Eutychus, the Fall Guy

Acts 20:1-16

Once order was restored in Ephesus, Paul proceeded to depart for Jerusalem.  Luke continues his faithful detailed reporting of their route, their actions, and their timing.

v. 1

Remember that Paul had spent three years in Ephesus at this point, and had developed close personal relationships with many there, especially among believers.  His departure would have necessarily been emotional, and he would have wanted it to be a face-to-face goodbye with as many of them as possible.  (Note that this “going-away party” is in marked contrast with his final contact with the leaders of the church soon to be described in vv. 17-38).

The Greek text literally says that Paul “sent for the disciples.”  It’s interesting to note that Luke does not say “sent for the church” or “sent for the believers.”  This term “disciples” deserves careful attention.  While it is the same word used in the Gospels for “The Twelve,” this use does not mean them.  The Gospels also speak of the “disciples of the Pharisees” and of the larger throng that followed Jesus throughout His ministry.  Modern theology, and especially modern evangelicalism has a penchant for putting certain words on a pedestal and thus narrowing their meaning.  Evangelicals today make much of “discipleship” and the “making of disciples”, bringing to mind certain characteristics in believers that go beyond salvation.  Believers are saved, but disciples participate in additional efforts such as  accountability, daily devotions, door-to-door witnessing, and more.  There is a danger of pride if “disciples” come to see themselves as better than mere “believers!”  Sometimes pressure to become a “disciple” can overshadow the simple joy and motivation of being saved in the first place.  The root of modern discipleship efforts lies in that most sacred of sacred cows, the so-called Great Commission which we have addressed before at length as being part of Israel’s program for the Millennial Kingdom, and not part of this present Age of Grace.  Paul’s commission and ministry, under direct revelation from the risen and glorified Christ, went in different directions to a different people than Christ’s instructions to The Twelve in preparation for the Kingdom which today has been temporarily set aside.

To the people of Paul’s day, the word commonly meant only “followers” or “pupils,” learners and perhaps genuine adopters.  So the ones that Paul sent for were those who had adopted his good news as their own and associated with him. Yes, Paul “made disciples” in the sense that through preaching of his unique revelation many became his pupils, adopted his good news of salvation by grace, and followed his message.  These are the ones he gathered together on the eve of his departure from Ephesus.

It’s interesting to investigate a particular word in this verse – the word that describes what Paul did with these followers once they were gathered.  A check of several translations shows quite a variety:

  • Embraced them (KJV)
  • Encouraged them (NIV, New KJV)
  • Exhorted them (NASB, RSV)
  • Preached a farewell message to them (Living Bible)

I personally don’t think any of these are adequate in and of themselves.  The Greek word is one we have encountered before.  It’s parakalesas, from the same word used when the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Comforter.”  The prefix para means “along-side,” while kaleo means “to call.”  Visually, it’s the image of compassionately calling a hurting acquaintance to join you in a walk.  It implies ALL of those translated terms!  Sometimes we stop, face them, and put our hands on their shoulders; other times we walk side by side with an arm around their shoulders; and, yes, sometimes a simple hug communicates everything.  The love and care demonstrated in the very calling itself, the touching, the companionship, and carefully-chosen words all result in exhortation and encouragement.  In short, hurting brother or sister is built up.  And in this specific verse the church in Ephesus is prepared for Paul’s future absence from them.

I well recall when a former pastor and his family, who had ministered in our midst for several years, gathered certain members of our local body for a dinner – to announce his resignation and inform us of God having called them to minister in a different distant community.  It was the beginning of a goodbye process that lasted several weeks, and there was not a dry eye in the room, for they were greatly loved.

The verse closes with Paul leaving this farewell meeting and setting out for Macedonia.  This seems like an odd way to get to Jerusalem, which was in the opposite direction!  A little geography refresher is in order.  In Chapters 16- 18 we read about Paul’s second journey following the great council meeting in Jerusalem to validate Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.  He travelled by land north and then east around the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, through Syria, Cilicia, Galatia, and Pisidia – modern-day Turkey between the Mediterranean to the south and the Black Sea to the north.  The Holy Spirit forbade them to go further west into Asia, Mysia, and Bithynia.  They skirted northward, travelling along the border between Asia and Bithynia, passed through Mysia and eventually came to Troas on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea.  It was there Paul had his vision of a man of Macedonia, asking him to “come over… and help us.”

Macedonia was on the opposite side of the Aegean Sea from Troas.  They sailed along the north coast past Samothrace to Neapolis, the port city of Philippi, in the region of Thrace, and then travelled by land westward into Macedonia (New Testament Thrace and Macedonia are modern-day Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania).  From there they travelled down the west coast of the Aegean Sea through Achaia (modern-day Greece), stopping in Athens, Corinth, and then sailing back eastward across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus.  From there he returned once again to Antioch.  Luke squeezed a lot of history into just three chapters!  Included in that second journey were Paul’s brief stays in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, then his discussions with the philosophers of Athens, then 18 months in Corinth, followed by a brief stay in Ephesus before returning to Antioch.

Now Luke is squeezing again.  Paul sets out from Antioch heading westward along the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea as in his previous journey, stopping at each of the previous churches to encourage them.  This time he comes directly through Asia to Ephesus, and stays for two years.  As a result, “all of Asia heard the word of the Lord” – the very region where the Holy Spirit had forbidden them to enter on their previous journey!  His stay in Ephesus culminates with the silversmith’s riots which we studied in the previous post.

v. 2-3a

From Ephesus, then, he circled around the north shore of the Aegean Sea through Troas, Philippi, and Berea, and all the way down into Greece to Corinth.  Luke describes this lengthy journey – both time- and distance-wise – as “those districts,” and what was accomplished as “much exhortation.”  He notes that Paul spent three months there.  (Remember that verse numbering is not part of the actual text – it was added much later by theologians.  This “three month” phrase belongs at the end of verse 2, not the beginning of verse 3.)

v. 3b

Paul’s intent apparently was to return to Jerusalem directly by sailing from Corinth’s port city of Cenchrea to distant Syria, crossing the Aegean Sea to Miletus or thereabouts first.  However, Jews apparently caught wind of his plans and his whereabouts, and over those three months developed a plot to kill him. Luke doesn’t give us any information about which Jews or from where, and it’s not the first such plot or the last.

Luke says this resulted in an immediate change in plans.  Again, translations vary in describing what went on in Paul’s mind.  NASB says he “determined” to return back through Macedonia instead;  KJV says he “purposed”; NIV says he “decided.”  The Greek word is gnome, derived from ginosko, which Zodhiates defines as “to discern, … capacity of judgment, faculty of discernment as far as conduct is determined.” (Word Studies – Lexical Aids to the New Testament, #1106)  This is not the same word as when Paul “made up his mind” to go to Jerusalem in 19:21.  He was not “determined,” rather he discovered the plot (discerned it) and judiciously changed his route to avoid it.

So back around the horseshoe of the Aegean coastline he went.

vv. 4-6

Luke lists Paul’s associates in Corinth at that time, noting in v5 that they were sent on ahead, perhaps as a diversion, and were waiting for him at Troas.  The list reads like a list of the Macedonian, Asian and Galatian churches themselves – Sopater from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus of Thessalonika, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy from Lystra, and Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia Minor.

In verse 6 Luke reveals that he (and perhaps others) remained with Paul as they journeyed through Macedonia to Philippi.  They remained in Philippi through the days of Unleavened Bread, and rejoined the others five days later in Troas, and remained there for seven more days.

It’s interesting that Luke uses a Jewish holiday, the Days of Unleavened Bread, to pin down the time of this brief visit to Philippi.  This holiday’s origin dates back to the day that Moses led Israel out of Egypt – in such a hurry that they had no time for their bread to be leavened or to rise.  Consequently it is associated with the Jewish Passover, which of course coincided with the “last supper” of the Lord with His disciples before His crucifixion.  We must remember that Paul was Jewish himself, and always had a burden for his “own people,” as evidenced by his participating in certain Jewish vows.  However, as a “calendar marker,” it was a time commonly known by both Jews and Christians, and Luke likely used it without implying any particular religious significance.

vv. 7-12

Here Luke gives us an interesting anecdote.  Still in Troas, the local believers and Paul’s entourage gathered for fellowship and teaching on the “first day of the week.”  C. R. Stam suggests that this was actually a Saturday night, the evening following the Jewish Sabbath, which ended at 6:00 PM.  In Jewish reckoning, 6:01 PM was already “the first day of the week.”

The place where they gathered was apparently a three-story home with a large “upper room” lit by many oil lamps. One of the attendees, a young man named Eutychus (probably a teenager) was sitting on the sill of a third-story window.  As the evening wore on and Paul continued to teach and preach, Eutychus “fell” asleep — all the way to the pavement below.  Others in the group raced to his aid, and apparently lifted him from the ground on arrival.  Their diagnosis was heart-wrenching: he was dead.

Paul, however, apparently watched the scene from above.  On seeing their conclusion, he joined them on the street.  With great compassion he knelt and took the boy into his own arms.  Within moments Paul announced that the boy was not dead.  By verse 12 Luke relates that the boy was “taken away” alive, probably to his home by his family.  Paul returned to the upper room, ate in fellowship with the group, and they all lingered until dawn, talking through the night.

Luke’s description, as the “beloved physician”, is surprisingly terse compared to other passages.  Under the Holy Spirit’s direction, he gives no indication that this was a “miraculous resurrection.”   It happened in a small intimate setting and made no flashy impression on unbelievers or Jews.  The only thing it accomplished was the comforting and encouragement of those present.  At the same time, Luke gives no details of specific injuries or necessary recuperation. The incident didn’t disrupt their time together – it apparently was taken in stride, for afterward they picked up where they left off.

Paul, of course, DID perform miracles, and this was not beyond the reach of the God he served.  Today we often refer to medical recoveries as “miraculous.”  But I don’t think we mean the kind of miracles such as the raising of Lazarus or Paul’s re-entry into Lystra after being stoned by the Jews.  Luke – and the Holy Spirit – simply do not give us enough information to determine which level of “miracle” happened here.

In any case, when the meeting finally dispersed at sunrise, Paul and his companions boarded ship and set sail for Jerusalem by way of Miletus.

Next time: Farewell Instructions to Ephesian Leaders

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Great is Diana of the Ephesians!

Acts 19:21 – 20:2

Luke has just concluded the story of Sceva the Sorcerer and his seven sons.  In co-opting Paul’s authority by claiming to cast out demons by imitating Paul’s use of the name of Jesus Christ, they suddenly were confronted, basically shredded, and physically cast out (of the building) themselves by a whirling dervish of a demon who acknowledged the authority of Jesus Christ over him, was well-versed in the ministry and doctrine of Paul, but sarcastically wanted to know who they thought they were!  Ephesus apparently was a seat of a mixture of Judaism and black magic.  As a result of this episode, this community of sorcery was shaken to its roots, a king’s ransom in sorcery books was burned, and many came to believe in Christ.

As always, I encourage you to read this entire passage for yourself in a reliable translation before proceeding to the following discussion.  Always hold the Word of God in higher authority than my words, and not the other way around!

vv. 21-22

Once the furor had died down, Paul “purposed in the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, backtracking through Macedonia and Achaia.  “…purposed in the spirit” in the Greek text is hetheto… hen tow pneumati. This is a common Greek phrase that today would be expressed by “made up his mind.”  The Greeks thought of “mind” and “spirit” differently than we do, so they would have said “made up his spirit”.  The King James English capitalizes all references to God in any form, so when speaking of the Holy Spirit, the word spirit is capitalized, as opposed to the “spirit of man” where it is not.  But the Greek uses no such mechanism to indicate if it is Paul’s human spirit or the Holy Spirit spoken of here.

…hen tow…” gives us no clue either.  Tow is an indefinite pronoun without gender.  It would be overreach to translate this as “his.”  It would be better translated as “one’s,” making the entire phrase “make up one’s spirit.”  As such, it lends greater credence to the notion that this phrase is in effect a Greek cliché that refers to Paul’s human spirit, not the Holy Spirit.

Here is the root of an ancient controversy among theologians.  Did Paul go to Jerusalem under the direction of the Holy Spirit?  If only under the desire of his own spirit, was his journey to Jerusalem outside the will of God?  I submit it doesn’t matter!  Luke records the events that took place there and thereafter faithfully, and we see how although they looked terrible at the time (years in prison, etc.), God used them to spread – and preserve – Paul’s Gospel more than it would have if it relied only on Paul’s ability to travel freely!  God is certainly able to take what appears to be temporary evil in our lives and turn it to His purposes and eternal good, for “All things work together for good, to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)  Paul is going to Jerusalem, no matter who made up his mind!

Paul intended not only to go to Jerusalem, but then on to “see Rome.”  Rome was, of course, farther west than any of his missionary journeys had yet taken him.  Perhaps he wondered if his Good News might be spread farther and faster from that Capital of the World.  And he may, by that time, have heard rumors of believers in Rome.

In preparation for his trip to Jerusalem, he sent Timothy and Erastus ahead into Macedonia, no doubt to visit the churches he had planted and to prepare them for Paul’s coming visit.  But Paul remained in Ephesus “for a season,” or as the NASB puts it, “for a while.”

vv. 23-28

C. R. Stam provides some background for the remainder of this chapter in his 3rd volume of “Acts Dispensationally Considered” series regarding the Ephesian’s false deity Diana(later known as Artemis):

“It was actually Diana who incited ‘no small stir’ about the ‘way’ which Paul proclaimed, for the real ‘Diana’ back of that carved statue, was a fallen angel or group of fallen angels.  It is they, the demons, who were behind all idolatry… all idols represented attempts by Satan to pervert truth and divert worship away from God… Diana of Ephesus (the later Artemis) was, unlike her various predecessors, the many-breasted personification of fruitfulness and bounty in nature, and as a woman, she called forth a fanatical loyalty from her devotees.

“The image of Diana was supposed to have fallen from heaven, sent down to earth by Jupiter, but it is easily possible, especially considering its unshapely form, that it was nothing more than a meteor made into a crude statue.”

Luke records that Demetrius was a central figure among a guild of silversmiths who derived their income from the manufacture and sale of miniature shrines of the Temple of Diana with the figure of Diana herself in the center.

Paul now had ministered in Ephesus for three years, and had gained enough influence that his preaching of Jesus Christ had made significant dents in the worship of Diana by the populace and apparently a sharp decline in the sale of the Diana miniatures.

Luke tells the story in a straight-forward manner.  In verses 24-27 he reproduces Demetrius’ speech, and in verses 28-29 he describes its effect.  His fellow silversmiths were “filled with rage,” chanting and rioting in the streets.  The city at large was “filled with confusion,” and the rioters rushed single-mindedly into the “theater” (like the city auditorium).  Not finding Paul himself, they dragged his ministry associates Gaius and Aristarchus with them.

Paul apparently heard of these events, and wanted to go into the theater himself to speak to the rioters, but his fellow believers wouldn’t let him.  Some of the officials of the province who had become his friends also urged him repeatedly to not go into the theater (vv. 30-31).  Meanwhile, confusion reigned in the theater, and the majority didn’t even know the reason for the gathering.  One Alexander, a Jew, was put forward by the Jewish community, and some decided the riot was about him.  He motioned for the rioters to be quiet and listen to his defense, but it had the opposite effect.  When they figured out he was a Jew, it resulted in two more hours of shouting the battle cry, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” (vv. 32-34)

Apparently news of the uproar eventually began to reach officials, in particular a man described in English translations as a “town clerk.”  The Greek word, grammateus, is based on the word grapho, (“writing”) and refers to one who writes – a scribe, an expert in Jewish law.  In this case, he would have been an expert in Roman law and appointed as a “recorder” of all things governmental in Ephesus under Roman rule.  Conybeare and Howson in their classic work The Life and Epistles of St. Paul describe this official:

“Asia was always a favored province, and Ephesus must be classed among those cities of the Greeks, to which the conquerors were willing to pay distinguished respect.  Her liberties and her municipal constitution were left untouched, when the province was governed by an officer from Rome… Like other free cities, Ephesus had its magistrates, as Thessalonica had its politarchs, and Athens its archons.  One of these was that officer who is described as ‘town clerk’ in the [KJV] of the Bible… we may assert from the parallel case of Athens, and from the Ephesian records themselves, that he was a magistrate of great authority, in a high and very public position.  He had to do with State papers; he was keeper of the archives; he read what was of public moment before the senate and assembly; he was present when money was deposited in the temple; and when letters were sent to the people of Ephesus, they were officially addressed to him… Hence, no magistrate was more before the public at Ephesus.  His very aspect was familiar to all the citizens; and no one was so likely to be able to calm and disperse an angry and excited multitude.”  (pp. 426-427)

Luke proceeds to quote this official’s words to the unruly citizens before him.  Once again Conybeare and Howson summarize his approach to restoring order:

“The speech is a pattern of candid argument and judicious tact.  He first allays the fanatical passions of his listeners by this simple appeal: ‘Is it not known everywhere that this city of the Ephesians is Nocoros (lowly handmaiden) of the great goddess Diana and of the image that came down from the sky?’  The contradiction of a few insignificant strangers could not affect what was notorious in all the world.  Then he bids them remember that Paul and his companions had not been guilty of approaching or profaning the temple, or of outraging the feelings of the Ephesians by calumnious expressions against the goddess.  And then he turns from the general subject to the case of Demetrius, and points out that the remedy for any injustice was amply provided by the [annual courts] which were then going on, — or by an appeal to the proconsul.  And that such an uproar exposed the city of Ephesus to the displeasure of the Romans: for, however great were the liberties allowed to an ancient and loyal city, it was well known to the whole population, that a tumultuous meeting which endangered the public peace would never be tolerated.  So, having rapidly brought his arguments to a climax, he tranquilized the whole multitude and pronounced the technical words which declared the assembly dispersed.  The stone seats were gradually emptied.  The uproar ceased, and the rioters separated to their various occupations and amusements.”  (p. 432)

In retrospect, why did God through the Holy Spirit inspire Luke to include this episode in the Bible?  Luke could easily have jumped from describing Paul’s desire to go to Jerusalem right into the beginning of the journey?  It’s worth remembering that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”  (II Timothy 3:16-17)  So how, then, does this anecdote instruct, reprove, correct, and furnish us for God’s good work?  Once again, I think Conybeare and Howson have some wisdom for us:

“Thus God used the eloquence of a Greek magistrate to protect His servant, as before He had used the right of Roman citizenship [Acts 16:35-38], and the calm justice of a Roman governor [Acts 18:12-16].”  (p. 432)

God is in control.  Even when circumstances have turned to mob violence, He is able to protect His own and accomplish His perfect will, even if it means using the likes of a Philippian jailor, a crass politician representing secular government (as was Gallio), or a level-headed Ephesian town recorder facing rioting citizens. Governments receive their power and authority from God, and He is able to bend them to His will even when they are His enemies and do not realize they are doing His work.


Next time… Eutychus, the Fall Guy

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I know Jesus and Paul, but who do you think you are?

We began the story of Paul in Ephesus in the last post, and today we continue Luke’s narrative of that two-year period.  This passage (Acts 19:11-20) opens with the Jewish leadership in Ephesus already having hardened their heart, and Paul having withdrawn from the synagogue to the school of Tyrannus with those who had believed.

But Paul was still dealing with the unbelieving Jewish leadership, who were not only practicing their Hebrew religion but some leaders had also become involved in the practice of the black arts.  Ephesus apparently supported a large community of sorcery, which had crept its way into the practice of Judaism.  So Paul is once again in a position of needing to fight fire with fire, and God enables him to perform miracles as evidence to those who “always seek after a sign” (Matt. 12:38-40, 16:1-4; I Cor. 1:22).  While we understand from Paul’s later writings that such ”sign gifts” at the hands of human actors have been set aside today, such was not the case during Paul’s stay in Ephesus.  As we have often said, the Book of Acts is the history of a transition period between the Kingdom program for Israel and the Age of Grace for all people today.

If you have not taken the time to read today’s passage (Acts 19:11-20), I urge you to do so now and to pay careful attention to the words that the Holy Spirit impressed upon Luke as he wrote.

vv 11-12

Please note the grammatical order of verse one.  Luke might have written, “And Paul was performing miracles…”  But he didn’t!  He gave credit where credit was due.  It was always God Himself who performed the miracles, and Paul is merely identified as the tool in God’s hands.

Every English translation I checked indicated that these were not “miracles,” but rather required two words to describe them.  The Greek literally says, “Dunameis te ou tas tuchousas,” or “power not the ordinary.”  The NASB translates it as “extraordinary miracles.”  It was important for Luke to make a distinction between the extraordinary miracles of God through Paul’s hands from the “ordinary miracles” of those he describes in the following story.

Verse 2 gives us a clue concerning what Paul was dealing with.  At the very end of the verse it says, “and the evil spirits went out.”  The mechanism that God used is interesting in that it did not require Paul to touch those who were healed or even be in their presence.  Apparently small articles of cloth (the NASB refers to them as handkerchiefs and aprons) that had been carried by Paul on his person (“from his body”) were sent to those afflicted.  These evil spirits and the diseases they brought with them were driven out by the mere presence of these bits of clothing.  Aside from the fact that it was God Himself doing it, this “long-distance” aspect of the miracles was one of the things that made the miracles extraordinary.

John 11:44 and 20:7 refer to the same “handkerchief” as this verse.  If you guessed these are the verses referring to the cloths around the dead faces of Lazarus and Jesus, you were right.  They were the separate “face-wrapping” cloths used for burial.  Perhaps the demons recognized them and saw in them their own judgement and raising of their victims to newness of life.  In more common daily use, these cloths were used for wiping the sweat off of one’s face.  (Remember, there weren’t any air conditioners in those days!)  Whether the ones Paul sent were new, clean ones or he had used them for wiping his sweat away the Scriptures don’t tell us clearly.  But this verse does tell us that they were carried from Paul’s “body” to the sick, suggesting something of his physical body was imparted to the cloth.

The word translated “apron” appears only in this verse, but it suggests the same thing as a tea-towel wrapped around the waist of a short-order cook in a diner.  Perhaps in some cases a larger cloth was needed — one large enough to go completely around the afflicted recipient.

Before moving on to the next verses, we should remember that Luke, aside from being a consummate historian of his day, was a physician.  His terminology in these two verses is precise and professional.  In a scientific sense, his description is adequate for anyone who wants to duplicate these miracles to give it a try — and fail completely.

vv 13-14

Verse 13 gives us a clue to the involvement of the Jewish leadership community in the “black arts.”  (Ultimate proof of it will come later.)  Nowhere else in Scripture is the Jewish community described as having exorcists.  These were apparently men who traveled from synagogue to synagogue, if not from town to town, seeking those who were afflicted by evil spirits.  They had become aware of Paul’s ability, in the name of the Lord Jesus, to drive the spirits away.  Although they did not believe in Jesus, they coveted this power for themselves and tried to exorcise the evil spirits by invoking the name of “Jesus whom Paul preaches.”

Verse 14 gets specific.  Luke identifies a Jewish chief priest by the name of Sceva, who had seven sons, all exorcists, who were trying to invoke Jesus’ name in their rituals.  It is curious that Sceva was not only a priest, but a “high priest,” and suggests the level of involvement in the black arts within the Jewish community in Ephesus.

vv 15-16

Here is an example of how the artifically-imposed system of numbered verses can be misleading.  Luke, of course, did not break his story up into verses!  The previous verse ends by saying that Sceva’s seven sons “were doing this.”  The Greek tense for “doing this” means they were in the immediate process of doing it, probably for the first time as an experiment.  And in the immediate process, the evil spirit they were trying to exorcise rebuked them by replying, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”

Boy, did that backfire!  The evil spirit not only told them off, but immediately turned into the biggest, baddest kitchen blender set to frappe they had ever encountered.  Luke says he leaped on all seven of them and drove them out of the house bruised, bleeding and with their clothing in shreds.  I’ve always thought God had a great sense of humor in this situation.  Of course it’s not funny, it’s dead serious.  But don’t you want to just pump your fist in the air and holler, “Yay, God!  Go for it!!”  Little did the evil spirit realize he was going the work of God that day — the second backfire!

Did you notice that the evil spirit spoke of Jesus and of Paul in different terms?  He said he “recognized” Jesus, and he “knew about” Paul.  They are two different words in the Greek, with two different meanings.  ”Recognized” is ginosko, while “knew about” is epistamai.  Ginosko involves more than simple recognition.  I might ask you if you recognize the name “Walt Disney,” and you would probably answer that you did.  However, that doesn’t mean you understand Walt Disney completely and that understanding defines your relationship to him, as any of Mr. Disney’s close employees did.  This evil spirit had that level of understanding of Jesus!  Sometimes we say we “recognize authority,” meaning that we make ourselves subservient to it.  That is the sense in which this evil spirit “recognized” Jesus.

On the other hand, epistamai implies a thorough familiarity with a subject.  We speak of our understanding of the Bible as a “systematic theology.”  The thousands of details of scripture are brought together into one all-encompassing harmonious concept.  The same is true in the sciences of Physics and Chemistry.  Once you get the big picture, all of the details “hang together.”  We have become well-versed in the subject.  This evil spirit described his knowledge of Paul as well-versed.

We might summarize the evil spirit’s reply like this:  I bow to the authority of Jesus, and I’m well-versed in Paul’s ministry, but you are a bunch of nobodies!

vv 17-20

This “backfire” became quickly known everywhere in Ephesus, both among Jews and Gentiles.  Two things happened as a result.  (1) Fear (Gr. phobos, terror, dread, fright) — not necessarily a reverential fear of God, which is a good thing (and a different word in the Greek language), but that which puts one to flight.  (2) The name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified (Gr. megalunow, to amplify or enlarge).

As a result, many believers in Ephesus (whether they were believers prior to this episode or believers because of this episode isn’t clear) were coming (presumably to Paul or the church) and confessing their own dabbling in such matters, having realized the seriousness of what they had been doing (v18).  Apparently sorcery was culturally acceptable in Ephesus, and without realizing it many believers in Ephesus were practicing a blend of faith in Christ and sorcery — until this wake-up call.  Blending of Christianity and other practices is called syncretism.  The classic example is the blending of Catholicism with Native American beliefs in the American southwest.  But any body of believers is capable of syncretism in some form, as individuals, whole churches or whole denominations.  It is well worth asking the question of ourselves from time to time:  ”Are we practicing pure faith in Christ alone?”

Beyond this effect among believers, many of those who were actual practitioners of magic and sorcery, convicted of their Satanic origin, brought their books together and began burning them publicly as a repudiation of their former involvement (v19).  Books in those days were not churned out by printing presses or computers, of course.  They were hand-written and hand-copied, making them rare and expensive.  A marginal note in my NASB translation suggests that these silver coins were Greek drachmas, typical payment for a whole day’s wage.  In modern terms given a $7.50 hourly wage and an eight hour workday, a day’s wage is about $60.00.  Multiply that by 50,000 and you arrive at a modern value of of about six million dollars.

Luke sums up the evidence and events that had been catalyzed by Sceva and his seven sons (not to mention the evil spirit who knew far more than all of them put together).  The “word of the Lord” was “growing mightily” and “prevailing.”  ”Grow mightily” is the Greek word auskanow, which invokes the idea of cause and effect.  Paul uses the same word in I Cor. 3:6-7 where he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants or the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”  (NASB)  ”Prevail” is the Greek word ischus, a synonym of dunamis that was used for “miracles” at the beginning of this passage.  Both words imply power, but with dunamis it is the external power and its effects that are in view.  Ischus refers to the ability or quality of the power before it is released.  If you are familiar with the scientific concepts of kinetic and potential energy, dunamis is kinetic — energy in action.  Ischus is potential energy, inner unreleased energy that makes one strong and powerful.

The bottom line of this fascinating episode is that God caused the Word of the Lord in Ephesus to grow mightily, and as a result the believing community was enlarged, solidified and strengthened.

We’ll discover in the next lesson that Paul wants to take a journey, and even sends Timothy and Erastus ahead to make arrangements.  But all is not well in Ephesus, and Paul is left to deal with a new crisis — “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

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Paul in Ephesus — A Dozen Disciples

At the end of the previous post I stated, “Remember that the Book of Acts describes a period when the Kingdom program with its accordant miracles and conferring of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands is on the wane but not yet gone, while the Age of Grace we have been discussing is still on the rise.  It should come as no surprise, then, to find Paul working miracles when the circumstances are appropriate… If the idea of dispensationalism has any validity at all, we must apply it as we study this passage and realize that because these believers in Ephesus needed these things, it does not mean that believers today need them!  In God’s eyes the authority of His Word, and in particular Paul’s authority as the apostle to the Gentiles for the Age of Grace, is a settled matter and no longer needs miracles to authenticate it.”  Remember that the purpose of miracles is always to authenticate the ministry of the one who performed them (prove that God is “with them”), especially to unbelieving Israel.

The first two anecdotes in Chapter 19 at first glance appear to have Paul working miracles as part of his commission to the Gentiles.  But a careful inspection of the passages will illustrate the ideas expressed above.  Remember also that in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he tells them that the sign gifts will pass into history — a future event from Paul’s perspective, but a past event from ours.

If you have not taken the time to read through Acts 19:1-10 yet, please do so now before reading the remainder of this post…

Welcome back!  Let’s begin a verse-by-verse analysis, using our best study methods and asking God to enlighten our minds through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us!

v1  Apollos has left Ephesus for Corinth, and has apparently been ministering there for some time.  Meanwhile, Paul has passed through Galatia and Phrygia (Luke calls it the “upper country” here) and has finally come around to Ephesus.  He immediately finds some “disciples” (gr. mathetes, a pupil who has adopted his tutor’s teachings).   Note that this word does not imply who their teacher was or what teachings they had adopted.  At the same time, these disciples were associated with some community of worshippers of the One True God, and were not disciples of any of the Greek schools of philosophy.  If they had been, Paul would not have asked them the next question…

v2  ”Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”  This is a diagnostic test from Paul’s understanding.  He is not asking if they received the Spirit, but rather when they received the Spirit.  They could have answered several ways:

  • We received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
  • We received the Holy Spirit when Peter laid his hands on us
  • We received the Holy Spirit the moment we accepted Jesus

Their answer is revealing:  ”No, we haven’t even heard if the Holy Spirit has been given yet.”  Note that they did not say, “What’s the Holy Spirit?”  As students of the Old Testament, they would have known about Him and that He would accompany the coming and ministry of the Messiah.  Their answer leads to Paul’s next question…

v3  ”Into what then were you baptized?”  If they didn’t know the Holy Spirit had already come, they had no knowledge of Pentecost or of any of the other events following it!  The last baptism before Pentecost would have been… “Into John’s baptism.”  In short, these “believers” were messianic Jews (or Jewish proselytes) who believed that John was the forerunner of Christ’s earthly ministry to Israel and who were looking for the coming Messiah.  They apparently had no knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah or of his death, burial and resurrection.  (If they did, then the events of the next two verses would have been unneeded.) They did not claim to have believed and been baptized under Peter’s, John’s, or any other apostle’s ministry following the Resurrection. This is, by the way, the same state that Apollos was in before he was taken aside by Priscilla and Aquila.   Some commentators suggest that they may have been associates of Apollos who were not as ready to hear “the rest of the story” as he had been.

vv4-5  ”John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.  And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Be careful — do not read anything more into this verse than what Luke says, and do your best to cast off preconceived notions.

  • It does not say Paul baptized them.
  • It does not say they were re-baptized.
  • It does not say they were baptized with water
A careful look at the Greek grammar of this verse is profitable.  In its entirety it is “akousantes de ebapisthaysan eis to honoma tou kuriou Iaysou.”
  • akousantes (subject of sentence, plural, past completed action, active) from akouow (“hear”) = “those who heard”
  • de (conjunctive particle) = and, also, now, etc.
  • ebaptisthaysan (3rd person plural, past completed action, fact, recipient of action) = “they were baptized”
  • eis to denotes purpose or result = “to”
  • honoma (proper name) = “the Name”
  • tou = “of”
  • Kuriou Iaysou = “Lord Jesus”

A literal reassembly of the parts is, “Those who heard also they were baptized to the Name of Lord Jesus.”  Luke is using grammar that presents this event as a single completed past action.  In spite of the artificial separation of verses, vv4-5 should be read together as a single completed action, not a sequence of two separate actions.

v6  This verse describes Paul’s involvement in this process as an extension of the single action described in the previous two verses.  The immediate visible result was that they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.  Today we don’t see this when someone becomes a believer, but at this particular point in the History Book of Acts, God deemed it necessary for the sake of His chosen people Israel who were present in that synagogue in Ephesus.

v7  God is the great arranger of circumstances, and this verse is an apt conclusion to the similarities between this isolated group and what happened at Pentecost.  It is no mere coincidence that there were “in all about twelve men,” just as there were twelve Apostles present at Pentecost (having just elected Matthias to fill Judas Iscariot’s position by lot) awaiting a promise of twelve thrones to rule over twelve tribes! This is truly a “mini-Pentecost,” staged by God for the benefit of the Jewish on-lookers of the synagogue, and inexorably links this episode to the Kingdom principles of the Jerusalem church, even though it was facilitated through the great Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul.

v8  On the strength of this miraculous certification of Paul’s authority, he was able to boldly present his case for Jesus as the Messiah for three months in the synagogue — with the twelve “disciples” in attendance (as indicated in the next verse).

vv9-10  The similarities with Pentecost continued — unfortunately.  Just like the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, some of those in the synagogue at Ephesus also hardened their hearts, rejected Paul’s message (became “disobedient”), and spoke evil concerning faith in Jesus before the entire synagogue. (This wasn’t unexpected — it parallels exactly what happened at Corinth.)  As a result, Paul withdrew from the synagogue, taking these twelve new believers with him to the school of one Tyrannus, where he taught daily for two whole years.  The result was that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”

Next time:  More miracles from Paul the Apostle


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Grace Believers

Goodness!  Nearly a year has passed since the last entry was posted!  It’s a good thing the Word of God is eternal and unwavering, not like we humans.  Like Christ, it waits patiently to be picked up again where we left off…

In the last post Paul had begun his third missionary journey, once again making the rounds of the churches he had founded to strengthen the believers.  The picture was one of working his way around the perimeter, reinforcing the defenses and “hardening” the faith of his spiritual offspring.

We met a man named Apollos.  The unusual thing about him at that point in time was that his knowledge concerning God was excellent but incomplete.  (We are about to meet a similar group of men, also in Ephesus.)  Paul’s coworkers in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila, took him to a quiet place and explained to him “the rest of the story.”  God put a desire in his heart to go to Corinth to help the believers there refute the claims of the Jews against them.  The church in Ephesus encouraged him to do so and furnished him with letters of introduction.  He left for Corinth before Paul arrived at Ephesus.

We noted an important “turn of words” that Luke used to describe the believers who were greatly helped by Apollos’ arrival in Corinth — “those who had believed through grace.”  It is from this passage (Acts 18:27) that we take the phrase “grace believers” that marks the difference between those who believe as I do and those who we lovingly recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ but who believe on a different basis.

The Bible is a long and detailed volume consisting of many individual books from many different times, and we believe God has revealed himself to men a little at a time (progressive revelation).  If that’s the case, then we can reasonably expect that the way in which people in different times have “believed” can differ.  How many ways can the expression, “those who had believed through ________” be completed?  There are many passages we could turn to, but the 11th chapter of Hebrews holds not only a long list of believers of different times, but also a very important connecting thread.

  • Abel believed through sacrifice.
  • Enoch believed through desiring to please God.
  • Noah believed through building an ark.
  • Abraham believed through obedience and conversation with God and angels.
  • Isaac, Jacob and Joseph believed through promise.
  • Moses believed through conversation with God.
  • Joshua and Rahab believed through obedience.
  • Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets believed through obedience

These are all Old Testament examples, of course.  What of the New Testament?

  • Mary believed through announcement.
  • The wise men believed through astrology.
  • The scholars in the temple when Jesus was twelve years old believed through amazement.
  • John the Baptist believed through revelation.
  • The Disciples believed through demonstration.
  • Jesus’ followers believed through miracles.
  • The thief crucified next to Christ believed through observation.
  • Peter and John believed in the resurrection through observation.
  • Early believers in the Jerusalem church believed through signs, wonders, repentance, and water baptism — all through apostolic authority.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch believed through Philip’s witness.
  • Paul, the quintessential non-believer, believed through personal encounter with the risen Christ.
  • Paul’s converts believed through “the foolishness of preaching.” (I Cor. 1:21)

You object, you say?  Patience!  What do they all have in common?  They believed.  (They had faith.)  As the author of Hebrews states, “… without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”  (Heb 11:6 NASB)  That is the common thread that the author of Hebrews is trying to drive home.  The 11th chapter of Hebrews is, after all, what has come to be known as the “Faith Chapter!”

Paul himself draws a clear distinction between what Jews require and what Gentile believers require in I Corinthians 1:22-24: “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Later in the same passage Paul says, “… God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that he might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God.  But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, …” (I Cor. 1:27-30) In other words, under Paul’s message, which is foolishness to the world, God has done it all for us and we have nothing to boast about.  God has granted us an immeasureable unwarranted favor.  As Paul also said in Ephesians 2:8-9, “… by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, [so] that no one should boast.

We conclude that there is belief itself, which is the common thread throughout the history of mankind, but that there is also a mechanism through which belief occurs, separate from faith itself, and that this mechanism has changed as God has revealed Himself progressively throughout history.  Faith through obedience, sacrifice, miracles and apostolic authority have all been set aside for believers today, and have been replaced with grace.

As believers today and students of God’s Word, that places the burden of figuring out exactly what it means to believe through grace and live in grace on our shoulders.  I confess that I have much to learn yet about that.  Have you noticed that this terminology and emphasis is absent from the preaching and teaching of the modern evangelical movement?  When was the last time your pastor used either phrase in a sermon, let alone preached an entire sermon (or dare I suggest an entire sermon series) on the subject?  I suspect my own ignorance and lack of ability is not due to a failure to listen to my pastors’ sermons!  I believe that this concept of grace is the daily living out of the heart of the mystery in believers lives, and is woefully absent among us.

It is important to keep this perspective in mind as we study the 19th Chapter of Acts in the next post.  Remember that the Book of Acts describes a period when the Kingdom program with its accordant miracles and conferring of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands is on the wane but not yet gone, while the Age of Grace we have been discussing is still on the rise.  It should come as no surprise, then, to find Paul working miracles when the circumstances are appropriate.  Note that Apollos required neither miracles nor laying on of hands.  The people we are about to encounter as Paul arrives at Ephesus will require both.  The first half of the chapter (vv 1-21) includes the stories of the men who had believed but had not received the Holy Spirit, Paul’s miraculous powers over sickness and demons (even at a distance), and the Jewish exorcist Sceva and his seven sons.  If the idea of dispensationalism has any validity at all, we must apply it as we study this passage and realize that because these believers in Ephesus needed these things, it does not mean that believers today need them!  In God’s eyes the authority of His Word, and in particular Paul’s authority as the apostle to the Gentiles for the Age of Grace, is a settled matter and no longer needs miracles to authenticate it.

Next time: Paul in Ephesus

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The Third Missionary Journey Begins

Acts 18:23-28

Paul has spent 18 months in Corinth, and in the previous post we followed his journey back to Palestine and to his “sending church” in Antioch, having left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus.  We pick up the story again at v23 of Chapter 18 in Acts.

This is a great opportunity to remember that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired!  They’re just a human mechanism to make it easier to find and refer to specific passages of scripture.  If ever there was a momentous occasion to begin a new chapter, this is it.  In a similar light, we must remember that the headings between sections are added by human hands and often convey the commentator’s theology — not necessarily a correct one!

At the same time, it’s important to point out that Luke ended the previous “paragraph” with v23 and started a new paragraph with v24.  As we’ll see shortly, v23 is an effective “segue” between historic passages.  Luke simply placed this segue at the end of the previous story, and begins a new paragraph as he begins relating specific events in the new journey.  Interestingly, this first event swings attention away from Paul.  But first things first…

As always, please read the entire passage before continuing with my comments below.  Then you can evaluate what I say against the truth of God’s Word, not the other way around!

v23 – Luke tells us that Paul spent “some time” in Antioch.  Passages like these are what make it difficult to construct an accurate time line of Paul’s life and ministry.  However long he remained, eventually he felt a need to revisit the churches he had begun.  He traveled through Galatia and Phrygia — Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lycaonia, Lystra, Derbe,  and other communities that were part of the first missionary journey, modern day central Turkey.

Regardless of geography, Paul’s purpose was to “strengthen the disciples” (NASB).  ”Strengthen” is the Greek word epistayridzo.  Epi is a Greek prefix that can communicate many things, and we use it in English in many words such as epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) and epilogue (a closing remark added to the end of a larger writing).    It is used widely in medial and scientific terminology.  For instance, an “epizote” is a parasitic animal that lives on the outside of another animal.  An “epicycle” in geometry is a small circle that travels around the circumference of a larger circle, like the moon’s orbit around the earth as the earth travels around the larger circle of its own orbit around the sun.  So when epi is used as a prefix, both in Greek and in English, it conveys a sense of “application to the outside.”  The other half of this word, stayridzo, is to “make firm”   — think of Jello setting up.  Taken together, it’s a picture of Paul on the outside working to harden his spiritual children on the inside.  It’s very much like the application of nail hardener by a manicurist, only with eternity in view.

vv24-25 – Luke now introduces us to an important character, giving us his theological history.  Apollos was (1) a Jew, (2) born in Alexandria, Egypt, (3) an eloquent man, (4) mighty in the Scriptures, (5) instructed in the way of the Lord, and (6) fervent in spirit.  These characteristics are all derived from being raised in Alexandria.

Alexandria was Egypt’s largest city in Paul’s day.  It had been founded by Alexander the Great  over 300 years earlier when the Greeks had conquered the known world, and was the home of the largest Greek community outside Greece and the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.  Alexandria was the hub of intellectualism in its day — philosphy, science, religion — and anyone being privileged enough to be raised in that environment would have been seen as an intellectual.  What is different in Apollos’ case is that he was instructed in the way of the Lord and was fervent in Spirit.

As such, he was speaking and teaching accurately what the Hebrew scriptures said concerning the coming of Messiah, but not to the point of having identified Jesus as that Messiah.  Luke tells us that he spoke of things “concerning” Jesus and was aware of events only up to the ministry of John the Baptist.  We can surmise that he was still looking for Messiah to come, and was fervently trying to prepare Jewish communities in gentile lands for His coming.

Luke doesn’t tell us what brought Apollos to Ephesus where Priscilla and Aquila remained.  But Apollos did speak boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus, where they heard his presentation.  Were Priscilla and Aquila regular attenders of the synagogue as well as “grace believers” involved in what we know as the Ephesian church today?  Perhaps — they were after all Jews, and perhaps they could continue to hold out the gospel in that environment when Paul was unable to.  Or perhaps they received word of this fellow Apollos and specifically went there to hear him.  Luke doesn’t distinguish for us, and we must remember that Paul himself continued to have a tremendous burden for his kinsmen and continued to begin in each new community in the synagogue.  The fact that Priscilla and Aquila went to the synagogue (whether deliberately to hear Apollos or not) does not deny the distinctions of Paul’s message.  In fact, the very next verse demonstrates that they knew the distinctions very well.

v26 – When Apollos’ presentation concluded prematurely with the baptism of John, they “took him aside” and “explained the way of God to him more accurately.”  Notice that Apollos’ understanding up to the point of John’s baptism was described as “accurate” as far as it went.  Priscilla and Aquila simply brought him up to speed with more recent events.  They didn’t tell him he was wrong, they simply told him what he was missing.

The “taking aside” is an interesting word here.  Its not the familiar parakaleo (“calling along side” that we have discussed before.  It’s proslambanomai, a form of lambano with a prefix of pros.  Think of pros as “with.”  Lambano is to “take away” much like a tax collector takes your coin away with him.  The term is neither negative nor positive, but simply is a description of an action.  When put together, proslambanomai means that Priscilla and Aquila took him away from the synagogue environment with them (not necessarily merely aside).  Where did they go?  Luke isn’t specific, but it was somewhere where they could have an extended conversation without being overheard  and countermanded by opponents to the gospel.  Perhaps they brought him to their home.

One other interesting point:  Apollos had every reason to be proud of his knowledge and his ability to publicly refute Jewish objections to the coming of Messiah.  If we had such ability, would we have willingly gone away with someone who suggested our knowledge was good but incomplete?  Apollos did.

I have made this point before, and hesitate to raise it again, but I think it bears repeating in the case of Apollos.  It has been my experience that those who have seminary training are loathe to be told that their information may be incomplete, and that you have what they are missing and will share it freely with them if they will just look at what the Word says plainly.  That is, of course, the basis for this entire blog site — that this “perspective” is information that they are missing.  Without it they reproduce equally incomplete disciples.  The burden of my heart is the same as that of Priscilla and Aquila, only on a larger scale:  most of evangelical Christian theology today, which seems to have lost the concept of the mystery that was revealed through Paul.  To that end I persist in this project, regardless of the opinions of my detractors.  Should I obey God or men?  To their credit, Priscilla and Aquila’s bedside manner must be better than mine!

We don’t know the immediate result of this “explanation” or how long it took (hours? days? weeks?), but the end result was Apollos’ desire to go to Greece (Achaia).  The church in Ephesus wrote a letter of introduction to the churches there, admonishing them to receive him on their recommendation.  When he arrived, he proved to be a tremendous help to those who had “believed through grace.”

That’s a phrase that’s easily skipped in casual reading, but is loaded with meaning.  There are no mysterious Greek words to dissect here.  The Greek literally says “believed through grace.”  So what makes it unusual?  We have not encountered this description of Christians before!  The word “believed” is the verb form of the noun translated as “faith.”  The word “grace” … well, you know already — it’s a personal favor received from someone with no expectation of getting paid back (unmerited favor).  If ever there was a sound bite for the gospel, this is it.  What the Corinthian church members had in common (along with all the churches founded by Paul) was that they had “believed through grace.”  That is something more than “believed”.  There were “believers” in the Jerusalem church who had believed through apostolic authority.  This seems different to me — but then I’m biased, as you know.  Was this just an off-handed twist of words, or did the Holy Spirit direct Luke to say it this way?  It’s a nuance you’ll have to decide for yourself.

v28 – What specifically did Apollos do?  He refuted the claims of their Jewish detractors eloquently, accurately, powerfully… and in public.  We know from Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth that he became one of the leaders of that body, and was no doubt used by God to add many Jews to the number of those who had “believed through Grace.”

How about you?  Are you a “Grace Believer?”  Do you know the way of God accurately?Could you be missing information that could revolutionize your relationship to Christ? While at this point in Acts we are still in transition between the Kingdom program and the “Age of Grace”, the evidence of the transition — and the redirection of the message to gentiles through grace alone — is mounting.

Next time — Paul finds more “believers” who know only of John’s baptism when he arrives in Ephesus.

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Corinth II

Acts 18 12-22

Paul is enjoying an extended stay in Corinth.  According to the closing verse of our previous passage, he “settled” there for 18 months — under the promise of the previous verses.  In the very next verses we’ll see a specific example of the effects of the Lord’s promise of safety!

Paul Dragged Into Court (vv. 12-17)

Paul had already suffered much at the hands of the Jewish leadership, who always thrust Jesus as the Messiah away from them and did their best to silence him.  It was no surprise to him that the Jews of Corinth would eventually come to a boiling point, especially since his center of operations was right next door to the synagogue.  It must have been a real thorn in their flesh.

Paul must have wondered as events developed how this particular episode would turn out, but he had ultimate confidence in the promises of God.  He had been in these straits before.

vv12-13 — “While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia…”  Conybeare and Howson provide us with some background information about Gallio (pp. 326-327).  Secular sources identify him as the brother of the Roman intellectual Seneca, a philosopher and eventually the tutor of the young Nero.  Achaia was roughly the region of the entire Greek peninsula, corresponding to modern-day Greece, so it was a position of high importance and authority.  His name in Roman circles was Annaeus Novatus, and he, as described by his brother Seneca, was “a man of integrity and honesty, … one who won universal regard by his amiable temper and popular manners.”  He was an experienced statesman, and one who would not stoop to becoming mired in local politics.  (He was adopted as a young man into the family of Junius Gallio, Roman rhetorician, hence known by the name Gallio.)  Conybeare and Howson note that his training and temperament allowed him to overlook with indifference the events we are about to observe, unlike “Pilate, [who was] led into injustice by the clamor of the Jews.”

Conybeare and Howson speculate that Gallio was appointed as Proconsul at some time during Paul’s 18-month stay in Corinth.  His fame for amiability encouraged the Jews, hoping for fresh ears to hear their case — and hopefully somewhat ignorant ears.  Their case, as was the case with Jesus before Pilate, was one of their desire to carry out Jewish law under the guise of Roman authority.  They succeeded in bringing their case before Gallio’s judgement, and stated their case before him: “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”  (Notice that they conveniently did not identify whose law, a half-truth that they hoped would pull the wool over the eyes of this friendly new governor.)

Let’s recall at this moment our Lord’s words to Ananias when he balked at going to Paul after he was blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:15): “Go for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.”  Paul, of course, knew such circumstances were of God’s design, and as events develop in the remaining chapters of Acts we will see this in increasing frequency and importance.  If Paul had appeared before magistrates before, this magistrate was of much greater authority and renown.  Paul was eager to make his rebuttal — it was exactly the kind of opportunity to explain the Gospel to gentile ears that would have the greatest audience.

vv. 14-16  But at the very moment Paul was about to give his defense, he was interrupted by Gallio himself!  Gallio saw through the Jews’ arguments, and understood not only the half-truths and lies, but also understood the trap they had laid for him and their insultingly hopeful underestimation of his understanding of such things.  (Perhaps word had circulated about the pickle Pilate found himself in after giving in to the Jews in Jerusalem.)

In any case, his statement to the Jews was scathing. He attacks them on the very issue where they had hoped to dupe him into unwarranted action — the question of whose law had been broken.  If Paul’s “crimes” had been vicious or against Roman law, he would have “put up with them”.  But since they were only a matter of Jewish law (a distinction concerning which they had hoped he would be ignorant, and by which they insulted his intelligence and experience), he not only refused to be a judge,  but even refused to hear both sides of the issue.  While the Jews hopes were instantly dashed, no doubt Paul’s hopes for an opportunity to present the Gospel before “kings” were also dashed.

Luke tells us that Gallio “drove them away from the judgement seat,” no doubt similar to instructing courtroom bailiffs to physically eject someone from the courtroom — only in much rougher fashion.  The “bailiffs” would have been Roman soldiers.

v. 17 Apparently the bailffs were assisted by (and perhaps even overcome by) the audience in this gentile court of law. Conybeare and Howson suggest that the gentile community already had a dislike for the Jews, and saw this as an opportunity to put them in their place — with some violence.  Luke tells us that “they all” took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue and began beating him on the spot, an angry mob at work.  Gallio literally “had no concern” (Gr. emelen = “concern” as used also in I Cor. 9:9) about this turn of events, letting them “duke it out” on their own.

The suddenness of this turn of events set Paul’s persecutors back on their heels, and no doubt had a serious cultural effect on the Jewish community for months to follow.  This even-tempered friendly Proconsul had turned out to be smart, perceptive and knowledgeable, and would be the tool of no man.  The sheep the Jews had hoped for turned out to have some serious fangs.

In a single turn of events Gallio had disgraced the Jews, won high popularity among the gentiles, demonstrated his judicial prowess, set a precedent about what cases could be brought before him in the future, and established his authority as one not to be trifled with in spite of his outward appearance and reputation.  For Paul, it confirmed his immunity from persecution according to the Lord’s promise and perpetuated his ministry and residence in the city of Corinth.  The Jews would not risk attacking him again there, at least while Gallio was in power.

Paul Leaves Corinth (vv. 18-22)

These next verses describe in sequence the historical events and reasons for the conclusion of Paul’s stay in Corinth, which we have already noted spanned eighteen months.

v.18 — Following the trial before Gallio, Paul remained many more days preaching and teaching the new believers, and growing increasingly attached to his spiritual children there. Luke tells us, however, that eventually he sailed for Syria (the port city of Caesarea).  Priscilla and Aquila accompanied him.  Luke mentions that Paul (or Aquila — the verse is unclear about who “he” is; the next verse uses “he” to refer to Paul) had his hair cut in Cenchrea, the eastern port city of Corinth from which they sailed. Apparently this marked the completion of a vow similar to the Nazarite vow during which “no razor should touch the hair,” a mark of personal dedication.

v.19 — The ship’s route passed through Ephesus on the way to Syria, and apparently docked for several days.  Priscilla and Aquila apparently chose to remain in Ephesus, and their ways parted at that location.  In the days the ship remained there, Paul went into the local synagogue as he always did.

vv.20-21 — Apparently he met with a favorable reception, for those in the synagogue asked him to stay longer.  But still hoping to reach Jerusalem, Paul decided to press on with a promise to return to them in the future if God permitted.  This was Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, and he would have been reluctant to leave having found a Jewish community who was willing to learn from him.  But apparently his objective was of superior urgency.  Perhaps he felt that Priscilla and Aquila were capable of leading new believers in Ephesus in his absence, and that may have figured in their remaining.  He would, in fact, return during the third Missionary journey and spend three years among them.

v.22 — On arrival at Caesarea, Luke states only that “he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch.”  He doesn’t distinguish whether Paul “went up” to a local assembly in Caesarea or all the way to Jerusalem.  Since he doesn’t mention any specific meetings with the other apostles or any great gatherings to rehearse the events of the second missionary journey, we are left to assume the former, and that without going to Jerusalem he proceeded to what he would have considered his “sending church”, Antioch.

Is this a slight to the other Apostles and the Jerusalem church?  If he did not go to Jerusalem (and we’re on shaky ground here), it would mean that he felt no obligation to check in with the other Apostles, including Peter, John and James.  Why?  Recall the significant meeting at the end of the first missionary journey (Acts 15) and/or the meeting that Paul describes in Galatians. “… seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised, … and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John … gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the gentiles, and they to the uncircumcised.”  Indeed, Paul was not under their authority, and may have felt a greater obligation and longing to return to those who had been so instrumental in his missionary endeavors.  It effectively highlights the growing distinction between the two messages represented by these churches, one waxing and one waning as God sets Israel’s promises aside.  This is entirely in keeping with what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in.”  (Romans 11:25)

This is the mystery that we teach, a distinction that the vast majority of even those denominations that claim to do their utmost to live, believe and teach the Bible fail to recognize.  We hope and pray that you, friend, are not uninformed of this mystery, just as Paul hoped for his spiritual children in Rome two thousand years ago.

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Corinth (Acts 18:1-11)

Having found little success in Athens, and still alone, Paul moved on to Corinth hoping to be reunited with Timothy and Silas there.  Recall that they had been jailed in Philippi, ministered in Thessalonica for only three weeks, and sent on to Berea for their own safety.  The same Jews who had stirred up trouble in Philippi and Thessalonica followed them to Berea, where after a short time the believers took Paul to Berea’s seaport and sailed for Athens, leaving Timothy and Silas behind.  Paul instructed his escorts to send Timothy and Silas to him as soon as possible.  Paul later reminded the Thessalonians of how difficult this time was for him:

“Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ to strengthen and encourage your faith, so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.  For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.  For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain.  But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith…” (I Thessalonians 3:1-7 NASB)

There is some disagreement among scholars about the order of events concerning the separation and reunion of Paul, Timothy and Silas.  Timothy may have come to Paul at Athens, whereupon Paul sent him to Thessalonica — but Luke fails to record it, and his narrative seems to indicate that Paul received no visit while at Athens.  Paul may have sent instructions back with those who delivered him to Corinth to send Timothy back to Thessalonica (this seems most likely to me).  See Conybeare and Howson, pp. 302-303 footnote 1 for more details.  But in any case, Paul was doubly burdened for the new believers and the ministry associates he had left behind in Macedonia as he arrived at Corinth.

As we proceed through verses 1 through 11, please read the verses for yourself before reading my comments!

v.2-3 Aquila and Priscilla

Luke doesn’t give a description of how Paul met Aquila and Priscilla.  It may have been in the synagogue or in the workplace.  Luke does tell us some interesting facts about this unusual couple who would become so instrumental in the progress of the gospel in the region.

  • They were Jews
  • They were from Pontus, a region in northeastern Turkey bordering Galatia and Bythinia (this was the region that the Holy Spirit forbade them to enter prior to Paul’s vision of the call to Macedonia; see Acts 16:6-7)
  • They had been living in Rome
  • The Roman emperor Claudius had decreed that all Jews must leave Rome, so they had moved to Corinth
  • Aquila and Paul shared the same trade — tent-making
  • Paul lodged with them and worked with them

Note that there is no indication that Aquila and Priscilla were believers at this point, nor does Luke record their specific conversion.  However, by v.12 they were travelling with Paul back toward Israel at the end of the second missionary journey. Paul left them in Ephesus and proceeded to Jerusalem and Antioch without them.

By the start of the third missionary journey, while Paul was travelling through Galatia and Phrygia, we find Aquila and Priscilla explaining “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26) to Apollos while they were in Ephesus.  At Apollos request they sent him almost immediately back to Corinth, realizing that his skills in “powerfully refuting the Jews” (v.28) were just what were needed in a region plagued by Jews who had persecuted Paul, his associates, and the new believers.  He proved to be a tremendous encouragement to the church in Corinth, and by the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Apollos had become a prominent leader in the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:12, 3:4-6).  By the time of the writing of Romans they were living again in Rome and hosting a “house church” (Romans 16:3).  As Paul wrote to Timothy at the end of his life from prison in Rome, he instructed Timothy to “greet Priscilla and Aquila and household of Onesiphorus,” so they all must have been in the same location (II Timothy 4:19).  Other clues in the same passage indicate where they were not — Thessalonica, Galatia, Dalmatia, Ephesus, Troas, Corinth, or Miletus.  We’re just not sure where they were.

It is interesting that the end of the second journey is predicated upon Paul “keeping a vow” (v.18).  One wonders if this vow arose from discussions between Paul and Aquila, both being Jews and both understanding Paul’s message of grace to the Gentiles.  Paul’s heart was always burdened for his “brothers in the flesh” (the Jews), and on several occasions there’s evidence that Paul tried to keep a foot in both Jewish and Gentile camps.

v.4-7 Ministry

Paul continued his normal practice of beginning in the synagogue, trying to persuade both Jews and Greeks that Jesus was the Christ.  Let us remember that the Greeks mentioned here were gentiles who adopted Judaism as proselytes, recognizing the God of the Jews as the one true God but pursuing a relationship with Him through obeying the Jewish Law.  They were just as unaware of the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as were their Jewish counterparts.

When Timothy and Silas finally catch up with Paul, his spirits are raised and he has a renewed energy for ministering to the Jews and gentiles of the synagogue.  Luke says that “Paul began devoting himself completely to the word.”  Does this mean he ceased his tent-making activities with Aquila?  Possibly.  But in any case his more intense message had a predictable effect on the Jews of the synagogue — they “resisted and blasphemed.”

Paul’s response was strong, clear and final — a response that would be essentially repeated to the Jews of Rome within three verses of the end of the book of Acts.  He shook out his garments before them (a Jewish custom tantamount to “washing his hands of them” and breaking fellowship with them), and said, “From now on I shall go to the Gentiles.”  This is the very essence of the book of Acts, and is the most important lesson that modern believers should learn.  As Paul wrote later in several letters, Israel was being set aside while God ushered in a new era — the unprophesied Age of Grace.

No doubt Paul meant that he would no longer come to the synagogue in Corinth to argue the point.  Instead he would minister among the gentiles who had believed.  To underscore his intentions he left the synagogue and moved his center of operations to the home of a God-fearing gentile, Titius Justus, right next door to the synagogue.  But in spite of the localized nature of this instance, Paul’s statements to them are prototypical of a more universal application that comes fully to pass by the end of Acts.

v.8-11 Extended Stay

Paul’s efforts within the synagogue among the Jews were not entirely a loss, for the very head of the synagogue, Crispus, and his entire household believed in the Lord.  Many gentiles of Corinth also believed when they became aware of Crispus’ conversion.

These events  – the reunion with Timothy and Silas, the conversion of Crispus and his household, and the conversion of many gentiles — were a tremendous encouragement to Paul.  But doubts probably remained concerning the physical and emotional cost of this progress, anticipating the persecution that had always come in other communities.  But God had something else in mind.  The Lord appeared to him in a night vision, telling him to hold nothing back, for no one would lay a hand on him.  Like the hidden 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal nor kissed Baal (I Kings 19:18), Paul is also informed that the Lord “has many people in this city.”

So Paul finally had peace and space to minister the Gospel of Grace in the city of Corinth.  He settled in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching the Word of God to gentile Corinthians and the few Jews that joined them.  During this time he also wrote both letters to the Thessalonian church.

His time was not entirely without controversy, however.  In the next post we’ll consider the only instance that Luke records, events that center around the court of Gallio, Proconsul of Achaia, and the end of the second missionary journey.

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Athens — Part 2

In the last post we described the Apostle Paul’s frame of mind and the philosophical and religious environment of Athens.  He is about to speak to the highest audience in all of Greece, the philosophical leaders of all of Greece in an open-air forum.  This audience, who spend all their time looking for something they have never heard before, has little knowledge of Jewish history or the ancient scriptures.  Surely this is the most gentile of all Gentile audiences Paul has  yet encountered.  What will he say to them to try to win them to Christ?  Will the Holy Spirit break through the hardness of their intellectual pride with the reality of Christ crucified for their sins?  Surely this situation has striking parallels to the intellectual pride of today and the apparent ineffectiveness of the Gospel against it!

Please begin by reading Paul’s message in Acts 17:22-31 in its entirety.  As you do, think about how this message differs from what Paul might have said in a Jewish synagogue.

Welcome back!  Now let’s start at the top and carefully consider each segment of Paul’s message.  As before, please read each of the following segments for yourself before reading my comments.  As always, I plead with you to weight my comments in the light of God’s Word, and not the other way around!

17:22 — Paul begins by paying them a compliment.  His first impression in the minds of the Stoics and Epicureans was that he had picked up on the signs of a religious culture of which they were very proud.  The NASB translation usually remains pretty close to the sentence structure of the original Greek, but in this case it’s flip-flopped from how we say it in English.  If you’re of German descent, you may be used to comprehending “throwing the horse over the fence some hay,” and that’s kind of what this passage is like.  At the same time, I think the NASB does its usual exellent job of conveying full and correct meaning.  In Greek, Luke recorded Paul as literally saying, “Men of Athens, down from all who reverence divine things you I perceive by keen observation.”  Yes… well… ahem!

What can we glean from this?  By the way, I can’t resist “juicy” Greek words, and this verse has a dandy one — deisidaimonesterous, and such words usually cannot be translated adequately into a single English word.  The translators of the NASB translated it “religious,” and it’s one of the key words in the verse.  It can be used to represent the degree to which the devout Jew practiced the Law scrupulously in all things, and it can also be used to represent superstitions held scrupulously.  But I suspect Paul chose this word to emphasize the scrupulous nature of their religious practice, regardless of whether it was truth or superstition.  Today missionaries recognize that superstitious religions in unreached tribal societies are strongly held by their practitioners and need to be overcome with the truth of the Gospel.

The second important word is theorow, the last word in the sentence, which the NASB translators moved into the middle of the sentence to make it read better in English — “I observe.”  You may remember the difference between how John and Peter “looked” into the empty tomb.  John “glanced” in, but Peter entered and looked intently, contemplating what his eyes brought to his mind, desiring to understand (John 20:5-6).  The word Paul used is the same word that John used for Peter’s “observation.”  It indicates thoughtful perception.  It is the word from which we take our English word “theory” — Peter and Paul both saw and theorized about the meaning of what they saw.

Why are these two words important?  Religiosity was important to the pride of the Athenians, whether true or false.  Paul is not saying (yet) that the object of their religion is true or false, only that they are religious, which they would have taken as a compliment (at least the Stoics would have, and the Epicureans would have been proud of being religiously irreligious).  At the same time Paul portrays himself as being intelligent among the intelligencia of Athens by his ability to observe and thoughtfully deduce the truth.  No one had to teach him the rudiments of Greek religion, he understood them by observation and reason.  (This was a hallmark of early Greek science, which partly forms the basis of modern science.  The glaring omission in Greek science was that they left out experimental testing to see if their observation and reason had led them to a conclusion that actually worked in the real world.)

So Paul has, in few words, complimented his audience and hopefully placed himself in good standing with them as an intellectual peer!

17: 23 — Paul now explains the logical basis for his premise of the previous verse.  Why does he think they are “thoroughly religious?”  He says that as he was wandering around in the city and thinking about (anatheoreow = “theorizing”) the objects of their worship (the many statues and altars), he noticed one altar in particular — an altar “To the Unknown God.”  We’ve already spent some time in the previous post describing the Athenians’ desire to leave no stone unturned, and this particular altar (perhaps more than one) was the ultimate expression of that desire.  It was a fire insurance policy, just in case they had left any god out!  It was an acknowledgment on their part that there may be a god unknown to them, who they would worship even if He was unknowable.

The word chosen by the translators as “ignorance” is agnoreow, which forms the basis for our English word “agnostic.”  It doesn’t mean “stupid,” nor did his audience take it that way.  An agnostic is a person who believes that there may be a God but He cannot be known.  In truth, however, it’s not so much that such a God has made no effort to reveal himself to man, but that man has chosen to reject all purported evidence of any such efforts.  This is an easy and convenient position to take today because modern science gives us an excuse to reject the miraculous.  Such a God’s existence and knowability can’t be proved scientifically.

Men in general and theologians in particular have spent a great deal of time and thought concerning “proofs of God.”  At its root is the question, “Can God’s existence be arrived at starting from within human consciousness through reason or evidence?”  Personally I believe we can come close, but whatever gap remains must be taken by faith — and that is by God’s design, for “without faith it is impossible to please Him.”  Can you imagine what effect any conclusive proof of God’s existence solely by human reason would have on his sinful pride?  Even if such proof were available, it would not be sufficient for admission into Heaven!

In spite of such flawed thinking, Paul is about to explain to his audience that the god they thought could not be known, has, in fact, gone to unimaginable extremes throughout human history to make Himself known, culminating with coming down to Earth in person and …

17:24-26 — Paul begins by listing the characteristics of such a God.  He would have to be pre-existent and therefore the creator of everything.  He could not be contained in structures devised by humans (temples).  He would not need anything — no food, no dancers, no sacrifices, … none of the things the Athenians commonly brought to their altars in acts of worship. In fact it’s the other way around — the Athenians received daily all the things they needed from this pre-existent creator Lord.  Finally, starting with one man (Adam), He filled the earth with the human race — and set times and boundaries for the rise and fall of their civilizations!

This last point is important.  While the Greeks took pride in their culture, they knew the nadir of Greek greatness had passed — they knew they were under Roman rule!  This was an inspired approach (cliches aside, I mean that literally since the Holy Spirit was giving Paul the words and directions to use moment by moment).  Why would such a God, if benevolent, allow great civilizations to fall and be replaced by others?

17:27-28 — This God above and before all other gods allows civilizations and the men that populate them to come and go in the flow of history to make them question the reason for their existence and be driven to seek Him in their uncertainty!  Even though it’s like groping in the dark for the camera you dropped when they turned the lights out briefly during the cave tour, this God, like the tour guide with his hand on the light switch, is not far a way — a few feet at most.  Even though we are in darkness like we have never experienced before, we continue to exist, to think, to touch, to hear.  In a sense, a part of our being (our vision) now is “in” the tour guide, or at least in his hands.

Paul drives the point home by noting that  some of the Greek poets have said as much.  Which ones?  Where?  Most study Bibles don’t provide details here, but once again Conybeare and Howson come to the rescue:

“The quotation is from Aratus, a Greek poet, who was a native of Cilicia, a circumstance which would, perhaps, account for St. Paul’s familiarity with his writings.  His astronomical poems were so celebrated, that Ovid declares his fame will live as long as the sun and moon endure.  How little did the Athenian audience imagine that the poet’s immortality would really be owing to the quotation made by the despised provicial [Paul] who addressed them.  Nearly the same words also appear in the hymn of Cleanthes… The opening lines of this hymn have been thus translated:–

‘Thou, who amid the Immortals art throned the highest in glory,
Giver and Lord of life, who by law disposest of all things,
Known by many a name, yet One Almighty for ever,
Hail, O Zeus!  for to Thee should each mortal voice be uplifted:
Offspring are we too of thine, we and all that is mortal around us.”

As Conybeare and Howson noted, it no doubt came as a surprise that this unknown speaker of lowly stature is not only aware of their own poets but is able to quote them back to them to make his point!

17:29 — Paul then states a small conclusion, upon which he will  base a much greater conclusion:  If it is true that we are offspring of such a God (whether He is known to us or not),  then it is foolish to think that such a God’s essence can be contained in or represented by anything made of earthly materials by man’s artistic skills.  To do so only demonstrates our ignorance of Him.

17:30-31 — THEREFORE this God has now made a change.  Until now, He has chosen to overlook such ignorance.  (Remember ignorance is not the same as stupidity.  Paul is not insulting them by saying they are of low IQ.  He is simply saying that he has some information of which they are unaware.)  But now He has done something undeniable, and from here on out he expects that when men become aware of this information they will see their former ignorance and change their minds.  (All of this is wrapped up in the single word “repent”, metanoein, which literally means to do an “about-face” in thinking. It means to recognize wrong thinking and adopt right thinking.)  Why should they do such a thing, and what has this God done that makes it apparent?

They should change their thinking immediately because this God has always had a date on his calendar when He will rightly judge the entire human race, calling them to account.  He will do this through a Judge He has specifically appointed.  How do we know who this Judge is?  This God has already proved it by doing the impossible — raising Him from the dead…

17:32-34 — At this point I suspect we could have heard a pin drop.  There were a few seconds of astonished silence — then someone started laughing.  Then another and another.  Luke tells us there were three reactions.  Some laughed, holding Paul’s message in derision.  Others were indifferent, telling Paul they’d hear more some other time.

