and Barnabas get into a fight with them (shocking)
  • P & B get sent up to Jerusalem to settle the issue
  • The Pharisees in favor of circumcision make their case in front of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem
  • “After much discussion” Peter gets up and says “God told me to bring the good news to the Gentiles, so I did, and guess what? God gave them the Holy Spirit. Yep. He purified their hearts by faith, just like he did with us. God doesn’t discriminate, so why do you gotta be like that? We can barely keep the Law, and we’re Jews! All people are saved by faith in Jesus. Done and done. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Cephas out (drops mic).” (paraphrase)
  • Paul and Barn get the chance to relay all the awesome things God did on their missionary journey (i.e. the previous two chapters)
  • James now gets up and says, “What Peter did (bringing the good news to the Gentiles) is what the prophet Amos meant when he said God would rebuild David’s kingdom to include the Gentiles. So, if God wants them in, let’s make it easy for them to get in. The only rules that we follow that they also need to follow is that Gentiles can’t eat meat associated with idol worship, oh, and they can’t go about fornicating”
  • Then the group writes a letter reiterating James’ advice and sends Silas and Judas back with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the decision
  • The letter is well received and all is a-okay (for now)
  • Then Paul and Barney decide to go back and visit the churches they started. Barnabas wants to take Mark, but Paul doesn’t like the fact that Mark bailed on their last trip, so Paul and Barnabas have a falling out
  • Barnabas takes Mark and they go to Cyprus, Paul takes Silas and they go to Syria and Cilicia

Historical Context:

Importance of Circumcision:

Jews consider the physical act of circumcision to be proof of one’s allegiance to God. It is the sign of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) and was considered so important that the need for circumcision would trump the need to keep the Sabbath sacred (i.e. if the eighth day fell on the Sabbath, they were to circumcise the child rather than wait one more day). To not be circumcised was considered to be an act of apostasy.

First century Jewish philosopher Philo said that the practice of circumcision was instituted for the following reasons, it: helped protect against disease; was a sign of cleanliness; was a symbolic connection between the heart and the reproductive process; helped males be more prolific  (reproductively); symbolically cut off “superfluous and excessive pleasure”; and was “a symbol of a man’s knowing himself”. (Wikipedia)

A more modern interpretation is that circumcision was intended as a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter “yud” (from “yesod”). Another perspective is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the covenant represents a marriage between Jews and (a symbolically male) God. (Wikipedia)

Circumcision vs. Faith Debate:

Luke says Paul and Barnabas got into a “sharp debate” with those who believed Gentiles had to be circumcised, and later at the Council in Jerusalem there was “much discussion” on this topic. Assuming Paul’s letter to the Galatians is representative of his point of view in this debate, below is an outline of what the main points of the opposing parties might’ve been:

Jewish Christians Advocating That Gentile Believers Must Be Circumcised  Paul’s Argument for Salvation of All People Through Faith
Gentile believers must be circumcised to partake in the blessings promised to Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by circumcision (Gen 17). To be one of “his people” a man must be circumcised. If anyone refuses circumcision, that person is to “be cut off from his people” A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. If righteousness could be gained through the law then why did the Messiah need to come? Why did Jesus need to die?
Jewish Christians, who say they are saved but eat and drink with uncircumcised Gentile believers, are committing a sin. Paul is promoting sinful behavior by saying it is okay for circumcised believers to intermingle with those who are uncircumcised When one becomes a Christian, he dies to his old self, including the need to follow the Law. The Law can no longer be used as the basis for judging behavior. The gospel has destroyed all essential distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, so to maintain those distinctions (i.e. uphold the Law) is to defy the gospel.
God’s promises are eternal and unchangeable. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be heirs of his blessing, and his descendants are members of the Jewish nation (i.e. circumcised). God didn’t change the rules. Before there was the Law there was the covenant, and before the covenant there was a promise. Scripture says God made the promise to Abraham based on his faith, which came before the covenant (circumcision) and four hundred years prior to Moses’ Law.  Belief is what makes people “children of Abraham” (children of the promise) not circumcision and not the Law.
The only way to get God’s blessing is to follow the Law (Deut. 28). Following the Mosaic Law leads to a curse because failing to keep all the laws results in curses (Deut. 27) and no one is capable of keeping all of the laws. Faith in Jesus is the only path to blessing because he took all the curses we deserved on himself and made us right with God.
 Abraham’s “seed” (plural) are heirs of his blessing. Therefore one must join the Jewish nation. Jesus was the sole heir of Abraham’s blessing (his “seed”, singular) and it is only when we are “in” Jesus (through faith) that we can become Abraham’s heirs.
The Law was given so that we could achieve righteousness. If we follow all the laws, God will bless us. The Law is of primary importance to living life right. The Law was given a long time after the promise (thus, it’s secondary to God’s redemptive plan), and was given to show that no one could measure up to God’s standards. We can only be saved by God’s grace. The Law was given to teach us that no one can save themselves.
The Law was given by angels to Moses, our greatest leader, (Deut. 33:2) so it must be really, really important  Angels and Moses were mediators (secondary messengers) of God’s will. Through Jesus we have direct access to God.
God’s words are eternal. The Law will never go away. The Law was an important step to God’s plan, but not the final step. Jesus was God’s plan all along, and now that he is here the usefulness of the Law is complete.
 If the Law isn’t there to restrain human behavior, how will people behave?  The Law is needed to insure morality. The Holy Spirit living inside people will keep them in check
In the end God will rule all people via Israel. Believing in Jesus just perfects the Jewish religion. God has united all people through Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus are the true “Israel”. Jesus is not beneath Judaism, he is above all things. In Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile. Christians are not to become Jews, Jews are to become Christians.
 You have to be born of Abraham (or at least become circumcised) to be an heir  You have to be born of the Spirit to be an heir. Look how God sent the Holy Spirit to Gentiles without them needing to practice Jewish laws, all they had to do was believe. Isn’t that proof that God doesn’t require Gentiles to follow the Law?

