|Mr. Saki, helping me study Acts|
Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week I’m studying Acts of the Apostles (in Greek, Πράξεις τῶν Ἀποστόλων, "Práxeis tôn Apostólōn" or "deeds of the Apostles." "Praxis" is a Greek word that has moved into English). I wrote most of this post on Dr. King’s birthday, thinking about ways we are faithful to the Gospel today.
Acts gives us the account of the spread of Jesus-Belief from Jerusalem to Rome, in the course of a little over thirty years. Luke addresses “most excellent Theophilus,” who is possibly an important person of some kind who had questions about Jesus and his followers, but who was receptive to the new Christianity. Although Philip, Barnabas, Apollos, and others are important characters in the story, Peter dominates the first part of the story, Paul the second.
My seminary classmate William Shepherds wrote a good book describing the Holy Spirit as a "character" in Luke-Acts. As one reads these biblical books, it's helpful to think of God's Spirit as the major figure in the narrative.
The"journeys of Paul" is one of those blocks of biblical geographical material---like post-Noah migrations of Genesis 10-11, the tribal allotments in Joshua, and the Israelite kingdoms of 1 and 2 Kings---which can be rewarding to study. I read somewhere (and didn’t note the source) that Acts implicitly connects us back to Genesis 10-11. In Genesis, the generations following Noah spread into the world, with an accompanying confusion of languages. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit creates understanding of the Gospel among persons of many languages, and consequently the message of Christ goes out into the world.
The author of this site, https://bible.org/article/study-outline-acts, points out that Acts stresses the unity of the church (2, 4, 15, 20) and provides “progress reports on how the church advanced through the world (2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30, 31). Theophilus would have thus understood how a Jewish sect in Jerusalem reached Rome within a generation. (Acts and Joshua and quite different Bible books, but they both tell a story of a unified purpose and notable success thanks to divine grace and guidance.)
Acts opens with the last days on earth of Jesus in his visible, resurrected body. He ascends to Heaven, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of the Ascension in the overall drama taking place (Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised gift of the Holy Spirit).
The disciples replace Judas. As they’re gathered together a little later, they are filled with God’s Spirit which allows them to speak and be understood in different languages, impressive for Diaspora Jews who have traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost (Shavuot). Peter’s sermon results in a positive response from pilgrims, with 3000 becoming the first assembly of unified Jesus Believers.
Peter heals a lame man, for which he is detained for a while, and he takes the opportunity to preach another sermon to his opponents. As the assembly of Jesus Believers grows, they face different kinds of struggles, like the deceit of Sapphire and Ananias, opposition of religious leadership, and tensions between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. The later is addressed when the apostles establish a more organized ministry to assist widows. One of the selected assistants, Stephen, becomes a noted preacher, too—-but his sermon results in his impromptu execution on the charge of blasphemy. As we saw in Matthew’s gospel, too, Stephen has a “deuteronomistic” attitude toward the religious leadership, viewing them through the history of the rejection of God’s prophets. But Stephen also alludes to Psalm 110:1, a favorite verse throughout the New Testament, that envisions Jesus as sitting with God in the position of power. As he died, Stephen offered prayers of intercession and forgiveness (Acs 7:60), a lesson for all of us.
Although the church becomes scattered around Palestine and Syria as a result of Stephen’s death, Philip has a notable ministry in and around Samaria, including his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, presumably the first Gentile convert to Jesus Belief.
Saul, a diaspora Jew and Pharisee also known by his Roman name Paulus, becomes a crucial figure in the movement in chapter 9, when the feared persecutor has an experience of the risen Jesus, is ministered to by Ananias, and becomes a preacher of Christ.
The story returns to Peter in chapters 9, 10, 11, and 12, which tell of his healing ministry as well as his meeting with Cornelius (a meeting which the Holy Spirit had set up). Another turning point in the story of the gift of the Spirit to the gentile soldier and his family. James dies and Peter is imprisoned during a time of persecution, but Peter is saved through God’s intervention.