Both reactions were inevitable given the humanistic intellectual culture that comprised the audience.  They already held all gods, including those that could not be known, to be contained within the scope of their understanding, and therefore subject to their reason.It’s notable that they were uninterested in any evidence of Paul’s absurd claim that anyone could come back from the dead.  We’ve already noted that Greek science was long on reason and short on evidence.  Paul was summarily dismissed, having lost their interest at this point.  It’s interesting, however, that Paul had their undivided attention, with a few surprises included, right up to the very end.  The point at which they rejected his message was the resurrection.  It wasn’t from lack of evidence — there was ample evidence then and now, including hundreds of eye-witnesses.  It was their unwillingness to receive information that was radical to their own finite understanding.  Their basic premise was that there was nothing outside the scope of their comprehension.  The fact that their comprehension included recognition of things unknown to them was sufficient.

The resurrection, and therefore the whole Gospel, has always been radical to conventional thinking.  It requires accepting that science and philosophy have inadequacies and limitations, boundaries to which God is not bound as we are.  He reserves to Himself the right to cross those boundaries at will, and leave behind incontrovertible evidence of having done so.  When we say the Gospel must be accepted by faith, it is not by blind faith unsupported by real evidence.  It is faith that God is bigger than science, bigger than philosophy, bigger than anything that can originate in the mind of man.  All of these things are bases of the pride of man, and to accept God on faith is hard because it requires setting aside this pride.

I said there were three reactions, but have only noted two.  The third was very small. Verse 34 describes it — Dionysius, Damaris and others believed and joined with Paul.


Despite different schools of philosophy, what the Athenians had in common was a form of detailed religiosity that included an element of agnosticism.  Sound familiar?  How convenient!  Motions to go through that make us feel accepted and approved, but no ultimate accountability.  A world view whose boundaries are determined only by the capacity of our own minds, and a denial of the knowability of anything outside those boundaries.  It’s a picture of American culture today.

To any potential reader who considers himself or herself to be an agnostic, allow me to summarize Paul’s message to ancient Athens:

  • I can see that you may be a good person, and are serious about the observances you have chosen to incorporate into your life.
  • You have considered whether or not God exists.  Unlike the atheist, you are willing to recognize that it’s possible such a God exists but he’s outside the scope of your knowledge and experience — you’re convinced you just can’t know for sure.
  • If so, it’s possible that someone else might have knowledge and experience in this area that you are simply lacking.  Paul believed he had that information, and so do I.
  • The God I know and you claim cannot be known pre-existed the universe, the Earth, the human race, and created them all.  He is Lord of all of that and of the realm where he lives, which lies outside of that.
  • He is too big and his nature is such that he cannot be contained in human-created buildings.
  • He doesn’t need anyone to provide him with anything (since He created it all in the first place).  Instead, He provides life, food, possessions, and all other things to us.
  • He grew the entire human race starting with one man and one woman, and has regulated the rise and fall of the empires of human history at his decree and will, so that when man sees how inconstant and fleeting they are, they will seek Him instead.
  • Even though we can’t see Him  (we think it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack in pitch dark), He’s always very near us, offering us light for the taking.
  • We exist because we are “in” Him, and because He is greater than we are in all these ways, it is foolish to think that we can represent him by paintings or statues or other objects of worship made of earthly materials and designed by the artistry of our own hands.
  • In the past, God has overlooked this error in thinking, this lack of knowledge.   But He has always had an appointed date in the future when He will call all men to make an account of their lives.
  • As of the time when Jesus of Nazareth ministered in Israel and when Paul spoke to the Athenians, He will no longer excuse this lack of knowledge once it has been spoken by those who know and heard by those who don’t know.

This is the knowledge you have been missing:

  •   God crossed the boundary between his supernatural realm into our natural realm personally a little over two thousand years ago in the form of the man Jesus from Nazareth.
  • Science cannot prove or disprove this, since science is by definition limited to the investigation of the natural realm.  In short, this was a miracle, and accepting it as a possibility requires accepting that God, being supernatural, is able to do so.
  • Since miracles cannot be adequately proved or disproved by science, we must simply ask the question, “Did it happen, and how do we know?”  In other words, what evidence exists today that can certify that this happened?  Today, as in Paul’s day, we ask, “Were there any reliable witnesses?”  The answer is a resounding yes.
  • The existence of reliable eye-witnesses and those historians who recorded their testimony.  They bear witness to what appears to be impossible in our experience — that this Jesus died by crucifixion, was buried in a tomb for three days, and then came back to life.  This is a miraculous exclamation point at the end of the miracle of God stepping into our world as a man in the first place, and it certifies the truth that God did this.
  • On a personal level, Jesus did this so that those who believe it could participate with Him in His resurrection.  God’s requirement is simply that we set aside our pride and rebellion against admitting that He has been right all along and we have been wrong.  If we will make this about-face in our thinking (viz “repent”), then He will give us this same bodily resurrection on an appointed day in the future, and will come and live within us in the meantime.  There is no other requirement.  It is a free gift, one which we do not deserve.  This is the “grace” we have been talking about all along on this blog.  Accepting this free gift of grace results in spending eternity with Him instead of separated from Him (we are “saved by grace”).  We have done nothing to earn it, and have nothing to boast about.  In the process, Jesus has taken care of our sins, paying the penalty for them with his own blood and death.

Contrary to your agnostic point of view, this God has gone to great lengths to make himself “knowable” by the human race.  The question of  your eternal destiny rests on your willingness to recognize and admit that you’ve been uninformed, but now you know.  The time of the judgement Paul mentioned is drawing near.  I plead with you — set aside your intellectual pride, do an about-face in your thinking concerning Him, and receive the gifts He offers to you — because He made you, He loves you, and He doesn’t want to lose you!

Next time — on to Corinth!

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Athens — Part 1

Paul’s Jewish pursuers have chased him out of Berea with their same old deadly threats.  His closest partners in ministry, Timothy and Silas, remain in Berea in spite of the circumstances.  Have you ever become confused over the plethora of gods in Greek mythology?  Paul is about to encounter them.

The City of Athens

Travel to Athens by sea culminated by arrival at Piraeus, the harbor city of Athens, across some five miles of low plains and scattered marshes.  We are some 400 years past the height of Athens’ glory, when the road between them was defended on both sides by a 60-foot high wall.  By Paul’s day the walls were in ruins, their stone blocks having been pirated away for other civic building projects.

Approached from the sea, all of this and more was clearly visible.  The city of Athens itself lay on the plains above the rocky coast and Piraeus, and the Acropolis (the location of the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, and other buildings involved in the worship of Greek gods), all in the shadow of mighty snow-capped Mount Olympus, purported to be the home of the gods themselves.

Athens was the heart of two aspects of ancient Greece — its religion and its philosophy (unlike Corinth, which was is commercial center).  On entering the city gate, Paul was immediately confronted with statues of Minerva, Jupiter, Apollo, Mercury and the Muses.  At the end of this long, straight street, a right turn brings us into the Agora.  But unlike the agorae of other Greek cities, this is no common marketplace.  Instead it is encompassed by historical monuments, civic buildings, amphitheaters for political discussions, all under the watchful eye of the of the Acropolis on the hill above.  Conybeare and Howson state, “[The Agora] was the center of a glorious public life, when the orators and statesmen, the poets and the artists of Greece, found there all the incentives of their noblest enthusiasm; and still continued to be the meeting place of philosophy, of idleness, of conversation and of business… [The Agora] must not be conceived of as a great market (Acts xvii. 17), like the bare spaces in many modern towns, where little attention has been paid to artistic decoration, — but is rather to be compared to the beautiful squares of such Italian cities as Verona and Florence…” (p. 273).

Athens was the seat of high Greek religion, with places and objects to revere and worship any of the major or minor Greek gods that might be known.  In fact, it extended beyond the figures of historic heroes and mythical gods to the abstract — there were altars dedicated to piety, fame, modesty, energy, persuasion and pity.  Interestingly, it also harbored an element of openly-confessed religious ignorance, having at least one altar dedicated to the worship of any god that might not be known as well.  It was this altar that would form the basis of Paul’s argument in behalf of the One True God — the altar bearing the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”  This was the public forum of Socrates, Plato, Homer, and of the Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy.

A word about these two schools of thought is pertinent before we launch into Luke’s historical account.  Stoicism holds that circumstances are meaningless (there is no good in pleasure, nor evil in pain), that greatness lies in self-denial, that matter and Deity were inseparable (much like Star Wars concept of “The Force”), that the plethora of Greek and all other gods was simply an attempt by this force at self-organization, and that death meant re-absorption into this force.  It held in disdain the statues of the gods as not something to be worshipped, but simple art.  Man lives by Reason, and in doing so, reigns supreme; as an extension of the force behind all things, he is himself a god.  Conybeare and Howson describe it as the Education of Pride, in contrast to Christianity’s School of Humility. (p. 284)

Epicureanism was quite the opposite.  It holds that the world arose by chance, not a self-organizing force, and that the Greek gods had no objective reality, but were just a convenient impression on the weak-minded — no more than the reality of a dream.  Fulfillment was found in consuming the world around them, a cherry ripe for the picking.  In denying the existence of the gods, they had no moral compass or sense of impending judgment.   Conybeare and Howson state, “[The Epicurean's] highest reach was to do deliberately what the animals do instinctively.  His highest aim was to gratify himself.” (p. 285)  At death — nothing.  Epicureanism was best epitomized by  Paul’s statement during his discourse, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”   It was the ultimate materialism, and stands as much opposed to Christianity’s School of Humility as did that of the Stoics, as the Education of Pleasure.

This, then, is the culture and politic that surrounds Paul as he waits alone for Timothy and Silas to rejoin him.  Conybeare and Howson describe what must have been Paul’s frame of mind:  ”He was filled with anxious thoughts concerning those whom he had left in Macedonia, and the sense of solitude weighed upon his spirit.  Silas and Timotheus were not arrived, and it was a burden and a grief to him to be ‘left in Athens alone.‘  Modern travelers have often felt, when wandering alone through the streets of a foreign city, what it is to be out of sympathy with the place and the people.  The heart is with friends who are far off; and nothing that is merely beautiful or curious can effectually disperse the cloud of sadness.  If, in addition to this instinctive melancholy, the thought of an irreligious world, of evil abounding in all parts of society… also presses heavily on the spirit, — a state of mind is realised which may be some feeble approximation to what was experienced by the Apostle Paul in his hour of dejection.”  (p. 279)

Paul Arrives at Athens (Acts 17:15-21)

Please read each of the passages listed below in your own Bible before reading my comments!

v. 15 — Paul had not sailed alone.  This verse tells us that those who conducted him out of Berea to the coast also sailed with him to deliver him safely to Athens.  The implication is that having done so, they returned to Berea, leaving Paul alone in Athens.  Before returning, Paul asked them to tell Timothy and Silas to rejoin him as soon as they could.

v. 16 — Luke certainly can be succinct.  These few words describe what we have taken several paragraphs above to explain in more detail.  The Greek word that describes Paul’s spirit as “provoked” is paroxuneto, a contraction of para (beside) and oxus (sharpen).  While not a literal physical poking as with a goad, it represents the same effect in the emotions — pain of heart as if being poked with a sharp object by someone.  Today we would call it “pangs of heart”.  Paul uses the same word in the Love Chapter (I Corinthians 13:5) to describe what love does not require.  The author of Hebrews also uses this term to describe how believers should remind each other to show love and do good.  Acts 17:16 suggests that as Paul walked the streets, each new idol that came into view  poked him in the eye and produced another heart pang in him.  Today we are surrounded by a material culture with many reminders of its evil and darkness.  Do we feel pangs of the heart when we see them?

v. 17 — Athens was not without a Jewish synagogue, and as was Paul’s custom he began there, among both Jews and God-fearing gentiles.  But between sabbaths he also engaged daily those who came to the Agora which we have previously described in detail.

v. 18 — The two great schools of thought which we described previously had their representatives among those who were in attendance at the Agora, and word eventually got back to their leaders of a man who was talking about something they had never heard before.  Luke is not the only author of that day who describes those in the Agora as having come each  day in hopes of hearing exactly this — something they had never heard before.  It appears that Paul’s open-air message in the Agora was not significantly different from what he preached everywhere — Jesus and the resurrection from the dead.  On the one hand the response was he doesn’t make any sense  (“What are you trying to say, Paul?”), and on the other hand that he was talking about daimonion dokei (lit. “demonic gods”).  These would have fit the Epicurian and Stoic points of view respectively.

vv. 19-21 — They “took him” and “brought him” with what force we do not know, (the lack  of commotion in Luke’s description suggests that Paul went willingly) to the Areopagus.  This site is a rocky hill that sits above the Agora, slightly below the Acropolis.  In classical times 400 years before Paul’s day it was the site of the Greek “supreme court”, an impression which persisted with lesser authority under Rome to Paul’s day.  To the schools of philosophy, it would have represented the ultimate venue and final court of appeal for all things philosophical.  Recall that the Lord had appeared to Ananias to restore Paul’s sight, and that on hearing Ananias fears He had informed him that Paul was “a chosen instrument… to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.”  (9:15)  When God makes arrangements, he makes the very best. Here above all other scenes to date was an appearance truly “before the Gentiles.”  This was tantamount to being invited to present his case on The Philosophers Channel with an audience of the Supreme Court in attendance.  These leaders of the various schools of philosophy wanted to hear it from “the horse’s mouth.”  (vv. 19-20)  The passage closes with Luke’s explanation of the motivation behind this occasion — the hearing of something new.

Next blog post — what Paul said to them.  Would his message change from what he usually presented in the synagogue?  He was speaking to a decidedly Gentile audience who had none of the background of Jewish history.  How could he reach out to such people?

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Paul and Silas (and as we’ll discover later, Timothy and others) have been smuggled out of Thessalonika under cover of darkness by the new believers there.  Their new destination — Berea.  While the description of events at Berea is short (only five verses), the believers in Berea have a unique distinction about which we will have much to say.  There is a principle at stake here that we have referred to often on this blogsite, and I am glad to have finally arrived at this very important passage for believers today.

Cultural Context

Ancient Berea lay nearly 50 miles to the west-southwest of Thessalonika.  Luke doesn’t tell us how long the journey took, but having left in the middle of the night much of the distance might have been covered in the first day.  Perhaps for experienced foot-travelers the entire distance might have been covered in one very long day.

Geographically, the journey would have been fairly easy, for the area between the two cities is a great wooded plain between major mountain ranges, intersected by two major rivers, the Haliacmon and the Axius.  There are two possible routes to Berea across this region, and it’s uncertain which one the party may have taken.  The Axius River flows nearly straight southward, emptying into the Adriatic sea in the next major river delta westward along the coast from Thessalonika.  The Haliacmon River originates in the mountains to the southwest of Berea and flows generally northeast, passing Berea on the southeast side, and then arcs gently across the plain and empties into the northwest corner of the Adriatic sea.  The Axius River would have to be crossed fairly early in the jouney, while the route would remain north of the Haliacmon.  Water levels vary widely in both rivers through the seasons, and there may have been perils in this crossing that Paul later referred to in II Corinthians 11:26.

Modern-day Veroia looking north toward Mt. Paiko (photo by Panos Veria)

The city of Berea was situated at the base of Mount Bermius in the Olympian mountains.  Many smaller streams and rivers empty into the Haliacmon and the surrounding plain, so Berea was a very pleasant and prosperous city.  One ancient historian describes Berea’s ample supply of water as “water running in every street”, we presume in well-constructed channels.  If any city in ancient Greece could be described as having the modern convenience of “running water”, Berea was it.  Archaeological evidence and historians of the day place it’s origin sometime before the end of the 4th century B.C.  It was the first Greek city to surrender to Rome following the battle of Pydba in 168 B.C.

Events at Berea (Acts 17:10b-14)

v10b — “and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.”

Luke’s phraseology seems to indicate that immediately upon entering the city they went straight to the synagogue without resting, pausing to make lodging arrangements, or eat.  The Greek word is paraginomai, a contraction of para (“beside”) and ginomai (“become”).  Both ginomai and paraginomai are often translated “it came to pass”, “appeared”, “arrived”, etc.  Perhaps they had arrived on the sabbath and some haste was required to arrive at the synagogue “on time”.  Luke doesn’t say so specifically, and I’m speculating here.  As was the case in Thessalonika and other cities, they no doubt took this approach because it was Paul’s custom.  The synagogue was the one place most likely to produce fruit, since it was populated both by devout Jews who knew their history and by devout Gentiles seeking to associate with the God of the Hebrews.

v11 — “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonika, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so.”

Throughout eternity those in Berea who believed will be remembered for Luke’s inspired description of their mindset, setting them apart as high examples to be emulated.  Luke’s actual word is eugenesteres.  The prefix eu in Greek implies excellence or exceptional goodness.  We still use it in English today in words like eulogy, euphemistic, euphoria, euphemism, etc. to indicate high or superlative quality.  The word genesteres (a form of ginomai) means “born-ones”.  “Genesis” and “genetics” in modern English use the same root word.  Together, eu and ginomai mean high born or exceptionally created.  Such a description is fitting for those born into England’s royal family, so does Luke mean that the people they met in the synagogue were members of some Greek royal family of the day?  No, for he gives two reasons for his choice of this word — (1) they received Paul’s message with great eagerness, unlike the skepticism that had greeted them in other cities from the leaders of the synagogues, and (2) they were serious students of their scriptures.  In Luke’s eye, these folks were princes among men when it came to their reception of the Gospel.

Pay careful attention to their two-pronged nobility.  Although they gladly received Paul’s message, they did not gullibly swallow it hook, line and sinker.  Apparently they also wisely felt the need to personally check out what Paul was saying against a higher standard of truth, the Holy Scriptures of their day.  We know that Paul’s main assertion to them was that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and that he supported this assertion with many references to the prophecies of the Old Testament.  Unlike others, they were positively excited to discover how the scriptures fit together clearly in the culmination of the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary and beyond.

Did Paul feel threatened by their need to compare what he said to the Scriptures to find out if he was telling the truth?  To use one of Paul’s own expressions,may genoito(an emphatic “May it never be!!”).  In modern vernacular… NOT!!!  He was, in fact, pleased to discover a group of people who were able to look into the scriptures on their own, and use them to weigh the words of their leaders.  They understood that men are fallible, but the Word of God is not.

Oh, brother or sister in Christ!  Oh, pastor!  Oh, Sunday School teacher!  Oh, Bible study leader!  Can the same be said of you?  Do you blindly propagate the orthodoxy of your denomination?  Do you trust more in your seminary professors, your pastors, your Sunday School teachers, your youth leaders, your Bible study book authors than you do in the Bible itself?  Do you really know what the Bible says, or do you settle for what someone else says the Bible says?  Are you equipped to do what the Bereans did?  Are you of a mindset to do it?  How much more powerful would the Gospel be in our day if we could throw off the sacred cows of dogma and live under the direct teaching of God’s Word?

I have rehearsed this history before, but I think it’s worth repeating.  My father struggled most of his life with the “contradictons of Scripture”, experiencing a long string of pastors who were unable to make sense of them.  Three years prior to his death he encountered the very principles I have tried to enumerate and teach on this blog.  A great light came on in him, and he finally understood it all.  Then he was hungry to learn all he could from the Bible himself, under a pastor who encouraged his congregation to put what he preached to the ultimate test.  I suspect that his experience was exactly that of the early believers in Berea, and it was this very experience that caused Luke to later describe them as princes among men when it came to accepting Paul’s Gospel.

From the beginning of this blog I have pleaded with you to have this mindset when it comes to whatever I have written here.  I continue to pray that you too will experience the positive excitement of the Berean experience as my father and I have.  No, your salvation doesn’t depend on it, nor am I preaching some sort of “experiential faith.” You can be an effective witness for our Lord without it.  But how much better would your relationship to Him be if you knew you had the approval of Luke and of Paul because, like the Bereans, you were one of the “more noble-minded” because you received the Word gladly and always checked it’s truth against the Eternal Standard?

As a result, “Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek men and women.”  (v12)

Repeating Trouble

vv. 13-14 — “But when the Jews of Thessalonika found out that the Word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there likewise, agitating and stirring up the crowds.  And then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there.”

As Luke indicates, it’s a story we’ve seen before.  The trouble was apparently directed primarily at Paul, no doubt because the instigators saw Paul as the source and his companions only as “also-rans”.  In any case, Paul was ushered to the nearest seaport where he boarded a ship for Athens.  Silas and Timothy remained behind in Berea, and were not reunited with Paul for some time.  Ultimately Timothy went from Berea back to Thessalonika under Paul’s reluctant orders, that resulted in them not being reunited until sometime after Paul had passed thorugh Athens to Corinth. (See I Thessalonians 3:1-6)

The English language perhaps doesn’t do justice to Silas’ and Timothy’s extended stay in Berea after Paul’s exit.  The word “remained” in Greek is hupomeno, a word we have encountered before.  It means to under-abide, to persist under difficulty, to endure, to have patience with evil circumstances as translated in Romans 12:12 (“persevering in tribulation”) and I Corinthians 13:7 (“[love] endures all things”).  They more than remained behind — they remained behind under difficult and dangerous circumstances to see that the new church was firmly established, and eventually to do the same in Thessalonika.

In the meantime, Paul is on his way to the heart of Greek philosophy — next blog post, Athens!

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Acts 17:1-10a

Paul, Silas, and their travelling companions have left Philippi following the consequences of having restored a demon-possessed girl’s normal life, much to the dismay of her “handlers.”  A public beating, a night in jail, an earthquake, the salvation of the jailer and his household, and an apology extracted from the city magistrates — all in a day’s work for God’s Apostle to the Gentiles.

Acts 17:1-2  ”Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonika, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”

As is our custom, a little geography is a useful thing.  Please take the time to look at Paul’s Missionary Journeys – Thessalonika (Hosanna Lutheran Church, Houston, TX), an excellent description of the geographic aspects of their route westward through Amphipolis and Appolonia to Thessalonika, a distance of some seventy miles.  You may think it odd that I am directing you to a Lutheran church website.  I am not endorsing Lutheran theology, but excellent research and presentation can stand on their own merits.  The materials were developed by Dale Bergmann, Hosanna Lutheran Church’s Communications Director in Houston, TX, an ELCA church.  While I would not agree on every theological point, their stand for Martin Luther’s sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia basis for salvation is clear and true on their website and is laudable.  I certainly can recommend Mr. Bergmann’s accurate, colorful and highly instructional geographic research and presentation on Paul’s missionary journeys!

In a nutshell, the travelers headed west from Philippi on the via Egnatia (named after the Roman Proconsul of Macedonia who ordered its construction), the Roman “interstate” of the region across the northern end of the Aegean Sea.  Today this region forms the northeastern panhandle of Greece, composed of the regions of Macedonia and Thrace — as it did in Paul’s day.

The distance from Philippi to Amphipolis was 33 miles, a long day’s journey.  Amphipolis was known in earlier days as “Nine Ways”, a reference to the convergence of nine roads at at the sole mountain pass between eastern and western Macedonia.  From here roads led into southern Europe and the Greek peninsula.  From Amphipolis they proceeded to Apollonia, another 30-mile day’s journey.

Interestingly, Luke does not mention any ministry taking place in either Amphipolis or Apollonia, nor does he state how many days elapsed in passing through this region.  He does mention that upon arrival at Thessalonika they first sought the Jewish synagogue.  Luke’s phraseology suggests that there were no Jewish synagogues at Amphipolos or Apollonia.  But didn’t God send Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles?  If so, why didn’t he minister to them on the way through?

In Romans 1:16, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  Bible teachers have many different positions on this statement, and we must consider it carefully.

  • Some say this means that Jews today must be evangelized before we should take the gospel to the gentiles
  • some say this means that personal witnessing should be to Jews first, and only then to gentiles
  • some say this means that since there were no synagogues in Amphipolis and Apollonia, Paul was forbidden to preach the gospel to gentile-only communities
  • some say this means that Paul’s mission was the same as the Twelve, radiating outward from Jerusalem, and focused on the return of Israel’s promised kingdom

I humbly disagree with all of these possible meanings.  Let’s get our context right, and let Scripture interpret Scripture.  (1) Paul wrote his letter to the Romans several years after this journey across northeastern Greece, and was writing with a historical perspective, as born out by many later passages in the letter.  (2) Historically speaking, the gospel had gone out to Israel first, starting from Jerusalem, under the ministry of the Twelve and the Great Commission.  The balance of Romans explains that now “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Romans 10:12).  In the same vein, Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians that the “middle wall of partition” separating Jew and Greek has been broken down in Christ’s sacrifice. (Ephesians 2:14)  (3) The book of Acts is a book of transition from God’s Kingdom program for Israel to His program of grace for all people today, and consequently there is a visible mingling of the two programs throughout, even in Paul’s life and ministry.  Luke records that they went to the synagogue in Thessalonika as a starting point because it was Paul’s custom.  Later in this chapter we will see that when Paul arrives in Athens, he does go directly to the gentiles.  (4) If these three hops of the journey were all accomplished back to back in one day each, there would have been little time for ministry.  Have you ever tried to walk 30 miles in one day?  Three days in a row?  (5) Just as the Holy Spirit had directed them into Macedonia and prevented them from going into Asia and Bithynia, He potentially prevented them from ministering here – perhaps no opportunity to minister presented itself.

In addition to all of this, perhaps their destination was the greatest reason to not minister in Amphipolis and Apollonia.  As I hope you read in Hosanna Lutheran Church’s website, Thessalonika was the capital city of Macedonia, with a population of about 200,000 even in Paul’s day.  It’s not beyond reason to suspect that this was their planned destination when they left Philippi.  If we take vv. 1-2 at face value (as we always should), I believe Luke is saying, “When we left Philippi, we went to Thessalonika by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia, and there, according to Paul’s usual approach, went to the Jewish synagogue for three Sabbaths and reasoned with them from the scriptures.”

Acts 17:3-4  ”… explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’  And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.”

Here we see the effect of Paul’s message as reminiscent of the situation at Pisidian Antioch on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:14-52, viz. v43).  Note Luke’s description of the number of those who believed and joined with Paul and Silas: “some” of the Jews  believed, but “a great multitude” of God-fearing Greeks and prominent women (like Lydia?) believed.

Acts 17:5-9  ”But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the marketplace, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and coming upon the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.  And when they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And they stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things.  And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.”

Unfortunately, the mixed response among the Jews along with an unmixed response among the gentiles at the synagogue provoked the remaining Jews to jealousy, as it had in Pisidian Antioch.  For whatever reason, apparently Paul and Silas were not immediately available to the crowd, unlike what happened in Philippi where they were bodily dragged before the magistrates.  Lacking Paul and Silas, the mob apparently turned on Jason, the owner of the private home where Paul and Silas had been lodged for two weeks.  Luke doesn’t explain how they came to be lodged with him, but suffice it to say that the mob knew where they were staying and probably went directly there hoping to find them.

The same accusations that Pilate had been instructed by the Jews in Jerusalem to pursue against Jesus (“Are you a king?”) were trotted out once again.  And just as they did in Jerusalem, these rulers of the Thessalonian synagogue held the party line of ‘We have no king but Caesar!”.  Jason and the brethren with him were required to “post bond” (the pledge) and were released.  Luke doesn’t say so, but we can safely presume that the bond involved turning Paul and Silas over to the authorities whenever they returned to their quarters.  As we’ll read next, Jason and his friends no doubt forfeited the bond and chose to obey God rather than men.

Acts 17:10a  ”And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea…”

If they had been taken in by Jason within a day or two of their arrival in Thessalonika, and they had made the journey to Thessalonika in three long back-to-back 30-mile hikes, and had left Philippi on the morning after their imprisonment, they were only four or five days past the “beating with rods” experienced in Philippi.  They were still no doubt tender, and Jason and others may have actually seen the wounds that were inflicted.  If their arrival was on a Friday, coinciding with the start of the Sabbath, they would have been in residence at Jason’s for an additional two weeks while Paul reasoned with the Jews over three Sabbaths.  Have you ever hosted missionaries in your home for a missions conference?  Can you imagine what it must have been like to have Paul and Silas staying with them?  Surely the subject of their treatment in Philippi was thoroughly discussed before events in Thessalonika turned sour!  And so it is little wonder that Jason and other local brethren sent Paul and Silas away that very night under cover of darkness.

As mentioned before, no doubt Jason and his compatriots forfeited the bond they had posted.  We don’t know how this affected their personal finances, nor whether other legal consequences followed their civil disobedience.  Paul’s second letter to them, written from Corinth within a year, directly addresses the persecution they were suffering.  The entire first chapter of II Thessalonians in a nutshell is “Be patient, God will repay, and their turn is coming.”

It seems odd to me that Paul and Silas chose to endure the beating and imprisonment in Philippi and were so brazen as to extract a public apology from the Philippian magistrates (an extremely “front door” exit), and then chose to sneak out the back door at Thessalonika. They could have brought the entire Philippian debacle to a cold screeching halt by claiming their Roman citizenship at any time — but didn’t.  Had they done so, perhaps the Philippian jailer and his household would never have been reached with the Gospel.  God’s ways are past finding out, and we can be sure in either case that Paul and Silas simply followed the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Maybe when we all get to Heaven we can ask them — if it still matters then!)

Now, this Berea… that’s a whole ‘nuther story (not to mention a whole ‘nuther blog post)!

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Philippi – The Ugly (turned to beauty!)

In our last post, we left Paul and Silas rotting in the dungeon of a Roman prison in Philippi.  Thankfully, God acts faster than I write blog posts!  In this week’s post, we see how God often uses what appear to us to be dire circumstances to accomplish His work.  It sure looked like this was the end for Paul and Silas.

Many years later John Bunyan, writing from his own prison cell, described in Pilgrim’s Progress a time when Christian was imprisoned in Doubting Castle by Giant Despair.  Ultimately Great-Heart slew Giant Despair and released him.  There are other instances in Pilgrim’s Progress where Bunyan deals with terrors and defeats, such as the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Death.  Bunyan, like Paul, was familiar with prison and religious persecution from the leading theologians of his day.  If you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress or anything about John Bunyan and what induced him to write it, I strongly recommend you do so.  It is a priceless and timeless encouragement to those who follow Christ in a world that is set against them.

Acts 16:25-40

v. 25 “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them;”  (the Greek literally says “praying and hymning to God”)  We don’t know for certain how long they had been imprisoned, but we can make a guess based on what Luke has told us.  The demon was cast out of the slave-girl that morning, since it happened as they were “going to the place of prayer” (v16).  The ensuing dragging before the magistrates, the riot, the beating and the imprisonment probably took a span of four hours or so.  It’s conceivable that they were secured in the stocks by noon.  If so, they would have been imprisoned for about twelve hours by midnight.  What conversations took place between Paul and Silas over those twelve hours?  We don’t know, but we do know that by midnight they were mentally and spiritually in God’s presence.  The prison, usually filled with moans and groans, was riveted upon a very unusual sound — praise songs!  Paul and Silas were doing what Paul would later write to the church in Ephesus.  ”… speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father…” (Ephesians 5:19-20).  After all, what is a little jail time and a beating to men who have already suffered worse and seen God miraculously step in and turn the situation to good?

v. 26 “And suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”  This is, of course, a part of the world where earthquakes are still frequent today.  What is interesting is that the building was sufficiently shaken to spring all of the locks (including those that secured the prisoners’ chains), but not collapse the building or cause any injury!  From God’s perspective it must have been just enough of a jiggle to spring the locks — but it was a possibility that was completely “outside the box” for the designers, builders and keepers of the prison.

v. 27-28 “And when the jailer had been roused out of sleep and had seen the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!’”  In Paul’s day under Roman authority, the consequences of failure for those who kept prisoners for the State were dire!  It was the death penalty, but we don’t know by what means.  Conybeare and Howson also point out that suicide had a long-standing place of honor in Philippi, for both Cassius and Titinius had ended their lives there.  The jailer, realizing the full weight of what had happened, chose a more convenient means of death than what Roman justice would mete out.  But wait!  A loud voice calls out from the depths of the prison.  ”Stop!  We’re all here!”  At this point we also need to stop — and take inventory.  Where was the jailer?  Outside the prison.  Where was Paul?  In the deepest part of the prison.  Was it daytime or nighttime?  Nighttime, and completely dark inside and outside the prison.  Could Paul see the jailer and what he was about to do?  How did he know?  Surely the Holy Spirit must have enlightened him.  The second arresting oddity (no pun intended) is the fact that none of the prisoners chose to leave in the confusion following the earthquake!  Why?  What was different about this situation than any other natural disaster that would have seen them scattering like cockroaches?  We’re only guessing here, of course, but I suspect they had become somewhat mesmerized by Paul and Silas’ singing, were taken completely by surprise by the earthquake, and once it subsided were completely amazed that they were not buried beneath a collapsed building.  Luke tells us that the jailer brought Paul and Silas out, but says nothing about the remaining prisoners.  They would have been “re-secured”, and continue to server their sentence.  What induced them to remain?  Conybeare and Howson attribute it to a commanding quality of leadership in Paul which he exercised on many occasions, one of his many “gifts of the Spirit” in his role as an Apostle.  In any case, the lack of a single escapee is nearly as miraculous as “just enough” earthquake to spring the locks but otherwise do no harm, and Paul’s ability to “see” what the jailer was about to do to himself.

v. 29-30  ”And he called for lights and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”  Now this statement is the climax of all that we have surmised above!  In the jailer’s mind, all of the events of the past few moments — perhaps half an hour — combined to generate this singular realization.  He needed to be saved, and wanted desperately to know how!  The word “saved” in the Greek is “sowthow”, from the same root as the words for savior and salvation.  Did he realize what he needed to be saved from?  Was this a question of eternal salvation or merely a question of rescue from Roman authorities?  The next verses will answer this question for us.  But remember that he had been on the brink of taking his own life, which no doubt “flashed before his eyes.”  He was in a state of mind to consider the meaning and outcome of life in toto.

Before leaving these two verses, we should also note that the word “Sirs” lacks the impact of the original Greek, where the word is the plural form of kurios.  This is a title of respect that is more often translated “lord”.  (Indeed, when Paul uses the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ”, it is Kurios with a capital K!)  Implied in the use of this word is an attitude of submission to authority that is not present in our modern-day use of “Sir”.

v. 31-34  ”And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, you and your household.’  And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in  his house.  And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.  And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with all his household.”  Please note carefully the order of events described here: (1) Paul and Silas explained how to be saved by faith.  (2) The jailer “took them and washed their wounds.” (3) The jailer and his household were baptized.  (4) Then the jailer took them into his house and fed them.  The implication is that the jailer’s household had come with him to the prison where they heard the Gospel and believed, then the jailer took them to where water was available for washing their wounds, but not to his house.   Luke records that the jailer and his household immediately were baptized.  We can only take this to mean that the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds and the baptism occurred in the same time frame and at the same location.  Then they all went to the jailer’s household to eat and rejoice.

Two details are important to note here.  The first concerns their baptism.  Luke does not specifically say they were baptized in water.  It is possible that Luke refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which we contend is the only baptism for believers today), but the immediate association with the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds makes it certain that this is not the case.  As an interesting aside, the baptisms recorded so far were by immersion or nearly so, requiring enough water to stand in.  Had the baptism (and the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds) taken place inside the jailer’s house, they would have to have been baptized out of a wash-basin — perhaps (tongue-in-cheek) the first example of baptism by sprinkling!  In any case, once again Luke is the consummate historian who can be trusted to get the order of events exactly right.

The second detail is in the content of Paul’s reply to the jailer’s plea about how to be saved. Compare v31 carefully to Acts 2:38.  Let’s list the differences between these two passages.

  • Who is speaking?
  • Who is being spoken to?
  • The speaker in Acts 2:38 specifies what two reqirements: R______ (of what?) and be B____________
  • The speaker in Acts 16:31 specifies what single requirement: B____________
  • What event took place immediately before the start of this journey?

Paul would write to the Galatian Church about another meeting with the leaders in Jerusalem, reminding them of the historic context of that meeting — that he had been given the “gospel to the uncircumcised” while Peter had been given the “gospel to the circumcision.”  (Galatians 2:7-10)  The only requirement was that the gentiles “remember the poor.”  Nothing is said about repentance or baptism.  (It’s important to remember what the Jews were to repent about! Gentile believers had no such hand in the trials and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.)  For any number of reasons between these two passages, I believe that the requirements for salvation were changing away from the Jerusalem Church and it’s role in the Millennial Kingdom.  This  brings us back to the issue of baptism.  In the case of the Philippian jailer and his household — gentiles — the baptism is described here as an eventuality, not a requirement.  At the very least, it is illustrative of the difference between the Kingdom program of the Jerusalem Church under Peter and the church of today under Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles as of this point in Luke’s narrative.

vv 35-40  ”Now when the day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, ‘Release those men.’  And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, ‘The chief magistrates have sent to release you.  Now therefore, come out and go in peace.’  But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly?  No, indeed!  But let them come themselves and bring us out.”  And the policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates.  And they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city.  And they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.”

Paul indeed has the last word in Philippi.  Interestingly, he includes Silas as being a Roman citizen like himself.  The scriptures do not tell us this in so many words, this is the sole passage on which Silas’ citizenship is based.  Consequently Bible scholars say that Silas was “probably” a Roman citizen, just to be on the safe side.  And I think it is appropriate in this case.

Why didn’t Paul or Silas say so when they appeared before the chief magistrates initially?  Luke gives us no hint, he just faithfully records the events as they transpired.  Perhaps if they had done so, there would have been entangling consequences that would have prevented their moving on in ministry to other regions.  Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.  Paul’s later experience in Jerusalem when he did choose to “appeal unto Caesar” certainly bears this out.

The events of the previous night ended with Luke’s description of eating and rejoicing in the jailer’s house, but this passage has them going “out of the prison and enter[ing] the house of Lydia.”  (The jailer’s request after receiving the policemen to “come out” suggests that they were already back in the prison before daybreak.)  In any case, whether before or after the policemen arrived with orders for their release, they had willingly returned to the jail — no doubt to drive the point home with the chief magistrates and make the circumstances easier on the jailer.

Conybeare and Howson note also their apparently leisurely departure from Philippi.  They certainly had the upper hand legally for the moment, and took advantage of it.  Leaving the jail, they returned to their original lodging in the house of Lydia.  They took time to greet and encourage fellow believers — and then departed on their own sweet time.

Many years later Paul would write to them from a prison in Rome.  Who among them could not see the immediate parallels to his imprisonment in Philippi?  ”Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard and to everyone else…  most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear…  For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you, or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents — which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.  For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.”  (Philippians 1:12-30 excerpts)  Paul and Silas’ shameful treatment by the Philippian chief magistrates was a portent of destruction for them (they begged Paul and Silas profusely to leave Philippi because they were afraid of their own destruction at the hands of the Roman government for having done this to Roman citizens), and at the same time set an indelible example for how to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” when suffering persecution.  Surely Paul’s expression “conflict which you saw in me” is a direct reference to the passage we have studied in this post.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — turned to beauty in Philippi!  Next post… Thessalonica and Berea.

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Philippi – The Bad

In the last post Paul, Silas, Luke and Timothy arrived at Philippi and began a small-scale ministry among some devout women who gathered regularly at the “place of prayer” on the riverbank outside the city gates.  They met Lydia, a woman of some wealth and influence, who after accepting Paul’s message was baptized (along with her entire household), provided them with lodging.  They were there for some time.

As they continued to go to the “place of prayer” over many days, they encountered a slave-girl who was possessed by a demon who enabled her to foretell the future.  Luke tells us that she had “masters” (plural) who were profiting greatly from her abilities.  This was no ordinary slave.  Apparently her abilities were already known when she came to the block in the slave market, and the bidding was hot and heavy — so much so that competing bidders eventually had to pool their resources.  Subsequently she was owned by a “co-op”, and the profits were divided among them.  It was apparently a lucrative business.  Her fame in the region may have been one of the reasons Paul decided to put an end to the demon’s incessant pestering, regardless of the truth of his statements through her.

When the demon left her at Paul’s command, things happened fast as you might imagine.  And that’s where we pick up the story now…

Acts 16:19-24

v19 “When her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone…”  The change in the slave-girl’s personality, demeanor, and perhaps even her physical appearance was immediate.  Her owners realized immediately that she was no longer the same person, and that what was missing was the very thing they had invested in so heavily!  (It’s possible that they had not even had time to recoup their investment, although Luke doesn’t indicate this.)

“…they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.”  Luke tells us that these owners themselves laid hands on Paul and Silas and physically dragged them to the agora, the commercial hub of the city.  Bear in mind that Philippi had special status under Rome, including her own magistrates.  Although Philippi had a Roman garrison stationed there, they were relatively free to see to their own civic affairs.  Thus it was that the girl’s owners dragged them to their local magistrates and not to the Roman governor.

v20 “And when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, ‘These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.”

Notice that this is a two-pronged charge.  (1) Paul and Silas are causing an uproar in the city because they are Jews, and (2) are teaching illegal customs under Roman law.  This is nothing short of an accusation of disturbing the peace and sedition.  My, my, how things changed since the realization that their goose that laid the golden eggs had laid her last egg!  Their charges were, of course, falsified because they would have had no case if it were simply presented as taking financial advantage of a slave, which was lost upon the healing of the slave.  Conybeare and Howson note that there was no basis in Roman law for depreciation of property value through exorcism.

While Philippi was able to govern itself without Roman interference, nevertheless Rome kept a watchful eye open toward sedition and such cities’ proper disposition of such cases.  The magistrates were under great pressure to deal swiftly and conclusively in such issues, a fact known to the slave-girl’s owners.  Their charge of sedition was almost guaranteed to bring the harshest possible punishment as swiftly as possible.

v22 “And the crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them, and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.”  Note first that the crowd in the marketplace became enraged.  The general populace knew the requirement to deal swiftly in such cases as well as the magistrates did.  The mob quickly got the upper hand, and the magistrates probably bowed to their wishes if for no other reason than to save their own necks and positions.

Second, note that any sort of formal trial was skipped.  The magistrates pronounced sentence immediately.  This would come back to haunt them within 24 hours.

Third, note the form of punishment.  As a “model of Rome”, Philippi would resort to the Roman style of punishment.  Luke distinguishes this punishment from the scourging that Christ received at Pilate’s hands, the use of a multi-tailed short whip with sharp bone chips or lead at the end of the tails, designed to shred the skin and muscles of the back.  Here the device of punishment was the rabdos (Gr. “stick”).  It was likely not a pikestaff or cudgel (a six-foot walking staff or shepherd’s staff), but rather somewhere between that and an old-fashioned switch.  It was quite capable of raising large painful welts and of breaking the skin. It’s effectiveness would be reduced by layers of clothing, and for this reason Paul and Silas were stripped of their robes first.  Punishment would have been inflicted publicly by professional lictors who knew their business, whether with the rabdos or the whip.

Have you noticed the similarities between this event and the trials of our Lord?  When the Sanhedrin initially dragged Him before Pilate, their charge was “misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar”  (Luke 23:2, disturbing the peace and sedition).  Both the Philippian magistrates and Pilate abdicated their authority and let the mob make the final decision: “But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified.  And their voices began to prevail.  And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand should be granted.” (Luke 23:23-24)

v23  ”And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks.”  Conybeare and Howson describe conditions in the “inner prison” and the “stocks” as a place of continued torment.  The inner prison would have been what today would be called “the hole” in the most abusive military prison camps.  It was a hole, deep inside an already dark prison building.  It was completely dark, usually damp, and at the temperature of subsurface soil (typically about 55 degrees), filthy (no bathroom provisions), and often filled with the moans of other prisoners.  It was indeed a microcosm of darkest hell.  The “stocks” inflicted further misery, often locking the prisoner’s head and limbs into contorted positions (unlike the Puritan’s version of stocks).  Luke notes that the jailer mercifully only placed their feet into the stocks.  Conybeare and Howson note “We must picture for ourselves something very different from the austere comfort of an English jail.  It is only since that Christianity for which the Apostles bled has had influence on the hearts of men, that the treatment of felons has been a distinct subject of philanthropic inquiry…” (p. 234)  Indeed!  The jailer was taking no chances.

Now what?  Had not Paul had a dream, inspired by the Holy Spirit’s direction, in which a “man from Macedonia” had beconed them to come and help?  Was their ministry in Macedonia now to be cut off in its infancy?  How would Paul and Silas respond to being “shamefully treated” (I Thess. 2:2) like this?  If ever there were circumstances devised by evil men that caused ultimate despair to descend…

Next time — Philippians – The Ugly (turned to beauty)!

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Philippi – The Good

Acts 16:13-18

In our last post, Paul and his companions had traveled diagonally from southeast to northwest across modern-day Turkey, and sailed a short distance across the northeastern corner of the Aegean Sea to Philippi, a city that Luke describes as a leading city of Macedonia and a Roman “colony”, lit. a “prominent District of Macedonia city, a colony” (kolonia).  It pays to listen carefully when Luke describes places, as he was intimately familiar with the Roman system of government, its regions, and its politics.

We’ve already noted that a Roman Colony was a miniature Rome.  This was true not only in appearance, but in its collective privileges as a city and the privileges enjoyed by its individual citizens.  Conybeare and Howson tell us that Roman citizens in Philippi most importantly were exempt from scourging, free from arrest under all but the most extreme circumstances, and had the right of appeal from their magistrates to the Emperor himself.  Roman colonies were not political and commercial entities like we think of the colonies established by England or Spain.  Rather they were military posts by which the Empire was made safe.  The insignia of Rome was plainly visible in the city, and Latin was spoken and written in addition to the native languages.  Although the citizens paid poll taxes and land taxes, they were otherwise free from intrusion in public affairs by the Roman governor of the province.  They had their own magistrates, who proudly referred to themselves by the Roman title Praetor.

Because it was a military center and not a commercial center, the Jewish population was small.  There was no synagogue in the city.  Instead, worshipers gathered in a more temporary structure usually erected outside the city, called a Proseuchae.  Because of the ceremonial washings associated with the Jewish religious practices, it was often erected near a river.  Epiphanius suggests that the difference between a synagogue and a proseuchae is that the former is a “place of prayer” while the latter is a “house of prayer.”  Many religious and secular historians of the day note that even where there were synagogues, on momentous occasions the Jews would leave the synagogue and go to the shores to offer special prayers of praise and thanksgiving.


Luke tells us that they went (1) outside the gate of the city (2) to a riverside where they assumed there would be a (3) place of prayer (lit. proseuchayn).  They sat down and began speaking to the women assembled there.  Somewhere in the cobwebby depths of my mind are the echoes of some preacher explaining the location and the audience as fitting with doing the laundry.  (Women + water = laundry).  If this preacher had done his homework, he would have seen how out of tune he was with the historical and cultural context of the passage.  These women were clearly at a proseuchae for the purpose of worship and prayer!  What is odd is that they were apparently few and there were no men present.  This suggests that the Jewish community in Philippi was very small and on the fringe of life in the Colony.


Luke mentions one special woman in particular — Lydia, from Thyatira, a seller of purple clothing and fabric, and a “worshiper of God.”  Luke uses the word sebomenae, literally to “fall back before,” a word used in other places for the attitude of devout Jewish proselytes. The Holy Spirit opened her heart to accept Paul’s message of salvation and grace through Jesus the Messaiah for gentiles as well as Jews.


Luke is not specific, but apparently her conversion affected many close to her.  She and her household were baptized.  This gives us added insight into Lydia’s position, and it isn’t one of a laundry maid.  Apparently she was wealthy enough to have a home that required staff.  There is no mention of a husband or children.  She was no doubt of the same character as the virtuous woman praised by Lemuel in Proverbs 31:10-31.

She “urged” (lit. parakaleo, to “come alongside”) Paul and his companions to stay at her house (another indication of her wealth) on the basis of their judgment of her faithfulness to God.  It may have taken some convincing as Luke says “she prevailed” on them.

v 16

We’re not told how long they remained in Philippi at Lydia’s home, but they were there long enough to have made a habit of “going to the place of prayer”.  On one of these occasions they met a slave-girl who had a demonic spirit that enabled her to foretell the future.  Her owners were using her to turn a tidy profit.


She followed Paul, driven by the demonic spirit, crying out, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.”  Luke says she did this for many days.

Paul became exasperated.  He turned and said to the demonic spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!”  It left her immediately.

Please note that Paul was not exasperated with the girl — it was the demonic spirit that was doing the talking.  But wasn’t it telling the truth?  Yes, even demons know the truth and recognize God’s chosen people.  It was the source, the attitude (perhaps mocking), and the repetitive distraction.

There are two women in this passage, Lydia and this slave-girl.  In Paul’s eyes they both were deserving of God’s mercy and grace.  But this slave-girl, unlike Lydia, would not come to Christ as long as she was in her oppressed condition.  There is a beauty of spirit that resides in every believer, and it cannot cohabit with demonic influences.  This demonic spirit was interfering and obnoxious!  Luke doesn’t tell us about what happened to the slave-girl, for circumstances mushroomed out of control and their attention was drawn elsewhere.

But that’s another story… and another post!

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Holy Spirit Steering

Acts 16:6-12

Barnabas and John Mark have departed for Cyprus,  while Paul and Silas left Antioch by an overland route that led to the region where the first missionary journey ended — the region of Derbe and Lystra.  While there, Paul meets Timothy.  After circumcising Timothy because of the Jews in the area, they passed together through the cities where Paul had established churches.  Verse 4 tells us that their visit had a very specific purpose as well as the generic “strengthening” mentioned in 15:41.  He delivered to them the decisions that had been made at the council in Jerusalem.  As a consequence, Luke tells us, the churches were strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.

Today’s post begins with the next verse, v6.  Luke next tells us that they proceeded through Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit forbade them to preach in Asia.  This is one of those passages in Scripture that we have all read many times, and what sticks in our minds is only the first half of the verse — where they went.  But the most interesting part of this verse is why they went there!  Nevertheless, we need to do our geography homework first.

Geography of Pisidia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Mysia and Asia Minor (northwestern Turkey)

There are three regions identified in v.6 — Phrygia, Galatia and Asia, as well as their starting point from the previous verses, the region encompassing the cities of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, in southern Galatia. Leaving Iconium, they apparently traveled to Pisidian Antioch as a jumping-off point into Asia.  Where is Asia?  Today we know it as China, Mongolia, Korea, Viet Nam, etc.  But those regions were largely unknown to the Roman empire.  What Luke is describing is the western one-third of modern-day Turkey, extending from the region of Pisidia in southwestern Galatia all the way to Turkey’s western coast.  We know it as Western Asia Minor today.

The “Asia” of Paul’s day was further subdivided into smaller regions, including Phrygia in the east and Mysia in the north.  Phrygia was a nation at its apex in the 8th century BC (some 800 years before Paul), but was overrun around 675 BC.  It subsequently passed from conqueror to conqueror.  Ultimately it passed into Roman hands in 133 BC.  As a culture and former nation, Rome divided it into an eastern and a western region, half in western Galatia and half in eastern Asia Minor.  Paul’s travels more or less followed the dividing line between the two halves.  As the culture had been in decline for centuries, there were few population centers along the route.

Bythinia lies to the northeast of Mysia on the west and Phrygia on the south.  Bythinia’s last king, Nicomedes IV, was beseiged by a neighboring more powerful king, but Rome stepped in and restored him to his throne.  In 74 BC he willingly bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, and it became the Roman province that existed in Paul’s day.

Mysia similarly was a remnant of an ancient nation, occupying the northern reaches of Asia Minor to the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, a body of water that separates the Black Sea from the Aegean Sea that lies between modern-day Greece and Turkey.  It is the site of Mt. Olympus, the purported home of the Greek gods.  Its culture dates back to before the Trojan War, described as an ally of Troy in Homer’s Illiad.  By Paul’s day most of the region’s population lived in small Greek communities dotting the shores of the Sea of Marmara and southwest around the coastline of the Aegean Sea.  In Paul’s day Troas was a seaport in the northeast corner of the Aegean.

Luke describes in vv. 11-12 their further journey from Troas by sea to Samothrace in one day, then Neapolis, and then Philippi in the region of Macedonia.  Samothrace is an island about halfway between Troas and Neapolis in the northeastern corner of the Aegean sea. Philippi is a short inland journey from Neapolis, and is a “prominent city” of Macedonia according to Luke.  When Rome conquered ancient Macedon, it was divided into four regions in 167 BC.  Amphipolis was made the capitol of the eastern province, and not Phillipi, but when Rome rebuilt the ancient road through the region as the via Egnatia, Phillipi emerged as a major trade center.  It also had been a center of gold mining for centuries (it was originally established to consolidate the independent gold mining operations and provide military protection for the proceeds).  When Octavian became “Agustus Caesar” in 27 BC, Philippi received special status.  Under Octavian, new construction turned Philippi into a miniature version of Rome herself.  This is what would have greeted Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke on their arrival.

A final note before we turn to the Holy Spirit’s role in this part of the journey.  Look closely a the map at the top of the page.  Compare the distance from Tarsus to Pisidian Antioch to the distance from Pisidian Antioch to Troas.  These three locations essentially form a diagonal line all the way across modern Turkey.  By modern highway, the distance from the site of Pisidian Antioch to Troas is about 600 km (380 miles).  The highway is a more direct route than Paul’s journey, so the travelers probably covered about 450 miles or more.  On foot, walking briskly for 12 hours per day (36 miles per day), it would take about 13 days.  Given the often-mountainous nature of the region, it probably took longer than that, but as a conservative estimate I’ll settle for 14 days (two weeks).  Luke gives no indication of the passage of time in his narrative, nor does he mention any pauses for ministry.  The reasons will soon become apparent.

The Holy Spirit’s Direction

Luke often writes in a factual manner that appears to leave little “spiritual” material to work with.  At first reading, this passage seems that way.  In with the geography lesson, Luke’s description of the spiritual aspects of the journey are equally matter-of-fact.  It’s easy to run right through them as if they were part of the woodwork.  Let’s slow down and take a careful look.

v6 — “And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia [Minor].”

v7 — “And when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.”

v9 — “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Apparently their intent from Pisidian Antioch was to continue westward into Asia Minor, but the Spirit said “No.”  So next they traveled northward into Mysia, intending to turn to the northeast into Bithynia.  But again the Spirit said, “No.”  So they took the fork in the road to the left and traversed the length of Mysia to its western coastline.

Luke didn’t say that they “found no opportunities for ministry” or “they were mistreated by the Jews.”  He specifically records that the Holy Spirit said, “No, don’t go there.”  Interestingly, He didn’t say where they should go, He said where they shouldn’t go.  Why didn’t He just tell them to go to Macedonia?

Second, notice how clear and direct the Holy Spirit’s direction was to them.  We seldom, if ever, have this direct a relationship with the Holy Spirit ourselves.  I’ve known believers who could justify any action, good or evil, because they “prayed about it and the Spirit gave them peace.”  They have never heard the Holy Spirit clearly say, “No!”, even though according to the Scriptures He must have said it.  They just were willfully disobedient and looking for a spiritual excuse for their evil behavior.  Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit indwells us.  Paul introduced this concept — he alone writes of this intimate relationship.  As we’ve seen in previous posts, prior to Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, the Holy Spirit “came upon” the faithful, as if encloaking them temporarily for the purpose at hand.  What a privilege we have to be indwelt by Him instead!  Yet this indwelling can be interfered with.  The Bible’s term is “quenched,” and it is the product of sin in our lives.  Yes, in Christ we stand before the Throne with our sins (all of them, past present and future) forgiven.  That is our position for all eternity.  But until He comes for us or we pass on to His presence, our experience is to still be imprisoned in a sin-prone physical body.  Paul writes at length about this predicament in Romans 7.  In stark contrast to the angst of Chapter 7 is the opening verse of Chapter 8 that bursts forth like a brilliant ray of sunshine on a dark and cloudy day: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”  Nevertheless, our experience is different — lesser — than Paul and his companions.

We must remember that the Holy Spirit is God, one of the members of the Trinity, equal with God the Father and God the Son, differing from them in role only.  As God, He has all of the foreknowledge of God, the omniscience of God, the authority of God, the omnipotence of God… and the list could go on and on.  God chooses to keep some things hidden from men at different times for reasons known only to Him.  For instance, Christ Himself refused to answer specific questions about the timing of the coming of the Kingdom prior to His ascension.  For reasons known only to God, the Spirit told them where not to go but did not tell them where to go.

We also must remember that Paul was a “chosen vessel” of God and had a special relationship with God as His emissary and Apostle to the Gentiles.  God revealed a whole new plan for the world through Paul.  Paul is a very singular person in the history of the world.  Concerning his role in this, Paul saw himself as the “prisoner of Christ” and said, “Woe is me if I do NOT preach the Gospel!”  Paul had the ability to perform miracles — an ability which faded for him and for the church as a whole as the need to authenticate his ministry before the Jews waned.

It would be a mistake to try to have the same kind or level of relationship with the Holy Spirit that Paul had, and become guilt-ridden at our failure to achieve it.  He was an Apostle (a very unique one), and we are not.  At the same time, our relationship with the Holy Spirit is as intimate as it gets — more intimate that that of spouses.  We are His home.  He brings to us a whole lifestyle if we will just be open with Him.  And as we adopt his lifestyle more and more, His voice will become more and more ingrained in our thinking and more and more audible to us.

Yeah, I know — that sounds pretty mushy and vague.  There are specifics — learn to identify temptation and turn from it before you sin.  Study God’s Word.  Spend time in prayer.  Engage with other believers.  Do all this because you love the Savior who loved you enough to die on the cross in your place, not because of duty.

Luke says that a “vision appeared to Paul in the night.”  He gives no indication that the Holy Spirit, by name, caused it.  Were the previous directives from the Holy Spirit also visions?  Luke does not describe them as such.  Had Paul been pleading with the Spirit for a week to provide direction by some sign?  Whatever the circumstances, Paul thought it was a clear enough message that he got the others up in the middle of the night to seek immediate passage on a ship to Macedonia!

Personally, I would not trust such a dream as a clear directive from God.  It is too easy for our own mind to conjure up false images out of it’s still-active old nature.  Paul was different (for reasons stated above).  Luke, who recorded all of this, did not have such visions or directives to our knowledge, but we are sure he was a devout believer and faithful companion to Paul.  We must get to know the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives according to the “word rightly divided”, and not strive to fulfill expectations and experiences that belong to a different age or the special powers of an Apostle.

Luke describes the journey from Troas to Philippi as swift and sure, noting that they stayed in Philippi for “some days.”  Apparently they found opportunity to share the Gospel on a level that must have been encouraging after their two or three week silence across northwest Turkey.  And now the Sabbath day approaches…

(Stay tuned for the next installment!)

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Acts 15:36-16:5

We pick up Luke’s story line again at Acts 15:36, the matters over circumcision in Jerusalem having been concluded.  Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch, and two prophets (preachers) from the Jerusalem church, Judas and Silas, have accompanied them.  Judas has subsequently returned to Jerusalem, but Silas has remained in Antioch.  Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch teaching and preaching along with many others.  (vv32-35)

If you have not taken the time to read Acts 15:36-16:5, please do so now.

Division between Paul and Barnabas

Paul expresses a desire to Barnabas to visit the churches that they had established on their first missionary journey to see how they were doing.  Note that Paul’s request was only to return to where they had been before, not enter new territory (v36).  As a result, Barnabas expressed a desire to Paul to bring John Mark along (v37).  Recall that John Mark had accompanied them on their first missionary journey, but had returned to Jerusalem early in the trip.  Luke doesn’t elaborate on his reasons for doing so, noting only that “John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” (Acts 13:13).  Now Barnabas, ever the encourager (his name means “Son of Encouragement”), wants to give John Mark a second chance.  Paul is repeatedly adamant that they not bring him along on this new journey (v38) because of his previous desertion (Gr. aphistemi, lit. “stand away from”).

This same Greek word is used many times in the New Testament and in many different circumstances.  For instance, Gamaliel’s counsel to the Jewish High Council concerning Peter and John was to “stand away from them and leave them alone,” lest they be found to be fighting against God themselves. (Acts 5:38-39)  In Acts 12:10 it is used to describe the action of the angel who led Peter out of prison when his work was completed — he “departed.”  So this word has many nuances depending on the context.  Given Paul’s intense reaction years later, John Mark may have had to make the terms of his departure from the first journey at least clear and perhaps forceful.  He may also have distanced himself from certain elements of Paul’s theology that had become apparent on the island of Cyprus.

Whatever the nature of John Mark’s departure, Paul felt that he had made a clear choice to separate himself from Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and there was to be no second chance.  Apparently this was the hill that both Paul and Barnabas were willing to die on, for it resulted in a parting of the ways between Paul and Barnabas.  Barnabas took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus.  Now bereft of his closest partner in ministry since Christ had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Paul asks Silas to accompany him.  They leave by an overland route through Syria and Cilicia, with the blessing of the Antioch church.

What sadness and anguish, not only for Paul, Barnabas and John Mark, but for the entire Antioch church must have accompanied this parting of the ways.  If ever there was a church split in the making, this was it.  The desire to “choose up sides” must have been intense.  But Luke indicates there wasn’t any such activity.  Based on my human experience with churches of today, it seems absurd and beyond reach.  Somehow they weathered this storm between their two greatest teachers.

Notice that Barnabas and John Mark are the first to leave, and go directly to Cyprus — the very location of John Mark’s previous desertion, and the beginning of the first missionary journey.  They are, in fact, doing exactly what Paul had proposed — revisiting the churches established previously.  Paul and Silas, no doubt not wishing to follow directly in their footsteps, must choose a different route to the north by land along the Mediterranean coast through Syria, and then west into the southern coast of present-day Turkey (ancient Cilicia).  Their route probably would have taken them through Paul’s boyhood home, Tarsus, but Luke makes no mention of it.

Along their route they were engaged in strengthening the churches.   These were not churches that had been established by Paul on the first missionary journey, but had been established by those scattered from Jerusalem under Herod’s persecution.  Silas probably had a stronger relationship with them than Paul, although they also could have been among the churches Paul ministered to during his “desert years” in Antioch.

In any case, Barnabas and John Mark fade from the scene.  Luke chooses to accompany Paul and Silas.  Barnabas is mentioned only three more times in the New Testament, (1) Paul’s description of his associations with James and Peter that we have studied extensively in Galatians 2, (2) in defense of his apostleship to the believers in Corinth in I Corinthians 9:6, and (3) as a cousin of “Mark” (John Mark?) who was apparently ministering to Paul in prison at the writing of the letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:10).  Indeed, Paul and Silas will shortly rejoin the route of the first journey from its farthest point, Derbe.  No mention is made of Barnabas and John Mark having been rejoined, and we assume that their travels never took them that far.

Who was wrong?  Should Paul have listened to Barnabas and given John Mark another chance?  Should Barnabas have listened to Paul and backed down concerning John Mark?  Although theologians and historians speculate and dispute the two positions, Luke (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) doesn’t get into the blame game — he just reports the facts.  It would be good if we listened to Paul when he says, “… do not go on passing judgement before the time… that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” (I Cor. 4:5a,6b)  Suffice it to say that Barnabas is absent from Luke’s narrative from here on, and Paul and Silas are the focus.

Paul Meets Timothy

When they reconnected with the tail end of the previous journey at Derbe and Lystra, a young man by the name of Timothy caught Paul’s eye.  Acts 16:1-2 tells us in rapid succession that he was a believer, well-spoken of by everyone in the Lystra-Iconium district, the son of a Jewish mother who was a believer, but having a Gentile father.

I’m seriously reading between the lines again, but IMHO Paul saw the perfect illustration of Christ’s work breaking down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile in Timothy.  Here was a devout believer who could address both sides of the issue.  But I’m also sure it was more than that.  Paul found in Timothy a kindred spirit who would later be able to faithfully represent Paul when Paul could not be physically in their midst, and who Paul would consider to be a “beloved son” who he “longed to see” as his execution day drew near.  (II Timothy 1:1-5)

Remember that Paul had suffered violence from the Jews in Lystra — they stoned him and dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead.  God preserved him miraculously, and he got up and walked back into the city under his own power only minutes later.  Paul knew first-hand what the opponents of the Gospel were capable of in Lystra.

Acts 16:3 tells us that Paul wanted Timothy to go with him.  First, Paul circumcised him!  Doesn’t this seem odd given that the previous big event was exactly about this practice, and the leadership of the Jerusalem church had said it was unnecessary?  Apparently Timothy had not been circumcised eight days after birth, as his mother would have wanted.  The only reason it wouldn’t have been done would be that his Gentile father forbade it.  Apparently his father had a reputation in the area, as Luke tells us that the Jews there knew his father was a Gentile.  That reputation seems to be a negative one toward the Jews, in spite of the fact he had married a Jewess!  Luke says that Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who were in those parts (v3).

It’s interesting to compare this situation to that of another of Paul’s young associates, Titus.  Paul ‘s history of his visits to the Jerusalem leadership in Galatians 2 includes a private visit where Barnabas and Titus accompanied him.  Titus was not circumcised, and in spite of false brethren who spied on them and insisted that he be circumcised, he remained uncircumcised at Paul’s insistence.  Why circumcise Timothy and not Titus, especially since both opportunities presented themselves after the Acts 15 council?  I believe it is because of the differences in audience in the two settings.  In Timothy’s case, he needed to accompany Paul into the synagogues in new territory, and it was a matter of acceptance with non-believing Jews.  In Titus’ case, it was because of “false brethren” within the Jerusalem church, who were opposing the liberty from the Law in Paul’s gospel.  ”False brethren” is an interesting turn of words, don’t you think?  Were these non-believers or errant believers?  IMHO they were the latter.  If that’s correct, then the differences between these two situations boil down to acceptance among non-believers and opposition to errant theology among believers.  Feel free to form your own opinion!

In any case, they passed through the cities of the region informing the churches of the decisions made at the council in Jerusalem, with the result that they were strengthened in their faith and were continuing to grow daily in number.

Next week — Holy Spirit Steering!

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Jerusalem Council Part 3

We have noted several unanticipated characteristics of the Jerusalem church at the time of the council meeting of Acts 15:

  • James, the half brother of Jesus, has risen to a position of authority over the elders and apostles, although he is not one of the men chosen by Christ to “reign over the twelve tribes of Israel” in the Kingdom (not one of The Twelve).
  • A subculture of believing pharisees has been allowed to persist in the Jerusalem church that actively teaches that believers must be circumcised to be saved
  • The theology of the Jerusalem church continues to anticipate the prophetic restoration of David’s Kingdom, expecting believing Gentile worshipers to participate in Jewish Temple ceremony as proselytes.
  • The Antioch church considers itself to be under the authority of the Jerusalem church, desiring the approval of the Jerusalem elders and apostles for the theology and work of Paul and Barnabas.

We might also assert that there are differences between these two churches in their commission and in the content of their message, although it has little to do with the passage at hand other than to illustrate the mindset of each church.  Consider Peter’s message to Cornelius (a Gentile) in Acts 10:34-43, which ends with “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.  Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”  Compare this to Paul’s message to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:15-41, which concludes with “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.”  Peter, the Apostle to the Jews and initial leader of the Jerusalem church, has not arrived at an understanding that Christ has taken the Law of Moses out of the way, while Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles goes beyond Peter’s message to Cornelius, and asserts this truth, even to a Jewish audience!  We should not be surprised, then, to find elements of the Law remaining in the Jerusalem church’s theology — and rightly so, for the Jerusalem church and her leaders are the embodiment of the church during the Millennial Kingdom, the keepers and vendors of access to God in those days to come.  But that program has been temporarily set aside so that the mystery hidden in other ages might be brought in — that Gentiles and Jews alike have direct access to God through one mediator on an equal footing, and without the Law of Moses and its ceremonial requirements.  This is the heart of the difference between the Great Commission which anticipated the Kingdom, and Paul’s greater commission concerning the mystery of the Age of Grace.

So is there any evidence that these attitudes and theology actually persisted in the Jerusalem church?  Indeed, I have alluded to three such passages before and we will discuss two of them again here.  I’ll not go through them verse by verse, but ask that you refresh your memory by reading them for yourself again as we consider each one.

Galatians 1:15 – 2:14

Paul presents a chronology of his interaction with the leaders in the Jerusalem church for the benefit of his converts in Galatia, who are in danger of forsaking their freedom in Christ to go back under the legalism of Moses’ Law.   Notice that the visit after fourteen years is markedly different in every aspect from Luke’s description in Acts 15.  These are not the same event, in spite of what the section headings in your Bible might say! To say that they are would require us to make Luke — and the Holy Spirit who inspired both Paul and Luke as they wrote — liars!  This cannot be tossed off as differences between Paul’s and Luke’s writing styles, for both authors are decidedly factual in these passages.

Representatives with James’ authority (which James denied in Acts 15) described by Paul as “the party of the circumcision” have come to Antioch and created a controversy.  Paul’s language in v6 suggests that Paul’s mindset at the writing of the letter to the Galatians was one of independence from the leadership in Jerusalem, considering himself to be of equal authority and not bowing to their “reputation”.  He clearly distinguishes his role from that of James, Peter and John as a minister to the Gentiles, while they minister to the “circumcised.”  What’s more, this passage indicates that it was only James, Peter and John who gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship” concerning these differences, and not the whole leadership of the Jerusalem church.

The requirements to be placed on Gentile believers in Acts 15 were very specific — no circumcision, but don’t do what would make one “unclean.”  Here in Galatians the requirements are only to remember the poor.  Clearly the events of Acts 15 are not included in Paul’s chronology in Galatians!

As time passes we discover that even though James, Peter and John gave approval to Paul for his message and ministry, James persists in supporting “the party of the circumcision.”  (Remember, this is by God’s design, as the Jerusalem church was created as the prototype of Millennial Kingdom churches, which would see the restoration of Temple worship.  That has not changed.)

Acts 21:17-25

This passage is pivotal in the ministry of Paul.  He has just completed his third missionary journey and is on his way to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor from the Gentile churches he has founded.  He has been a reasonably free man, travelling wherever the Spirit has led him.  The events in this passage change all of that — from here on, Paul is a prisoner of the Roman government.

Paul himself is not only a Jew but a Pharisee.  Even though he has become the Apostle to the Gentiles, he still has a heart for his own nation.  (See Romans 9:1-5)  He has hurried at the end of his most recent missionary travels to reach Jerusalem before Pentecost (Acts 20:16).  I believe Pentecost was important to Paul for two reasons.  (1) It was a traditional Jewish Old Testament feast that, as a Pharisee, he wished to honor.  I described in detail in the posts concerning Acts 2 the traditional requirements upon practicing Jews to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the high feasts, no matter where in the world they lived. (2) Pentecost was the historical “point of origin” of the Jerusalem church.  Paul would later write “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5) So we know that as the Apostle to the Gentiles observance of the High Feasts was meaningless.  But Paul also wrote “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.” (I Corinthians 9:19-20).