Amos

James quotes Amos 9:11-12 in his decision to describe how God had intended from the beginning to let Gentiles into his blessing. James also implies that the “Israel” God is letting the Gentiles into is the church, not traditional Judaism.

The prophet Amos (a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, c. 750 BC) described the calamities that should come upon the nation of the Jews. He foretold that they would be scattered and driven away, that the city of Jerusalem, and the temple, and the walls of the city, would be destroyed. But he also predicted that after that “on that day” (that is, the day when the Lord should revisit them, and recover them) God would restore the Jewish people to their former privileges (God would “rebuild David’s fallen tent); he would rebuild their temple, their city, and their walls. And not only would God’s blessing descend on the Jews, but it would also extended to others. The “remnant of Edom,” (i.e. “the heathen upon whom” his “name would be called”) would also join in on the mercy of God, and be subject to the Jewish people; and a time of general prosperity and of permanent blessings should follow. (Barnes)

The Ruling of the Council:

Luke states that the council decided that they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” by requiring them to follow all of the Mosaic Law. Instead, the Gentiles were simply to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood”  because “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are,” and that “God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.”

The question is, why these four requirements?

One theory is that these restrictions ares based on the Noahide Law, or the seven laws of Noah, which come from Genesis 9:4-6: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”  It is proposed that this covenant with Noah was used as a template because it was given prior to the Abrahamic covenant and therefore applied to Gentiles and Jews alike.

Another theory is that these commands are based on Leviticus 17 and 18 which outline the need for both Jews and the Gentiles living among them to abstain from eating meat with blood still in it and sexual immorality (particularly incest).

Regardless of their origin, the four prohibitions do not imply that other sins of dishonesty and immorality were permitted, these were probably referring to sins “which were so common among the Gentiles that they were not even recognized as wrong until Christian teaching denounced them.” (Coffman)

“The principal barrier to social and religious unity among the Jewish and Gentile Christians was the low standard of behavior so common among the latter. Idol feasts were shameful debaucheries, marked by the most vulgar and immoral behavior.” (Coffman)

It was commonplace for pagan rituals to “introduce indecent pictures and emblems into their worship, and for females to devote themselves to the service of a particular temples, and to devote the avails of indiscriminate prostitution to the service of the god, or the goddess.” (Barnes)

Additionally, the use of blood was common among the Gentiles. They drank it at their sacrifices, and used it to make covenants/contracts.

The meat that was used in pagan sacrifices was often put on sale in the markets, or served up at feasts. , It became a very important question whether it was right for Christians to partake of it. The Jews would contend that it was, in fact, partaking of idolatry. The Gentile converts would allege that they did not eat it as a sacrifice to idols, or lend their countenance in any way to the idolatrous worship where it had been offered. As idolatry was forbidden to the Jews in every form, and as partaking even of the sacrifices to idols, in their feasts, might seem to countenance idolatry, the Jews would be utterly opposed to it; and for the sake of peace, James advised that they be recommended to abstain from this.  (Barnes)

Clement, writing in the late first century shows that pagan worship was still an issue in the church when he says “The things which pollute both the soul and the body are these: to partake of the table of demons, that is, to taste things sacrificed, or blood, or a carcass which is strangled.”

Luke’s Account vs Paul’s Account:

It is interesting to have two perspectives on the same event. In Galatians 2:1-10 Paul (most likely) describes his version of the Council of Jerusalem. Note how they are similar/dissimilar.

Luke’s Account – Acts 15:1-35 Paul’s Account – Galatians 2:1-10
Paul and Barnabas and “some other believers” go to Jerusalem Paul, Barnabas and Titus go to Jerusalem
Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders Paul went in response to a revelation
Paul and co. were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” and “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” were there to argue their case Paul and co. met privately with “those esteemed as leaders”
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'” “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” They were “certain men who came from James” who managed to lead both Peter and Barnabas astray
Peter tells about his experience with Cornelius, then James decides that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message”
Peter declares that God had “made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” “…they recognized that I [Paul] had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles”
The council writes a letter that states that they thought Barnabas and Paul were “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and they sent Judas and Silas with the letter “to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing” “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me”
The council letter outlined that Gentile converts should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along”

 

Observations:

  • At this point in history Christianity was in serious jeopardy of becoming just another Jewish sect (i.e. like the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees).  Many early Gentile Christians would’ve felt pretty alienated from their peers. They were not Jews because they didn’t practice Jewish customs, and they had stopped pagan worship (a large part of first century life). Thus, they were between worlds. It is no wonder that there was a strong appeal for them to join the Jewish community. Paul, most notably, fought hard for people to maintain their identity in Christ not Judaism.
  • Note how the council comes in the center of Luke’s history. “His book begins with the Jewish church, dominated by Peter in chapters 1 to 5. The book ends with Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, in chapters 16 to 28. Chapters 6 to 15 form a transition, alternating between Jewish and Gentile growth.” (GCI)
  • According to Galatians, it is likely that Peter was in Antioch when those promoting circumcision came to town and started an argument with Paul. It is also probable that they successfully (initially) persuaded both Peter and Barnabas to their side. It is interesting that Luke only portrays Paul and Barnabas coming into “sharp dispute and debate” with them.
  • It is likely that the Christians in Jerusalem got along with their  fellow Jews in their synagogs and in the temple because they keep the law – they were faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They probably wanted to avoid another persecution like the one that had been triggered in Acts 7 and 8.
  • Note how when Peter and the other apostles preached there was amazement, but everywhere Paul went there was a riot.
  • “The Jewish Christians were afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.” (GCI)
  • “In effect [those who advocated for circumcision] believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews.” (William Barclay)
  • From the Jewish Christian’s point of view the entire Torah was still in force. There had been no clear teaching from Jesus to the contrary. In fact, he even seemed to teach the continuance of circumcision and various other rituals (Matthew 5:1823:1-223Luke 2:21-245:14). He certainly lived as a Jew. Why should they think otherwise?  It is interesting to note that neither the Pharisees arguing for circumcision nor those arguing against it use Jesus’ words or earthly actions as proof.
  • As in the synagogue, it was customary to determine questions by the advice of a bench of elders, there is no improbability in the supposition that the apostles would imitate that custom, and appoint a similar arrangement in the Christian church.  (Barnes)
  • Peter said that insisting Gentiles to follow Jewish laws was “testing God”  because it was challenging God himself on his actions. “It is questioning the rightness of God in his cleansing the Gentiles through the Spirit. The call for circumcision has the effect of putting God on trial. The Judaizers are saying that God is not doing enough, nor doing it right, in allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to be full participants in his body, the church.” (GCI)
  • James’ interpretation of Amos shows that “Scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s action dictates how we should understand the text of Scripture.” (Johnson)
  • James’ decision regarding the practice of circumcision and the Jewish law by Gentile converts “is based on three vital factors. It depends, first, on the revelation of God. The decision is then confirmed in the experienceof the apostles. Finally, the decision is supported by a new understanding of Scripture.” (GCI)
  • Noting that the “Law of Moses” is widely preached, the apostles may have wanted to give a decree that clearly distinguishes their teaching from the Jewish teaching. There is an implied contrast between the two “laws”.
  • The churches written to in the letter are in Galatia. Paul would write his own letter to them a few years later and recount his own version the council meeting, as well as his own arguments to not add Jewish customs to Christian beliefs.
  • It is possible that Judas called Barsabas was the same man who was nominated to the vacant place in the apostleship, Acts 1:23. (Barnes)
  • Paul doesn’t want to take Mark because he knows that Mark left when it was a only a little hard and that their journey would be very hard.
  • There is evidence that Paul later reconciled withJohn Mark (Colossians 4:10;Philemon 1:242 Timothy 4:11.  2 Timothy 4:11) He even declares later in his life that Mark is “profitable to me for the ministry.”

Discussion:

  • Circumcision to the Jews was not just physical proof of commitment to God, but also an indicator to them that this person would adhere to the moral and ethical laws of Judaism. What “proof” of belief do we require of each other? What actions do fellow believers take that we are afraid might “weaken the morality” of the church?
  • The circumcision debate pitted the scripture written about God’s promises against God’s actions. How do we accurately interpret the Word and the actions of God?
  • In which ways do we want to make converts carbon copies of ourselves? What have we made law that is not law?
  • Given the ruling of the council that Gentiles should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals” how do we make sense of Paul writing to the Corinthians four or five years later and telling them they can “eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’”? (I Cor 10:25,26) Why the misalignment? Why the liberalization of this ruling?
  • Why do you think that Paul never mentions the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem (i.e. the four requirements), not even in his account of the meeting in his letter to the Galatians?
  • How much have we integrated American culture (or Western culture in general) with Christianity? What are some of the ways we expect people of other cultures to act  like American Christians? In what ways do we expect Southern “Bible Belt” Christians to act like “West Coast” Christians? In what ways do we expect 21st Century Christians to act like 1950’s Christians?

References:

Acts 14

Scripture: Acts 14:1-28

Highlights:

  • Paul and Barney head off to Iconium after a spat with the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch
  • In Iconium their preaching is well recieved until the Jewish and Gentile leaders rile up some people and threaten to stone them
  • P & B head off to Lystra and heal a lame man (much like Peter did in Acts 3)
  • The crowd is wowed by the miracle and declares the apostles to be Zeus and Hermes (more on that below)
  • Just as the people are about to sacrifice a bull to them, Paul and Barn tell them that they’re only human and that they should worship the living God (you know, that nice supreme deity who provides food and rain and whatnot?)
  • Then the Jews show up… again, and rile up the crowd… again (noticing a pattern here?)
  • This time they stone Paul and leave him for dead
  • Paul is tougher than he looks and goes back into town with the disciples, then leaves for Derbe
  • Paul and Barnabas then head back home pretty much the way they came
  • As they revisit each of the towns they started churches in, the apostles appoint elders as leaders
  • Once they get home, Paul and Barney share all that happened on the road, then chill for a bit

Historical Context:

Zeus and Hermes

Ovid the Roman poet relates a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality. Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in. The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. The couple’s shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests. (IVP)

The temple or image of Jupiter (Zeus) would’ve been in front of the city, near the gates. Ancient cities were supposed to be under the protection of particular gods; and their image, or a temple for their worship, was placed commonly in a conspicuous place at the entrance of the city. (Barnes)

It was common among Gentiles to suppose that the gods appeared to men in human form. The poems of Homer, of Virgil etc., are filled with accounts of such appearances; and the only way in which they supposed the gods to take knowledge of human affairs, and to aid men, was by their personally appearing in this form. (Barnes)

Zeus’ name is derived from a combination of ancient words for “sky god” and was thought to be the king of all gods. Hermes’ name was derived from the Greek hermeneus (“the interpreter”), reflecting Hermes’s function as divine messenger. The word “hermeneutics”, the study and theory of interpretation, is derived from the same word.

On an archeological note: Two ancient inscriptions discovered in 1909 from close of Lystra testify to the worship of these two gods in that city. One of the inscriptions refers to the “priests of Zeus,” and the other mentions “Hermes Most Great”” and “Zeus the sun-god.”

Parallels between Peter and Paul in Acts

In this chapter Paul heals a lame man much in the same way Peter did in Acts 3.  Luke uses several parallel expressions to relay the similarities: The man was “lame from birth”; Peter/Paul “looked directly at him”; The man “jumped up and began to walk.”  However, note that Peter’s healing brought joy to the people but scrutiny from the Sanhedrin and near punishment (i.e. stoning), whereas Paul’s healing ability is received too well by the public, then the tide is turned against him by Jewish leaders and he actually is stoned.

Throughout the rest of the narrative of Acts, several more parallels will be drawn. Below is a simple list:

  • Both delivered inaugural sermons focusing on the Davidic Covenant (2:22-36; 13:26-41) in which both used Psalm 16 to explain the resurrection (2:25-28; 13:35)
  • Both healed cripples (3:1-10; 14:8-10)
  • Both were renowned for extraordinary miracles, Peter healing with his shadow, Paul with kerchiefs that touched him (5:15-16; 19:11-12)
  • Both transferred the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (8:14-17; 19:6)
  • Both confronted and rebuked a magician. (8:18-24; 13:6-11)
  • Both raised the dead (9:36-41; 20:9-12)
  • Both refused divine worship (10:25-26; 14:11-15)
  • Both were delivered from prison miraculously (12:6-11; 16:25-34)

Observations:

  • Iconium’s name is derived from the legend about the “eikon” (image), or the “gorgon’s (Medusa’s) head”, with which Perseus vanquished the native population before founding the city. (Wikipedia)
  • Note Paul’s basic argument to Gentiles: “Rather than showing how Christianity is the logical outgrowth of Judaism, as he does in speeches before Jews, Luke says that God excuses past Gentile ignorance and then presents a natural theology arguing for the recognition of God’s existence and presence through his activity in natural phenomena.” (NCC) This is a very similar arguement to the one Paul makes in Romans 1.
  • “Paul’s call to conversion and his explanation of God’s permissive will in allowing all nations to go their own way assume human accountability. He is explaining why in every past generation God did not act in judgment as he did in Noah’s generation.” (IVP)
  • Paul and Barnabas insist that the works of creation should lead us to understand that God is kind and merciful. God does not fall into a rage in response to minor matters (as Zeus and Hermes supposedly did when they destroyed people who failed to show them hospitality). (GCI)
  • Paul calls God the “living God” to distinguish him from idols.
  •  All these places Paul visited in Acts 14 were in the Roman province of Galatia. It is most likely to these towns that the letter to the Galatians was written.
  • The name “apostle” is here applied to Paul for the first time in the New Testament.  Paul would go on to introduce himself as an apostle in the introduction of several of his letters.
  • When they dragged Paul out of the city to stone him is was probably in haste, and in popular rage, as if he was unfit to be in the city, and was unworthy of a decent burial (Barnes).
  • Throughout his life Paul would recall the abuse from these Galatian towns. Near the end of his life he asks Timothy to remember the “persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (2 Timothy 3:11)
  • Lystra is where Timothy is from. In Acts 16, when Paul travels back through Lystra on his second missionary journey he meets Timothy and takes him along with him.
  • Instead of moving straight east to Tarsus, a straight shot of 150 miles, Paul and Barnabas decide to retrace their steps. As will become Paul’s practice, the apostle will maintain contact with the churches he has planted, providing ongoing counsel and encouragement. (IVP)
  • The structure of the early churches is patterned on the model of the Jerusalem community with a group of elders as leaders.

Discussion:

  • Why do you think the popular opinion turned so quickly on Paul and Barnabas (from being considered a god to being stoned)?
  • Do you think Paul’s basic argument regarding God to the Gentiles (God made everything, he can be seen in nature, he is merciful, and now he wants people to know him) would still be effective today?
  • If someone did a miracle in front of a crowd of people today, who might our culture claim they are? Would they be “worshiped” or “stoned”?