Paul is the major figure in Acts 13 on. First, he and Barnabas travel to Cyrpus, Pisidian Antioch, and Iconic to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe. They return to Antioch, but meanwhile the issue of Gentile inclusion in the predominantly Jewish sect required attention. The Jerusalem Council of the church (chapter 15) ruled that just a few Jewish mitzvot were required for Gentile converts, but not circumcision for the men. (The following six paragraphs are from an earlier post.)
I took down a favorite book that my grandmother gave me when I was 14: The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Merrill C. Tenney general editor (Zondervan, twelfth printing 1971). In the center of the book, following page 624, there is a section called "The Journeys of St. Paul," with clear plastic pages that you can place over the map of Greece and Asia Minor, to see the approximate routes of Paul's travels.
That same section has summaries of Paul's travels. This is a lot to quote, but I copied the material here for my own interesting:
"First Journey of St. Paul. Acts 13:1-14:28. The church at Antioch 'set apart' Paul and Barnabas for 'the work whereunto I have called them' and they sailed to Salamis on Cyprus, Barnabas' native island. Assisted by John Mark, they preached at Salamis and then journeyed across to Paphos, from which port they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where Mark left them. From this point they invaded Asia Minor, touching Antioch in Pisidia, Iconic, Lystra, where Paul was stoned and left for dead, and Derbe. Retracing their steps, they further instructed the converts and organized them into churches with properly selected leaders. Sailing from Attalia, they returned to their starting point in Syrian Antioch.
"Second Journey of St. Paul. Acts 15:36-18:22. Because of contention with Barnabas over John Mark, Paul chose Silas as his companion on the second journey. Leaving Antioch, they visited churches in Syria on their way to Derbe and Lystra. Here Timothy joined them and they traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia. At Troas they received the call to Macedonia where churches were founded at Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Moving on to Athens, Paul delivered his great sermon before the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on Mars Hill. Leaving thens, they journeyed to Corinth and founded the church there before going on to Ephesus. From there Paul sailed to Caesarea and visited Jerusalem.
"Third Journey of St. Paul. Acts 18:23-21:16. Departing once more from Antioch, Paul 'strengthened the disciples' in Galatia and Phrygia on his way to Ephesus where he spent two years and three months teaching and preaching. It was here at Paul's preaching provoked violent conflict with the silversmiths, and the financially-prompted riot led by Demetrius brought his ministry to an abrupt end. After a stay of three months in Greece, Paul sailed from Philippi to Troas and then on to Miletus where he had his meeting with the Ephesian elders. From Miletus Paul took a ship to Tyre, and after a brief delay he continued on to Jerusalem.
"Fourth Journey of St. Paul. Acts 21:17-28:31 Following Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and the exposure of the plot to kill him, he was moved under heavy protective guard to Caesarea, where he remained in prison for some two years. During this period Paul's case was heard first by Felix, then by Agrippa. But because of his appeal to Caesar, he, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus, was displayed on a ship to Rome. At Myra they transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Italy, but after riding out a typhoon for fourteen days, the ship was wrecked on Malta. Three months later they continued on to Rome, where Paul was placed in custody. He probably was set free and had a further unrecorded ministry. According to tradition he was executed in Rome in A.D. 66 or early 67."
Johnson reminds us that “God had always willed in principle that Israel’s blessing should be extended to the Gentiles as well” (p. 228). This is a theme that begins back in Luke, with the allusion to Isaiah 42:6 in Luke 2:32, as well as the citation of Isaiah 40:5 in Luke chapter 3 (p. 228). Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8, as well, teach Jesus’ command to preach to all the world (p. 228).
Acts depicts an important process that is still part of the church’s life: how do we perceive God’s work in something new that is happening? How do we know it is the Spirit at work? How do we address resistance to our message? How do we both show and tell people about Christ in a positive, helpful way, that is truly the good news of which Jesus spoke back in Luke 4:16-21?