There is some controversy among Bible scholars concerning why Paul ran the risk of going to Jerusalem in spite of prophetic warnings (Acts 21:11), and particularly why did the great Apostle to the Gentiles take a Jewish vow.  Did he disobey the Holy Spirit in doing so?  Was it all part of God’s grand plan, whereby we have the Prison Epistles?  Was Paul’s ministry throttled thereafter, or magnified?  Regardless of which of these positions might be taken, I believe that Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 9:19-20 (quoted above), even though it was written in the middle of the second missionary journey years before the incident in the Temple in Acts 21, is a clear and concise explanation for why Paul persisted in this dangerous enterprise.  He certainly had reason to believe that God would protect him from whatever the unbelieving Jews might dish out.  More importantly, it precisely answers Paul’s reason for taking a Jewish vow — to “win those who are under the Law.”

In any case, Luke describes their arrival.  Lodging was arranged, fellowship was enjoyed, but no official business was conducted on the first day (vv15-17).  The next day Paul, Luke, Mnason, and unnamed others went to the leaders of the Jerusalem church.  Luke’s wording is that they “went in… to James”, and coincidentally all of the elders were present.  Why doesn’t Luke mention the Apostles?  Were they included among the “elders”?  (If so, had they been “demoted” in the eyes of the Jerusalem church?) Were they absent, perhaps scattered because of persecution? Or were they simply not included in this visit?  Again, why would Paul go to James and not Peter or John?

Paul relates the details of his most recent work among the Gentiles to James and the elders (v19).  Their response was to “glorify God” (Gr. doxadzo, to recognize God as the power behind Paul’s work), AND, as if in reply, to draw his attention to “many thousands… among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law.”  It’s almost as if Paul’s description of how many thousands of the Gentiles had believed had to be countered with something better — equal numbers of converts with the added feature that they were zealous for the Law!  I’m seriously reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that there is room for the possibility that there was a little jealousy and competition going on!

The leaders go on to tell Paul that he is known to the Jerusalem church in a negative light, as one who teaches Jews everywhere to forsake the Law of Moses, especially when it comes to circumcision.  This is a very explosive situation (they are, after all, zealous) that needs to be nipped in the bud.  They recommend a public demonstration that Paul also is zealous for the Law by having him join with four other men in a Jewish vow, proving that Paul himself still “walk[s] orderly, keeping the Law.”  (v24)

They address his relationship and teaching concerning the Gentiles as unrelated to Paul’s need to take this vow, and remind him only of the exact terms that were stated in Acts 15 concerning Gentile requirements.  But of course Paul himself is not only a Jew but a Pharisee as well.  And so, IMHO, takes the vow in fulfillment of his desire to make himself all things to all men that he might win the more.

The threat of violence from believing Jews who were zealous for the Law was very real.  It needed to be defused.  Paul did what needed to be done in the context of the Jerusalem church.  Interestingly, part of the vow involved a sacrifice being made for each of the participants at the end of the seven days of purification (v26).  Had Paul forgotten that the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary had ended the need for all further sacrifices?  I doubt it, but he was willing to participate in the hope that he might “win the more.”  (This was, after all, not a sacrifice to some pagan god, but to the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles, the one true God.)  I believe that Paul was fully within his “rights” to reach out to his own race in this manner, and it was not a mistake.

In the end, the trouble in the Temple didn’t arise from believing Jews, but Jews from Asia who had opposed Paul throughout his missionary journeys.  These Jews didn’t appeal to believing Jews, but “men of Israel”.  No doubt Paul’s participation in this vow did indeed stand him in good stead with believing Jews.  It was Paul’s opposition on his missionary journeys that got him in the end!

Now pay attention!  The important thing here for the moment is NOT controversies over whether Paul should have gone to Jerusalem or not, or whether he should have taken a Jewish vow or not.  It is the window on the nature of the Jerusalem church that is important. It is very different from the churches Paul founded among the Gentiles — of which the churches of today are an extension.  (1) It includes many thousands of Jewish believers.  (2) They are zealous practitioners of Moses’ Law. (3) Their practice of their faith in Christ is (a) Temple-centered, (b) includes traditional vows of purification, and (c) attains purification by animal sacrifice.

Nothing could be further from our understanding of what Christ accomplished at Calvary, as witnessed by innumerable New Testament passages in all of the epistles, whether from Paul or others!  What has happened to the Jerusalem church?  I believe that it had irreversibly entered into what it will be once again when the Temple is rebuilt during the Great Tribulation — and that God intended it to do so.

We can legitimately ask, “Just what is it that these Jewish believers believe?  Is it the same things that we believe?”  The contrast between Jewish and Gentile “believers” could not be more stark or troubling than at the 21st chapter of Acts!  This is especially troubling since the Jerusalem church was created under the Twelve (men hand-chosen by Christ) operating under the Great Commission.  Did the Jerusalem church “backslide” to a state similar to what the church in Galatia faced, incurring a severe scolding from Paul for “having begun by the Spirit, [were] now being perfected by the flesh?”  No indeed.  They were carrying out the prophesied consequences of the Great Commission in obedience to God and the Holy Spirit for them but not for us!

Jewish believers believed…

  • Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesied, long-anticipated Messiah
  • Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, buried, and arose from the dead as proof that He was the Son of God
  • In so doing, He had made it possible for their sins to be forgiven
  • Jesus of Nazareth ascended into Heaven, witnessed by his disciples
  • Jesus of Nazareth would return with the armies of Heaven to restore David’s kingdom and reign over the earth through Israel for a thousand years
  • The Great Tribulation stood between them and the Millennial Kingdom
  • They should await these events in Jerusalem
  • They should maintain their purity by continuing to practice Moses’ Law

Gentile believers believed…

  • Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God
  • Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, buried, and arose from death to life
  • In God’s eyes they had been in Christ in His death, burial and resurrection
  • In so doing, their sins had been forgiven
  • They would be preserved from tribulation
  • Their future was in Heaven, eternally in the presence of God
  • To desire to practice Moses’ Law was to deny the complete efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary to satisfy the Law

The differences could not be clearer.  The first list above precisely fulfills the expectations of the Great Commission.  The second list precisely fulfills the commission of the mystery revealed to Paul, which temporarily has supplanted the expectations of the Jerusalem church.  Someday the program of the Jerusalem church will be reinstated, but that day is not today (well, at least not at the moment of this writing — it could happen anytime).  The day of the Jerusalem church and her Great Commission have passed into waiting, while the Age of Grace is fully in action.

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Jerusalem Council Part 2

In an earlier post we developed a timeline for Paul’s ministry, demonstrating that the events we have read in a few chapters in Acts actually took years to occur.  See the discussion of Galatians 1:15 – 2:9 in Chapter 7 — The Mystery Revealed.  We’ll reconsider this passage in next week’s post.  Paul’s statements to the Galatians describe a number of occasions on which he interacted with the Jerusalem apostles, none of which match the details of the passage we are now studying.  To understand Acts 15 it must be considered in the context of these other visits if we are to grasp the details of the transition from Israel’s Kingdom program to the Age of Grace as it happens gradually throughout Acts.

In case you didn’t read the update on the Mysterious Grace’s home page this week, I’ll repeat part of those comments here.  We need to step back for a moment and look at the forest before returning to analyzing the trees!  ”A clear understanding of Acts 15 is critical to understanding the dispensation under which we are so privileged to live.  Are we, as Gentiles (or Jews, for that matter) still under the Law of Moses or not?  Is our salvation a mixture of faith and works?  Must we approach God through Israel, or do we have direct access on the merits of grace?”  There were apparently believers in Jerusalem who would answer these questions on the side of Moses Law, faith plus works, and access to God through Israel’s ceremonial traditions.  Remember, the sect of the pharisees who went to Antioch that began this controversy were believing pharisees!

At the risk of being doubly redundant, here’s a quote from another earlier post — a promise I made to you months ago: “It’s important to note here that the believers who were scattered under the persecution [that began] when Stephen was martyred preached the Gospel only to fellow Jews.  They were operating under the Great Commission, according to Israel’s prophetic promises and program!  Once they began preaching to Gentiles, do you think they altered their message according to the revelations Paul had received?  No!  They hadn’t even met Paul yet!  These new Gentile believers were under the same program as the Jerusalem church, unaware of the mystery that would be revealed through Paul.  They were, in effect, a new breed of Jewish proselyte — they were what I will call messianic proselytes.  It isn’t until Chapter 15 that we find these Gentile believers released from the Jewish rules and rituals of the Jerusalem church, at Paul’s urging.”

Let me clarify the term messianic proselytes.  (1) They were Gentiles (Jews didn’t need to be proselytes).  (2) They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, that He had died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and that Israel’s leadership was responsible for His crucifixion (see Peter’s first messages after the Ascension.) (3) Their understanding of salvation and its ramifications was based on Israel’s Kingdom program (Christ had not yet revealed the Mystery to Paul or anyone else).  Consequently their understanding of how to approach God was very Jewish.

The Jews had been trained since the days of Moses that approaching God could be very dangerous and must be done in very prescribed ways.  David found this out when he tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  Moses said that when Israel lived in the Promised Land, they must come to God at only one place — where the Tabernacle and the Ark were located in Shiloh, and then eventually at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Worshiping God in the “groves” and the “top of every high place” was forbidden.  Consequently we should not think it strange when believers before the revelation of the Mystery through Paul still think of coming to God through Jewish ritual.

Even Cornelius and his household anticipated that salvation had to come through association with Jewish religion.  And indeed they did, for only Jews had the good news and a commission to dispense it.  There was a stir within the Jerusalem church when Peter returned and reported that Gentiles too had been saved through faith in Christ, but the controversy had not yet extended to its next logical issue — do they have to be circumcised after believing for their salvation to “stick”?  Then Paul and Barnabas go on their first missionary journey, converting Gentiles under the Mystery.  There were Gentile believers all over southern modern-day Turkey who had little connection to Jewish ritual, and especially to the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem.  What’s more, the churches established by Paul in those regions were forged in the heat of Jewish rejection, and stood in opposition to the synagogues where Paul first preached in each community.  Believers in those churches would not have had access to Jewish ritual such as circumcision, nor would they have wanted it.  Whether or not it was clear to everyone then, God had engineered some major differences between Gentile believers, messianic Jews (believing Jews) and messianic proselytes.  It is these differences that resulted in the events of Acts 15.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Acts 15:13 — “And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.”

Whoa, wait a minute!  I thought Peter was in charge in Jerusalem!  Who is this James?  It cannot be the Apostle James, for he was put to death by Herod back in Chapter 12!  In fact, Peter himself refers to an obviously different James who was still alive after Herod tried to do the same thing to him and he was miraculously released from prison in Acts 12:17.  Peter’s statement there clearly associates this James with the believers in Jerusalem — “Report these things to James and the brethren.”

The proper name “James” (Gr. Iakobo, also translated as “Jacob”) appears 39 times in the New Testament as follows:

  • 19 times as James the son of Zebedee, brother of John
  • 3 times as James the son of Alphaeus
  • 9 times as James the half-brother of Jesus, son of Mary, also called James the Younger by Mark

Interestingly, Luke’s list of The Twelve differs by one person from that of Matthew and Mark.  Luke identifies “Judas, son of James”, while Matthew and Mark identify this mismatched person as Thaddeus.  Furthermore, Matthew says he has another name besides Thaddeus — Lebbaeus!  Most commentators and Bible scholars think Thaddeus, Lebbaeus and Judas the son of James are the same person.  It gets even more confusing when Luke identifies those in the Upper Room in Acts 1:13 to include James, the father of Judas.  So Judas/Thaddeus/Lebaeus may have had both a father and brother named James.  On top of that, Jude claims to be the “brother of James” (Jude 1).  So that leaves us with six possibilities for the person of James.

While instructing the Corinthians about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he says that He appeared to “James” separately from the Apostles.  He could have meant separately from the remaining eleven apostles, or a different James than the two who were apostles (son of Zebedee and son of Alphaeus).  Luke’s choice of words seem to me to indicate the latter.  Of the remaining possibilities, James the half-brother of Jesus seems most likely to be the main player in Acts 15, Acts 21, the Book of James, Jude 1, and Galatians 2.  Beyond the lists presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels and the first chapter in Acts, the name “James” is used without qualification, as if everyone knows which James they’re talking about.  As the half-brother of Jesus he certainly would have been held in high esteem, even though he apparently was unassociated with Jesus’ earthly ministry.  How and when he came to believe his half-brother was the Messiah is not revealed to us.  Conventional theology assumes that the James who rose to authority in the Jerusalem church was the half-brother of Jesus, one of Mary’s several sons by Joseph, and (for a change) I have no reason to disagree with orthodoxy on this point.

In any case, James seems to be in the position to make the official declaration on the matter brought before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Acts 15:14-18

James openly agrees with Peter’s position, and has an Old Testament quotation.  ”After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the Tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, in order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My Name…”

Yes, it’s a glorious quote, and we tend to get glassy-eyed as we read it.  Try to set that aside and really think about what this quote describes!  It is about the return of the Messiah as King of Israel to restore the Temple after its prophesied destruction.  After its restoration the Gentiles who have associated themselves with the Hebrew God will be able to seek the Lord.  Implied in this quote is that their seeking of the Lord will be at the restored Temple in Jerusalem, and that they will not be able to do so until the Temple is restored.  What’s more, their worship will be on the basis of Temple practices.  Surely this is true of the Gentile nations during the Millennial Kingdom after the Tribulation, but it is certainly not true today!

Now here’s the most important point — James’ expectation was that Gentile believers would someday join Israel in Jewish forms of worship, including the practice of Moses’ Law. Indeed, in Acts 21:20 he persuades Paul to take a Jewish vow to prove he is not teaching Jews to forego circumcision by telling him that there are thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem who are all zealous for the Law.  (We’ll consider this in more detail when we reach Chapter 21.)

Acts 15:19-21

James, however, agrees with Peter’s wisdom concerning circumcision and other rituals, and pronounces official judgement (the Greek word describes that which happens in a hearing). These are the points of his judgement:

  1. Gentile believers should not be forced to follow Jewish rituals.
  2. Gentile believers distance themselves from meat sacrificed to idols.
  3. Gentile believers should distance themselves from fornication.
  4. Gentile believers should distance themselves from anything strangled
  5. Gentile believers should distance themselves from blood.

His reason for not requiring more than this is that Moses’ Law has ample voice throughout the world in the synagogues of the Diaspora.  What he has asked them to distance themselves from are the very things that made a practicing Jew unclean under Moses’ Law!  Why would he still insist on these things?  Because he believed that God would open the Temple to Gentiles when it was restored, and it was unthinkable that unclean Gentiles would be admitted. This is clearly Messianic Kingdom theology, based on Gentile nations being blessed through restored Israel, not in spite of unbelieving Israel.  James’ theology did not understand the cleansing power of the blood of Christ as we do today.  He was able to accept this lowering of the ceremonial standards because Moses’ Law was still upheld in the synagogues world-wide!  Had he truly understood that Christ had taken the Law of Moses out of the way, nailing it to His cross, he would not have held to even these restrictions.

James’ perspective, his world view if you will, was also the perspective of the Twelve, the Council as a whole, and the Jerusalem church as a whole, for James speaks in their behalf from a position of authority.  And this is right, for God intended the church in Jerusalem to be the beginnings of the Messianic Kingdom, with the tribulation following rapidly on its heels.  God knew the future, however, and the rejection of Israel in spite of the Jerusalem church.  So He raised up another way for Gentiles to access His very throne room, separate from Israel’s plan.  This separate way, revealed only through Paul, is the Mystery that we proclaim today.

Acts 15:22-29

The Council puts James’ judgement in writing in a letter to the Antioch church, and send it with Paul, Barnabas, and two of their own “official emissaries”, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas.  In the letter they greet the believers in Antioch (v23), disclaim the teaching of those who had gone to Antioch teaching the need for circumcision (v24), indicate their unity in their decision (v25a), introduce Judas and Silas (vv25b-28), mention the Holy Spirit’s agreement with their decision (v28), list the restrictions upon which they had decided (v29) and wish them well.

Acts 15:30-35

The Jerusalem church sent Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas on their way back to Antioch with the letter.  On arrival in Antioch, they read the letter to the whole church, which resulted in rejoicing because it greatly encouraged them.  Judas and Silas preached at length, adding their own personal encouragement and exhortation.

After “some time” the Antioch church was of a mind to send Judas and Silas back to Jerusalem, but Silas decided to remain in Antioch.  Paul and Barnabas remained there also for some time teaching and preaching the Word of the Lord along with many others.

In the next post we will take a brief detour of other passages that relate to this event in Acts 15, and then in the following post we will embark on Paul’s second great missionary journey!

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Jerusalem Council Part 1

Paul and Barnabas have been back in Antioch for many days at the point where Chapter 15 opens.  If you have not read Acts 15:1-35 yet, please take the time to do so now.

As we study through the passage it will be important to keep track of who is speaking and who is being spoken to and of.  As Miles Coverdale so aptly wrote over 500 years ago, “It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what cometh after.”  Consequently we will note these things specifically in the passages we study.

the Issue

Acts 15:1 — “And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

  • Who is speaking? “some men”
  • Where are they from? “Judea”
  • Who are they speaking to? “the brethren”
  • What is their intent? “teaching”
  • With what words? “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”
  • What has happened before? Paul and Barnabas have just finished their first missionary journey, where many were saved without the requirements of Moses’ Law.

As usual, Luke puts an awful lot of information into very few words.   Let’s be good scholars and tread carefully now!  Who were these people that came to Antioch with this message? The NASB translates the Greek word tines as “some men,” but a more literal translation would have been simply “men” or “some.”  (“And some came down…” or “And men came down…”)  The Greek word is the plural masculine indefinite pronoun, and as such Luke’s intent was to convey more the idea of a generic category and not any specific persons.  Hence, the NASB’s translation, “some men,” is perfectly apt if not word-for-word literal.

What is perhaps more important is what Luke did not convey about them.  They were not emissaries sent by the Jerusalem church, although they may have thought themselves to be so, as we shall soon discover.  What we do know about them is their theology — they believed themselves to be at least partially still under Moses’ Law, and its rites were required for salvation.

Acts 15:2 — “And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.”

Again, much is revealed in Luke’s brevity.  Paul and Barnabas knew this was not right, since they had seen Gentiles saved without any trappings of Moses’ Law.  They stood up to these “somebodies” from Judea.  The Antioch church decided that both parties should go to Jerusalem so that the Apostles there could settle the matter.  In this decision we see that (1) the Antioch church considered itself to be under the authority of the Jerusalem church’s leadership, and (2) that this was a question they were unable to settle on their own.

The Antioch church was over a barrel on this question.  If they rejected this teaching, it could be seen as a rejection of the leadership in Jerusalem.  If they accepted it, it would invalidate all of what Paul and Barnabas had accomplished on their first missionary journey.  This question went to the core of the Antioch church’s existence and mission.  Antioch was, after all, the first place that those scattered under Herod’s persecution had preached directly to Gentiles (Acts 11:20).  This verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the Antioch church to the Jerusalem church, the hierarchy of authority, and growing differences between the two churches’ directions (as we will see in more detail in the next posts).

the Meeting

Acts 15:3-4 — (please read for yourself)  Luke describes their journey from Antioch to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria, visiting with believers all along the way and telling them about the missionary journey and how God had granted salvation to the Gentiles.  The reaction they received was “great joy.”  Once they had arrived at Jerusalem, they repeated the entire story in detail to the church, the apostles (the Twelve) and the elders.

Acts 15:5 — “But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

If there was any doubt about the origin of the tines who came to Antioch with this message, Luke has removed it now.  This idea came from within the Jerusalem church from a subgroup of believing Pharisees!  In a sense, those who went to Antioch were emissaries — emissaries of this particular group.  Did they go to Antioch with the blessing of the Twelve?  Or even their knowledge?  Luke doesn’t say, but suffice it to note that this group was certainly allowed by the Twelve to persist within the Jerusalem church, with their full knowledge and approval.  We have noted before the reluctance and difficulty with which Jewish believers give up their generations-old traditions.  If nothing else, this chapter provides an amazing window on the makeup and theological positions of the Jersualem church and the Twelve who lead it — and how it differs from the Antioch church which has grasped the truth of salvation for Gentiles outside of the Law of Moses.  This difference is what Paul would later describe repeatedly as “my gospel” to distinguish it from that of the Twelve. Chapter 15 is important because it marks the point at which Paul’s gospel receives official certification from the Jerusalem church.  Interestingly, as we shall see, rather than join with Paul in his ministry, the Jerusalem church chooses to persist in its own direction — partly saved by Christ and partly by adherence to Moses’ Law.  And this is not the only occasion on which this caused problems, as we will see in the next posts.

Many churches today, including Protestant denominations, take the same direction as the Jerusalem church, failing to understand the distinction between Paul’s gospel and that of the Twelve, and consequently having a muddled idea of salvation by grace through faith alone.  They mingle free salvation with all sorts of requirements — water baptism, denominational membership, communion, obedience to sundry rules and ordinances.

So now what stands before the Jerusalem church and the Twelve is a decision concerning the requirements for Gentile salvation.  What will they decide?

Acts 15:6,12 — “and the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.  And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren…’”… And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”

Why have I left out four and a half verses?  Never fear, we’ll consider them in a moment.  But for now I want to return to Miles Coverdale’s approach:

  • Who came together to look into the matter?  the Twelve and the elders of the Jerusalem church
  • What happened before Peter spoke?  much debate
  • Who did Peter speak to? “them”, calling them Brethren.  Does “them” refer to the apostles and elders of v6, the sect of the Pharisees of v5, or the church of v4?  (IMHO, most likely the apostles and elders, of which Peter was certainly an equal)
  • What was “the multitude” doing while Peter spoke? keeping silent and listening
  • Who were they listening to? Paul and Barnabas
  • What were Paul and Barnabas telling the multitude about? signs and wonders done among the Gentiles through them

Because Luke writes sequentially and the verses in our Bibles are numbered sequentially, I believe we tend to read this passage as if Paul and Barnabas described their ministry to the multitude after Peter spoke, and that everyone was in on it like at a modern public board meeting.  But I believe the passage does not demand this interpretation, and if we can free our minds of artificial presuppositions, the passage actually leans more toward the apostles and elders meeting in closed session while Paul and Barnabas “entertained” the multitude.  At some point following Peter’s advice, the apostles and elders rejoined the multitude to hear more of what had happened on Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey (according to v13, apparently James waited until Paul and Barnabas were through speaking to the multitude before pronouncing judgement).

Before we move on, please take careful note of what specific events were described by Paul and Barnabas — signs and wonders!  Why is this important?  The issue at stake is whether or not God is really at work through Paul and Barnabas’ ministry directly to Gentiles.  How do Jews (or former Jews) know when God is truly at work?  They require a sign.

Acts 15:7-11 — Now let’s consider Peter’s speech to the Council.  (Please read the verses for yourself now, even if you’ve read them before.)

v7 — “in the early days” suggests that this council is occurring several years after the events of Acts 10.  A short three and a half chapters have elapsed since Peter’s visit to Cornelius household and his subsequent report to Jerusalem.  Indeed, Luke’s narrative beginning at 11:19 goes all the way back to the first presentation of the Gospel in Antioch, Barnabas’ search for Saul (Paul), and their teaching in Antioch for an entire year.  Peter had been imprisoned by Herod, rescued miraculously, and had spent time at Caesarea.  Paul and Barnabas had delivered relief funds to Jerusalem, Peter had been imprisoned and miraculously released, had spent time in Caesarea, and Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch.  Subsequently Paul and Barnabas had completed their first missionary journey, which included having spent “a long time” in Iconium before proceeding under duress to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe.  How long had all this taken?  Peter’s choice of words is vague but appropriate — this should have been an old lesson!

“God made a choice among you”  is an interesting phrase.  (NASB)  The NIV translates it exactly the same way.  The Greek word is ekselekso, a form of eklektos from which we derive the English word “elect”.  It implies a choice of one person over another.  What Peter is saying is that God chose him personally out of all of them to accomplish what he is about to describe.  It is interesting to me that both translation teams, one set on literal accuracy and the other on readability, did not translate it as “God selected me out of you all to be the one by whom the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.”

v8 — “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us.”  Remember that when the members of Cornelius’ household believed, the Holy Spirit actually interrupted Peter’s message by falling visibly on them as He had on the disciples at Pentecost.  This was the witness that their conversion was genuine.

v9– Peter notes that God saved them on the same basis, cleansing their hearts on the basis of their faith.

v10 — “Why do you put God to the test?”  The seriousness and weight of Peter’s advice to the Council is apparent here, for he accuses them of violating the very words of Moses — “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)  Massah was the location where the Israelites complained about the lack of water in crossing the desert, not trusting God to provide it, and threatening Moses with rebellion.  Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?”  God directed Moses to strike the rock of Horeb, causing water to come out of it.  Moses named the place “Massah and Meribah” (“test and quarrel”) because they tested the Lord by saying “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Christ quoted Moses during his temptation in the wilderness by using this reference as well, when Satan suggested He should throw Himself down from atop the highest pinnacle of the Temple and be rescued by the angels.

What exactly is this sin?  The Israelites’ doubt of God’s presence induced them to want to return to Egypt.  Here too, doubt introduced by well-meaning believing Pharisees seems to have infected the body and the Council with a desire to return to ceremonial elements of the Law which Christ had taken out of the way (Colossians 2:14).

“… by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”  Peter clarifies his reference to the sin of putting God to the test.  God has already shown that Gentiles and Jews are saved in the same way — by faith.  Having been freed from the Law, their desire to go back under it is tantamount to wanting to return to Egypt, thus “putting God to the test.”  What a shock this must have been to the other members of the Council!

v11 — Peter’s conclusion is inescapable.  ”We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”  Apparently Peter had the last word, for nothing more is said by the members of the Council until after Paul and Barnabas are finished speaking to the multitude.

Peter is firmly on the side of Paul and Barnabas, but this will not be the end of this evil influence in the Jerusalem church.  As wise and steadfast as Peter appears to be now, even he will fall into the same sin so strongly as to carry Barnabas into it with him on the occasion of a visit to Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21).  Paul scolded Peter publicly for it then, concluding his remarks with a verse many of us have memorized: “I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness comes by the Law then Christ has died in vain.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians thus suggests that this doctrine of “grace plus works” was allowed to persist in the Jerusalem church indefinitely, and had its influence among even the highest in authority.  While Peter speaks here in Acts 15 firmly on the side of equality in how Jews and Gentiles are saved, it is apparent that no one in the Jerusalem church carried this notion to its logical conclusion — that to require anything beyond faith for either Jew or Gentile effectively thwarted God’s grace and made Christ’s death worthless.

In any case, Peter’s statement under the influence of the Holy Spirit cleared the air at the moment and made way for the Council’s approval of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles under God’s purpose.


Do not lose sight of the fact that Acts is a transitional book between Israel’s prophesied Kingdom and the Age of Grace. Signs and wonders are still required as certification of God’s handiwork, but now they are presented as historical anecdotes. The transition is not instantaneous, especially since God’s promises to Israel are still unfulfilled, both at this point in Luke’s narrative and yet today.  While God has set Israel’s program aside for a time, He did not do so all at once.  He did so in an orderly fashion, giving those in charge of Israel’s program ample time and justification for the transition and certifying it as required.

At this point in the narrative the Jerusalem church is still in authority over the Antioch church and all of Christendom, and is very much in business.  But it’s also obvious that God has raised up an alternative in the face of Israel’s national unbelief.  The apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church are about to place their “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to the Gentiles.  From this point on, the Jerusalem church and the Twelve fade from the scene.  Luke’s focus from here on will be the Gospel among the Gentiles, although remnants of trying to reach Jews first will persist in Paul’s ministry to the very end of Acts.

Next week — the Council’s decision!

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Iconium, Lystra and Derbe

Passage: Acts 14  (Please take the time to read this chapter for yourself before reading this blog post.  As always, try to set aside preconceived notions and consider the passage at face value.  Do your best to stick to observation — what it says, not what it means. Then be sure to put what I have written to the test against the Scriptures as those Berean believers of old did with Paul’s very words.)

14:1-2 — Iconium lay some 60 miles to the east-southeast of Pisidian Antioch along the eastern branch of a Roman road that had been constructed in 6 B.C. for military purposes, the via Sebaste.  At the time of Paul and Barnabas’ journey it would have been in excellent condition and frequent use, having been built for the passage of Roman legions some fifty years prior.  Nevertheless, a journey of that distance through the rolling hills and mountains of southern Turkey would have been more than an afternoon stroll.  Today Iconium is the thriving city of Konya, incidentally the point of origin of the Muslim sect known as the “whirling dervishes.” (An excellent article with colorful maps and photos of modern-day Konya is available at

Luke succinctly describes their entry to the synagogue, their preaching, the results among those who believed, and the evil reaction among those who did not, exactly as transpired in Pisidian Antioch before.

14:3 — “Therefore” (pay attention!) Paul and Barnabas spent a long time in Iconium.  Why?  Because of the faith of those who had believed, and because of the opposition of those who had not.  The remainder of the verse indicates that it was God who enabled them to remain and speak boldly by certifying their message of grace with miracles.  Remember, Paul and Barnabas start among the Jews of each new community.  And Jews require a sign!  Paul and Barnabas at this time in their ministry are performing miracles in the same manner as Peter and John, and for the same purpose.  Many years later Paul would explain the passing of the need for miraculous signs in his prison letters, but for now they were very necessary.  The important thing in this verse to understand is not that they performed miracles, but that God extended their time in Iconium by doing so.

14:4-7 — The city was divided over their message.  It’s interesting to note here that Luke uses the word “apostles” to describe Paul and Barnabas and their companions.  Were the Twelve with them?  No, Luke’s narrative in chapter 15 clearly indicates they were still in Jerusalem.  So why would Luke use apostolos, and why in the plural form?  Well, the passage indicates that Paul and Barnabas were performing miracles, a singular mark of those who were first-generation promulgators of the Gospel, having seen the risen Christ in person and having been commissioned personally by Him.  Paul certainly fits this description, but what about Barnabas?  Luke’s use of the plural form here is a bit of a mystery, but will be explained later in the passage.

Eventually the Jews devised a plot to arrest and stone Paul and Barnabas.  But they became aware of it and fled Iconium for communities farther down the via Sebaste to the southeast, viz. Lycaonia, Lystra, Derbe and the surrounding region, where they continued to preach the Gospel.

14:8-20a — The focus now narrows to events in the city of Lystra.  Apparently before they had opportunity to enter the synagogue and present the Gospel to the Jewish community, they encountered a man who had been lame from birth.  Apparently they were speaking in public (perhaps there was no synagogue in Lystra?), and this man was listening to Paul attentively.  Paul became aware of him, studied him intently for a moment, and perceived that he believed he might be healed.  Have you ever had one of those premonitions, a situation when you became aware that this could be The Moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life?  I suspect that was exactly the case with this man.  And the Holy Spirit revealed it to Paul.  The eye contact that passed between them in that moment must have been electric!  Paul commands him in a loud voice to stand up, and he not only does so, but immediately walks as well!

It is indeed noteworthy that a description of approaching the community through the synagogue is absent in the case of Lystra, and yet Paul and Barnabas were obviously presenting the Gospel in public.  Others have noted that perhaps for the first time Paul and Barnabas were approaching Gentiles directly on their own merits. (This is what causes scholars to suspect there was no synagogue in Lystra.)  Jews were not absent entirely from the population (Timothy and his mother were from Lystra, Acts 16:1-2), but apparently the area was largely untouched by religions other than what they had inherited from Greek domination.  v13 tells us that there was a temple of Zeus just outside the city, and it probably represented the predominant religion of the area.  Consequently, on witnessing this miracle, the unanimous consent was that the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes had come to visit them.  The priest of Zeus and the citizens were so impressed that they insisted on making sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas!  With great difficulty they convinced the people that they were not gods themselves, but only human servants of the One God Who had always been kind and patient with them — now bringing them news of the greatest kindness of all, salvation through Jesus Christ.

We are not told how long Paul and Barnabas were able to remain in Lystra, but dissenting Jews from Antioch and Iconium were hot on their heels.  They won over the crowds, and apparently Paul was caught flat-footed in their midst.  He was stoned and dragged out of the city for dead.  But while his sorrowful companions and new believers gathered around his body, he stood up and walked back into the city, apparently under his own power.  (Well, that’s just an expression — in truth he did it under God’s own power!)  The following day he and Barnabas traveled on to Derbe on foot.  Various sources cite the distance as 30 to 60 miles, but in any case, quite a feat for a man who had just been stoned to death the day before!

Luke is very brief in his description of their time in Derbe.  He simply states that they made many disciples there.  There is no mention of persecution or opposition.  Indeed, in II Timothy 3:11 Paul writes to Timothy concerning the persecution they suffered on this first missionary journey, and Derbe is conspicuously absent from the list.

14:20b-23 — Where to now?  Derbe was an outpost on the extreme eastern border of the province of Galatia.  Before them to the east lay uncharted mountainous territory.  They were essentially at the end of the via Sebaste. Westbound travelers and merchants had to stop here to pay Roman tariffs.  It was the edge of the civilized world.  What’s more, only turmoil and hatred lay behind them.  Oh, yes, and one other thing — a trail of many new believers!  Most of us would quail at the thought of openly going right back through places where we had recently been stoned, but what is that to the Apostle who survived it?  I’m sure the Jews in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra smugly thought they had succeeded in chasing Paul and Barnabas out of their environs into the barbaric region to the east.  But God is indifferent to such puny plots of men, and Paul and Barnabas had long ago learned to be equally indifferent to them.  Indeed, as Paul would soon counsel these new believers, tribulations go with the territory. (v22b)  They purposely turned right around and headed back the way they came.

Luke tells us they strengthened the souls of these new believers, encouraged them in their faith (Gr. parakaleo — “came alongside”), explained that persecution should be expected and was part of the process of entering God’s kingdom, appointed leaders among them, prayed and fasted with them, and commended them to God’s keeping.  These short verses present for us today a model for evangelism and church planting — including not only the initial “salvation experience”, but follow-up.  We would do well to imitate it in modern missions programs and church expansion.

14:24-28 — Luke ends his description of the first missionary journey by marking the route of return to their starting point at the Antioch church, passing through the regions of Pisidia and Pamphylia to the city of Perga, where they apparently preached the Gospel.  From there they went down to the sea port of Attalia and sailed back to their home country, probably through the port of Seleucia sixteen miles down the Orontes River from Antioch.  When they arrived they gathered the church together and related the story of how God had opened the door to the Gentiles.  ”And they spent a long time with the disciples.”

All was not well, however, as we shall discover in the next post.

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Living Grace

I’ve spent a lot of time referring to “technical” grace and the “Age of Grace.”  But experiencing, living in and dispensing grace is another matter.  In this blog site I’ve mostly dealt with head knowledge, but what I am speaking of here is heart knowledge.

I recently acquired a “new” used car.  Not from the local dealer, you understand.  An Internet search turned up exactly what we wanted — in St. Louis, MO, about 700 miles away.  Somewhere along the eleven-hour route back to central Nebraska I tuned into a Christian radio station and caught most of a Focus on the Family interview with Tim Goeglein, author of The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era. (The radio episode is entitled Grace and Redemption: My Life in Washington and can be replayed at{F384ADAF-A63C-4994-944E-F06C6739959E} )

The interviewer and Mr. Goeglein focused on a very small part of the book, an account of his fall from the halls of Washington DC power because of plagiarism in a column he wrote for his hometown newspaper while working on President George W. Bush’s staff.

Mr. Goeglein was contacted by a reporter and asked point-blank if he had plagiarized certain content in his column.  He admitted having done so, and knew in that instant that his political life was over.  His thoughts turned immediately to how this would hurt his wife, his children, his parents… and President Bush, who he had served with devotion through two campaigns and most of two presidential terms.  He went home that night and confessed all to his family, knowing that the next workday he would have to resign in disgrace.  He expected to be “taken to the woodshed” both by his immediate superior, Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, and by the President.

He went to work and began making his exodus as seamless a transition as possible, and soon received a phone call form Mr. Bolton, who asked him to come to his office.  Expecting the worst, he experienced quite the opposite.  The first question asked was, “How is your family doing with this?”  They talked for several minutes, and then Mr. Bolton said, “The boss [meaning President Bush] wants to see you.”

Once again expecting the worst, he was ushered into the Oval Office.   He closed the door and turned to face the President, and said, “Mr. President, I owe…” and got no further.  President Bush interrupted him, stating, “Tim, I forgive you.”  He tried to apologize again and was again interrupted.  ”I have known grace and mercy in my life, and I’m extending it to you.”  A third attempt at apology was answered with, “Tim, I’ll say it again — you’re forgiven.  We can spend the next few minutes talking about the last eight years, or we can talk about all of this.”

Mr. Goeglein turned to take a seat on one of couches at the side of the room reserved for aides and staff members.  President Bush redirected him to one of the two chairs in front of the large fireplace over which the portrait of George Washington hangs, a seat reserved for the Vice President and visiting heads of state.  It is a seating arrangement specifically designed to put the President of the United States and his guest on a peer-to-peer basis.

They spent the next twenty minutes or so rehearsing the successes of the past eight years.  As their time drew to a close, they prayed together (!) and hugged.  As Mr. Goeglein opened the door to leave, thinking it would be last time he would see the Oval Office and President Bush, the President said to him, “Oh, and by the way, I want you to please bring your wife and sons here so that I can tell them what a great father and husband you’ve been.”

Mr. Goeglein continued the radio interview by saying, “It is a remarkable thing to have the leader of the Free World validate you at the nadir of your life.  I was not in the cellar at that point, I was in the sub-cellar.  And the President knew as a Christian that it was important to extend grace and mercy, forgiveness and love to me at a moment when I needed it most.  He also knew it was important that he show my wife and children that in all of this brokenness and failure, that there was something and someone whose dignity and redemption was important.  And he knew this intuitively. [emphasis mine - JAI]  Jenny and the boys came with me back to the Oval Office for photos and gifts.  I cannot get to the bottom of it, it’s actually difficult to put into words.”

“He knew this intuitively.” These words really took me aback.  The reception Mr. Goeglein received when the worst was expected is astounding enough, but to realize that it was intuitive and not contrived on the part of President Bush is indeed something we all would have difficulty “getting to the bottom of!”

We know so little of the actual nature, personality and modus operandi of our Presidents. And what we do know is warped and twisted by news media that seldom tells that side of the story, tells only what serves their own agenda, and never tells the whole story.  One doesn’t know what to believe, the isolation from reality is so great.  I can tell you that by the end of President Bush’s second term my evaluation of him was clouded by doubt.  But Mr. Goeglein’s halting and humble description of his treatment by both Josh Bolton and President Bush has been a thunderous clarification and validation of my support for George W. Bush.  I cannot speak with certainty, never having met President Bush, but for what it’s worth, here’s why…

There was no doubt advance planning for handling the eventuality that some staffer sometime would face scandal resulting in their departure, and that advance planning included the Chief of Staff as witnessed by his own treatment of Mr. Goeglein.  No president worth his salt would want to be caught flat-footed in such circumstances.  And yet Mr. Goeglein described President Bush’s approach as stemming from intuitive understanding.  What the President understood intuitively was Mr. Goeglein’s personal need for forgiveness, love, validation, grace and mercy, and that both he and his family would need encouragement and reinforcement of a balanced perspective in a terribly unbalanced time.  And that those things far outweighed any deserved judgement.

Mr. Goeglein’s description of all of this as being intuitive seems to indicate to me that this apparently well-thought-out approach stemmed from President Bush’s very nature — that to do otherwise would never occur to him.  And in this we have an amazing window into President Bush’s very soul.  Had I been in his shoes that day, would I have responded in this manner intuitively?  I suspect not!

Many in the media (and some in Christian circles) have raised doubt about whether or not George W. Bush is a genuine believer in Jesus Christ.  It seems to me that Christ should be easily visible in those of us who claim to be His followers.  This vignette, for me at least, has “easy to see Christ in you” written all over it.  Above all things, it places the concept of redemption of sinners in the forefront, and then adds to it everything that is undeserved.  Love.  Mercy.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Encouragement.  Validation.  Hope.  Acceptance.

Is the presence of Christ in my life, after 49 years of faith, this evident in my dealings with my fellow man?  Sadly, no.  Unlike most, I’ve had opportunity from a position of power as a church elder, to put it to the test.  Here is an example before me where a man with ultimate authority could have “lowered the boom” righteously.  But instead he responded humbly out of his own personal experiences in which he had also received bountiful grace and mercy, and was now simply passing it on.  How many times have I participated in church board decisions that “lowered the boom” on someone, even when it was scripturally justifiable?  I have referred to this elsewhere as the “Ananias and Sapphira Method of Church Discipline.”  In which of those situations, if any, did those believers under my oversight depart with the sense of love and understanding that Mr. Goeglein received?

Yes, there was error.  Yes, there was confession of error and repentance.  Yes, there were consequences.  All too often believers caught in error in churches today obstinately refuse to recognize, confess and repent of their sin.  But even in the absence of such repentance there remains a need to recognize the worth and dignity of the offender as fundamentally a brother and a “trophy of God’s grace,” and to continue to care for and about them with an understanding of what they are going through, now matter how low.  Any believer who cannot treat their brothers in Christ, however errant, in this manner has forgotten just how low they were before they were redeemed, and just how great a redemption was given to them freely.  And it is most likely that it is pride and power that has caused them to forget.

Mr. President, if by some strange quirk of fate you should ever read this — thank you for not only “getting it” as a Christian, but for actually living it out at an intuitive level, especially from the highest halls of human power.  It’s easy to see Christ in you!

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Pisidian Antioch

Today we have a longer passage.  I’ll rely on you to study this passage carefully for yourself, providing only an outline and commentary.  I’ll encourage you to be like those ancient believers in Berea who “searched the scriptures daily” to see if what Paul was telling them was true.

Pisidian Antioch

vv13-14a — Luke describes their route as departing from Paphos, the same city where their journey across Cyprus had ended and where the encounter with Sergius Paulus and Elymas had taken place.  Paphos is a seaport, and they sailed from there to Perga in Pamphylia.  Notably, John Mark left Paul and Barnabas there and returned to Jerusalem.  Luke doesn’t describe John Mark’s reasons, but there may have been a disagreement that arose between them.  In any case, his departure was the basis of a later split between Paul and Barnabas.

They journeyed on from the region of Pamphylia to the region of Pisidia and the city of Antioch.  This is NOT the same Antioch that was the location of the church that had sent Paul and Barnabas out. According to WikiPedia, “After the death of Alexander the Great, Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty, took control of Pisidia. Captured places were Hellenised and, in order to protect the population, fortified cities were founded at strategically important places, usually on an acropolis. Seleucus I Nicator had nearly 60 cities founded, and gave to 16 of them the name of his father Antiochos.” (,_Pisidia)

Pisidian Antioch

Pisidian Antioch

Pamphilia lay along the southern coast of modern-day Turkey, north-northwest of Cyprus, and its capitol was Perga.  Their journey from there was on foot, for the region of Pisidia lay north of Pamphilia in south-central Turkey, separated from the coast by the Taurus mountains.  Pisidian Antioch was a fortified Greek city with an acropolis, most likely used to defend against invasion from the Galatians around 250 BC.

vv14b-16a — Luke gives us more insight into what took place when Paul and Barnabas entered the local synagogue as a starting point in any given city.  His description indicates that they simply mingled with the other Jewish worshippers on the Sabbath as visitors from far away and sat down in their midst.  There would have been informal conversation prior to the formal parts of the service, and probably during these conversations both Paul and Barnabas would have been politely required to explain who they were and why they were there.  Paul’s credentials as a Pharisee would not only have resulted in immediate acceptance, but as we see, an opportunity to speak as well.  So it is that after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue invited them to address the people gathered there.  Paul stood up and motioned with his hand to get their attention.

Before we move into Paul’s message, I’ll just offer a reminder — as you study the passage, try to set aside any preconceived notions you have about its words or meaning.  Simply focus on the words on the page as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul is quite clear and easy to understand.

Paul’s Message

v16b — Pay attention!  Who does Paul identify as his audience?  In his mind there were two groups present in the synagogue that day — (1) men of Israel, and (2) “you who fear God.”  Was Paul being redundant, applying both terms to the same group?  Or was he identifying not only those who were of Jewish descent (genetic Jews), but also Gentiles who had adopted the Jewish religion and God as proselytes?  I believe it was the latter, especially since they were now in a predominantly Gentile part of the world.  As proselytes, those who “fear[ed] God” would have learned Israel’s history and would have identified with God’s prophetic promises to Israel.  So Paul was speaking to both groups on an equal basis.

vv17-22 — Paul rehearses the history of Israel, beginning with Abraham (“our fathers”) and Moses, the wandering in the wilderness, the time of the Judges, and the kingdoms of Saul and David.  Interestingly, he does not mention the division of David’s kingdom and the resulting scattering of the northern kingdom and the captivity of the southern kingdom, although certainly the synagogue where he was speaking was a result of one or the other.  Instead, Paul will use the promises God made to David as a springboard for his next statements.  So far, his audience would have been in perfect agreement with him.

vv23-31 — Now Paul recites recent history.  The promise to David of an eternal heir and savior has been fulfilled by God!  This heir’s name is Jesus.  He was preceded by John the Baptist, who spoke of him.  This news is current events!  Here again in v26 Paul makes the double distinction of genetic descendants of Abraham and Gentile proselytes.  He then recites the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, resurrection and pre-ascension appearances, putting the blame squarely at the feet of the High Priest and the religious ruling community in Jerusalem (v27).  This must have been very shocking to his listeners, but so far Paul had said nothing that they could say wasn’t true.  The atmosphere at this point must have been electric!

vv32-37 — Paul says that what he is telling them is wonderful news, and goes on to prove the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah on the basis of the scriptures, quoting from David’s own psalms.  Their main objection, as happened with the leaders in Jerusalem, would have been over resurrection, and Paul addresses this (vv34-35) before they even have a chance to raise it.

vv38-39 — Pay attention when a verse begins with the word “Therefore…”  (What is the “therefore” there for?)  The logical conclusion of Paul’s statements is that this Savior is able and willing to forgive sins — even theirs!  Everyone who believes and accepts this forgiveness is freed from God’s requirements — even the requirements of the Law of Moses which they could never obey perfectly.  (Note that this is quite different from the understanding of many in the Jerusalem church, who persisted in requiring new believers to undergo circumcision and other Jewish rites.)

vv40-41 — Paul puts a powerful punctuation mark at the end of his message.  He anticipates that the leaders of the synagogue are about to object and try to undo everything he has said.  So he quotes from Habakuk 1:5, warning them that those who scoff at God’s actions will perish, no matter how unbelievable His actions may seem to them!  The leaders must have stood speechless before the clarity of Paul’s logic.   But not for long.

The Results of Paul’s Message

vv42-43 — The effect on many of the people who attended that day was profound.  Luke tells us that they wanted to hear it again on the next Sabbath.  Note in v43 that Luke removes any doubt about Paul’s classification of his audience into two groups.  Here Luke identifies them as (1) Jews and (2) God-fearing proselytes!  This was important because Paul’s message was equally applicable to both groups — a radical concept in the Synagogue!  As Paul and Barnabas accompanied these new believers out of the Synagogue, they encouraged them to “continue in the grace of God.”  There is much hidden in this simple phrase that is only evident when you consider the mindset of synagogues, Jews and proselytes.  Paul and Barnabas were encouraging them to continue in a new direction, the “grace of God.”  New as opposed to what?  Their old direction was to pursue God under the Jewish Law of Moses.  Here we find the first clear indication in Acts that because of the work of Jesus Christ, “grace” has superceded Law!

vv44-47 — What a stir Paul and Barnabas had created!  The next Sabbath “nearly the whole city” turned out to hear what this was all about.  The Jews, however, became jealous and began attempting to repudiate Paul’s statements.  (Luke says their words were “blasphemy”, a strong statement indeed.)  Paul and Barnabas addressed the crowd firmly and clearly.  Paul’s first statement is amazing:  ”It was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken to you [the Jews] first; since you  repudiate it, and [consequently] judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles!”  (Notice that Paul does not say that God has judged them unworthy of eternal life, they have judged themselves unworthy of it!  They cannot lay the blame for their unworthiness at God’s feet!  Paul was such a great lawyer along with everything else…)

The Great Commission is retrospectively in view here, but with a twist.  When Christ gave the Great Commission to the Twelve, it implied that the Gospel of the Christ and His Kingdom would be spread throughout the world by a willing Israel.  The new twist is that forgiveness of sins (without mention of Israel’s promised kingdom) will spread throughout the world in spite of an unwilling and unrepentant Israel!

Paul puts a scriptural nail in the Jewish leader’s coffin by quoting Isaiah 42:6 as justification for turning to the Gentiles.

vv48-49 — The Gentiles present did what we should still be doing today — rejoicing and glorifying the Word of the Lord!  They had no difficulty understanding that God had done an “end run” around the stiff-necked Jewish leaders.  As a result, many believed.  Here’s one of those nasty “predestination” passages — according to Luke, the ones who believed were appointed by God to believe, and none were left out!  So the Word of the Lord spread rapidly throughout the region.

vv50-51 — The Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch were not defeated, however.  They took aside the intelligencia of the city and incited them against Paul and Barnabas.  As a result, they were driven out of Pisidia.  Paul and Barnabas “shook off the dust of their feet against them” (a mideastern protest against bad hospitality) and traveled on to the neighboring region of Iconium.

v52 — Luke states that “the disciples” were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.  Who did Luke mean by “the disciples?”  Paul and Barnabas?  Those who, like Luke, traveled with Paul and Barnabas but remain unnamed?  Or the new believers they left behind in Pisidian Antioch?  The Greek word for disciples here is mathetes, or learners.  Zodhiates’ notes state that the word as used in the New Testament means more than a mere student, however.  It means one who not only has learned something, but has chosen to adhere to it.  It is used only in the four Gospels and in Acts.  Paul does not refer to believers as “disciples,” but rather as “saints.”  Part of our problem in being misled by this word is that we often fail to distinguish between Disciples (with a capital “D”) and disciples (with a lower-case “d”).  When capitalized, we recognize it as a pre-ascension term for the Twelve.  It’s all to easy to extend the notion of the capital “D” to Paul, Barnabas, and their travelling companions.  While Paul is indeed an Apostle by the direct appointment of the risen Lord, he is not one of the Twelve!  His apostleship and message are distinct from theirs. He would not have described himself or his fellow ministers and traveling companions as “disciples.” That leaves the new believers Paul and Barnabas left behind in Pisidian Antioch as being “continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

Gentiles, and some of the Jews, in Pisidian Antioch understood what had changed.  As a result they were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.  Could Luke have said that of us today?  Let us endeavor to be so, and to “continue in the grace of God.”

Next blog topic — Iconium!

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First Stop: Cyprus

Paul and Barnabas have been called by God to a special work, distinct from the rest of the leadership of the church in Antioch, and certainly distinct from the work of the Twelve in the Jerusalem church.  We are about to see a pattern of ministry that is distinctive to Paul.  More about this later — for now, let’s just cover the story!

Sergius Paulus and Bar-Jesus (Elymas)
Acts 13:4-12

If you have not yet read the passage for yourself, please do so now.

Map of Cyprus

Map of Cyprus

v4 — Leaving from Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark (as we shall discover shortly) set out for the city of Seleucia (Seleucia Piera), the nearest seaport to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast.  From there they sailed west to the island of Cyprus.


Northwestern Cyprus Coast

v5 — On reaching Cyprus, they apparently landed somewhere on the eastern end of the island, a region known as Salamis.  (This is not to be confused with the island of Salamis on the Adriatic coast of Greece.)  Immediately they began to proclaim the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues.  John Mark’s presence is identified with them at the end of this verse.

If Paul’s message was different from that of the Twelve, why did they first proclaim it in Jewish synagogues?  We have often explained that the Book of Acts is a transitional book between dispensations — from Israel’s prophesied Kingdom to the Gentiles’ unprophesied, mysterious Age of Grace.  We are not far enough along in the transition for Paul to skip going to the Jews altogether and go straight to the Gentiles.  God is still trying to reach out to His chosen people.  By the time we reach the end of the Book of Acts, Paul will have given his Jewish countrymen opportunity after opportunity, always with the same result — rejection.  And time after time, in the face of their rejection, Paul turns to the Gentiles in the same community.  Some of the Jews believe Paul’s message and come away from the Synagogue to join with Paul and other Gentile converts.  But the official position of the synagogues is rejection after rejection after rejection.

We’re seriously getting ahead of ourselves here.  We are at the very beginning of this change in pattern.  Suffice it to say that no representative of the Jerusalem church has ever turned to the Gentiles when rejected by the synagogue.  To do so should have generated intense jealousy among the Jews — which, in the face of Israel’s rejection of God’s plan for them, was exactly what God wanted to do.  Instead, it generated pure rage that caused Paul no end of trouble.  God is still waiting for Israel to become jealous of what the Gentiles have received in a good and profitable way.

vv6-7 — Paul, Barnabas and John Mark passed through the entire island of Crete, eventually reaching the district and city of Paphos on the western end of the island. There they encountered two individuals,  Bar-Jesus (translated Elymas in Greek), a Jewish magician and false prophet, and Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor of the area (a proconsul).  Luke goes on to describe Sergius Paulus as a “man of intelligence”, who wanted to hear what Paul and Barnabas had to say.

According to Wikipedia, “In the Roman Republic, a proconsul (in Greek rendered as ἀνθύπατος, anthypatos) was a promagistrate (like a propraetor) who, after serving as consul, spent a year as a governor of a province. Certain provinces were reserved for proconsuls; who received which one by senatorial appointment…” (  This means that Sergius Paulus was almost certainly a gentile, and the summons indicates that their audience with him did not take place in the local synagogue!  This entire episode is a fulfillment of what the Risen Christ told Ananias about Paul’s future, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel…” (Acts 9:15)

v8 — This verse begins with the word “but,” always an indicator of contrast with what has gone before.  Luke’s description of Sergius Paulus’ summons leads us to believe that he was genuinely seeking to know about the God of the Hebrews, for this verse is in stark contrast.  Elymas had the opposite attitude from Sergius Paulus, opposed their message and sought to turn the proconsul away from the truth.

vv9-12 — Once again, this verse begins with “but” (NASB), indicating contrast to the verse before.   The opposer is about to be opposed himself.  Paul turns his full attention to Elymas.  (Luke notes here that Saul is also known as Paul — marking his use of “Paul” exclusively throughout the remainder of Acts.)  He pronounces a judgement on Elymas, a temporary blindness that is symbolic of his spiritual state — blind and in darkness.  As a result of this miraculous judgement, Sergius Paulus (a judge himself who had no doubt pronounced judgement on many with far lesser effect) believed Paul’s message in amazement.

Why does Paul use a miracle here?  Aren’t miracles intended for a witness to Israel?  Yes, indeed!  Remember that Elymas was an Israelite, and would have been widely known to the resistant Jewish community on Cyprus.  We are not far enough along in Paul’s journeys that his ministry has even been approved by the Jerusalem church.  That comes at the end of this first missionary journey in Chapter 15.  In the meantime, Paul is not only ministering to Gentiles, but is also validating his authority as an apostle in anticipation of that occasion.  Not to mention, of course, that it was entirely appropriate in the circumstances!

Thus ends the story of Elymas and Sergius Paulus,  and of Paul, Barabas and John Mark’s time on the island of Crete.  In the next verse, they set out from Crete for their next destination.  And it’s time for us to set out on another blog post!

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Setting Out (Acts 13:1-3)

As we mentioned in the previous post, Luke turns his attention fully to Paul’s ministry for the remainder of the Book of Acts.  There are encounters with Peter and the other apostles, including a major one in Chapter 15, but the Jerusalem church fades from view, as do the further adventures of the other apostles.

Please read Acts 13:1-3 for yourself right now if you have not already done so.

Recall the circumstances that had brought Paul and Barnabas together at Antioch.  After his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was trying to engage in fellowship with the Jerusalem church, but they would not receive him because they didn’t believe he had stopped persecuting the Church.  Barnabas, however, spoke up for him, and he was finally welcomed into the Jerusalem fellowship.  However, he was now as much a firebrand for the Church as he had been against the Church in the past.  The Jews plotted against him, and the Jerusalem Church sent him back to his home of Tarsus for his own safety. (Acts 9:26-30)

The first persecution in Jerusalem scattered believers as far as Cyprus, Cyrene and Antioch.  These believers confined their preaching only to fellow Jews, but in Antioch some gentiles also heard the gospel and turned to Christ.  News reached the Jerusalem church that gentiles were also receiving the gospel, and Barnabas was sent to investigate.  One look, and Barnabas was convinced he needed help to train these new believers.  He immediately went to Tarsus, found Paul, and brought him back to Antioch.  Together they spent a whole year teaching these new gentile believers.  (Acts 11:19-26)  Luke is not specific, but it’s probably a fairly safe assumption that the events in chapter 13 we are studying now mark the end of that year.  (The persecution in Jerusalem began on the very day of the stoning of Stephen, and those that were scattered would have required some time — perhaps a few weeks — to travel as far as Antioch.  Stephen’s discourse before the High Priest would have most likely happened within a few days of his being selected as a deacon, which was mandated by unrest in the Church over the distribution of food.  This suggests the Jerusalem Church was by that time a well-established functioning body, fairly large in number.  This would have also taken some time, perhaps a few weeks, following the events of Pentecost.  Pentecost was 50 days after the Passover, and Jesus was crucifed on the Passover weekend.  Following his resurrection He was seen for forty days and then ascended into Heaven, leaving instructions to His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, an apparent wait of ten days after His ascention.  Taking all of these times into account, these opening verses of Chapter 13 probably happened about a year and a half to two years after the resurrection.

The first verse lists the names of those who were “prophets and teachers” in the Antioch church, viz. Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul. 

The second verse is very interesting.  As these five men were “ministering to the Lord and fasting,” the Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  The Greek word for “set apart” (aphoridzo, apo + horidzo, lit. from-define) indicates that although Barnabas and Saul have been identified with the work and ministry of Simeon, Lucius and Manaen, they are now to be redefined in a way that will make them different from them.  How would they be different?  By the work that they were about to do.  How was the work different?  It was a type of work that God had made different, and which would distinguish them from the work of the others.  God called them out of the work they had been doing and called them into a new and different work!

Of course it is possible that this new work differed only in geographic location, not in message.  But to leave it at that is to ignore the special revelations and teaching Paul received directly from the Lord.  Recall the story of Paul’s conversion and how the Lord responded to Annanias’ reluctance to go to Paul to restore his sight: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel…” (Acts 9:15).  Notice that the geographical sequence of the Great Commission is reversed here.  Until very recently in Luke’s narrative, the Twelve and their converts were fully convinced that they were to preach the gospel only to fellow Jews.  Jews and Gentiles alike are equally in view in 9:15, echoing Paul’s statements in Romans 10:12 and 11:32 because God has erased the distinction between them. 

Paul writes to the Roman believers, “I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” (Romans 11:25)  There are two notable points in this verse in Romans.  (1) Paul says that the removal of the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been a secret in the past.  It is one aspect of a larger secret God has kept hidden through the ages and revealed only to Paul.  (2) Paul says that a partial hardening of Israel has taken place.  Israel’s national position has been that Jesus was not the Messiah, but that does not prevent individual Israelites from coming to Christ under Paul’s gospel!  Paul knows that he must preach this news to Gentiles and Jews alike, and some of both will be saved.  Thus, Israel’s hardening is only partial.

Paul also explains this to the church in Ephesus in Ephesians 2:11-22.  In vv13-14 he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, …”  The imagery of the Temple Veil that guarded the Holy of Holies being torn in two during Christ’s agony speaks perfectly to this issue.  But that imagery can only be understood in the light of Paul’s message.  Gentiles are not only allowed in the Temple Court, but are invited by God directly into the Holy of Holies — and beyond.  The wall of the court and the veil in the Temple have been removed in Christ, and now Jews and Gentiles alike may come into God’s presence on an equal footing.

None of the other Apostles write any of these things — it is exclusively Paul’s territory.  Had God not revealed it to Paul, they would not have understood it.  It was not part of what they had been taught.  Think all the way back to the earliest posts where we studied how Christ prepared the Twelve for the days ahead.  Did he speak of these things?  No, for these things are part and parcel of the mystery hidden in God in ages past, revealed only to Paul for the sake of a new day to be revealed only when Israel continued to reject her King and His Kingdom. 

Paul was called to a different ministry and message, and here in the opening verses of Acts 13 we read of that call finally being fulfilled.  Verses 3 and 4 matter-of-factly describe their response to the Holy Spirit’s command — they prayed, laid hands on them, and sent them off — with no mention or repetition of the Great Commission’s terms.  Were Paul and Barnabas acting under the Great Commission, or a greater commission?

Posted in 09 - First Missionary Journey | Comments Off

Turning Point

We stated long ago that the Book of Acts is a transitional book between two dispensations — Israel’s Kingdom program and the Age of Grace, the present day of the church (what Paul refers to as the mystery).  Since Acts is a history book, we can reasonably expect to find specific events that are like mileposts in this transition.  We’ve already noted several of them — the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the establishment of the Jerusalem church, the martyrdom of Stephen as Israel’s official and final national rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.

Up to the beginning of the 13th chapter, the good news of Jesus Christ has gone out in the hands of Peter and the other eleven apostles under the Great Commission given to them.  Their audience, up until Peter’s visit to Cornelius, has been almost exclusively Jews.  The message has been one of repentance (for murdering their Messiah) in order to receive the promise of the restoration of David’s kingdom.  This is the message that Christ prepared these twelve men to proclaim, in anticipation of the whole earth being blessed through Israel’s rule over the entire world.

However, several chapters ago we saw God making preparations for a different plan.  Those preparations have not been put into public action yet.  God “arrested” Paul personally in Chapter 9 and began a process of revealing this different plan to him over several years in another church (Antioch), far away from the influence of the Twelve.  It is important to remember what Paul himself says about these mysterious revelations:  He did not receive them from men (primarily meaning the Twelve), but from the Lord Himself.  (Gal. 1:12)  While the gospel of the Kingdom has been going out from Jerusalem into Judea and the surrounding areas in the hands of the Twelve, Paul has been ministering side-by-side with Barnabas in Antioch in preparation for direct ministry to gentiles and the setting aside of Israel’s promised Kingdom temporarily.  It’s important to realize that if Paul’s message and ministry was identical to that of the Twelve, there would have been no need for all this special preparation.  Paul could have learned all he needed to know by just joining in with the Twelve.  But God not only didn’t do that, He actually gave Paul equal authoritative status with the Twelve.  He made Paul an apostle too, but one which was exclusive from the Twelve.

Note also that we are long past Israel’s official rejection of Jesus as Messiah at the stoning of Stephen.  God’s approach to Israel from that point on is to try to woo them by making them jealous.  Offering to fulfill his promises to them didn’t work, and now he must use a different method.

As we shall see, the opening of Chapter 13 is of monumental importance.  From this point on Luke shifts his focus from Jerusalem and the Twelve to Paul and his companions.  Peter and the Jerusalem church reappear two chapters later, but only to certify that Paul is an apostle and that his audience is the gentile world.  Chapter 13 is the point at which God begins to reveal the mystery publicly through Paul.  In modern terms, this is “opening night” for what has previously been hidden in God through ages past.

Was God taken by surprise by Israel’s rejection?  Did He have to raise up Paul and an alternative approach as a stop-gap measure, just making the best of a bad situation?  No indeed!  God knew in advance that Israel would reject Jesus as Messiah and that He would eventually have to make them jealous of the gentiles.  How long has the mystery been part of God’s plans?  God knew this in eternity past, but kept it a secret.  He only told one person about it in detail, and only when the time was right.  And then He charged that one person with telling the whole world about it.  That person was Paul, and Paul is about to go public with God’s secret.

I hope you can grasp just how monumental an event this is.  It’s on a par with the Noahic flood, God’s promises to Abraham, and the revealing of the Law at Mt. Sinai!  Each of those events marked the revealing of a previously unknown part of God’s grand plan to men.  And now, through Paul, God is revealing another earth-shaking change, just as He did through Noah, Abraham and Moses.  Because of what Christ has done at Calvary, gentiles have direct access to God without going through Israel and her rituals!

It’s almost tempting to say that when men assembled the books of the Bible into their current form and order (the canon), they got the main dividing line between the Old and New Testaments in the wrong place.  But as much as we magnify Paul and his message, we must remember that neither Israel’s Kingdom program nor the mystery would have been possible without our Lord coming into the world in the first place.  While this is an artificial human-interjected division, and not inspired (just as are chapter and verse divisions), it does indeed mark the “new testament in [Christ's] blood.”  Without this greatest turning point of all (when God became a man), Kingdom and mystery alike would be meaningless.

Posted in 08 - Two Dispensations | Comments Off

Peter’s Third Imprisonment

Peter is in Jerusalem, along with the other disciples.  Some believers have been scattered to other parts of the world by persecution, but the church is enjoying a season of relative peace and is growing again daily.  Evangelism has begun to reach outside Jerusalem, but only to Jews.  Jewish believers still consider gentiles to be unclean and consequently to be avoided.  So did Peter until his encounter with Cornelius, where God showed him that the gospel was for gentiles too.  Peter’s report to the church in Jerusalem met with resistance at first, and then acceptance.  However, a mindset of separation persisted in the Jerusalem church long after these events, even from James (see Gal. 2:11-13).  Saul (Paul) has been in Antioch for some time now, working with Barnabas and teaching new believers in that location.  Very soon they will be sent on their first missionary journey, taking John Mark with them.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

Luke relates yet another miraculous occurrence in Acts 12.  Remember, the purpose of miracles is to certify the power and presence of God.  This is not a public miracle (such as a healing), but rather is intended for the benefit of those in authority and the high-ranking Jewish leaders that continue to goad them on against the Jerusalem church and the apostles.  For the third time they discover that they are powerless against these crazy people who say they follow Jesus of Nazareth.  Does it faze them?  Let’s find out!

If you have not already done so, please read Acts 11:27 through 12:25 now.

Before we begin… There is very little to explain or interpret in this passage.  It should be taken at face value.  The only stumbling block is recognizing whether the entire episode is part of Israel’s Kingdom program or part of the hidden mystery we know as the church today in the Age of Grace.  You should know the clues to look for by now — miracles and a focus on Peter and the Jerusalem church, which are written all over the passage.

Why did I ask you to back up and re-read Acts 11:27-30?  Only so that you would make the connection with Acts 12:25.  The entire episode we are about to study apparently took place while Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem to deliver the monetary gift sent by the Antioch church as a hedge against the coming famine.  Paul and Barnabas, although not otherwise mentioned in the passage, were apparently eye-witnesses of these things.

Acts 12:1-5

Luke begins by describing the political situation in Jerusalem.  As usual, the unpredictable and ruthless Herod is living up to his ancestors’ reputation.  He “laid hands on” some of the believers — not to confer a blessing, but to make trouble for them.  The NASB translates kakoo (to harm or do evil to) as “mistreat” them.  Herod’s idea of mistreatment included beheading James, the brother of John!  Why did he pick on James, and not Peter?  Peter was the more obvious target.  It seems like he was sort of testing the water to see what the political fallout would be.  When he saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders, then he went after Peter.

There is an important historic clue here.  Luke says this took place during the “Feast of Unleavened Bread,” a week-long festival which begins with Passover.  Was this the first Passover after the crucifixion of Jesus?  Most likely.  Luke has taken us on several rabbit trails into the future, but this seems to indicate only a year has elapsed in his main narrative.  If so, the Jewish leaders have had a year to scheme and do their best to manipulate Herod into attacking the church.  Herod has picked this high holy week to take Peter out of circulation, and intends to cap off the week by doing the same thing to Peter that he did to James.

Peter’s previous two arrests were apparently performed by the Temple guard, and he was put in a “public jail.”  No mention of his imprisonment particulars was made.  This time Herod apparently has Roman authority and has Peter put in a Roman jail under “four squads” of Roman soldiers (lit. four quaternions, a contingent of four soldiers).  He no doubt knew of Peter’s previous escape and thought he was taking no chances.  As Peter was in jail several days, apparently these squads took turns guarding him in rotation.  The next verses give us additional clues about the conditions of his imprisonment.

 All the while, the church was praying desperately for him, knowing what had happened to James.

Acts 12:6-11

God often waits until the last possible minute to provide deliverance.  I think He does so because the dramatic impact drives us more effectively to learn to trust Him in all things.  Of course, in this case, it also gave the Jewish leaders, the soldiers, and even Herod himself opportunity to become smug and complacent.  And so on the very night before Peter was to be brought before Herod for execution, he vanishes!

His prison restraints remind us of a Harry Houdini routine.  His left arm was chained to one guard, his right arm to another.  All three were inside the prison cell, and the remaining soldiers of the quaternion stood outside the cell door.  Who could possibly overcome such security?

An angel appears suddenly in the dark cell, lighting it up.   The angel had to kick Peter in the side, he was sleeping so soundly.  (I’ll bet he was snoring…)  The Angel tells him to get up quickly, and as he does the chains fall off his wrists.  The angel tells him to get dressed, including his sandals.  They’re leaving.

The angel leads him out of the cell, past two additional sets of guards, and out of the jail into the city.  The main gate opened as if by an invisible hand.  It all happened so fast — and so unbelievably — that Peter thought it was all a dream.  A block later the angel vanished, and Peter realized it was for real.  Peter, ready to meet the same fate as James, realizes that God just sprung him from jail miraculously.  Of greater importance, he realizes that God has completely thwarted a year of scheming by the Jewish leadership and Herod!  Under God’s protection, Peter realized that they could not touch him.

Acts 12:12-17

Once Peter understood this, he headed for the home of one of the believers, knowing that there would be a prayer meeting going on.  Note that he did not immediately return to the other apostles (see v17).  At this point we have the amusing story of Rhoda the servant girl, who left Peter standing outside in the street instead of letting him in to safety.  Obviously all inside, in spite of fervent prayer, were expecting the worst.  It could not possibly be Peter himself!  Finally, after knocking repeatedly over several minutes, one of them goes with Rhoda to the door at her insistence, and he is finally let inside.  Peter relates the entire episode to those gathered there, leaves instructions for them to pass this information on to “James and the brethren” (James the half-brother of Jesus, not the James who had already been beheaded), and departs for safer unspecified environs.