References:

 

Acts 13

Scripture: Acts 13:1-52

Highlights:

  • From Antioch, Barnabas and Saul set out on their first missionary journey
  • They go to Cyprus where they run into a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus
  • The head guy in the region (the proconsul) wants to hear what Barney and Saul have to say, but ol’ Bar-Jesus isn’t having any of it
  • Saul (now officially Paul) lays the smack-down on the sorcerer and blinds him via a miracle
  • The proconsul is wowed and believes
  • From Cyprus they go to Perga then Pisidian Antioch and get invited to speak at the local synagogue
  • Paul starts off his speech with a partial review of Old Testament history beginning with the Exodus and breezing on through to the establishment of David as king
  • Paul then points out that Jesus is from the line of David and that even John the Baptist thought Jesus was the Messiah
  • Paul goes on to show that all those who attempted to stop Jesus were actually just helping him fulfill scripture
  • Paul also emphasizes that Jesus was raised from the dead, which uniquely qualifies him to be the promised Messiah, and that he is able to offer people a level of forgiveness that even the law of Moses can’t attain
  • Paul wraps it up with a warning that if you don’t believe what is being preached then you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of God’s anger
  • The people like Paul’s sermon, but the Jewish establishment feels threatened by Paul and Barn-o’s popularity so they kick the missionaries out of town
  • Paul and Barn say to the Jews, “You had your chance, now we’ll go to the Gentiles”
  • The disciples shake the dust from their feet and move on to the next town

Historical Context:

Synagogues:

Synagogue is a transliteration of the Greek word synagogē, meaning “assembly”. When broken down, the word could also mean “learning together” (from the Greek συν syn, “together”, and αγωγή agogé, “learning” or “training”). Synagogues in the first century served as a meeting place, schoolhouse, library and court.  Synagogues existed for a long time prior to the Babylonian Captivity (586–537 BC), but they became a staple of Jewish culture afterwards. The idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves  contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people and their faith by providing a way of maintaining a unique identity and a portable place of worship despite the absence of the Temple. (Wikipedia)

The first century Jewish worship service stated with the Shema, summarized in the phrase: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Prayers followed the Shema. Then came two readings, one from the Law and a second from the Prophets.  The readings were done in Hebrew then interpreted into the Aramaic or the Greek Koin for the people. A sermon of explanation and exhortation would then be drawn from the second reading. It was the duty of the rulers of the synagogue to select the readers and the speakers for the service. After the instruction period was over, the synagogue service closed with a blessing. (GCI & Robertson)

Paul’s Sermon:

Paul starts his sermon much like Stephen did in Acts 7, with a survey of the history of the Jewish people. This is a way of establishing common ground with his audience, as well as ensuring that he’s “recognizing God’s mighty and merciful hand in the nation’s history.” (GCI) Unlike Stephen, Paul starts with the exodus (rather than Abraham), and never mentions Moses (whereas Stephen emphasized that Jesus was Moses’ true successor). Instead, Paul focuses on King David and the promises God made to David regarding his kingdom. Both speakers position Jesus as the culmination of God’s saving history.

There are some interesting differences and similarities between the sermons recorded in Acts by Peter, Stephen and Paul. Peter emphasized Jesus’s actions and ministry, and how Jesus was exalted (via resurrection) despite all his detractors’ efforts to shame him (namely by crucifixion); with Stephen, Jesus was the one greater than Moses who had come to establish a true way to connect with God, and all those who tried to stay connected through the old ways (i.e. those who worshipped in the temple, under the law of Moses) were essentially idolators; Paul sought to show that Jesus was the promised Savior/Deliverer from David’s line, and that his kingdom (a spiritual one) was now eternally established, and any who didn’t follow him would be overtaken by disaster. Similar to all of them was that Jesus’ death was necessary, that his resurrection was triumphant and that as a result the forgiveness of sins was now available to all.

Paul’s speech in Acts 13 uses several Old Testament texts to prove his point:

Psalm 89:20 and 1 Samuel 13:14

Paul quotes God’s testimony of King David: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (13:22). This seems to be a composite quote from at least two Old Testament Scriptures: 1) “I have found David” (Psalm 89:20) and, 2) “A man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). (GCI)

King David is used as a contrast to the first king of Israel, Saul. Saul was asked for by the people to be their leader, whereas David was eager to do God’s will. David “is the model for all those who would receive God’s covenant blessings of salvation.” (IVP)

Psalm 2:7

In Psalms 2:1-3, the psalmist records the combination of the rulers of the earth against the Messiah, and their efforts to cast off his reign. In Psalms 2:4,5, the psalmist shows that their efforts should not be successful; that God would laugh at their designs; that is, that their plans should not succeed. InPsalms 2:6,7, he knows that the Messiah would be established as a King; that this was the fixed decree, that he had begotten him for this. (Barnes)

Both Paul and Peter use this text as proof that this sequence of events lines up with Jesus’ experiences and ultimate exaltation.

Isaiah 55:3

“I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David” is quoted by Paul as a set up for the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and therefore he is the messiah. Paul is quoting from the 55th chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet is giving the people an assurance that God would keep his promises to David by making an everlasting covenant with them through the Messiah. Paul’s argument is that if God had promised David that he should have a successor who should sit forever on his throne, and that Jesus was that successor (i.e. the Messiah), then Jesus’ resurrection was proof that he had conquered death and fulfilled the promise because the promised successor of David, the perpetual occupier of his throne, could not remain under the power of death.