Acts 12:18-23

At daybreak the escape was discovered.  The penalty for a Roman soldier who let his prisoner escape was death.  Luke says there was “no small disturbance” among the soldiers who had been on duty.  In the course of investigation, Herod sent out more troops to search for Peter, but to no avail.  Herod passed the required judgment on the errant guards and they were led away to execution.

Herod frequently traveled among several palaces at his whim or as civic duty demanded.  Following these events he traveled to Caesarea, northwest of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean coast near the cities of Tyre and Sidon.  These cities had in some way offended Herod (it wasn’t difficult), and they were greatly concerned because they were economically dependent on trade with Herod’s home country.  They managed to win over Herod’s butler.  Deals were brokered, and on the appointed day the leaders and citizens of Tyre and Sidon gathered in Caesarea to hear a speech.  Arrayed in all the pomp and circumstance at his disposal, Herod began to address them.  Someone in the crowd yelled, “It is the voice of a god and not of a man!”  Others took up the cry.  Herod did nothing to silence them, basking in their blasphemous praise.  Luke tells us that Herod was stricken immediately by an angel of the Lord.  He died of a severe case of worms.  What kind and how quickly Luke doesn’t indicate.

Acts 12:24-25

In contrast to the worm-eaten words of Herod, the Word of the Lord prospered.  Barnabas and Saul, having completed their mission of delivering financial aid to the apostles in Jerusalem, returned to Antioch.  They brought John Mark, the son of one Mary, the woman to whose house Peter had gone when he was led out of jail.


Where do we put this episode — into Israel’s Kingdom program or into the Mystery?  Luke’s chronology is clear — the focus is still on the Jerusalem church, Peter, and the other apostles.  The miraculous nature of Peter’s delivery and Herod’s demise underscore its Kingdom nature.  For whatever His reason, God is still allowing this program to move forward at this point in the grand scheme.  To try to claim such miracles and promises for ourselves today would be improper, for that program has now been set aside temporarily.  And the focus is about to shift from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond!

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Answers to Interpreting Peter’s Visit to Cornelius

Question: Prior to the vision, what was Peter’s attitude concerning interaction with gentiles?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:14, 10:28
Answer: He believed that to interact with gentiles would make him ceremonially unclean — that it was, in fact, “unlawful.”  According to his life-long practices, this meant no contact with gentiles (especially in religious matters), which inferred to him that the gospel was not intended for gentiles.

Question: Prior to Peter’s return to Jerusalem, what was the attitude of the Jerusalem church concerning interaction with gentiles?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:2-3
Answer: The Jerusalem church was of the same opinion as Peter — it was “unlawful.”  By the way, Luke’s expression “those who were circumcised” (v2) could be interpreted to mean Jews in general including those not part of the church, but the remainder of the passage indicates that those who took issue with Peter were part of the church (v18).

Question: Why did Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem church have this attitude toward gentiles prior to these events?

Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:8
Answer: They had been raised under the Law of Moses, which forbade the eating of unclean foods or (by extension) interacting with unclean gentiles.  They simply had not been given enlightenment yet about the full scope of what Christ had accomplished at Calvary (that would be revealed later by Paul), and were continuing with what they had always known.

Question: Was there any means for a gentile to become accepted among Jews prior to these events?  If so, what was it and what were its terms? (Were gentiles included in the events of Pentecost?  If so, how were they characterized by Luke?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 2:10, 8:27
Answer:  Gentiles could be accepted as Jewish worshippers (with the exception of entrance into the Temple itself) by adopting Jewish customs and following the Jewish rites, including circumcision.  This effectively made them Jews according to the Law of Moses.  Proselytes were present at Pentecost, and the Ethiopian eunuch was probably already a proselyte when he met Philip, since he was in Jerusalem “to worship.”
Question: How long had Peter and the Jerusalem church held this attitude toward gentiles?  (Was it something that developed recently, or was it in effect from the very beginning of Acts or before?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:14, 10:28, 11:2-3
Answer: This was nothing new, it was part of their Jewish cultural heritage.  It was commonly known among both Jews and gentiles.  It had been in effect since the days of Moses.
Question: Given this attitude, who would the apostles and those who had been scattered into Samaria and beyond have preached to?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:19, 8:25
Answer:  Only to Jews, and perhaps some Samaritans (who were half-Jews).  More likely they were preaching only to Jews who happened to be in Samaria.  Luke seems insistent in 11:19 that as a result of the persecution (which included Philip) the gospel was preached to Jews only, regardless of location.
Question: Prior to these events, what was Cornelius seeking, and how did he hope to attain it?  (Compare this to the expectations of the Ethiopian eunuch ministered to by Philip.)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:1-2
Answer: Luke makes it clear that Cornelius was not already a proselyte.  Perhaps he lacked the knowledge of how to become one, and was seeking someone to help him in this process.  He had a long familiarity with the God of the Hebrews, and a strong desire to be approved by Him.  Given the only avenue that was known at the time, his expectation was probably to become a proselyte.  His desire is similar to that of the Ethiopian eunuch, but differs in that he was not yet a proselyte and the eunuch probably was.
Question: What specific attitude in Peter’s thinking did God intend to change through the vision?  Did God succeed?  How significant a change was this for Peter?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:15, 20, 23, 28-29; Galatians 2:11-13
Answer: God showed Peter that He had cleansed what formerly was unclean, and Peter should not refuse it.  Peter understood that the vision referred specifically to gentiles as soon as Cornelius’ emissaries arrived at the house in Joppa.  God succeeded for the moment, but many years later Peter returned to this error on a visit to Antioch.  This was a huge change for Peter, and we should not be surprised at Peter’s later problem when the lesson had faded in immediacy and Peter had been under the influence of persistent members of the Jerusalem fellowship who were still insisting on circumcision for new gentile believers and eating separately from them.
Question: These events begin with an angelic appearance to Cornelius and a thrice-repeated vision to Peter, both miraculous.  The timing of these miraculous events is miraculous in itself, and serves to authenticate them.  The Holy Spirit miraculously interrupts Peter’s message and miraculously falls on gentiles without being conferred on them by Peter.  Why did God use miracles to accomplish this?
Scripture Reference Evidence: I Corinthians 1:22
Answer:  We have previously addressed the importance of miracles — they are God’s way of certifying authenticity to Israel.  To drop a cliche, to convince lifelong Jews (even though they were believers) that God had cleansed the gentiles too, well… “it would take a miracle!”  (Several, in fact…)
Question: Luke suggests that the Holy Spirit fell upon these gentile believers in the same way that He had upon those gathered at Pentecost, and Peter confirms it in his defense before the Jerusalem church.  What does Peter mean when he says “… just as He did upon us at the beginning”?  Compare this event to Acts 2.  Is anything missing?  Is anything added?  What apparently was the same?  (What did Peter and his companions see and hear that indicated this?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 2:2-5, 10:44-46
Answer: The rushing wind and the “tongues of flame” are apparently absent (or maybe not and Luke just didn’t mention it).  Other than that, the outward evidence of the Holy Spirit “falling” on Cornelius and the others — the speaking in foreign languages, the praises — were the same.  In any case, it was plainly evident to both Peter and his companions.  Notably, this is still different from the way in which the Holy Spirit indwells believers today.
Question: Peter faithfully reports these miraculous events while defending his actions before the Jerusalem church.  Given the attitude and background of the Jerusalem church, his audience, why was this important?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:5-16
Answer: Without an accurate account of the miracles that had taken place, the Jerusalem church would not have accepted Peter’s conclusion in v17.  We must remember that the church in Jerusalem, unlike our churches today, was entirely Jewish, and required signs to authenticate the work of God.
Question: Consider Acts 11:19.  The persecution that scattered the Jerusalem church happened before Peter’s visit to Cornelius.  Was this same attitude toward gentiles held in general by those who were scattered?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:19
Answer: Yes, clearly.  The exception is described in the next verse.
Question: According to Luke’s narrative, was the gospel preached to the gentiles at Antioch before or after Peter’s visit to Cornelius? (See Acts 11:20)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:20
Answer:  While Luke diverted briefly to Paul’s conversion and activities immediately afterward in Acts 9:1-31, he returns to the main chronology in 9:32.  Peter visits Cornelius, he returns to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem church is prepared to accept gentiles on an equal footing, and then Barnabas is sent to Antioch.  The men from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the gospel to gentiles in Antioch, but word of gentile conversions did not reach Jerusalem until after Peter had defended his actions with Cornelius.
Question: Consider Acts 11:21-23.  Suppose the events of Peter’s visit to Cornelius had not already happened (or never happened) when word of gentile conversions reached the church in Jerusalem.  What would their response have been?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:3
Answer:  Their attitude would have been unchanged from what it was before Peter’s visit to Cornelius — that the gospel was for Jews only, and that gentiles were still unclean.  At the least they would have rejected these gentile believers, and at the worst they might have sent emissaries to Antioch to “clean house.”
Question: Was the Great Commission in force from Acts 1:8 through Acts 11:22?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 1:8
Answer:  Certainly.  Nothing was ever said to direct Peter and the other Apostles otherwise.
Question: Under what constraint, either by human inadequacies or by Divine design, was the Great Commission operating under until these events?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Matthew 15:24, Acts 1:8 (note the order of progression), Acts 11:19
Answer: It’s scope was limited to Jews, and gentiles were excluded.
Question:  If this constraint was due to human inadequacies, why did God wait so long to correct it?
Scripture Reference Evidence: (same as above)
Answer: That’s a good question!  In current orthodox theology, human lack of understanding limited the gospel’s promulgation to Jews only, and the Apostles were operating in error until the time of Peter’s visit to Cornelius.  One of the reasons I disagree with this interpretation is the fact that God did nothing to correct it for nine chapters!
Question: If this constraint was NOT due to human inadequacies, how can we reconcile this attitude of the Apostles and the Jerusalem church, and the time period over which it persisted, with the notion that Christ died for all, not just for Jews?
Scripture Reference Evidence: (same as above)
Answer: If the Great Commission was tied to Israel’s Kingdom program, where “good news” for gentiles would consist of the benefits they would receive when ruled over by Israel, this lack of gentile scope would be perfectly in keeping.  The absence of any efforts by God to change this thinking through the first nine chapters of Acts suggests they were doing and thinking what God expected and approved.
Question: Did the Apostles and the Jerusalem church need to be convinced that gentiles should be allowed in the church as more than Jewish proselytes, in fact as equals among believers?  Did God succeed? (See also Acts 15:1 and Galatians 2:11-13 before answering…)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 15:1,5; Galatians 2:11-13; Acts 11:17-18
Answer:  The conclusion of Peter’s visit to Cornelius was completely outside the expectation of the Jerusalem church and the other Apostles.  They had always been ready to accept gentiles as proselytes, but this was a completely unexpected turn of events.  God succeeded with most Jews in the Jerusalem church, but there were pockets of anti-gentile resistance that persisted for a long time.  They apparently had significant influence, if measured by the amount of trouble they caused in the Church.

The final importance of this passage is not so much that gentile believers would be welcomed into the Church, but that they would be welcomed into the church as equals instead of mere proselytes! This was too much change for many in the Jerusalem church, and they stubbornly held onto their ways the rest of their lives.  When God makes changes, sometimes we are incapable of accepting them.  But it does not negate the truth of what He has changed, it only robs us of the blessing of accepting it.  Praise God for His loving patience with us!

Dare I suggest an important parallel?  Are you clinging to a theology that God is showing you is incorrect?  Perhaps your life-long investment in that theology, like the believing pharisees of Acts 15:5, keeps you from changing when change is what God wants.  It’s difficult enough for the ordinary believer to overcome traditional orthodoxy, but nearly impossible for someone who has taught or preached traditional orthodoxy for years in ignorance.  If you fit that category, the weight of responsibility for what was taught to the believers God put in your care can be overwhelming.  We will be held accountable for what we have taught.  (Hebrews 13:17) But God is loving and forgiving, and knows our weakness and pride.  Do not let pride stand in the way of reversing your position when God reveals to you that it is incorrect.  That only perpetuates the sin and thwarts the blessings that could be yours.

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Interpreting Peter’s Visit to Cornelius

We’ve done our homework on Acts 10:1 through 11:18, and we’re ready to ask the big questions: What does this passage mean? What are its implications for our understanding of the history of the Church and our understanding of the Bible as a whole? Does our previous understanding of this passage match the facts of the case?

It would be profitable to have a printed copy of the outline at hand as we interpret. At the very least, you should go back and re-read the outline from the previous post now. It’s okay — I’ll wait right here until you get back!

Welcome back! Put on your thinking cap — we’re going to approach interpretation by asking some leading questions that are designed to challenge current orthodox thinking. I’ll ask you to think carefully about each of these questions on your own, based on the outline and what you have learned from the passage by observation. Write down your answers somewhere for future reference. The answers are not presented here, only the questions. To see my answers (only after you’ve worked on your own!), switch to the Study Guide Answer Keys category.

Here we go…

Question: Prior to the vision, what was Peter’s attitude concerning interaction with gentiles?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Prior to Peter’s return to Jerusalem, what was the attitude of the Jerusalem church concerning interaction with gentiles?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Why did Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem church have this attitude toward gentiles prior to these events?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Was there any means for a gentile to become accepted among Jews prior to these events? If so, what was it and what were its terms? (Were gentiles included in the events of Pentecost? If so, how were they characterized by Luke?)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: How long had Peter and the Jerusalem church held this attitude toward gentiles? (Was it something that developed recently, or was it in effect from the very beginning of Acts or before?)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Given this attitude, who would the apostles and those who had been scattered into Samaria and beyond have preached to?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Prior to these events, what was Cornelius seeking, and how did he hope to attain it? (Compare this to the expectations of the Ethiopian eunuch ministered to by Philip.)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: What specific attitude in Peter’s thinking did God intend to change through the vision? Did God succeed? How significant a change was this for Peter?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: These events begin with an angelic appearance to Cornelius and a thrice-repeated vision to Peter, both miraculous. The timing of these miraculous events is miraculous in itself, and serves to authenticate them. The Holy Spirit miraculously interrupts Peter’s message and miraculously falls on gentiles without being conferred on them by Peter. Why did God use miracles to accomplish this?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Luke suggests that the Holy Spirit fell upon these gentile believers in the same way that He had upon those gathered at Pentecost, and Peter confirms it in his defense before the Jerusalem church. What does Peter mean when he says “… just as He did upon us at the beginning”? Compare this event to Acts 2. Is anything missing? Is anything added? What apparently was the same? (What did Peter and his companions see and hear that indicated this?)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Peter faithfully reports these miraculous events while defending his actions before the Jerusalem church. Given the attitude and background of the Jerusalem church, his audience, why was this important?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Consider Acts 11:19. The persecution that scattered the Jerusalem church happened before Peter’s visit to Cornelius. Was this same attitude toward gentiles held in general by those who were scattered?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: According to Luke’s narrative, was the gospel preached to the gentiles at Antioch before or after Peter’s visit to Cornelius? (See Acts 11:20)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Consider Acts 11:21-23. Suppose the events of Peter’s visit to Cornelius had not already happened (or never happened) when word of gentile conversions reached the church in Jerusalem. What would their response have been?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Was the Great Commission in force from Acts 1:8 through Acts 11:22?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Under what constraint, either by human inadequacies or by Divine design, was the Great Commission operating under until these events?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: If this constraint was due to human inadequacies, why did God wait so long to correct it?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: If this constraint was NOT due to human inadequacies, how can we reconcile this attitude of the Apostles and the Jerusalem church, and the time period over which it persisted, with the notion that Christ died for all, not just for Jews?

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Question: Did the Apostles and the Jerusalem church need to be convinced that gentiles should be allowed in the church as more than Jewish proselytes, in fact as equals among believers? Did God succeed? (See also Acts 15:1 and Galatians 2:11-13 before answering…)

Scripture Reference Evidence: _____________________________________

Peter’s visit to Cornelius and his subsequent defense before the Jerusalem church reveals everything about who the Jerusalem church and its leaders thought the Great Commission applied to! If I were a modern liberal theologian, I’d say it was positively racist. But I’m not a modern liberal theologian. They were simply operating within their promised future economy — the Millennial Kingdom that was just around the corner. In that kingdom the Jews would rule over the gentiles world-wide, not as equals with them before God. But they were persistent in rejecting Jesus from Nazareth as the Messiah, a rejection that culminated in their stoning of Stephen.

God continued to offer repentance to Israel for a time after that, but eventually and gradually set Israel’s Kingdom program aside in favor of something much better for gentiles — the Age of Grace, whose chief and only Apostle was Paul. But God needed to lay the groundwork for the Jews to accept Paul’s ministry to the gentiles as being His doing. And so we find that magic turning point when the Jerusalem church’s attitude toward gentiles is changed by the power of God. They are able to accept the events taking place in Antioch, sending Barnabas to investigate and encourage the new gentile believers — in Peter’s words, “without misgivings,” — after God has changed their minds about gentiles and the gospel through Peter’s visit to Cornelius.

Why does the Bible make such a big deal about Peter’s visit to Cornelius? If orthodox interpretation of this passage is right, it was completely unnecessary. As the gospel spread out from Jerusalem, Cornelius would have eventually heard it and believed. His conversion and that of his household would have been completely unremarkable as was the conversion of thousands of other believers of that day who are unnamed in Scripture (let alone receive a chapter and a half of attention). But it is a big deal, and we must accept it as such. It’s recorded in the Bible as much for our understanding and instruction as it was for those in the Jerusalem church.

What’s more, an understanding of this passage and its ramifications raises problems for denominations whose theology places the origin of the church of today in the practices and attitudes of the Jerusalem church, beginning with the reiteration of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8. Whatever we adopt from the Jerusalem church must be considered very carefully, and particularly in the light of the differences between Israel’s Kingdom promises and what God revealed through Paul. To do otherwise is to practice our faith in the wrong dispensation, contrary to the revealed will of God.

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The Full Outline

Here is the full outline of Acts 10:1 through 11:18 as promised in the previous post, including the few lines we already developed.  If you took me up on the challenge, compare your outline to mine!

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
      1. Cornelius described (vv1-2)
      2. Cornelius meets an angel (vv3-6)
      3. Cornelius sends for Peter (vv7-8)
    1. Peter’s vision (10:9-16)
      1. Peter is praying about noon just before Cornelius’ emissaries arrive; he gets hungry and asks for a meal, but falls into a trance before it arrives (vv9-10)
      2. A vision of a big sheet filled with all kinds of animals is lowered from heaven; a voice tells him to kill an animal and eat it, but he refuses because the animals are ceremonially unclean types; the voice tells him that if God has cleansed them, they no longer are unclean (v11-15)
      3. The vision repeats three times; each time the sheet is taken back up into heaven immediately (v16)
  2. Peter comes to Cornelius’ house (10:17-48)
    1. Peter receives and accompanies Cornelius’ servants (10:17-24a)
      1. While Peter is wondering what the vision means, Cornelius’ emissaries arrive (vv17-18)
      2. The Holy Spirit tells Peter about them and tells him to go with them without misgivings, for He Himself sent them (vv19-20)
      3. Peter identifies himself and asks why they have come (v21)
      4. They describe Cornelius, and that an angel had directed him to send for Peter to speak to him and his household (v22)
      5. Peter provides overnight lodging, and on the following morning they depart for Caesarea, arriving the next day (vv23-24a)
    2. Peter and Cornelius meet (10:24b-33)
      1. Cornelius gathers his friends and relatives (v24b)
      2. When Peter arrives, Cornelius falls at his feet and worships him (v25)
      3. Peter tells him to rise, for he is also just a man like Cornelius (v26)
      4. Peter notices that there are many people gathered in Cornelius home (v27)
      5. Peter tells them all that Jews would not associate with gentiles, but that God had convinced him otherwise, and that’s why he came without raising any objections, he asks Cornelius why he was sent for (vv28-29)
      6. Cornelius explains about the angel that appeared to him (vv30-33a)
      7. Cornelius concludes by asking Peter to speak all that the Lord has commanded (v33b)
    3. Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household (10:34-43)
      1. God shows partiality to no man (v34)
      2. In every nation God welcomes any man who respects Him and does what is right (v35)
      3. The message God sent to Israel, one of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all (v36) was this:
      4. They know about John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth (vv37-38)
      5. Peter and those who came with him are witnesses of the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, (v39)
      6. and witnesses of His resurrection and appearances to the apostles (not to everyone) (vv40-41)
      7. The risen Jesus of Nazareth ordered them (the twelve) to testify to the people that He is the One who will judge the living and the dead, who the prophets declared would bring forgiveness to everyone who believes in Him (vv42-43)
    4. The Holy Spirit falls upon them and they are baptized (10:44-48)
      1. Peter was interrupted by the Holy Spirit before he was through speaking (v44a)
      2. The Holy Spirit fell on everyone who was listening (v44b)
      3. The Jewish believers who had come with Peter were amazed because the Holy Spirit was poured out on gentiles as well as Jews (v45)
      4. The new gentile believers exhibited the same certification signs that the Jewish believers at Pentecost had exhibited (v46)
      5. Peter decided that since they had received the Holy Spirit, no one could withhold baptism from them, and instructed the Jewish believers to baptize the new gentile believers (vv47-48a)
      6. They asked Peter to stay for a few days (v48b)
  3. Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18)
    1. Peter held accountable by the Jerusalem church (11:1-3)
      1. News of Peter’s actions in Caesarea reached the other apostles and believers in Judea before Peter returned (v1)
      2. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem called Peter’s actions into question  (v2)
      3. They charged him with visiting gentiles and even eating with them (v3)
    2. Peter’s defense (11:4-16)
      1. Peter explained in an orderly fashion (v4)
      2. He described his vision in Joppa (vv5-6)
      3. He described his conversation with the Lord (vv7-9)
      4. He described how the vision happened three times (v10)
      5. He described how the emissaries from Cornelius came (v11)
      6. He described how the Spirit told him to go with them without misgivings, and that six Jewish believers went with him (v12)
      7. He described how Cornelius told him of the visit from the angel and the angel’s instructions to fetch Peter from Joppa (v13)
      8. He described how Cornelius described what Peter was supposed to do when he arrived (v14)
      9. He described how he was just getting started on his message to them when the Holy Spirit fell on them just like He had at Pentecost (v15)
      10. He remembered the Lord’s words about John baptizing with water, but they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (v16)
    3. The conclusion (11:17-18)
      1. IF God gave the gentiles the Holy Spirit the same way He gave them the Holy Spirit, Peter could do nothing to the contrary (v17)
      2. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem were satisfied with his explanation, and glorified God for bringing salvation to the Gentiles too (v18)

Now that we have a clear, detailed sequence of events, we can begin asking some questions in the next post.  In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think about this account prayerfully, asking God to give you an open mind and understanding of His Word directly.

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Peter Meets Cornelius – Starting an Outline

Our immediate goal is to rightly divide this passage — meaning that we should apply what we have learned about the differences between Israel’s kingdom program and our Age of Grace to it.  The alternative is to continue to see Peter and Paul as equals, both operating under the Great Commission with an identical message and audience.  I hope that you have become convinced that’s not the case by now!  (Okay, okay, maybe you’re not convinced — it’s hard to overthrow a lifetime of orthodox learning — but maybe, just maybe… you’re beginning to consider the possibility…)

Let’s get our heads on straight first.

  • Luke detoured to describe Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and the events in his life that followed it, looking forward several years (Acts 9:1-31), because Paul’s conversion event occurred after Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian and before Peter’s encounter with Aeneas in Lydda in chronological order.
  • Luke resumes the story of Peter and the Kingdom program in Acts 9:32 in a “meanwhile back at the ranch” manner, while Paul is in distant Antioch, working with Barnabas and receiving the full revelation of God’s program of grace to the gentiles over a period of several years.
  • Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem (“The Twelve”) have proclaimed the Kingdom gospel in Jerusalem, have gone through a persecution that scattered the Jewish believers to the surrounding world, and have now begun to proclaim the Kingdom gospel in the second circle of the Great Commission — Judea and Samaria (southern Israel and middle Israel, Acts 1:8).  Most recently in Luke’s narrative (Acts 9:31) that circle had been expanded to include Galilee (northern Israel).

Peter’s travels and preaching up to this point have been limited to Jews, and the passage we are about to study will confirm that.  In spite of the Great Commission’s coverage of “the uttermost parts of the earth”, it apparently has not occurred to Peter, the other Jerusalem apostles and Jewish believers everywhere that the Gentiles will be included on any basis other than the one they already knew under the Law – proselytes who adopt Judaism as their faith.  As we shall see, Peter still thinks of Gentiles as “unclean” and therefore not to be associated with — or even set foot in their house!  He has a lot to learn.  And learn he will!

The Passage Outlined

We’re going to apply the technique of divide-and-conquer to this passage, breaking it into a few major parts, and then applying the technique again to break those parts into a few smaller parts (three or four), and so on.  In each case, we need to quash our natural desire to “go for the details” immediately.  Our purpose is to build a framework of context on which we will hang the details later.  So here is our first outline:

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
  2. Peter comes to Cornelius’ house (10:17-48)
  3. Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18)

Now we’ll break those major parts into a few sub-parts (the new parts are shown in italics):

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
    2. Peter’s vision (10:9-16)
  2. Peter comes to Cornelius’ house (10:17-48)
    1. Peter receives and accompanies Cornelius’ servants (10:17-24a)
    2. Peter and Cornelius meet (10:24b-33)
    3. Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household (10:34-43)
    4. The Holy Spirit falls upon them and they are baptized (10:44-48)
  3. Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18)
    1. Peter held accountable by the Jerusalem church (11:1-3)
    2. Peter’s defense (11:4-16)
    3. The conclusion (11:17-18)

Now let’s focus on just the first main point and first sub-point of the outline, applying the divide-and-conquer principle one more time (the new parts are shown in color):

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
      1. Cornelius described (vv1-2)
      2. Cornelius meets an angel (vv3-6)
      3. Cornelius sends for Peter (vv7-8)

We are finally ready to start hanging some details on this framework!  Of course, if we find that the details are getting too complicated, it probably means that we need to divide-and-conquer once again.  There’s nothing magic about applying it only three times!

As we begin to flesh in the details, we may find that questions come to mind.  We’re going to write them down with the details as they come to mind, and go back and answer them later.  So if we consider just the first three lines of the outline above, it looks like this:

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
      1. Cornelius described (vv1-2)
        1. a man
        2. lives at Caesarea (Which Caesarea? Is it inside Israel?  Which part of Israel?)
        3. a Roman centurion (What’s a centurion?)
        4. a member of the “Italian cohort” (What’s a cohort?)
        5. devout, God-fearing, as is his entire household (What “God”?)
        6. gives alms to the Jewish people (What are alms?)
        7. prays to God continually

You are no doubt beginning to have a vision of your own — of endlessly-expanding outlines, especially in a passage of this length and complexity!  That’s a lot of work!  Yes, Bible study IS a lot of work.  I hope that you can also see the degree of understanding of God’s Word that it will give you.  This is what Hans Finzel means when he talks about “mining the scriptures.”  Certainly no labor in this earthly life could be more rewarding given the subject, nor better prepare us for the life to come, nor help us to know our personal God and Savior better!  Is it worth doing?  Ask Him.

Happily, not every passage needs to be studied at this depth to understand it.  The story of Peter and Cornelius doesn’t need this depth because it is such a factual and straight-forward account of the events.  We will pause to look at some of the details, those which are important to rightly divide the passage — evidence that Peter’s ministry under the Great Commission was very different from Paul’s message of Grace.

A practical point bears repeating here.  Developing such an outline today is greatly simplified if you have a writing tool that is able to spread existing lines apart so that more lines can be inserted between them.  A ball-point pen and a legal pad just won’t do!  You need a computer with word processing software or a spreadsheet.  Trying to do this with scissors and library paste is really inefficient!

If you are game, here’s an assignment for you.  Develop your own outline for the entire Acts 10:1-11:18 passage, going no deeper than three levels and not including any details.  You’ll be able to compare your outline to mine in the next post.  I think you’ll be surprised (if you follow the rules) at how identical they will be.  This is the first step in having confidence that you can arrive at the same understanding of God’s Word as anyone else — independently from the commentators and even the preacher.  This is how the believers in Berea “searched the scriptures daily” to see if what Paul was telling them was really what God said.  They sought independent confirmation of Paul’s preaching directly from the Holy Scriptures.  And so can you!

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Bible Study Methods

Our approach to this passage of scripture (Acts 10:1 – 11:18) will be different than the highly-detailed approach we’ve taken in the past.  Luke’s narrative is a straightforward historical account, with a certain amount of repetition.  While there are some great word studies available to the reader in this passage, our understanding of the passage as a whole is more important. 

I don’t know what your study methods are, but it’s time to teach you what I mean by “study.”  Long ago I explained the three steps in inductive Bible study: observe, interpret, and apply — in that order!  I have spent most of my time in this blogsite doing that for you, holding you to what the words of scripture say (without clouding them with previously-learned orthodox interpretations) and then explaining what those words mean from a dispensational perspective.  Now we need to delve a little more deeply into methods of observation in order to do justice to our pending passage.

I can hear the moaning and groaning already!  I won’t take the time to remind you that God created you in His image (which includes the ability to think rationally) and gave you the Holy Spirit (who opens your understanding to the Bible’s truths) — just like Paul didn’t remind Philemon how much he owed him! (Philemon 19).  But claims like “I’m not smart enough” aside, sometimes believers reject good Bible study methods because of their association with a couple of other areas. 

(1) Sometimes these Bible study methods are called analytical Bible study methods.  That’s a misnomer, as it puts us in a position of authority over the Scriptures, implying that we somehow come from a position of superior intelligence.  This method is inductive, whereby we rationally gather the facts and distill understanding from them.  This places the Word of God in authority over us, not the other way around.  Believers are wary when they hear the word “analytical” partly because they have heard it associated with “analytical criticism” (“higher criticism”), a view of the Bible that leads to all sorts of claims that the Bible isn’t historically accurate or trustworthy.  So I’m not leading you into higher criticism and its heresies.  We’re headed for using the brain God gave you in smart, productive ways.

(2) It’s scientific!  (Now there’s a statement to make any modern believer suck in his breath!)  Calm down… I didn’t say it agreed with modern science’s claims.  You deserve to know that the scientists who began the Scientific Revolution hundreds of years ago were believers, and you will spend eternity with them.  They developed the “scientific method” to help them understand the world around them more accurately and reliably.  Contrary to many “scientists” today, they believed that the universe was created by the same intelligent Creator-God who we know as our personal Savior.  And because He was the ultimate thinker and organizer, they believed that the physical universe would yield up its secrets to an organized method of investigation because the universe itself was created according to an organized pattern, not self-arisen from chaos.  Their approach, this “scientific method”, would insure that the facts came first, and their understanding of how the universe worked would always remain subject to those facts.  Hmmm… now that should start to sound familiar!  In a nutshell, the scientific method (by which most of our understanding and progress arose) has four simple steps:

  • Observe the Phenomenon
  • State a Hypothesis (a proposed explanation)
  • Test the Hypothesis (do experiments to see if it’s right)
  • Improve the Hypothesis (fix the parts of the hypothesis that the experiments showed were wrong)

The steps above are then repeated over and over, each time resulting in an improved hypothesis — or ultimate rejection of the hypothesis for lack of evidence!  This repetitive nature of the scientific method is what drives science forward, for good or for evil.  Sometimes the scientific community leaves this pure method and gets stuck on the ideas of one great man.  It took the Royal College of London a hundred and forty years to concede that its own Isaac Newton’s ideas about the nature of gases were just wrong.  Someday the scientific community may look back on evolution the same way, and for the same reason — it was blinded by their own desire to remove God from the equation and their making of Charles Darwin into their demigod.

You will see that the study methods I am about to describe mirror the scientific method in some ways.  Please don’t be so foolish as to think I am saying the Bible can be proved scientifically.  On the contrary, once the facts are revealed, they must be accepted by faith!  The scientific method and the Bible study methods I’ll describe shortly are not a method of proof, but rather a method to make sure we have the facts right before we move forward.

Third, we must be good problem-solvers.  This isn’t an area where believers object, they just don’t know how to do it.  Computer programmers (like me) and janitors (like my friend Merri) do it, and so can you.  Some problems are too big to solve by themselves.  The way to do it is to divide and conquer.  See if you can divide the problem into a few smaller problems that can be solved, and when you have solved those, the big problem will be solved.  Sending an email message to a grandchild can be quite a challenge for a grandparent who hasn’t grown up with computers.  But if we break this problem into the smaller problems of turning on the computer, opening the email program, composing the email message, sending the email message, and closing the email program, it’s not so insurmountable.  Each of these sub-problems can also be broken down into smaller problems as well.

To me, studying means applying these tools in my study toolbox to get rational, believable and truthful understanding of the passage.  Reading through the Bible in a year, meditation, prayer (although important to this process), memorization, group discussions, study guides, and a zillion other approaches we’re told we should use as good Christians will not accomplish what these tools do.  All of those other methods maintain and improve our relationship with God, but are not very good at improving our knowledge of God.  And if we have incomplete (or worse, warped) knowledge of Him, our relationship to Him will be correspondingly flawed.

I am indebted to Hans Finzel, author of Unlocking the Scriptures — A Fresh, New Look at Inductive Bible Study (Victor Books, 1986, Wheaton IL, ISBN 0-89693-276-1).  Dr. Finzel, currently President of World Venture ( has done a masterful job of bringing time-tested rational Bible study methods down from the realm of theological academia to the level of the average believer.  The book is in study-guide format, and I strongly encourage all Christians to get a copy and work through it.

Under the category of Observation, here’s my personalized version of Dr. Finzel’s three-layered approach:

  • Observe the Whole Passage (read it straight through two or three times)
    • Write down your initial impressions, expecting to hone them later as you study (your hypothesis)
    • Write down overall facts — who, what, when, where (but not why!)
  • Observe the Parts (make an outline, begin testing your hypothesis, and divide and conquer)
    • Divide the passage into a few main sections (don’t necessarily use the sections provided by the editors of your particular Bible)
      • Make each main section a main point in the outline, giving it an appropriate title of your own
      • Write down why you decided to start and end the section where you did
    • Take each section from the previous step and apply the same process again, dividing your main sections into subsections and making each subsection an indented point in the outline
    • Look for relationships between sections and subsections (critical to interpretation later!) and note them next to your outline, such as:
      • comparisons (A is the same as B)
      • contrasts (A is the opposite of B)
      • repetition (literary triplets for emphasis, etc.)
      • cause and effect (because A happened, B followed; key word “therefore”)
      • explanation (premise A means explanation B)
      • illustration (premise A can be understood through parable B)
      • climax (because of A, B is great)
      • pivot (because of A the world is changed)
      • interchange (trading of ideas between characters)
      • preparation (training for future events and actions)
      • summary (A, B and C come together as D)
      • conclusion (logical sequence of statements that culminate in a final statement; key word “therefore”)
      • question posed and answered (rhetorical question and answer – “What then, shall we sin that grace may abound? Never!”)
    • Observe the Details (improve your hypothesis)
      • at each level of your outline, write in
        • Who (characters)
        • What (specific detailed events, statements, etc.)
        • Where (specific locations of action, characters, etc.)
        • When (time of day, season of year, etc.)
      • research the background of the passage
        • cultural and religious customs that might explain characters’ choices and actions
        • political structures that influenced the story
        • geographic characteristics and limitations (travel conditions, distances, etc.)
        • historical back-story leading up to the events of the passage
      • word studies (What words did the author use in the original language? Do they mean what we think they mean?)
      • parallel passages (find other passages that address the same issue and compare your findings to them)

This may all seem a bit overwhelming (okay, a lot…), but we’re only going to do the basic outline process in this blog post.  One other suggestion — the advent of personal computers has made it really easy to build a general outline, and then go back and expand it by inserting points between existing lines.  I can’t imagine trying to do this with pencil and paper!

I’ll bring this post to a close for now with this pair of quotes from the early pages of Hans Finzel’s book (pp. 8,9):

“Why do some pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian writers squeeze so much out of each verse, while others seem to draw a blank as they stare at the same sacred pages?  Could it be that some know how to search for the spiritual treasures of Scripture and others don’t?”

“So who’s got the key that will unlock the Scriptures?  You do!  The Bible is an open book to anyone who wants to unlock its truths, provided they are willing to bring to their study three ingredients that make up the key — time, a heart that is submitted to Jesus Christ, and a method of study.  With these key ingredients, you can unlock the Scriptures!”

Assignment: Read Acts 10:1 – 11:18 straight through three times and write down a few initial impressions.

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Back to the Acts Timeline

The last several posts have taken us far afield from Luke’s timeline in the book of Acts.  We need to begin by regaining the correct historical orientation as we pick up Luke’s story line in Acts 9:32 again.  The preceding verses concerning Paul’s earliest efforts to preach Christ in the first months following his conversion launched us into a study that covered not only all three of Paul’s missionary journeys, but his prison years as well.  Now we must remember that at this point in Luke’s narrative, nearly all of that is still in the future.

Two Miracles

Do you remember the purpose of miracles, and what program (Kingdom or Mystery) they are associated with?  That’s right, they are associated with the Kingdom program, and their purpose is to certify that the one who performs the miracle carries God’s authority.  Because Israel’s thinking is so caught up in “the law and the prophets”, both of which tell them to watch for miracles as signs of the coming of the Messiah, the Jews are always seeking miraculous signs — and rightly so.  Who is in charge of these earthly efforts for the Kingdom?  Peter, the one who was given the keys to it by the Lord.  So it is natural for Luke to return to the main story line, in a “meanwhile back at the ranch” fashion, with two instances of miracles performed by Peter.

If you have not done so already, please read Acts 9:31-35 (yes, please begin by reviewing v31). 

 v31 – Note that the “church” (lit. ecclesia, “the called-out ones”) spoken of here is “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria.”  Remember your New Testament geography — Luke has essentially said, “throughout all southern Israel, northern Israel, and central Israel.”  This region comprises most of the area covered by David and Solomon’s united kingdom.  It is truly “Israel” in the largest sense.  No mention is made of Antioch yet (that comes at the end of Chapter 11 although we have already covered it), and it is as if Luke has resumed the story immediately following his description of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:40).  His account of Paul’s conversion is a parenthetical passage.  As such, we resume the story fully immersed in Israel’s Kingdom program, complete with Gentile proselytes seeking God’s favor by adopting the Jewish religion.

v32 – Peter was travelling throughout the regions described in v31 preaching the good news and encouraging the “saints.”  This is only the second use of this word in the New Testament in reference to believers.  The first was when Ananias was arguing with the Lord about going to minister to Paul after Paul’s conversion (“I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem”).  The Greek word is hagios, meaning sanctified or holy.  The Septuagint translates the Hebrew for the “Holy of Holies” (the innermost room of the Tabernacle) as hagia hagion.  Literally, Luke refers to the believers in Israel, including Lydda, as “holy ones.”

v33 – Aeneas was a paralytic, bedridden for eight years.  We are not told his age, but we assume he was an adult (Greek, just as English, uses different words to describe children and young men).  We are not told how he became a paralytic, but it apparently was something that happened in his adulthood.  Aeneas, at one time then, was a normal person who had lost his mobility and probably more.  He had every reason to be bitter, depressed and hopeless.  He no doubt was highly dependent on caregivers, and we don’t know what quality of care he did or didn’t receive.  Even in our day and age when we benefit from so much technology and available health care, circumstances like Aeneas’ create immense financial, emotional and social stresses not only on the victim himself but also on his family and caregivers.  Luke doesn’t tell us how Peter found him, and doesn’t comment on his living conditions.  Was he wallowing in a physical pit as well as an emotional one?  If you’ve ever suffered from even mild depression, you know how difficult it can be to just get out of bed in the morning…

v34 – Peter said two things to him, and we often miss the second because of the power of the first.  First, Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you.”  Then he said to him, “Get up and make your bed.”  Of course his paralysis was immediately healed, and I don’t want to detract from the power of the miracle that was performed.  But the second statement is a bit odd, don’t you think?  The “get up” is obvious, but the “make your bed” part??  Shades of my dear mother’s favorite nagging point!  The NIV translates this as “take care of your mat, “while the KJV translates it as “make thy bed”.   The Greek is strowson seautow, literally “spread yourself.”  The word strowson is used in Matthew 21:8 to describe what the people did with their cloaks and the palm branches in Jesus’ pathway as he entered Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday.  It is also used when Jesus tells his disciples about where they will eat the Passover together: “…and he will show you a large, furnished, upper room.  Prepare it there.” (Luke 22:12)  Recall that this room was prepared for group dining, where it was the custom to eat reclining on mats or pillows at a low table.  A “furnished” room would have been a room where these mats and pillows, or “couches” would have already been “spread”.  Jesus literally described it as a large, spread, upper room.  So the use of this word by Peter concerning this paralyzed man most likely indicates a straightening up of his sleeping quarters, whether they were a simple mat or something more elaborate.  Interestingly, the word for “bed” isn’t in the verse anywhere — it was inferred by the translators.  They may have known this expression as a colloquialism from secular Greek writings, and the inference of “bed” may be perfectly accurate — I don’t know why translators going back to the KJV have inferred it.  But its absence leaves the door open for a broader interpretation.  If we take a literal interpretation, it says “Arise, and straighten up [something inferred] yourself.”  Given what this man’s emotional state might have been (depressed, etc.), it wouldn’t have been out of character for Peter to have said, “Arise and straighten up yourself!”  (It’s tempting to translate this verse this way, but I have not done a careful job of “diagramming the sentence”, nor are my Greek skills strong enough to do it well.)  Whether or not that’s accurate, I think there’s more to this statement than meets the eye.  Peter understood that the miraculous healing that came from the power of Jesus Christ went beyond physical healing.  Inherent in the physical healing is also emotional and spiritual healing — it is a healing of body, mind and spirit.  Was Peter telling this man that he was not only freed from his physical prison, but also from the prison of depression and hoplessness that was evident in his physical surroundings?  What power, joy and liberation are available to those who are healed by Christ!  It is as if He says to us, “You are healed.  You don’t have to live like this anymore!“  Surely the greater power in this verse is not in the physical healing where we have learned to focus our attention, but in what follows it in the greater power of  finally being able to “make your bed.”  Accepting Jesus Christ as Savior involves more than simply being rescued from eternity in hell — it involves healing, first of the deadly wound we all inherit from Adam, but also of its ramifications in this life as well as the next.  Once we have accepted His free gift, we are also healed of the grip of daily sin.  We don’t have to live like that anymore!  We are not only enabled to arise, but also to straighen up!!!  (Curiously, this verse ends by saying that he arose immediately, but doesn’t say whether or not he “made his bed.”)

v35 – This verse says that this man’s healing caused many to “turn to the Lord” in Lidda and nearby Sharon.  It may be that his physical healing was sufficient to cause this, but I suspect his change in attitude that accompanied his physical healing may have done more.  Surely many people would have asked him about it, and in visiting with him discovered that he had been freed from more than his physical paralysis.

vv36-37 – The stage is set in these two verses for Peter’s second miracle.  Tabitha (alias Dorcas) lived and worked in Joppa, a beloved woman because of kindness toward others.  During Peter’s stay at Lydda, she fell ill and died.  Note that they “had washed her body,” a process that certainly would have verified that she was really dead, and not just in a coma.

v38 – Joppa is about 10 miles north-northwest of Lydda.  The disciples in Joppa knew Peter was in Lydda.  How long did it take to prepare her body?  How long did it take the believers in Joppa to hatch this plan to send for Peter?  How long did it take the two men to travel to Lydda, and then for Peter and them to return to Joppa, probably on foot?  They didn’t remain at Lydda overnight and then travel to Joppa in the morning, for the passage says in the next verse that Peter went with them immediately.  The travel time alone would have taken about seven hours at a brisk walking pace, and I suspect that Tabitha would have been dead for at least 10 hours, and maybe as long as 24 hours, time enough for rigor mortis to occur.

v39 – When Peter arrived, he was ushered into the upper room where Tabitha’s body lay.  He was surrounded by all of her friends, who were doing two things.  Together, these two things must have made it an extremely distracting, noisy scene.  First, they were “weeping”.  This is not the quiet sobbing or silent shedding of a tear we associate with the loss of a loved one in our 21st-century western culture.  It was wailing!  Second, every time Peter turned around he found himself looking at another piece of Tabitha’s handiwork.  I’m sure Peter was appreciative and kind to them all, but ultimately…

v40 – Peter sent them all out of the room.  Now surrounded by quiet, Peter knelt down and prayed.  When he finished praying, he turned to the body (for it was just a body at that point), and spoke to it.  “Tabitha, arise.”  Notice there’s no shouting, no laying on of hands, no flashing lights — just a quiet “Tabitha, anistaymi.“  This Greek word implies much more than just “standing up”.  John records a conversation (Jn 11:21-27) between Jesus and Martha concerning the death of her brother Lazarus.  She says that if He had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  Jesus replies, “Your brother shall anastaysetai.“  She says she knows he will rise again in the great resurrection on the last day, and Jesus tells her, “I am the anastasis and the life.”  At that point Martha realizes what Jesus is about to do, and runs to find her sister Mary.  Peter didn’t say to Tabitha merely “get up” or “wake up” — he said, “Tabitha, resurrect.” (without an exclamation point!)  And she did!

vv41-43 – Peter assisted her in physically sitting up (you’d be a bit wobbly yourself after being mostly dead all day, and Tabitha had been all dead all day).  Then he called the others back into the room and handed her over to them.  Can you imagine what went through their minds and hearts?  No wonder it became known everywhere in Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Luke’s last statement in this chapter is a seque into Peter’s next major experience, and informs us that he decided to stay in Joppa, taking up residence in the home of one Simon, a tanner.

While we are still viewing the outworking of Israel’s program in Peter’s hands, and the Age of Grace is still primarily a mystery waiting to be revealed later through Paul, there is much to be learned from this passage.  What is most interesting to me is how passages like this one come to life when they are considered in their proper context, having been rightly divided.  No longer do we have to struggle theologically over why we seem unable today to raise the dead or heal the sick, especially with no more action than a few simply-spoken words.  We understand that these miracles were part of God’s authentication of Peter to Israel, not an example for us to attempt to follow today.  And understanding this enables us to appreciate even more how the blessings we do rightfully enjoy in this Age of Grace came into being.  No, we do not discard any part of the Bible in favor of Paul’s letters exclusively.  If anything, rightly dividing the Word of God magnifies the rest of the Bible, putting it into proper perspective and increasing its overall cohesiveness and clarity!

Posted in 08 - Two Dispensations | Comments Off

The Mystery Revealed

Luke’s next writings in Acts return to the events in the Jerusalem church and specifically to Peter.  That will begin a new chapter here on the blog.  But before we leave the story of Paul’s early ministry in Antioch, I want to visit the passages in Paul’s letters, written decades after these events, where he describes what was revealed to him directly by the Lord.  This list is not exhaustive — I’m constantly finding other small references to the uniqueness of Paul’s message and the fact that he received it directly from the Lord and not from men.  It also is not in chronological order or prioritized in any way.  The passages are listed here in the same order you would find them if you started reading at Romans 1:1 and stopped reading at Philemon 25.

Romans 1:5

[Jesus Christ our Lord] “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake…”  (Paul received his apostleship for the Gentiles directly from the Lord, not from the Twelve.)

Romans 16:25-27

“Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, accoring to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever.  Amen” (emphasis added)

In this passage Paul makes a personal claim (my gospel) to what he preached concerning Jesus Christ, stating that he received it by revelation, not the teaching of the Twelve.  See the discussion on Ephesians 3:1-9 for a thorough expansion of this point.

I Corinthians 2:7-10

“but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden [wisdom] which God predestined before the ages to our glory; [the wisdom] which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, ‘Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.’  For to us God revealed [them] through the Spirit…”

What Paul preached to the Corinthians was known to God in eternity past, but was kept hidden until the Lord revealed it to Paul (and others through Paul — see the discussion on Ephesians 3:1-9 again).  Interestingly, Paul tells us why God kept it a secret.  If Pilate and the Jewish High Council had known about it, they wouldn’t have crucified Jesus, a prerequisite for the redemption of mankind!

I Corinthians 9:1

“Am I not free?  Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?…” (emphasis added)

Paul not only met the Lord Jesus Christ in person, he was the only apostle to have met him in His ultimately glorified form!  (Although the other apostles had seen His glorified appearance twice during His earthly ministry — on the Mount of Transfiguration and at the time of his Ascension, neither appearance resulted in the adverse effects suffered by Paul when he met the Glorified Lord on the road to Damascus.  From this I infer that although the disciples saw His glory, it was nevertheless in a more restrained form that what Paul experienced.)

I Corinthians 11:23

 ”For I received from the Lord that whch I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed…”  (Paul didn’t receive the practice of communion from the Twelve, but directly from the Lord Himself.  Communion is one of the few practices that is therefore part of both Israel’s Kingdom program and the current dispensation, the Age of Grace.)

I Corinthians 15:1,3,8

“(1) Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you… (3) for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received… (8) and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (Paul received the gospel by revelation directly from the risen Lord, and passed it on immediately to the Gentiles.  But the timing of his receiving it was “last of all, as it were to one untimely born.”  This phrase again indicates that he received it independently from the Twelve, according to a different schedule than the Twelve.)

II Corinthians 12:1-7

“Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body  I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a man was caught up to the third heaven.  And I know how such a man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows — was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.  On behalf of such a man will I boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses… And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me — to keep me from exalting myself!” (emphasis added)

Paul not only met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, but many times thereafter.  On one of these occasions, he was actually caught up to heaven, where he heard things that even he was forbidden to repeat.  What was revealed to him was of such importance that God felt it necessary to provide a source of humility with it to keep Paul from becoming proud.  But the point here is that Paul did not receive this information from the Twelve — he received it directly from the Lord of Glory.

Galatians 1:1

“Paul, an apostle (not [sent] from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)…” (emphasis added)

Galatians 1:11-12

“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For I neither received it from man nor was I taught it, but [I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (emphasis added)

Galatians 1:15 – 2:9

Here is a longer passage that adds considerably to our knowledge of Paul’s whereabouts during his “desert years” before the first missionary journey.  Please read this passage for yourself now, and then check my outline below against the Scriptures:

  • Sometime after God “was pleased to reveal His Son” in Paul (that could mean on the road to Damascus, or after Jesus appeared to him again to tell him to get out of Jerusalem and be sent “far away to the Gentiles”)
  • Paul did not immediately “consult with flesh and blood” or go to Jerusalem to visit the Apostles
  • Instead he went to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus
  • Three years after returning to Damascus he went to Jerusalem to only Peter and stayed with him fifteen days
  • While staying with Peter he also saw James, the Lord’s brother (not James, the brother of John)
  • He then went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia, still unknown to the churches in Judea
  • Fourteen years later he returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus because of a revelation
  • Paul submitted the gospel he preached among the Gentiles in private to the Apostles (Note: If there was no difference between Paul’s message and that of the Twelve, and both were under the authority of the Great Commission, there would have been no need to ask for their stamp of approval.  So why did he do it?  Because Jesus Christ told him to in a revelation!)
  • The Apostles contributed nothing to Paul’s message
  • They recognized that Peter had been sent to Israel and that Paul had been sent to the Gentiles
  • James (the Lord’s brother), Peter and John approved

Apparently Paul and Barnabas returned to their ministry in Antioch immediately after this visit, for Paul’s next words describe a visit that Peter and others from Jerusalem made to Antioch.  There is some confusion as to whether or not this passage describes the same occasion as Acts 15.  A careful comparison of the two passages suggests strongly that they are not the same occasion.  I’ll urge you to study them both yourself, and we will revisit them when we reach Chapter 15.  But here is a synopsis of the differences:

  • Reason: Galatians visit was because of a revelation, while Acts visit was because of dissention in the Antioch church
  • Visibility: Galatians visit was only to “those of reputation” (Apostles), while Acts visit was to Apostles and elders, and the entire church
  • Subject: Galatians visit recognized separate apostleship of Paul to the Gentiles and Peter to Israel, while Acts visit decided that Gentiles didn’t have to follow the Jewish rites as they were being practiced in the Jerusalem church
  • Conclusion: Galatians visit concluded that Gentile believers only had to “remember the poor”, while Acts visit concluded that Gentiles still had to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood”
  • Follow-up:  Galatians visit is followed by Peter’s visit to Antioch, while the Acts visit is followed up by Judas and Silas accompanying Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch

Here again we find that Luke has left out vast passages of time in his narrative in Acts.  Surely the visit described in Galatians would have been unnecessary if the events of Acts 15 had already taken place.  So Acts 15 must have happened after the event described in Galatians.  But Paul states in Galatians that the visit described there happened fourteen years after his private visit to Peter, which was in turn three years after his second visit to Damascus.  That makes the events of Acts 15 at least seventeen years after his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Ephesians 3:1-9

“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles — if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief.  And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; [to be specific,] that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power.  To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things.” (emphasis added)

Now this is a salient passage that deserves our full attention!  (It is, in fact, quoted in the banner above every page on this blog site.)   Paul establishes in a most forthright manner that what he presented to the believers in Ephesus was a special message intended for Gentiles, which had never been revealed to anyone before.  Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison in Rome.   Some use v5 to claim that this mystery was revealed to all of the Apostles (including Paul) by the Spirit.   But that contradicts Paul’s personal claim to this message.  Indeed, by the time Paul was in prison in Rome, all of his visits to Jerusalem to confer with the Twelve and gain their acceptance and approval of his ministry to the Gentiles had long-ago been completed.  When Paul invokes the use of “now” (“as it has now been revealed”), I believe he means that it had been revealed to them as of the time of the writing of the letter to the Ephesians from Rome.  And by then it had been revealed to all of them — by Paul himself, his fellow workers and his Gentile spiritual children over many years.  Indeed, Peter himself alludes to Paul’s wisdom (as if different from his own) in his second general epistle long after Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “… just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand…”  No, God revealed the mystery to Paul first, and then the Twelve became aware of it as the Gentiles came to know Christ as Savior, which they realized in the Spirit was authentic.

Colossians 1:23-27

“… the gospel which you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.  Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  (NASB)

The translators of the NASB, I believe, have produced a variation here that I think is questionable.  Twice in this passage Paul uses a Greek word that means “to fill up” as a fisherman’s net “fills up” with fish (playroo).  In the first occurance Paul is writing about his sufferings (his imprisonment), stating that those sufferings have the effect of “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”  The second occurance is where Paul states that the ministry he was given was to “playroo [fill up] the word of God.”  Each expression is worth considering separately.

In the first expression (v24) Paul says that he rejoices in his “sufferings” (Gr. pathos) for their sake, and that he was physically doing his share with and for the church by suffering with them.  But his choice of words for how he was doing this is very interesting.  He writes, “in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.“  The Greek word for “filling up” that Paul chose is an interesting study in itself.  The word is antanaplayroo.  You can see that it is the word playroo — to ”fill up” – with a bunch of stuff tacked on the beginning.  There are two Greek prefixes used here — anti (“ant…”) and ana (“…ana…”).  Anti is a prefix that indicates position (like beside, under, etc.), meaning “opposite”, just as it does in English.  Ana indicates direction more than position, a sense of “up”, as in “send up”, “look up”, or “step up” (it is actually incorporated in the Greek word for a flight of stairs).  When coupled with playroo, it means “fill up“.  When speaking of filling a container, it means to fill it to the brim so that no more can be added.  In a broader sense, it is used to describe the process of bringing something to completion.  Here, the combination of both prefixes with the root word brings us to an understanding of this word as something that stands in opposition to completion, and the NASB correctly infers “filling up that which is lacking”  (completing that which is not yet complete). 

Notice also that while Paul uses pathos to describe the suffering in the beginning of this verse, he uses a different word for suffering at the end of the verse — “afflictions” (Gr. thlixos, pressure or squeezing).  Pathos describes the inward effect of persecution in his heart, while thlixos describes the outward circumstance that produces it.  Paul is not saying that Christ’s sufferings on the cross to pay for our sins was somehow incomplete, and that he was given the job of finishing it (nor are we given that job).  On the contrary, Paul declares that Christ’s work was indeed complete in 2:10, especially when it comes to our salvation!  Paul has another meaning here.  He is simply encouraging the believers in Colossae by telling them that his heart, like theirs, is sad and aching because of the circumstances of his and their persecution, something which must take place but is not yet finished.  As they suffer together “under pressure”, the net effect is that they are working toward the completion of the suffering, something which for the moment is incomplete in God’s plan.

The second use of playroo occurs in v25, and was translated by the NASB as “fully carry out the preaching of the word of God.”  The actual Greek text is, “playrowsai ton logon tou Theou“, exactly twice as many words in English as in Greek!  Literally translated, this says, “complete the word of God.”  There is no sense in the original language of “carrying some task out” (I assume they inferred it from Paul’s reference to his ministry in the beginning of the verse), nor does the word “preaching of” appear anywhere in the Greek text.  This translation is a real stretch!  (I’m tempted to suggest that the idea of Paul being given the task of completing the word of God was such anathema to them that they relied on the traditions of men rather than what the Word simply says, but since I wasn’t there when they discussed this verse, I won’t suggest such a thing…)

Paul’s double use of playroo is a couplet, and he intended the same sense of filling up to apply to both statements.  A couplet is a literary device that draws a comparison — as it is in this case, so it is in that case.  In the same way that Paul’s and the Colossians’ mutual suffering under persecution “completes” what is lacking in the Church’s sufferings for Christ, so Paul’s revelations directly from the risen Lord “complete” what is lacking in the Holy Scriptures.  (That’s quite a statement, coming from a Pharisee, don’t you think?!?  Surely no human teacher could have convinced him of this.  It would have taken someone of much higher authority… like the Living Word Himself!)

If I choose to believe what the Word simply says (and I do), then this verse clearly says that Paul was indeed Divinely given the job of completing the Bible.  That, of course, fits in perfectly with Paul’s next statements in the balance of this important passage.  The information that completes the Bible, that reveals the final pieces of the puzzle, and that supercedes all that has gone before, that was revealed directly to Paul by the risen Lord of Glory (and not through men) is “the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

I Timothy 1:5-11

“But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, for some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion… and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, acording to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.” (emphasis added)

II Timothy 1:8-11

“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.”  (emphasis added)

Titus 1:2-3

“… in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the comandment of God our Savior;”

What could be more straightforward?  This is a fitting passage to conclude what we have considered.  There is no possibility of twisting or falling short of what the words on the page of Holy Writ say.  According to Paul, God promised eternal life long ages ago, but did not reveal it until the time was right, and when He revealed it, He revealed it through Paul.

Dear reader… we have considered fifteen separate passages from Paul’s letters in this post.  This post is truly the heart of what this blog site is all about.  From here on out, we will continue to find passages in the balance of Acts that bear out the truth of these statements from Paul’s pen, but what we have to say about them will always come back to what we’ve covered in this post.  If you begin to doubt the existence of the Mystery as a separate and unique revelation through Paul, distinct from the message of the Twelve (which was never a mystery), come back to this post and read it again.  Or better yet, study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that neededth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.  (II Timothy 2:15 KJV)

Was Paul just another apostle?  Was his ”good news” the same as that of the Twelve?  Did Paul take the same gospel to the Gentiles while the Twelve took it to the Jews, or did Paul take a different gospel (even better news) to the Gentiles than what the Twelve took to the Jews?  The evidence of Scripture is before you.  What will you do with it?

Posted in 07 - God Prepares a Gentile Way | Comments Off

Personal Testimony of Pastor Paul Sadler, D.D.

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Sadler is president of the Berean Bible Society (  This article first appeared in that organization’s monthly publication, The Berean Searchlight.  (The entire issue is available for download at their website as a PDF document, along with all previous back issues.)  I was thrilled to read his testimony because his experience is what I would wish for all who read this blog — whether you are called into professional ministry as he was, or are a layman.  It takes great courage to do what he did.  Pastors who are willing to turn their back on denominational traditions when faced with what the Bible actually says are rare — from the time they enter seminary they are taught to toe the denominational line, and most become so heavily invested in denominational error that they will choose to stick with it rather than have to admit what they have believed and taught was wrong.  When challenged with the Truth of the Word rightly divided, having no excuse against the Scriptures, they often become huffy and threatening when challenged with the Scriptures, having nothing but intimidation to stand upon.  (I speak from experience.)  Laymen can be caught in the same trap.  I hope, friend, that if after reading this you see yourself in that position, you’ll decide to follow Christ and His Word above all commandments of men.  (I have added three personal comments toward the end of Dr. Sadler’s article, shown in green type and  [ ]‘s .)

Called According to His Purpose
by Paul M. Sadler, D.D.

How I Came to See Paul’s Gospel — A Personal Testimony

The Early Days

It wasn’t long after we trusted Christ that my wife Vicki and I became actively involved at the local Baptist church.  We sat under the  ministry of Pastor Weldon Causseaux, who led us to the Lord.  This proved to be a very profitable time for us spiritually, as we learned all the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

During this time, Pastor Causseaux asked me to serve as the Youth Leader of the assembly.  The youth group was primarily composed of senior high students, most of whom knew and loved the Lord.  Accepting this position turned out to be a major turning point in my Christian life.  Later I became a member of the Board of Deacons, which gave me the opportunity to fill the pupit occasionally in the pastor’s absence and assist him in other areas of the work.  We were one of the more conservative American Baptist assemblies in the area and therefore, when Pastor Causseaux accepted a pastoral position in the south, we called a Bob Jones University graduate as our new pastor.

For the most part, the family members of our young people attended the assembly as well, so when the kids went off to college, they returned home during the summer months and faithfully attended the young people’s meetings.  To their credit, most Baptists are very dedicated to their local assemblies and Baptist teachings.  We had some great discussions at these youth meetings, where I quickly learned how insightful young people can be.  While they never questioned the foundation of Baptist teaching or traditions, they did want to discuss what they perceived to be inconsistencies.

As Baptists, we were taught that it was our responsibility to carry out the Great Commission, which, of course, always took us back to the four Gospel accounts.  One of the questions that troubled them at the time was the Lor’s statement in Matthew 15:24:

“But He answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Furthermore, our Lord instructed His disciples to confine their ministry only to the nation Israel and not go into the way of the Gentiles or into any city of the Samaritans (Matt. 10:5-6).  “But we’re Gentiles!  Where do we fit in?” This particular question of our young people prompted me to approach the pastor about the matter.  Their inquiry, which I really didn’t have a good answer for at the time, became my inquiry.

I asked the pastor in his office one day if it seemed to him to be terribly inconsistent, as Gentiles, to be going back to the four Gospels where the house of Israel always seemed to be in view.  I will never forget his response.  He said,”You shouldn’t be overly concerned about such things.  It is more important to win lost souls to Christ.”  In other words, he didn’t know, and his actions made it clear that he wasn’t interested in looking into it.  I certainly agree that the salvation of lost souls is extremely important, but his response left me with an uneasy feeling because I was interested in learning more about the Word of God.

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover”  (Mark 16:17-18)

On another occasion, I inquired as to why the supernatural sign gifts did not follow those of us who believed if we were working under the Great Commission — signssuch as healing the sick, speaking in new tongues, taking up deadly serpents, and drinking any deadly thing with no harm coming to us (Mark 16:15-18).

I distinctly recall the pastor saying that possibly the reason I didn’t have these gifts was because I did not have enough faith, to which I responded, “That may be true, but what aobut all of those believers who have been faithful?  Why is there an absence of these supernatural gifts in their lives?”  To this I got a shrug of the shoulder, along with a suggestion that I took things far too seriously!

To me, it seemed that the teachings we were following were not consistent with the Scriptures we were proclaiming.  Sadly, those who hold to an Acts 2 position leave themselves wide open to Pentecostalism.  In fact, the very pastor who was reluctant to answer my questions departed from the Baptist faith and became a Pentecostal.

Called by His Grace

“Who has saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Tim. 1:9)

It was around this time that I began to sense the Lord’s call to enter the ministry on a full-time basis.  His prompting was so obvious that it actually scared me.  I really wrestled with this decision; imagine it, telling the Lord He surely didn’t mean me!  I “reasoned” with Him that there were so many other capable men who were far more qualified than I would ever be.  To assist in my denial that the Lord could use me in this capacity, Satan caused a wave of depression to sweep over me.  But the Lord continued to make it perfectly clear to me that this was His will for my life.

After weeks of sleepless nights of trying, with Satan’s assistance, to talk myself out of it, I heard a message delivered by a godly pastor who had been in the ministry for many years.  It was as if he was speaking directly to me.  I remember his words to this day:

“Young man, perhaps God is calling you into the ministry but you have convinced yourself that you are unqualified.  After all, there are men with college and seminary degrees who are far more capable.  That may well be true, but the majority of them are unwilling to stand for the truth of God’s Word.  God is looking for men who are willing to stand for the truth.  Accept His call today; you will never regret your decision.”

I sat there astonished at his words.  If there was one thing I was more than willing to do, it was to stand for the truth!  It was at that moment I knelt in prayer and submitted myself to the Lord’s calling.  The pastor was right; I have never regretted that decision.  This all took place back in the early Seventies, during the recession, when everyone sat in long lines to purchase gas.  It was the worst of times in that it was nearly impossible to sell a house and find work, but the Lord went before us to remove all the obstacles that appeared to be in the way.

Even though I was perplexed about Baptist doctrine, I inquired at Bob Jones University and Lancaster School of the Bible for information on enrollment in their ministerial courses.  As I was making arrangements to attend one of these two schools, Mrs. Margaret Waldrop, a good friend of the family, called to suggest that before I made a final decision, I should visit the Berean School of Bible and Theology located northwest of Pittsburgh.  Unknown ot me at the time, Mrs. Waldrop was a grace believer who knew the school was a grace school, but she simply left the matter with the Lord for me to find out on my own.  Great move!

Since the school was nearby, I contacted them to set up a meeting.  It was agreed that we would meet on a Friday evening.  That Friday, Vicki and I loaded the kids into the car and dropped them off at Grandma’s.  As we headed north that evening, it was pouring rain.  I mean a torrential downpour!  A little over halfway to the school, the engine began to sputter and then stalled as I drifted to the side of the road.  I turned off the headlights and tried to start the engine.  To my surprise, it started.  Sure that I had dodged a bullet, I put the car into drive to continue the trip, only to have it stall again.  After two more failed attempts, we knew we were stranded.  Satan, who gladly assisted in my denial before I accepted God’s calling, now was doing everything in his power to hinder me from ever going into the ministry.  Had it not been for the grace of God, he might have accomplished his objective.

If you are thinking this trip sounds eerily similar to the one before my conversion [see previous edition of The Berean Searchlight - ed.] you would be correct — another car, another back road, another State Trooper.  Since we were out in the middle of nowhere, the only option we had was to wait for someone to stop.  We didn’t have cell phones back then!

About an hour later, a Pennsylvania State Trooper pulled up behind us with his lights flashing.  He was very helpful and assisted me in trying to get the car started, but to no avail.  Once we concluded our attempts were futile, the Trooper called a tow truck to have the car towed to an area garage, and then gave us a ride to the police station.  Vicki and I ended up spending the evening at the police station, waiting for a family member to give us a ride.  Needless to say, we never arrived at the school that night.

The next day we learned that, when I filled up the gas tank the night before, we had also gotten water with our gas.  As you know, combustion engines don’t run well on water!  After we picked up the car, we planned another meeting at the school for the following week, this time in the afternoon.  What happened next is unbelievable, but true.

On the day agreed upon, I made another trip to visit the school.  On the same stretch of road where we stalled the week before, a car coming from the other direction drifted into my lane.  The driver was looking at something on the passenger seat and not paying attention.  Of course, the rule of thumb is never to swerve into the other driver’s lane, simply because when he becomes aware of what’s happeing, he’s naturally going to swing back into his own lane.  When it was apparent we were going to hit, I swerved my car off the road to avoid a collision.  Thankfully, I made it across a drainage ditch without rolling over and proceeded into a field.  This all took place at the exat same spot where I broke down a week earlier.

Once I got the car stopped, I sat there nearly paralyzed by what had just transpired.  My first thought was to turn around and go home.  I conlcuded this was apparently not the right time to enter the ministry.  In fact, I started to pull the car out of the field, headed for home, but abruptly stopped for some unknown reason.  It’s difficult to explain, but I was suddenly overcome with the sense that this wasn’t the right thing to do.  As I sat there, it occured to me that the Lord wouldn’t hinder me from  going into the ministry, but Satan most certainly would!  From that point on, as determined as he was to prevent me from entering the ministry, I was just as determined to honor God’s calling in to His service.

An Interesting Exchange

Upon arriving at the school I met with Pastor David Caslander, the Founder and Administrator of the Berean School of Bible and Theology. Little did I realize at the time that Brother Caslander was a Berean with a knowledge of Paul’s gospel and the Word, rightly divided.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, Pastor Caslander and I sat down to discuss the ministerial course of study that the school offered.  After reviewing the school’s doctrinal statement and curriculum, we had a general discussion of the Scriptures.

Since the school was fundamental and dispensational, I shared with Pastor Caslander the questions that were on my mind.  To my amazement, he pointed out that the solution to all of my problems in the Scriptures was to rightly divide the Word of truth.  He showed me the importance of Paul’s apostleship and message, sharing that Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles and that we, being Gentiles, must turn to his epistles for our doctrine, position, walk, and destiny as members of the Body of Christ (Rom. 11:13; I Cor. 14:37).

I noticed that the school’s doctrinal statement said there were no ordinances to be practiced today.  Of course, everyone knows there are two ordinances to be observed in the Church: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper — or at least that’s what I had been taught.  When I asked brother Caslander about the plank, he wisely tried to avoid the question, hoping that I would first come to see Paul’s distinctive ministry before he had to address the subject.  When I pressed the matter he gave the following response:

“We agree that water baptism was an ordinance when it was being practiced, but the question is this: Is it to be practied today?  You see, when the Apostle Paul received further revelations about the Cross, we learn that Chist has blotted ‘out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His Cross’” (Col. 2:14).  He explained how ordinances were the rules and requirements of the Law of Moses, and how the Scriptures are clear that we are no longer living under the Law, but rather we are living under grace today (Rom. 6:14).  Consequently, he said, water baptism is not to be practiced today.  The Lord’s Supper, he added, never was an ordinance and is to be observed in the administration of grace as Paul instructs us in I Corinthians 11:23-26.

To say that Pastor Caslander had to help me off the floor would probably be an understatement.  I had heard all types of things about baptism, but this was a first!  Being a dedicated Baptist I mounted a defense that I now look back on as being feeble at best.  Brother Caslander handled the discussion in a Christ-like manner and graciously asked me what I believed about water baptism.  I responded: “We believe that we are to follow in Christ’s footsteps and be water baptized as an expression of faith.  He’s our example!”  Pastor Caslander shared with me from the Scriptures why that is impossible today, which made perfect sense.

After he dismantled my argument on that point, I said, “We know water baptism isn’t required for salvation today, but surely you believe it’s an outward sign of an inward work of grace.”

Brother Caslander replied, “I can show you that waster baptism was required for salvation under the Law as an expression of faith, but you cannot show me where it wasn’t required (Mark 1:1-5; 16:15-16; Luke 7:29; Acts 2:37-38; 8:35-37).  “May I challenge you with this, Paul: Can you show me from the Scriptures where baptism is merely an outward sign of an inward work of grace, as you say?”

I was sure I could, but after fumbling through the Scriptures I said to him, “I will have to get back to you on that one.”

“Brother Sadler, I leave you with this:  The question you need to answer for yourself is, are you going to continue to follow the traditions and commandments of men or are you going to base the minsitry God has called you to on the Word of God?”  (Mark 7:13)  “The choice is yours!”

Being a Baptist at heart, I remember saying to him that these things just could not be, at which time he encouraged me to study to see if these things were so, reminding me that Paul’s gostpel was the answer to my questions.  It was obvious to me after I left that I had been in the presence of a man who was well equipped in the Scriptures.  After sitting under his ministry for three years, I have always felt that Pastor Caslander is one of the few theologians that we have in the grace movement.

Upon arriving home, I contacted our pastor to set up a meeting with him the next day.  I was sure he would have the needed ammunition for me to convince Pastor Caslander how far out in left field he was.  When I asked the pastor where I could find the passages that stated water baptism is not required, but only an outward sign of an inward work of grace, his answer wasn’t what I expected.  He said, “There are no such passages in the Scriptures that I know of.”  I must say, at least he was honest.  He proudly added that this saying had been a well-worn tradition handed down to us through the generations.  His reaction to my question made it very clear that I had absolutely no right to question Baptist tradition!

While I still have the greatest respect for our Baptist brethren, especially for their evangelistic efforts, the pastor’s response set me on a new path.  Pastor Caslander’s challenge now took on a new meaning.  It seemed he was correct that I was following the traditions and commandments of men and I wasn’t even aware of it.  [emphasis mine - is this you, my friend?  ed.]  After weeks of study, the Holy Spirit brought me to the conclusion that Brother Caslander was right, at which time I submitted myself to the gospel of the grace of God.  It was like experiencing the joy of salvation all over again!

For the first time in my Christian existence, the Bible became a new and living Book that really could be understood.  [This was my father's experience at the age of 65 and my experience at the age of 17; I have alluded to it several times in previous blog posts, and it is what I wish for all of my readers!  ed.]  Being thrilled with my discovery, I was sure my Baptist friends would be as excited as I was about this new-found truth!  After all, it was the key that unlocked the Sacred Secret.  To my surprise, I found myself on the outside looking in, as it were.  I was told in no uncertain terms, “If you preach this grace message you’ll never have a church, nor will you ever amount to anything in the Lord’s work.”  I viewed this as another of Satan’s attempts to discourage me from entering the ministry.

We sold our home that we had built three years earlier and moved the family to the school’s campus.  While it was a long drive, I was able to keep my job at Mine Safety Appliances Company during the years we attended school.  My wife and I both enrolled at the Berean School of Bible and Theology (now closed), although for some time thereafter Vicki remained a Batptist at heart.  She refused to accept my new-found teaching, but was willing to attend Bible school, saying that she felt that the Lord would lead us through me.

It was about a year later that she came to see the wonders of God’s grace and was freed from the traditions and commandments of men as well. We both have since been staunch defenders of the revelation of the Mystery that was first committed to the Apostle Paul (Rom. 16:25; Col. 1:25-27).

After graduating from Bible school, we accepted our first pastorage at Grace Christian Church in Independence, Kentucky.  After a two-year tenure, we received a call to pastor the Falls Bible Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.  We had the privilege of being there for nearly ten years and will long remember the faith, hope, and love of this beloved assembly.  In September 1987, I accepted the presidency of the Berean Bible Society, which, as you know, is a national/international grace organization for the promotion of the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the Mystery.  This year, by God’s grace, will be my 24th year at the helm.  Most humbly I say, to God be the glory, for great things He has done!

I sincerely pray that this testimony will be used of the Lord to encourage you always to have an open mind and an open heart to God’s most precious Word  If you do, He will direct your steps in the pathway of righteousness for His name’s sake.  May God give us the courage to stand up against those who would rob us of the truth of Paul’s gospel!

“For do I now persuade men, or God?  or do I seek to please men?  for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).

Reproduced from The Berean Searchlight, March 2011 issue (ISSN 0005-8890), publication of the Berean Bible Society, N112 W17761 Mequon Rd., PO Box 756, Germantown, WI 53022-0756
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Paul’s “Desert Years”

To fully understand Paul’s knowledge of the mystery and how he could claim to not have received it from the Twelve, we need to do a little detective work.  We already know about the miraculous appearance of Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus.  We know that immediately thereafter he argued “many days” so successfuly that Jesus was the Christ with the Jews in the synagogues in Damascus that they tried to kill him.  He escaped from Damascus and immediately went to Jerusalem, where he tried to associate with the church there, and continued to debate with the leaders of the synagogues with much the same result.  Christ appeared to him in a vision again, and insisted that he “get out of Dodge.”  This was apparently not what Christ had in mind, for He told Paul that He would send him “far away to the Gentiles.”  The brethren then sent him back to his home town of Tarsus for his own safety.  But how did he get to Antioch, and how long was it before he departed with Barnabas on his first missionary journey?

Here we must be careful. Luke’s record in Acts gives some details for the next “many days”, but by 9:32 his narrative shifts back to Peter and his visit to Cornelius. Paul doesn’t reappear until the end of the 11th chapter, and Luke’s full focus doesn’t return to Paul until the 13th chapter. A lot transpires in Paul’s life in the meantime. Where is Paul during that time, and what is he doing?

Here’s an outline of the details from these passages.  As always, you should check my work for yourself against the Scriptures as the believers in Berea did!

  • Jerusalem persecution following Stephen’s death drove Gospel to  Phoenecia, Cyprus and Antioch
  • Gospel was spoken to the Jews only, not to Gentiles
  • Some Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to Gentiles in Antioch
  • The Lord approved and gave them success among the Gentiles
  • News of Gentile acceptance reached the church in Jerusalem
  • The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate
  • Barnabas saw that the Gospel among the Gentile believers in Antioch was approved by God
  • Barnabas encouraged them
  • Many believers were added to the church in Antioch
  • There were so many new believers that Barnabas needed help teaching them, and he went to Tarsus to find Saul
  • Barabas brought Saul back to Antioch with him
  • They taught the new believers in Antioch for a whole year
  • The prophet Agabus (and others) came from Jerusalem and predicted a world-wide famine
  • The believers in Antioch took up a collection for the poor in Judea
  • Barnabas and Saul delivered the collection to the elders in Jerusalem
  • They were apparently in Jerusalem when Herod beheaded James and tried to imprison Peter, and when Herod died (12:1-24)
  • Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch when they had delivered the collection, bringing John Mark with them

We are so used to reading through this passage without thinking that we have lost all sense of the amount of time that must have passed.  While Saul was pursuing the persecution to Damascus, believers were fleeing as far as the islands of Cyprus and Cyrene, the regions to the northwest of Galilee (Phoenecia, and the cities of Tyre and Sidon), and to Antioch in Syria, far to the north of Jerusalem and Israel.  Although this exodus from Palestine may have been sudden, it certainly would have taken at least weeks to accomplish.  It needed time to “take hold” in Cyprus and Cyrene before they would be ready and able to send missionaries to Antioch.  Once they had preached in Antioch to Gentiles, time passed before the news would have reached Jerusalem.  Anywhere from six months to two years could have elapsed before the Jerusalem church decided to send Barnabas to investigate.  Where was Paul all this time?  Escaping from Damascus and Jerusalem, and living in Tarsus!

It’s important to note here that the believers who were scattered under the persecution begun when Stephen was martyred preached the Gospel only to fellow Jews.  They were operating under the Great Commission, according to Israel’s prophetic promises and program!  Once they began preaching to Gentiles, do you think they altered their message according to the revelations Paul had received?  No!  They hadn’t even met Paul yet!  These new Gentile believers were under the same program as the Jerusalem church, unaware of the mystery that would be revealed through Paul.  They were, in effect, a new breed of Jewish proselyte — they were what I will call messianic proselytes.  It isn’t until Chapter 15 that we find these Gentile believers released from the Jewish rules and rituals of the Jerusalem church, at Paul’s urging.

Once Barnabas arrived (a two-week journey at least), he had to remain there long enough to really grasp what was happening and understand that it was God at work in the midst of these Gentiles.  Then he had to be there long enough for their numbers to grow sufficiently that he realized he needed help.  With that realization, he had to travel to Tarsus and back, with Saul in tow, probably another two-week journey.  And it could have taken a week in Tarsus to find Saul.  Potentially another two months has passed.  Then both Barnabas and Saul remained in Antioch teaching the new Gentile believers for an entire year. 

Sometime toward the end of that year, Agabus came from Jerusalem predicting world-wide famine.  More time was required for the Antioch church to get the idea of gathering a collection for the poor in Judea, and then more time was needed to actually gather it.  (Has your church ever gathered a collection for a specific mission project?  Is it as simple as passing the offering plate once on a given Sunday morning?  Usually not!)  Then Paul and Barnabas would have taken up to three weeks to deliver the offering to the elders in Jerusalem.  If Luke’s order of events implies that Barnabas and Saul were in Jerusalem during Herod’s activity, they may have been there for a week or two, and the return journey to Antioch might have taken another three weeks.

All of a sudden it becomes apparent that the events described by Luke in a mere 13 verses actually occurred over a span of two to three years!  The 13th chapter opens with the Holy Spirit setting Barnabas and Saul apart for the first missionary journey.  There is an implied, unspecified time gap between the end of Chapter 12 and the beginning of Chapter 13.  Luke’s language suggests that he is embarking on a whole new series of events.  There is no suggestion that “immediately upon their return from Jerusalem” the Holy Spirit told them to set Barnabas and Saul apart.  So here is a potential gap that is difficult — if not impossible — to estimate.  But here is one line of reasoning…

In addition to Luke’s historical accounts in the Book of Acts, Paul himself alludes to revelations he received in the 11th and 12th chapters of II Corinthians. The Corinthian believers were being turned against Paul by some self-aggrandizing leaders, and he was forced to defend his apostleship to people who should have known better – much against his humble desires.  In this two-chapter passage, Paul gives the Corinthians three validations of his apostleship, each greater than the previous: (1) his scholastic credentials as a pharisee, (2) his labors for the Gospel in spite of dangers, and (3) direct revelations received from Jesus Christ in person.  It is this second validation, the dangers he faced, that is of immediate interest to us.

Paul’s labors for the Gospel listed in this passage are interesting because most of them had to have taken place before the writing of the second letter to Corinth. Written near the end of his third missionary journey in about AD 58, the events and dangers Paul lists all had to have happened before the events of his arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment in Judea, and transport to Rome. Luke only accounts for one stoning in Lystra (Acts 14:9), and being beaten with rods and imprisoned once.  What’s more, Paul begins his third validation, a man “caught up to the third heaven”, by setting the time at “fourteen years ago.” If Conybeare and Howson’s reckoning of when II Corinthians was written (AD 58) is reasonably correct, the experience Paul described would probably have happened in AD 44.  If Jesus was crucified at the age of 33 and was born in about 2 BC, Stephen’s martyrdom had to happen in about AD 32.  Paul’s vision, related in II Corinthians, had to take place twelve years after Paul’s conversion.  If it happened after the physical dangers Paul described in II Corinthians, there is a twelve year gap between Acts 12:25 and Acts 13:1!

What was Paul doing during those twelve years?  We simply don’t know, other than the fact that at the start of the first missionary journey he is still in Antioch and is still with Barnabas — and John Mark – and that he has experienced extensive revelations directly from the Risen Lord.  In the next post we’ll take a closer look at those revelations.

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The Crux of the Matter

The passages we have just studied are direct accounts of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, a pivotal point for Paul and for the Gentile world.  But Paul refers to this and to other revelations he received from Christ repeatedly in his letters to the churches.  The Lord told Ananias that He was going to reveal many things to Paul, and that Paul would serve a purpose that was unexpected in Jewish circles.  Certainly all of these revelations did not happen on the road to Damascus nor in the three days following.  Few New Testament authors had even one such revelatory encounter — John’s book of Revelation comes to mind, and we revere it highly.  But by Paul’s own pen we learn that he had several such revelations over a period of several years.

Why, if the Gospel was complete in Jesus’ teaching (culminating in the Great Commission), did God choose to reveal more to an additional apostle who was never part of the circle of the Twelve?  Certainly if God’s plan for mankind was fully revealed in the Jerusalem church, Paul would have joined with them and learned the Gospel from them.  Yet Paul adamantly insists that he learned nothing from the Twelve in Jerusalem, and that he learned everything by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.  He repeatedly refers to his teaching as “my gospel,” describes it as a mystery prior to its revelation through him, declares that anyone who teaches otherwise is accursed, and states that he was given the task of “filling up” (completing) the Word of God. 

How audacious, if he was merely an adjunct to the Twelve!  These claims are so radical that they remind us of how radical Jesus of Nazareth’s claims to deity were!  Who would dare make such claims if God’s message to mankind was already complete in the ministry of the Twelve?

The entire premise of this blog site rests upon the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry and message in contrast to that of the Twelve and the church in Jerusalem.  If it wasn’t unique, there would have been no need for God to raise up Paul.  It behooves us then, as good Bereans, to study the Scriptures daily to see if these things are what the Bible actually says.  We’re not through with our study of Saul’s conversion.  In future posts we’ll take a look at Paul’s history between his conversion and his first missionary journey, and also consider other revelations from the Lord that Paul describes in his letters to the Gentile churches.  But first, we need to finish the present story of Saul’s conversion.

Paul’s Ministry Immediately After Conversion

In the last post we heard Paul’s own description of the events immediately following his conversion, including the fact that he had preached Christ in Damascus first, and then in Jerusalem where he had received another vision of Christ.  In this vision the Risen Lord told him in no uncertain terms that he should get out of Jerusalem “with haste.”  (Acts 22:17-18)  Paul tried to convince the Lord otherwise, but He was insistent — His reply was, “Go!  For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 22:19-21)  The Greek word for “Go!” is poreuou, the 2nd person singular present imperative form of poreuomai, to depart.  The present imperative is an emphatic command to perform some continuous action into the future, beginning immediately.  It was as if the Lord said to him, “When I say frog, you jump!  Got it?”  It is clear from this passage that Paul was not doing what the Lord wanted him to do at this early stage in his ministry!  Paul, in spite of whatever revelations he had received in Damascus while blind, was still a Jew and a Pharisee, and his immediate desire would naturally have been to reach out to his own people, the Jews.  Even after he had received fuller understanding of his ministry from the Lord, his heart was still broken over errant Israel, and he desired strongly to win them over (see Romans 11).

In spite of Paul’s desire to reach his kinsmen and the firm nature of the Lord’s command to leave Jerusalem immediately, Paul would later refer to these events as he spoke before Festus and King Agrippa.  Paul makes an interesting statement that seems to clearly indicate that he was acting under the Great Commission and not some different calling.  In Acts 26:19-20, Paul declares, “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”  Does this single passage prove that the case we have built for the mystery is bunk after all?  I do not believe so.

Paul’s defense before Agrippa came late in his ministry.  Looking back on his travels and preaching, Paul told the Corinthians, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself uder the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”  (I Corinthians 9:19-22)

Now consider the circumstances in which Paul made this statement that seems so close to the Great Commission.  He was speaking before Festus and Agrippa, but addressed his remarks directly to Agrippa because “you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews…” (Acts 26:3)  As such, Agrippa would have also been familiar with the sect known as The Way, and thus familiar with the Jerusalem church and probably the Twelve.  He may even have been aware of the terms of the Great Commission.  Agrippa was indeed expert in Jewish ways — his great-grandfather was Herod the Great, responsible for the infanticide in Bethlehem following the visit of the Magi.  His father, Herod I, beheaded James the brother of John, and tried to put Peter in prison.  The Herods had built their dynasty in the midst of Israel and understood the religion and politics of the Jews very well.  Under these circumstances, Paul would phrase his message in terms familiar to Agrippa — Jerusalem, the Jerusalem church, and the commission of the Jerusalem Church.  I believe this passage is fully in keeping with Paul’s approach to winning the lost in I Corinthians 9:19-22 quoted above.  It was very effective:  “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian!”  (Acts 26:28)

Paul spoke the truth to Agrippa.  He began by declaring his message in “…Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles…,” as indeed Luke records in the next passage in Acts 9.  Compare this statement to the Great Commission in Acts 1:8: “…Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”  For all practical purposes they are identical in order, the differences being only that Paul began at Damascus, and the Lord included Samaria.  Well, Samaritans were like Gentiles to the Jews, and Paul, in spite of circumstances, did go straight from Damascus to Jerusalem.  And the heart of the Great Commission is about taking the Gospel to the lost.  But as we study further in Acts, it will become even clearer that God made a distinction in commission and message between the Twelve and Paul.  That did not prevent Paul from ministering to the Jews as a Jew (and thus on the basis of the Great Commission), nor did it nullify his office as Apostle to the Gentiles, an extended, greater commission.  Everywhere Paul went, he always began in the synagogues, preaching Christ to the Jews.  I suspect his message to them was much the same as what he presented to Agrippa.

I am in no way suggesting that Paul’s greater commission opposed or nullified the instructions Christ gave to the Twelve at His ascension.  Both are based on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, being the Son of God and the Savior of the whole world.  But at issue is the method by which it would be accomplished — through Israel and her promised King and Kingdom, or in spite of Israel and her unbelief.  I do not reject the spirit of the Great Commission, but I do reject the sloppy thinking that fails to acknowledge the uniqueness and ramifications of the mystery that was revealed only through Paul — a failure to rightly divide the Word of God.

So now let us return to Acts 9 to read Luke’s detailed account of these earliest events in Paul’s ministry.

Saul Preaches in Damascus and Jerusalem

If you have not done so already, please take the time to read Acts 9:19b-31

Here is an outline of the verses you have just read.  Luke, as usual, just sticks to the facts, and these observations are easy to make.

  • Saul stays with the disciples in Damascus for several days
  • He immediately begins proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah in the synagogues in Damascus
  • He is recognized as the leader of the persecution
  • His defense of Jesus as the Messiah gets better and better, and the leaders of the synagogues are less and less able to argue with him
  • After many days, some of the Jews plotted to kill Saul
  • They had all the exits from Damascus covered
  • Somebody among the disciples was able to “think outside the box” — they lowered him over the wall in a basket, and he escaped
  • He immediately traveled to Jerusalem and attempted to associate with the Jerusalem church
  • They feared him and didn’t believe that he was a disciple
  • Barnabas brought him to the Twelve and explained what had happened to Saul
  • He was accepted in the Jerusalem church and was free to move about the city
  • He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord
  • Jews from Greece (“Helenistic Jews”, the same group who stirred up the mob in Chapter 21) plotted to kill him
  • When the church heard about the plot, they sent him to Tarsus by way of Caesarea
  • These events ended the persecution of the church in all of Israel (Judea in the south, Samaria in the middle, Galilee in the north)

When Luke records in v31 that “… the church… enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase…”, he is referring to everything he has just described concerning Saul, encompassing Acts 8:1-4 (immediately following the death of Stephen) and all of Chapter 9.  The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is inserted in the middle of the larger story of the persecution simply because it occurred chronologically during the persecution.  In an even broader perspective, we see that the entire story of Saul is also a chronological “rabbit trail” for Luke, for at Acts 9:32 he returns to the story of the Jerusalem church and the Twelve.  Saul doesn’t come on the scene again until the end of Chapter 13.

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In His Own Words

Paul had many occasions to “bear [Christ's] name before the Gentiles and kings…”, two of them recorded by Luke later in the Book of Acts. Paul also makes many references to this occasion in his letters to the churches, but does not repeat the details of the scene on the road to Damascus. To get a fully detailed picture of what happened on the road to Damascus that day, we need to incorporate Acts 22:6-16 and Acts 26:12-18 into our observations. Each passage adds small details, and, interestingly, each passage includes a detailed account of a two-person conversation.  Acts 9 records the conversation between the Lord and Ananias, Acts 22 records the conversation between Ananias and Saul, and Acts 26 records the conversation between Saul and the Lord.  These three conversations are like windows that let us see into this story from every angle.

Before looking at these passages in detail, it’s profitable to understand their historical context. Paul’s first, second and third missionary journeys had been completed, the third ending with Paul going to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor, and because he desired to be present in Jerusalem for Pentecost. On arrival, Paul visited the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (James and the elders) who convinced him to take a Jewish vow in the Temple to quell rumors that he was teaching the Gentiles to “forsake Moses” and their Jewish religious customs. On the last day of his vow, he was discovered by some Jews from Asia (remember how they had persecuted him wherever he went during his missionary journeys), who incited the throngs in the Temple grounds to riot and who falsely accused him of bringing Gentiles into the Temple. The riot was broken up by Roman soldiers, who rescued Paul from the midst, and he was given opportunity to address the mob. Luke records Paul’s speech to them in Acts 22:1-21, the first of our reference passages. Paul was imprisoned, moved to Caesarea for his own safety, and then appeared before a number of Roman-appointed governors over a period of more than two years. In his own defense, Paul appealed to Caesar (a privilege of Roman citizens), and plans were made to send him to Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial. During this time, Paul appeared before King Agrippa, who happened to be visiting the Roman governor Festus, had heard of Paul, and asked to hear his testimony out of curiosity. Luke records Paul’s testimony before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26:2-23, our second reference passage.

Presented below is a table that compares the three passages.  Where a verse in the reference passage (columns 2 and 3) merely repeats what the original passage states, you’ll see “(same)”.  If the column is blank, it means the passage doesn’t include the information.  I encourage you to verify the observations in all three columns, and especially to notice how much more detailed our understanding is because of the additional passages.

A Harmony of Saul’s Conversion Descriptions

Acts 9:2-19 Acts 22:5-16 Acts 26:12-18
Letters to take prisoners (same) authority and commission
Approaching Damascus about noon about midday
Light from Heaven all saw light brighter than the sun
Saul fell to the ground (same) Saul’s companions also fell to the ground
All heard a voice, companions speechless only Saul understood voice spoke in Hebrew
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (same) “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
Who are you, Lord? (same) (same)
“I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” (same) (same)
“What shall I do, Lord?” (same) (same)
Rise, enter the city (same) stand on your feet
You’ll be told what to do You’ll be told all that has been appointed for you to do “for this purpose I have appeared to you”
    Things he has already seen
    Things which Christ will appear to him to tell him
    Delivered from the Jews and the Gentiles
    Sent to the Jews and the Gentiles
    to open their eyes
    turn them from darkness to light
    turn them from Satan’s kingdom to God’s kingdom
    receive forgiveness and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith
Saul blinded because of the brightness of the light  
Saul led into Damascus (same)  
Blind, fasting for three days, praying    
Ananias instructed by the Lord    
Saul sees a vision of Ananias coming & laying on hands    
Ananias argues (knows about letters)    
Chosen instrument to the Gentiles, kings, and Israel    
Saul’s sufferings to be revealed to him    
Ananias obeys Ananias devout and well spoken of comes to Saul  
Ananias lays hands on Saul Ananias stands near Saul (laying on of hands not mentioned)  
“Lord Jesus, who appeared to you, sent me so that”    
“…you may regain your sight” “Brother Saul, receive your sight”  
“… and be filled with the Holy Spirit”    
Saul’s blindness healed Saul looks up at Ananias  
  Appointed to know God’s will, see the Righteous One, hear Him speak  
  Saul will be a witness to all men  
Saul baptized “Arise, be baptized, wash away your sins, call on Jesus’ name”  
Saul eats and is strengthened    
  Saul returns to Jerusalem, is warned in a vision (22:17-21)  
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Reluctant Ananias

We are in the midst of the conversion of Saul, destined by God to become Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles!  Let’s pick up the story at Acts 9:7-9…

Saul has been struck down by a great light, and has experienced a face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who has instructed him to proceed into the city of Damascus, where he will be told what the Lord expects him to do.  Luke matter-of-factly records that those who were travelling with him were completely amazed, hearing the voice but not seeing Christ.  (By this verse we know that Saul was not travelling alone.)  We assume the intense light had faded, for Saul got up from the ground.  His companions realized he was blind, even though his eyelids were open.  They led him “by the hand” the rest of the way into the city.  He remained there for three days with no improvement in his condition, and during that time he neither ate nor drank anything.

In v10 Luke tells us of a believer in Damascus, a “disciple” named Ananias.  (Obviously not the same Ananias from Chapter 5.)  We are not told how he came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ or how he came to be in Damascus.  More of God’s precise stage-setting, no doubt!  In much the same way that God had called to the boy Samuel, the Lord now calls to Ananias in a vision.  And Ananias, like Samuel, responds, “Here am I, Lord.”

We must admire Ananias for his sensitivity to the calling of God, respect the fact that God thought highly enough of him to choose him for this important task, and admire him for his apparent willingness and availability toward God.  However, when he finds out what the Lord has in mind, he responds in entirely human fashion!

The Lord’s instructions are very specific.  He tells Ananias the street, the house, the name of a visitor there, and where the visitor is from (just in case there might be two Sauls there).  He tells Ananias that he is being sent because this man is praying.  Why is he praying?  In his prayers he has had a vision of a man named Ananias coming to him and touching him to heal his blindness.  Consider how marvelous the Lord’s information is — Ananias knows Saul by name, Saul knows Ananias by name, and each knows why they will meet!

But Ananias knows Saul by more than the name given him by the Lord.  He really loses his cool!  How many times, when we are asked to do something by the Lord that seems unreasonable to us, do we assume an attitude of, “Lord!  Don’t you know about this situation?”  That seems like a strange thing to say to One who is omniscient, and it reveals a certain foolish tendency on the part of humans in their relationship with God to seek role reversal, at least momentarily.

In vv15-16 the Lord patiently insists (just as He did with Moses at the burning bush), and even explains his reasons to Ananias.  God is under no obligation to explain His reasons to us!  But He does so for Ananias, and believers throughout the ages should be very grateful — for in doing so, we have a specific record of God’s purpose in appointing Saul as an apostle.  It is not a repetition of the Great Commission, but it is a commission.  If we, as Gentiles, should adopt any commission as our own, this is it!  If we call Christ’s instructions to the apostles to Israel “Great”, surely we should refer to this as the “Greater Commission,”  for it represents God’s way of bringing us into His family in spite of Israel’s unbelief.

Note also the order of what the Lord describes to Ananias.  Saul will bear His name before (1) the Gentiles, (2) kings, and (3) the sons of Israel.  What was the order of the Great Commission?  (1) Jerusalem, (2) Judea and Samaria, and (3) the whole earth.  Saul’s commission is the geographic reverse of the commission given to the Twelve!  And indeed, Paul followed his commission.  He did not go to Jerusalem and work outward from there.  In fact, he had already completed his first missionary journey before he ever went back to Jerusalem.

Interestingly, in v16 the Lord also tells Ananias that He (Christ) will show Saul how much trouble he (Saul) will experience because of his commission as an apostle.  Did you realize that Paul probably knew the troubles he lists in II Corinthians 11:24-28 in advance?  That he knew he would be stoned and survive unhurtin advance? That he knew of his imprisonment in advance?  That he knew of his beheading in Rome in advance?  Why would any man submit to such a future?  I believe it was because Christ also revealed to him a much greater glory that made such sufferings pale by comparison — a glory that is our “inheritance in the saints.” (Colossians 1:9-24)

In the remaining verses (17-19) Luke faithfully records Ananias’ obedience.  There is an additonal action taken by Ananias, the conferring of the Holy Spirit upon Saul.  Immediately upon receiving the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us that something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his vision was restored.  Saul arose, and then was baptized.  Only then did he eat, and he began regaining his strength.  Luke does not say anywhere that Saul “believed”, but the story speaks for itself.  Surely no man after Saul has ever been more convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God! 

Make note of the order of events for future reference — (1) belief, (2) receiving the Holy Spirit, and (3) baptism.  This begins to look more like the order we are used to!  The Greek word for “filled” is the same we have noted before — playsthays, meaning to come under the full influence of the Holy Spirit.  Was Paul indwelt by the Holy Spirit as we are at this point?  Only the Spirit knows, for what Luke describes is that Saul received the Holy Spirit as others had, by the laying on of hands as a separate event following belief.  But I suspect that Saul was also indwelt at that point, although it would require time for him to be able to elucidate that in his ministry and his letters to the churches.  (Remember, indwelling is a word and a concept that is unique to Paul’s epistles.)  For the sake of the other apostles, whose program was just beginning to wane, Saul’s receiving of the Holy Spirit was identical to that of any other believer at that time.

In the next post we’ll compare the passage we have just studied to additional accounts of the same events, and will pick up more interesting details!

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Saul Meets the Glorified Christ

We have come a long way in our study of the events and nature of the Jerusalem church and the Great Commission.  Take a moment to reflect.  The entire first eight chapters of the Book of Acts has been set in Israel’s promises, expecting the Tribulation and the coming of the Millennial Kingdom and Christ the King.  Where Gentiles have benefited, it has been through Israel, by becoming proselytes to Judaism or by the outworking of the Great Commission in the hands of the twelve apostles, to whom had been promised rule over Israel on twelve thrones in the new Kingdom.

But Israel’s obstinacy against Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah is about to trigger the beginning of a plan by which God will bless Gentiles directly, in spite of  Israel!  By God’s orchestration, all of the players are now in place, especially one young man, Saul of Tarsus.  He is, in his own estimation and that of many others, at the top of his game.  He’s about to be taken down more than a few notches!

There is a wealth of information about the event we are about to study, both from Luke and from the Apostle Paul himself.  In this blog post we’ll observe the facts as recorded by Luke, and in the following posts will turn to Paul’s own description of this event (some recorded by Luke as Paul spoke, others from the pen of Paul himself).

To begin, please read Acts 9:1-31 for yourself carefully.  In this post we’ll focus on Acts 9, verses 1 through 6.

The Lord Appears to Paul

Luke’s record is straightforward.  Saul is still hunting down believers.  He asked the High Priest for documents that would empower him to carry out his persecution in the synagogues at Damascus, about 130 miles NNE of Jerusalem in Syria, well outside Israel.  His intent was to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.  This intent raises an interesting question.  Why would there be any who “belong to the Way” (v2) so far from Jerusalem, in an area far beyond Judea and even Samaria?  It’s almost as if there was a “church” in Damascus at the same time that the church in Jerusalem was just beginning!  Certainly news of the events in Jerusalem at the time of the most recent Passover would have traveled there, and some devout Jews from Damascus might even have been present in Jerusalem as they transpired.  But it seems unlikely that they would have been organized or of any significant number.  The most plausible explanation is that Saul’s persecution of the church in Jerusalem, as part of a larger persecution under the High Council who had murdered Stephen, was so intense that it drove some of the believers this far in order to escape it.

As Saul’s party neared Damascus, he was suddenly hit by brilliantly blinding light from overhead!  And “hit” he was, for this light was so intense that it caused him to fall to the ground.  This was no ordinary light!  This light has always intrigued my scientific mind.  Of course, God is described as pure light (I John 1:5).  Old Testament people knew that seeing God would be instant death.  That’s why God covered Moses with His hand as He passed by the crack in the rock where He had placed Moses for his own safety.  From a thermodynamics standpoint, any object placed near a source of light will absorb that light’s energy and its temperature will rise.  Even a chrome-plated wrench, when left out in full sun for even a few minutes, will grow too hot to handle, even though it reflects away about 99% of the light that hits it.  Consider then what would happen should a dull-surfaced human being be placed before the pure Light of the Person of God!  Instant, total vaporization, without time even to sizzle momentarily!  Scientists understand that a beam of light can act like a stream of tiny bullets (called “photons”), and when they hit a surface they can drive it forward.  Perhaps you’ve seen the little glass globes with the four paddles inside at a museum gift shop.  Shine a flashlight on it from the side, and the paddles go round and round like a windmill.  Light can exert pressure!  It’s only conjecture, but was this light strong enough to knock Saul to the ground?

While on the ground, Saul heard a voice.  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Although not a joking matter in the least, it must have hit Saul something like the joke about what 800-pound gorillas eat!  (A-n-y-t-h-i-n-g they want to!)  The question must have confused him.  Who was he persecuting that was this powerful?  It couldn’t be that carpenter from Nazareth, that scum who got what he deserved on a cross, that these idiots claimed had come back from the grave.  There was nothing to it!  So who could this be?  Whoever it is, they are powerful, and must be a great ruler.

Paul replies, “Who are you, Lord?”  We must observe carefully here.  Did Paul know who it was before he asked, was he just playing with this powerful being?  No, for this person answers his question — He is Jesus!  What, then, did Saul mean by addressing him as “Lord”?  The Greek word is kurios, and is a standard form of address when in the presence of any authority figure, much as we address magistrates as “Your Honor.”  Interestingly, the Greek language has two words for powerful authorities, this one, and despotes.  While they both are authorities, one is benevolent and the other is evil.  Can you tell which is which?  Yes, we get “despot” from despotes.

What caused Saul to identify this being as a powerful good authority?  Perhaps he knew instrinsically that light was good, and that darkness was evil.  It’s interesting that Paul uses this same word over and over in his letters to the churches to refer to Jesus Christ.  To Paul and to us, this Jesus had become more that the man from Nazareth.  He was forever after this same powerful good authority that spoke to him in light on the road to Damascus.  I believe it caused him to write to the Corinthians later that “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him thus no longer.”  (II Corinthians 5:16)  The Twelve would always remember Him as they knew Him during His earthly ministry and as He ascended.  Saul would always remember Him as he first saw Him on the road to Damascus, surrounded in unapproachable but benevolent light.

This One who he was persecuting, after identifying Himself, further instructed Saul to proceed into Damascus and wait to be told what he had to do.  Do you remember what Jesus, just before He ascended, told His disciples to do?  They were to go back to Jerusalem, unanswered questions and all, and wait.  On the very heels of those instructions, Jesus commissioned them with what we call the Great Commission.  Here we have a parallel scene, where the already-ascended and glorified Lord Jesus Christ is directly commissioning another apostle.  The details of that commission wouldn’t be revealed to him for three days, and then only through the voice of the reluctant servant of the Lord, Ananias.  It is assumed by many that Paul was just another apostle operating under the same training and commission as the Twelve (the Great Commission), and that he had learned his message from them.  Hence Paul’s message must be the same message as that of the Twelve.  But if that was true, Paul and his ministry would have been redundant, and Paul would have been only an underling to Peter’s leadership.  But in his letter to the Galatians Paul demonstrates that he saw his commission as equal to that of Peter’s, but different.  “But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles)… (Galatians 2:7-8)

In the same letter Paul also addressed the mistaken notion that his knowledge of the Gospel had been learned from any man, let alone the other apostles: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man, for I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ… But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me…”  (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17)  Take careful note!  If he did not learn it from Peter and the Twelve, who were certainly available to him, then Our Lord must have had something else in mind.  It’s my strong belief that the message and commission He gave to Paul differed from that given to Peter and the Twelve in important ways.  And the instructions Paul received three days later through Ananias distinctly omitted any suggestion that he should return to Jerusalem to receive his understanding and message, as we will see in the next post.

Just before these verses in Galatians, Paul says twice for emphasis that if anyone preaches to them a different message from what he delivered to them, they are accursed.  Strong language.  But Paul understood from those first three days in Damascus that God was sending him directly to the Gentiles, not through Israel nor her apostles nor her prophetic program and earthly Kingdom.

God has revealed the mystery at this point in Luke’s narrative, at least to Paul.  I believe that God raised up Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, not because the apostles in Jerusalem needed the help, or even because the Twelve were not doing their job (they were doing exactly what Christ expected them to do), but because of Israel’s obstinate unbelief.  God has taken the first step in setting Israel aside temporarily.  But there is much work to be done so that the other apostles will accept Paul’s authority and commission apart from theirs — not merely as another apostle to be absorbed into their own commission and teaching, but one of equal authority set apart from them with a different commission and teaching.  And that is where the next several chapters in Acts will take us.

In the next post we’ll take a more detailed look at Paul’s commission and the story of the reluctant Ananias.

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The Ethiopian Eunuch

Now we come to one of the most interesting passages in Acts.  This short glimpse into Philip’s ministry is a wonderful example of how God, through the scattered members of the Jerusalem church, continued to offer Israel’s King and Kindom under the authority of the Great Commission.  Here is proof positive that the Gentile nations would be blessed through Israel according to her prophetic promises.  Let’s dive in!

In the last post we read that Peter and John started back to Jerusalem after their visit to Samaria.  In my study Bible (The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, NASB, with Spiros Zodhiates commentary) Dr. Zodhiates inserted a subtitle between v24 and v25 of Chapter 8, “An Ethiopian Receives Christ.”  By so doing, he dissociates v25 from the previous subject (Simon the Magician), and associates it with the next subject.  With all due respect to Dr. Zodhiates, I propose that this artificial division belongs between v25 and v26.  Why?

  • In the NASB, whenever a verse number is in bold type it means that verse begins a new “paragraph” in the original language.  Both v25 and v26 have bold numbers, so the subheading could be placed before either verse.
  • In the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament, the subheading (also added by the human editors) is between v25 and v26.
  • v25 begins with the word “and”, while v26 begins with the word “but.”  “And” implies more information about what has gone before, while “but” implies contrast with what has gone before.

Why is this important?  It determines who they” are in v25.  If v25 belongs to the previous story of Peter and John, “they” are Peter and John.  If v25 belongs with the following story of Philip and the Ethiopian, “they” are Peter, John and Philip.  The grammar of the passage seems more naturally to support the word “but” as the pivotal contrast between the two stories.  There is no great theological revelation in this, but it illustrates how careful observation of even little words like “and” and “but” can lead to more accurate interpretation.  Do we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to use little words like “and” and “but” in the right places, and that it means something when he does?  You bet!

Acts 8:27 is a verse that is loaded with interesting information, if we will only observe carefully!  Read the verse carefully and fill in the blanks below:

  • “and behold” suggests that their encounter seemed to be une_________________
  • The man Philip encountered was from E_____________
  • He was a e__________
  • He was an o____________ from Queen C___________’s court
  • He was the guard and keeper of her t________________
  • He had come to J________________ to w___________

Let’s think about what each of these observations indicates about this man.  First, he was an Ethiopian.  He was probably black-skinned (as was Candace) and certainly was a Gentile.  Second, he was a eunuch.  There are many different uses of this title, ranging from simply an official title for a male servant who works within the personal household of his master, to a servant who has been surgically rendered impotent (possibly by castration) so that he poses no threat of polluting the royal line or robbing the king of the virginity of his harem.  If this Ethiopian servant was the latter, he would have been considered by Jews to be ”damaged goods” and an affront to God.  Every male Jew hoped that the Messiah would come through his family line.  That’s why the dispersion of the Northern Kingdom and the intermingling with foreigners was so tragic, and why it was so important for the Southern Kingdom to be able to preserve their geneology during the Babylonian Captivity.  So to be unable to procreate was great shame.  God would surely reject such a man in the same way He would reject a blemished sacrificial lamb, especially since a father’s first-born belonged to God.  Third, he was on his way back to Ethiopia after coming to Jerusalem to worship

We find out soon that he can read Hebrew and has been reading the prophet Isaiah.  This man fits the classic definition of a proselyte, a Gentile who has chosen to adopt the God of Israel as his own God, and who is doing his best to gain His favor!  He is so serious about it that he is spending his annual vacation on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem!  But he is a very unlikely candidate to succeed in pleasing God.  He has three marks against him in the eyes of the teachers of the Law — he’s a gentile, he’s black, and he’s mutilated.  And yet he pursues the God of the Hebrews against all odds.  He is about to be rewarded.

Verse 28 tells us that this Ethiopian was on his way home from Jerusalem, apparently having parked in a first-century rest stop for a break.  Interestingly, he’s reading the prophet Isaiah.  He didn’t have a paperback copy, or a hardbound copy.  He most likely had an actual scroll, something that would usually only have been found in a synagogue.  The story of how it came into his possession would certainly be interesting if we knew it, but we don’t.  It would have been hand copied by a Hebrew scribe, following all of the special rules of hand-washing, character counting, and so on.  It would have been quite valuable, and may have been quite old.  It may have even been an incomplete copy.  It’s reasonable to assume, however, that it was a complete text and that the Eunuch might have read it all before, or had randomly selected passages to read.

Verses 29-31 record how the Holy Spirit directed Philip to approach him and ask if he understood what he was reading.  The Ethiopian expressed his frustration, inviting Philip to sit with him in the chariot where they both could see the scroll, in the hope that Philip could enlighten him.  (Boy, could Philip enlighten him!)  It has always interested me that this Ethiopian was returning from many days in Jerusalem still not having his questions answered.  He was no doubt surrounded by able teachers of the Law and the Prophets.  Was he denied access to them or rejected by them because of his skin, race and sexual deficiency?  (He was no doubt known to all as a eunuch by title.)  I have a sense that this man was leaving Jerusalem with his thirst for knowledge about God unsatisfied.

Verses 32-33 reveal the passage in Isaiah that the Ethiopian was trying to understand.  By Divine appointment, it was the very passage that spoke of the Messiah being like a lamb led to the slaughter, Isaiah 53:7-8.  Before we consider Philip’s explanation, we need to take a small detour.  Turn to Isaiah 56:1-7 in your study Bible and try to read it through this Ethiopian eunuch’s eyes.  I believe it was this very passage that germinated in his heart and eventually drove him on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  How sad that he very well may have met with less than the true righteousness and justice proclaimed by God in v1!  Surely this man’s heart was absolutely electrified when he read this passage.  So he diligently pursued a relationship with the God of Israel as a proselyte, clinging to the promises of Isaiah 56.

Verses 34-38 record the Ethiopian’s question about who Isaiah was writing about, and filled in the blank — Jesus.  At this point in the story they were apparently traveling down the road in the chariot, for they “came to some water.”  How odd, as v27 describes the road to Gaza as a desert road!  Was the presence of this pool of water, deep enough to baptize a grown man in, miraculous?  (There is some disagreement among translators on the meaning of this description at the end of v27.  Some translate it as “this city is deserted,” referring to Gaza.  But Gaza was not deserted in Philip’s day.  I have not researched the geography and climate of the route this road might have taken.  It’s a toss-up.  You’ll have to figure it out if it’s important to you.)

Pay attention to the order of events described in vv36-38.  (Note that the items with a * are in a verse that is not included in many manuscripts.)

  • Philip preached Jesus to him based on the passage in Isaiah
  • He asked if he could be baptized
  • Philip replied with a condition — he had to believe with all his heart *
  • He expressed belief  (he “confessed with his mouth”) *
  • Philip baptized him

There is no mention of the Holy Spirit falling on him or of Philip conferring the Holy Spirit on him by laying his hands on him.  Luke may have just omitted this information, but it is unlike him (and unlike the Holy Spirit who inspired him).  My belief is that at this time in Luke’s narrative only the apostles had the ability to confer the Holy Spirit on believers.  Scan back through the chapter and you will find that Philip’s ministry in the city of Samaria, although it produced many believers, did not result in the transferrence of the Holy Spirit.  If it had, there would have been no need for Peter and John to come to Samaria!  Philip, not having the authority to confer the Holy Spirit, simply continued the same way with this Ethiopian man.  Unlike believers today, the receiving of the Holy Spirit was a separate process from believing and being baptized.  There are many Pentecostal denominations that teach that it is a separate process for believers today — at least they are consistent in their error.  Those who say that the Holy Spirit operates in the same way throughout the entire New Testament are at a loss to explain why we never see the Holy Spirit “falling upon” believers as an event that comes after receiving Christ as Savior.  They reject the excesses of Pentecostalism, and they reject the Holy Spirit’s entering believers as a separate event, but they insist that there is no difference between the ministry of the Twelve to Israel and the ministry committed to Paul by the risen, glorified Lord Jesus Christ.  This just results in confusion among believers, sending a mixed message.

What happened next (vv39-40) was absolutely astounding.  Luke says the the Spirit “snatched Philip away.”  This is obviously a miracle, and I believe the Ethiopian knew it was too.  Miracles, as wel learned a couple of posts ago, certified the power of God in the speaker.  I think the Ethiopian understood that, and as a result “went on his way rejoicing.”  Philip, on the other hand, “found himself” at Azotus, from which he travelled northward along the Mediterranean coast until he came to Caesarea near the northwestern tip of David’s original kingdom.  The Greek word for “‘snatch” is harpadzo, which means to grasp and remove something violently, what a purse-snatcher does.  It is also used in II Corinthians 12:2,4 and in I Thessalonians 4:17, translated as “caught up” in both places.  The event described in both passages is commonly referred to as the “Rapture.”  True to the differences in dispensation, Philip was “raptured” to an earthly destination in keeping with God’s promises to Israel of a kingdom on earth, while we will be “raptured” to our eternal home in heaven — a mystery hidden in other ages.

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Philip Goes To Samaria

Acts 8:5-25

As the church in Jerusalem is scattered by persecution, Philip (one of the seven men chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food) travels to Samaria.  A little lesson in the geography of ancient Israel is important at this point.

Jerusalem, Samaria (the region), Samaria (the city, known also as Sebaste), the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the city of Azotus, and Caesarea (not Caesarea-Philippi) are all mentioned in this chapter.  Take a look at the map.  Jerusalem is near the north end of the Dead Sea.  The city of Samaria is north-northwest of Jerusalem near the center of the map.  The city of Gaza is near the bottom left corner of the map, a few miles southwest of Azotus, which is located in what we call the Gaza Strip today.  (Philip encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.)  Cesarea is quite a distance up the Mediterranean coast north-northeast of Azotus.  Jerusalem, Gaza and Azotus are in Judea, while the cities of Samaria and Caesarea are in the region of Samaria.

Notice that Philip “went down” to Samaria (v5) and later junctioned with the road that “descends from Jerusalem to Gaza” (v26).  “Down” doesn’t refer to the bottom of the map — it refers to going downhill.  Remember that Jerusalem is built upon Mount Zion, the high point in the area.  When the Israelites traveled from their home regions to Jerusalem for the mandatory national feasts, they “went up to Jerusalem”.  All roads that lead away from Jerusalem, regardless of compass direction, go downhill.

The passage we are considering is easily divided into five major sections.  (1) Philip preaches the gospel in Samaria (vv5-8); (2) Simon the Magician (vv9-13); (3) Peter and John come from Jerusalem to Samaria (vv14-17); (4) Simon the Magician is tempted (vv18-24); and (5) Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch (vv25-40).  In this blog post we’ll consider the first four of these sections, and address Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in the following post.

Philip Preaches the Gospel in Samaria

Please read Acts 8:5-8 for yourself before proceeding with the verse-by-verse observations that are below.  Remember also the importance and purpose of miracles as discussed in the previous post, and that the Samaritans are what is left of the old Northern Kingdom, polluted over the centuries since Solomon by intermarriage with gentiles and by idol worship.  Nevertheless, they are descended from Abraham.

v5 — Philip went down from Jerusalem to the “city of Samaria.”  Wait a minute!  I thought Samaria was a region!  Both are correct.  There is a region called Samaria, and a city called Samaria.  When Solomon’s son Rehoboam rashly decided to increase taxes, a young commander in Solomon’s army named Jeroboam led the ten northern tribes in a revolt.  To keep them from gradually rejoining the southern tribes because of their habits of national worship in Jerusalem, Jeroboam established idol worship in the north at two locations, Bethel and Dan.  He was succeeded by his son Nadab, who was murdered by Baasha, who reigned 24 years.  He was succeeded by his son, Elah, who reigned two years.  However, his servant Zimri murdered him and took over.  He only lasted seven days, because most of the men of Israel were out fighting the Philistines, and when they heard what Zimri had done they made the commander of the army, Omri, king instead.  Omri and the army came back to Tirzah (where the kings since Baasha had lived) and laid siege to the city, whereupon Zimri committed suicide by setting fire to the palace.  Omri reigned twelve years, the first six at Tirzah.  Then he purchased a hilltop from a man named Shemer and built a city on it, naming it after the previous owner — Samaria.  Since it was the residence of the king, it became the capitol city of the Northern Kingdom, and the region around it began to be known by the same name.  By Jesus’ day, the Romans had divided the Israel of David’s day into several territories.  The territories on the west side of the Jordan river were Judea (part of the old Southern Kingdom, including Jerusalem) in the south, Galilee in the north (the upper half of the old Northern Kingdom), and Samaria (the lower half of the old Northern Kingdom) in the middle.  The city of Samaria was more or less in the center of the region of Samaria in Roman times.  In 721 B.C. it was destroyed by the Assyrians, was destroyed again by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and was besieged and demolished by John Hyrcanus again in 108 B.C.  It was rebuilt and refortified by Herod the Great, who named it Sebaste.  Today the hill is the site of the small village es-Sebustieh.  (Information taken from Davis Bible Dictionary.  The OT details described can be found in I Kings 13-16.)

This verse also describes Philip as “proclaiming Christ” to the residents of the city.  Within the context that we have very carefully established, this means that Philip would have been proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and His prophesied Kingdom, fully in compliance with the Great Commission.  Note that Paul adds another word when he describes his own preaching — he preaches Christ crucified to the Gentiles.  But the unprophesied mystery hidden in other ages had not been revealed to Philip at this point in Luke’s narrative.  All Philip knows is Israel’s program.

vv6-8 — The crowds who heard Philip preaching also saw him performing signs (miracles).  Remember, signs are intended to certify the presence and authority of God to Israel.  What kind of signs?  He was casting out demons and healing the lame, which caused much joy among the people of the city.  It was not the first time that Samaritans had experienced joy — John 4:39-43 describes how Jesus remained in the Samaritan city of Sychar (after his conversation with the woman at the well) for two days and many believed in Him.

Simon the Magician

Please read Acts 8:9-13 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.

Luke describes this Simon as someone who practiced “magic arts,” astonishing the people of the city of Samaria.  He was apparently the David Copperfield of his day.  His skill was sufficient to seem miraculous, and in v10 we find a confirmation — even among Samaritans — that miracles were to be understood as a sign that the person was speaking with the approval and authority of God.  Luke records their very words: “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.”  He had a long-established reputation.

Now Philip comes on the scene.  Philip is healing the lame and casting out demons!  I’m really reading between the lines here, but I think Simon, knowing that his “miracles” were accomplished only by sleight of hand, instantly recognized the real power of God in Philip.  Verse 13 tells us that Simon believed Philip’s message and was baptized, along with many others in the community.  He continued to watch Philip performing many miracles, constantly amazed and drawn to Philip’s apparent power.  For a trickster, and one who could probably have debunked any other purported “miracle worker”, he knew Philip was for real and the miracles he performed were genuine.

Peter and John Come

Please read Acts 8:14-17 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.

News eventually reached Jerusalem that Samaria had “received the word of God.”  Here we must tread carefully.  Which Samaria, the region or the city?  Since the apostles knew where to send Peter and John, and they came immediately to the same place where Simon the Magician was, it is obviously the city.  There is a tendency to virtualize this verse into something bigger because of the influence of the Great Commission in our thinking.  The Great Commission (Acts 1:8) speaks of the region of Samaria, while Luke’s narrative at this point deals with the city of Samaria.  Acts 8:1 also refers to the region of Samaria, but the focus is quickly narrowed to the city of Samaria in Philip’s specific example.  Since Luke doesn’t include information about the message being received anywhere else yet (his phrasing seems to indicate a continuous timeline), we can probably safely assume that the city of Samaria was the first city in the region of Samaria with a harvest of believers.

When Peter and John arrived, they prayed that these new Samaritan believers “might receive the Holy Spirit.” (v15)  Luke goes on to explain that although they had believed and had been baptized, the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them.”  Here we find a clear difference between how the Holy Spirit was at work in the context of Israel’s Kingdom dispensation and how He works today in the current dispensation of the Age of Grace.  Today believers are indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit as soon as they accept Christ as their Savior as a result of hearing the preaching of Christ crucified.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, the Holy Spirit not only didn’t come as soon as they believed, but He did not come when Peter and John arrived.  The Samaritan believers received the Holy Spirit only after Peter and John had asked God to give the Holy Spirit to them and then had laid their hands on them.  (It’s possible that their request of God for the Holy Spirit to be allowed to fall on the Samaritan believers was a direct excercise of the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven,” in which Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16:19, “whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”)  Notice also that the language used by Luke indicates that the Holy Spirit is still coming “upon” believers (like a cloak) rather than indwelling them, just as was the case at Pentecost.

Why do I make a big deal of this?  As we progress through the Book of Acts, we will see this sequence for the coming of the Holy Spirit change gradually!  If we do not pay attention to the order now, we will fail to recognize when the order changes in later passages!  For now, at least, the order is (1) believe, (2) be baptized, and (3) receive the Holy Spirit, all as separate events in time.

Simon the Magician is Tempted

Please read Acts 8:18-24 for yourself before proceeding to the next paragraph.

Seeing the Holy Spirit fall upon believers by the hands of Peter and John affected Simon the Magician strongly.  He had been impressed by Philip’s miracles, but this apparently was the most impressive of all.  We assume from his reaction and request, and Peter’s response, that he had not yet received the Spirit.  He may have actually interrupted Peter as he was laying his hands on someone else.  He offered to pay Peter to give him the same ability — to impart the Holy Spirit to others. Had he become covetous of Peter’s authority?  Was this what was in his heart after all as he followed Philip around, watching him?  Verse 13 states flatly that Simon believed and was baptized, and for that reason I do not believe his conversion was false.  On that basis, I also believe that Simon’s request was made out of a genuine desire to help further the Kingdom.  On the other hand, he was a man used to hearing himself referred to as the “Great Power of God”.  Peter’s condemnation of him in the next few verses clearly states that Simon was not right with God.  Clearly Simon’s offer was not according to the Holy Spirit’s leading!

It is difficult for us today, who receive the Holy Spirit at the very moment we believe, to understand how a person can be a believer (a baptized believer, no less) and not have (let alone obey) the Holy Spirit.  The authority with which Peter identifies his sin and condemns him should be familiar to us — we’ve seen him do it before.  There are parallels between this passage and the record of Ananias and Sapphira in the 5th chapter of Acts.  While Luke does not specifically tell us that Ananias and Sapphira were believers, had been baptized, and had received the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to believe they hadn’t.  They were part of the fellowship of the Jerusalem church, and would not have been if they had not been believers.  New believers were baptized almost immediately.  And Peter accused them of lying to the Holy Spirit.  How could they do that if they had not received Him yet?  Peter all but demands the same punishment for Simon that Ananias and Sapphira received.  I believe Peter is exercising “Kingdom authority” in both passages, and that we have another window on what life in the Kingdom will be like.  As I’ve said before, praise God that He is now being patient with men and their sins, and is not dealing with sin as we see in the case of Simon the Magician!

Some may say that Simon was just backslidden, and was calloused toward the Holy Spirit.  Believers today can certainly fall into that trap, sinning with apparent impunity.  But Simon had not received the Holy Spirit yet, even though he was a believer — so how could he become calloused toward Him?  Simon had been a believer for only a few days, and was still in that heady time all new believers experience.  When would he have had time to backslide?  What’s more, Simon’s response is one of immediate repentance, asking Peter and John to pray for him so that none of Peter’s judgements upon him would happen.  I believe that if Simon had not responded in repentance, his fate would indeed have been the same as unrepentant Ananias and Sapphira.

Was Peter being “territorial” about the ability to confer the Holy Spirit upon believers by the laying on of hands?  I don’t think so.  He possessed, after all, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  He knew the authority that had been given to him alone, to him and the other apostles, and not to others.  But Peter was in for a surprise a little later when preaching  to Gentiles in the household of Cornelius in Caesarea…

Our passage closes with verse 25.  Following these events in the city of Samaria, Peter and John started the return journey to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel as they passed through villages along the way.  (Important Note:  Peter and John now have experienced preaching to Gentiles.  You’ll need to know this when we study Peter’s vision in Chapter 10!)  Philip, however, receives different instructions.  Directly from an angel, no less!  But that’s another story…

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Answer Keys for Chapter 6

Answers for “The Purpose of Miracles”

1. Who did God commission Moses to bring out of Egypt? Israel

2. What did God enable Moses to do so that they would believe God had sent him? miracles

3. Miracles are a scientific fascination to us, but to an Israelite they certify that the one performing them is sent by God.

4. Asaph lamented the destruction and captivity of the Southern Kingdom in Psalm 74.  What did he say was missing from their experience as they were dragged away to Babylon as slaves?  signs To Asaph, the absence of them indicated that God was no longer with them.

5.  What did the scribes and pharisees ask of Jesus?  to see a sign  (Note that the verses in Matthew leading up to this one concerned the accusation that Jesus’ power came from Satan; He gave them no sign because He knew they were only looking for more ammunition to prove that His power came from Satan)

6. What does Paul say the Jews require for proof of God’s authority? signs  What do the Gentiles require for proof? wisdom (the Greek philosphers decided what was “truth” by who won the debate in the forum).  Note that in the very next verse Paul says the gospel and authority of God are proved through preaching Christ crucified, something that neither Jew nor Gentile seeks!

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The Purpose of Miracles

Although the High Council had firmly rejected the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah, had sealed it with Stephen’s blood, and had succeeded in chasing the majority of believers not only out of the Temple but out of Jerusalem as well, God was still working through his chosen people.  He was continuing to fulfill the Great Commission, which we have demonstrated to be a part of Israel’s program, still in effect.  Sending a special apostle directly to the Gentiles in spite of Israel was still a secret hidden in the heart of God.  Yes, God had engineered the appearance of Saul (later to become Paul), but at this point in Luke’s narrative Saul was persecuting the church, not encouraging it.  What we are about to learn — if we are careful to observe and think — is that the story of Philip  is still demonstrative of what life in the Tribulation and Kingdom will be like, just as it was when Peter dealt with Ananias and Sapphira.

There are several reasons why I believe this about this chapter, most of which will become apparent as we proceed through the remainder of the 8th Chapter.  But there is one particular aspect that needs some explaining first.  If you think I’m putting interpretation ahead of observation, you’re right.  But what I’m about to suggest will forearm you to recognize things you might never have noticed before.  That interpretation hinges on the idea that the Kingdom message is always certified by miracles, while the mystery that will soon be revealed to and by Paul is not.  The Age of Grace is characterized by the preaching of Christ crucified, and miracles gradually ceased to occur as Paul took the gospel to Gentile lands.  The remainder of the Book of Acts is a gradual decreasing of Israel’s dispensation, matched by a gradual increase of something God hid from Israel — the mystery hidden in other ages.  It will take the remainder of the Book of Acts to gradually accomplish this transition, the ushering out (temporarily) of one dispensation and the ushering in of another.  At this point in Luke’s narrative we have to ask ourselves, “Does what we observe in this passage look more like Israel’s dispensation or the Age of Grace?”  Since God hasn’t confronted Saul yet to change his heart, this passage must still be all about Israel.

Why are miracles an important clue?  You know that I don’t interpret without having obervations  on which to base it!  Please look up these four scripture passages and read them for yourself:

  • Exodus 3:10 and 4:1-9
  • Psalm 74:9
  • Matthew 12:38-39
  • I Corinthians 1:22

Now let’s see how well you paid attention!  Pop quiz!

1. Who did God commission Moses to bring out of Egypt? I___________

2. What did God enable Moses to do so that they would believe God had sent him? m________________

3. Miracles are a scientific fascination to us, but to an Israelite they c_______________ that the one performing them is s________ by G____.

4. Asaph lamented the destruction and captivity of the Southern Kingdom in Psalm 74.  What did he say was missing from their experience as they were dragged away to Babylon as slaves?  s_______  To Asaph, the absence of them indicated that God was no longer w______ th___.

5.  What did the scribes and pharisees ask of Jesus?  to s____ a s________  (Note that the verses in Matthew leading up to this one concerned the accusation that Jesus’ power came from Satan; He gave them no sign because He knew they were only looking for more ammunition to prove that His power came from Satan)

6. What does Paul say the Jews require for proof of God’s authority? s________  What do the Gentiles require for proof? w__________ (the Greek philosphers decided what was “truth” by who won the debate in the forum)  Note that in the very next verse Paul says the gospel and authority of God are proved through preaching Christ crucified, something that neither Jew nor Gentile seeks!

In every case we have seen that Israel required miracles as part of the test of God’s commission, and that it was part of their law and their promises (prophecy).  Israel was to recognize her Messiah by the miracles He performed.  Remember that the detailed Great Commission (Acts 1:8) specified a certain geographic sequence, and the first regions outside Jerusalem were Judea and Samaria (the Samaritans were also descended from Abraham and therefore a part of Israel in God’s eyes).  Those regions are exactly where the remainder of Chapter 8 take place.

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Persecution Scatters the Church

“And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.  And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentations over him.  But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.  Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”  (Acts 8:1-4)

 We now come to a passage that has several possible interpretations.  The facts (observations) are straightforward:

  • “And on that day” — the same day that Stephen was stoned
  • “A great persecution arose” — an extension of the stoning of Stephen, probably an exercise of the rage in the High Council against his statements
  • “against the church in Jerusalem” — the persecution was directed at the believers who gathered in the Temple and scattered homes in Jerusalem daily, probably over 10,000 people
  • “and they were all scattered” — they fled from persecution, leaving Jerusalem
  • “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” — Israel was divided into three regions in Jesus’ day, Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle (both of which constituted the old Northern Kingdom) and Judea in the south (the old Southern Kingdom, which included Jerusalem)
  • “except the apostles” — the Twelve remained in Jerusalem in spite of the persecution
  • devout men buried Stephen and vocally lamented his death
  • Saul began ravaging the church
  • He did so by invading the homes where believers were meeting in small groups
  • He violently removed believers from their homes and threw them in prison, men and women alike

Interestingly, Luke makes no mention of the fate of those Saul threw in prison.  His focus is on those who fled from Jerusalem, where they went, and what they did.  In the next post we’ll consider a specific example — Philip, who was one of those chosen along with Stephen to organize the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:5)

We also should make note of a significant change.  Peter, John and the other apostles had confronted the High Council and taught openly in the Temple since Pentecost with relative impunity.  Peter and John had been imprisoned twice, appeared before the High Council twice, and been flogged once for teaching in Jesus’ name.  No one had been seriously harmed (okay, flogging is serious, but not deadly), let alone executed.  And what of Jesus’ promise to the disciples that “not a hair of your head will perish?”  (Luke 21:18)  I’m sure that it was a sudden realization in the Jerusalem church that believing that Jesus was the Messiah had become a matter of life and death!  (By the way, Jesus did not promise that they wouldn’t die — see Luke 21:16 — but that if they did, not a hair of their head would perish.  But that’s a whole ‘nuther study!)

Before we address the interpretations of this passage, we should consider carefully one more term used here — “church.”  This word today invokes an immediate image of the modern church, an assembly of “believers,” whether Protestant or Catholic.  Since this is the only church we have experienced, we tend to think that when the Bible uses the word “church” it must mean the church as we know it.  We assume, then, that when Jesus says to “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18:17, Luke describes the believers in Jerusalem as the “church”, and Paul describes Christ as the “head of the church” in Ephesians 5:23, they all must be talking about the same church.  However, the Greek word used in all of these cases (uniformly translated throughout the New Testament as “church”) is ekklesia, which simply means the “called-out ones.”  What they have in common is that they all have been “called out” of the world-system by God into His eternal plan.  But this word has an exact Hebrew counterpart in the Old Testament as well, always translated as “congregation” [of Israel].  It is used to refer to the people that Moses led through the wilderness and the people that gathered in Jerusalem for the High Feasts and the people that were present when Solomon dedicated the Temple.

If we are discerning students of God’s Word, we should realize that different people have been “called out” by God at different times in history for different purposes.  Under Moses, Israel was “called out” of Egypt to inherit the land they had been promised in Abraham.  It is our contention that when Jesus taught that unrepentant sinners be exposed to the entire “church” during His earthly ministry, His instructions were given in the context of His ministry to Israel – calling them out of the expected Tribulation into God’s promise of the earthly Millennial Kingdom.  That church has yet to be “called out”, for Israel’s program has been set aside by God for now and the Tribulation is still in the future.  (We are in the process of studying a foretaste of that church.) On the other hand, believers today are called out of this world to a heavenly hope.  Different times, different people, different promises, different destinies — different dispensations.  The churches that Paul will found among the Gentiles belong to another dispensation, the Age of Grace.  It is a failure to “rightly divide the Word of God” if we try to practice principles given to other churches in other dispensations, and that includes prinicples taught by Christ in His earthly ministry to the lost sheep of Israel and principles practiced by the church in Jerusalem as described so far in the book of Acts.  Local churches today that build their form of government and develop their techniques for dealing with sin in the church on the basis of the four Gospels and the first eight chapters of Acts (unless they are restated by Paul in his letters to the Gentile churches) are trying to live in the wrong dispensation, following instructions that were not meant for them.  We have described in earlier posts the dangers and harm that can be done by trying to live in the wrong dispensation.

Finally, let us note that the scattering of believers happened to the Jerusalem church, a Kingdom church, whose leaders were still under the authority and instruction of the Great Commission.  That commission had a very specific order for the spread of the Gospel — it was to begin in Jerusalem, then proceed into Judea, then Samaria, and then to the remotest regions of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Interpretations of the Passage

I have heard this persecution and scattering explained as God’s chastising of the believers in Jerusalem for failing to obey the Great Commission, and God’s method for forcing them out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria.  Luke presented observations (what happened).  Efforts to explain the facts rise to asking why they happend, and that is interpretation.   Luke’s account doesn’t include an explanation.  If it did, it would carry the weight of inerrancy and inspiration.  Since it does not, we must consider this interpretation to be the uninspired and potentially errant explanation.  It should be advanced as a possibility, not a fact, and the passage is open to other possible interpretations as well.  That is one of the main reasons for the existence of this blog site, which is virtually filled with a very specific human interpretation of the facts of Scripture — to encourage and admonish you, the reader, to search the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so.

How do we decide which interpretation is “right?”  We determine, through our own process of study and reason, which interpretation we believe fits the largest number of facts in the most accurate manner.  Let me give an example.  How do you know atoms exist?  They’re too small to be seen!  An ancient Greek philosopher (a Greek “scientist”) proposed their existence to explain the nature of matter.  During the early years of the Scientific Revolution, his idea was used develop the science of chemistry and molecular structure.  As scientists became more adept at observing the behaviors of chemical compounds, new facts came to light that required improving the “atomic theory”.  When the Perodic Table was introduced, it was based on an understanding of the parts of atoms (protons, neutrons and electrons) — more new facts that required improving the model again.  In every case, the model became more accurate and more able to describe the behavior of things we can see on the basis of things we cannot see.  Today we have powerful electron microscopes that show us individual atoms in crystals, arrayed like soldiers on a parade ground.  But how do we know that the electron microscope isn’t just a tool we’ve inadvertently designed to show us what we want to see?  (I’ll leave the answer to that one to scientists who specialize in the design of scientific instruments!)  The point is that we have only developed an imaginary model that needs constant improvement as more facts come to light — not a perfect photograph of the real thing.  We move forward on the basis of the model that best fits the known facts.  No one today is a proponent of Isaac Newton’s concept of gasses, regardless of his intelligence and sway over the scientific community of his day.  A century after his passing, other facts came to light that made it perfectly obvious his theory no longer fit the facts.  So it is when we are left to explain the Scriptures when they themselves do not provide an explanation.

The interpretation described above is entirely possible, and it was not given by the speaker as absolute truth.  He rightly offered it as a possible interpretation.  I’m going to offer an alternative possible interpretation.  You will have to decide which best fits the facts.  Just remember what we have already established.

I believe that God was not punishing or even chastising the believers in Jerusalem.  He was not upset with them for not moving beyond Jerusalem.  Recall that the Great Commission (with the specific geographic order) had been spoken directly to the apostles on the occasion of Christ’s ascension.  Note here that these same men did not flee Jerusalem, but remained there apparently under God’s good pleasure and protection.  On the other hand, the High Council in Jerusalem had made it clear that they would not repent of murdering their Messiah, having now also murdered one of His prominent followers.  God would thus begin speaking to the very people outside Jerusalem that He had identified in the Great Commission, and in the same order — as described precisely by Luke in these verses.  But is this God turning to the Gentiles?  And if so, is it part of Israel’s expected Millennial Kingdom, or part of the mysterious hidden Age of Grace to follow?  Or is it all one age of the church with no difference in programs at all?

We have gone to great lengths in this blog to establish that there is indeed a difference between Israel’s expectation and ours.  God has not revealed the hidden mystery as yet at this point in Luke’s narrative.  The context of the entire book of Acts up to this point has been laboriously shown to pertain to Israel’s earthly kingdom, where the Gentiles would be blessed through Israel, and as long as God has not revealed the mystery, we must conclude that Israel’s earthly kingdom is still the context.  The “preaching of the word” (8:4) was still a message of the coming Kingdom.  It had now gone forth into two very specific regions (8:1), Judea and Samaria.  Judea, of course, was populated by Israelites.  Samaria was populated by people detested by Jews, but they were still at least partly their kinsmen.  They also claimed descendancy from Abraham (see John 4:12).  The prophetic promises were as much to the Northern Kingdom as they had been to the Southern Kingdom, and God was able to raise up a new Kingdom from both, in spite of the history of the Northern Kingdom’s ignorance and idolatry (which God showed the Southern Kingdom to be just as guilty of and more).