Psalm 16:10

Paul quotes Psalm 16:10: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (13:35). Paul understands this to be a prophecy about someone other than David. After all, David died an ordinary death and his body decayed. But Jesus’ body does not suffer corruption. His tomb is empty and his body has not been found. This is the argument Peter used at Pentecost, even citing the same scripture (2:24-32). (GCI)

Habakkuk 1:5

The original reference in Habakkuk is to the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians–a thing which the Jews would not suppose could happen. The temple was so splendid; it had been built by the direction of God; it had been so long under his protection, that they would suppose that it could not be given into the hands of their enemies to be demolished. And even though it were predicted by a prophet of God, still they would not believe it. The same feelings the Jews would have respecting the temple and city in the time of Paul. Though it was foretold by the Messiah, yet they were so confident that it was protected by God, that they would not believe that it could possibly be destroyed. The same infatuation seems to have possessed them during the siege of the city by the Romans. (Barnes)

The warning issued by Habakkuk and Paul are essentially the same: “Take heed lest you miss what God is doing,” (IVP) and that if the audience “held in contempt the doings of God, they would perish.”  (Barnes)

Isaiah 49:6

Lastly, Paul and Barnabas quote Isaiah 49:6 in support of their efforts to preach the good news to the Gentiles. Isaiah says that the Servant of Yahweh will be made “a light for the Gentiles” that he “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth”.  In his gospel, Luke speaks of how Simeon pronounced Jesus to be the fulfillment of this promise at his birth (Luke 2:32). “Now Paul applies [this same scripture] to the missionaries who are bringing the good news of Jesus, the Servant. Thus, Paul is saying that the mission of Jesus (the Servant) is also the mission of the followers of Jesus. It is the task of the new Israel (the church) as the servant of God to bring the light of the gospel to all peoples.” (GCI)

Observations:

  • Up to now, Jerusalem and Judea have been the center of the story with Peter being the most prominent leader. Now, Luke shifts his interest to the church at Antioch and to Paul.
  • Interesting that Paul started his ministry as an outcast (Acts 9), then in Antioch he’s the last one listed among the prophets and teachers, and within a few months on the road Paul is recognized as the group’s leader, and by the end of his career he’d be called an apostle.
  • Simeon has the Latin nickname Niger, or “the Black.” His name is Jewish, so it is unlikely that he is African, though he may have had dark skin. The nickname may distinguish him from other Simons in the church, such as Simon Peter. (GCI)
  • Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew Menahem, which means “comforter.” Saying he was “brought up with Herod the tetrarch”  means that  that as a child he was taken to the royal court to be a companion of the prince; such boys were then called “foster brothers.” The Herod mentioned here is the one who was responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist. “What a commentary on the mystery and sovereignty of divine grace that, of these two boys who were brought up together, one should attain honor as a Christian leader, while the other should best be remembered for his inglorious behavior in the killing of John the Baptist and in the trial of Jesus! “(Bruce)
  • Cyprus is most likely chosen as their first location because it is Barnabas’ native land.
  • John Mark (as in the Mark who wrote the gospel, and who’s mother, Mary, owned the house Peter went to after being freed from prison in Acts 12) accompanies Barnabas and Paul on the journey as their assistant. He has a family connection with Barnabas which is why he may have been taken along. “Luke describes him as the ‘helper’ of Barnabas and Paul. ‘Helper’ translates the Greek word hyperetes, which is used of a synagogue attendant.” (GCI) It is not known why Mark left them later in the trip, but his leaving would eventually cause a rift between Barnabas and Paul.
  • This first missionary journey establishes Paul’s pattern of beginning his missionary work in a city by starting within the synagogue, then reaching outward to the Gentiles.
  • Luke often shows that Roman officials were sympathetic to the gospel message. Sergius Paulis “wanted to hear the word of God.”  Though this may have been more of “an official inquiry into the nature of what the missionaries were proclaiming in the synagogues so that the proconsul might know how to deal with the charges already laid against these wandering Jewish evangelists and head off any further disruptions within the Jewish communities. Like a ‘command performance,’ the invitation could not have been refused.” (Longenecker)
  • Bar-Jesus means “Son of Jesus” (most likely because his father’s name was Jesus or Joshua). However, Paul does a play on words with his name and calls him the Son of the Devil (Bar Satan). Elymas (the man’s other name) means “wise” in Arabic, but Luke infers that it really mean’s he’s a man using his wisdom and skills to be a deceiver.
  • This chapter is where Saul starts officially going by the name Paul.
  • During the trip to Perga Luke no longer speaks of “Barnabas and Saul.” From now on, Paul is usually in first place, ahead of Barnabas. Luke speaks of “Paul and his companions,” which literally means “those around Paul.” This expression indicates that Paul is the leader of the group. Luke appears to be signaling to his readers that Paul has become the dominant partner in the missionary team. (GCI)
  • To reach Antioch of Pisidia the missionaries have to cross the Taurus mountains — a difficult and dangerous journey. The Pisidian highlands are subject to sudden flooding. Another danger is from brigands, as the Romans have not yet fully suppressed the robber clans that lived in these mountains. Why make such a hard trip? Some commentators speculate that Paul or someone in the party became ill while in Perga, perhaps a victim of malaria that plagues the marshy coastal strip of Asia Minor. In Paul’s later letter to the churches in Galatia he says that he came to them because he was ill. Another view is that Paul has a practical reason for going to Pisidian Antioch: The town sits astride the Via Sebaste, the Roman road from Ephesus going to the Euphrates. (GCI) Some commentators speculate that they went to Pisidian Antioch because Sergius Paulis had relatives there and sponsored the next leg of their journey. (Witherington)
  • Why did Paul and Barnabas have a chance to speak at the synagogue?  First, this was not necessarily their first Sabbath at the synagogue. Paul and Barnabas may have known to the synagogue rulers or officials. Secondly, Paul’s dress may have identified him as a rabbi and Pharisee, thereby giving him some authority.
  • Paul’s declaration that Jesus provided better “justification” than the Law meant that through Jesus a person is finally and permanently declared to be righteous (made right with God). Forgiveness of sins through the Law needed to be perpetually sought.
  • “God-fearing women of high standing” meant Roman women who are attracted to Judaism. These women were leveraged to influence their husbands, the leading men or magistrates of the city, to help drive Paul and Barnabas out of town. (IVP)
  • It was customary for Jews to shake off the dust of a pagan town from their feet when they returned to their own land, as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did not worship God.  (Marshall) It was also something Jesus had told his disciples to do in the face of rejection.