I’m not saying God did not use the evil circumstances of Saul’s persecution to effect a spreading of the message of the Kingdom outward from Jerusalem — He did.  I object only to the notion that God did it to chastise the Jerusalem church for failing to carry out the Great Commission, that somehow this represents God’s turning to the Gentiles, and that believers today should be motivated to share the Gospel out of fear of chastising for of failure to obey the Great Commission. 

Surely no one in the Jerusalem body would have been more taken aback by the stoning of Stephen than his six fellow servers, and none of them would have had greater incentive to flee Jerusalem than they did.  In fact, the very next passage we will consider is the story of one of them — Philip — and we shall see that the word he preaches and the circumstances of his ministry are still very much in tune with Israel’s Kingdom promises.

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Who is this Saul?

“And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and… Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison…  Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damscus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  (Acts 8:1,3; 9:1-2)

“For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.”  (Galatians 1:13-14)

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today.  And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify.”  (Acts 22:3-5)

“Are they Hebrews?  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they descendants of Abraham?  So am I.”  (II Corinthians 11:22)

“And the commander came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’  And the commander answered, ‘I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.”  And Paul said, ‘But I was actually born a citizen.’”  (Acts 22:27-28)

“But perceiving that one part were Saducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’”  (Acts 23:6)

Now, dear reader, it is time for you to play detective!  See if you can fill in the blanks from the information in the verses above…

  1. Saul was born in T_______________ in the region of C_______________.
  2. Saul’s father and possibly his grandfather were P_________________.
  3. Saul was more a_______________ in his understanding of Judaism than his contemporaries.
  4. Saul was a descendant of A_________________.
  5. Saul was born a R_________  c_________________.
  6. Saul was z______________ concerning the Jewish traditions.
  7. Saul himself was a P__________________.
  8. At the time of Stephen’s death, Saul was a y_________ m_______.  (See Acts 7:58)
  9. Saul’s principal teacher was G__________________.

In addition to the straightforward observations above, there is much that we can learn about the young man Saul — from the Bible’s historical accounts (primarily Acts), from Paul’s own writings, and from other historical sources and traditions from the time of these events.  You can read much more detail in Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, but there are a few things I’ll take the time to expand upon here.


Rome was in power in the time of Saul’s birth in Tarsus, following on the heels of the Greek empire.  God had orchestrated world events around the time of Christ’s first advent so that there was firm government (Rome), rich philosophy and common language (Greece) and intense religion in Jerusalem.  These three factors set the stage for the initial spread of the Gospel.  Tarsus was a city in a Gentile part of the world, well north of the area of Palestine and the influence of the Herods.  It was an urbs libera under Roman rule, a “free city” governed by its own magistrates and having no garrison of Roman troops to keep the peace.  Still, being born there did not make one automatically an official citizen of Rome.

Roman Citizenship

Saul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen.  How was that possible?  Birth in Tarsus did not automatically make him an official citizen of Rome.  We know little about his parents — nothing of his mother, and only that his father was a Pharisee.  Some have conjectured that he was a product of a mixed Hebrew-Gentile marriage, and that his mother must have been a Gentile Roman Citizen.  But Rome did not confer citizenship through the maternal side of the family and a mixed marriage involving a Pharisee was unheard of, so his father must have been a Roman citizen.  How his father became a Roman citizen is not revealed in the Bible, but under Roman custom there seem to be only two ways for a Hebrew to acquire it.  It was either purchased at great price (like the Roman commander in Acts 22), or it was conferred upon him in payment for exceptional service to Roman authorities.  It could have been either (Saul’s family was wealthy enough to send him to Jerusalem for his schooling under Gamaliel), but Saul’s father would have to have been a Roman citizen by one means or the other by the time of Saul’s birth.  It’s more likely that Roman citizenship was conferred on Saul’s father.

Saul’s Schooling

Nothing is said in the Bible about Saul’s childhood, but Tarsus obviously had a large synagogue where Saul would have received the equivalent of a grade-school education, both in Greek and Hebrew.  Or Saul may have been “home schooled” by his father, or some combination of the two.  Paul later draws upon the illustration of the Law being like the man who was in charge of rounding up the students each day and delivering them to the rabbi for instruction, and this may very well have been his experience in Tarsus.

At some point it must have become obvious to Saul’s parents that if he were going to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Pharisee, especially since he seemed to be academically successful, he would need to go to Jerusalem for “secondary and undergraduate education” (as was the nature of the educational system in Judaism in that day).  We don’t know his boarding arrangements (if the whole family moved to Jerusalem to accomodate his education, or if he lodged with relatives or even the schoolmaster).  He seems to have been absent from Palestine during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and was perhaps attracted back to Jerusalem by news through the grapevine in time to be present at Stephen’s execution.  He is described then as a “young man”, but this young man was old enough to go to the Council and obtain papers authorizing him to persecute “the Way” in distant cities.  We guess from these two factors that he was probably about 25 years old.

In defending himself when he was arrested in the Temple many years later, he said he was educated under one Gamaliel (we don’t know if it was the same Gamaliel who advised the High Council to leave Peter and John alone).  Jewish tradition tells us that Gamaliel the teacher was the greatest teacher in the School of Hillel, the most famous school of Pharisaical philosophy.  He was one of only seven rabbis who were given the title of “Rabban” in Jewish history, and his death is mentioned in the Talmud: “From the days of Moses to Rabban Gamaliel, they stood up to learn the Law; but when Rabban Gamaliel died, sickness came into the world, and they sat down to learn the Law.”

This is the pedigree that Saul brought to the stoning of Stephen:

  • He was fully Hebrew
  • He was fully a Roman Citizen
  • Raised in a Gentile city and was familiar with Gentile ways
  • Educated under Gamaliel, he knew the Law and the Prophets by heart
  • He was ambitious
  • He was zealous for the Hebrew traditions
  • He was a Pharisee and the son of Pharisees

It’s no wonder that Luke says Saul “ravaged” the church!  As unlikely as it seems, God had engineered all of these qualifications in Saul while he was still in his mother’s womb for a very special purpose (Galatians 1:15-16).  If ever a man had his mind set on something, convinced he was both right and righteous, Saul was the man.  But in a matter of days his mind would be suddenly, powerfully and irreversibly changed!  It would take more than human logic…

In the meantime, the believers in Jerusalem are being chased out of the Temple by Saul and others, and there is more of God’s program for Israel to be witnessed.  Next time — Persecution Scatters the Church.

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Answer Keys for Chapter 5

Answers for “A Tipping Point”

  • With what person does Stephen begin relating this history lesson? (7:2) Abraham  (Thought Question: Why doesn’t he begin with Adam?  Because his message has to do only with the nation of Israel, which originated in Abraham.)
  • What did Abraham not inherit in his lifetime, but which was promised to his offspring? (7:5) land  (Thought Question: Is that different from what we are promised today? Believers today have their hope in Heaven, not land on the Earth.)
  • What else did God promise Abraham? (7:6-7) slavery in Egypt for 400 years, and that after that time God would bring them back to their land
  • Did that prophecy come true? (7:8-36)  Yes  (Thought Question:  Was Stephen against Moses or ignorant of the importance of Moses role in Israel’s history?  Neither.  He understood Moses’ place in God’s scheme of things better than the entire High Council put together, and because he was obedient to the Spirit in believing Jesus was the Messiah, he probably held Moses in higher esteem that the Council did.)

Answers for “Who is this Saul?”

  1. Saul was born in Tarsus in the region of Cilicia.
  2. Saul’s father and possibly his grandfather were Pharisees.
  3. Saul was more advanced in his understanding of Judaism than his contemporaries.
  4. Saul was a descendant of Abraham.
  5. Saul was born a Roman citizen.
  6. Saul was zealous concerning the Jewish traditions.
  7. Saul himself was a Pharisee.
  8. At the time of Stephen’s death, Saul was a young man. (See Acts 7:58)
  9. Saul’s principal teacher was Gamaliel.
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A Tipping Point

We are about to consider the passage which describes Stephen’s discourse before the High Council, which I believe marks a tipping point in God’s efforts to win Israel’s heart as a nation and usher in the promised Millennial Kingdom.  This is a good place to summarize what has transpired so far:

  • Since the days of Abraham, the Scriptures have focused on God’s plans for Israel.
  • The focus is still on Israel through Jesus’ earthly ministry (although it had much broader ramifications that were still hidden by God at that time)
  • Jesus earthly ministry was certified through miracles, including raising the dead to life
  • Jesus trained His disciples for the Tribulation and the Millennial Kingdom as His crucifixion approached
  • Throughout Jesus earthly ministry He was opposed by the leadership of Israel, who ultimately were responsible for His death
  • After His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus was seen to be alive by hundreds of people
  • Jesus disciples saw Him ascend into Heaven miraculously
  • Jews and proselytes who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and others
  • Peter has publicly addressed those gathered in the Temple, explaining the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of promises to Israel
  • Peter has explained that all of Israel is guilty of crucifying their Messiah, and they must repent before the Millennial Kingdom will manifest itself.
  • Peter and John have been called before the High Council twice and told not to teach in the name of Jesus, having been jailed twice and flogged once.
  • The ministry of the disciples, now apostles, has been marked by the same kinds of miracles as was the ministry of Jesus.
  • The number of believing Jews has grown to more than 10,000.
  • The believing Jews are living on the Temple grounds communally, sharing all wealth with each other in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom.
  • Seven men have been chosen to manage the daily distribution of food among the believers, with Stephen being the most prominent.

The overall picture at this point in Luke’s narrative is that God has been offering the long-awaited Millennial Kingdom to Israel, if she will only acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah and repent of having killed him.  We have seen the believing community in Jerusalem blossom, but always to the consternation of Israel’s religious leaders.  They, like their fathers, are stiffnecked and rebellious.  How long will God’s patience put up with their unbelief?

I believe that the passage we are about to study is a tipping point at the pinnacle of Israel’s unbelief.  From this point on, God will gradually set aside their program temporarily, and will gradually introduce another program to reach the Gentiles in spite of  Israel’s obstinate rejection — He will do an “end run” around their unbelief.  But how He will do it is still hidden in His heart, a mystery about to be revealed through another apostle, the most unlikely of candidates…

Stephen’s Discourse

We’ll not take Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin apart verse by verse as we have in many other passages in Acts, but please take the time right now to read Acts 6:9-7:1.  I’ll wait for you!

Welcome back!  Notice in this passage you have just read that Stephen’s trouble didn’t come directly from the leaders of Israel.  It came from a group of men living in Jerusalem who were of the diaspora, the Israelites scattered among foreign nations.  Although they were from many different nations, they had established their own synagogue, known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen (gr. legowmenays Libertinown, lit. “Free Speechers”).  They responded to Stephen’s teaching by arguing against him.  As is often the case with “free speech” advocates (who really want to silence all free speech except their own), they turned to darker methods when they could not silence him through debate and logic.  They bribed unscrupulous men to make false accusations that would get Stephen in trouble with the authorities.  Today we would say that the leaders of this synagogue “framed” Stephen.

It’s interesting in v15 that Luke says the members of the High Council saw Stephen’s face as if it were “the face of an angel.”  Luke doesn’t elaborate, but we presume that he meant that Stephen’s face was radiating light — a truly radiant complexion!  If so, it reminds us of the face of Moses, which he covered in the presence of the people (Exodus 34:29-35).  That, however, did not prevent Israel from rebelling against Moses, and like their forefathers, it did not prevent the members of the High Council from resisting the words of Stephen either.

The specific false charges they brought against Stephen were that he incessantly

  • spoke against “this holy place” (the Temple) by saying that Jesus the Nazarene would destroy it, and
  • spoke against the Law by saying that Jesus the Nazarene would alter the customs which Moses had established

The High Priest’s opening question (he didn’t get a word in edgewise afterward) was, “Are these things so?”  To the mindset of the Council, these things were heresy and conveniently worthy of death by stoning under the Law.  Were they true?  Yes and no!  Like any statement from a good false witness, they represented half-truths.  Stephen, therefore, knowing who he was dealing with, proceeded to out-pharisee the entire council by recounting the entire national history of Israel, as if the members of the High Council were once again schoolboys attending classes in the local synagogue.

The logical progression of his remarks demonstrates that Stephen was speaking to Israelites as an Israelite about the promise of an Israelite Messiah and an Israelite Kingdom.  Please take the time to read Acts 7:2-50 for yourself before proceeding further in this blog post.

Welcome back again!  Let’s do some observation.

  • With what person does Stephen begin relating this history lesson? (7:2) ______________  (Thought Question: Why doesn’t he begin with Adam?)
  • What did Abraham not inherit in his lifetime, but which was promised to his offspring? (7:5) __________  (Thought Question: Is that different from what we are promised today?)
  • What else did God promise Abraham? (7:6-7) _____________ in _________ for ______ years, and that after that time God would bring them ______ to their _______
  • Did that prophecy come true? (7:8-36)  _______  (Thought Question:  Was Stephen against Moses or ignorant of the importance of Moses role in Israel’s history?)

Before proceeding to v37 and beyond, I need to put a bit of a disclaimer here.  I have not gone into the details of Stephen’s history lesson, and there are some problems with it.  In one place Stephen’s account differs clearly from the record in the Old Testament, and there are other small issues.  I have not “glossed over” this passage in an effort to avoid having to deal with them.  They simply are unprofitable for an overall understanding of the nature and intent of Stephen’s message.  It is more important here to see the forest than argue about a particular pine cone on one tree!  All of Stephen’s message so far has been to establish the importance of God’s promises to Abraham (and consequently to Israel) and the importance of Moses’ position in Israel’s history.  All of this is a prelude to where he goes next…

Having established Moses as an authority from God, Stephen now in v37 uses that authority to remind them of something else God said.  Even before he quotes Moses, he reminds them that Moses said it to the sons of Israel (not to all of mankind).  Moses told them that God would raise up another prophet “like himself from their brethren.”  If we take this quote literally, it means that this other prophet would be human like Moses and would be a genetic descendent of Abraham.  Stephen did not (nor did Moses) tell them that this prophet’s ancestry would be unimportant or that he would come from any line of descent other than Abraham.  This also was a promise to Israel by an Israelite concerning their future King and Kingdom.

In v38 Stephen expands on who this other prophet was and is, reminding them that He was with the congregation as they left Egypt and proceeded to Mount Sinai, spoke to Moses there, and accompanied their ancestors thereafter.  He also received “living oracles” to pass on to them (a reference to the countless prophets God had sent to them over the centuries).  By implication, Stephen has identified this “other prophet like Moses” as One who is eternal and ageless!

Stephen then proceeds to point out their rejection of this “other prophet” in vv39-43, demonstrating that the members of the High Council were following in exactly the same pattern of rebellion that their forefathers had.  To drive the point home, he quotes Amos who described their duplicity in bringing with them the false gods and idols of other nations from the days in Egypt all the way to the Babylonian deportation.

All of this is in response to the second accusation concerning his purported disdain for the “customs of Moses”.  In vv44-47 Stephen takes up the former accusation concerning the Temple.  He begins with the first earthly abode of God, the Tabernacle constructed according to Moses’ direction, and then proceeds to the days of David and Solomon who built the original Temple in Jerusalem.  Bear in mind, dear reader, that the Temple where Stephen was being tried was not that glorious temple built by Solomon, but was a poor replacement — Herod’s temple.  By describing the original Temple, Stephen was reminding them that God had already destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and so to predict that Herod’s cheap copy could also be destroyed was clearly in the realm of possibility.  Had he taught that Jesus the Nazarene would destroy this cheap copy?  So what!  God had already destroyed the original!

But Stephen’s argument concerning the Temple now ascends to a higher plateau in vv48-50.  God cannot be contained by a house built with human hands!  Not the Tabernacle, not Solomon’s Temple, and certainly not Herod’s Temple.  The High Council, who controlled the Temple grounds, which included the Holy of Holies, was acting like they were the possessors of God — as if He could be contained in wooden boxes behind thick curtains, for them to dole out as they pleased.  In a nutshell, Stephen clearly told them that God was bigger than them and was not constrained by their puny presupposing authority.

Please take a moment to read Acts 7:51-53 before proceeding further on this page.

If there was any doubt among the members of the High Council about what Stephen was saying, he cleared it up for them in his concluding statement.  He says of them

  • they are stiffnecked
  • they are uncircumcised in heart
  • they always resist the Holy Spirit
  • they are just like their forefathers
  • their forefathers persecuted and killed the prophets who had announced the coming of the Righteous One
  • they, like their forefathers, persecuted and killed the Righteous One Himself
  • they received the law as ordained by angels but didn’t keep it

Note that the expression in v53, “you who received the law as ordained by angels” is a direct reference to Israel, not to the world as a whole.  He is not speaking allegorically.  Stephen, in God’s behalf, is even at this point dealing with Israel and the obstinacy of her leaders.

The Council’s Reaction

Please take the time to read Acts 7:54-8:1 for yourself now.  I’ll wait right here for you to return!

Welcome back again!

As we have described before, the council’s reaction was as if they had been slashed (not stabbed) deeply with a knife.  Stephen, in contrast, sees directly into heaven to the throne of God, where he sees Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  He describes what he is seeing, and it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  The Council’s members (1) cried out with a loud voice, and (2) covered their ears.  I’m reminded of a scene from an episode of the modern television series Monk, where the disfunctional detective is trying to avoid hearing what his nurse is trying to tell him.  He does two things — he begins babbling loudly and covers his ears.  It keeps the outside sound from coming in, and fills the inside with noise to drown out all else.  Monk did it out of reason, but the High Council did it out of rage.  They could no longer stand to hear what Stephen was saying.  This goes beyond Winston Churchill’s remark about stumbling over the truth and going on as if nothing has happened.  It goes beyond Peter telling the High Council that the apostles must obey God rather than men.  It is, in fact, the high point in the Council’s rejection of the Messiah and His Kingdom.  I believe it marks the point at which Israel finally provoked God sufficiently that He began the setting aside of Israel’s program and began a new approach in spite of Israel. 

Luke tells us that they rushed upon Stephen as if their minds were synchronized, drove him out of the city, and began stoning him to death.  Stephen cried out to God to receive his spirit, and asked God to forgive his persecutors, not holding it against them.  In the process, a new character is introduced into the story line.  As those who were stoning Stephen (heavy, sweaty labor) laid aside their robes, a young man named Saul kept track of them.  But as 8:1 tells us, he did more than check coats — he was a “cheerleader,” not only agreeing with the stoning of Stephen, but doing so “heartily.”

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at the probable upbringing of this young man Saul to help us understand what brought him to this point — and why he seems to be such an unlikely candidate for what God has in mind for him!

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The First Deacons

Acts 6:1-7  (January 1, 2011 — Happy New Year!)

There is great confusion in the plethora of denominations concerning the nature and organization of leadership and governance in the church today.  Part of that confusion concerns specific roles identified in the New Testament, especially when those roles are based on the early chapters of Acts, which we have amply demonstrated to be a part of Israel’s prophetic program.  Theologians rightfully recognize I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 as definitive for the qualifications of three types of leaders, “elders” (presbus, an ambassador, with emphasis on the dignity of the role), “overseers” (episkopos, a benevolent supervisor, wth emphasis on the duties of the role), and “deacons” (diakonos, a voluntary servant, different from a slave, a dulos).  Unfortunately, many denominations take great liberties with these qualifications or ignore them outright.  It is not uncommon to find both elders and deacons identified as roles in church consititutions, but their duties consist only of participation in a board that makes business decisions.  (For a thorough treatise on this subject see Biblical Eldership — An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership  Revised and Expanded edition by Alexander Strauch, 1995, Lewis and Roth Publishers, Littleton, Colorado USA, ISBN 0-936083-11-5.)

When it comes to understanding the duties of church leaders, we can infer some things from Paul’s lists of qualifications, but generally have to turn elsewhere for examples.  The passage we consider in this post is the principle example of the nature and duties of deacons, as well as the first instance of their existence.  This passage is an example of a historical narrative that illustrates an operative principle that has carried over from one dispensation to another.  (There are many such principles, communion being one of them.)  Even so, we should be careful to remember that the context of this passage is still entirely the offering of the Kingdom to Israel, and one of the passage’s main characters will have a major role in the High Council’s most telling rejection of that Kingdom in the very next passage we will consider.

By the biblical definition of deacons, they are people who voluntarily meet the needs of others by ministering to them.  Their serving is by appointment (in this case apostolic appointment) and out of a willing heart and a devout spirit. All of that is reflected clearly and accurately in this passage.  Interestingly, the men chosen for this special servanthood in this passage are never referred to with the title of “Deacon” within the passage.  Actually, the word diakonia and diakonian do appear in the passage in the Greek New Testament.  They’re just not translated literally as “deaconing” and “deacon,” which would be meaningless in English.  The title of Deacon as a noun or adjective doesn’t appear in the passage, and thus is missing in English translations; the duty of deacons as a verb or adverb does appear in the passage, better translated “serving” and “serve”.  It is only modern-day commentators who put a heading of “The First Deacons” on this passage.

Please take the time to read the entire passage (Acts 6:1-7) now if you have not already done so, before we begin a verse-by-verse analysis.

Verse 1 reminds us immediately of what we learned in Chapter 2 about the population in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost.  Here, a few weeks after Pentecost, we still find Jews of the Diaspora not only in Jerusalem, but as followers of Jesus Christ among the ever-growing numbers of disciples.  In my NASB study Bible, it is printed as “Hellenistic Jews” — the word Hellenistic is not italicized, but the word Jews is.  That means that the word Jews was added by the translators for clarification, and does not appear in the original manuscripts, which is true.  In the Greek New Testament they are simply called Hellayniston.  We must be careful here, because much later in the book of Acts the Apostle Paul will encounter Jews from Asia who accuse him of bringing gentile Greeks (Hellaynas) into the Temple.  The Hellayniston were genetic Jews who had been born and raised in Greece and who were in Jerusalem for the high festivals and who had witnessed the events at Pentecost, becoming believers.  These believing Jews from Greece were upset because their widows were not being included in the daily distribution of food that was part of their communal lifestyle.  We aren’t told why they were being left out, just that they were.  It was probably a simple oversight.

Verses 2 through 4 describe the Apostles’ solution.  Management of food distribution was not receiving careful attention, and the Apostles could not give it the attention it needed because of the more important demands of spiritual leadership.  They suggested that the several-thousand believers choose seven exemplary men who they trusted to oversee the food distribution.  Here we should pause to note the characteristics of these men specified by the Apostles:

  • good reputation
  • under the full influence of the Holy Spirit
  • under the full influence of wisdom

Note that these qualifications are much simpler than those indicated much later by Paul in his letters to Timothy and Titus, but they certainly are not out of line with them.

Verse 5 indicates that the whole body of believers thought it was a great idea, and proceeded to select seven men:

  • Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Spirit
  • Philip, who we will see again in Chapter 8, and who became known as “Philip the Evangelist”
  • Prochorus
  • Nicanor
  • Timon
  • Parmenas
  • Nikolaos, a proselyte from Antioch

Nikolaos (Nicolas) is an interesting case because he was a proselyte.  This is a good opportunity to review the New Testament meaning of that term.  It means he was not a Jew by birth (a genetic Jew), but was a gentile who had adopted the Jewish form of religion with all of its practices and promises.  Is his presence in this list evidence that God, at this point in Luke’s narrative, has broken down the barrier of separation between Jew and Gentile and made one new body of the two, the Body of Christ as described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10-11?  No, indeed.  For a careful reading of these two chapters in Romans reveals that Israel had been set aside and her redemption, when she will be grafted back into the vine, is still in the future.  Second, Nikolaos had chosen to seek God by becoming a Jew in every way, because that was the only way revealed to men at that time.  The mystery hidden in God was still hidden, waiting to be revealed through the Apostle Paul later in Acts.

In verse 6 the Apostles publicly commissioned these seven men for their task.  Many churches do this today through a “commissioning service.”  Usually those being commissioned are called to stand in front of the congregation surrounded by the local leadership.  The leaders place their hands on their heads, shoulders and backs and pray, usually on the strength of this passage and others in Acts (see also 13:3).  However, read this verse carefully.  The order is different!  My NASB study Bible says they appeared before the Apostles, who after praying, laid their hands on them (not before or while).   We have come to think of “the laying on of hands” as something that mystically transfers spiritual power from person to person.  But is that necessarily true?  These men were already full of the Spirit and wisdom.  Nothing needed to be transferred to them at all for the performance of their duties.  Of course the Apostles and Jesus Himself miraculously healed the sick by touching them, but were also able to do so simply through the spoken word without the “laying on of hands”.  James does not instruct elders called to the bedside of a sick person to “lay hands on him” and pray, but to only “pray over” him, anointing him with oil (which some believe means to give him a theraputic backrub with olive oil — the word translated “anointing” is aleipho, to rub).  These are all small errors in understanding, but are often wrapped up in larger misunderstandings that ultimately reveal a failure to “rightly divide” the Word of God.  What purpose did the “laying on of hands” have in this instance?  Frankly, I don’t know and Luke doesn’t explain.  But IMHO it had nothing to do with a mystical transferrence of anything.  It might have been nothing more than a personal social affirmation that each of the Apostles agreed with what had been prayed and supported these new deacons personally.  (Was it possibly a hearty pat on the back?)  Whatever this was about, it’s a good lesson for us in recognizing sloppy thinking and scholarship when it is revealed by the careful study of God’s perfect Word.  Like the myth of the number of the Magi in the Christmas story, it is probably not what we have humanly made it out to be.

Our passage concludes on an interesting note.  Not only was the number of believers continuing to increase, but they were beginning to make inroads into the priests as well.  This, of course, would frustrate the High Council even more.  God is about to confront them in the most powerful manner yet.  He is watching them.  Will they finally receive Him and repent, or will they reject Him with greater finality and violence than ever before?  It will be the beginning of something wonderful for Israel, or the beginning of the end…  For now, it’s all still about God’s offer of the Kingdom to Israel.

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Are we watching?

Christmas Day 2010

It’s Christmas Day in the Year of Our Lord 2010!  For the first time in many years the pressures of employment seem to be at a lull just at the time I need the wherewithal to reflect on the true meaning of this season.  Thank you, Lord!

Last night we attended the traditional “Christmas Eve Candlelight Service” at a local church.  This church no longer uses hymnals — all the lyrics are projected onto screens to either side of the stage by computer.  The slides not only show the words, but incorporate appropriate background images.  During a Christmas carol, one of the backgrounds was a painting showing a tight grouping of people — a baby, held out in his mother’s arms for the surrounding people to see, and most prominently a tall elderly man looking down at the baby over her shoulder and reaching out a hand toward the baby.  Joseph is on her other side, and beyond the elderly man are many other people, some watching and some going about their business.  In the distance is an elderly woman who appears to have just taken notice of what is happening.  The artist’s use of light and composition was masterful, and it told the story well — the story of Simeon and Anna on the occasion of the baby Jesus’ circumcision at eight days of age.

Simeon’s face is filled with delight, awe, comprehension and satisfaction.  The Bible says of him (Luke 2:25-26), “… this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”  Luke describes in detail the ensuing conversation as Simeon took the baby Jesus into his own arms, blessed God for what He had done, and warned Mary of Jesus’ controversial future and the sorrows that would accompany it.

Anna’s impulsive glance is full of sudden realization, as if she had just been tapped on the shoulder by an unseen hand.  At the age of 84 she had lived most of her adult life in the Temple, fasting and praying night and day, never leaving the Temple grounds.  Luke records that she came up to Mary and Joseph “at that very moment” (we assume the moment that Simeon was speaking with Mary), and then began telling “all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  (Luke 2:36-38)

Notice that Anna wasn’t telling everyone — she chose her audience very carefully.  Luke’s narrative suggests that even at the time of Christ’s birth there was political controversy in Israel over this notion, and that there was a faction present in the Temple who knew the Old Testament promises to Israel and believed that the time was ripe for their fulfillment.  How sad that even at this time Israel’s leadership were not counted among them, nor would they be as Jesus fulfilled His earthly ministry some thirty years later.

Simeon was looking for the consolation of Israel and Anna was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  While Luke does not say so specifically, both would have known and cherished the promises recorded in the Scriptures, due to four factors — their age, their long presence in the Temple, their devotion, and their detailed knowledge of the Scriptures.  Perhaps God chose to reveal these things to them because of those factors.  Although their expectation of a Kingdom and a King on earth were different from our expectation of participation in a mighty throng of believers in Heaven at the foot of God’s very throne, their presence in Luke’s record should give us pause for consideration.  What are we looking for, if anything, in our daily lives?  Would we recognized it if suddenly appeared?  Would we be ready, or would we trip over it and go on as if nothing happened? Are we devout enough to hear the inner revelations of the Holy Spirit’s still small voice in our hearts, or to feel the tap of his hand on our shoulder?  God was so well pleased with Simeon and Anna that He imparted His secrets to them!  Does that describe our relationship to God?  Do we even know what we should be looking for?

“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be cuaght up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.  Therfore comfort one another with these words.”  (I Thessalonians 4:15-18)

I confess my whole lifestyle falls far short of that of Simeon and Anna.  I need desperately to seek daily what they sought.  May our Christmas — and all of our New Year and more – be filled with the same knowledge, understanding, devotion and urgent watchfulness that marked the lives of Simeon and Anna!  Merry Christmas!

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The Second Imprisonment

Acts 5:17-42

The believers in Jerusalem at this point number well in excess of the 5,000 men mentioned in Acts 4:4, perhaps double that number not counting women and children (v14).  The judgment of Ananias and Sapphira had a sobering effect not only on the believers but also on their non-believing countrymen who had witnessed it too.

It would be profitable to pause here to consider the characteristics of this body of believers in Jerusalem and their circumstances:

  • They were successfully living c_____________________ (4:32)
  • They were daily witnessing m____________________ done by the a_______________________ (4:33, 5:12)
  • They were gathering daily on the T____________ grounds in the area called S_________________ P__________________ (5:12)
  • They were under the authority of the a___________________, and especially P__________ (4:35, 5:3)
  • Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released under threat by the r____________ and e_____________ of Israel (4:8)
  • Peter has addressed J_____ and p__________________ (2:5, 2:10)
  • Peter’s message has been to r______________ and be b_____________ (2:38) for having c__________________ the Messiah (2:36)
  • If Israel does so, the result will be the coming of her p________________ (2:39), the t_______ of r________________ (3:19) revealed to them through the p___________ (3:18), where all the nations of the world will be ruled and blessed through I________ (3:25)
  • In the process, the G________ T________________ and judgement of earthly kings and nations will take place (4:24-30)

Now consider, in contrast, the nature of the local church where you attend:

  • Do you live communally, and do so successfully?
  • Do you witness miracles performed by your leaders daily?
  • Do you gather in Jerusalem, specifically in the Temple?
  • Are you under the authority of apostles?
  • Are your leaders being imprisoned for their message?
  • Are your members Jews and/or Jewish proselytes?
  • Are you required to repent specifically of having crucified the Messiah to receive salvation?
  • Will doing so result in the Great Tribulation and the Millennial Kingdom?
  • Does Israel rule the entire world today?
  • Is God sending His blessing to the entire world through Israel today?
  • Have the rulers of today’s nations who oppose God been judged and deposed by Christ today?

I hope you realize, dear reader, that the face of Christianity in today’s world is not only different, but in some ways diametrically opposed to what was happening to the believers in Jerusalem.  That is not to say that God was displeased with them, or that God is displeased with us.  Indeed, God is pleased with both us and them, because we both are (hopefully) living out what God expects from each of us.  This stark contrast exists because God’s expectation for us and for them is different.  And to try to live according to God’s expectations of the other is displeasing to Him!

Beginning now in Acts 5:17, Luke records the second imprisonment of Peter and John (and the first imprisonment of the other apostles) and the consequences.  His description is straightforward, and I’ll encourage you to read vv17-26 for yourself before proceeding in this blog post.

When Peter and John were imprisoned the first time, they remained in jail overnight (4:3).  The next morning the council assembled and had them brought from the prison (4:7).  But there the similarities end.  This time the jail is miraculously opened, the apostles are led out and set free, and then apparently the cell doors are closed and locked again as if never occupied — all without the guards even knowing it.  By the time the council convened the following morning, the apostles had returned to the temple grounds where they had been teaching for several hours.  Initially the council was left wondering where they had gone, but someone came and told them the apostles were teaching in the temple already.  The captain of the temple guard and his officers together (this was a Jewish security squad, not a Roman contingency) went to bring them to the council.  Because the believers were so numerous, and even the non-believers held them in such high esteem, the guards were afraid of being stoned themselves by the crowd, and they went about their business very politely.

(Please read Acts 5:27-32 for yourself before reading further in the blog post.)

The High Priest reminds them of their previous encounter and that they had been commanded to not speak of Jesus of Nazareth, noting that the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their teaching anyway, and had done so with the intent of blaming them for Jesus’ death.  Peter’s response remains the same as his first encounter with the council — that they must obey God rather than men.  In few words Peter accuses them of precisely what they surmised.  God raised up Jesus, who they had crucified, and exalted Him to be Prince and Savior, bringing opportunity to repent and obtain forgiveness.  The apostles bore witness of these things, as did the Holy Spirit who God sent upon those who obeyed Him — an obvious contrast to the council’s lack of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

How did the council react?  Please read it for yourself now in v33.  They were “cut to the quick” (a form of the Greek word diaprio translated in Hebrews 11:37 as “sawn asunder”, not a paper cut beside a fingernail) and an immediate desire to put the apostles to death arose in their twisted hearts.  Compare this situation to the response of Peter’s first audience on the occasion of Pentecost, who were “pierced to the heart” (Greek katanusso, to pierce through) and immediately sought to repent.  But here Peter’s succinct remark had drawn blood as if by a slicing motion of a blade, and had enraged them to the point of retaliation by deadly force.

On the verge of bloodshed, one Pharisee stepped forth.  Remember that the Pharisees were a member of the “house minority” (see v17), so it took some courage for this man to speak up.  His name was Gamaliel.  He certainly had wisdom and the respect of his peers.  Was he the same man who was responsible for Paul’s education in the “School of Gamaliel”?  (Acts 22:3)  Please read what he suggested for yourself now in vv34-39 before proceeding through the next part of the blog post.

Gamaliel cited two examples from recent history of men who had led rebellions, both of which had “come to nothing”.  His advice was to let the natural course of events deal with the apostles.  If the actions of the apostles were truly of God they would not be able to stop it, finding themselves in the awkward position of fighting against God Himself.  For a long time I looked at Gamaliel with favor, as a defender of the apostles.  I no longer think that was the case.  He was shrewd, level-headed and widely respected, but was no friend to the apostles.  He was, in fact, merely proposing the slickest way to get around what they feared the most — the potentially violent reaction of the people (see 4:21, 5:26) should harm come to any of the apostles.  Remember, at this juncture their intent was to slay them! (v33)  Gamaliel simply proposed the best way for the Council to come out smelling like a rose.  His advice essentially was to given the apostles a little more rope…  Verse 40 says the Council took Gamaliel’s advice and flogged the apostles.  It doesn’t say they took his advice and flogged them anyway.  Apparently the flogging was part and parcel with Gamaliel’s advice, and nowhere does it indicate that Gamaliel disapproved of the flogging.

The chapter closes with the disciples’ response to the flogging — rejoicing over having been considered worthy to suffer shame  because of their representation of Jesus.  The grammar in which the expression “to suffer shame” indicates that it refers to the events that were immediately past (their appearance before the council) and that they had been humiliated by the Council.  (There’s a tendency to want to make this verse say that the Council treated them shamefully, placing the blame on the Council. While that is true, the grammar focuses on the humiliation received, not the shameful manner in which it was given.) 

What can cause men to rejoice when they are humiliated?  The last verse of the chapter tells us that it didn’t affect their behavior one bit.  They went on doing exactly what they had been doing before!  It’s almost as if they were expecting it, and knew that when it happened it would be a sign of the ushering in of the Kingdom.  Oh!  Remember Luke 21:10-28?  Jesus had specifically prepared them for this, and for much worse things to follow!

“… they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.  It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony…. And you will be hated by all on account of My name.  Yet not a hair of your head will perish… And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among nations… for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man  coming in a cloud with great power and glory.  But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Theologians who haven’t made this very specific connection are at a loss to explain why the apostles reacted the way they did, writing it off as one of the wonderful effects of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives.  That is certainly true, and thousands of martyrs through the centuries were carried joyfully through their suffering by His presence.  Paul instructs his gentile converts to do the same long after Israel’s program had been temporarily set aside by God, and Paul was certainly no stranger to suffering shame for the name of Christ.  But in this case it is important to realize that the apostles were rejoicing because it meant they were on the right track, and it certified all the more that the Kingdom promised to Israel was just around the corner.  And that is why they kept right on doing what they had been doing, unaffected by the threats and beatings of the High Council of Israel.

As I write this, it’s Christmas Day!  I’ve added a section to the blog entitled “Reflections”, and will from time to time add posts that have nothing to do with our study in acts, but are personal reflections based on the season or things which God has impressed on my heart.  Be sure to check it out!  And have a Merry Christmas!

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Judgment in the Kingdom

Now we come to an episode in Acts that is starkly different from our experience in the church today, the deception of Ananias and Sapphira and their swift judgment (Acts 5:1-11).  

Before we begin, please recall a verse from a recent post — Psalm 2:9: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.”  Christ’s judgment of the nations will be sudden and total.  Their political structures will crumble to unrecognizable bits.  It presents us with a picture of how sin will be handled when Christ is on the earthly throne of David.  Some have suggested that sin during the Days of the King will be absent from the world (one of the ways in which the whole earth will be blessed) because it will not only be openly revealed as soon as it is committed, but also judged just as quickly.  In the story of Ananias and Sapphira we have a perfect vignette of how it will be.

To whatever degree churches and their leaders insist on finding their origins in the early chapters of Acts, they fail to live in the pure form of grace that God intends for our day.  What we are about to learn in the case of Ananias and Sapphira is characteristic of the Kingdom Age, where sin will be judged instantly and finally.  That is not the case for us today, praise God!  Instead of swift justice, the dealing out of what sinners deserve on the spot, we live under the patience, mercy and grace of our loving Savior — the Age of Grace.

Luke’s narrative is straight-forward and factual.  Following immediately on the heels of the description of Barnabas, Luke’s first word is “but.” 

“But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (5:1-2)

The Greek word translated “kept back” is nosphidzomai, which in its root form means to separate or part.  This form is called “middle voice”, a Greek construction that has no English counterpart.  Middle voice indicates that the subject is acting concerning himself.  The only other use of this word in the New Testament is in Titus 2:10, where employees (slaves) are warned against pilfering from their masters.  This word is used by other classic Greek authors to describe the crime of embezzlement.  Consequently, this word carries a negative and purely selfish connotation which perfectly describes the character of Ananias’ heart.

But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own?  And after it was sold, was it not under your control?  Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart?  You have not lied to men, but to God.’

There is a small piece of information that must be inferred here, but which will be demonstrated a few verses later.  Apparently in the process of “laying it at the apostles’ feet” he stated that the amount that he laid at their feet was the entire price he received for the land.  Notice that Satan had filled Ananias’ heart to do two things, and the first was to lie.  Even though it wouldn’t have followed Barnabas’ shining example, it might have been permissible to reserve some of the price for his own use, if he just hadn’t lied about it.  Ananias and his wife had conspired together to hide the truth with a lie, and it was this conspiratorial lie that made this a case of pilfering or embezzlement.  If they had been open and honest about it, it may have been met with disappointment, but not the judgment they were about to receive:

And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it.   And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.

(In my Zodhiates NASB reference Bible, the words “breathed his last” are underlined together, meaning they are a single Greek word — ekpsucho, from ek (“out”) and psucho (“breathed”), from which we take our English word exhaled.)

Have you ever not “told the whole story” to a representative of the church?  Have you ever denied something to them that you knew to be true?  Do you know of others who have?  What was their condition immediately thereafter?  Did they fall down and exhale for the last time immediately?  I’m sad to say that these kinds of things happen all the time in matters of church discipline, but in none of those cases have I ever seen this result.  It is not our experience today, but it is characteristic of sin and judgment in the Kingdom Age.  This was so powerful that Luke literally writes, “and consequently megafear was upon all who heard.”  What a powerful cure for the desire to lie!  But the story is only half finished.

Three hours later Ananias’ wife Sapphira, unaware of what had happened to her husband, came in.  Peter questioned her about the amount of the sale, and she indicated it was the same amount Ananias had said — as they had conspired to do.  Her fate was the same as Ananias, instantly falling dead at Peter’s feet.

Can you imagine such things taking place in your church today?  Our experience today is so different that it has lulled the vast majority of believers to sleep concerning the deadliness of sin.  Paul, although he might have had good reason to judge sin in the Corinthian church in the same way — did not.  Paul had similar opportunity on his first missionary journey when he encountered the sorcerer Elymas on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6-11).  He was no less an apostle than Peter.  In fact, we find no other example of this sort of judgment anywhere in the New Testament.  Why, then, did God perform this singular miraculous judgement in this manner at this time?   And why do “church leaders” (be they pastors or elders or board members) today lack the same power?

If we place the origin of today’s church at Pentecost, centered in Jerusalem, then it behooves us to practice the same form of religion they did — including instantaneous judgment of sin resulting in immediate death at the word of church leaders.  Some will suggest that we don’t because after the Twelve and Paul were dead, there were no more apostles, the “line of apostolic authority” having run out.  Paul, on the other hand, admonished Timothy to imitate him and to fight the good fight, to let no one “despise thy youth”.  The fact is that the authority for what we’ve seen in the story of Ananias and Sapphira ended long before the Twelve and Paul died.  In fact, after this instance, it never happened again.  If it depended on the “line of apostolic authority” there should have been more examples of it during the remainder of the Apostles’ earthly lives.  Its absence suggests there must be another reason not tied to their earthly lives.

As I have stated before, I believe that the origin of the church of today was not at Pentecost, and the Twelve were not sent to Gentiles.  The commission and power they received were part of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants, the promise of an earthly kingdom ruled by God Himself, through which all the people of the earth would be blessed.  But Israel, obstinate as always, failed to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as her King.  Consequently God raised up a special apostle to take a special message to the Gentiles in spite of Israel instead of through her.  That apostle was Paul.  The judgment and death of Ananias and Sapphira were a part of Israel’s earthly kingdom, and are representative of the nature and swiftness of judgment in the Kingdom Age.  That age has been temporarily set aside by God, replaced with an unprophesied era where God is making Israel jealous by bringing us into His family without their help — the Age of Grace.

That word, grace, is in fact the crux of the matter here.  Where is grace (and also mercy) for Ananias and Sapphira?  They instantly received what they deserved and did not receive what they did not deserve.  Indeed, Paul says that “the wages of sin is death.”  (He also says that God is patient today, waiting for all men to come to the knowledge of the truth.)  Ananias and Sapphira did not live in an economy of grace, but in an economy of a kingdom ruled by one who would “rule with a rod of iron.”  So it will be in the days of the King.

It’s no wonder that great fear came upon the whole church and everyone else who heard of it, so much so that outsiders didn’t dare even associate with them.  The remaining verses (vv12-16) elaborate on the miracles being performed by the Apostles, and their resulting spreading fame.  Miracles were for the benefit of Israel, who should have recognized them as a sign of the approaching Kingdom and King, and here their intensity is mushrooming.  God, at this point in Luke’s narrative, is working hard to convince Israel that their long-awaited day is available to them immediately if they will just repent.  It’s still all about Israel.

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A Pre-Kingdom Community

I’d like to follow a personal rabbit trail here for a moment, and share some thoughts with you that come from other Grace teachers that may help you understand how to study the entire Bible from a dispensational perspective.  In conversation recently I was accused (in a friendly way, no offense was taken) of ignoring the bulk of Scripture and following Paul’s writings exclusively.  I have repeatedly explained here that a knowledge of the entire Bible is not only important, but is a great blessing.  But to try to live and act according to its entirety is not only unthinking, but is impossible.  If we fail to rightly divide the Scriptures, we’ll find ourselves violating one principle of Scripture while doing our best to obey another.  The Bible is God’s loveletter to mankind, but different portions of it are addressed to different groups under different circumstances.  Trying to live according to God’s instructions to Israel is like reading and obeying someone else’s mail!  Pastor Ken Lawson (, I John Lesson 5) alluded to a statement made many years ago by a mutual acquaintance:

“If [a verse] is not found in Paul’s teaching, it belongs to the previous dispensation of the Law or to the future dispensation of the Kingdom.”

The serious student of the Bible, on the basis of this statement, understands that all books of the Bible not authored by the Apostle Paul are someone else’s mail!  When, then, should we apply passages of Scripture in our own lives that come from the writings of others?  Pastor Lawson went on to describe three litmus tests of his own for any given passage: 

    1. Does the non-Pauline passage deal with one of several unchanging characteristics of God, characteristics that are the same in every dispensation, such as His deity, that He is Light, that He is Love, that He is Life, His omnicience, His omnipotence, the Creator, etc.?
    2. Does the non-Pauline passage deal with the unchanging sinfulness of man and his need of salvation?
    3. Is the principle consistent with Paul’s teaching?

If it passes all three tests, we should heed and apply it in our own lives.  The Third Commandment, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy,”  stands in stark contrast to Paul’s statement in Romans 14:5 — “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.”  Who, then, should we obey, Moses or Paul?  This is, in fact, the heart of Seventh Day Adventist doctrine!  According to the above principles, first we need to realize that since it is not found in Paul’s letters, it probably belongs to either the Law or the Kingdom (obviously the Law in this case).  Having recognized that, we should refine our understanding by asking if it is an unchanging characteristic of God (it is not — it’s not a “characteristic” at all), and if it has to do with the sinfulness of man and his need for salvation (it does not other than the fact that the purpose of the Law was always and only to point out sin), and if it is consistent with Paul’s teaching (as quoted above, it is not).  Since it fails any of the litmus tests, we need to be careful what interpretations we draw and how we apply it, and we are not under strict command to obey it literally.

While God did demand Israel’s worship and rest on the seventh day of the week, in keeping with the pattern of creation, He does not demand it of men any longer.  The Apostles themselves, in fact, led the way in changing the day of worship from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week because the resurrection was greater than the Third Commandment and the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  (See Mark 2:27.)  Can we benefit from resting and worshipping one day out of seven?  Certainly!  But not all do so today, and God does not condemn us for it.  To have failed to do so in Moses day would have brought swift judgement.  It no longer does. 

But in saying this we do not discard the Third Commandment or ignore it!  We understand and appreciate its historical significance, and draw a profitable spiritual application, one certainly pleasing to God, that we must set aside time to honor Him and to make Him our source of rejuvenation and our focus.  Although profitable, we cannot say that we are commanded to do so any longer by the Scriptures because it was part of a different dispensation — it was mail addressed to someone else.  The strict Bible study rule of observation first leaves us lacking evidence that this command was unchanging through all dispensations as Lawson suggests in his first litmus test — it didn’t even exist in all the dispensations leading up to Moses day.  Interestingly, Paul does repeat many of the other nine commandments in one form or another in his instructions to believers in the Age of Grace.  However, he pleads with them, rather than commands them, and he recognizes that murder is wrong in any dispensation including the Age of Grace.  Paul’s pleading rather than commanding is grace in action, and marks the way elders should behave today.

In this post and the next we’ll get a foretaste of what life in the Millennial Kingdom will be like.  (Yes, that’s different from what life in the Age of Grace is like; this is not what your local church can be like if you only have enough faith!)  Our story resumes immediately following the fresh falling of the Holy Spirit upon the believers in Jerusalem.  Luke begins this portion by describing the circumstances and attitudes of the body of believers in his usual matter-of-fact way. 

“And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.  And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,…” (Acts 4:32-33a)

 This description follows naturally from the context of the great prayer in the previous section where they “lifted their voices with one accord.”  For the second time we are told by Luke that these believers were living communally (see Acts 2:44-45), and the practice had not changed as their numbers had grown.  I think there are three important points to note here.  (1) They were doing this spontaneously.  The apostles had not held a telethon in the Temple grounds to raise funds.  It simply arose from their unity of mind and soul.  (2) They did not give the proceeds to each other, but rather to the apostles to distribute.  Would you sell your house and land tomorrow and give the entire proceeds to your church elder council — joyfully?  This aspect of their daily existence is entirely foreign to us, as well it should be.  It is what life will be like in the Kingdom, all over the world.  It is part of the blessings that the world will enjoy through Israel.  (3) Nor should we think it unusual or a lack of financial planning.  They were, after all, expecting the Kingdom (and it’s wealth) to arrive at any moment.  Who needs worldy savings or equity when dining for a thousand years at the King’s table is just around the corner?  They realized that even the hardest-earned earthly scrimpings of the wealthiest among them couldn’t compare to the riches of the Kingdom that would fill their lives in a matter of days or weeks.

“…and abundant grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need.  And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”  (Acts 4:33b-37)

This passage opens with an interesting phrase, not used by Luke up to this point.  He says, “abundant grace was upon them all.”  “Abundant grace” is charis te megalay in Greek — undeserved mega-favor!  So what is grace in the first place?  You may have heard that grace is when someone gives you something good that you don’t deserve.  This is what God did when He made salvation in Jesus Christ a free gift.  The opposite is when someone doesn’t give you something bad that you do deserve, like a suspended sentence.  This is what God did when He laid our sins on Jesus Christ and punished Him for them instead of us.  That’s mercy.  But in this passage Luke is not speaking so broadly.  He is describing how the favor of God’s undeserved presence in their midst was affecting their attitudes and relationships to each other.  As God will abide in Israel’s midst in the Person of the King, so the whole world will be affected in those days.  This short phrase tells us that even this grace was a foretaste of the Kingdom.

Here we also find the first mention of an important person through much of the book of Acts — Barnabas, who would later accompany Paul on his first missionary journey and then part company with Paul in a heated disagreement over a young man, John Mark.  Here his name’s meaning is recorded for us — paraklayseos, a form of the word parakaleo, which literally means “one called alongside”.  Wherever the Holy Spirit is described as a comforter, this is the Greek word that is used.  Barnabas was a man who delighted in playing second fiddle, lifting others up.  We will see this characteristic used by God to bring the feared Pharisee Saul into the Antioch church — as Paul the Apostle.  It is also of interest to note here that Barnabas was exactly the type of individual we identified as being “down-housed” in Jerusalem for the high holidays in Acts at Pentecost.  He was born on the island of Cyprus, but was a Levite, of priestly lineage, an obvious example of a member of the Diaspora.  Here he is portrayed as the prime example of what they all were doing, selling their property and bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to distribute to other believers as needed, and abundant grace was upon him.  What follows in the next chapter is still demonstrative of the nature of the Kingdom, but is quite the opposite of the Age of Grace in which we live.

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Celebrating Parole

On with the story!  Today we’ll be looking at Acts 4:23-31.  Have your study Bible ready as we proceed.

Peter and John had been held responsible for the crime of healing a man who had been lame from birth through the name and authority of Jesus of Nazareth.  They had been jailed overnight, and appeared before the leaders of Israel who had commanded them to be silent concerning Jesus.  Peter’s and John’s joint response to them was that they would obey God and not errant men and could not be silent about the things they had witnessed.  Public opinion forced the Council to release them because the evidence was so clear and the Council did not want to be made out to be in opposition to God’s work. 

That is where we pick up the story at verse 23, which is straight-forward and factual.  Peter and John returned to the other disciples and fellow believers (the Bible says they went to their own) and reported the whole matter.

Verse 24 begins by stating, “And when THEY heard this, THEY lifted their voices to God with one accord and said…”  Who was “they?”  Was it only the other ten disciples?  Did it include the women of the inner circle?  Did it include the several thousand who had believed?  This pronoun obviously points back to “their own” in the previous verse.  (The NASB adds the word companions after “their own”, but it is a human addition, however reasonable.)  It’s hard to imagine several thousand believers speaking “with one accord” what follows, as the verse describes.  On the other hand, it does use the plural noun “voices”, so it certainly must have been more than just Peter or John.  It’s possible that the prayer that constitues the rest of this passage was prayed in several successive pieces by different individuals, much like how we often pray “sentence prayers” that key off of one another on the same subject.  However, the passage does not literally say that, and we are left with a picture that describes an amazing unity of mind and action — perhaps miraculous unity.  But what was the content of their thoughts and speech?

  • v24b:  They recognized the Lord as the God who had created the heavens and the earth, quoting Exodus 20:11
  • vv25-26:  They further recognized Him as the one who inspired David by the Holy Spirit to speak of the end times, quoting Psalm 2:1-2
  • vv27-28:  They identified the current rulers in Palestine as the kings and nations David spoke of
  • v29-30:  They asked for confidence to speak God’s word, accompanied by miracles, in the light of the rulers’ threats
  • v31:  This verse describes what happened as a result of their prayer

Now we must be good students of God’s word, for at first glance this passage and prayer seem to imply that the believers in Jerusalem did indeed have a ministry vision that included the gentile nations!  Does this passage finally put to rest the supposedly mistaken notion that God is only dealing with Israel in these early chapters of Acts?  After all, this passage identifies nations other than Israel, and specifically refers to the Gentiles!

Consider the two passages quoted from the Old Testament, one from Moses (actually a reference to the Third Commandment, the sabbath day being equated to the seventh day following Creation, in which God rested), and one from David.  Was Moses an Israelite?  Was David?  Do these passages come before or after Genesis 12 where the focus of the Bible turns to the nation Israel as God’s favored people?  Clearly they are not only within Israel’s program, but as we learned in the previous posts, these two men are considered by the Scriptures to be prophets.  What they spoke was an open telling of future events, not keeping them hidden.  And prophets were always sent to Israel, not to the Gentiles.  (Okay, Jonah is an exception.  Humor me.)

What’s more, the quote from David, and the thinking of these believers, placed these Gentile nations and rulers under judgement, not blessing.  Was this what God had in mind as “good news” for the Gentiles?  Remember that we have often described this difference between programs as blessing through Israel (the Millennial Kingdom) as opposed to blessing in spite of Israel (the Age of Grace).  To which program would the events described in this passage lead?

A reading of all of Psalm 2 should make this crystal clear.  Please take the time to read it now before proceeding with the rest of this blog post.

Welcome back.  If you will permit me, here’s a brief outline of what you just read:

  • vv1-2 speak of foreign nations who arrogantly plot against God and Israel in a rage
  • v3 describes Israel’s desire to cast off foreign bondage
  • vv4-5 describe God’s amusement and anger toward them in judgement and belittlement
  • v6 speaks of a coming King who will reign from an earthly mountain, Mount Zion upon which Jerusalem is built
  • vv7-8 describe this King as a son who will receive the raging nations as an inheritance
  • v9 describes the gentile nations as being severly punished, not blessed
  • v10-11 warn kings and judges of the earth to revere and worship God before this comes to pass

These believers knew the full context of the passage they quoted.  What’s more, they clearly saw this first run-in with their own Hebrew leaders as the beginning of the fulfillment of David’s prophecy.  Interestingly, they associated their Hebrew leaders with Herod and Pilate, representatives of Rome, as falling under the same condemnation.  Yes, there is a widening of the scope of Israel’s program described in this passage, but it is still Israel’s program.  They knew those days would not be easy, and so they prayed for boldness while God judged their enemies.

Did God approve of their judgmental mindset?  Certainly!  “When they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”  God certified the correctness of their understanding by granting their request!

Notice that their understanding included “signs and wonders.”  They had long been taught that the coming of the King would be certified by them, and later the Apostle Paul would say of them, “For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”  (I Corinthians 1:22-23)  Paul, of course, was by then speaking in hindsight from another dispensation, one that had been hidden in God in other ages and not found in prophecy.  Notice also that here again they come under the full influence of the Holy Spirit, suggesting that prior to this prayer they had been in some way under His influence to some lesser degree.  We’ve addressed this issue many times in previous posts, and I’ll not beleaguer the point again.

In the end, a careful study of this passage dispels any notion that this is the good news borne to the Gentiles by Israel or Jewish disciples.  To the contrary, it clearly validates the idea that we are squarely in the middle of God’s prophetic plan for Israel at this point in Luke’s narrative, and it’s unfolding in the midst of these believers minute by minute with the power and approval of God.  He is clearly giving them every opportunity to recognize the signs of the coming of the King.  How long will God put up with Israel’s obstinacy?

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Evolution, Three Kings… and Acts

Before proceeding in the passage at hand, I’d like to add a brief personal note here.  It was my privilege over the past couple of weeks to assist with a live nativity put on by some good country friends, and to attend an Answers in Genesis conference.  Before the nativity we were visiting about the things people believe about the Christmas story that the Bible doesn’t say.  The most famous of those is the number and nature of the wise men.  While there were three gifts (or three types of gifts), the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, nor does it say they were kings!  The Answers in Genesis conference, of course, pointed out the incompatibilities of evolution with a literal reading of the Bible.  Most people assume today that if God created the heavens and the earth, He took millions of years to do it and used the process of evolution as His tool.  However, a careful reading of the opening chapters of Genesis is undeniably contrary to this!

I would guess that most of my readers consider themselves to be biblical Christians, and consider the Bible to be without error in its original languages and manuscripts.  If it is indeed without error and Genesis says God created the heavens and the earth in six days, then we cannot truthfully say it took 600 million years.  God, being who He is, of course would be able to create the heavens and the earth in six milliseconds, six seconds, six hours, six days, six months, six years, six thousand years or 600 million years, at His choosing.  Having all of these options at His supernatural omnipotent disposal, He chose six days and described it accurately in the manual that came with the planet!  If He took 600 million years to do it and then said He took 6 days, that would make Him a…  well, you get my impossible drift.  In the same way, He inspired Matthew, Mark and Luke to describe the Christmas story accurately.

Where do we go astray?  We jump to the interpretations we have been taught rather than observing for ourselves what the Bible says.  We laugh at ourselves for our former ignorance once someone points out the myths we believe and shows us what it really says — and doesn’t say.  Now, my friends, why do some of you balk so much at seeing what the book of Acts says?  If you understand the myths of evolution and Christmas, it is because someone pointed them out to you and you checked it out for yourself to see if it was true.  That, of course, is the Berean way!  Why not add an accurate observational understanding of Acts to your list of busted myths?  As the speaker at the Answers in Genesis conference so aptly put it, “We need to start listening to what God says, and stop trying to tell Him what He really meant!”

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Answer Keys for Blog Chapter 4

Answers to Acts 3:12-26 Study Guide

v12 Israel; v13 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, our; v14 you; v17 brethren, you, your rulers; v18 announced beforehand (foretold), prophets; Q fulfillment of promises, not hidden; v19 repent, return, wiped away (Gr. like “Bounty, the quicker picker-upper”), times of refreshing; Q like “the Days of the King”, Christ’s Millennial Kingdom; v20 you; v21 restoration, things, prophets; Q restoration of all things = re-establishment of David’s throne and setting right all the injustices done to Israel over the centuries; Q prophesied; v22 Moses, prophet, brethren; v23 prophet, people; v24 prophets; Q an earthly kingdom for Israel; v25 sons, fathers, Abraham; v26 first, you; Q No.  Peter’s audience, identified by “Men of Israel” in v12 and to which all personal pronouns like “you” and “your” in the passage point, considered themselves to have been distinguished by God from the gentiles in Abraham.  The Bible records the history of God’s chosen people from Chapter 12 of Genesis up to the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the Mystery.  In that history, beginning with Abraham, are contained the prophetic promises of an earthly kingdom that would dominate – and bless – the world.  At this point in the narrative the Gospel of the Millennial Kingdom is the only Gospel in operation.

Answers to The Second Imprisonment post (Acts 5:27-42)

  • They were successfully living communally (4:32)
  • They were daily witnessing miracles done by the apostles (4:33, 5:12)
  • They were gathering daily on the Temple grounds in the area called Solomon’s Portico (5:12)
  • They were under the authority of the apostles, and especially Peter (4:35, 5:3)
  • Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released under threat by the rulers and elders of Israel (4:8)
  • Peter has addressed Jews and proselytes (2:5, 2:10)
  • Peter’s message has been to repent and be baptized (2:38) for having crucified the Messiah (2:36)
  • If Israel does so, the result will be the coming of her promise(2:39), the times of refreshing (3:19) revealed to them through the prophets (3:18), where all the nations of the world will be ruled and blessed through Israel (3:25)
  • In the process, the Great Tribulation and judgement of earthly kings and nations will take place (4:24-30)
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An “Arresting” Situation

Welcome back! How did you do on the study guide?  You can find the answers in the blogsite chapter ”Study Guide Answer Keys.”  I hope you did well!  Let’s move on…

Peter has just reiterated Israel’s need for repentance for crucifying their Messiah, identifying him as Jesus from Nazareth — on the Temple grounds, no less!  The throngs near the Temple weren’t the only ones who heard what he said.  What happened next was… well… predictable!  If you haven’t taken the time to read Acts 4:1-22 for yourself, please do so now before reading on in this blog post.  I’ll be waiting patiently when you get back.  :-)

vv1-3: The temple guard (a Hebrew guard detail, not a Roman one) and the Saducees showed up all upset.  Notice that it says they “came upon them”, not that they “came upon them by chance.”  No doubt some tattler had gone to them and told them what was happening.  They were “greatly disturbed” for two reasons.  Did you notice?  (1) they were teaching in Jesus’ name and (2) preaching the resurrection of the dead.  Do you remember the theology that distinguished the Saducees from the Pharisees?  They did not believe in the resurrection.  (See Acts 23:6-8.)  Peter and John had gone to the Temple in mid-afternoon, the time of prayer in the Temple, and it was now late in the afternoon.  Rather than deal with them immediately, the Saducees had Peter and John thrown in jail overnight, intending to bring them to trial the following morning.

v4: As a result of Peter’s message another 2,000 “Men of Israel” became believers, swelling the size of the believing community — the “Jerusalem church,” if you will — to about 5,000 men (not counting women and children).

vv5-7: Peter and John spent the night in jail.  In the morning, the Council assembled.  Present were the highest religious leaders in Jerusalem, including “rulers”, “elders”, and those who were responsible for copying the sacred scrolls.  Luke specifically identifies four individuals who were of “high-priestly descent” (could trace their lineage back directly to Aaron, Moses’ brother), Annas (who was high priest that year), Caiaphas, John and Alexander.  Apparently the Council was arranged in a circle, and the accused stood in the center.  These boys understood the dynamics of seating arrangements around the negotiating table!  It was specifically designed to be as intimidating as possible.  Their opening question got right to the point.  They didn’t ask “What have you done?”, but rather asked about the very thing that made them most angry — that Peter and John had done it outside the Council’s authority.  They asked, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?

vv8-12: In spite of the room arrangement, Peter, filled by (fully under the influence of) the Holy Spirit, not only wasn’t intimidated, but became the intimidator.  His answer was so succinct and clear that it falls into that category of “gee, I wish I’d thought to say that at the time” afterthoughts for the rest of us.  The Holy Spirit, of course, never has need for such afterthoughts.  Peter not only answered their question in spades, but he proceeded to repeat the accusation that they were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, and the claim that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  He drives the point home by quoting the scriptures they all knew so well, and then added that this Jesus of Nazareth was the only means of salvation that God had provided.  These short five verses are still the most powerful statement that can be made to modern-day Jews who reject Jesus Christ as savior, Lord and Messiah.

vv13-18:  Peter’s powerful response threw the Council for a loop.  First, they marvelled that such a clear “legal argument” could have fallen from the lips of country bumpkins.  Second, the evidence of the healing was undeniably standing right in front of them with Peter and John.  The Council went into closed session, and you can almost hear the buzz going around the room.  They clearly recongized the barrel that Peter had them over (v16).  Their decision was to silence Peter and John, under threat of force.  They called Peter and John back into the room and commanded them to be silent about Jesus of Nazareth.

vv19-20:  There has been a lot of talk on the part of the Council, but Peter and John have actually said very little.  (Think of John Wayne as a “man of few words”!)  Their reply to the Council now is no different.  “You boys figure out for yourselves whether we should obey you or God.  We can’t stop declaring the truth!”

vv21-22:  This reply would have enraged the Council of course, but they had to let it go with additional threats, not actions.  Had this not been a public trial, they could have returned Peter and John to jail, or had them beaten or flogged, or maybe even had them executed.  They had, after all, succeeded with it in the case of this Jesus from Nazareth.  But because it was public, Luke says they were released for two reasons, (1) the plain facts stood against them, as they had recognized, and (2) the watching crowds, who had seen the miracle performed on one they had known to be an invalid for forty years, were all glorifying God for it — and they did not want to be seen by the people as opposing God!

There’s something obvious here that we might miss.  Were Peter and John tried in a gentile Roman court proceeding, where a non-specific “kingdom in the hearts of men” was the context?  No, they were tried in a Hebrew court where a specific earthly kingdom for Israel was the context.  Clearly God is still dealing only with Israel and only concerning their sin of murdering their Messiah and earthly King.  In the next post we’ll take a look at the reaction of the Jerusalem church to these events.

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Acts 3:12-26 Study Guide

Print this page, and then fill in the blanks with words taken from the indicated verses:

v12 — Men of ____________, why do you marvel…

v13 — The God of ________________, ___________ and ___________, the God of _______ fathers…

v14 — But _______ disowned the Holy and Righteous One…

v17 — And now, _______________, I know that _______ acted in ignorance, just as _______  ___________ did also…

v18 — But the things which God _________________________ by the mouth of all the _______________…

Question: According to v18 above, was what they had witnessed a fulfillment of promises to Israel, or something hidden by God waiting to be exposed at this time?

v19 — ________________ therefore and _____________ so that your sins may be ______________ so that the _________________  ____  ______________________ may come from the presence of the Lord.

Note: If you have the tools, make a study of the Greek words Luke used in the first three blanks above, along with the Greek word for “forgiveness” used in Acts 2:38.

Question: How would the triple blank in the last half of the verse above be understood by Peter’s audience?

v20 — and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for ______,

v21 — whom Heaven must receive until the period of ________________ of all _____________ about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy ______________…

Question: How would the double blank in the first part of this verse have been understood by Peter’s audience?

Question: What dispensation is in view in this verse — a prophesied one, or an unprophesied one?

v22 – ___________ said, ‘The Lord shall raise up a _______________ like me from your _________________”…

v23 — Every soul that does not heed that ________________ shall be utterly destroyed from among the _______________…

v24 — And likewise, all the ______________ who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days…

Question: What days had all the prophets announced?  An earthly kingdom for Israel, or a generic ’kingdom in the hearts of men’?

v25 — It is you who are the ________ of the prophets, and of the covenant God made with your _______________, saying to __________________, ‘And in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’

v26 — For you _____________ God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless ________ …

Final Thought Question:  Did Peter at any time refer to people that came before Abraham, such as Noah or Adam?  Why?

There are, of course, many things in this passage that are weighty theological matters — and I have roundly ignored them.  It’s not that I attach no importance to issues of sin, forgiveness, repentance, faith (v16), or salvation.  But those matters are beside the point when we are trying to demonstrate that Peter’s message at this point in Luke’s narrative is all about promises to Israel concerning an earthly kingdom, and not at all about another dispensation still hidden in God’s heart.

Bible commentators like to refer to the believers in this community described by Luke as the “Jerusalem Church”.  That is both true and false.  The New Testament word for ”church” is ekklesia, meaning “called-out ones”.  Refer to the specifics of the two messages we have heard from Peter.  These believers are indeed being called out — they’ve been warned to “be saved from this perverse generation” (2:40), meaning the politics and theology that was specifically responsible for murdering Israel’s Messiah.  But this community of Hebrew believers is being called into a different program, one which will sadly be set aside in a short time.  Today we, on the other hand, are also called out of a perverse generation (a much broader world-system than those in Jerusalem) and are being called into a program where there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, and which ends in a promise of heaven, not a promise of an earthly kingdom.

Yes, God is still very much at work wooing Israel to repent of a specific sin at this juncture in Acts.  Peter, never one to soft-pedal anything, has had some very special listeners this time… but that’s another blog post!

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The Lame Will Leap

“Behold, a king will reign righteously… then My people will live in a peaceful habitation… Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not.  Behold your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.  Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy.”  (Isaiah 32:1,18; 35:4-6)

To borrow a line from J. R. R. Tolkien at the close of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, “Now begin the days of the King!”  Isaiah, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, prophesied about the wonders of Israel’s days of blessing, when all of her enemies would be put beneath their rule.  And now we read in Acts that the days Isaiah foretold are coming to pass.  Israel’s kingdom is at hand, and God’s promises to Abraham are about to reach their ultimate fulfillment.

What happens next is astonishing, and it opens the door for Peter to plead with Israel twice, once with the general populace gathered on the Temple grounds, and once with Israel’s leadership.  What will Peter’s method and message be?  Will he speak of a “kingdom in the hearts of men” that supplants the promises God made to Israel alone?  Or will he continue to speak about the fulfillment of Israel’s promised earthly kingdom?  Let’s see…

A Lame Man Healed

Please take the time now to read Acts 3:1-10 in your study Bible.  I’ll wait for you to finish.

Welcome back!  Luke’s description of this event is, as usual, straightforward and factual.  There’s lots to observe here, but not much need for interpretation.  Let’s use the newspaper reporter’s rule of thumb:

  • WHO: Peter, John, the lame man, and the people in the vicinity of the Temple who were watching
  • WHAT: A miraculous healing of a congenital defect — so much so that he leaped up and was able to walk normally
  • WHERE: At the Beautiful Gate entrance to the Temple grounds
  • WHEN: About three o’clock in the afternoon, the time of prayer
  • HOW: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene

Those who witnessed this event were filled (remember, that word means completely under the influence of) with wonder and amazement!  This was no charlatan’s trick with a fake invalid.  Everyone knew who this man was — they had grown used to seeing him there in his lame condition for years.  Nor was it a lameness brought about by old age, such as arthritis, or from an accidental injury.  This was not something that would heal itself in time, for his feet and ankles had been misshapen from his mother’s womb.  It was, in fact, the most impossible (and therefore improbable) form of lameness to be cured.  And it was cured – instantaneously!

Peter Explains

Again, please take the time to do a cursory reading of Acts 3:11-26 now.  I’ll wait for you as before.

Peter himself is a bit amazed — but not by the miracle that has taken place through him.  He’s a little amazed that the onlookers still don’t “get it.”  The lame man was certainly impressed!  The word says he clung to Peter and John as they continued into the Temple grounds along the collonade known as Solomon’s Portico.  Peter speaks to the crowd around him.  His speech is very similar to how he explained what had happened at Pentecost, and draws the same conclusions about what they must do.

Peter’s message in general follows this line of thinking:

  • We didn’t peform this miracle through our own power.
  • God performed this miracle through Jesus from Nazareth, the Christ.
  • You disowned and murdered Jesus.
  • God raised Him from the dead (which we witnessed).
  • You acted in ignorance, but the prophets predicted it.
  • So it’s time to repent!
  • God sent Jesus to turn you from your wicked ways.

There is very little in this outline that can’t be said of the Gospel and its demand on sinful men today.  But I hope you noticed that I left out an awful lot of detail!  Now it is time for you to be more discerning of the details in this passage, dear reader.  Time to be noble and really search these verses for what they say.  I’ll take a little different approach this time.  Instead of just telling you what’s here and what it adds up to, I’m going to ask you to do the legwork.  Well… some of it!  Please have your study Bible close at hand, and then click on the link below for the next post.  When you get there, you might want to print a copy to write on…

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A Community Established

The remaining verses in Chapter 2 and the next six chapters of Acts provide a window on the community of believers in Jerusalem in the days following Pentecost.  Up to now we have proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace in our discussions, needing to be very careful to establish in detail the scenario that Luke has actually recorded.  We’ll be picking up the pace from here, but as we do so let’s not forget what we have learned so far:

  • There has been no mention of a change to a dispensation different from that which Israel was expecting — the restoration of David’s kingdom by the prophesied Messiah.
  • That kingdom would be prefaced by the Great Tribulation, which would result in Israel ruling the world and all mankind being blessed through Israel.
  • The twelve apostles had been promised that they would sit on twelve thrones ruling over the twelve tribes in the new kingdom.
  • The Holy Spirit had come as promised by the prophet Joel and by Jesus Christ himself.
  • Paul, God’s special apostle to the gentiles, has not yet appeared in Luke’s narrative — and will not until the very end of the seventh chapter.
  • The Dispensation of Grace, the day of the Church, is still a mystery hidden in God.

Throughout the coming six chapters God is still offering the kingdom to Israel, if her religious intelligencia will only repent of murdering their Messiah.  God is still showing them great patience and mercy, as He does to this very day.  Gradually, God set Israel and her prophetic promises aside because of their unbelief and did an end-run around their obstinacy to reach the gentiles in spite of Israel.  The book of Acts is the historical record of that process.

God loves Israel greatly, and is longsuffering.  He will not set her aside forever, nor will He destroy them in judgement.  Their day will return!  How fortunate we are that Israel was obstinate and God had to temporarily set them aside.  As the Apostle Paul puts it,

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they?  May it never be!  But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.  Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! …For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written… From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy.  For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all.  Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  (Romans 11:11-12, 25-26, 28-33)

Surely God, the author of the entire Bible, would not hide such a major transition in a dark corner.  After all, He spent every word of the Scriptures on Israel’s history and promises from the first verses of Genesis 12 to the passages in Acts we are now studying.  Surely the setting aside of Israel and her promises would be a drastic turn of events and would occupy a significant amount of description and explanation.  In fact, God took an entire book to describe it historically (the book of Acts) and thirteen letters from the Apostle Paul to describe its theological ramifications.

The events we are about to study describe things that are no longer taking place among God’s people today, the church of this Age of Grace — because they belong to Israel and her promised kingdom.  Those who deny this have not grasped the special message God gave to Paul for the gentiles, nor have they grasped God’s purpose in providing the book of Acts for us to study.  Paul says plainly that Israel has been set aside in unbelief and that God is dealing directly with the gentiles now.  Just as we have seen in the first two chapters of Acts, that is certainly not the case, nor will it be for the next six chapters.  It’s still all about Israel and the coming to life of her ancient prophetic promises.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, the jury is still out on whether this is the real thing, or, sadly, just a foretaste.

The Effects of Peter’s Explanation of Pentecost

The concluding verses of Acts Chapter 2 are straightforward in their description, and need no interpretation.  But if we can see them with fresh eyes, unfettered by old presuppostions, they can be quite surprising.  Here’s an outline of Acts 2:41-47, but please read it for yourself now and check the accuracy of my outline:

  1. 3,000 of Peter’s audience repented and were baptized on that very day.
  2. The 3,000 devoted themselves continually (spent all their time and energy) to
    1. being taught by the Apostles
    2. participating in fellowship
    3. “breaking of bread”
    4. prayer
  3. Everyone felt a sense of awe; many miracles were happening through the Apostles
  4. They were all together, and shared everything in common
  5. They began selling property and sharing the proceeds with anyone in need
  6. They continued every day
    1. single-mindedly
    2. in the Temple
    3. in each others’ houses
      1. breaking bread
      2. sharing meals
    4. with gladness and sincerity of heart
    5. with continual praise (be careful — the verse breaks are man-made)
  7. They were favored by “all the people”.
  8. God added to their number every day.

This is enough to warm the cockles of any evangelist’s heart!  The number of people being saved every day has historical parallels such as the Great Awakening and most recently the spiritual crusades by Billy Graham and others.  And we certainly pray and hope for such a moving of God among the lost today.  But consider for a moment what these more recent new believers do after the moment they are saved.  Do they spontaneously (or by our teaching with our approval)

  • stop earning a living and spend all their time together?
  • sell all their possessions and give the proceeds to the needy or to the church leaders?
  • stand in awe of miracles performed by their leaders?
  • have the “same mind”?
  • eat in a continuous round of home-based pot-luck meals?
  • experience favor from the rest of society?

One or two of these behaviors today would result in fairly rapid ruin!  Isolated groups of believers (and unfortunately, cults) have attempted to live like this on occasion.  I have a book from my college days entitled When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (Paperback - Jan 1, 1956).  By secular authors, it was nonetheless a fascinating study of a particular cult whose attempt to live this kind of life ultimately failed.

My point here is that we do not teach new believers to do these things today, nor do they do it “naturally”.  In the light of our own economy and work ethic, this seems outlandish — especially the selling of all property and turning over the proceeds to church leaders.  But God was “dead” serious about this practice, as we will read concerning Ananias and Sapphira in Chapter 5!  Clearly the scenario described in the end of Acts 2 belongs to a different age, program, or dispensation.  Remember, this word really is oikonomos — economy!

God’s approval of the practice of selling all possessions and giving the proceeds to the Apostles, of having all things in common, is clearly a terrible misfit with our economic experience today.  But it was a perfect fit for the believers in Jerusalem.  What was their prophetic expectation?  The Christ had come, and the long-promised Kingdom was appearing daily before their very eyes.  Soon they would all be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams and would be released from the economic and political bondage of Rome and her tax collectors!  If you were in their shoes, what would you have done with your wealth?

They “communalized” their wealth because they expected a complete reversal of economy in a very short time, so for whatever days of the old economy remained, they decided to share with each other — and maybe even “live it up” a bit.  To put it in inadequate worldly terms, these folks were having the holiest party history has ever seen, waiting for their Elvis to come in the building!  It fits perfectly with Israel’s prophetic kingdom, which was still being preached, offered, and certified by signs and wonders through the hands of those who would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel — and now demonstrated – at this point in Luke’s narrative.  Indeed, this is a foretaste of what life in the Millennial Kingdom will be like, as the King’s wealth will provide for all!

In each of the coming posts, we’ll see this principle over and over.  Each episode is characteristic of what life will be like during the Millennial Kingdom.  God is giving Israel a foretaste of the kingdom in the hope that there will be national repentance.  Indeed, Israel has one toe in the Kingdom waters through these 3,000 believers. 

Again, with Paul and with biblical hindsight, we humbly praise God for His infinite wisdom that brought salvation to us in spite of Israel’s obstinacy when He was prevented from doing so through Israel’s rule.

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Repent — but of what?

Finally we come to Peter’s answer to the question, “Brethren, what should we DO?”  But before we dive in, dear reader, a reminder — if we are to observe the Word for what it says, we must cast of preconceived notions about what we might have been taught it means.  We are not at the point of interpreting the passage until we have discovered what it says plainly for ourselves.

If we are going to apply anything we have learned before, let it be what we have learned from Luke in the preceeding chapters and verses.  Luke’s continuity is unbroken here.  What he is describing is God dealing with Israel according to His prophetic promises — the most prominent of which is the promise of an earthly kingdom.  That has been the context throughout our studies to this point, and there is no mystical transition to a “kingdom in the hearts of men”.  When God is ready to describe that transition in His Word, He will make it clear.  And the time in Luke’s narrative has not yet come.

Peter’s audience is still Men of Israel (vv5, 14, 22, 36).  What’s more, the specific accusation that caused such an anguished reaction in his listeners was that they were responsible for the crucifixion of the Messiah.  Note that Peter does not accuse them of any of the raft of sins described by Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the believers in Rome!  Peter doesn’t accuse them of violating any of the Ten Commandments specifically or of violating any of the ceremonial Laws of Moses.  He doesn’t accuse them of some general moral failure.  His accusation was very pointed and specific, and it evoked a very pointed and specific reaction:

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”  And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”  And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”  (Acts 2:37-40)

Peter states the action they must take – repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  The Greek word used for repent is metanoeo, a combination of the positional prefix meta, meaning opposite (in the sense of “across from”), and nous, the mind.  It literally means opposite-think.  Implied in this word is a process of both realization and action.  It is to realize that God has been right all along and we have been deceived, and then to do an about-face in our thinking, agreeing with God that He is right.

What did this mean to Peter’s listeners in the context of his accusation?  What God required of them was to realize that they had been completely wrong about the things that led to Jesus crucifixion and completely change their minds to what God had been trying to tell them all along — that He had sent His Son in the person of Jesus, and that He was the long-awaited Messiah.  In a nutshell, God was requiring them to change their minds on the issue of whether or not Jesus was the Christ.

Repentance and baptism in Jesus’ name were for forgiveness.  Israel was familiar with baptism, for much of the Law of Moses included ceremonial washings.  By Jesus’ day, Elijah had returned just before Jesus in the person of John the Baptist, whose role was to “make ready the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4, quoted from Isaiah 40:3).  Interestingly, Luke describes John’s ministry in Luke 3:3 as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” – nearly the exact wording Peter used in Acts 2:38.  John’s baptism was accomplished with water, as he himself describes in Luke 3:16.  Most Bible scholars agree that the concepts of repentance, baptism and forgiveness are tightly intertwined symbolically and practically.  The sins that John the Baptist addressed were a wide range of moral violations ranging from selfishness to extortion to Herod’s wicked ways.  Absent from his list was the specific act of crucifying their Messiah, for John had no foreknowledge of it and Israel was not guilty of it yet.  In any case, it’s reasonable here to consider that Peter had water baptism in the manner used by John the Baptist in mind.

English punctuation notwithstanding, we should interpret Peter’s statement in the light of Luke’s description of John’s preaching.  Taken alone, Acts 2:38 could be taken as two separate actions, (1) repentance, and (2) baptism for the forgiveness of sin.  This would appear to make forgiveness of sin dependent on only the baptism.  The question hinges on what the word “for” points to.  Does it point to baptism alone, to repentance alone, or to repentance and baptism together?  IMHO, on the basis of Luke’s description of John the Baptist’s preaching, it points to both repentance and baptism.

There are three salient points to recognize at this point in the narrative.  (1) Forgiveness required both repentance and baptism.  (2) According to Peter the order is important — repentance first, then baptism.  My Baptist friends would express it as an inward change of heart symbolized by a following outward action.  Only one can produce the other.  And (3), Peter is expressing the same thing to Israel that John the Baptist did, both of them Israelites speaking to Israelites according to the prophetic promises God made to Israel.  Allusions in John’s ministry (Luke 3) and here in Acts 2 to blessings and salvation for all of mankind are still in the context of coming through Israel to the world, rather than in spite of Israel’s disbelief.  The great mystery of the Church is still hidden in God at this point in the narrative.

If Peter’s listeners did what he said was required of them by God, what would be the result?

…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (v38)

Notice, dear reader, that receiving the Holy Spirit will come after their baptism according to Peter at this time.  Peter and his companions will be surprised in Chapter 10 when gentile believers receive the Holy Spirit before they are baptized!  God will be changing the way that this all happens in the coming chapters, and it will be profitable for us to pay attention to the order of events.  By the time we reach Paul’s letters, the requirement of water baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit as a separate delayed event will have been completely eliminated.  We also need to remember that Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit’s coming was accurately described by Jesus and Luke as a cloaking and sitting upon believers, not an indwelling.  Peter’s expectation is that the Holy Spirit will “come upon” these new believers in the same manner He came upon the original 120 at Pentecost.

Peter goes on to say,

For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.

The first word, for, is important here — it’s used in the sense of because and it conveys the notion that Peter is about to give a supporting reason to what he has just told them to do.  In essence, Peter says “Do this, because…”  Because what?  Because of the promise.  What promise? The promise he began his speech with — the one from Joel.  Go back and read it again in vv17-21.  Peter says it “is for you and your children,” just as Joel said that their “sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”  Who did Peter mean when he said “you and your childred?”  If we stay in context, he meant Israelites.  The blessing would come to them first.

Joel and Peter go on to enlarge the blessing to “all who are far off” and whoever calls upon the name of the Lord.  Please notice that Joel was speaking about the days leading into the Tribulation and the Kingdom, and Jesus had trained Peter and the other apostles for the same period of time.  It was their expectation and anticipation.  Knowing nothing of a time when Israel would be temporarily set aside for their unbelief, when God would go around obstinate Israel to reach the Gentiles, Peter’s expectation for those who were “far off” was that they would receive what was promised to Israel through Israel — the hope of an earthly kingdom.

The last observation by Luke in this passage is an interesting statement by Peter, speaking under the power of the Holy Spirit.  He urges them to be rescued (“saved”) from “this perverse generation.”  Remember Jesus’ words as He prepared His disciples for the coming Tribulation: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.” (Luke 21:32)  This is the same Greek word in both places, and we have discussed it in a previous post.  Suffice it to say that in both places it represents Israel’s persistent national mindset that Jesus was not the Christ.  It was the prevailing orthodox theology in Israel in that day.  It may not have been the view of the majority, but it was the view of those who held theological power (and therefore political power) in Israel.  Peter is repeating Jesus’ very words to them, from God’s inerrant point of view, and he is urging them to reject the pressure of the religious establishment and have a reversal of mind and heart about Jesus — which is exactly where he began his reply.  Repent!

God was calling Israel to repent, but of what?  John the Baptist had called them to repent of their generally evil ways, to be morally and ceremonially clean and presentable in preparation for the coming King.  But Peter, by God’s direction, pinned only one sin on them.  Do you know what it was now? 

The words that God gave Peter pierced their hearts.  So did they take his advice?

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A loose end…

Before we launch into Peter’s response to his listeners’ pressing question, “Brethren, what shall we DO?”, we need to clarify a detail that we passed over in the heat of the events…

Return to Peter’s quotation of Joel and look especially at the last words of v17.  The translators of the NASB, in their efforts to modernize the language, translated as “mankind” the word “flesh,” just as they did in Joel 2:28.  The word in Joel is a Hebrew word, and the word in Acts is a Greek word.  Our premise that this portion of Acts has to do only with the nation of Israel and her prophetic promises, and not with the church of today in which there is no difference between Jew and Greek, seems to be clearly countermanded by this single expression “all mankind”.  If our premise is correct, shouldn’t Peter have said “all Israel” rather than “all mankind” (“all flesh“)?

As good students of God’s Word, we should get a clear grasp of both the Hebrew and Greek words in use in this verse.  The Hebrew word is basar, basically referring to the skin, musculature and bones of animals and humans, but by inference is extended to blood relatives, the entire human race, all living things and even life (animation) itself.  Notably, the Hebrews did not use this term for the spiritual side of man, and believed that the root of sin in man resided in his spiritual side, not his “flesh.”  The Greek word used in Acts is sarx.  The Greeks used this word to describe the visible body of living things, but did not distinguish a separate “soul” as did the Hebrews.  The Greeks believed that the root of sin was in the flesh, unlike the Hebrews.  (Interestingly, John uses this word in the opening verses of his gospel when he writes, “…and the Word became sarx and dwelt among us.”  This is plainly stated to correct the Gnostic heresy that Christ was some sort of apparition during His earthy ministry, not really having a human body.)

If we are to take Luke (and God) literally, the Holy Spirit, according to Joel and accurately quoted by Peter, was poured out on their bodies, not into their “hearts” as He is in the Church today.  That is, in fact, exactly what Luke described when the tongues of flame “sat” (Gr. ekathisen, from kathidzow) on each one of them, that is, their visible bodies.

Peter did quote Joel accurately, and God intended him (and empowered him) to do so — what Joel described as “all flesh” was well within the promises made to Israel through many of the prophets.  During the Kingdom God would bless all nations and peoples through Israel, and who is to say He would not do so with His Spirit as well as with physical blessings?  Joel, speaking as a prophet in the context of Israel’s future says as much.  Peter, speaking to Israelites, quotes him in the same context.

We often say that Scripture should be interpreted in the light of Scripture, meaning that any given passage needs to be understood in relation to other passages that deal with the same subject.  Let’s apply that principle here.  In Acts 1:12-26 (the occasion of selecting Matthias as the twelfth apostle), Peter speaks to Hebrews about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies.  In the passage we are now studying, Peter addresses men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem about a Hebrew prophecy in v14.  He continues to address men of Israel in v22.  In v36 he says, “Therefore let all the House of Israel know…”  Note that Peter’s quote from Joel comes in the middle of these verses.  Did Peter begin by addressing Hebrews about Hebrew issues, then slip into a larger context of the Church for this one verse (a quotation, no less, which he was empowered by God to quote precisely), and then slip back into the Hebrew context?

Let’s consider one more important passage.  Please turn in your Bible to Acts 10:44-45, which are at the climax of Peter’s visit to the Gentile Cornelius.  (It would be good to read the entire 10th chapter).  How did the coming of the Spirit upon the believing members of Cornelius’ household affect Peter and those who came with him?  They were amazed.  If Peter was already aware of the union of Jew and Gentile in the Church of today (a hallmark of the Age of Grace) in Chapter 2, why was he amazed eight chapters later in Chapter 10?  As we shall see when we study Chapter 10, Cornelius and his household were receiving exactly what Joel had prophesied — the blessing of Gentiles through Israel’s promises of an earthly kingdom.  In both the second and tenth chapters of Acts, God was still offering the promised Kingdom to Israel, and the truths Paul would write in Ephesians 2:11-22 were still a mystery hidden in God.  Cornelius and his household received the Spirit on Kingdom terms, not on these terms explained many years later by Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by the so-called Circumcision, which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.  And ‘He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near’; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.  (Ephesians 2:11-18)

This concept is found only in the writings of Paul.  If God had “generalized” the Gospel to all mankind at Pentecost to Peter and the other eleven apostles, why did Peter continue as if the message was only addressed to Jews, and why were Peter and his travelling companions surprised when the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his household?  The simple answer is that Peter did not know it at this juncture in the narrative of Acts, nor did he know it by the 10th chapter either.

This is extremely important to understand and remember as we pick up the story from Luke again in the next post — the continuity of Luke’s record in the context of prophetic promises to Israel of an earthly kingdom remains in force as we proceed!

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This is That

This is that which was spoken of through the prophet Joel:  “And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even upon my bondslaves, both men and women, I will pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the Great and Glorious Day of the Lord shall come.  And it shall be, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Joel 2:28-32)

The awareness of the truth of Peter’s assertion would have been instantaneous among these listening Jews and proselytes who knew the Scriptures so devoutly.  And Peter’s conclusion would have hit them like a 300 pound linebacker sacking a quarterback — the long-awaited Day of the Lord, Daniel’s seventieth week, is beginning.  Rome will soon be overthrown.  David’s Throne will soon be restored.    You can almost hear the excited murmurs passing through the crowd echoing through history down to our very day.  As we read further into Peter’s remarks, please keep in mind the impact of his assertion in their minds!

But there is a problem — a stumbling block in the minds of many listeners:

“Men of Israel, listen to these words:  Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know — this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.  And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)… “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)

Yes, I know I skipped over vv25-35 — they are a scriptural proof of what Peter was asserting.  We’ll consider them in a moment.  But as a parenthetical expression in Peter’s logical presentation, the weight of the conclusion of his presentation is better understood without it for the moment.  So consider the effect the premise and conclusion would have had on a crowd that was already abuzz with the excitement of the coming of the Day of the Lord.  What a devastating bombshell!  What effect do you think this had on the crowd?

“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we DO?” (Acts 2:37)

I hope the Scriptures have conveyed to you the strength of the emotions these listeners were experiencing, and that it brings a fresh vitality to your reading of this passage.  They were on a high one moment, and in the depths of despair the next.  What a roller-coaster ride God was taking them on through the words of Peter!

Why did they not just choose to disagree with Peter and ignore his remarks?  Why did they say OH NO instead of just saying NO?  Well, that’s what the parenthetical verses (vv25-35) accomplished in the middle of Peter’s logical presentation.  Like any good geometry proof, his argument had facts in the middle that led irrefutably to the conclusion.

“For David says of Him, ‘I was always beholding the Lord in my presence, for He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.  Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue exulted; morover my flesh also will abide in hope; because thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.  Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with Thy presence.’” (Acts 2:25-28, quoted from Psalm 16:8-11)

Look carefully now at what Peter has to say about David’s words, uttered centuries before.  Remember that talking to a crowd of people today in New York City on a streetcorner in terms of David would be meaningless — it would only be factual proof of Peter’s assertion to devout Jews and proselytes who were expecting the restoration of David’s kingdom.  We must hear Peter’s words now as if we were one of them!  Read vv29-33 for yourself right now.  Here’s the gist of what Peter told them:

  • v29: David is dead and buried.  His tomb is right over there.  You can check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me (duh!)
  • v30: David new that one of his descendents would occupy his throne because God had promised it to him
  • v31: So David “looked ahead” and said of that descendent that God would not abandon Him to Hades or allow his flesh to decay in death
  • v32: This exact thing happened to Jesus, and we all are eye-witnesses of it
  • v33: Therefore, since we also are eye-witnesses to his glorified ascencion, and having received the Holy Spirit ourselves, God has taken the next step just as He said he would in Joel

Then Peter drives the final nail into the coffin of their objections:

  • David isn’t the one who ascended into Heaven  (Jesus did)
  • But David did say, “The Lord said to My Lord ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.”

Now this last quote is a bit tricky to understand, but it should be familiar.  Turn back in your Bible to Matthew 22:23-46 and read it now.  I’ll wait while you do it — I promise!

Welcome back!  Wasn’t that fun?  The Saducees, who don’t believe resurrection is possible started it, and when they left with their tails between their legs the Pharisees decided to try a similar tactic.  Their approach was a little more subtle, but their outcome was the same shame.  Don’t we love to gloat over the way Jesus cornered both groups with their own arguments?  According to Matthew, none of them ever dared ask Him such a question again.  I believe the expression is that they were all “hoist on their own petard.”  Foolish gloating aside, focus on vv42-45:

“‘What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?’  They said to Him, ‘The son of David.’  He said to them, ‘Then how does David in the Spirit call Him Lord, saying ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put Thine enemies beneath Thy feet’?  If David calls Him Lord, how is He his son?’”

It’s profitable at this point to turn back and read the context of David’s statement to help us understand who is being referred to as Lord here.  Turn back in your Bible to Psalm 110 and read it in its entirety.  As before, I’ll wait right here until you get back.

Welcome back again!  Here are a couple of questions about what you just read.

  • How long will the rule and priesthood of the kingdom described in this Psalm last?  (see v4)
  • Who will be at this ruler’s right hand? (see v5)
  • When will the Lord “shatter kings”? (see v5)

The confusion in this quote used by Jesus and by Peter stems from two sources, (1) the time juxtaposition always present in prophecy, and (2) the names “The Lord” and “My Lord”.  As far as time juxtaposition goes, we (in the present) are studying Peter (in the day of Acts 2) who is quoting David (in the day’s of David’s reign) about the Day of the Lord (a date sometime in the future for all of us)!  It’s enough to make your head swim, unless you step out of the flow of time in which we are imprisoned and see it as God sees it.  God is not trapped in the flow of human time, but sees all of human past, present, and future as a great panorama before Him.  It’s like a great time line that is already filled in to the end of time.  David (and Jesus and Peter) were all talking about events at the end of the time line, and David knew that the one who would reign in that future day would be a descendent of his.  On this basis we can see that “The Lord” is God eternal, known to Israel as Jehovah and that “My Lord” is not David himself, but is David’s promised descendent.  David, by the time he penned Psalm 110, had come to understand that not only would a descendent of his rule forever like Melchizedek, but even during David’s own lifetime he was at work in his life from a position at God’s right hand, awaiting the day when His enemies would be made a footstool for His feet.  In essence, IMHO David’s prophecy says,

Jehovah says to David’s descendent, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet in the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.”

Put back into the context of Peter’s argument, Peter is saying, “David wasn’t the one who ascended to sit at the right hand of Jehovah — Jesus did, and He is there now!  He is the ‘My Lord’ that David referred to!”

Put this back into the context of the entire parenthetical passage (vv25-36) and surround it with the rest of his presentation, and the logic looks like this:

  • God proved to you over and over that Jesus from Nazareth was His son and David’s son.
  • According to God’s plan you killed Him unjustly.
  • God has resurrected this Jesus just as David predicted.
  • It wasn’t David that came back to life — his decayed body is still right over there in his grave.
  • David predicted a descendent of his would not be held prisoner by death as David was, and His body would not decay.
  • David predicted this same descendent would sit at Jehovah’s right hand until His enemies were made into a footstool for Him.
  • David called this descendent his Lord even during his own lifetime.
  • David’s descendent is this very Jesus, who we saw come back to life and watched as He ascended to Jehovah’s right hand.
  • This same Jesus is seated at God’s right hand now, waiting and ready to conquer His enemies, just as David prophesied.
  • But you had Him crucified!

Imagine then the terrors and desperation that must have come to the minds of Peter’s audience.  It’s worth noting that what the most learned men in Israel for centuries had not been able to explain, this unlearned fisherman named Peter had just revealed in clear, simple terms — connected to the reality of the moment.  Peter’s listeners came to the sudden realization that they had “fallen into the hands” of a very powerful and potentially very angry God, the very God they held in such high esteem!  No doubt visions of the earth opening under their feet and swallowing them into Sheol alive passed before the eyes of some, for they would have known of Korah’s rebellion in the days of Moses.  This speech of Peter’s certainly wasn’t a boring presentation at an annual stockholders’ meeting.  It’s no wonder that their response was to cry out to the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we DO?”

Throughout human history great speakers have swayed the hearts and minds of men, inciting them to go to war and to cease from war, to accomplish great things, even at risk of death.  In the last century alone we hear the echos of Winston Churchill (“We shall fight in the trenches…”), Franklin D. Roosevelt (“The only thing we have to fear…”), John F. Kennedy (“…put a man on the moon…”) and Martin Luther King (“I have a dream…”).  But I doubt if ever the hearts of men were pierced as were the hearts of these devout Jews and proselytes on the day Peter explained to them what they had just seen.  In the next post — Peter answers their desperate question.

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Peter is about to address the people who had witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Some of those gathered there tried to explain the miraculous translation of languages as drunkenness on the part of the 120.  But God is about to set them straight in very familiar terms — Peter will open his remarks with a quote from the prophet Joel.

We need to put aside reading this passage as if the people described in it are like us  in 21st Century America — ethnically diverse, religiously diverse and not devout about much of anything.  If I picked a magazine from a news stand at random, flipped it open, and quoted a paragraph to you, how much impact would it have on you?  On the other hand, if I knew that you were passionate about big motorcycles, picked up a copy of RoadRunner magazine, opened it to an article on new products for your particular motorcycle, and quoted a paragraph to you, you’d really sit up and take notice.  That’s the intensity of what is about to happen in the next verses in Acts.  It’s not like it happened in Times Square in New York City on any given day.  It’s more like it happened in Mecca during Ramadan!

Any devout follower of Jehova would have been familiar with Joel’s prophecy, and now would be a good time for you, noble Berean, to do the same.  Set this blog aside, pick up your Bible, and read the entire book.  It’s only three chapters and will take no more than a few minutes.  Please do it now before reading further in this blog post.  I’ll wait for you — really!

Welcome back!  Let’s make a brief outline of what you just read.

  • Joel 1:1-4 describes a plague of four kinds of locusts
  • Joel 1:5-12 describes the devastation caused by the locusts
  • Joel 1:13-14 pleads with the people of Israel to lament and call upon God for relief
  • Joel 1:15-20 reminds the people of Israel that God has judged them in the same way in the past, and has relented when they returned to Him
  • Joel 2:1-11 expands on the theme of the “Day of the Lord” mentioned in 1:15; it draws parallels to the plague of locusts, depicting human armies that are as numerous as locusts attacking Jerusalem
  • Joel 2:12-17 is a parallel plea for lamentation and repentance in relation to the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” that is the theme of Chapter 2
  • Joel 2:18-32 describes what will happen when the Lord delivers them from the terrors of the Day of the Lord and blesses them as they never have been before; included in this passage is the promise that God will pour out His Spirit on them in that day in vv28-29
  • Joel 2:30-3:21 describes how God will judge the heathen nations but will be a refuge to Israel in the Day of the Lord, avenging the injustices inflicted on Israel by her enemies and establishing Jerusalem and Judah as a habitation of His people forever

Joel’s message begins with the present danger of a plague of real locusts, and ends with long-future events that will follow the same pattern, only with humans instead of insects.  In both cases, the plea is for Israel to repent and return to God, who will receive them with forgiveness, joy, restoration, vengeance upon her enemies, great blessing above all other nations, and a promise of an eternal earthly kingdom centered at Jerusalem.  This is characteristic of God’s prophetic program throughout the Scriptures — it concerns Israel and an earthly kingdom.  In contrast, as gentiles who live in the Age of Grace, a time that was a mystery hidden in God until the Ascended Christ revealed it to Paul, our hope is a heavenly kingdom where we are eternally seated at the right hand of the Father in Christ.  We often describe this as the “clock of prophecy” having been temporarily stopped by God’s hand during our day, the Age of Grace.  But for the events of the second chapter of Acts, the clock is still ticking away and prophecy is being fulfilled — as it was during the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.

As a consequence, the people of Acts 2 would have known Joel’s prophecies intimately but would have known nothing about the intervening 2,000 years and more before they would be completely fulfilled.

While your reading of Joel is still fresh in your mind, I’d like you to re-read a passage we’ve studied before — Luke 21:7-36.  Please read it now before reading further in this blog post.  I’ll wait right here for you again.

Welcome back again!  Remember that Jesus was preparing His disciples for the days that lay ahead and for His triumphant return in power and glory.  Does any of it sound familiar?  Yes!  Joel said exactly the same terrible events would happen, as did the Apostle John in the book of Revelation.  In Joel 2:10 he describes earthquakes, the sun and moon being darkened, the heavens trembling and the stars losing their brightness.  In 2:30-31 Joel says there will be “wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire, and columns of smoke.  The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood.”  Luke records Jesus words in 21:11 saying, “…and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines, and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”  In Luke 21:22 we read that “these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.”  Again in Luke 21:25-27 we read, “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory.”

Let’s get the order of events correct here.  Joel prophesied these things hundreds of years before Jesus was born.  Jesus said these things to prepare His disciples before He was crucified.  After His resurrection, Jesus reinforced his training with the disciples for forty days, not teaching them anything that would negate or supercede their previous training.  His training had been so successful that just before He ascended, they asked Him if He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel, as they knew it had been prophesied.  Paul (and the mystery hidden in God) had not come on the scene yet, and Peter had no knowledge of the things that the Ascended Christ would reveal to Paul.

And now this devout crowd of Hebrews and proselytes from many lands and languages, gathered in Jerusalem for one of Israel’s three annual highest holy days, who knew the prophecies and promises of an earthly kingdom through their study and knowledge of the Prophets, and who were under the heavy hand of Roman oppression, had just experienced hearing the 120 speaking to them in their native languages – all of which God had so carefully engineered – these people are about to hear Peter’s explanation of this miracle…

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Great Perplexity

Acts 2:5-16 — “What does this mean?” (v12)

Please read the entire passage now to refresh your memory of the details.  Remember, try to observe what the passage says, and refrain from jumping to interpretations you may have been taught by others.

2:5 (please re-read the verse now) – This verse describes the kind of people who witnessed what had just happened to the 120 followers of Jesus when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  Luke, always concise and factual, describes them in four ways:

  • Luke is describing Jews, and by implication, possibly proselytes who had adopted the Jewish religion and God.  It will serve you well to remember he is limiting his narrative to Jews in the coming verses.
  • They were “living in Jerusalem.”  The word for “living” is katoikeow, literally “down-housed” in Jerusalem.  As we learned in an earlier post, this describes people who had retained long-term residential quarters in Jerusalem so that they could remain there for two of the Jewish high holidays, the Feast of Unleavened Bread (starting with Passover), and the Feast of First Fruits fifty days later (starting with Pentecost).  These residential quarters today would be described as “rooms by the month” to “summer homes” and anything in between.  Please notice that Luke does not describe them as “visiting” Jerusalem.  They were on pilgrimage, and would make every effort to be present for the entire eight weeks.
  • They were “devout men.”  The Greek word translated as “devout” here is eulabes, a contraction of eu (“with care”) and lambano (to “take” or “receive”).  This word is used only three times in the Bible, and it always refers to Jewish piety.  The inference is that those who were thus described received with great care the things of God.  It is the basis for the idea of the “fear of God,” a great respect for the person and nature of God.  The first use describes Simeon, the old man who had been promised by God that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:25).  The second use is here in the verse we are now studying.  The third use describes the men who carried the body of Stephen to his burial in Acts 8:2, in stark contrast to the persecutions begun at that time by a young man named Saul of Tarsus.  Spiros Zodhiates notes that the word describes such a person as a “scrupulous worshipper who is careful about” varying in any way from what God has prescribed for His worship, lest he offend God.  Please remember that Luke is describing Jews  here, not gentiles.
  • They were “from every nation under heaven.”  Doesn’t this indicate that they were a mixture of Jews and gentiles?  Not if you have learned your history lessons about the dispersion of the northern kingdom when they were conquered by the Assyrians!  Jews had indeed been scattered all over the known world over the course of several centuries, and the only reason they were in Jerusalem at this time was that God commanded the men of Israel to appear before Him three times a year, and they were devout about it!  Here, dear reader, I must comment on the mistaken notion that the church of today, described by the Apostle Paul as having “no difference” between Jew and Gentile, is demonstrated in this verse.  Those who teach this interpretation do so to attempt to justify their view that the church of today began at this point in Luke’s narrative — but careful study of the facts recorded by Luke does not support such an interpretation.  They assert that since the church began here, it demands that this verse describe an assembly of Jews and gentiles, followers and non-followers of Jehovah.  This assumes that which they are trying to prove, and twists the evidence to make it fit the assumption!  We would reply that since Luke describes only people devout toward Jehovah (Jews and proselytes), this verse demands that we understand this assembly to not represent the character of the church of today, but to perfectly represent what Israel was expecting.  Luke, in the historical and social context of Jerusalem in the days of these events, was crystal clear in what he wrote — and he had no choice to write otherwise since the Holy Spirit moved his heart and hand to write what he did.

The spectators who witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit were, in brief, Jewish, present in Jerusalem as God required, scrupulous in His worship, and from many lands, languages and cultures.  This verse has exactly zero information concerning the church of today, and is 100% concerned with Israel and the promise of the coming Millennial Kingdom.

2:6-8 (please re-read these verses now) — There is no need to launch into a word-by-word analysis of the Greek language in these verses, for they state plainly what happened.

  • The sound of the rushing wind had been heard far outside the upper room, and the “multitude” headed for its source.  Does this multitude represent a broader cross-section of Jews and gentiles?  It’s highly unlikely since the Israelitish strength of Luke’s description in the previous verse would require a change in context which Luke would surely have explained.  There is an even better reason found in v10, which we will explain shortly.
  • Those who gathered to investigate the sound of the wind were “bewildered”, and not just because of the confusion of the moment as often happens with natural disasters.  Luke carefully explains the source of their confusion…
  • Those who received the Holy Spirit (the 120 in the upper room) were speaking in the Galilean dialect of Hebrew, but the crowd, who was from “every nation under heaven”, perceived them to be speaking in their native languages (the languages “to which [they] were born”)!  Remember, these men and their families had been enculturated in the lands to which they were scattered for generations, and Hebrew was not their native language.  Again, this does not mean that they were gentiles, but that they were of the diaspora.
  • Luke says they were “amazed” and they “marvelled”, and this apparently went on long enough that these “foreign Jews” had time to compare notes.  No one heard them speaking in the gibberish of a language unknown to them, and they were not speaking in the universal language of commerce, Greek.  In fact, they all could have spoken in Greek, and the foreigners would have understood them.  But God had a very special reason to infuse this event with the miraculous — He was fulfilling a specific prophecy that Peter would point out as he explained to the crowd what was happening.

2:9-11 (please re-read these verses now) — As before, we do not need to investigate each country and region described here if we understand the diaspora.  Suffice it to say that the areas identified ring the Mediterannean Sea, the known world of Luke’s day.

However, toward the end of this list is an interesting phrase.  In v10 Luke writes “and visitors from Rome.”  Perhaps here is the flaw in my argument that these events were all about Jews and the Millennial Kingdom, and finally gives proof that the church of today where there is “neither Jew nor gentile” is what this passage is about!  Surely Roman visitors would be gentiles, wouldn’t they?  Unfortunately, Luke qualifies this expression in the next phrase by saying that they were “Jews and proselytes.”  Remember what we learned before about this term “proselyte” — it is a gentile (someone who is not genetically descended from Abraham) who has adopted the religion of Israel as his own, and by his practice of the Law and love for the God of Israel is considered by God to be included in the commonwealth of Israel.  Ruth in the Old Testament is a perfect example of this, and because of it she is included in the earthly lineage of both David and Christ! 

Some claim that the qualifying expression “both Jews and proselytes” does not refer to the “visitors from Rome”, but rather to all of the other nations in the entire list.  If that were the case, grammatically the expression would come at the beginning or the end of the list, not in the middle.  What’s more, even if it does apply to all of the nations listed, all the better — it leaves no room for any gentile from any nation to be included unless he is a Jewish proselyte!

This expression “visitors from Rome” does not describe the church age, but to the contrary, proves unquestionably that we are still in the context of the coming Millennial Kingdom, Israel’s hope and expectation.  The church, the mystery hidden in God in ages past has still not been revealed at this point in Luke’s narrative.

2:12-13 (please re-read these verses now) — For the third time in these eight verses Luke describes the effect on the crowd as amazement and perplexity.  They were bewildered (v6), amazed (v7), they marveled (v7), they continued to be amazed (v12), and they were perplexed (v12).  Note that this last descriptive word implies that they were trying to think it through and put two and two together — unsuccessfully.  Perplexity infers the formulation of a question in their minds that the previous four terms do not.  I believe God was stirring their hearts and minds with these events by planting a question that Peter would answer perfectly.  God even provided an incorrect explanation in the minds of some (that they were drunk) so that Peter’s explanation would stand in stark contrast to this worldly supposition.

2:14-16 (please re-read these verses now) — Peter, who has been given at least in part the keys to the Kingdom, now addresses the crowd.  His speech will continue through the next 21 verses.  Its content is amazing coming from an unlearned fisherman from Galilee, if that’s all he is.  But you already know that Jesus had promised that they would be given exactly the right words to say, and to not prepare remarks for the occasion, and that is what happens here.

  • Peter “takes his stand” with the eleven.  Luke means here that he identified himself with the other original disciples, including Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot.
  • The first thing Peter says indicates who he was speaking to, and he was very specific — “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem…”  Luke once again is very precise in his choice of words, as the word for “live in” is exactly the same katoikeow that he used in v5 to describe those who were in Jerusalem that day to witness the coming of the Holy Spirit.  By using this term, Luke demonstrates that the people to who Peter addressed his remarks were the same ones gathered as a result of the sound of the rushing wind, and who had heard the 120 speaking in their native languages.  It is a message for Israelites who are expecting the hope of Israel, about which we will have much more to say in the next post.
  • Peter corrects the mistaken notion that the 120 were drunk, noting that it was only 9:00 AM
  • Peter then contrasts (“but”) that notion with an explanation of what is really happening, and he says it was prophesied by Joel long ago. 

Joel was a prophet that was sent to the regions around Jerusalem (no mention is made of the division of the kingdom into northern and southern segments), and bears study in itself.  Peter quotes only four and a half verses from Joel in his message, but a broader reading of Joel reveals many details about the nature of Israel’s hope and the events surrounding the restoration of Israel as a world power.  So the next post will take a detour into the book of Joel the Prophet!

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Wild Wind

(Updated on 9/19/2010 since first publication!)

Please have your study Bible open to the second chapter of Acts.  Read each verse or block of verses before reading my explanation.  That is the Berean way — to read God’s word first, so that you can test what I say against the greater authority!  It will also be good to have whatever study helps you may have concerning the Greek language of the New Testament at hand, whether it is only Strong’s concordance, or an actual Greek New Testament and a lexicon or two.  If you have a copy of Vine’s Dictionary, keep that nearby as well.  Remember, our approach is to do our best to cast off what men may have taught us about this passage before, and try to see it with fresh eyes and without presumptions.  May the Holy Spirit who lives in you be the only one to whose wisdom you submit!

2:1 (read it in your Bible first)
The first phrase in this verse clearly states the singular date on the Jewish calendar on which the events Luke is about to describe took place.  It was fifty days following the event we call the “Upper Room,” and these two events fell precisely on two of the three highest Jewish holy days.  The second phrase describes who was involved.  Note that the participants are not named or even numbered, but are simply referred to as “they.”  Just as was the case when we studied Luke’s use of this pronoun throughout the first chapter, his narrative is a continuum, and the occurence of “they” in this verse points immediately back to “they” in 1:26, 24, 23, 14, 13, 12, et. al., and we have seen this collective term grow in number from the eleven to about 120.  This verse describes them as being together and in one place.  It does not tell us where that place was, but we can surmise that it was probably a house with a large upper room (cf 1:13) somewhere near the Temple.

2:2 (read it in your Bible first)
This verse is full of important descriptive words, and we must come to understand their meanings carefully.  If I strip away the “incidental words” (little words like if, to, and, from), the verse uses these words, in order:  suddenly, heaven, noise, violent, rushing, wind, filled, whole, house, sitting (as stated in the NASB version).  I mention these here only to give an example of our study method, not because we will actually study each of these words in Greek.  Suffice it to say that while the order of the words in the Greek text varies slightly from the NASB, their presence is actually in the Greek text word for word.

We must also take Luke’s words (and the Bible’s) at face value.  If we were to rephrase this verse in our own words, it would come out the same way.  There’s very little “wiggle room” for interpretation of Luke’s observations and recording of the facts.  (Sargent “just the facts, ma’am” Friday would be proud.)  Still, there is one important word here that we must come to understand — the word “filled.”  We will encounter this same English word in many passages, but the Greeks had several different words that have been translated as “filled” in English.  “Filled” in this verse is eplayrowsen, a grammatical derivative of playrow.  There is another word for “fill” used in Greek — gemidzow, that is used by John to describe what was done with the water and the pots at the wedding at Cana.  Playrow (and another derivative we will see again, pimplaymi) conveys a sense of being completely under the influence of something, while gemidzow conveys a sense of the complete occupancy of the three-dimensional space inside a container, often through an act of pouring.  The word “filled” in this passage is playrow, and it means “completely under the influence of.”

Be careful not to jump the interpretive gun here.  We are not talking about how the Holy Spirit affected the disciples.  This verse describes how the violent wind affected the house!  Notice how much farther this word goes than as if the wind merely occupied the house as a container!  It didn’t just occupy, it took over!

2:3 (read it in your Bible first)
Be careful!  Did the Holy Spirit set their hair on fire?  No, for Luke carefully tells us that there “appeared” to them tongues “as of” fire.  Luke is describing something for which he has no accurate words!  Whatever this was, it looked (appeared) something like (as of) fire and it broke apart so that some of it rested on each one of them.  Note that this passage does not describe, as is often portrayed in artist’s depictions, a single candle-flame sitting on each person’s head.  There is no mention of their heads at all!  While it was no doubt tongue-shaped, it doesn’t say each person had only one, either.  How do we describe the flames of a campfire?  They “lick” the night sky!  It’s entirely possible that it looked like a campfire surrounding the head and shoulders of each one.  We cannot help but wonder if it wasn’t the same glory that shone on Moses face after he had communed in person with God.  What an arresting and terrifying sight!  But there is no mention of terror here, for there was no time to become terrified.  Simultaneously with this appearance of fire came the presence of the Holy Spirit…

2:4 (read it in your Bible first)
The first word “and” indicates that this is continuous, simultaneous action with the previous verse.  Remember, the verse numbers and breaks were only added centuries later.  “They” (the same 120 as before) were “filled with the Holy Spirit”.  Which “filled”?  Eplaysthaysan, a grammatical derivative of playrow!  This means that they were fully under the influence of the Holy Spirit, just like the house was fully under the influence of the wind.  Luke has created a clever parallel here to describe an outward sign (the wind and its influence) of an inward occurrence (the Holy Spirit and His influence).

Notice that no mention of such influence was present in the story of replacing Judas Iscariot with Matthias.  The Holy Spirit had not yet come, and they had to rely on God’s direct intervention through the casting of lots.  Also please notice that Acts 4:31 (look ahead in your Bible, please) describes a separate, later occasion when “they” (a group now grown to about 5,000 men — see 4:4) were “all filled with the Holy Spirit”.  New believers are not distinguished from the original 120.  It’s possible that the word “all” really means all of them, including the original 120.  Nor is there any indication that the “tongues of flame” persisted through the intervening days to the fourth chapter.  (4:31 says nothing about tongues of flame, nor do any of the following instances of bestowing the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands.) If so, this is a repeat filling, at least for some of them.  Why?  Did the Holy Spirit somehow leak out?

To ask such a question puts us back in the mindset of the lesser Greek word for “fill”, gemidzow, a container occupied by something that has exited through a flaw.  Remember, the word in use here (in both passages) is playrow, to be completely under the influence of something.  The implication is that the Holy Spirit’s influence may have waned and then been restrengthened.  Does the Holy Spirit “come and go?”

Let’s consider an Old Testament example.  Turn to I Samuel 10:5-10 (read it now, please).  This passage describes the action of the Holy Spirit in empowering men to do His work, from the Judges (including Samson), to Saul and the prophets in this passage, to David’s mighty men, and more.  In the story of Saul’s life it’s patently obvious that when the Holy Spirit came upon him (the Hebrew word means to be fully influenced by), He did not stay nor have any “sealing” effect on Saul.  The Holy Spirit came upon Saul to do His work, and left him when His work for the moment was done.  IMHO, the Holy Spirit was still acting in this manner at Pentecost.  It was, in fact, how any Jew would have expected Him to work.

There were many miracles performed by the Apostles over the course of chapters two through four, and they could not have been performed without the influence of the Holy Spirit.  But that does not mean that they had to be completely under His influence the entire time.  It is equally possible that He, in the language of the Old Testament, “came upon” them for the moment of the miracle, and was always with them.

Before we leave this discussion of playrow for better things, take a look at two other verses that use the same word, Acts 5:17 and Acts 5:28.  In the first case, the high priest and his associates were “filled” with jealousy.  Surely this means that they were completely under the influence of their own jealousy.  If Luke used the same word in this instance that he did to describe how the Holy Spirit worked at Pentecost, then we could say that they were completely under the influence of their own jealousy in the same way that the Apostles were completely under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  In the second case, the city of Jerusalem was “filled” with their teaching.  Does this mean that the streets and buildings were neck-deep in little paper pamphlets, a physical substance occuping a container completely?  I doubt it!  Clearly it means that all of Jerusalem’s people were being influenced by what the Apostles were teaching.  We could say that the people of Jerusalem were completely under the influence of the Apostles’ teaching in the same way that the Apostles were under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  All three cases required Luke, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to use the same word, meaning the same thing. In all three cases, the action described falls short of something greater…

The Apostle Paul, many years later, describes the relationship between the believer in the Age of Grace and the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:9,11. (Please look these verses up and read them now.)  He never uses playrow or gemidzow to describe it, but instead uses the word oikeow.   These verses teach us that the Holy Spirit does more than influence us or be with us to empower us for the occasion.  Luke does not use this word in describing the events of Pentecost.  Oikeow means to dwell or take up residence.  Paul says that the Holy Spirit dwells in us!  We are His house.  He upbraids the Corinthians for their behavior toward each other, saying, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (I Cor. 3:1).

In Luke 24:49 Jesus describes how the Holy Spirit will come to His disciples in a few days.  “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”  In Acts 1:8 they are told again to remain in the city where they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  Note Luke’s use of the words upon and clothed in these verses. (John also uses the word with in John 14:16.)  Why didn’t Luke write, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father into you, but you are to stay in the city until you are indwelt by power from on high… receive power when the Holy Spirit has indwelt you?”   Jesus was not at a loss for ways to describe the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the disciples — He also used the word “clothed,” which in the Greek is endusaysthee, a form of enduow, to “put on as a cloak”.  Interestingly, we use the prefix “endo” in medicine and science to indicate something on the inside, as in “endoskeleton” (as opposed to an insect’s exoskeleton), which would seem to indicate that the Holy Spirit will be inside the disciples.  However, the other half of this Greek word, duow, means “to enter”.  The Greek inference for the whole word is that putting on a cloak is to ”enter into” it.  Note that the person is on the inside and the cloak is on the outside.   Thus, Jesus’ use of this word places the believer on the inside, wrapped on the outside by the Holy Spirit.  The disciples would literally be “dressed in the Holy Spirit.”  Again, there is NO sense in this passage of the Holy Spirit indwelling them.  I believe the differences in these words were deliberate choices of the Holy Spirit as Luke and Paul wrote them, and clearly differentiate two different modes of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to believers in different dispensations.

Here again is an opportunity to sharpen our scholarship about God’s Word and clear away confusion.  We have often been trained to understand the Holy Spirit as “The Comforter.”  What is the origin of this concept, and what is the Greek word?  Jesus used this word to describe the Holy Spirit during His teaching of the disciples at the Last Supper.  The things He was telling them were troubling (things about the coming Tribulation), and he wanted to encourage and strengthen them for what lay ahead.  The Greek word used by Luke was parakalayton.  In personal reference to the Holy Spirit it occurs only four times, all in the Gospel of John and all in the Upper Room discourse (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7).  From these four occurrences we have been trained to call the Holy Spirit by the English corruption The Paraclete.  What does this Greek word mean?  Para is a Greek prefix denoting position, usually “beside.”  We use the same prefix in English to identify lines that run in the same direction and never cross each other — parallel lines.  Kaleo is “to call” (think of call-ay-oh).  So think of parakaleo literally as beside-call.  The picture is precisely that of the person who comes as soon as they hear the news and sits beside you in the hospital waiting room and puts their arm around you.  That is exactly why this name for the Holy Spirit is translated as “comforter”.  Do you remember Paul’s companion Barnabas, and the nickname he was known by?  “Son of Encouragement” — literally Son of Parakaleo.

Please notice that Jesus teaches His disciples that the Holy Spirit will accompany them (He will be called alongside), giving them power and confidence.  Throughout the Upper Room discourse the Holy Spirit is spoken of as a separate Person (as well He is), but at no point does Jesus describe the Spirit’s relationship to the disciples as indwelling them.  What’s more, the events of Pentecost fit perfectly with the nature of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the disciples as described in the Upper Room discourse, but do not fit with Paul’s unique description of indwelling.

Why am I making such a big deal out of this?  Two reasons.  First, Bible teachers who reject this idea of the Holy Spirit working differently during the time of the revealed mystery than He did in the Old Testament do so to protect their fundamental premise that the church of the Age of Grace began at Pentecost.  To accept this would require changing their understanding of the beginning of the church, not just the methods chosen by the Holy Spirit.  Both are huge sacred cows, and this idea threatens their understanding of the church.  They would have to throw away too much of their orthodox training to allow it.  So they stumble over the truth but go on as if nothing happened.  (That’s putting it mildly.  We could go so far as to say that some run as fast in the opposite direction as they can, or, worse, try to silence those who understand what the Bible says plainly.)

Second, this is a perfect example of how the mystery has much greater blessing and power in every regard than what the Apostles experienced at Pentecost before the mystery was revealed.  Which would you prefer?  A refillable mug (that has to be returned to the source to be refilled from the outside), or one that has within itself the source of refreshment?  It is so much more blessed to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit than it is to merely be accompanied by or influenced (even if completely) by Him intermittenly.  Remember my “heresies” back in previous blog posts?  In every case, the pattern of all of them is like this one.  What Christ revealed to Paul for the Age of Grace trumps anything the Apostles in the early chapters of Acts had. 

If Paul’s writings were missing from the Bible, we would know nothing of a Holy Spirit who actually has taken up permanent residence in us.  We would only know of His full influence as the moment required, just like the Judges, Saul, David, and and the Prophets.  The Bible never describes them as being “sealed” by the Holy Spirit as a downpayment and assurance of their future home in Heaven with Christ.  These concepts are unique to Paul’s writings.  Why?  Because they are part of the mystery hidden in other ages that God chose to reveal through Paul, and Paul has not yet arrived on the scene at this point in Luke’s narrative!  Once again, the events being described at this point in Acts, including the actions of the Holy Spirit, are fully in keeping with Old Testament principles, prophecies and promises to the nation of Israel.

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Pentecost Society

“Pentecost” means something entirely different to us than it did to those waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come.  We, of course, will always associate it with that momentous occasion.  But before then Pentecost was still a high holiday on the Jewish calendar.  To understand it as the waiting apostles did, we must return to the time of Moses and the giving of the Law.

When God led Israel out of Egypt and brought her to Mount Sinai to teach them His ways, He established some very special annual events.  God was preparing Israel to enter the Promised Land, where they would spread out over a fairly large area.  To keep them from just diffusing into the pagan cultures around them, God expected them to travel back from wherever they took up residence to wherever the Tabernacle was located.  They were to worship Him there and only there.  In Exodus 23:14-17 God told them,

Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me.  You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.  And none shall appear before Me empty-handed.  Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field.  Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread was to remind them that they had left Egypt in such a hurry that they had no time to let bread dough rise.  (Of course, it has much deeper significance in Jewish and Christian ceremony, but that is beside the point at the moment.)  A striking event had marked their ejection from Egypt on the previous night — the Angel of Death had moved silently through Egypt and killed all of the firstborn…  except, of course, firstborn sheltered in homes that had the blood of a lamb painted around the doorway.  Those homes were passed over, marking the first Passover.  So Passover marks the opening day of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread.  It was celebrated on the 14th day of the month Nisan, the first month in the Jewish calendar (roughly equivalent of Easter, occurring variably in March or April, and celebrated by Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room.)  The use of the name Abib for the month of Nisan is a reference to the harvesting of winter barley.  This expression, ‘in the month Abib’, would be equivalent to calling our month of March ”during the windy month”.

The next feast, the Feast of Harvest, was to be counted off on the calendar from the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (called the Feast of First Fruits, a feast within a feast) fifty days.  This new feast day became known as the Feast of Weeks, or, because of the number 50, Pentecost.

The final feast, the Feast of the Ingathering, corresponds roughly in both timing and purpose with our celebration of Thanksgiving.  In the Hebrew holidays, however, it also marks the Day of Atonement when the sins of the nation are remitted by the High Priest.  (Too bad we don’t also celebrate that aspect of what to be thankful for…) But it is the first two feasts that we are interested in.

Jesus “ate the Passover” (Luke 22:15) with His disciples in the Upper Room, beginning the Feast of Unleavened Bread with them.  Before the Feast of Unleavened Bread was completed, Jesus had been tried, crucified, buried, and raised again!  As we learned in Acts 1:3, he appeared to the disciples and others over a period of forty days, and then ascended.  His instructions were to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came as He had promised.  The very first verse in Chapter 2 of Acts tells us that He arrived precisely fifty days after Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples, since He arrived on the day of Pentecost.  Mark this well — Pentecost is not so called because that is the day the Holy Spirit came!  He came on an already-named holiday!  (This is kind of like the ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ question.  In this case, Pentecost came first.)  I hope you can appreciate how carefully God orchestrated the events of the days we are studying, by using days in the Jewish calendar that were already long-established, which made these events particularly meaningful to Jews. What are the odds that these important events could have randomly fallen on such siginificant days to the Jews or not fallen on important gentile holidays instead?

Any devout Jew, whether genetically Jewish or a proselyte, took God’s law very seriously.  Just as Muslims today make pilgrimages at great expense to Mecca from all over the world, so did the Jews of Luke’s day.  Travel in those days was slow and often dangerous.  One didn’t just hop a plane to Jerusalem.  If you were bringing along wealth, you had to organize a small army to escort you through bandit-infested areas.  Once you had arrived at your destination, you wouldn’t want to return home after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, only to return again in six weeks — especially if the trip took three weeks each way!  If you had the means to appear in Jerusalem before your God three times a year as required, you also had the means to retain lodging in Jerusalem until the Feast of the Harvest six weeks later.  We could expect many followers of Judaism from many foreign countries to be present in Jerusalem for the entire seven or eight weeks.  Others who could not stay the entire eight weeks certainly wouldn’t stay for less that two weeks because the efforts to get there and get home again were so significant.  This is the scenario I believe Luke describes in the second chapter, in fact an uncannily accurate description of the state of the diaspora who were wealthy enough to go on annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  If Luke is describing the daspora and only the diaspora here, then the events here must concern Israel and not the Age of Grace still hidden in God as a mystery.

The alternative view is that the participants in the story of Pentecost were a random mixture of Jews and gentiles who just happened to be living in Jerusalem, much like the populace of Corinth.  For those of us who still think of the United States as the great melting pot, it’s hard to not impose this impression unthinkingly upon Jerusalem in Luke’s day.  Such an unrecognized presumption fits conveniently with the notion that the church was Christ’s Kindom in the Hearts of Men, begun on this auspicious occasion.  But this is sloppy thinking and even sloppier historical research.  Jerusalem was not a “melting pot”, it was a world religious center, specifically the center of Judaism.  In fact, the Roman occupational force thought of being posted to Palestine like being sent to the Russian Front.  While there certainly were gentiles living in Jerusalem, they would have taken little if any notice of these events because they were religiously uninterested.  But the men from every nation under heaven that Luke describes were devout, meaning they were highly interested specifically in the religion of Judaism.  What better stage could God have prepared for this event?  And the focus of these events could not have been more Israel-centric.

We say that we believe that the Word of God is divinely inspired and inerrant.  Jesus said as much, right down to the last “jot and tittle” that will not pass away.  As such, each individual word that Luke penned under the influence of the Holy Spirit should be exactly the word God intended to best communicate what really happened.  If we are to be good students of the Word, and not ashamed as shoddy workmen, surely we must pay rapt attention to every word.  So which of the two above scenarios does Luke describe in Chapter 2 of Acts?  Be Berean — study, and then you decide!

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Pentecost Background

In order to understand what Luke is about to describe, we need a refresher course in Jewish history.

We have said much already about the long-awaited restored Davidic kingdom, which was very much on the collective Jewish mind at the time of Jesus  birth, throughout His earthly life, and especially visible at the time of His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  But now we must turn our attention in the opposite direction and consider events that began during David’s original kingdom.  Or, more precisely, the end of his son Solomon’s kingdom.

The land of Israel from the time it was occupied under Joshua was divided into twelve geographic regions that can be thought of similarly to states in the United States of America (although they were more the size of counties).  When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam was made king over all twelve tribes.  But in his very first official act he chose to increase his father’s taxation of the people dramatically.  As a result, the other eleven tribes rejected the reign of Rehoboam and seceeded suddenly.  War was imminent, and Rehoboam quickly assembled an army of 180,000 men from his own tribe (Judah) and the neighboring tribe of Benjamin.  They were ready to go to war, but God told Shemaiah the prophet to tell Rehoboam not to go to war against his brothers because the split was by God’s design. (I Kings 12:1-24).

To understand why, we must turn back one chapter. Solomon’s life and reign has been characterized by Walk Through the Bible Ministries as “half-hearted.”  In Chapter 11 we learn that Solomon’s many foreign wives turned his heart away from God to the worship of their own false gods.  God appeared to Solomon twice, commanding him not to go after other gods (vv9-10).  As a result of Solomon’s disobedience, God told him that He would “tear the kingdom from” him and give all of the tribes except Judah to a man who was merely Solomon’s servant.  God would spare Solomon from this during his own lifetime, because of his father David’s faithfulness, but as soon as he died it would happen (vv11-13).

God set the wheels in motion immediately by empowering three enemies of Solomon, Hadad, Rezon, and Jeroboam.  Each brought something important to the rebellion.  Hadad and Jeroboam had both fled to Egypt to escape Solomon’s wrath, but for different reasons.  David’s Commander of the Army, Joab, had destroyed the neighboring nation of Edom,  killing all the males.  But Hadad escaped to Egypt and eventually became the Pharaoh’s son-in-law.  When he heard that Solomon was dead, he wanted to return to Edom.  He brought great wealth and political power back to Israel’s old enemy Edom.  Rezon was a marauding bandit who rose to power after David slew the men of Zobah, establishing his headquarters in the city of Damascus far to the northeast of Israel’s northernmost tribe of Dan.

Jeroboam was a young, valiant and industrious member of Solomon’s army who had taken the King’s notice and been appointed taskmaster over all of the forced laborers from the two half-tribes descended from Joseph.  By God’s design, he was met on the road one day by the prophet Ahija, who took his new cloak and tore it into two pieces, a large one and and a small one.  He gave the large one to Jeroboam and told him that God would tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and make him ruler over ten of the twelve tribes.  The prophecy became known to Solomon, and Jeroboam fled for his life to Egypt.  When Solomon died, he was called back by the leaders of the rebellious ten tribes and made king.

Judah and Benjamin held the southernmost portion of Israel while the other ten tribes held the central and northernmost portion of Israel.  The line was drawn between them, and so the now-divided kingdom is referred to as the Northern Kingdom (in rebellion under Jeroboam) and the Southern Kingdom (under Rehoboam).  From this point on the Northern Kingdom is often referred to as Israel, and the Southern Kingdom as Judah.  Remember, Rehoboam was the son of Solomon, descended in the kingly line of David, while Jeroboam was just a soldier in Solomon’s army.  God had brought to pass what He had told Solomon, that the kingdom would be torn from his descendants and given to his servant.

Jeroboam feared that the people of the Northern Kingdom would visit Jerusalem for the special days decreed by God for national worship, and their hearts would be turned back to the Southern Kingdom and Rehoboam.  (We will have more to say about God’s commands to worship Him only in Jerusalem later, for it is the determining factor for who was present in Jerusalem for Pentecost.)  To keep them from doing so, he reconstructed the Golden Calf from the days of Moses and the Exodus, making two of them and declaring them to be the gods who had brought Israel out of Egypt.  He placed one in Bethel, just to the northeast of Jerusalem, and the other in Dan, about as far north in Israel as it could be.  Dan, in fact, was closer to Damascus (headquarters of Solomon’s enemy Rezon) than it was to Jerusalem.  This was a grevious and repugnant sin, accompanied by many other offenses (vv12:31-33), and was a constant stumbling block in the Northern Kingdom. 

There followed in both the Northern and Southern kingdoms a series of kings who were evil and rebellious for the most part.  In truth, what had happened was the opening aria to what Moses had predicted — that if they forsook God they would be removed from the promised land.  God, in His patient mercy, tried to woo them back, but finally in 721 BC the Northern Kingdom was overrun by Assyrian armies.  The Southern Kingdom followed suit in 586 BC, but in the ensuing 135 years the landscape of world power had changed — Assyria had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.

Assyria and Babylon dealt with conquered territories in completely different ways.  Assyria scattered all but a skeleton crew of Israelites to the four winds, dispersing them throughout the known world as a means of preventing them from regrouping and revolting.  In the same way, the Northern Kingdom was repopulated by the Assyrians with captives from all over the world.  This made the bloodlines of the Northern Kingdom’s ten tribes nearly impossible to maintain and preserve.  Babylon, on the other hand, hauled captives to the city of Babylon for use as slave labor.  They took note of the “cream of the crop” and pressed them into service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, thus giving us the story of Daniel’s rise to power.  This preserved the bloodlines of Judah and Benjamin, and allowed them to return to Israel some seventy years after their deportation when the Medes and Persians overthrew Babylon.

It is the dispersion of the northern tribes that interests us the most as we study the event known as Pentecost.  The Northern Kingdom, the larger part of Israel, had been scattered throughout the known world.  In the intervening years leading up to the time of Jesus, world power shifted hands again — first to the Greeks and then to the Romans.  Several historical events associated with these shifts in power caused additional migrations of Jewish clusters throughout the Mediterranean and European region.  (See Conybeare and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul for an excellent and thorough description of these events.)  Note that about 750 years have passed from the time of the Assyrian conquest to the time of Jesus adulthood, nearly four times the age of the United States!  These scattered Jewish people are referred to collectively as the diaspora, the “dispersed ones.”

Many, perhaps the majority, of the diaspora intermarried with the gentiles and left behind their culture and religion.  All certainly learned the language of their new homelands, but many were able to preserve their use of Hebrew and Aramaic as well.  They succeeded not only in preserving their religion for 750 years but in constructing synagogues and rising to positions of high respect in their foreign communities.  Many family generations had passed over this long period of time, and they became increasingly enculturated, taking on the characteristics of their societies.  By the time of Jesus day, many of them are independently wealthy and politically influential — so much so that they are able to maintain seasonal lodging in Jerusalem, leave their businesses in the hands of underlings for weeks at a time, and travel to and from Jerusalem for the “high holidays” commanded by God in the Old Testament.  Once gathered in Jerusalem, each nationality was easily distinguished by their clothes, accents, and daily habits.

We should also mention that many gentiles in these scattered lands had taken note of the religion of the Jews, to the point where they had adopted it as their own religion.  Many were so serious about it that they were circumcised as adults in order to enter the Temple grounds in Jerusalem to worship.  Though they were not genetically Jewish, they committed their lives into Jehova’s hands and became practitioners of the Law of Moses.  Such individuals were allowed into fellowship under provisions in the Mosaic Law, and were known as proselytes.

It is also worth noting here that the Greek empire had left a lasting impression on the world, even though Rome was now in power.  One of the most influential groups in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a genetically-Jewish sect from Greece known as the Hellenists.  We will meet them much later in the Book of Acts when Paul returns to Jerusalem for the last time and is arrested in the Temple.

Finally, it is important to remember what we have already learned.  The church of the Age of Grace is still nowhere in sight at this point in the narrative.  Everything is still about Israel as you will see as we study the second chapter of Acts verse by verse.  Here it will be especially important to take a fresh look at what the Scriptures say, and not jump thoughtlessly to long-held but false interpretations of this passage.  Are the things we are about to study sacred cows because men have made them so?  We, like the Bereans of old, must study the Scriptures, not the writings of men, to see if these things told to us by others are true!

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Judas’ Replacement

Was Paul an apostle?  He says so in I Corinthians 4:9 and 15:9, II Corinthians 11:5 and 12:11, and Galatians 1:17.  (Time to be Berean… get out your Bible and see if it is so!)  If he was, why wasn’t he the replacement for Judas Iscariot?  Why did Judas Iscariot need to be replaced at all?  Wouldn’t eleven apostles be enough?  In this post’s study passage we discover that it was God’s intent to replace Judas, round out the number of apostles to twelve again, and to do it with someone other than Paul.  Let’s dig in.

 Acts 1:12-13  (Please read it for yourself in your study Bible.)  We present here a list of the Apostles that gathered in the upper room:

  1. Peter
  2. John
  3. James
  4. Andrew
  5. Philip
  6. Thomas
  7. Bartholomew
  8. Matthew
  9. James, the son of Alphaeus (to distinguish him later from James the half-brother of Christ)
  10. Simon the Zealot
  11. Judas, the son of James (to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot who was now dead)

Eleven men who had been with Jesus.  Notice that while these verses may be divided from the previous verses by a section heading in your Bible, Luke did not put in the section headings!  Your Bible commentator did.  These verses are just the continuation of the story.  If you check the verses we’ve already covered, you’ll find that these men have not been identified previously as “the eleven”, but only referred to as “they” or “them.”  The implication (reading backwards) is that “they” were the same men who had just returned to the upper room, had just seen Jesus ascend into heaven, had just asked Him if He was going to restore the kingdom at this time, had been reminded to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them, had received teaching for forty days after his resurrection, and had witnessed many convincing proofs that He was indeed alive.

It’s important to realize that these specific men, now absent Judas Iscariot, were the inner circle of men specifically chosen and trained by Jesus (His “disciples”), and whose training, as we have learned, was to prepare them for the coming restoration of David’s kingdom.  One particular aspect of their position and service in this “kingdom at hand” was explained to them — and only to them — in Luke 22:30 and Matthew 19:28.  Luke describes a dispute among these same disciples over which of them was the greatest, right on the heels of the event we call the “Last Supper.”  Jesus used it as an object lesson in humility, teaching them that those who were the most humble-hearted servants would be the greatest in the kingdom.  He closes the object lesson with a glimpse into their future:  “… that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.“  Matthew records this statement on a different, earlier occasion prior to Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover Week.

Regardless of whether Jesus told them the same thing on two different occasions or not, the important points here are that

  • there are twelve (not eleven) tribes of Israel (even though two of them descended from sons of Joseph)
  • no mention is made of one of the disciples sitting on two thrones
  • they will be rulers over complete tribes, and form a ruling council of twelve over all of Israel
  • this is part of the coming prophesied Kingdom, Israel’s hope and expectation, in which all the earth will be blessed

Clearly this Kingdom will be short one man if there are only eleven apostles, and that a new twelfth Jewish apostle with a Jewish expectation must be appointed if the restored Davidic Kingdom, a promise to Israel, is to proceed.