Discussion:

  • What do you think Paul and Barnabas’ view of their own success was? They met with a high official, bested a sorcerer, won converts, yet were driven out of town. How would you feel if your missionary trip began with such promise and ended in such turmoil?
  • What do you make of Paul’s emphasis on using Old Testament scriptures to show Jesus as the heir to the throne of David? Why did he emphasis these particular points with his audience? Why threaten them with the prophecies of Habakkuk at the end? Is this still a legitimate line of reasoning when discussing the gospel with 21st century Americans? What establishes Jesus’ legitimacy as Lord and Savior in today’s context? What warning can be given to someone for not listening to the gospel?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • How do we hear the Holy Spirit?  How many days/weeks/years did the Christians at Antioch fast before they heard something?
  • Paul took a text that didn’t appear to be about Jesus and showed his audience how Jesus was part of that narrative. The Jews didn’t necessarily see their history or their scriptures pointing to Jesus (or the type of Messiah he was). Jesus could only be seen in those things by applying a new perspective. What truths/texts/histories can we point to today to show Jesus to our own culture? For the last century or show Christians have shied away from science, psychology, philosophy and other religions as sources of truth in our culture that Jesus can be found within. If there’s a truth somewhere, isn’t it God’s?

Acts 12

Scripture: Acts 12:1-25

Highlights:

  • King Herod (Agrippa I) decides to start persecuting the church which leads to James (the apostle) losing his head
  • Herod sees that he can win favor with the Jews if he starts killing Christians, so he nabs Peter
  • Peter is being kept under guard by 16 soldiers until the Passover festival is over, at which point Herod plans to off him
  • The night before his execution Peter is awoken by an angel (via a swift kick in the side (paraphrase))
  • The angel tells Petey to get dressed and follow him (which he does) and leads him out of prison and into the city
  • Peter finds his way to the house of Mary (the mother of John Mark) and knocks on the door
  • Rhoda (the servant) tells everyone inside that Peter is at the door. They tell her she’s cray cray and that it’s probably only Peter’s guardian angel.
  • Peter keeps a knockin’ and they finally let him in, at which point they are suitably astounded, and then Peter skips town
  • When Herod finds Pete missing the next day he has the jail guards executed
  • Later, Herod is at a shindig where everyone remarks that he’s so awesome he reminds them of a god
  • The real God is unimpressed with Herod, so Herod dies of worms

Historical Context:

Herod:

Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Herod the Tetrarch. He was king of Palestine from 42 to 44 AD. He ruled over “Israel, including Judea, Galilee, Batanaea and Perea. From Galilee his territory extended east to Trachonitis.” (Wikipedia)

When Agrippa was younger, his father was  murdered, so Herod the Great sent him to live in the imperial court in Rome. While living in Rome, Agrippa became a favorite of (current emperor) Tiberius as well as a friend of (the future emperor) Claudius.

However, one day Agrippa was over heard saying he hoped Tiberius would die so that Caligula could become emperor, and so he was cast into prison.

When Tiberius did die and Caligula was made emperor, Agrippa was “set free and made governor first of the territories of Batanaea and Trachonitis that his cousin Philip the Tetrarch had held, then of the tetrarchy of Lysanias, with the title of ‘king’. Caligula also presented him with a golden chain of a weight equal to the iron one he had worn in prison. In 39, Agrippa returned to Rome, and brought about the banishment of his uncle, Herod Antipas, whose tetrarchy over Galilee and Peraea he then was granted.” (Wikipedia)

“Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana [Roman Peace] through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive.” (Longenecker)

Agrippa was “anxious to placate his Jewish subjects while retaining the favour of the Romans. So he built theatres and held games for the Romans and Greeks and slew the Christians to please the Jews.” (Baker)

Right before he died, Agrippa was a the height of his power. Rome had given him lots of territory to rule over, and as a result of the famine, the surrounding cities were dependent on him for sustenance. The event that preceded Agrippa’s death may have been either a festival celebrated every five years in honor of the foundation of Caesarea, (March 5, a.d. 44 ), or the emperor’s birthday (August 1, a.d. 44), or even a celebration of emperor Claudius’ return from Britain (an event widely celebrated around the Roman empire). According to the first-century historian Josephus, after a few days of festivities Agrippa “put on a garment made wholly of silver, truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning, the silver of his garment reflecting the sun’s rays, spreading a horror over those that looked …. His flatterers cried, from one place, and another, that he was a god, adding, Be merciful to us; for, although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature …. Presently a severe pain arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner …. Herod said, ‘I whom you call a god am presently commanded to depart this life …. I am bound to accept what Providence allots.'”