Acts 1:14  We pause here only long enough for two noteworthy observations.  (1) The “women”, including Jesus’ mother Mary, and Jesus half-brothers apparently were already at this location when the eleven returned from the Mount of Olives.  This was a tightly-knit small group.  (2) They were “all with one mind” and were “continually devoting themselves to prayer.”  This is perfectly in keeping with their experiences (the undeniable resurrection and teaching of the risen Christ) and with Christ’s instructions to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Does that mean we should be doing the same thing today, and if we do, our sincerity and devotion will somehow “bring” the Holy Spirit into our lives as He came at Pentecost?  Many in the Pentecostal Movement would say so, and we shall have an answer soon enough.  (Obviously, I personally don’t think so. There are indications here that a different economy was in effect, as none of those gathered appear to be engaged in gainful employment.  We’ll find this to be a characteristic of the Jerusalem community of believers for several chapters to come, and it is very different from the way the world operates today — but a window on the economy of the Millennial Kingdom.) Does it mean we should not be devoted to our Lord in obedience and prayer?  Absolutely not!  But it is another example of rightly dividing the Word of Truth.  Remember, the Bible is all for our instruction, but it is not all addressed directly to us.

Acts 1:15  “And in these days Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty names was there together), and said…”  The NASB translation states “And at that time”, but the literal translation of the Greek is “in these days”.  There’s a subtle difference in meaning here.  “At that time” is usually understood to refer to a specific date and clock time (it is a punctiliar reference), and in the context would seem to indicate the same occasion when the apostles returned from Olivet and entered this upper room.  But the Greek phrase is not punctiliar, and is better translated “in these days”.  As such, it refers to an occasion later in the time of waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit, perhaps several days later.  The other facts observed in this verse bear this out, for the group has grown from eleven apostles plus Mary plus the women who were closest to Jesus plus Jesus half-brothers (probably less than twenty people) to 120 people.  Not just any people, mind you, but 120 “names” — people who were all known to each other by name (another small mis-translation in the NASB).

Acts 1:16-20  Please read the passage for yourself in your study Bible and note the following points in Peter’s message to the group:

  • He calls them “brethren.”  From his perspective at this point in the narrative, that meant “fellow Israelites.”  (We will confirm this assertion in Chapters 2-4 soon.)
  • He reminds them that David specifically prophesied concerning Judas Iscariot, including the manner of his death in a specific geographic location.
  • He quotes from Psalm 109:8 as the ultimate application of David’s prophecy to their situation.

Peter clearly saw himself and the people with him as operating in a period of time when they themselves were fulfilling prophecy, and it had everything to do with their hope and expectation — the restoration of David’s kingdom.  Their expectation was clear and their perception was correct because God had openly promised these things to Israel, putting them down in writing (the “Law and the Prophets”) for all to read.  Does the church of today have the same expectation and promises, or does she have something still hidden in God at this point in the narrative?  Since God did not begin to reveal the hidden mystery until later through the Apostle Paul, it was unknown to Peter and his exclusively Jewish audience.

Peter’s conclusion?  As the fulfillers of prophecy, on the basis of Psalm 109:8, it is clear that a replacement for Judas must be chosen.  (Isn’t it interesting that these quotes — and leadership – come from the lips of an unlearned fisherman?  This in itself is a fulfillment of Jesus promises to give them the right words to say at the right time – as the promised Kingdom approached.) 

Acts 1:21-26  Peter then describes the qualifications of Judas Iscariot’s replacement.  He had to be a man who had accompanied the eleven continually, beginning from the time of Jesus baptism through the time of His ascension.  Note that this does not mean that he had to be present at these events with the eleven, but certainly would have been with the eleven on some occasions when the resurrected Christ appeared to them and to many others.  Such a man would be a qualified witness to the resurrection, as Peter suggests in the end of v22.  Two such men were identified from the group — Barsabbas (also called Justus and Joseph) and Matthias.  But which one?  They prayed for God’s active participation in the selection process because only He knew what was inside the hearts of both men, and thus which one would be fit to replace Judas in the work of apostleship.  Then in traditional Hebrew fashion, reminiscent of the casting of Urim and Thummim in the Old Testament, they cast lots.  God chose Matthias.

It’s important to recognize that they asked God to make the choice, seeing what they could not, and that God did choose.  Some have tried to dismiss this passage as Peter trying to move the program forward in his own strength without God’s approval, so that they can dismiss Matthias as the twelfth apostle to sit on the vacated twelfth throne over Israel, and make Paul the twelfth apostle.  It’s clear that Matthias was God’s choice, not Peter’s, and that Matthias will sit on the twelfth throne in the Kingdom when it comes.  It’s equally clear that Paul must be another apostle, not associated with the Twelve, and not ruling over one of the twelve tribes of Israel — an apostle sent to another people for another time, a mystery still hidden in God at this point in the narrative.  The church of this age, the Age of Grace, is still nowhere in sight!

Prepare yourself well for the next post.  It will require all of your powers of observation, and all of your ability and commitment to cast off previous notions of human interpretations.  We are on the brink of a pivotal point in the Book of Acts – Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and their companions!

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The Ascension

Before launching into a verse-by-verse study of Acts it is good to remember a couple of principles.  First, we must see what God’s Word says before we can understand what it means.  Preachers, authors and teachers have a tendency to inculcate into their students what they think it means, inadvertently training their students to skip seeing what it says.  That is why we are so focused on what men say the Bible says, instead of focusing more simply on what the Bible says.

Second, Luke gives high praise to the believers in Berea, describing them as more noble because they didn’t just swallow what Paul preached hook, line and sinker.  They searched the Scriptures daily to put what he said to the test.  We must do the same.

Third, God commands us to study His Word, rightly dividing it (lit. “properly slicing” it), so that we will be adequately prepared workmen (master craftsmen?) who have no reason to be ashamed concerning our knowledge or use of the Scriptures.  (II Timothy 2:15)

Ready?  Here we go…

Acts 1:1-2 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen.  This verse refers, obviously, to Luke’s gospel (the first account).  The time span of that account ranges, according to this verse, from the beginning of Jesus ministry through His ascension.  During that time span, He had given orders to the eleven disciples, specifically the “Great Commission”.

But is this accurate?  Luke’s gospel covered the entire period from the prenatal announcement to John the Baptist’s parents of his birth, through the Annunciation (to Mary), Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ childhood, John the Baptist’s preaching, and Jesus’ baptism and temptation.  It’s clear that Luke’s statement in vv1-2 is a generalization, and as such, the statement that his first gospel covered through the Ascension is part of that generalization.  Furthermore, if the conclusion of Luke’s gospel covered the Ascension, there would be no need to cover it again here, as he does in the next nine verses!  So, once again, it is my understanding that the events Luke describes in Acts 1:1-11 are not a reiteration or a “fleshing out” of what he described at the close of his previous volume.

Acts 1:3  To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.  (Please, dear reader — what does this verse say?)

  • “To these” refers to the eleven apostles.  Paul later informs us that He appeared to more than five hundred believers on a single occasion, having already appeared to Peter, “the twelve”, to James, to all the apostles, and finally (after His ascension) to Paul himself.  (I Corinthians 15:5-8)  But this verse is about appearances to “the eleven”.
  • The period of time described by Luke is after His suffering (death, burial and resurrection) for a span of forty days.
  • These appearances provide convincing proofs –eyewitness reports that would stand up in court, and demonstrations that He was alive in body, and not just a disembodied spirit.  He had truly conquered death completely.
  • His purpose in doing so was to teach the eleven more about the kingdom of God.  What would this expression have meant to the eleven?  We are not told by Luke exactly what He taught them over these forty days.  Did He teach them that this “kingdom” wasn’t the one they were expecting, but was much broader now — a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men?  Only the context of the events that follow, especially v6, can answer the question of whether or not this post-resurrection, pre-ascension instructional period dispelled the apostles’ notion of the restored Davidic Kingdom and replaced it with the concept of the Church Age.  A quick forward look at v6 now suggests that it did nothing of the sort.  That, of course, is in keeping with the fact that the mystery hidden in God in ages past is still hidden at this point in the narrative.

Acts 1:4-5  And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  What do these verses say?

  • All eleven disciples were present with Him by His direction
  • He commanded them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised Holy Spirit
  • He reminds them that He told them this before (this is not the first time He has told them about this)
  • He contrasts John’s baptism with water to the baptism they are soon to experience

Most of this verse is easy to observe for what it says.  The last point above, however, raises some interesting issues.  (1) The fact that Christ contrasts the two baptisms is important.  To compare two things is to point out their similarities; to contrast two things is to point out their differences.  We know this is a contrast because He used the word but between them.  Their upcoming baptism will be different from John’s baptism.  How?  It won’t be with water, and therefore won’t be for cleansing.  (John’s baptism, like all OT washings, was for cleansing — purification — in preparation for the coming of The King.)  Why not?  In John 15:3 we read, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.”  The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not for cleansing, it is for empowerment — for the eleven and for us.  (2) It was to be conferred on them without water.  We will have more to say about this later, but for now bear in mind that receiving the Holy Spirit will be associated with baptism in water for the next several chapters, and which must come first is important.

Acts 1:6-8  And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”  Look carefully at the structure of this passage:

  • The disciples ask if the kingdom promised to Abraham and David will be immediately restored
  • Christ gives a two-fold reply:
    • I’m not going to tell you, but
    • just work with what I’ve already told you

Hmmmm!  Has Christ ever told you “Don’t worry about it — just work with what you’ve got so far?”  There’s a great application here if we extrapolate Christ’s instructions to His disciples into our own walk with Him.  But let’s be careful.  Extrapolation is predicting future behavior on the basis of past behavior, and is always presumptuous.  We must be careful to not treat that presumptuous future behavior as if it is fact.  It isn’t!  This is a perfect example of the principle that all of the Bible is for us but it is not all addressed directly to us.

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that Christ didn’t give them a simple yes or no answer?  Why didn’t He do that?  Essentially He was saying that the time wasn’t right for them to know everything.  He wanted them to carry out the very thing He had trained them for — to spread the news that the Kindom promised to Israel was at hand, and that repentance was the order of the day.  Did God know something else was waiting in the wings?  It is my belief that He did, and the time was not yet right to reveal it to the apostles in particular and mankind in general.  God was keeping a secret from them at this point in time, a mystery hidden in God.  At this point in the narrative the focus is still entirely on Israel’s expectation of the restoration of David’s kingdom as the disciples had just asked.  Christ did not scold or correct them for asking this!  He didn’t say, “Don’t you remember I told you that this kingdom stuff has been replaced with the idea of a broader kingdom in the hearts of men?”  In fact, His command to them is to continue with what they have been trained for — which is clearly the restoration of David’s Kingdom, Israel’s hope and expectation.

These three verses clearly demonstrate that the eleven were expecting the Millennial Kingdom, were commissioned for the Millennial Kingdom, and that Christ insisted that they pursue the Millennial Kingdom!  To insist that this passage marks the origin of the Church Age is to ignore every word written in these three verses through inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  To say that the disciples’ commission is our commission is to fail to rightly divide the Word of God.

The remaining verses, vv9-11, are straightforward and factual, and we have already written about them at length when describing the differences between this event and the one described by Luke at the end of his first volume.  We’ll not take the time to expound them further here.  Suffice it to note that what these verses describe left the eleven standing there with their mouths hanging open — so fascinated that they didn’t notice the presence of two angels standing right next to them until they spoke.  How would you have reacted to such a sight?  According to the angels, men will be equally awe-struck when Christ returns, and the impression given to the disciples by the angels was that He would do so in a matter of days — as the King of Israel and the King of the World.  If that’s the case, where do the intervening 2,000 years of the church fit into God’s plan?

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Post-Resurrection Appearances

Following his account of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, Luke then begins a listing of the appearances of Christ after His resurrection, beginning with His appearance to Cleopas and Simon (not Peter, study vv33-34 carefully) on the road to Emmaus.  (Luke 24:13-35) 

Now that the New Covenant has been given to the disciples and Christ has risen from the grave, has the narrative changed its perspective from Israel’s expectation of the restoration of the kingdom to a perspective of the Age of Grace?  These two disciples’ expectation (and disappointment) is clearly expressed in v21: But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel…  Christ’s response to their story of smashed hopes was, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory? ’  And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.  What was the biblical focus of Moses and of the prophets?  With the exception of Jonah, Moses and the prophets were all about Israel.  Remember that the focus had narrowed with the promises made to Abraham.  If Christ explained Himself on this basis, (1) His focus is still on Israel’s program, and (2) Israel’s program alone was sufficient at that time to justify all that had taken place.  But the mystery, hidden in God in other ages, remains a mystery at this chronological point!  Moses, the prophets, and these two disciples on the road to Emmaus are unaware of the Mystery.  To say that Christ revealed the Mystery to them at this time, since His words to that effect (or any other effect) are not preserved in the narrative, is pure conjecture.  We must ask if the events that follow give any indication that the disciples’ expectation has changed to something other than the promise of the restoration of David’s kingdom.  As we shall see in Acts 1:6-7, it has not, so we infer that the context of this passage is still exclusively that of the kingdom.

In v44, during Christ’s appearance to all of the disciples, He reiterates the basis on which He explained His role and work to Cleopas and Simon.  These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.  In other words, He told them that in order for the Kingdom to happen, all the promises concerning the Kingdom had to be fulfilled.  He did nothing at this point to correct any mistake in their expectation, which was still a Kingdom expectation.

The first hint that what Christ had done accomplished a broader purpose than their expectation comes in v47:  …and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem.  The expression all the nations in the Greek language is panta ta ethnay, literally “pan-ethnicity”.  This word ethnay can have several meanings ranging from everyone except Jews to individual family groups.  This verse clearly implies that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all who have not repented and received forgiveness of their sins (regardless of race or ethnicity), and that there are many in Jerusalem who, according to God’s plan, must hear it first!

Does this verse finally reveal the Age of Grace, the mystery hidden in God in ages past?  Or is this statement also spoken within the hearers’ expectation of the Kingdom?  There is nothing in the OT descriptions of the Kingdom that says that the entire world will not be blessed by Israel’s and Christ’s rule in those days — quite the contrary!  The promise to Abraham was always in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.  (Genesis 12:1-3) Christ’s instructions to His disciples to begin in Jerusalem and work outwards is entirely consistent with the promises to Abraham and David, and at the end of the four gospels we see the beginning (only) of the fulfillment of those promises and prophecies.  Will the non-Hebrew recipients of that blessing, when those prophecies are actually fully fulfilled, need to repent and have their sins forgiven?  Of course!  There is nothing in this verse that cannot be understood to fall completely within Israel’s Kingdom expectations, and nothing here that requires it to be interpreted as referring to any other program.

Luke 24:49 is a very specific instruction to Christ’s disciples.  They are to remain in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high, an expression that we will study very carefully in the book of Acts.  We understand it today to refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit, but often miss the details of how the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and other followers of Christ.  Keep this command to remain in Jerusalem in mind as we explain the verses that follow it.

My Bible commentator has labeled vv50-53 as “The Ascension” incorrectly, I believe.  Let’s look carefully at the details and compare them to Luke’s account in Acts 1:9-11.

First, the foregoing appearances are a very brief list (two, to be exact), and seem to be followed immediately by Christ’s leading the disciples out.  Luke later records many other appearances in Acts 1:3 over a period of 40 days.  It seems unlikely that 40 days elapsed between v48 and v49.

Second, Luke records Christ’s words in Acts 1:4 as a reminder of something He had told them earlier, saying which you heard [past tense] of from Me.”  If this is indeed a reminder of something He said earlier (specifically 40 days earlier as the chronology of vv3-4 indicates), then the passage in Luke 24:50-53 is not the ascension Luke describes in Acts 1:9-11.

Third, the passage in Luke says that He led them out as far as Bethany, which is some 14 furlongs from Jerusalem.  Acts 1:12 says they returned from the Mount of Olives, a sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.  In Jesus’ day, a sabbath day’s journey was considered to be about a mile, which is 8 furlongs.  Their location in the Luke passage was nearly twice as far from Jerusalem as their location in the Acts passage.

Fourth, Luke 24:51 states that after blessing the disciples he parted from them, while Acts 1:9 says he was lifted up… and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  What’s more, while they were standing there with their mouths open, angels appeared to them and described what they had just seen as being taken up into Heaven (v11). 

IMHO, these two passages describe two different occurrences forty days apart.  Luke did not decide to “summarize” at the end of his gospel because he was tired or was running out of room on the papyrus.  He was too good a historian and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and left nothing out.  Christ’s “parting from them” in Luke 24:51 is perfectly in keeping with how He parted with Cleopas and Simon in the previous passage (v31).  There is no mention in v51 of any upward movement, any cloud, or any angelic beings.

On the other hand, in Acts 1:1-2, Luke clearly states that his gospel  was written about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up.  So did Luke identify the closing verses of his gospel as a parallel account of the same ascension he is about to describe in Acts, perhaps having been asked by Theophilus for clarification?  If so, are vv1-2 a generalization, the details of which he goes on to describe in vv3-11?

Matthew does not describe the ascension at all, simply ending his gospel by stating the “Great Commission” with less detail than Luke does.  Mark describes the occasion of the “Great Commission” as happening while the eleven disciples were having a meal together (Mark 16:14-16), and then states simply that after He had completed speaking to them (whether only on this occasion, which is unlikely given the parallel passages, or altogether we don’t know), He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  John doesn’t describe the Ascension at all, choosing rather to record a single intimate post-resurrection moment between the risen Christ and seven of His disciples, where he focuses on John, Peter and commitment.  That leaves us with Luke’s account being the single most detailed — and authoritative — account of the Ascension.

We will take a further look at Acts 1:1-2 in the next post.

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Passover to Resurrection

The events of the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ trials before Pilate and Herod, the scourging and crucifixion, and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus all follow immediately after the passage we have just studied in Luke’s narrative.  It’s not my intent to cover these well-known and long-loved passages other than to make a few observations.

The Last Supper (the institution of what we practice today as the Lord’s Supper, communion) is an interesting passage because it overarches God’s program for Israel and His program for the Gentiles.  As Paul says in I Corinthians 11:23, for I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread…”  Note the care that Paul takes to inform his readers that he received what he is telling them directly from the Lord — and not from the other apostles.  Implied in this phraseology is that Our Lord not only instituted this for His disciples (and Israel in the coming Kingdom by inference), but also instituted it for Gentile believers in the Age of Grace when Israel’s program would be set aside.  As a result, there is a duality in the events recorded by Luke in 22:14-22.  In the context of the further preparing of His disciples for the Kingdom, with hindsight we Gentiles in the Age of Grace also see Him speaking to us.  His precious words concerning his body and blood perhaps mean more to us than they ever have to Israel.  What privilege is ours!  But the context and chronology still put this passage at a point in time when the mystery hidden in ages past has not yet been revealed.  Indeed, Jesus promised these disciples that they would sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28)  Consequently, the story of the Last Supper is focused on Israel at this chronological juncture, and it’s breadth was uncomprehended by the disciples at that time.  It is a mistake to say that the Age of Grace began at this point, that Jesus’ giving of the New Covenant to His disciples somehow mystically invokes believers of today as participants, and that the focus from here on out is the church of today instead of Israel’s promise of the restored Davidic kingdom, as we see in the very next verses.

Interestingly, the verses in Luke that follow Jesus’ instructions concerning the New Covenant confirm the disciples’ expectation that they would be great rulers in the Kingdom.  They are arguing about which of them will be the greatest!  What Jesus had just taught them simply didn’t register in their way of thinking and their expectations.  It’s almost as if they responded, “Uhhh… okay… uhh, not to change the subject, uhh… but which one of us will be the greatest in the coming Kingdom?”  As Churchill said, men occasionally stumble over the truth.  Clearly, Jesus does not tell them that the kingdom is set aside, but instead reminds them of what constitutes greatness in the kingdom.  Israel’s program and the kingdom which is still at hand are still very much the exclusive focus at this point in the narrative.  The Mystery is still hidden in God for now.

Luke’s description of the four trials of Jesus (Sanhedron, Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again) is straightforward and factual.  It’s worthwhile to compare it to John’s description in John 18:33-37, which reveals more of the conversation with Pilate.  The Jews had brought Him before Pilate on the basis that He was a threat to Roman power, claiming to be the “King of the Jews,” in hope that He would be executed as an enemy of the state.  Pilate questions Him on this basis.  [Pilate] said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’  After a brief exchange in which Pilate admits that the chief priests had prompted him to ask, Jesus explains the nature of His kingship and kingdom: My kingdom is not of this world (kosmos, or “world system”, not the physical planet).  If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm (henteuthen, better translated “from hence”, meaning “from here”)… You say correctly that I am a king.  For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world…”  Note that the evidence that Jesus cites for His kingdom not being “of this realm”  is the absence of armed conflict.  But against who?  The Jews, not the Romans.  Jesus’ conversation here is with a representative of the world-wide secular goverment, and He is speaking of things appropriate for a Gentile political ruler to hear.  What He tells Pilate is that, from Pilate’s point of view, he has nothing to worry about!

Pilate, of course, was a political climber, steeped in the politics of Rome.  He deferred to others for advice when it involved the Jewish political point of view, as when he sent Jesus to Herod and when he was prompted by the chief priests to ask Jesus about this “King of the Jews” thing.  Jesus, being God, knew Pilate’s mindset and answers him in terms that he can understand.  Jesus essentially tells Pilate, I am indeed a great king, but my kingdom isn’t part of the system of Roman provinces and politics that is in place in Palestine.  If it were, my servants would already be attacking the Jewish leaders that brought Me here, but they aren’t.  Consequently, Pilate “found no fault in Him.” 

Did Jesus lie to Pilate?  After all, His disciples’ expectation was certainly the overthrow of Jewish oppressors and the establishment of the thousand-year kingdom that had been promised to David.  Or did Jesus, as God, simply know that the world-wide Roman rule would pass away long before the promised kingdom finally came?  Pilate’s view of “world” was the Roman political world of his day.  Jesus’ view of “world” included the heavens and the earth, past, present and future.  IMHO, Jesus spoke to Pilate within the scope of Pilate’s world view, resulting in (1) His truthful statement that His kingdom was not of the limited scope of Pilate’s world view, (2) Pilate’s relief that He was no threat to the Roman government, and consequently (3) Pilate’s ruling that Jesus was not a threat and not guilty of insurrection against Rome.  Note that this declaration of innocence was a direct refutation of the specific charge the chief priests had brought before Pilate, and would have enraged them.

Returning to Luke, we find the entire remaining sequence of events through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

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Christ Prepares His Disciples – Part 3

We pick up the narrative in v20 where our Lord resumes His description of the events that will surround His actual return.

(vv20-21)  But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand.  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; Did Jesus specifically use the words “her desolation” to remind them of all of the Old Testament’s prophets’ use of this term?  It had been used before by Isaiah and Jeremiah to describe what would happen to Jerusalem when Israel was conquered by Babylon and they were carried off into captivity.  Daniel prophesied in Babylon during that period of captivity.  Were those Old Testament events only partial fulfillment of prophecy, pointing toward a greater final fulfillment in the Tribulation?  I believe that is so, and that our Lord’s use of this term would have evoked an immediate reminder of those historic prophecies in their minds — as He fully intended.  The Book of Revelation may also allegorically refer to the flight from Jerusalem in chapter 12 (esp. v6).  If so, the flight described by our Lord as He instructed His disciples on this occasion was indeed a reference to events far into the future and well beyond their earthly lifetimes.

(v22)  because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.  Here is stark evidence that Jesus is talking about not only the Tribulation, but about events that will follow the Millennial Kingdom.  The days He is describing, days of vengeance (deserved judgment and punishment), will be the final prophetic fulfillment of all that has been prophesied, and is in no way another partial fulfillment of prophecy.

(vv23-24a)  Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations;  These verses continue the description of Israel’s flight to the wilderness in those final days of terror and vengeance.

(v24b) and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.  Here is an interesting verse that some use as evidence that Christ spoke of the church of this Age of Grace during His earthly ministry.  Certainly it is true that Jerusalem is divided geographically between Jews and Gentiles today, and the Gentiles seem to have the upper hand all over the world politically.  But it is also possible that Jesus was referring to the Tribulation Period when the Antichrist and his one-world government are in control.  Given the context, this is the more likely meaning, and IMHO any indication of the Age of Grace is a secondary and extremely shaded meaning.  Insisting that our Lord meant the church of today is to ignore the context, especially since it would have been meaningless to the disciples who had not yet learned of the unprophesied Age of Grace because it was still a mystery hidden in God at this particular point in their training!

(vv25-27)  Here, dear reader, I will ask you to open your own study Bible and read the words for yourself.  What Jesus describes here is unmistakably the same period described by John in Revelation as the results of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls and the final victory at the Battle of Armageddon.

Jesus now proceeds to conclude His description of events to come (everything from v8 through v27) with a generalization in the next verse, a parable in the following three verses and some closing admonitions about their attitude and expectations as they enter these events in the following verses.

(v28)  But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.  One of the great difficulties of understanding this passage is that with perfect hindsight we see from history that, while He was speaking to His disciples as if these things would happen within a few years at most, in actuality two thousand years have gone by and they have yet to happen.  Realizing this is fundamental to an understanding of the entire Book of Acts (and especially Acts 1:6-7), and we will explain it in greater detail as we progress through it.  But suffice it to say for now that God continued to offer the Millennial Kingdom in their immediate future, if their leaders would only accept Jesus as the Messiah.  The Book of Acts is the history of Israel’s continual obstinate rejection of that offer, in parallel with God turning to the Gentiles and ushering in the Age of Grace in spite of Israel’s rejection.  God patiently waited through thirty years for Israel to repent, but in the end had to set them aside.  This is what Paul describes through the allegory of grafted olive branches in Romans 11, but that was unknown to them because it was still a mystery hidden in God

(vv29-31)  Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near.  Even so you, too, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near.  Clearly He is speaking to His disciples and He is giving them the impression that these events will take place in their own lifetimes.  The choice of fruit trees leafing out in the spring as a harbinger of summer is intended to invoke an understanding that these events will happen just as quickly as the seasons change from month to month.  The problem is compounded in the next verse.

(v32)  Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all things take place.  Here Jesus apparently leads His disciples to think that these events will begin in their very near future.  The Greek word for “generation” is genea, a word with several shades of use.  It can mean a biological generation, like “Baby Boomers”.  It can mean the members of a family that are siblings, excluding their parents and their children.  It can also refer to the spiritual state of society at a given point in time.  Was Jesus saying these things will all take place during your lifetime or was He saying Israel’s rejection of Me as their Messiah will persist until these things take place?  I believe it is the latter.  If it isn’t, then we are firmly impaled on the horns of a dilemma.  Because of the hindsight of history, we know that all of the disciples, including John and Paul, died before these things happened.  If so, Jesus lied to His disciples about their future in this passage.  But Jesus is God and does not lie.  If we take this position, either we call Jesus a liar and deny His deity, or we are forced to conclude that these events have already taken place and have gone unnoticed.  Indeed, some denominations hold that these events did take place in the first century, and that the rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennial Kingdom, and the Triumphant Return of Christ are nothing more than colorful allegories, not to be taken literally.  IMHO, Jesus did not lie to them, but also did not tell them the whole story.  He says as much to them in Acts 1:7 — it is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.  There is no need to squirm on the horns of this artificial dilemma.  Had Israel repented as a nation immediately (had the Pharisees led the way by recognizing Jesus was the Messiah and had repented of murdering Him), these things would have indeed taken place, and that was what Jesus was preparing His disciples for in this discourse.  He chose to keep the mystery hidden until the time was right, ultimately revealing it to the Apostle Paul later.

(v33-36)  Again, dear reader, read these verses for yourself from your own study Bible.  Jesus reminds them that earthly (and even heavenly) things are only temporary, but what He says is eternal.  Consequently what He has told them will actually happen exactly as He described it, they can be sure of it.  It’s better than “set in concrete”, as concrete is, after all, earthly.  (It’s even better than “heavenly concrete”, if you can imagine that!)  So, He tells them, don’t get distracted and then caught off guard when it happens, because it will affect everyone alive on the face of the earth in that day.  What we often fail to notice in this verse (v35) is that the disciples are included in who will be affected.  That stands in sharp contrast to what the Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians (and us by implication):  Then we who are alive and remain [after the dead in Christ have risen] shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.  (I Thessalonians 4:17)  The disciples will remain on the earth during the times described by Jesus, but believers from this current dispensation, the Age of Grace, will be snatched away from the earth to be with the Lord wherever He is.

In concluding this lengthy three-part study, I’ll boldly go so far as to say that there is not a single statement in the entire passage that either reveals anything about the nature of the Dispensation of Grace (the church of today, the mystery hidden in God), or that should be taken as something that believers should necesarily interpret as commands to them from the lips of our Lord.  Of course, the Bible admonishes us to study and understand this passage and appreciate its eternal significance, which I certainly do.  But the One who I claim as Lord and Savior is now a different person than the One who diligently prepared His disciples in this passage in Luke.  He is not different in essence, but He is different in appearance and message.  His time in a human body was completed when He ascended into Heaven, and since that time, as the Apostle Paul says, “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.(II Corinthians 5:16)  From the time of His ascension to today and on into the future, He is as Paul saw Him on the road to Damascus — clothed in unapproachably brilliant light, and yet as loving and gentle toward me as Paul was toward the ever-excessive Corinthians, like a mother nursing her child.  Jesus’ training of His disciples during His earthly ministry was for a different time and dispensation, still waiting in the wings to be fulfilled.  As Paul concludes when speaking of the Gentile wild vines grafted into the One True Vine in Israel’s place, Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!… For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen.  (Romans 11:33,36)

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Christ Prepares His Disciples – Part 2

As noted in the previous post, our Lord’s tears over Jerusalem prophesied a fearful time ahead.  The time before His crucifixion was now only a few days, and His preparation of the disciples was intensified.  Would He prepare them for a time of joyous peace, or for a time of hardship and turmoil?  We find the answer in Luke 21:5-36.

As Jesus and His disciples walked around the Temple grounds admiring the beautiful buildings, He reminded them that they would all be torn down:

(v6) As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.

The disciples reaction (v7) was to try to pin Him down as to the actual date on which this would happen and what specific sign would certify it.  (As Paul later said, the Jews [always] seek after a sign…)  In response, He launches into a lengthy discourse about His ultimate return as King of Kings and the events that would take place in the meantime.  As we will see, there are two glaring omissions from what He taught them: (1) There is no specific mention of the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus as described in Luke 19, and (2) there is no mention of a time when Israel would be set aside, supplanted for the time being by an unprophesied era when Jew and Gentile alike would be accepted into God’s family purely through faith by grace.  His teaching at this point in the narrative presents a prophetic continuum beginning with Daniel’s prophecies immediately into the Tribulation and then seven years later the events under which the Millennial Kingdom would be established.  This should not surprise us because our day, the Age of Grace, was still a mystery hidden in God, yet to be revealed to the Apostle Paul.  What was important for His disciples to know follows in vv8-36:

(v8-9) See to it that you be not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is at hand’; do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.   His main concern was that His disciples might be so eager for His return that they could be easily misled.  The events would be so terrible that it could increase their desire for His return and cause them to fall for imposters who even used all the right words.  His opening statement to them flatly says some nasty stuff has to happen before He returns, so don’t be fooled.

(v10-11) Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in  varous places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.  Surely we are experiencing these things today in increasing degree.  Yes, I believe it is a sign that this age is coming to an end.  We read of great earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions (who can forget the destruction of Haiti?), world-wide epidemic diseases (AIDS), and famine (Darfur).  But the remaining two items speak of a time beyond this age, events which will not take place until the Church is taken out of the world in the event we know as the Rapture.  We have not seen terrors which result from great signs from Heaven.  Daniel saw them, and John saw them, long in advance of their occurrence, and they describe the events prophesied as Daniel’s Seventieth Week (Daniel 12).

(v12-18) But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.  It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.  So make up your minds beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.  But you will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all on account of My name.  Yet not a hair of your head will perish.    These seven verses are a “rabbit trail” where our Lord makes the lesson intensely personal for the disciples, and He resumes His general teaching about the events of His return in v20.  vv12-15 we see fulfilled, at least in part, in the opening chapters of Acts where John and Peter and the others are repeatedly jailed by the Pharisees for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus openly on the Temple grounds.  vv16-17 worked out more slowly over the next thirty years or so, when each disciple except John was martyred.  v18 is in interesting contrast to the preceeding statement that some of them would be put to death.  (see the next verse)

(v19) By your endurance you will gain your lives.  How can the disciples be put to death and yet not lose a single hair of their head and gain their lives?  IMHO, our Lord was speaking from an eternal perspective in which physical death is but a minor punctuation mark.  Such a perspective is in keeping with the prophetic nature of the entire passage, and also in keeping with the nature of prophecy itself, which in a given circumstance is only partially fulfilled and awaits a greater and complete fulfillment in a later time.  The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus is just such a partially-fulfilled prophecy, and was the occasion for this entire discussion (remember Luke 19).  There is another important point to be made from this verse.  It’s wording seems to imply that endurance is a prerequisite to eternal life, that eternal life can be earned (gained), and that those who do not endure will go to hell.  It’s meaning is tied up in understanding the Greek words for endurance and lives.  “Endurance” is hupomone, literally “under-abiding”, and is the ability to go through terrible circumstances patiently because we know that it is God’s will in our lives for the moment and that afterward God will wipe away our tears.  “Lives” is psuche, or “soul”.  The Greeks had words used by New Testament authors for three qualities of man – the body, the soul and the spirit.  The psuche was what gave man his animation, his ability to think and to be self-aware, and what left the body upon the person’s death.  Animals also have a soul.  Literally stated, this verse says you can keep your life going by abiding under these terrors patiently while God does what is necessary.  Did Jesus mean here that their deaths could be put off longer by patiently putting up with the terrors?  Did He mean that they could preserve their souls in spite of physical death if they suffered patiently?  Did He mean that failure to suffer patiently would end their physical lives prematurely or that their souls would spend eternity in hell?  The answers are all human conjecture.  But Paul and other New Testament authors clearly teach that salvation is sure and cannot be earned.  By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)  Interestingly, this same issue arises again in Revelation, echoing throughout the letters to the Seven Churches as an issue of perseverence.

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Christ Prepares His Disciples – Part 1

In this series of posts we will consider how Jesus Christ trained His disciples for what would happen after He ascended into Heaven.  Our primary passage will be Luke 21:10-31, but we’ll begin in Luke 19:41-44.  We’re choosing Luke’s account in order to retain continuity of authorship as we progress into Acts, even thought there are parallel passages in Matthew and Mark.  So get out your study Bible, and let’s go to work.  (By the way, if you’re reading this I’m glad you’re still with me after reading the previous post!)

Jesus is entering Jerusalem and is being hailed by the crowds as the Coming King, an event we still celebrate as Palm Sunday.  Note that this event (esp. v. 38) was fully in keeping with the prophecies and expectation of Israel we have discussed at length before.  The Pharisees have just demanded that He rebuke His disciples for their praise of Him, to which He replied that if his disciples became silent, the very rocks around them would cry out in their place.  When the city came fully into view from His vantage point on the road, he wept over it, saying

If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!  But now they have been hidden from your eyes.  For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children with you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.

This seems like a strange thing to say while surrounded by cheering people waving palm fronds and praising Him as the Coming King!  But it was in response to this latest encounter with the Pharisees, who still did not see what the people could see.  Note that his statements are in stark contrast to what the people were anticipating!

  • Peace (the peace associated with the Millennial Kingdom) won’t happen
  • The “things of peace” have been hidden from them — they are blinded to them
  • Their enemies will lay siege to the city, specifically by the tactic of constructing an earthen ramp against the defensive walls up which troops can march over the walls and into the city
  • They will be surrounded and hemmed in — a blockade against escape from the inside and assistance, even sustenance, from the outside
  • The buildings and walls of the city, including the Temple, will be dismantled completely
  • The populace and their children will also be “levelled” in the same manner as the buildings

The final statement is the strangest one of all.  This would all happen because “they” had failed to recognize the Messiah when He came to them.  Wasn’t that what the cheering crowd around Him was actually doing at the moment?  Yes, but His focus was still on the altercation with the Pharisees, who represented the nation and were spiritually accountable for guiding her.  It wasn’t that the crowds didn’t get it, it was that the Pharisees didn’t get it.

The Roman general Titus (later to become the tenth Roman Emperor) later did exactly what Jesus described, including the destruction of the Temple.  Of course, Jesus in His foreknowledge as God, knew these things.  Here we find God uttering a very unpleasant short-range prophecy about bitter times to come.  The rapidity with which it was fulfilled must have struck those cheering around Him in much the same way that the fall of the Berlin Wall affected us in our day.  What seemed impossible one moment happened the next.  Truly God is in control of human events and history, and often directs to the right when we are thinking to the left.

Given His foreknowledge, how would you expect Him to begin preparing His disciples for the days ahead?  And might this short-range prophecy be a part of the prophecies from Daniel concerning the Tribulation?  Either way, Israel was headed into a troubling time, not the happy time expected by the crowds that greeted Him that morning on the way into Jerusalem.

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Serious Ramifications

IF the earthly ministry of Jesus, from birth to ascension, was about fulfilling promises made to Abraham and David about a future kingdom where a king would occupy David’s throne again and Israel would rule over the gentile world bringing great blessing, THEN

  • The “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:1 – 7:29) was intended to teach Israel about what life would be like in that future kingdom.  This passage includes teaching on how to pray, specifically what is called “the Lord’s Prayer” (the first of several serious ramifications, or in my humble opinion, sacred cows…)  A careful inspection of the Lord’s Prayer makes it evident that perilous times are approaching, when they will lack employment and income, and be desperate for basic food (“give us this day our daily bread”).  It specifically asks that “thy kingdom come” and that the exercise of God’s will would be as evident and pervasive as it currently is in heaven.  It specifically asks for deliverance from evil.  All of this is an apt description of the conditions that will exist for Israelites during what the Bible calls “The Tribulation”, a seven-year precursor to the establishment of the thousand-year reign of Christ from David’s earthly throne.
  • How many teachings of Christ recorded in the four gospels begin with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…”?  Christ’s parables that begin with this phrase taught those who could understand about the coming Davidic kingdom, not about the church age in which we live today, but the long anticipated Kingdom.  We find even today that some of His parables are difficult to understand — but they will not be difficult to understand once the Kingdom is in full operation and a part of the daily experience of men who are ruled by it.
  • Jesus trained His disciples to spread the good news of the kingdom in specific geographic directions with racial distinctions (see Matthew 10:5-23). This passage includes another teaching that describes the terrible consequences of spreading the gospel of the Kingdom of heaven during the Tribulation (vv15-23).  What’s more, this passage is a precursor to Christ’s training of His disciples in Luke 21:10-36 and Luke 24:44-49.  A careful, open-minded reading of these passages will clearly demonstrate that Christ was describing the Tribulation and the disciples’ ministry during it in anticipation of the coming Millennial Kingdom.  It is the second of these passages that gets us in trouble with orthodox theology, for it is the “Great Commission”  (the second sacred cow) upon which all modern international missions efforts and organizations are founded (well, nearly all).  Interestingly, this passage does not describe the Ascension of Christ as some Bibles entitle it.  That is found in Acts 1:9.  A careful inspection of this passage reveals that “He parted from them, and they returned to Jerusalem…”  Remember, He remained on the Earth another forty days, appearing to many, and then ascended!  Some would say that Luke just left out the details at the end of his gospel, and filled them in at the beginning of Acts.  Have you ever known Luke to leave out important details?  We conclude that since the Great Commission was given to the Disciples (representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel) at a historic point before His ascension, that it is a part of His teaching for Israel in anticipation of the coming Tribulation and Millennial Kingdom, not the church of today.
  • The work of John the Baptist was fully within the context of the coming of the King and the Kingdom.  His methods of baptizing (immersion or sprinkling), their purpose (cleansing of Israel), and his message and preaching (“preparing the way of the Lord”) were prophesied and point forward to a view of Christ as the savior and king of Israel.  Paul, on the other hand, speaks of “one baptism” — that of the Holy Spirit, not one of earthly water.

Now all of my heretical cats have been let out of the bag.  Before you write me off as a complete lunatic for having attacked the Great Commission, the Lord’s Prayer, Water Baptism, the Sermon on the Mount, and the parables of Christ all in a single blog post… consider this:  If what I have written is correct (in God’s eyes, not the eyes of “orthodox theology”), that in effect they are all part of a dispensation different from the current dispensation, then trying to apply them in the current dispensation would lead to (1) great confusion, (2) lack of blessing, and (3) a lack of power and progress in evangelizing the world.  Woudn’t doing so bring God’s displeasure as much as a Jew in Moses’ day rejecting the Law of Moses in favor of the innocent days of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?  Consider the state of the church and the mission field today as a whole.  Is there any evidence that the church of today suffers from these maladies?

I would be remiss if I didn’t answer my detractors horrified claims that my position leaves me without any incentive to carry the Gospel to a dying world.  I would not say such things if the Scriptures didn’t offer an even better incentive.  In fact, I find a higher motivation for evangelism in the writings of Paul and his record in Acts, the Apostle to the Gentiles for this dispensation.  In fact, the Apostle Paul himself serves as the supreme example of this very thing, considering the personal cost of his efforts to carry the message of salvation through grace by faith to the gentile world.

Do I elevate the words of Paul over the words of Christ?  No! and yes!  Christ is Lord over all, is God incarnate, and is my Savior on a personal level.  But the words of Paul, just like the words of Moses, are the words of Christ to me, a Gentile in the Age of Grace.  Paul received them by revelation from the resurrected, ascended Christ in person, and Paul was commissioned by Him to make sure that I heard them twenty centuries later.  Would a Jew in Moses’ day receive God’s approval or wrath if he ignored Moses words in favor of God’s words to Abraham?

We must be good students of the Word, rightly dividing it to be approved as God’s workmen.  To do anything less is to stand ashamed before Him.  Are the Great Commission, water baptism, and the Lord’s Prayer not for this age?  They are not, if the entire span of Christ’s earthly ministry was directed to Israel in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom, as we have amply demostrated above.  Modern theology uses them out of context and out of dispensation.  But don’t take my word for it…

Search the scriptures yourself to see if that is what they say!

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Israel’s Expectation

The Bible begins by describing the entire human race – all two members of it.  When we reach the story of Abraham in the twelfth chapter, the Bible’s focus narrows.  Because of the promises God made to Abraham, he and his descendents (who became the nation of Israel) become the focus.  The remainder of the Old Testament retains that focus by recording the history of Abraham’s descendents.  The last time God spoke to Israel was 400 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (this time period is called the intertestamental period).

Did the birth of Jesus, marked by the beginning of the New Testament with the historical chronicles of his eathly ministry — the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — bring an end to this focus on Israel?  Did the focus of the Bible return to all of mankind with the penning of Matthew 1:1?  Or did the earthly ministry of our Lord continue the focus on Israel?  What do the Scriptures say?

  • Jesus is described in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 as a direct descendent from Abraham on both sides of his earthly family.  Hence, He was an Israelite.
  • An angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1:18-23 to tell him that the baby should be named Jesus “for it is He who will save His people from their sins.”  Not all people, although in retrospect we understand that was true.  God chose to hide the universality of Christ’s work on the cross at that time, and reveal it later.  At the point in history described by Matthew 1:22, it was still a mystery hidden in God.  The angel then reminded Joseph of a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14.  Since Isaiah was a prophet sent to Israel and not all of mankind, this prophecy also illustrates that the focus is still on Israel and not all of mankind.
  • Herod asks the Wise Men in Matthew 2:2, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He didn’t ask, “Where is He who has been born king of all mankind”!  The priests and scribes answered him with a quote from the prophet Micah (sent to Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms after their division following Solomon’s reign), who prophesied that this king would come from Bethlehem in Judah, and that He would “shepherd My people Israel.”  Micah did not say that the king would come from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and did not say He would shepherd  all of mankind.  Micah was very specific (under the influence of the Holy Spirit), and Jesus was the exact fulfillment of his specificity.

We could go on to cite verse after verse out of not only Matthew, but Mark, Luke and John as well.  The frequency of references to Jesus earthly ministry being targeted at Israel does not wane as we get closer to the cross.  Consider two more examples:

  • Matthew 10:5-7  “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles and do not enter any city of the Samaritans’ but rather go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.  and as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
  • Matthew 15:22-24  “And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region, and began to cry out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly deomon-possessed.’  But He did not answer her a word.  And His disciples came to Him and kept asking him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is shouting out after us.’  But He answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’”  The woman persisted, and eventually her humility and faith won healing for her daughter.  The point here is that Jesus made two specific negative statements against healing her daughter on the basis that she was not an Israelite.  To focus on the fact that in the end Jesus healed the girl, and thus conclude that Christ’s earthly ministry was to Jew and Gentile alike, is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel by ignoring the entire discourse that went before, not to mention that Christ considered her healing to be on the level of mere crumbs that fell from a table that was clearly set for only Israel.  Clearly in Christ’s perspective she did not belong at the table, nor did He invite her to dine at the table on the basis of her faith.  The Apostle Paul’s revelation included the perspective that Jew and Gentile are on an equal footing in the church today (Romans 10:12), but that is far from the perspective presented in this passage.

Was Israel unaware of this focus?  No, indeed!  As Our Lord taught during His earthly ministry, everything He did was prophesied in the Old Testament.  No Israelite was ignorant of the promises of land, population, and rule that had been made to their ancestor Abraham.  In fact, there were many in Israel at Jesus birth who were expecting the king to come and establish Israel as ruler over all of the gentile nations:

  • Herod was obviously expecting a political competitor who he felt worthy enough to attempt to murder as an infant (see Matthew 2:16-18)
  • Simeon, a devout old man, was waiting in the Temple daily because the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen “the Lord’s Christ” — as he did (see Luke 2:25-36)
  • Anna, an eighty-four-year-old widow who actually lived in the Temple, never leaving it, recognized the infant Jesus immediately as the coming king (see Luke 2:37-38)

Exceptions such as the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Luke 7:1-10 are present in the four gospels where Jesus steps briefly outside the perspective of ministry to Israel.  But it is always on the basis of faith that puts the meager faith of Israel to shame, and always in a manner that is demonstrative of how the Gentile nations will be blessed under the rule of Israel in the days of the Kingdom.  The exceptions are just that — exceptions, few and far between. 

Israel’s expectation was that the long-promised king who would rule the world from David’s throne was coming, and it was both a national and a personal expectation.  We find that expectation still present and not countermanded in the interim in any way by Jesus, all the way through a full forty days after His resurrection, as He gathered His disciples around Himself one last time before ascending into Heaven (Acts 1:4-6).  Their pressing question to Him was, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”  (We shall have much to say about His answer when we consider this passage in its proper sequence in the narrative.)

Was Israel expecting a King and a Kingdom throughout Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry?  Study the Scriptures to see if it is so.

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The Last First Thing

I have recently distanced myself from a local church, after working side by side with its pastor for fifteen years.  I was a fellow elder with men I have known and respected (and still do) for thirty years.  For over forty years I have been silent about the things I will present here, though they have been dear to my heart.  I still love these men, but I wish God would open their eyes to what His Word says simply and clearly.

Having taught Adult Sunday School for many years, I recently embarked on the teaching of the book of Acts.  By the sixth week my colleagues asked me to “teach the book of Acts without the dispensational perspective.”  When I told them I would be unable to teach anything less than what the Bible clearly says, they told me that I would not be allowed to teach further, as my teaching was dangerous, divisive, and would create confusion in the church.  In the end, I was told by the pastor and elders, “We don’t want to hear it.”  Interestingly, the last lesson I taught included the passages where Peter tells the Jewish leaders that the disciples must obey God rather than men.  The next lesson I would have taught included the passage at the the end of Stephen’s discourse, where his listeners “stopped their ears and ran upon him with one accord…” (Acts 7:57)

We (my wife Carol and I) chose to withdraw from the church for the sake of peace in the Body.  Since the door had been closed firmly on the further use of my spiritual gift, there was no point in continuing.  Now, often these kinds of situations become very nasty.  However, the pastor and elders and I, by God’s mercy, parted ways humbly and without rancor.  We continue to attend worship services there from time to time — but largely as visitors.

Why do I reveal all of this?  I think there is an important lesson to be learned, dear reader.  It’s about something I’ve mentioned several times on this blog already, but I want to drive the point home with this example.  I taught six lessons from a dispensational perspective, with at least two elders present during every session.  The pastor attended about half of the sessions, and became “uncomfortable” with what I was teaching.  He and I met privately so that he could voice his concerns.  He raised several reasons why he felt I should cease teaching from a dispensational point of view (that differed from his dispensational viewpoint):

  • This teaching made him uncomfortable (for reasons I’ll reveal shortly)
  • He had done research on this form of dispensationalism (which supported his point of view)
  • He had called Charles Ryrie (!) to ask what he thought of this teaching, and Dr. Ryrie replied that he thought it was dangerous
  • He had called a former classmate, now the head of the School of Theology at an eastern Bible university, who said he hadn’t encountered it for twenty years and thought it was dead
  • There were many theologians who were smarter and more learned than me (and him) who rejected this teaching
  • My “presuppositions” were flawed (but he never got around to specifying what they were)

In brief, my teaching was in error because it was uncomfortable, unorthodox, dangerous, obscure, unsophisticated, and ill-founded in the opinion of men.  He tried to bring all the weight of men that he could muster, including name-dropping — and it was a whopper of a name to drop, too!  I was presented with the same reasoning (and lack thereof) when I met with the entire Elder Council.

Have you seen through these arguments yet?  Not once did the pastor or any of the elders demonstrate from the Scriptures themselves where I had erred.  In fact, through six weeks of class most of them had nodded in agreement as I proceeded verse by verse through the first five chapters of Acts.  Can you see how sharply this contrasts with those noble Berean believers of old?

I will not pretend to know what was in their hearts and minds, but that is beside the point for you, dear reader.  I present this illustration as an admonition to know and consult the Scriptures in all things first.  Then you are in a position to judge whether or not the words of men truly represent God.  It should be obvious from this example that my dear friends have become engrossed in obeying men rather than God.  Reader, if the Bible says something clearly, but your church says something different… obey God and not men.

A closing thought for my former fellow colleagues in Christ, should you be reading this.  I’m saddened if these words prick your heart and cause you pain.  For as long as I have known you, I have quietly urged you to consider these things.  I love you, and I wish something better for you (as I always have).  I’m just being more straightforward about it these days.  I believe that the modern world-wide evangelical movement is confused, and lies under a pall of errant human confusion — and you are caught in it.  It’s possible that the flawed presuppositions and the confused theology are yours, not mine.  It’s possible that you are discomfited because the Holy Spirit is challenging your theological sacred cows, wanting to replace them with what the Word of God really says.  It’s possible that you will stumble over the truth here, but pick yourself up and run in the opposite direction because of your life-long investment in a lesser theology than God intended for you.  I hope that is not the case.  If you are reading this, it’s also possible that you’ll return to read more.  Do you dare?  Do you dare not?

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R-i-g-h-t… What’s a Dispensation?

What does Paul mean when he tells Timothy that he should “rightly divide” the Word of Truth?  (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)  Other translations say it differently: “handling accurately” (NASB), or “plowing a straight furrow” (Phillips).  The word in the Greek language is orthotomounta.  The first part of this word, ortho, is a Greek prefix used to indicate relative position.  Similar Greek prefixes are para (along side) and meta (with).  Ortho means upright, straight, or in a moral context, right or correct.

The second part of this Greek word is tomounta, which is derived from tomos, which is in turn derived from temnw.  All three describe the action of the edge of a razor-sharp knife.  Modern science has given us the ability to see what is inside the human body as if it were cut into many thin slices, known as a CAT scan.  CAT stands for Computer Assisted Tomography.

Recouple ortho and tomounta and you get the idea of doing to the Bible (at God’s direction, no less) what a CAT scan does to the human body.  The implication is that the Word of God is intended to be broken into clear divisions if it is to be understood rightly.  There are many different schools of thought on how this should be done.  Some look at the layout of the Bible and see testament, book, chapter and verse divisions already there, and leave it at that.  Others see places where God made promises (covenants) with certain individuals like Abraham and David.  Still others focus on specific portions of scripture, such as the Four Gospels, the Law of Moses, or even the Millennial Kingdom.  None of these are dispensations.  So what’s a dispensation?

The word comes from the KJV’s translation of Ephesians 3:2.  The NASB translates it as “stewardship”.  The Greek word is oikonomian, from which we get our English word “economy”.  The NASB choose stewardship because the verse indicates that God gave Paul the job of managing His gentile household, as a “steward” of the Gospel.  While the word “dispensation” used by the KJV is no longer in common use, it does, however indicate that something is being, well, dispensed – a part of the character of this Greek word that we must be careful to not lose.  One important facet of Paul’s stewardship was to freely distribute what God had put into his trust.

“Economy” is a pretty good substitute for the word “dispensation.”  Coupled with the notion of rightly dividing God’s word, it becomes apparent that God has interacted with mankind through several different economies down through the ages.  Bear in mind we don’t just mean financial economy.  We mean the entire scope of how God relates to and reveals himself to mankind.  Without further ado, here’s a list of the economies (dispensations) that are how I believe the Bible should be “rightly divided”:

  • Innocence (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before sinning)
  • Conscience (Adam and Eve after expulsion from the Garden of Eden)
  • Human Government (capital punishment introduced after the Noahic Flood)
  • Promise (God’s promise to Abraham to make him a mighty nation)
  • Law (Exodus from Egypt, Ten Commandments, Tabernacle, sacrifices, etc.)
  • Grace (the current dispensation where God patiently waits for both Jew and Gentile to return to Him)
  • Kingdom (a future time when Christ will return to the Earth to reign as King for 1,000 years)

There’s a lot of disagreement between dispensationalists about exactly where to place these divisions in Scripture, and the stickiest one of all is the one we’re going to address on this blog site — where in Scripture the Age of Grace actually began.  Failure to pay careful attention to what God wrote for our benefit can lead to all sorts of theological errors.  Where we put this starting point can lead us into the excesses of the Charismatic Movement, or into trying to apply principles of authority that God did not intend for us to practice.  It can lead to thinking that Paul was “just another apostle”, and that his message and plan was the same as the other apostles’ message, and thus denying the unique character and audience of his ministry.

What it comes down to is our desire for God’s approval.  Do we want it?  “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

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Deadly Orthodoxy

“Orthodox” thinking is usually contrasted with thinking that is “out in left field.”  So it is in theological circles.  Theological orthodoxy can be a very good thing, keeping believers from being ensnared by every false teaching that comes along, and providing stability in their beliefs.

But orthodoxy can also have a negative side.  When the weight of orthodoxy is brought to bear on the free exchange of ideas and understanding of the Bible, the effect is usually to squelch ideas and force people back into the current mold of the day.  Sometimes orthodoxy can imprison the truth for hundreds of years.  The Protestant reformation began because Martin Luther challenged 95 practices of the Catholic Church that he believed could not be supported scripturally!  What if Martin Luther had just “knuckled under” and said, “Oh, well, I guess that is pretty unorthodox thinking — sorry, boys, I take it all back!”

Winston Churchill once stated, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.”  Never was it more true than in theological circles.  Orthodoxy provides a convenient retreat for folks who don’t want to face the truth!  Even when confronted with scripture passages that irrefutably demonstrate the truth of an “unorthodox” concept, the vast majority will dismiss it with a wave of the hand simply because it isn’t orthodox.  Some will feel threatened by it, and will do everything they can to stomp it out, citing scriptures about false teaching and false teachers.

Either situation is sad, because believers are pressed into the mold of current human majority thinking instead of the mold of Scripture itself.  Luke did not praise the Berean believers because they consulted orthodox thinking daily to see if what Paul said was true — they consulted the Scriptures, and for this they are eternally seen as “more noble.”

Orthodox thinking in Jesus’ day led Israel’s leaders to murder the Prince of Peace.  Orthodox thinking in Paul’s day brought persecution after persecution as he moved from city to city.  Orthodox thinking justified the martyrdom of hundreds of believers in the minds of their persecutors.  The list goes on and on.

God does not want children who are loyal to what men have decided is orthodox.  He wants children who are loyal to what He says.  What He says is Truth.  Orthodoxy, an agreement between men about what they think He says is a poor substitute.  God has promised, dear brothers and sisters, that He will explain His Words to you directly through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t settle for anything less.

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Study the Bible

What does it mean to “study” the Bible?  Here are some things it does not mean…

  • Attend a Bible study group
  • Read the Bible
  • Meditate on the Bible
  • Memorize the Bible
  • Pray the Scriptures back to God
  • Listen to preaching or teaching

All of these are profitable and the Bible recommends them.  But the Bible also commands us to study it:

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

The word “study” at the beginning of this verse is the Greek word  is spoudason, a grammatical variation on speudw, which means to be earnest or diligent.  Indeed, the NASB more correctly translates this verse as “be diligent to present yourself approved to God.”  The balance of the verse identifies the context of this command as a competent worker who knows how the Bible fits together.

Now Paul wrote this command to Timothy, a fellow pastor.  Strictly speaking, this verse could be interpreted to be a command only to pastors.  Yet all of Scripture is for our benefit, and surely attaining this degree of knowledge will not hurt us.  On the contrary, there is great blessing to be found in knowing God’s Word this well.

So what does it mean to study the Bible?  There are some techniques widely know to Bible scholars that are easily understood and adopted by the layman.  They are based in common sense, and result in understanding of the original author’s intent and meaning.  While the steps listed below are overly simplistic, they’re a great place to start:

  • Observe before you interpret!  What does the passage say?  Most adults who have sat in Sunday School for years blindly jump to an interpretation of the passage that someone else taught them.
  • Interpret before you apply!  What did the author mean?  Adults who are steeped in the interpretations of others tend to reject their own observations of what the verse plainly says (and their obvious interpretation based on them) in favor of what some theologian says it means.  Be diligent to determine what God meant, and then evaluate other theologians by His standards.
  • Once you know what it says and means, apply it.

If you can stick to the rules of Bible study outlined above, you’ll discover a whole new vitality to the words on the page!

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Bible Study Tools

There are some reference books that any serious student of the Bible should have at hand.  Of course, there are many special-edition Bibles that include abbreviated versions of these tools, and they are handy when you are on the go.  My “study Bible” is the best of these that I’ve ever found.  While I don’t always agree with the commentator’s analysis, the tools he has included in the back, and the way they are incorporated into the scriptures throughout, are second to none.  It’s The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible in the New American Standard translation, compiled and edited by Spiros Zodhiates, Th. D., published by AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN 37422 (ISBN 0-89957-690-7).  This edition is responsible for opening the original Greek language of the New Testament to me in simple, reliable ways, and I highly recommend it.  The tools included in the back are:

  • a key to the grammatical codes used  (for instance, “ao” beside a word means that it is in the “aorist tense”)
  • definitions of the grammatical types (for instance, what “aorist” means)
  • a “lexicon” (dictionary) of selected Hebrew Old Testament words, keyed to Strong’s Concordance numbers
  • a lexicon of selected Greek New Testament words, also keyed to Strong’s Concordance numbers
  • an abbreviated concordance
  • a pronunciation guide for the Greek alphabet
  • the Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary from Strong’s Concordance
  • and the Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, also from Strong’s Concordance

The first half of Ephesians 2:8 looks like this in the Zodhiates Reference Bible:

For by grace5485 you have been saved4982 through faith4102;

The superscripted numbers are Strong’s Concordance reference numbers.  The fact that they’re in boldface type means that they’re explained in Zodhiates’ lexicon in the back, and the underlining means that the original Greek was a single word that was translated into a single English word.  (Sometimes the Greek language uses a single word that has to be translated into several English words, such as the Greek word that has been translated into “made us alive together” in Ephesians 2:5.)

This is a powerful set of resources all contained in a single volume, and the believer who wants to begin to learn more about what the Bible really says will benefit greatly from this particular study Bible.  The list of additional resources below is simply an expansion on these same and similar resources, in their original, full, separate volumes:

  • Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (in a version to match the version of your study Bible)
  • Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr.)
  • Once you have gotten your feet wet with a little Greek, and God is leading you to study Greek in more depth, you’ll want one of several available “Greek Testaments”.  I use the United Bible Societies’ The Greek New Testament (Aland, Black, Martini, Metzger and Wikgren).  You may prefer to get an “interlinear New Testament” that puts the English and the Greek side-by-side on the same page.  The Greek Testament I use is exactly that — the New Testament in Greek only.  It includes information on which ancient manuscripts are drawn upon, and what variations there are between the manuscripts — if you want to really get into Greek scholarship.

I’d caution you against textbooks designed for the college classroom because they really need a college professor to guide you through them.  Similarly, I’d steer clear of “New Testament Greek for Dummies” (if there is such a thing).  If you want to embark on more Greek than the tools in the back of the Zodhiates study Bible, your best bet is probably to find someone in your church who already knows some Greek, and woo them into sharing their expertise with you.

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Bible Versions

Earlier I said that I believed that the Bible, in its original languages and copies, was inspired and inerrant (without mistakes).  But I don’t speak Hebrew or Aramaic, so I have to trust what another fallable human has translated into English.  The process of translation has been going on for hundreds of years, and the techniques to produce an accurate translation are widely known and employed.  What’s more, lots more fragments of scripture copies, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have become known during the last hundred years, providing a broader and broader basis of comparison.  This isn’t the place to go into the details, but I’ll refer you to a classic that covers this and much more that every believer should know — Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.

When we look at modern English translations there are lots of variations in how closely they stick to what we know of the original languages, what previous translations they were based on, and what the translators’ purpose was.  Whole books have been written on the history of translations of the Bible.  I’m not going to go there, either.  Instead, I’m going to list the translations that I prefer, and why.

It’s always a good idea to have several translations available.  Comparing notes between them can often give insight, and sometimes confusion!  It’s this very problem that eventually drove me to learn a little New Testament Greek over a very long time.  In trying to find out what a troublesome passage really said in the original language, I discovered a wealth of blessing that had been unavailable to me before.  I’ll discuss this more in the posting called “Study Tools”.

  • New American Standard Version (NASB) was translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages to retain the original grammatical order even if it produced awkward English.  It’s not a smooth read, but it’s an accurate one.  This is the version I will most often refer to in this blog site.
  • New International Version (NIV) was translated from the original languages for smooth, easy reading.  You may find whole phrases of a given verse switched in order from the original language, but it is pretty accurate.  This is a widey popular Bible among laymen.
  • The King James Version (KJV) was translated at the request of King James of England in 1611.  It was translated from the Latin Bible used in the Catholic Church, and so it is once-removed from the original languages, uses a vocabulary that is 400 years old, and does not benefit from the thousands of manuscripts that have been discovered since then.  Still, it’s faults are clearly known, and it is dearly loved by many believers.  (Some denominations and churches believe that this translation is itself inspired and inerrant, and to use any other translation is sinful.  Sorry, boys, I think that’s just silly.)  You can certainly use it for Bible study, as long as you take the trouble to acquaint yourself with its shortcomings.
  • New King James Version (NKJV) is a recent revision of the 1611 KJV, bringing its language and scholarship up to date.  Still, it is clearly tied to its predecessor.  I like it in many ways, but always feel like I need to check it against the NASB to keep from being misled in small ways.  That’s just my opinion.

A final word about paraphrases — these are not really translations, but move toward interpretations.  While we may enjoy reading them (they are often more colorful and entertaining), what we are receiving is often a human expansion upon what the Bible actually says.  We want to be careful to inspect what it actually says when we study it.  Read paraphrases if you like, but not before you know what the Bible says at face value.  They should certainly not be your primary study Bible.

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Seminary Training

As you begin to take a deeper personal look at the Bible, I’d like you to consider a perspective of mine that has been hammered out in the school of hard knocks.  You may find it displeasing (especially if you’ve been to Seminary), or think that I am filled with pride.  As a former pastor of mine once told me, “There are a lot of Bible teachers who know a whole lot more about the Bible than both of us put together.”  He was trying to tell me that he was right and I was wrong.  It’s possible, and that’s why I keep harping on your need to be like the Bereans of old, and see if what I say agrees with God’s Word or not for yourself.  Nevertheless, here’s my thinking on the dangers of the seminary (and undergraduate Bible school) system.

First of all, God intended average people to be able to read and understand the Bible.  He especially intends those who have a personal relationship with Him to be able to do this on their own.  That is one of the several reasons He has placed His Holy Spirit in us.  “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them… but he who is spiritual [understands] all things… we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:14-16)

If that is the case, why do we need “learned men” to tell us what the Scriptures say?  The Catholic Church long ago interposed a human priesthood between God and the average man, and convinced its followers that they were unable to understand the Bible for themselves.  This thinking persists among many believers today.  Many churches that purport to teach and preach the Bible instead preach and teach what other men say the Bible says.  Modern evangelicalism is rife with Bible Study Guides that impress upon us what the Bible says according to this human interpreter or that.

That is not to say that we should do away with pastors and teachers!  God has given specific spiritual gifts to certain individuals in every local church for the very purose of preaching and teaching what His Word says.  So what does that have to do with seminary training?  It’s my long-term experience that many if not most seminaries train men to trust what others have said the Bible says, rather than train them to expound directly from the pages of Scripture what it plainly says.  The result is a fierce loyalty to the views of favorite professors, founding fathers, and even great theologians, when their first loyalty should be directly to the Bible.

Let me put it more simply.  All believers, pastors, teachers and laymen alike, should study (not just read) the Bible first, using good methods and tools and with much prayer, and only then see what other authors have to say about it.  We should know the Bible far better than what Luther, Calvin, Zwinglei, Swindol, Sheaffer, MacArthur or any other famous theologian has to say about it.  Then we are in a position to evaluate them in the light of Scripture (as did the Bereans with Paul), and not the other way around.

We need seminaries who teach this perspective above all others, and who teach their students that the average believer needs to be empowered to think this way too.  That is the approach I will take here.  We will always do our homework in the Bible first, to observe what is plainly written on the page.

We need to be unimpressed by the fame or reputation of most big-name theologians.  They are human just like the rest of us, and are consequently fallable.  Since I lack their credentials, I consider myself to be especially susceptible to human error.  That is why I will stick to what is written on the pages of the Bible, and why you need to be like the Bereans of old!  Just remember — Luke said they checked Paul out against the scripture, not against their denomination, their favorite commentary, their favorite pastor, or their favorite TV preacher.  You do the same!

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The Whole Bible

Some might accuse me of discarding parts of the Bible when I say we should look to Paul’s writings to learn how to live as believers today.  It’s often been said, “The Bible is all for us, but it is not all addressed to us.”  This isn’t a discarding or ignoring of any part of God’s Word, it is simply taking a knowledgable approach to understanding it.  If the Bible were all written to us, we should be sacrificing sheep every Saturday in Jerusalem and gathering in groups on Sunday to worship God and study His Word together.  How inconsistent the Bible’s directions would be!  How much more discerning it is to understand that things were different in Moses’ day than they are today, especially when we understand that the Age of Grace is a time and economy that Paul says was a mystery hidden in other ages, not even known to Moses.

We have much to learn from the Bible’s record of the time of Moses — and of Adam, Abraham, David, Jesus earthly life, and the future.  It is all for our instruction.  There is much in Paul’s writings that cannot be understood unless we know the whole Bible!  But of all of the books of the Bible, Paul’s writings are the only ones that are meant to be obeyed by Gentiles at this point in human history.  (Jews too, for God has temporarily removed the distinction between Jews and Gentiles in this age, but that’s another blog…)

A dispensational Pauline approach to the understanding of Scripture is a much stronger case for knowing the whole Bible than just “reading through the Bible in a year” indiscriminately.  If we do what the Berean believers of long ago did, we will become much more knowledgable about the whole Bible and understand its necessity, continuity, and cohesiveness more deeply. 

“All Scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”  II Timothy 3:16

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Doctrinal Position

I believe what most conservative Bible-teaching churches include in their Doctrinal Statement, with a couple of exceptions.  Here’s a list:

  • God exists, and wants to be known and loved by makind.  God exists as one God, yet in triune form (relating to mankind through the personal roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
  • God has revealed Himself to mankind through the historical record known as the Bible, which He wrote through men who He inspired by the Holy Spirit.  I believe the Bible, in its original languages and copies, is without error.
  • Mankind came from common ancestors, Adam and Eve, who were deceived by Satan to disobey God.  In doing so, they fell from a state of paradise to a state of judgement, taking all of their offspring with them.
  • Because God loved them, He set a plan in motion to rescue them from their ultimate fate.  That plan takes the entire Bible to reveal fully.  Successive generations gradually learned more about this plan as time passed.
  • God stepped into the world in the human form of the historical figure, Jesus Christ, to live a life that no child of Adam and Eve could — a life without sinning.  When He was executed on a Roman Cross, taking the punishment that was rightly ours, death had no permanent claim on Him.  He came back to life three days after His execution and revealed Himself to hundreds of witnesses before ascending into Heaven.
  • Jesus Christ left instructions to his disciples to spread good news to the entire world, and later commissioned an additional apostle, Paul of Tarsus, to bring the good news specifically to the Gentiles (non-Jews) of the world (about whom we have a great deal to say).
  • The Holy Spirit “lives inside” (indwells) believers today, and influences the world through them.  Believers have a responsibility to live their lives in a manner pleasing to the Holy Spirit, and thus present Christ to a watching world.
  • Jesus Christ will return to the Earth in power and majesty at some point in the future that is known only to God the Father.  Believers are instructed by the Bible to be ready for this to happen.  This event is surrounded by a number of sequential events in a particular order, which we will take great pains to describe in detail.

Here is where there are divisions even among Bible-teaching churches and denominations.  Specifically, my position can be described as…

  • Pre-Tribulation, meaning the next event on God’s agenda will be the period described in the Bible as the Tribulation.
  • Pre-Millennial, meaning that in the future Christ will establish an earthly kingdom and reign over it personally for a thousand years.
  • Dispensational, meaning that God has dealt with mankind in several different, progressively revealed ways through human history.
  • Age of Grace, meaning that God deals with mankind today by offering salvation as a gift to anyone who will accept it, giving us something we do not deserve, and patiently withholding judgement that we do deserve.  (This period of time is also known as the Church Age.)
  • Mid-Acts, meaning that the church of this time and dispensation was gradually revealed in the book of Acts beginning with the resurrected, glorified appearance of Jesus Christ to Saul of Tarsus (Paul of Tarsus) on the road to Damascus.
  • Pauline, meaning that Christ revealed information to Paul specifically for the non-Jews (Gentiles) of the world that differed in some ways from what Christ taught during His earthly ministry.  Consequently, Paul’s writings in the New Testament are the prinicipal source of doctrine and practice for believers today.
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