Josephus also reported that Agrippa lingered for five days and said that the rotting of his flesh produced worms.

James:

James and his brother John are among the first disciples to join Jesus. The two brothers were fishermen by trade, and earned the nickname “sons of thunder,” most likely due to their fiery tempers (as exemplified by their desire to call down fire on a Samaritan town). James was also among the select few apostles who bore witness to Jesus’ Transfiguration.

James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament, and the method of his death (beheading by a sword) would’ve been considered a shameful way to die by Jewish standards. (Baker)

“It should be noted that the New Testament records no appointment of a successor to James. Why? He is still an apostle, still ‘reigning over the twelve tribes of (spiritual) Israel’ as Jesus promised (Matthew 19). Death never removed an apostle. It was not death but transgression that removed Judas.” (Coffman)

In an interesting side note, James was the first apostle to die and John, his brother, was probably the last.

Observations:

  • James death most likely took place about 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Herod’s persecution may have stemmed from word of Peter’s interaction with Cornelius. The event may have revived the anti-orthodox threat (disrespect for the temple and Moses) the Jews felt from Christians as they did when Stephen gained traction among the Grecian Jews (Acts 7).
  • “Days of unleavened bread” refers to the annual Passover feast. Once more, Peter is likened to Jesus in that is was at Passover that Christ faced death.
  • Herod was waiting to kill Peter because “the stricter Jews regarded it as a profanation to put a person to death during a religious festival” (Hackett)
  • “Four squads of four soldiers each” would be sixteen men appointed to guard Peter. It is probable that Herod heard of Peter’s former escape from the Sanhedrin’s imprisonment.
  • Peter was probably kept in the Antonia fortress, the military barracks where Paul would later be confined (Acts 21) (GCI)
  • The Greek words translated as “earnestly praying ” implies that “it was incessantly kept up, always going on. Thus it was a kind of perpetual prayer meeting that the church organized on behalf of Peter.” (Coffman)
  • Peter was probably awoken between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M., the hours between when changes in the guards would’ve been made.
  • It is thought that the “iron gate leading to the city” took twenty-five men to open and close.
  • Mary, the mother of John Mark (the author of the Gospel of Mark), and aunt of Barnabas, was most likely a wealthy woman. She had a house large enough to contain a church gathering, a courtyard and a gate attended by a servant. It was probable that the disciples had been in the habit of meeting in her house and that Rhoda knew Peter and his voice from his frequent visits there.
  • Many first century Jews believed that every person had a guardian angel; Jesus even hints at this belief during his reference to the angels of little children in Matthew 18:10, as being angels of the highest rank. (Coffman) The angel would’ve been perceived as a “kind of spirit counterpart resembling the person.” (GCI)
  • Regarding the believer’s response to Peter’s knocking at the door, it is interesting to note that the apostles had a similar reaction to the women who claimed to  to have seen Jesus risen from the dead. “The disciples said [the womens’] words ‘seemed to them like nonsense.'” (GCI)
  • The “Code of Justinian shows that a guard who allows a prisoner to escape is subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered. This explains why the jailor at Philippi is about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped (Acts 16:27). It’s the reason the soldiers want to kill the prisoners, including Paul, who are on the shipwrecked boat. They don’t want the prisoners to escape, because if the prisoners escape, the guards will have to suffer their penalty.” (GCI)
  • The chapter begins “with the future of the Jerusalem church being in grave doubt, with one of its leaders killed and its chief spokesperson awaiting trial and execution. But the tale ends with Peter’s escape, the death of the despot, and the church growing and spreading.” (GCI)

Discussion:

  • Why was Peter saved but not James?
  • Even though the Christians were praying for Peter’s rescue, why do you think they failed to believe it when it actually happened?
  • What point is Luke trying to make by contrasting Peter’s escape from prison and Herod’s own exaltation and subsequent death?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • Regarding Herod’s death: Luke saw it as God’s judgment (most likely for persecuting the Christians), whereas Josephus told it as the unfortunate death of a great man. Which perspective is true? How can we determine God’s actions from those of nature? Couldn’t Herod have been sick for a long time and it was just coincidence that he keeled over after being praised as a God?
  • Since the Enlightenment there has been a division between what can be explained by science and reason and what can be attributed to God. There is still the perception that only that which we can’t explain (either through ignorance or lack of discovery) can be called God. “God is the unexplainable,” is the belief many still hold (which is ironic given that what we have in scripture is God constantly revealing his nature, character and motivations). Many people (both Christian and non Christian) think that if science can explain it, it must not be “supernatural” and therefore unrelated to God. Perhaps it’s time to challenge this belief. Why can’t God act in nature? Is there really such a thing as “supernatural” or is there simply things we haven’t explained yet. By following the logic of the Enlightenment, at some point we will be able to explain everything in the universe via science, and therefore there would be no God. Can this be true? Can’t something be explained by science and reason and still be a statement of faith in God?
  • Maybe the most important thing about determining if something is God’s actions or simply science is people having the discussion/debate. “What if it was God’s intent? Or what if it wasn’t?” is a powerful conversation to have.